Starting my new job a week or so after I finished my PhD is not a wise move, but it does have the benefit of extending my intense, concentrated stance of concentration into the new role. In any creative work – and theology is most certainly a creative art – concentration is the game. Jurassic 5 said it best:
But that kind of focus, that has me reading documents and reports and books and compressing them into A4 pages and then editing those pieces of paper to strip them down so that people who are very rushed and not very interested can follow them is not the kind of concentration involved in prayer.
But where Jurassic 5 are silent, the greatest writer working in Ireland, Aidan Mathews, has spoken. He has prepared six truly luminous Lenten reflections and the second one, which I read this morning, demands distribution.
I simply cannot concentrate. But perhaps complex inattention is more fruitful (although I should not be thinking in productive terms) than a rudimentary focus. It is hard to consider infinity when we experience the good Creation only in the act of detail. In any event, private prayer is impossible at church services, mostly Masses, because I am so interested in the biodiversity of the congregation around me, and my weekday attempts at expectant vacancy, the honours course in prayer when you’ve exhausted rote petitionary phrases, philander very promptly. God dammit, it is my nature.
An example: I am contemplating a Crucifixion. At any rate, I am looking at a picture of it; and the picture I have in mind is by Salvador Dali, who also, as it happens, had portrayed the Blessed Virgin Mary spanking Jesus in another, earlier and more picaresque canvas. (That kind of mischief, like the Catalan cagon in the crib, is very Spanish, and escapes Northerners, even Catholic ones.) His John of the Cross crucifixion, on the other hand, is superbly sombre and longitudinal, seen from above and overhead, effaced entirely, from the hovering perspective of a very absent Holy Spirit; and I want to pray about it, not in a predatory but in a porous manner, in the hope of what I felt for twenty seconds thirty-five years ago when I followed a tour guide’s umbrella to Mantegna’s Lamentation, which exhibits the same cadaver feet-first, angled obliquely, on a damp mortuary slab, wholly defunct.
But I cannot help remembering that Dali’s model for the dead Christ was a famous Hollywood stuntman called Russell Saunders (but not the Russell-Saunders of the coupling scheme in quantum electrons, he was different); and that the stuntman Saunders, he of Shane and Singing in the Rain, was married at some stage, perhaps permanently, to no less a person than Paula Boelsoms, a studio trainer who had actually taught two African elephants to water-ski for the purposes of a big-budget period rom-com, although, admittedly, the skis were outsize. And then I think of Cicero, writing in a letter to Atticus, was it, a generation before Jesus, about the slaughter of the elephants at the Roman games, and how their death-cries were so human and high-frequency that the amphitheatre’s terraces shushed and the crowd stopped cheering for a while.
I simply cannot concentrate. I haven’t a prayer.
Take and read, for the things he writes will be better for you than any quinoa salad.
Your Correspondent, Perpetually late, even for coffee
It was a horrendous anti-climax in the end. The University of Aberdeen are busy turning much of the work of the university into the work of an educational retailer, replacing “students” with “consumers”. But they really need to improve the process by which a student completes a 41 month, 109,000 word, 345 page research project. The administrator to whom I entrusted my tome did not even have the presence of mind to say “Congratulations”.
Still, let me not complain too much. I finally got the damn thing done and some people think it is pretty good. Not me. By the end of it, I hated every single paragraph and thought all the arguments barely deserved that descriptor. I sealed my copy in a box which I won’t open again until April and hopefully by then, I won’t think it a mammoth chain of bald assertions strung together with some punchlines and the occasionally illuminating footnote.
Wife-unit and I were fans of Maria Bamford’s stand-up and were delighted she got her own tv show but this is amazingly better than our high expectations. It folds in on itself and then disappears into absurdity, but never fails to do the fundamental thing that a comedy is meant to do: make you laugh.
3. I went to a table quiz.
Americans call them pub quizzes. And this table quiz was in a pub, the undergraduate pub just down the road from my office. On a Sunday evening, it was full of 19 year-olds trying to flirt while answering trivia questions. And us. Our team consisted of 2 phd students, one college lecturer, a nurse and a prison chaplain. Our average age was probably twice that of the 19 year-olds. But worst of all, our team name was The Eventual Winners. Having been in the running through all seven rounds, it wasn’t until the very last gasp that we took our rightful place at the top of the tree.
We tried to be classy and mature about our triumph, but we may have failed.
