We all speak differently in different contexts. At a PhD seminar, I am less likely to refer to someone as a cotton-headed ninny muggins as I am when leading a children’s address at church. We also write differently. Thus, when my dad sends me a text message it alwys lks like dis, but when he writes an angry letter to a local politician, you can be damn sure it fits every single criteria of the most formal style guide.
When you want to be your most articulate and clear, there are some words you should avoid, or at least use only with the utmost precision. I want to propose that the following words should be added to this not safe for work list. They are:
I most recently heard the word medieval bandied around when everyone decided that ISIS was a thing we had to have an opinion about. ISIS were “barbaric”, and it followed quickly in most cases, “medieval”. Here’s a recent example from the most mainstream of mainstream media, the British Daily Mirror.
This is wrong from both ends. The first problem is that the aggressive “Islamic Jihadist” groups that so obsess the Western imagination in this generation are the definition of modern movements. This fact has not been hidden from us. There is even a book which gives it away in the title:
The organisation of these groups, their means of propaganda, their ideology – they are all inconceivable in an age before the one we live in now. They are not medieval.
If it is true that Islamic State (or whatever group we are told to hate next – Boko Haram?) are not medieval, it also holds that the medieval is not Islamic State. The Medieval era, a phrase filtered more through Game of Thrones than any knowledge of history, was not some dark era of barbarity. Even the dark ages cannot be characterised as without light. Even without reminding you that we all live in glass houses (the medievals, after all, never dropped atomic bombs, built nuclear power stations on tectonic fault lines, systematically starved entire nations to suit a political vision, or conceived of Celebrity Big Brother), there is much in the medieval era that is to be celebrated.
We cannot manage to agree to stop shopping even one day in the year, but the medievals tried to stop war a couple of days a week, every week, every year. The medievals made advancements in maths and philosophy and theology and statecraft, governance and art and cuisine that we take for granted today and they didn’t have those HAZMAT suits when there was an outbreak of the plague. We build shite public art on motorway verges. They built something like this in practically every market town around Europe:
Unless you are writing about epochs, don’t use the word medieval.
I most recently saw the word “puritan” being mis-used over the #nomorepage3 campaign. This reasonable effort to convince a bestselling British tabloid newspaper to stop putting topless women on the third page of their daily publication has met with plenty of bile online. Here’s a representative sample.
While I want to live in a world where everyone has already read Marilynne Robinson’s essays, that is not where I live. I can understand that the religious and cultural flowering that occurred in Geneva in the generation after Luther, centering in part on Calvin, and then spreading to Scotland and Holland and America and South Africa, and all sorts of other places would be poorly understood. Like everything, there is much to be critiqued, repudiated, even reviled in what followed in Reformed Christianity and the puritans play a chief role in that.
But to equate the puritans with a set of anti-carnal antipathies, such that the word becomes a token for body-hating joylessness is a tremendous adventure in, well, the sort of hard-of-hearing interpretations of other people’s actions that might carelessly and erroneously be called… puritanical.
Of course the puritans were not libertines. They were not bohemians. They were not hippies. But they also were not joyless. They did not repudiate the body, but celebrated it as God’s good creation. A recent post by Jason Goroncy features the grand-daddy of Puritanism, Jonathan Edwards, waxing poetic about spiders as wonderful and intricate things.
If puritanical means that which resembles or arises out of the complex and fertile web of Christianities that get categorised as Reformed, then you are using the word right. If you mean it to just be a place holder for “these things I don’t like”, then you might be better off saying “these are things I don’t like.” Because if you got to know the puritans, you’d start liking them.
At least a little bit.
The final word is different from the other two. Medieval and puritan are not safe for work because popular culture tricks you into using them to be synonymous with all things negative. There is much about the medieval era and the puritans that leaves us shaking our heads, but it is nothing but chronological snobbery to let that elide into pure and unfiltered dismissal.
The word enlightenment is not safe for work because popular culture can trick you into using the term to be synonymous with all things positive. There is unfiltered embrace of anything “enlightened”. The problem with this is obvious. The Enlightenment – that philosophical movement of the 18th Century that sets the mood music for modernity with its challenge to us: “Dare to know!” – is an inheritance we need to critically embrace. As with everything that is wholeheartedly embraced, it is politically dangerous. If something is good, across the board, then anything that can be cast as a threat is bad, across the board.
Speaking of which, here’s Britain’s most respected closet racist, Richard Dawkins.
If the Enlightenment becomes synonymous with “our way of life”, then when Richard Dawkins decides that something is threatening it, that thing becomes a threat to our way of life. In our day, Islam is the thing that is anti-Enlightenment. In the 20th Century it was often Judaism. In the 18th Century, it was often Catholicism. Whatever is against it, needs to be destroyed.
