One Quote Review: Redployment by Phil Klay

Phil Klay’s Redeployment was recommended to me by my aunt, who told me that after hearing him talk about war, she was struck by how similar he was to me. I will take that as an immense and somewhat inappropriate compliment, because Klay is a veteran and a tremendous writer. But I take from my aunt’s reflection that there is something of a resonance between my Christian pacifism, which never imagines that war is unnecessary and Klay’s refusal to allow his collection of portraits to collapse into a moralistic tome that declares simplistically that war-is-bad-ok.

My favourite story is called “Prayer in the Furnace”, charting the difficulties of a chaplain in Iraq. Caught between confessions that allude to war crimes and a hierarchy intent on denying any such possibility, he finds himself preaching one Sunday – after receiving advice from his mentor, a Jesuit priest – this glorious homily:

“Who here thinks.” I asked the small group of Marines who’d gathered for Sunday mass, “that when you get back to the States no civilians will be able to understand what you’ve gone through?”
A few hands went up.
“I had a parishioner whose six-month-old son developed a brain tumor. He watched his child go through intense suffering, chemotherapy, and finally a brutal, ungraceful death. Who would rather go through that than be in Ramadi?”
I could see confusion on the faces of the Marines in the audience. That was good. I didn’t intend this to be a normal homily.
“I spoke to an Iraqi man the other day,” I said. ”A civilian, who lives out there in that city I’ve heard Marines say should be razed. Should be burned, with everyone in it perishing in the flames.”
I had their attention.
“This Iraqi man’s little daughter had been injured. A cooking accident. Hot oil spilled off the stove, all over the girl. And what did this man do? He ran, with her in his arms, to find help. And he found a Marine squad. At first, they thought he was carrying a bomb. He faced down the rifles aimed at his head, and he gave his desperately injured daughter, this tiny, tiny girl, to a very surprised, very burly corporal. And that corporal
brought him to Charlie Medical, where the doctors saved his daughter’s life.
“That’s where I met this Iraqi man. This man of Ramadi. This father. I spoke to him there, and I asked him if he felt grateful to the Americans for what we’d done. Do you know what he told me?”
I held the question in the air for a moment.
“‘No.’ That’s what he said. ‘No.’ He had come to the Americans because they had the best doctors, the only safe doctors, not because he liked us. He’d already lost a son, he told me, to the violence that came after the invasion. He blamed us for that. He blames us for the fact that he can’t walk down the street without fear of being killed for no reason. He blames us for his relatives in Baghdad who were tortured to death. And he particularly blames us for the time he was watching TV with his wife and a group of Americans kicked down his door, dragged his wife out by the hair, beat him in his own living room. They stuck rifles in his face. They kicked him in the side. They screamed at him in a language he did not understand. And they beat him when he could not answer their questions. Now, here’s the question I have for you, Marines: Who would trade their seven-month deployment to Ramadi for that man’s life, living here?”
No one raised a hand. Some Marines looked uncomfortable. Some looked angry. Some looked furious.
“Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if this man supported the insurgency. The translator said the man was a bad guy. An ‘ali baba.’ But clearly, this man has suffered. And if this man, this father, does support the insurgency, it’s because he thinks his suffering justifies making you suffer. If his story about his beating is true, it means the Marines who beat him think their suffering justifies making him suffer. But as Paul reminds us, ‘There is none righteous, no, not one.’ All of us suffer. We can either feel isolated, and alone, and lash out at others, or we can realize we’re part of a community. A church. That father in my parish felt as if no one could understand him and it wasn’t worth the effort to make them try. Maybe you don’t think it’s worth trying to understand the suffering of that Iraqi father. But being Christian means we can never look at another human being and say, ‘He is not my brother.’
“I don’t know if any of you know Wilfred Owen. He was a soldier who died in the First World War, a war that killed soldiers by the hundreds of thousands. Owen was a strange sort. A poet. A warrior. A homosexual. And as tough a man as any Marine
I’ve ever met. In World War One, Owen was gassed. He was blown in the air by a mortar and lived. He spent days in one position, under fire, next to the scattered remains of a fellow officer. He received the Military Cross for killing enemy soldiers with a captured enemy machine gun and rallying his company after the death of his commander. And this is what he wrote about training soldiers for the trenches. These are, by the
way, new soldiers. They hadn’t seen combat yet. Not like he had.
“Owen writes: ‘For 14 hours yesterday I was at work teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirsts until after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb, and stands at attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.”‘
I looked up from my sermon and looked hard at the audience, which was looking hard back at me.
“We are part of a long tradition of suffering. We can let it isolate us if we want, but we must realize that isolation is a lie. Consider Owen. Consider that Iraqi father and that American father. Consider their children. Do not suffer alone. Offer suffering up to God, respect your fellow man, and perhaps the sheer awfulness of this place will become a little more tolerable.”
I felt flushed, triumphant, but my sermon hadn’t gone over well. A number of Marines didn’t come up for Communion. Afterward, as I was gathering the leftover Eucharist, my RP turned to me and said, “Whoa, Chaps. That got a bit real.”