4. I saw a baby get water poured on him.
On my last Sunday in my church, my friends brought their son for baptism. He was calm as could be as he was marked into the covenant, the whole church gathered around him as his priest said ancient words over him, poured clean, cold water over his head, and told us all what we already knew but could never grow tired of hearing: that he was a gift from God.
After the service, we ate cake and drank tea and his father said some wonderful things to help make sense of why we do something as absurd as baptise babies and his godmother read a poem set to music and I was sad that it was my last Sunday in that place.
I got a photo of my favourite icon in all the world, which has never failed to make me smile as I walk to the communion rail. It reminds me in a visceral way that Jesus is my friend.
Props to my friend C, a 12 year-old in the congregation who held the artwork up for me to capture it.
Your Correspondent, Born in a diner, lived in a drive-in, died in a dive
In part inspired by my friend’s lovely old-fashioned habit of blogging and in part recognising that I am about to enter a new stage in my life, I have decided to keep a little monthly record of the things I am seeing and doing and eating and watching and listening to and playing.
1. At least I’m not tempted to waste time in the sunshine.
I am readying my thesis for submission. Sometime in the next few weeks I will pay a stupid amount of money to get my 300 or so pages hard-bound in two books, one that will get sent out a theologian in Chicago and another to a theologian in the Old Brewery on campus. Then in the middle of May, the three of us will gather and they will grill me like the Romans grilled St. Lawrence and if all goes well, they’ll send me away with a few changes to make before declaring me a doctor.
But while that happy day is coming into view on the horizon, it is still damn hard right now. Aberdeen is never really beautiful, but it is especially unappealing in January.
2. It will win Oscars for good reason.
One of the reasons life is hard is that the country where many of my friends are from is slowly descending into a horrible kleptocracy. Every morning I wake to find new Wotsit Hitler abominations and I do worry sometimes about how bad things might get if there is a terror attack that gives him a licence to act freely.
In that charged context, I am finding lots of pushback against La La Land because it is sentimental and nostalgic and flighty and insufferably white. It may be all those things and all those things might be insufferable in their own way, but watching movies in that register always leaves me cold. It feels like the fundamental task of telling a story visually falls aside in such analysis. And on that level, La La Land is remarkable. It is marred, perhaps, by revealing the truly astonishing shots in the trailer. But the songs are superb and the performances are charismatic and the final scene is the reason it deserves the accolades it will surely receive. Call me a Presbyterian, but an infinity of possible universes are sparked with every passing second of time. There is, however, a harmony and a melody and a tune that weaves the universes that go beyond possible into a song that one day we all will sing.
Maybe I was reading too much into it, but damnit, look where I live! I needed the colour!
3. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Country music gets a lot of hate. I hated it for most of my life but Gillian Welch converted me to its virtues and it is one of those musical genres that seems to constantly churn up wonderful new acts. A few years ago I found Sturgill Simpson off the back of a friend’s recommendation but somehow I missed his new album last year. It is so good that it is interrupting my usual January habit of listening exclusively to my friends’ Best Ofs from the previous year. This cover of Nirvana is not the best song on the album, but it might be a good one for convincing those suspicious of country music. If nothing else, it reminds you of how beautiful Nirvana songs were:
4. Hand-held relief
I have an ongoing shoulder injury that is making life hard. They should warn you that the life of academic research is a life beset by chronic back and neck problems. I hadn’t realised how dangerous my job was, but it seems everyone has some horror story of vicious pain! For the last three months I have been very careful with my computer usage as I slowly undo decades of bad habits and tend to years of slowly worsening strain. I’ve found, for the first time, the joy of simple computer games on your phone. Now that Twitter is just a nightmare machine, this is doubly comforting. If you are a fan of games that use your brain, but in a way that is entirely non-taxing, then I can recommend Antiyoy wholeheartedly. It’s a nifty little turn-based game like Civilization, but radically streamlined.
Alright, that’s it. I’m off to bed with some chamomile tea and dreams of a completed thesis.
Your Correspondent, The whole point of his Doomsday Machine is lost, if he had kept it a secret!
Inspired by Declan Kelly’s hilarious run-down of the films he saw in the year (here, here, and here), I thought I would try to do the same.
But I didn’t have the energy.
2016 did that to a lot of people, I think.
It was a year too full of things, from my perspective. I don’t just mean the tragedies of Brexit and Trump and Harambe, but I did a lot of work.
I also cycled around a Scottish island drinking whisky with my best friends, so I can’t complain too much.
And I spent the peak of the summer learning French and writing about Karl Barth in the library of the Institut Catholique, so on reflection, that was good.