That’s one of the problems with the Enlightenment. It universalises everything. Since “reason” is the grand foundation of all advance, and reason is shared by everyone, then whoever doesn’t share the reason of the Powers That Be is not a person. The Englightenment has been genocidal. We can grant that it has had a significant role to play in the forming of “our way of life”, but that means it has a hand in drones and their deployment, in “enhanced interrogation” and its use, in colonialism, imperialism, and the insane (were they “rational”?) civil wars that the West fought in the early 20th Century and which we call, with Enlightenment hubris, “World” wars.
Pay attention and you will hear lots of wise pundits worry that we the Enlightenment is under threat. This is meant to be a very bad thing. Previous eras didn’t feel quite so confident compressing human existence down into eras, but if they did, I imagine there were wise pundits stroking their beards when “feudalism” was under threat. Times change, we change, ideologies change. At least hold them at enough of a distance that when they go stale, they aren’t the only thing left to sustain you.
In other words: don’t build your house on Enlightenment foundations. Dawkins might actually be right. They are crumbling. And that is not such a bad thing.
Your Correspondent, As hard and as ruthless as a rose petal
For the last few years, my friends and I have had an annual tradition where we compile a “Best of” playlist from the music we discovered that year. This tradition has been going on long enough that they used to be burned on CDs and were accompanied with differing levels of complicated liner notes. Nowadays, they are mostly folders uploaded to Dropbox. Some lazy sods even just roll out a YouTube playlist, or more scandalously again, a Spotify playlist. HOW AM I MEANT TO LISTEN TO YOUR FRENCH POP MUSIC IN MY CAR IF YOU ONLY GAVE IT TO ME VIA GOOGLE?!?
It’s been a great, simple way to mark the passing of time and I often listen back to my favourite entries. You can tell when that one friend was spending the year DJ-ing in Tokyo and remember how that company the other friend was working for famously collapsed in on themselves while he discovered the glories of Blackalicious. The mixes are evocative, not just of the music of that year, but of the great moments with friends in that time.
Taido Chino, a recent but treasured addition to our group, stuck his up on his blog, so as with everything, I am going to copy him. You can download the album here: KEVINDECENCY 2014 and this is the tracklisting.
The terrain of the year is apparent in this track listing. A vast amount of time was spent sitting at a desk in the TheoLab, reading popular histories of the Irish economic crash of 2008, early Patristic writing about wealth, and Karl Barth on the parables of Jesus. I found that three kinds of music suited the sort of in-depth reading I was doing: jazz (socially acceptable), movie soundtracks (slightly below the threshold for social acceptability), and (overwhelmingly) video-game soundtracks (full on musical pariah status guaranteed).
But think about it: video game soundtracks are composed with the intention of encouraging focus. The art of the Halo soundtrack is that it helps you focus on nothing but Halo. I soon sent my ears wandering from games I knew (Command and Conquer’s “Hell March” was an old favourite) to new soundtracks for games I’ve never played. The only computer game I play is Football Manager, so this meant I was fairly voracious in sucking up old classics. The PS3 game Journey has a great soundtrack but the best of all time has to be the 1998 game Katamari Damacy. I didn’t want to be dishonest about how very uncool my music selection is this year so I kicked it off with a track from that soundtrack.
Later I chose “Go Big or Go Exctinct” from the Pacific Rim soundtrack because that record was so often an early morning selection to get my concentration-on. The loud announcement noise of the guitar that features so prominently throughout that album is part of my brain’s furniture at this point.
One other thing I notice from this album is how predictable my middle-aged tastes are. Jenny Lewis and The New Pornographers and Janelle Monae have all featured on earlier Best-of mixes. And throughout it, the recurring aural arrangement is a combination of male and female voices with a strong piano line. Amazon’s algorithm could just write music for me for the next 20 years and save me from becoming a fan of Ed Sheeran.
The final thing that I notice is just how sad the songs that stick in my ear are. 2014 has been widely hailed as a miserable year and personally it has been a bastard to me at times, even in the midst of my larger contentedness with my studies. The music that resonates with me this year is music about struggle with ourselves and others and death.
Even the song about dancing is a satire about amusing ourselves to death.
The best album of the year for me was The Both, the project that brought America’s wittiest lyricist Aimee Mann into collaboration with America’ wittiest punk Ted Leo. It doesn’t feature in any of the prominent Best-of lists because Best-of lists are inherently stupid.
Anyway, go download my Best-of playlist. Adding the word “play” always turns stupid things into wisdom.
Your Correspondent, Like Danish pastry, he’s looking tasty
Christmas music usually stinks. I know this with certainty because I live with someone who turns on the Irish charity radio station Christmas FM on December 1st and as much as is possible, keeps it on through Advent until it finishes broadcasting about 7pm on St. Stephen’s Day. There is only so much “Christmas Shoes” and Justin Bieber promising “I’mma be under the Christmas tree” can be played before a man considers divorce. Christmas music stinks so much that Bruce Springsteen’s effort is horrendous. I am glad for your sake that you haven’t even heard the unreleased R.E.M. Christmas songs.