Your Correspondent, His hands aren’t sweaty, he was just holding a fish

Book Review: The Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin

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

Book Review: Honey From The Lion by Doug Gay

Doug Gay is a Scottish theologian who has written a book entitled “Honey From the Lion“. It intends to offer a theological defence of nationalism, with a specific application to Scottish nationalism. It manages to do this without becoming a “God thinks you should vote yes” diatribe, so that is pretty impressive right from the beginning.

Scotland free?

So the argument that Gay makes is firstly, that there is a kind of nationalism that isn’t bad. He goes further than this and thinks that nationalism can take a shape that can be good, even good enough that Christians can embrace it. His unpacking of the ideas that trade around the concept of nationalism in the early chapters is really very good. He points out that in a world of nation states, nationalism is pretty much inevitable. Quoting Jonathan Hearn he suggests: “Liberal democracies do not so much transcend nationalism as domesticate it.”

This is something I have noted since moving to the UK. The ubiquity of the Union flag on packaging, the “Great British” trope present in the titles of products of popular culture, and the always present symbols of military power are notable when you first arrive in Scotland. Is this the liberal nation state domesticating the “lion” of nationalism, extracting honey that is sweet for society? Or is there a connection between the common and aggressive racist and xenophobic graffiti I see on the streets of Aberdeen and the voluminous reminders of Imperial Britain in all aspects of our shared life?

In other words, I am not so sure that nationalism can be domesticated. But Gay makes a really excellent case by marking out the ways in which nationalism is out of bounds theologically. Our nationalism cannot be imperialist or essentialist or absolutist but instead our task would be:

    To renounce imperialism is to renounce domination and to practise recognition of the other.
    To renounce essentialism is to renounce a biological nationalism based on the ius santuinis or law of the blood in favour of a habitat-based nationalism, based solely on the ius solis, on the law of territory.
    To renounce absolutism is, in the language of the Barmen Declaration, to place the state under God, asserting God’s sovereignty over the state and the state’s accountability to God.

– Doug Gay, Honey From The Lion, 81.

Having staked out the argument that nationalism can be a good, Gay moves on to consider the idea of a Christian society. Throughout the book he is in dialogue with some serious theological voices; Milbank, O’Donovan, Hauerwas, Bretherton, and Cavanaugh, amongst others. I presume he hasn’t dealt with my Facebook posts on the topic because he sent the proofs off to the publisher before I came out in favour of the Yes vote and swung the entire referendum. The leading idea that allows us to consider society Christian-ly is Augustine’s concept of society sharing objects of love; “The better the objects of this agreement, the better the people; and the worse the objects, the worse the people.” Christian theological thinking on society demands a rejection of the flat space imagined by militant secularists and instead conceives of society as a complex space where the state and the market and the arts and the religions and all the other human collusions that make up our shared life clash against each other and cling to each other and compromise with each other.

In the book’s second half, Gay gives us a history of the Scottish devolution movement and a really good, practical chapter on the good, the bad and the middling that can be said to have come from the Edinburgh parliament since it was inaugurated in 2000. The book closes by suggesting certain ways in which the independent state of Scotland could go if the vote on September 18th is “Yes”.

Having not been completely convinced that Christians can dabble in nationalism, I am convinced that we cannot simply dismiss it. Gay demonstrates, for example, how Scottish nationalism in the 20th Century has been internationalist in nature. That those two things sit side by side is not inherently contradictory. Similarly, as a Christian socialist, Gay compellingly shows how socialism can accommodate nationalism – think only of how effective nationalism was for colonies in the overthrowing of the British empire.

He does completely convince me, a second time, that I should vote Yes in the referendum. This paragraph, quoting Charles Warren, is especially convincing to me:

Half of the entire country is held by just 608 owners and a mere 18 owners hold ten per cent of Scotland. Of Scotland’s private land, 30 per cent is held by 103 owners, each with 9,000 hectares [22,250 acres] or more, and 50 per cent by 343 owners. A minuscule 0.025 per cent of the population owns 67 per cent of the privately owned rural land. Thirty owners have more than 25,000 hectares [61,750 acres] each.

– Doug Gay, Honey From The Lion, 121.

Paragraphs like this should be on the tip of every tongue in Scotland. Of course, land reform doesn’t live or die based on the answer to the September 18th vote, but an independent Scotland is in a vastly stronger position to undue centuries of hoarding of the basic asset that a nation has – its space.

In the final chapter Gay turns to the possibility of a Scottish constitution and his discussion of the establishment of the Church of Scotland and the persistence of the Windsor monarchy in an independent Alba are far less convincing than his argument for a Yes vote. The trouble with both is revealed in his anecdote that at the ceremony where Elizabeth Windsor was made Queen of England and Scotland, the Archbishop of Canterbury refused communion to the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. What kind of Union is this that people want to protect? What kind of Christian nation is the UK? It seems to me that the ambivalence about both establishment and monarchy is a failure to follow through with the style of the earlier chapters. He makes such a good go of launching so complex an argument as a defence of nationalism that his himming-and-hawing here about the peculiarities of the Church of Scotland’s role in Scottish law seems to lack clarity. The hedging on monarchy is even worse.