I spoke at a few places. The faculty in Aberdeen invited me to respond to Kathryn Tanner when she came to talk about God and money and economy for the Gifford Lectures. I went home to Dublin and gave a paper which summarised my thesis and an old lady I am almost sure wasn’t an actor paid by my parents to boost my self esteem practically embraced me at the end in gratitude. Best of all, I delivered a paper at a big congress in York where I fulfilled a life ambition and embedded Football Manager in the heart of a theological argument. That was a creative landmark.
Friends had babies and friends got doctorates. I drove the babies home from the hospital or visited them hours after they were born, and I took my newly in-doctor-nated friends out to the pub right after vivas. Here’s Dr. Taido Chino, looking relieved:
I went glamping and I went to Manchester and I went home to Dublin for various family parties which were full of joy and relief and contentment. Scotland looks good when you go glamping on the north coast with your friends:
Wife-unit took me to see actual real, live pandas, which was fitting because it was a few weeks after they were officially declared no longer desperately endangered. Three cheers for China, lads, for providing one of the few unalloyed good news stories of the year.
But when I look back on the last year, I will remember very hard times. There were deep sadnesses and fundamental worries that made all the tabloid noise fade away into the background. I am glad to see the back of the year. The consolation is that the work and the toil has some tangible outcome. I have a draft of my thesis and coming to a store near you soon is my first book, which in an act of absurd good fortune, I got to put together with my theological heroes and teachers.
I read a lot more than any year of my life but most of it was the Church Dogmatics, so telling you to pay particular attention to §64 is unlikely to help you as you think about what to check out in 2017. I was so busy reading and writing that I paid very little attention to the movies, tv shows and books I read for fun. So this is all very vague.
Like my thesis.
Books of the Year
Obviously I read some magnificent theology this year. I would like to highlight the as-yet under-recognised Plundering Egypt by Gregory Wagenfuhr. It is the sort of theology that I love the best; it actually believes that God might be real and that could have some significance for our lives. It is sprawling in its conceptual ambition, even if it comes in under 200 pages. There are lots of precise, carefully calibrated scholarly tomes and the other blogs will cite them. But this book will annoy you in its insistence that there are values Christians should prize above the ones we currently do.
In terms of non-academic Christian writing, I am obviously biased and want you all to read my friend D.L. Mayfield’s book, which should win prizes both for best cover and for oddest missionary memoir. I review it here.
The best novel I read was Anatomy of a Solider. It is a searing examination of how war turns human beings into instruments of death. Novels are rarely so elegant, especially novels about such a sinewy topic.
In terms of non-fiction, I loved The Goddess Pose, because I really got into pilates this year and the history of yoga’s popularity in the West was entirely news to me.
The second series of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt disappointed me and the Simpsons continues to be awful and people are always on about this televisual revolution but it is so often grim-by-numbers that I struggle to care too much about the latest Scandinavian hard-bitten detective drama or the just-now-streaming French/Vietnamese family drama that you are all immersed in. I loved Stranger Things as much as the rest of you and I was delighted by Ireland and Northern Ireland’s performances at Euro 2016.
But there were two things that happened on television that stick in my mind. Remember though, I am exhausted and I can’t recall if I had breakfast this morning. They are Fleabag and Horace and Pete. Fleabag is amazing. You must watch it this instant. It is 6 hard episodes that are funny and very sad and at times shocking. Being a human is hard and being a young female human is among the hardest ways to be human and this show is about that and a whole lot more.
Horace and Pete is slow. It is paced like a theatre show and shot like one too. It exhibits all the humanism that you have come to expect from Louis C.K., but it is embedded among performances from Alan Alda and Steve Buscemi, Eddie Falco, Jessica Lange and even Paul Simon that make the show compelling. And the ending. That ending. It still gets me.
Hail Caesar was funny Coen Brothers being funny, which is always welcome. Midnight Special was special. The Nice Guys was entertaining and Sing Street was charming and 10 Cloverfield Lane was exhilirating and Don’t Breathe was terrifying and relentless. Train to Busan was fecking brilliant.
But the best films I saw this year were Room, Spotlight, and Arrival. Brie Larson’s performance in Room is unparalleled. Apart from her performance in Short Term 12 of course. She is an astonishing actress and the adaptation of what was a superb, compact novel is an example of where the film improves on the book. It is as dark as the novel and yet, it is not a depressing film.
Spotlight is a paint-by-numbers re-telling of a newspaper following a lead with courage and patience. But it is a story that everyone needs to reflect on. And in many ways, it takes more skill to tell the story straight in this fashion.