This year, more than any year, I have relished Advent and anticipated Christmas. Life is harder than I thought it was. And one of the undersides of the struggle is that I no longer have the energy to maintain the sour opposition to Wham’s “Last Christmas” and its musical fraternity. Who cares if it was originally “Last Summer” and they changed it because they spied a chance to make a mint? It’s a great pop song. The Band Aid song still pisses me off for the same reasons it pisses all sane people off. But to an extent I never thought possible, I enjoyed the Christmas build up, the secular Advent this year. It is no coincidence that my enjoyment of street lights and public Christmas trees and jingles played incessantly in H&M has increased in proportion to my engagement with the Christian practice of Advent. The Gospel shapes you to welcome light wherever it is found. The pseudo-piety of the Christian Christmas naysayer is revealed for a waste of time when you realise just how much fun it is to shout “IT’S CHRISTMAAAAS!” along with Slade.
Don’t get me wrong. Christmas music usually stinks. But there might be some albums that you can download and play for the next 9 days that don’t drive you demented. Here are three:
1) Moya Brennan – An Irish Christmas
Moya Brennan is a member of the legendary Irish traditional group Clannad. Think of her as Enya’s cooler, Christian cousin. That’s how lame Enya is. A Pentecostal Irish-speaking Christian is still cooler than her. This album has that Celtic, echoey feel that you’d expect from a musician from the Donegal Gaelteacht but it is not gratingly artificial like that stuff often is.
2) Annie Lennox – A Christmas Cornucopia
Lennox is not (to my scant knowledge) a Christian, but this album has the kind of muscle that comes from someone who gets the earthy, fleshy core of the Christmas message. If GK Chesterton was a Scottish pop legend, he’d record an album like this. At Christmas we rejoice in the light breaking into the darkness. But the darkness can’t be sentimentalised away. Lennox’s album keeps the menace of Christmas alive, if that makes sense. Listening to this you cannot mistake Christmas for the celebration of a baby meek and mild, no crying he makes. An invasion of occupied territory has begun. We are holding our breath in anticipation.
3) Blind Boys of Alabama – Go Tell It On The Mountain
This was the first Christmas album I ever fell in love with. Tom Waits joining with them as they command us “to go tell it on the mountain” is probably all the advertisement that you need to track this gem down. The first two albums definitely fit into the stereotypical musical tone of a north European Christmas. They are cosy albums for days that get dark early and that freeze. The Blind Boys record doesn’t have that scarf-and-hat feel. What it does have is sincerity. This is the closest to a worship album as you need to go for Christmas.
I will continue to quest for better Christmas albums. Someday I might have the patience to filter through Sufjan’s 100 Christmas songs to make an album of 10 viable tracks. But in the meantime, these are trustworthy choices.
My Favourite Christmas Song?
One Christmas I had to preach in the lovely little Presbyterian churches in Howth and Malahide in north Co. Dublin. Wife-unit was sick. I drove out there on my own and took too long and didn’t come close to saying something worthy of the setting but as ever, the congregations were warm and responsive and encouraging and joyful and when I got back into my car to go back home, I was full of gratitude for the job I had been given. On the radio, passing that crossroad at Portmarnock, a song called “Rebel Jesus” by Jackson Browne came on. I had never heard it before. But it moved me to tears. I had to pull in because it was a better sermon than I could ever preach.
I realise I love the songs the church sings at Christmas. But this awkward track might be my favourite, doubly so because it is a gift to Christians from “a heathen and a pagan.” Kate and Anna McGarrigle have a cover version that tops the original. On this, the third day of Christmas, it might be a blessing to you:
Your Correspondent, Celebrates the true spirit of Christmas; people being helped by people other than him.
If you are around Dublin next Thursday, November 27th, I am giving a sort of research update at Lucan Presbyterian Church from 8pm.
So, if you like the idea of seeing me flail as I attempt to compress the last 14 months of research into 40 entertaining minutes, come along. There’ll probably be church-quality tea and coffee as well. I might confuse you or bore you, but you will be hugely beneficial to me because only by running my ideas past real people (as against having conversations with myself in the shower or imagining I’m walking to the office with Karl Barth or Amartya Sen) can I calibrate how I conduct my research to avoid it escaping up to the top of the Ivory Tower.
Your Correspondent, Can he supply it on demand?
Reviewing a book by a friend is a difficult thing, because you are already pre-disposed to like it. Reviewing a book by your PhD supervisor is practically impossible, because even if you don’t like it, you have to pretend you do (for a few years at least). So don’t think of this as a review. Think of it as an introduction to a book I think you should read. Because I really do like it.