But I am a staunch Republican, and maybe I am just sore that he didn’t join my team at the end?

There is one more question raised by the end of the book that I need to unfurl on my unfortunate readers. Gay proposes the use of common good” as the rubric under which Scotland ought to shape its new independence. But the failing here is the poverty that I always encounter with this language. What is the common good that holds Scotland together? There is no such thing. The conceptual deployment of Augustine’s common objects of love is one thing. The practical application of Catholic Social Teaching’s common good is another. What’s the common good in intractable conflicts – for example between profitability and sustainability? The common good is obviously sustainability, but the common choice will be for profitability. Or what’s the common good is in incommensurable moral conflicts – for example on the question of legalised abortion? Competing goods do not necessarily overlap. How does common good help as a political idea if it doesn’t lead to meaningful compromise?

The best reason for voting yes is that the new Scotland won’t have nuclear power or nuclear powered submarines or nuclear bombs. The second best reason for voting yes is that the new Scotland won’t invade Afghanistan or Iraq or Sierra Leone or the Falkland Islands. The reasons that Gay cites are excellent reasons as well. And the argument he makes that carefully extracting a narrowly-defined nationalism from the jaws of the lion can lead to sweet honey is a good one. The book is a rare example of theology being applied to contemporary issues in non-simplistic ways. It is practical theology at its best. That doesn’t mean all the arguments are equally convincing and it isn’t without its flaws, but it is genuinely worth tracking down.

The best reason for voting no is that you will really miss Liz Windsor’s face on some of the money used in Scotland or because an actress from Game of Thrones recommended it on Twitter. Small nation states are well placed to thrive in the years ahead and Scotland is a distinctive culture with its own language and history. It is more open and more socialist than the UK. It has arguably the most impressive educational traditions in the world. Its citizenry will be better off (not necessarily richer, as Gay points out with wonderful Christian clarity) making decisions about what happens in their territory without the opinions of people from Swansea, Sion Mills or Stockport weighing just as heavily as the folk who live in Stirling.

We can advocate this position and still be skeptical of nationalism. After all, Samson, who took the honey from the lion, ended his life in an act of suicide terrorism that killed thousands of people. He killed them because they were the enemies of his people, even though in so doing he directly repudiated the Torah that constituted his people. Nationalism can be rejected, while the nation state of Scotland can be welcomed.

Practical theology like the kind found in this book should be welcomed too.

Your Correspondent, A little boy told him “The English are best at everything”

Book Review: Everyday Sexism

While I am more than suspicious of #hashtagactivism, seeing it in the large part as the end product of the conversion of politics into identity-expression, my ethical vision of the world in which I live has been aided immensely by subscribing to the EverydaySexism twitter account. Over the last few years my morning feed of jokes, mathematical discussion of soccer tactics, and links to theological articles has been interrupted by accounts of women as they describe in short, terse sentences the daily slog that it can be to simply live with an XY chromosome.

A few months ago the curator of the project, Laura Bates, published a book and I finally got around to reading it a few weeks ago. I found it very hard going. The content in the opening chapters was so distressing that it was relegated from the bedside table. The opening chapters, about the tipping point where women were unable to take harassment anymore, the difficulties that women face in electoral politics and especially the chapter on how pre-pubescent girls are afflicted by the ramifications of patriarchy left me unable to sleep easy.

Which is as it should be.

I joked with Wife-Unit about how I wanted to put the book in the freezer, like Joey did on that one episode of Friends. Of course, Joey is a walking personification of everyday sexism and the book that he was so affected by was Little Women.

It’s funny when men are moved by stories with female protagonists!

Having finished it and reflected upon it, I conclude that the book, for me, was strangely invigorating. I am a preacher and I use my opportunities in the pulpit to unashamedly address a number of issues: the spiritual danger of wealth, the literary merit of Kurt Vonnegut, and the fact that the New Testament and early church history are ignored quite blatantly when it comes to the role of women in many congregations. I have decided to become an even more annoying preacher as a result of this book. I am going to bang that drum until people get up and leave, or get out of the way and let women use the gifts that the Holy Spirit has decided in her ineffable wisdom to bestow on them.

That isn’t to say that the book is without fault. Bates is a superb community organiser and her ethical voice is clear. But there are gaps all over the argumentation and places where her points actually fold-over themselves and cut against sections that are directly prior. The discussion about abortion is ideologically committed to one position, which neither does justice to the feminist spectrum around the issue, nor to the severity of the ethical problem the issue poses. The writing is unpolished in places.

But having said all that, I’d love if the previous paragraph was read in subscript. After all, if I went looking for a book on feminist theory, I wouldn’t have found a book that distressed me in such a healthy way. And if Bates nuanced her arguments and amassed her sources with academic rigour, she simply wouldn’t have 152,000 people following the project. Furthermore, she explicitly states that her methodology and her use of data, while sincere, is not intended to be exhaustive. As such, many of the complaints that I would levy against the book are out of bounds. It is superb at what it is meant to do.