Arrival is a marvel. It could be read as more pro-life than Juno and more Presbyterian than any film ever made but I suspect those who made it did not mean for it to be read that way. The story is so full that it can give rise to so many readings. I have met people who felt it was simplistic and over-drawn but I was captivated from the first scene to the last. Don’t let my fanciful interpretations put you off.
Things that go in your ears
I live in a cultural wasteland so the only live music I saw was Ben Folds with an orchestra, which was good. It was better than the album by Ben Folds with that orchestra. But music was mere sonic background for writing for much of this year, which meant a lot of Girl Talk, my music of choice when I have writer’s block. I loved very little this year, deep down in my heart. I was disappointed by A Tribe Called Quest and The Avett Brothers and surprised by Paul Simon. Mitski’s two albums became ear-worms for me, Radiohead was great and Sandra McCracken’s adaptations of the Psalms was constantly in my ears as I walked around Paris. My favourite song remains Kate Tempest’s War Song:
Podcast-wise, I think the Guardian Football Podcast is smart and funny and consistently brilliant, if you like soccer, that is. Otherwise it would be very boring. Adam Buxton is reliably charming and never boring. Finally, the Irish Jesuits have a brilliant little podcast, if you like that sort of thing.
Which you should.
After the fact edit: Best scene of the year
During half-time of the awful Man City -v- Liverpool game, I remembered I wanted to tell you about the single best scene I saw this year. If it could compete against best song or best chapter without it being a case of apples against oranges, I would set that fight up. It was powerful in a breath-stealing way. It is, of course, the already and rightfully legendary food-bank scene in I, Daniel Blake. It is a strange age we live in, where we have no words that seem to accurately capture the shift in the cultural values and the political vision we share. Maybe I’ll resume blogging more regularly in an effort to explain how the banal protestation of Christians in the public square over the last few decades was a major contributor to that collective impoverishment. But that is neither here, nor there. In an age when technology guarantees our harvests, in economies so wealthy they would make Midas gasp, people go hungry. They rely on charity to be able to consume enough calories to not expire. This is not reflected upon. Instead we are distracted by the threat of the ghoulish foreigner or the menace of the possible Fascist. We fight over a new fad issue each month, directed by the cover of National Geographic or the tweets of a pop-star to agitate for this irrelevancy or that one. But in our towns and cities people queue for food. Ken Loach didn’t merely shoot a fine scene, he captured an ethical reality more precisely than we have words to articulate. I sobbed and lamented and repented. In 2017, I hope I encounter more art like that and that I spend my time living in ways that make such art decreasingly relevant.
I have spent the last two months in various levels of discomfort due to a shoulder injury, which I fear will never get better. I miss home. The society I live in seems to be getting hard in a way that no one can stop. I worry about even worse things happening in 2017. But I have a big stash of purple snack bars, I should have my thesis submitted by St. Patrick’s Day and this time next year, I may live in Ireland again. There is reason to hope.
I wrote recently about living in France in the age of terror and yesterday I fled from the Louvre with a group of tourists and staff because a panic had erupted in the main lobby (under the pyramid). It was a false alarm, apparently caused by a faulty fire alarm and a dodgy escape door but for us who were quietly having a coffee and looking forward to another 4 hours wandering the rooms in awe, none of that was apparent in the moment. There was a kerfuffle slightly louder than what usually bubbles in any public space with thousands of people and lots of really bored kids. Then that kerfuffle grew in intensity. When I looked up from my book I saw people sprinting past the cafe, out towards the exits, while screaming. I looked the other way and saw the pupils dilate on the American couple who had been ahead of me in the queue, and decisively, the cold fear in the stiff postures of the staff manning the coffee bar. We all moved at the same time, calmly but decisively. I packed my phone away, utterly dominated by the idea that I needed to ring my wife when this was over so she wouldn’t worry. I hesitated and then packed my book as well, because it wasn’t my book. My supervisor had lent it to me and it was a signed copy and the last thing I needed on top of being killed by terrorists was to have lost someone’s book.