In the introduction to Captive to Christ, Open to the World, Kenneth Oakes, the editor, shares one of the questions that Brian introduced him to: Who, exactly, owns the moon? Oakes beginning with the question about who owns the moon is totally appropriate. Conversations with Brian can be dangerous things. He reminded me with glee this week how one time last year, in a class full of undergraduates, a conversation with him ended up with me espousing an especially insane position whereby I advocated the murder of all the deer in Dublin. I never had any problem with deer, but I had serious problems with how I thought of animals. Brian’s conversations revealed that.
So the great strength of this book is that it is a collection of 8 conversations that we get to listen in on. The first two are conversations with Dutch theologians. The final 6 are conversations with Jacqueline Broen, who is now one of Brian’s doctoral students but back then was doing a masters in environmental theology. Like a conversation with Brian, this book is entertaining and illuminating and connections are made that you never realised were there.
The first chapter is a sort of introduction to the Brockian theological project, rotating around questions about his first book Singing the Ethos of God. I very much appreciated these sentences as a sort of summation of the key problem to be addressed by Christian ethics:
the way the theological academy teaches us to conceive our relationship to Scripture makes it difficult, if not impossible, to find our way from Scripture to the ethical questions of our real, lived lives, and conversely, we are taught that the people who are quite obviously doing this (like the Bible-believers I grew up with) were not doing so in an academically respectable manner.
So our job as theologians is to retrieve what we have lost. Earlier Christians could read Scripture and do theology hand in hand, they did their ethics as a form of theological commentary.
In the second chapter the conversation moves on to the topic of Brian’s second book Christian Ethics in a Technological Age. That is a sprawling giant of a text, full of meandering, illuminating conversations with philosophical and theological heavyweights. But in the new book, you get a sort of heavily compressed, verbal account of what is going on in that book. Technology is the repetition of the gesture by which Adam and Eve fashion coverings out of fig-leaves. It is our response to feeling the world is chaotic. Modern technology is a “fig-leaf reflex.” That is some deep theology pressed into a phrase.
This second chapter sees Brian speak about his relationship to Stanley Hauerwas, the technological wonders that mean that his son has survived leukaemia and the sharp end of our technological age. That sharp end is revealed when we consider how it is increasingly difficult to even conceive of the question that Christian ethics is about, namely: “How do we receive God’s sustenance?” My office-mate Taido joked yesterday that all the food in our local Tesco comes in plastic pods. In a world so habitually specialized, it is an imaginative effort to pray “Give us this day, our daily bread” and for those words to have meaning.
Chapters 3 through 8 are more general in nature, often discussing issues local to Aberdeen or St. Andrew’s and mostly hovering near an environmental agenda. But the range of issues touched upon is sort of staggering. What does it mean to do theology in a secular society (“in a public context you don’t have to make theological arguments all the time”), how church should relate to the world (“God does have something to give to us … the world needs the church to know who that God is.”), the utter dependence on cheap energy that gives our life shape, and how the false freedom of the market is revealed by a trip to Burger King are just some of the branches explored.
This book isn’t quite “Brian Brock for Dummies”. As I say, it is like over-hearing a conversation over coffee between him and other academics. As such, Nietzsche and Kant are referenced in answers. But so too are Donald Trump’s scandalous Aberdeenshire mis-adventures in environmental devastation for the sake of golf. It will tax the average Christian reader, but it will be richly rewarding. You’ll get a sense of how theology is done in Aberdeen: in worship, in dialogue with the world, in humility. You’ll better understand why my thesis or subsequent work won’t “solve” the problem of being wealthy westerners. And the reason why it won’t offer solutions isn’t just that I am nowhere near smart enough to do it. Rather, you’ll begin to see that to expect a “solution” falls short of what it means to be Christian. The theological ethicist’s job is “to allow theology to generate a different set of questions.” You’ll begin to see how the quest for Biblical principles that is so rampant in Christian discourse can be a way to evade God. After all, once we have the principles, we can discard the Bible and the living, active God. You’ll come to better understand what Brock means when he says that the core responsibility of the theologian is:
to teach students how to think and speak with one another as Christians.
Theology is no mere study. It is service to our neighbour as an act of worship. The goal is not to discover some ineffable truth and make it merely effable! It is truthful speech in love. It is action. It is service. It is worship.
Captive to Christ, Open to the World is, as such, a strange, different, curious little gem of a book.
Your Correspondent, His parents missed Woodstock, and he’s been making up for it since.
Doing theology without friendship would be like making those little World Wildlife Fund toy pandas in a factory that pollutes rivers with mercury. It would contradict itself. Thankfully, Aberdeen is a place where the practices of making friends is woven into the day-to-day schedules of our lives so that we pray together and study together but also eat together and drink together and play football together.