I am unlikely to ever have even 152 people follow a project I curate. But my obscure academic interest was piqued throughout the work. I am sure that dozens of PhD students will, in the future, find inspiration (constructively or not) from this bestselling work. When I read this passage, I was struck by how Bates is describing how our societies are in some senses, vice-forming. Our shared life encourages the worst in us, instead of our best:

These inherently potent messages about gender-biased power and control surely help to shape the way our children see the world around them. We understand how it works: the everyday becomes the accepted norm, accommodated in the way we live; by making this allowance we reinforce the idea of acceptability and compound the sense of entitlement; that assumed prerogative is then exercised to an ever-increasing degree; and naturally we then find ourselves with even more of an everyday problem… To tackle street harassment, we have to break through the pernicious cycle. We have to abandon the mistaken idea that street harassment is nothing more than a minor inconvenience, or a compliment taken the wrong way.

– Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism, 169.

Without getting bogged down in philosophy, this passage made me think of the work of the philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre. For MacIntyre, contemporary liberal society is unable to deal seriously with shared ideas of the human good. Everyone is left to judge for themselves. I am sure that the philosophy of a Marxist Catholic, heavily engaged with Thomas Aquinas would meet much objection in the wider feminist community but surely to some extent what Bates is calling for looks like feminism as a counter-movement within broader society, a community in which certain deep human virtues are cultivated. MacIntyre says:

The best type of human life, that in which the tradition of the virtues is most adequately embodied, is lived by those engaged in constructing and sustaining forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved.

If #hashtagactivism is ever to amount to more than the exhibitionism of the right-on political pronouncements, it must cultivate forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved.

And of course, we cannot consider feminism without considering the role of capitalism. Actually, scratch that. I am sure you can consider feminism without considering capitalism. But it will be desperately thin and won’t account for reality. While Bates doesn’t launch any kind of systematic attack on the relationships implicit between the commodification of the feminine and the commodification of, well, everything else, she does have good leading words to start the conversation:

… the most flagrant example of this came in June 2012, when two editions of Now magazine hit newsstands at the same time. One was a regular issue, featuring a front-page image of model Abbey Clancy beside the melodramatic headline ‘Oh no! scary Skinnies’ and a caption that warned: ‘Girls starving to be like her’. Inside, an article claimed that Clancy had become so dangerously thin she was a role model for damaging pro-anorexia websites. The second issue, which appeared directly alongside it on the shelf at my local newsagent, was the Now Celebrity Diet Special. This too featured Clancy on the front cover, but beside the headline: ‘Bikini body secrets… The stars’ diet and fitness tricks REVEALED’. Yes. In the same week they claimed that emulating her look could make young women dangerously ill and used the promise of helping reader look like her to sell copies.

– Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism, 201.

The internal contradictions of capitalism laid bare as clearly as anything you’ll find in Marx. But the point here isn’t that it is important to be vigilant against the creeping corrosion of Mammon, or even that you should immediately send bundles of money to whatever young theologian you might know of who is studying that topic. The point is that this media massaging of lies is intended to generate profit for the men who own shares in the companies that advertise in these magazines and the companies that publish these magazines and the companies that distribute these magazines and the companies that stock and sell these magazines. Human immiseration for the sake of profit didn’t go away when we stopped sending children down mines. We send them to newsagents instead. Just as much profit gets made and now you don’t even have to spend money on feed for the canaries.

The final chapter is entitled “People Standing Up”. It is a fitting humanist response to the penultimate chapter which details how around the world and in your housing development, office building and church, women are under threat. Sexism is “an eminently solvable problem”. It involves nothing so dramatic or revolutionary as refusing to support those cultures that treat women as less than men. For Bates it will be achieved by objecting at work when maternity leave is conceived as a problem, among friends when gender essentialism is used to explain away injustice “because that’s just what men are like”, or on the street when we refuse to pretend to not notice when women are verbally harassed.

I am not as optimistic as Bates. Theologically, I suspect patriarchy is a symptom of a bigger problem that won’t fully go away until Kingdom come. That is no invitation to resignation however. In the here and now, we are compelled to struggle ceaselessly to make the world we live in more like the world we are called to live in. Christians should follow this movement. Christian preachers should read this book. Every woman I have talked to about this book has told me heartbreaking stories of everyday harassment.

It should end.

Your Correspondent, Subscribes to the idea that men are from Earth and women are from Earth.

Two Quote Review: Jack Glass by Adam Roberts

On top of being an Aberdeen graduate, Adam Roberts is one of the most consistently entertaining and thought provoking novelists around. If you only dare to dip your toe into the nerdorama that is sci-fi once (or speculative fiction as some like to call it), New Model Army would be an excellent place to start. It will get you thinking about networked technology, war, and most importantly, the early modern philosophy of Rabelais and the nation state.

In Jack Glass: The Story of a Murderer, Roberts tells three interlinked stories. There is a prison story, a murder mystery and a classic locked-room mystery. They all arc together. The stories are bloody and fascinating.