The teaching staff are in on the act too and it has been a surprise to me that they actively pursue friendship with students – not just graduate students but even the lowly, meager, humble undergrads. My supervisor, Brian Brock, recently recorded an interview with a friend who started out as a student of his called Arni Zachariassen. Arni is Faroese and studied theology at Aberdeen. In the interview he and Brian (primarily) talk about disability theology. It is well worth 52 minutes of your time. You can get it at Arni’s website Theologues.
The conversation notionally begins with an explanation of Brian’s latest book which was intended to be a “critique of academic ethics as a sort of ivory tower discipline.” I’ll get around to writing a proper review of that book here before long, but even better than reading my waffle is listening to Brian and Arni.
When explaining the Christian response to disability in the interview, Brock has a lovely sentence:
The presence of those who can never aspire to be the icons of perfection and beauty for various reasons, actually draws us back to the essence of the Gospel.
This reminds me of my favourite sentence in the new book:
I would be very pleased to see the language of leadership drop entirely out of Christian discourse as well as executive management models, and I hope I’m not the only one who finds the language of ‘executive pastor’ physically nauseating.
– Brock, Captive to Christ, Open to the World, 105.
Very often, church members and even church leaders avoid “serious” theology because they think it is removed from their daily life. The thought processes at work make a sort of sense. They only have a set amount of time and energy and attention which is taxed and tempted and seduced from all sorts of angles. In such a world, simple, targeted books offering a 7 step guide to success or the distillation of Biblical principles seem like wise investments. (Even worse, some people skip books entirely and live off blogs.)
But the danger of such an approach isn’t just that those 7 steps lead you nowhere or that those Biblical principles are inventions, but that by reading things off the shelf we never get around to exploring the questions we need to wrestle with. The kind of “wrestling” we do is just short-circuiting. Too often, if we’re honest, we find ourselves asking the wrong questions, in the wrong way, and getting the wrong answers. The aversion to theology may be understandable from one perspective because so much theology is artlessly and obtusely written. It can be dry. But without theology, we end up swallowing crap.
For example: just trusting the best-selling authors that write for Zondervan (for example (a subsidiary of a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire)) to help you navigate what it means to live as a Christian here and now will leave you blind to the connection between the (bogus) obsession with “leadership” and “management” and the inability to address disability in our midst. In that blindspot, we cannot see the disabled in our midst. In other words, in that blindspot, we are disabled. There is something about admitting that we aren’t able to manage on our own, that we have to be led, that we are not icons of beauty, perfection, or holiness that is a pre-requisite for Gospel transformation. Brock finds language of executive management leadership “nauseating”. It’s a funny exaggeration. Or it is the truth – we are reeling and incoherent as Christians in part because we value things that are value-less and leave our treasures neglected.
So listen to this podcast of two thoughtful Christians talking about disability, technology and the Christian life. Then consider whether it might be really wise to pick up some theology at its source. If you’ve never read Hauerwas, go buy A Peacable Kingdom. If you’re interested but terrified by Barth, check if the library has Dogmatics in Outline. If you really don’t have the energy, pop down to your local Veritas shop and pick up Michael Paul Gallagher’s tiny, explosive “The Disturbing Freshness of Christ“.
None of that theology is dry. And all of it will help you identify the crap.
Your Correspondent, Savours the joys of mortgaging his future
As part of the terms of 2010 IMF bail-out that Ireland was pressurised into taking, water charges have been introduced. The scandal of how this scandalous decision has been implemented is too depressing to recount but I have been deeply heartened to see that hundreds of thousands of Irish people have taken to the streets in peaceful protest.
Water, after all, falls from the sky.
There has been a tremendous backlash in the media and from politicians who are now running scared. One government minister said yesterday that the water protests were being orchestrated, in part, by people who intended to establish a Marxist-Leninist Republic. What can we say except that the world is full of stupid people in powerful positions?
Wicked people too.
Marx and Lenin have had influence in times and places, but that place was never really Ireland and that time is not now. Groucho Marx and John Lennon won more adherents here.
What is curious is that the reactionary backlash is driven by people who in many instances, like our Taoiseach Enda Kenny, claim to be Roman Catholics. Now I haven’t been in communion with Rome for quite a while but I always thought that Catholics in the public sphere were meant to seek to implement Catholic Social Teaching. And Pope Benedict XVI in his excellent encyclical Caritas in Veritate lays out a very clear principle of Catholic Social Teaching:
The right to food, like the right to water, has an important place within the pursuit of other rights, beginning with the fundamental right to life. It is therefore necessary to cultivate a public conscience that considers food and access to water as universal rights of all human beings, without distinction or discrimination.
– Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, §27.
If you are an Irish conservative Catholic, you surely must take the Pope as a firmer authority than Timothy Geithner. Furthermore, Benedict is very clear that the access to water is a component of “the fundamental right to life.”
Catholic teaching is very clear: Opposition to abortion or euthanasia means support for freely accessed water.
Your Correspondent, He’s getting the epiphany sweats!
Greg Grandin, who wrote Fordlandia, a book I devoured earlier in the summer, published a book this year called The Empire of Necessity. It is one of those marvelous books that comes along every now and again that deals with disparate threads of argument in parallel but refuses to compress it all into a neat cross-stitchable message at the end.
It is a book about slave-trading. Specifically, the shipment of slaves. Specifically, the shipment of slaves around the age of Revolutions at the turn of the 19th Century. Specifically one particular slave ship (The Tryal) that revolted.
That’s a lot of threads, all handled impeccably.
But it is also a book about Herman Melville and seal-hunting and the writing of a less renowned Melville novel called Benito Cereno, which re-told the story soon afterwards.
These divergent trajectories are held together and Grandin ranges between these points effortlessly. It is a stunning achievement really. The description of the shift in Presbyterian preaching in New England in the late 1700s towards moral confidence (in term spurred on by Unitarianism) at the beginning comes around at the end to help understand how the economics of slavery operated. The description of the geography of seal hunting grounds resonates as the overland passage of slaves from Argentina to Chile, through the Andes is unpacked.
The captain of the ship that stumbled over the Tryal was initially unaware of the slave revolt. The story how that came to be is utterly central to the entire book so I will leave it untouched. Suffice to say, Amasa Delano didn’t have the happiest life in all of Christendom. When he returned to America after years at sea, the entire society had begun its shift into modern capitalism:
Debt had taken a more central role in the growing nation’s economy, and Delano was trapped in its grip, dragged through court and, it seems, thrown into debtors’ prison.
The Englightenment hopes of the democratic revolutions in France and America are still taught in Irish primary schools as a humane achievement. In many ways they are. But Grandin’s book is breathtaking in how it reveals the ways in which the possibility of democracy rested on the economic boost of slavery and how the political rhetoric of Republics was revealed as deficient (if not a sham) by the utter refusal to grant full humanity to slaves. Liberty was secured by slaves. Melville pinned this hypocrisy down in an epigraph he used for one of his books:
Seeking to conquer a larger liberty, man but extends the empire of necessity.
We need more of books like this – by which I mean not just sumptuously creative history but books about this darkness at the heart of our present self-understanding. The West is built on slavery. The quays of Dublin were built with interest paid on loans by Liverpool slave-ship owners. The research and design that makes the Intel factory in Leixlip so astounding is conducted in Arizona and California, on land that was robbed from civilizations that were destroyed. There is no Eden for us, only Fall.
Until we tell that story right, we can’t get to grips with capitalism or globalisation or Christian mission. We can’t understand where we are if we never knew where we came from.
Your Correspondent, Got accepted to college after he sent a refusal letter to them without ever applying
By coincidence, I spent November 11th in London. I had the pleasure of addressing a group of Christian business people over dinner about a new initiative created by other Christian business people that would fix capitalism without having to change too much about capitalism.
I got the impression that my theological perspective was underwhelming.
The meal was lovely, in a private dining room of one of the finest restaurants in London. I had worn a suit and shoes all day. By dinner I longed for the comfort of an old pair of New Balances. Instead, I sat and watched my words and small-talked like the king of extroverts, a polished imitation of myself.
On the long commute back to the business hotel on the edge of town, across the river from the airport I was escaping from the next morning, I thought about the conversation I got to listen in on but I also thought about the display of 800,000+ handmade ceramic poppies representing all the British soldiers that died during the Great War (or less contentiously, the First War for Iraq). For a few weeks, ending that day, this exhibition served as a moat to the Tower of London. This is what they looked like on that grey, exhausting, London afternoon:
War made us who we are
Three things struck me from my visit to the exhibition. The first is that there is truth to the claim that the fighting in World War I made modern Britain possible. Admitting that does not justify anything like the sort of pornographic delusion that passes for remembrance (see: Sainsburys) at the moment.
You can still pay heed to the truth of history (that World War I was actually a murderous slaughter that no one can explain, never mind justify) and grant that the trajectory of 20th Century Britain was forged on the fields of Flanders. Britain let go of its Empire but held itself together and it entered the 21st Century playing a disproportionately central role in the affairs of the world.
As you turned around in a circle from the poppies you saw the signs of London’s spectacular golden age. The profits made by the legal and financial firms in the city of London has sparked a generation of remarkable prosperity. As people tried to recall the past, they were surrounded by the super-abundance of the present. Within sight of where I took that photo, I had a good view of the new London City Hall, the Shard, the Gherkin, and the Walkie Talkie – all acclaimed masterpieces of contemporary architecture.
Each and every one of those buildings and the thousands of others that have sprung up – glass and steel and towering, or trapezoidal and sleek – is paid for by the kind of economic reorganisation that happened because a million young men died in trenches in Belgium.