Here, explaining two of the characters, aristocratic heirs to great power, the narrator muses on what a dream is (Page 119):

As far as dreams were concerned – well dreams are generated by the random processes of neural oscillation during the brain’s rest phases. What dreams do is cycle and recycle images and feelings, rationalisations and fears. There’s nothing special about that. It’s not the dreams that matter (chaff, mental turbulence, the rotating metal bars moving endlessly through the transparent tub of metaphorical slushy). It is what the problem-solving circuits in the mind make of the dreams. Dreams iterate and test mental schemas, discarding the maladaptive to return the adaptive to the slush to be reworked. Dreams are emotional preparations for solving problems – that is why we have evolved them, because problem-solving abilities are highly adaptive and thus strongly evolutionarily selected. Dreams intoxicate the individual out of reliance on common sense and preconception, and tempt her into the orbit of private logic. Dreams have utility.

And then elsewhere there is a conversation about how people once upon a time (remember that the novel is set in the future) people “worshipped economics” (Page 62):

“… Because they believed that economics preserved the special place for humankind at the universe’s heart. We used to think the Earth was the centre of the cosmos, and that meant we were special, until science told us we’re marginal creatures. Then we thought the sun was centre, until science told us not even that was true. We used to think God made us in His image, and that meant we were special, until science told us we just evolved that way because it suited a landscape of trees and savannas. That’s what science does: it says, look again and you’ll see you’re not special. But economics? Economics is also a science. And what does it say? Ask my fathers, and they’d tell you. It says: there is energy, and there are raw materials, and that’s the cosmos. But without us the energy is random and the raw material is inert. It’s only labour that makes the cosmos alive. It’s only us that makes economics happen at all. And that makes us special.

Your Correspondent, Always in favour of the conceptual disorientation of the familiar

One Quote Review: The Son

The Son is a novel by Philipp Meyer which charts the generations of a family of Texan cattle barons. It is about the rise and fall of the American empire, the illusion of civilization, the legacy of family and maybe fate. It is a grand epic that gallops along and is worth your time.

A recurring theme in my conversation with my supervisor and my colleagues in Aberdeen has been the meaning of names. Yesterday, my dear office-mate preached a fantastic sermon in his church where he talked about the way that God’s naming of people is an expression of his gracious authority. My supervisor is working on a commentary on Genesis in which I think he might have very interesting things to say about what it means that Moses tells us that God brought the animals before Adam to be named.

And in The Son, we find this musing on the way that the Cherokee named their young and renamed them.

A child was not named by his parents, but by a relative or a famous person in the tribe; maybe for a deed that person had done, maybe for an object that struck their fancy. If a particular name was not serving well, the child might be renamed; for instance, Charges the Enemy had been a small and timid child and it was thought that giving him a braver name might cure these problems, which it had. Some people in the tribe were renamed a second or third time in adult life, if their friends and family found something more interesting to call them. The owner of the German captive Yellow Hair, whose birth name was Six Deer, was renamed Lazy Feet as a teenager, which stuck to him the rest of his life. Toshaway’s son Fat Wolf was so named because his namer had seen a very fat wolf the previous night, and being an interesting sight and not a bad name it had stuck. Toshaway’s name meant Bright Button, which had also stuck with him since birth, but that seemed a strange thing to call him so I thought of him as Toshaway. Spanish-sounding names were also common, though they often had no particular meaning—Pizon, Escuté, Concho—there was a warrior named Hisoo-ancho who had been captured at the age of seven or eight, whose Christian name was Jesus Sanchez, and, as that was all he would answer to, that was what he was called.

Your Correspondent, Has got a cave full of bats in his skull

Long One Quote Review: Living Dolls by Natasha Walter

I spent an afternoon this week helping the wife of a classmate get set up ahead of their move into their new Aberdonian home. I was her chauffeur as she bounced around the city doing essential errands. To pass my time and to assure her that she wasn’t to feel rushed, I thought I’d bring along one of the books I was reading.

I chose to bring my Kindle because the books I was actively reading had the kind of front covers that don’t scream “Normal man sitting outside an upholstery shop” but “Uh… I think I’ll walk the long way around to avoid that man reading from what appears to either be a lurid piece of trashy erotica or an insane Catholic apocalyptic conspiracy text.”

Before I left the house, I had visions of the time I waited in the car park outside a post office while Wife-unit sent some care package somewhere. We had been re-listening to the utterly hilarious Stephen Colbert masterpiece “I Am America. And So Can You!” I found myself buckled over in the driver’s seat in a state of uncontrollable mirth as Colbert unfurled his insane satire of anti-gay marriage advocates. What I had not realised was that the windows were wide open on a hot summer day. Hence, the angry looks of dismay I received from one mother as she simultaneously looked back in scorn at me while protectively ferrying her children as far from my car as possible. Who could blame her? She had just heard Colbert’s preposterously pitch-perfect voice intone:

The biggest threat facing America today – next to socialized medicine, the Dyson vacuum cleaner, and the recumbent bicycle – is Gay Marriage.

So to avoid being the subject of car park suspicion, I left these two behind.

Book covers

As it turns out, the top book is about architecture, war and cultural memory and it was given to me by my best friend. The bottom book is about the objectification of women and it was lent to me by my wife.

I finished Living Dolls this morning and it is superb. It probably says something about the undeveloped and shallow nature of my feminism that I much prefer these journalistic accounts of the situation as it stands in society rather than intellectually creative theory.

The book has two parts. The first half of the book details what the author, Natasha Walter, describes as “The New Sexism”. This is a re-treading of a story that Christians are very familiar with. There has been a coarsening of our culture around sex, lust and embodiment that is detrimental to the opportunities afforded to women. This part of the book could be read as a companion piece to Ariel Levy’s compelling Female Chauvinist Pigs. Walter begins with the apparently superficial observation that a grand marketing push is behind the pinkization of the world in which young girls grow up. But she then considers how the roseate effect has an unhappy influence on adolescent and young adult women. In the 1970s Barbie was commonly marketed as a lab-based scientist or an astronaut or an anthropologist in the field. Today, Barbie, like the Bratz, is exclusively a pretty thing who owns high fashion, customised pets and convertibles.

So in this section Walter considers the remarkably narrow beauty obsession, the normalisation of sex work, the prevalence of emotionally denuded attitudes to sex and most convincingly, the corrosive effects of internet pornography to argue that women coming of age today are in many ways less free than their counterparts a generation ago.

One of the great things about this section is how open it is to voices different from her own. She welcomes the input of the fairly conservative Romance Academy while also constantly reminding the reader that there is some merit to the argument that sex work can be an act of emancipatory empowerment for some women. This is not at anti-pleasure shadow of second-wave feminism.

What also struck me is just how dangerous the world is for women who enter into the sex trade. Regardless of why they get involved, they are about six times more likely to be subject to violence than women in wider society. The preacher in me was hungry for a chance to read 1 Peter and preach to congregations about how this is a Gospel issue Christians must continue to work on. It is easy for us to get agitated about the plight of women who have been trafficked. Of course, that work is important and needs to be supported. But the ongoing extension of grace and comfort to the more “ordinary” women in this line of work is essential.

She concludes this section by arguing that the feminist movement has been epistemologically hijacked by the ideas of the marketplace. In less fancy terms, she thinks that women find it hard to act in a feminist fashion because they think almost exclusively in terms of capitalism. The truth of this is seen in how every action can be justified by the declaration “that is my choice” or “that is just her choice.” The Market trains us to see us as consumers building our own life story through the selection of this option over that option. Of course, this is sociological fantasy. No man is an island and no woman is left unaffected when women forego any concept of solidarity and see themselves as uninfluenced and uninfluencable agents finding their self actualisation, whether that is through glamour modelling, pole dancing or just extreme pursuits of socially constructed concepts of beauty.

Having built a case layer upon layer from the experience of a pink girls section and a blue boys section in a toyshop, in the second part of the book Walter further extends her argument about the dollification of society’s perspective of women by turning her attention to what she calls “The New Determinism”.

In the first section we are necessarily dealing with a sort of impressionistic discussion of a broad interpretation of societal trends. One could quibble and fight with any single point. But in this second section her targets are focused on a social movement of scientists with a particular narratival agenda. She name calls Steven Pinker and Susan Pinker, Simon Baron-Cohen and Helena Cronin as researchers who are pushing a particular story of what it means to be human whereby our nature is determined by our genes. Aided and abetted by a media only too happy to find “scientific proof” that will resolve the complex travesty of gender imbalance, these voices have created a widespread social sense that girls will be girls and boys will be boys. It’s just science.

But whether the half remembered research you draw on to come to these conclusions is neuroscientific experiments with infants or hormonal analysis of testosterone in the womb or the spectacularly stupid arguments about differing size of the corpus callosum, all of these arguments are stretched or outright bogus. In debunking this scientrific determinism, Walter doesn’t seek to propose a competing hypothesis. She is not a scientist. She just read the papers she found in the footnotes. In many cases, the claims were inflated interpolations that bordered on the fraudulent.

Now a digression might be apposite here. Steven Pinker and Helena Cronin are at the forefront of the new Atheism movement. They have a very strongly held philosophical position that sees natural selection as the key that unlocks all that we do not yet know. As their friend Daniel Dennett puts it, natural selection is, for them, a “universal solvent”. They take this agenda to their research. We all take our agenda to our research. But that agenda is never brought back into play when the research is presented and a media that seeks to perpetuate a certain idea of progress through science doesn’t have the time or nuance to bring it up either.

The reason this matters is because at base, the problem isn’t shoddy science. The problem is that this new determinism is, at base, anti-human. It is fatalism. It is dismissive of the role of human society and culture, the potential for change and transformation. It betrays a hallmark of heresy – it repudiates its own dogma. Natural selection is about the potential of all organisms to adapt. When misapplied in territory where it has no purchase, its effect is to deny the potential of humans to adapt.

Here is Walter, making her point:

In the eyes of those who subscribe to biological determinism, there is a good fit between the world as it is today and the innate aptitudes of men and women. There is no dissatisfaction, there is no frustration, there is no misfiring between our desires and our situations. Every aspect of inequality that we see today can be explained by the different genetic and hormonal make-up of men and women; if women earn less, if men have more power, if women do more domestic work, if men have more status, then this is simply the way that things are meant to be.

– Natasha Walter, Living Dolls, 209.