Tourists and Pilgrims
I also thought about my friend Eoin O’Mahony, who has done such excellent thinking on pilgrimage and secularisation. There were thousands of people at the Tower of London – many tourists who probably would have visited regardless but also hundreds of locals, wandering by after business lunches. From a simple reading of the poppy art display, this was a huge success as an act of remembrance. But the words we used to justify that verdict are the words that call it into question.
It was a successful act of remembrance because so many tourists came to visit it. But as the theologian William Cavanaugh reminds us, “tourism is the aesthetic of globalisation in both its economic and political forms.” To be a tourist is to be privileged and uprooted. Only the wealthy tours. The poor are not tourists, but migrants. The only tourism globalisation allows them is “welfare tourism” bullshit. The tourist is away from home and away from allegiances. Everyday they decide their itinerary and are bound only by what they want to do.
Tourists cannot remember.
This is why tourists spend so much time taking photos of themselves, because the event must be recalled since it can’t be remembered. I don’t know the context and history and human real-ness of the Buddhist temples I visited in Thailand. What I do not know, I cannot remember. I take photos to recall the thoughts I had while there, which were thoughts foreign to the places.
The tourist is not illegitimate in any way, but the tourist is not the rememberer.
In among the thousands of selfie-shooters (including me grabbing that panorama), were a much smaller of much older men, usually with walking sticks, sometimes in wheelchairs and often accompanied by women – wives, daughters, carers? They were all dressed in suits. They were all wearing poppies. Many of them had tears in their eyes. They were pilgrims. They are not veterans of the 1914-1918 war, since they have all died. But they were men who knew the horror of combat and they came to see this beautiful and elaborate testimony to the fact that whatever the ethics or the politics or the damned stupidity of it all, people – the taxpayers like my wife who funded the art and the tourists like me who photographed it – people acknowledge that soldiers have done a job that no one should reasonably be asked to do. The losses incurred, the pain and agony and trauma and death are not honoured by our efforts but the effort is made nonetheless.
I realised standing there that the difference between tourist and pilgrim is the difference between Remembrance as it is done in the UK and how it should be done. The problem with how the church jumps in to Poppy activity could be described as the problem of the church pretending to be a pilgrim, when it is a tourist.
Modern art for
Finally, I thought about the power of the stories of war and nation to subvert everything. Modern art can do things that no other medium can do. By any understanding of it, this was installation art. It was the kind of art that the Daily Mail despises. Except this particular work can be read off straightforwardly to mean one thing about sacrifice and nation. It means that a lot of blood swept the fields of Europe and it had something to do with war. Hence there was a sea of red flowing out of the Tower of London.
It was entitled Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red, from a poem that was written anonymously and is curiously free from the specific voice that marks so much of the great poetry of that age. It speaks in soft, diffuse, sentimental terms about about how God’s tears fall in anguish and how the time approaches “To sleep and cry no more.”
Grand. But in World War I, people didn’t go to sleep when shells hit their trenches.
The stories of war and nation subvert even the most stubborn modes of expression we have at our disposal (maybe modern dance is even more resistant to simplification), turning everything into feeling. The contradictory, incoherent, hard and bloody truth of our lives gets boiled down to an essence that you can wear on your lapel. The exhibition is beautiful. It is elegant. The craftsmanship is astonishing and the visual is arresting. Still it is neutered.
If war and nation sterilizes modern art, it will have no difficulty co-opting your 75 minute long worship service, however carefully planned, whatever contemporary praise songs you decide to sing.
I took the train back to my hotel. It raced out of the city, leaving the spires of finance behind, past the Olympic village, out into the first round of suburbs where people struggle to make ends meet. There were no Porsches here. No lunch at Harrods. No private dining rooms in fancy restaurants. But I can know for sure that there were flats where I would find the empty beds of men and women gone for a long time. They are away at war. I bounced from airport to hotel to restaurant to hotel to airport. I was a tourist. They are not pilgrims but servants.
The Tower of London poppies should have been mowed down by tanks. They should have been shattered by drone strikes. Instead they were sold off to charity. The funds will go to care for veterans, since the UK government doesn’t cover the full cost of rehabilitation. People bought them thinking that was a good deed, thinking those poppies are beautiful, displaying them on the mantelpiece or in a cabinet in their living rooms. The soldiers beds might never be occupied again. The soldiers will ensure other beds of other people in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria are never occupied again. Those wars too will be remembered with public art.
Meanwhile, we’ll keep trying to fix capitalism from inside.
Your Correspondent, A veteran only of the Cola wars
My church meets in a beautiful, modern building, nestled into a housing estate on the northside of Scotland’s greyest city. It is an ordinary suburban congregation, which will not give rise to a missionary movement, or a hit worship music cd or a preaching philosophy anytime soon. We gather, with quite a few empty seats, every Sunday; a strange multi-cultural, ageing group of people struggling to be human. We sing about the presence of an invisible God and we read ancient texts written by desert nomads in a language that is no longer spoken and we eat bread and drink juice and say that is the centre-point of all of creation, even though none of us know what that means.