This is the best kind of feminism in that it is humanism. Walter has not just struck a blow for women but in so doing she has liberated men. The bullshit of determinism doesn’t just truncate who women can be. It offers non stop crap about men lacking empathy and being less verbal, it subjugates boys under ideas of masculinity that have no bearing on the full diversity of expression available to human beings. Autism is not extreme maleness. The princess is not the innate ambition of women.

But at the same time, Walter does not for a moment deny the biological grounding of gender. Her position is not “socially constructed”. Her position is not “biologically determined”. Her position is not even “nature AND nurture”. These are all models that are insufficiently adaptable to account for human beings. Instead, her intention is to encourage us to cultivate in our society the opportunity for full human flourishing. As she ends the book:

Because the dream that feminists first spoke about over two hundred years ago is still urging us on, the dream that one day women and men will be able to work and love side by side, freely, without the constraints of restrictive traditions. This dream tells us that rather than modelling themselves on the plastic charm of a pink and smiling doll, women can aim to realise their full human potential.

– Walter, 238.

That vision must still excite us and command our attention.

Your Correspondent, Just a puppet, like Roland Rat or the Queen

Book Review: Mornings in Jenin

On the evening of September 12th 2001, I sat in my living room watching, like the rest of the world, the footage that would come to define the geopolitics of my adulthood. I said something too casual and too careless, like, “What can they expect, when they stride around the world pretending to be masters of the universe?”

My mother, sitting in the chair by the door to the kitchen, where she always sits, responded instantly and with unusual insistence, “I cannot understand this viewpoint I keep hearing! What has happened in America is criminal and nothing else. It is savagery! Nothing can justify it. No one deserves it.”

Through my life, reprimands from my mother have been rare and so they weigh heavy. But on that evening, the broad humanism and refusal to trade in the logic of violence that she role-modelled had a lasting impact.

After helping my wife and I move to Scotland, my mom and dad headed off on a short excursion through the Highlands, a long way round back to the ferry home. My mom left a novel for me to read. She had gotten it because it was a book-club choice. Mornings in Jenin is not a book I would buy. Sure, no one judges a book by its cover but this cover needs to be judged, a photoshopped monstrosity of a vaguely Arab little girl peeking out behind a worn-wooden door.

But I practically read it in one sitting. It made me cry constantly. Like every book that makes me cry constantly, I suspect it of not being very good. I think that if I re-read it, I will see through its manipulation. That is of course, a helpful suspicion to harbour because it closes off the possibility of me re-reading it and it affecting me just as hard a second time.

It is written by a Palestinian American, Susan Abulhawa and it tells the purely fictional tale of a family of Palestinian olive farmers who are first dispossessed in 1948 by Jewish settlers, then devastated in the 1967 war and then slowly tortured by the destiny of being refugees without protection or hope over decades in Jenin. The fiction is realistic however. And it’s great success is in rooting out the stereotypes about “terrorists” by unfolding the commitments and losses and loves and longings that lead a person to raise up arms against his oppressor.

As the chapters passed, I did find myself falling into that dreadful bogeyman of the half-educated and wanting to hear “the other side” as well. It might just speak to prejudices unearthed in me, but I suspect this is more as a result of the pervasive and generations-long attempt in my native culture to cast Islam and Muslims as outside the pale of civilization. The Jews of Israel are practically Europeans. The Muslims of Palestine are not. The Christians of Palestine are forgotten, most especially by their brothers and sisters in Christ.

I call it a dreadful bogeyman because there is no “other side” to the story. There is no plot being unfolded with purpose and narrative when peoples harbour age-old resentments and injustices and express them in violence so ungodly that with each passing page I wanted to close the book and turn to prayer. Humans are story-telling animals but some of the stories we tell are misguided, ungrounded and dangerous. You will likely gladly agree that the story about the Promised Land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob taking the form of the secular state of Israel is one such story. You likely also agree, in the staunchest terms, that the story about Arabs needing to extinguish the Jewish race from the entire region also fits this bill. These are misguided, ungrounded and dangerous stories. But other people tell them, not us.

Yet the story that there are always two sides to any conflict and that reason and analysis can resolve such disputes is one of the misguided, ungrounded and dangerous stories we tell ourselves. It is one of the most long-lasting of our “Enlightenment” fables. We imagine that there is a logic to violence that we can make sense of. Al Quaeda tries to destroy Manhattan because America has bases all over the Middle East. America has bases all over the Middle East because the Soviet Union lay threateningly to the north. The Soviet Union needed to stand belligerently to the West because of how the White Armies invaded immediately after their glorious revolution. And on and and on and on back to Cain and Abel. The human biographies that create the contexts for ongoing violence are obscured by such abstract conceptions of history, the myth of Force A exerting itself on Force B who exerts and equal yet opposite force in return. There are not two sides to any conflict. There are as many sides as there are people involved and if you are old-fashioned like me and belive in human subjectivity and God’s sovereignty, then there is one more side too, the truth.

Mornings in Jenin might be propaganda, and it might be sentimental manipulation, and it might be guilty of a whole host of accusations critics can throw at it. But it weaves a human narrative around the inhuman violence of the Shabila massacre. That is a notable thing. It sets the history of a conflict not in objective terms but as a story about a family trying to do basic human things like raise babies, pass on wisdom and keep their word. It refuses to say the conflict is about “land” or “politics” or even “religion” since none of those things actually exist. The rose garden on the hill above Ein Hod exists. When we call that “land” we are telling a story as fictional as this novel, but more dangerous because we don’t notice the invention.

That September evening back in 2001, as we consumed unholy images that corrupted us by exhilarating us, my mom was on to something. If only Dubya had dropped in for a cup of tea. There is no logic to murder. It is the least logical thing in the world. The demonic (and I mean that most fully, literally, figuratively, all the meanings that the word holds) force of violence traps us by convincing us that our freedom is a prison. God knows the way to respond to murder and torture and military power is with empathy, prayer and a renewed hunger for peace. There is freedom in that response, that we forsake when we imagine that now They have done This to Us, the only option left is for Us to do This to Them.

Mornings in Jenin gave me a fresh insight into the prolonged injustices that the Palestinians endure. Mornings in Jenin made me fear for the future of Israel because it has stored up a hurricane of anger against it that if released, no nation could endure. Mornings in Jenin made me suspect that when the Torah speaks of sin casting a shadow over generations, it is a more realistic account of life in this world than the destructive stories of national self-interest and geopolitical ideology with which we choose to furnish our minds. I suppose when a book makes one think in so many directions and prompts one to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, the only thing you can say of it is that it is a good book.

Your Correspondent, Wonders why hedgehogs can’t just share the shrubbery.

One Quote Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

First: the sheer scope of this book, in hardback, makes an eloquent appeal for that blasted Kindle-like technology. If someone could produce one with firmware, software and a licensing approach that actually allowed people to confidently develop their libraries, it would be wonderful. This is a big, bulky book with evidence of rushed copy-editing all over the place. It is a book for bedtime reading and its actual presence as a thing mitigates against reading in that context. An ebook I could trust would be a vast improvement.

Even if the book is uncomfortable as an artefact, it reads comfortably. It starts slow and climbs sluggishly over the sense that there is not a single sympathetic character on display. But once it gets over that hill, the story gains traction and it becomes compulsive.

Saying that a book is a great story is not a backhanded compliment. This is intricately worked out. For sure, the characters are sometimes pawns to move the plot around. Worse again, they are pawns shaped to reflect social issues but underneath all the layers of shared human meaning that makes a thing like a novel possible, fundamentally we want to hear stories. The woman who made wizards interesting again makes parish politics interesting. And as social issues go, at least she seems to be suggesting that people should be more careful and patient.

There are some lovely paragraphs that stand out. This one seemed to describe the stretched but rapid hours after death quite brilliantly:

Two mornings after her husband’s death, Mary Fairbrother woke at five o’clock. She had slept in the marital bed with her twelve-year-old, Declan, who had crawled in, sobbing, shortly after midnight. He was sound asleep now, so Mary crept out of the room and went down into the kitchen to cry more freely. Every hour that passed added to her grief, because it bore her further away from the living man, and because it was a tiny foretaste of the eternity she would have to spend without him. Again and again she found herself forgetting, for the space of a heartbeat, that he was gone for ever and that she could not turn to him for comfort.

J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy, p. 63

Your Correspondent, Democracy is fantastic but it is also dull.

One Quote Review: Destination Dissertation by Sonja K. Foss and William Waters

I am reading these books about how best to approach doctoral research and I am finding them all to be both boring and likeable. Just like me!

In Destination Dissertation, the project is compared to a long exotic holiday that requires proper preparation, is sometimes trying and must be merely endured but is ultimately rewarding and enriching. I like how they quoted Scot McKnight. I did not like how they confidently break it all down into 29 steps that can be achieved in just twenty minutes a day with just a slim-fast shake and 10 push-ups, or some such goal-orientated bahooey!

In one of their closing sections, the authors suggest that you should spew out what you have to write in one, big, unformated gush of words. They even suggest turning off your monitor and just typing blind. That may be a bit extreme for me but it reminded me that there is no shame in producing dreadful first drafts of things, which is something I commonly do. It’s a nice analogy and I hope it helps you kill a bit of that perfectionist streak that might be holding you back:

Editing as you write is not unlike moving into a new house or apartment and trying to arrange the furniture by focusing on one or two pieces. It’s like moving a single table and a lamp here and there until you get it in just the right place. The problem is that you’ve ignored the couch and the chair and the coffee table that may need to go in the exact place you positioned the table and the lamp. The perfect place is no longer so perfect when the other pieces of furniture fill the room, and you probably won’t be able to keep the perfect placement of the table and lamp. Imagine instead placing all the furniture in a rough, workable arrangement and then making smaller and smaller adjustments until the room is perfect. When you work from that rough arrangement, all of your adjustments take into account the whole, and there aren’t any major surprises or changes along the way. Fast writing, then, gives you the arrangement of the whole room before you begin to make smaller adjustments.

Destination Dissertation, Sonja K. Foss and William Waters, p. 266.

Your Correspondent, He scientifically proved that oceans are God’s tears.