In other words, I am part of great little church.
On Sunday however, Wife-unit and I are going to get up and make some coffee and eat toast down by the sea and then we’re going to make Christmas cake. We’re not going to church because Sunday is “Remembrance Sunday” in the UK. There is a special notification in the seasonal church magazine that says that the scouts will be joining us in worship, so too will a brass band, and various civic figures too, I expect. Everyone will wear a poppy. At 11am there will be silence around the country. Soldiers killed in battle fighting for Queen and Country will be remembered.
What, especially on the centenary year of World War I, could be wrong with that?
Let me try, once again, to explain why we should be sceptical of remembrance campaigns, whether organised around poppies in Britian, lillies in Ireland, or… I don’t know, fireworks and little American flags in the US.
Remembering is a very difficult thing for human beings to do. Even defining what memory is is something that we struggle with. To put it recursively, we have forgotten how our ancestors remembered. We are alarmed by neuro-scientific experiments that indicate that our memories are full of holes, but we have forgotten that earlier ages didn’t imagine remembering with the metaphor of recording devices (as one example).
In Act I of Macbeth, after he is told by the witches that he will one day become king, he begins to muse about having to commit regicide. He hopes that he might avoid this act: “If Chance will have me King, why, Chance may crown me / Without my stir.” Yet he is aware that his victory will probably come with his spilling blood. Calling his imaginings to a halt he apologises and says:
Give me your favour: my dull brain was wrought
With things forgotten. Kind gentlemen, your pains
Are register’d where every day I turn
The leaf to read them.
Shakespeare didn’t need neuro-science to know that memory is deceptive. Macbeth’s brain is wrought with things forgotten and at the same time he promises to daily recall the virtues of the very men he intends to kill.
Memory is a difficult thing. That is why the story of Exodus must be told at Passover. That is why Jesus says that we are to break bread in memory of him. For Plato, the whole of human life is a wrestling match with anamnesis, the mystical task of remembering rightly.
Einstein said that “Memory is deceptive because it is coloured by today’s events.” But on Sunday our memories are deceptive because they are not coloured by today’s events. Since Britain’s declaration of war against Germany in August 1914, not a year has passed without its forces being involved in conflict. Since the foundation of the British army in 1707, a year has not passed without Britain sending men with guns to kill and to die for something called “the nation” (earlier, the even scarier “Empire”).
Britain does not just need to remember past wars. It is currently involved in two live wars, that have each dragged on for over ten years. They presumably have soldiers on active duty in operations that we are not allowed know about. The legacy of Britain as a nation is one of constant war. That reality persists today. Britian has invaded 90% of the nations on planet Earth:
I am not trying to be anti-British here. If I lived in America, I would have written something like this back at Memorial Day. When Ireland begins its centenary recollections in 2016, I will be trying to publish things like this in newspapers and academic journals. The task of remembering rightly is the task of the Christian church and we are tempted into unfaithfulness when we let our allegiance to the nation state, even relatively “peaceful” nation states like Ireland, recall human murder and call it fate.
In the centre of Aberdeen there is a statue of a lion that reminds us to remember “Our Glorious Dead”. If Remembrance was Christian, we wouldn’t call the men who died on the fields of Flanders “glorious”. Human life has rarely been less glorious. If Remembrance was Christian, we wouldn’t dare use the word “our”, because “their” dead matter as much to God.
In the theological journal Theology this month, Paul Oestreicher writes about Remembrance Sunday last year:
On Remembrance Sunday last year I took a German Lutheran pastor to the Cenotaph in Whitehall to see the parade of old veterans. I was moved. He was shocked. No such military ceremony is acceptable in Germany after two lost world wars, lost in disgrace.
The German Christian was shocked. You agree with that. Germans shouldn’t have a Gedenktag because they were the baddies! (As it turns out, Germany does have a number of remembrance events in their calendar including: January 27: Holocaust Memorial Day and 8 May: Liberation Day – but they are utterly different in tone, intention, and liturgy). Yet if we agree that soldiers are not responsible for the fights begun by their politicians and their generals and their captains of industry (no one can disagree with that!), then why are German soldiers not remembered like the British recall theirs?
Is it a lack of gratitude for the “ultimate sacrifice”?
Is it a disturbing lack of patriotic fervour?
Or is it a chastened and disciplined collective intention to talk about war and the past in a way that minimises the chance of war in the future?
On Sunday, Wife-unit and I will read from the Gospels and pray for peace. We will look for the day that the Prophet Micah told us to anticipate: “They will beat their swords into plough shares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.”
May that day come. Till then, let no Christian kill.
Your Correspondent, His major malfunction is that he cares too much