Anyway, there were no terrorists. There was much more confusion than the press reports present. The staff that we encountered did not know what was happening and were all scared shitless, to use a technical term. But what is true is that everyone I encountered was calm and decent and serious. Our little group of 6 picked up stragglers in the maze of huge corridors under the Louvre. People were apparently panicking up in the main museum but we were apart from that entirely, able to walk at a quick pace, but ensuring that no one was left behind. No one was crying. No one was having a heart attack. Maybe everyone suspected it was a false alarm because the adrenaline had been pumping for 60, 120, 240 seconds and still nothing bad had happened. We exited via a staff entrance. The army and the police hadn’t even arrived yet; we were that efficient in our escape. The waitresses were hanging around wondering if their jobs were under threat if it turned out to have been a hoax or a false alarm (the precarity of labour is, after all, the mundane terror that afflicts the European Union) and the Americans basically gave up and went back to their hotel and I was left with a woman from Central America who had told me along the corridor that she had heard alarms beeping erratically throughout the day but that when she saw the stampede it was such that she assumed something horrendous had happened. People reported on Twitter that they heard folk shouting “They’re shooting!” and I definitely interpreted the cacophonous cries as a response to human agency. Inside the Louvre, people were looking over their shoulders while sprinting, because they running from something. Out on the street, amidst the stylish people smoking cigarettes and beeping horns, it was growing clear that there as nothing to run from. Nothing horrendous had happened. Someone panicked, and some idiot probably thought it was funny to shout about terrorists and instead of his friends laughing, there was the cold sweat of hundreds of human beings erupted into evolutionary flight. The woman and I had an awkward moment where it would have been fitting to go for a drink or a coffee and talk about normal things until our heart-rates stabilised. But I was driven through the whole thing by the deep urge to tell my wife that everything was ok. So we shook hands and parted ways, beseeching the Lord to keep the other safe for the rest of their trip.
Existential fear was a surprise.
In the corridor, I stopped to introduce myself to the two people directly beside me; Sienna and Tom. I guess I figured that if the shit hit the fan, being able to call each other would help. But it was habit, kicking in. You introduce yourself to people. Even in the midst of the terror that this might be terror, basic, everyday normal human interactions go on.
I think that shouldn’t be a surprise.
The night before I had written a thing about plagiarism and then I went to sleep and I woke up because of the noise on my noisy street and I realised that the thing that I had written was actually an academic article without the footnotes. After the thesis is finished, I need to publish articles to keep the academic side of things alive, and so I had to take that thing about plagiarism down, ironically for fear of auto-plagiarism.
Auto-plagiarism. It’s a thing, allegedly.
Don’t fear terrorists, fear university administrators with Turnitin privileges.
Anyway, that is just to say that my decision to withdraw the piece had nothing to do with Mrs. Trump hilariously plagiarising Mrs. Obama. The embedding of the rickroll in the midst of it was a touch of genius.
This morning a bird pooed on me but it only hit my hand, so that was a small mercy. And this afternoon I mined out some thesis gold before having Korean food for the first time (in a restaurant at least, since a Korean friend in Aberdeen cooked dinner for me once but she included potatoes because she had heard that Irish people only eat spuds), in a lovely little local place with whimsical cartoons and toys on the wall. My classmate, from Seoul, had told me to order beef bibimbap if I ever went for Korean food and so I did. It was delicious. I was the only person in the restaurant and the old guy running the place advised me on how to eat all the different pieces he served me and sent me away with a Korean sweet (the only unappetising aspect of the meal). When I got home, there was new graffiti on the wall of my building that is utterly delightful.
It is no exaggeration to say that the world seems dark and it appears to be getting darker still. But that is not the end of the story. It was very, very hot yesterday morning in Paris. Or at least it felt that way to me; I have lived on the edge of the North Sea for three years now, after all. I was walking to school through the Luxembourg Gardens, taking a new route, as is my wont. I came in through an unfamiliar gate and stumbled into an area where they were growing these magnificent plants. Hoses arched over the green stalks and automatic sprinklers were arcing water into the air, about 7 feet high. Mini rainbows sprung up across my field of vision. The morning joggers made a beeline to run through the vapour falling from on high, as did I. My shirt was drenched in short order and it was more refreshing than watermelon in the afternoon. I was reminded of this from Gilead:
That mention of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago, as I was walking up to the church. There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl weeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash.
Ames goes on to add, “I wish I had paid more attention to it.”
When times are dark, that’s when you really have to pay attention. Let’s make sure we pay it for the things that matter.
Your Correspondent, He was right about the stars; each one is a setting sun
As many of you know, on Wednesday evening in Lille, a city in northern France, a Wicklow man known as Wessi placed the most delicious pass in the history of football on to the rushing head of St. Robert Brady. The redirected ball flew past the highly regarded Italian goalkeeper Sirigu and into the net. By the end of the game, the Italians had not been able to respond and the Boys in Green were victorious.
Following the maze-like logic of soccer competitions, as the worst of all the best of the losers, Ireland thus qualified for the next round of the European Championships. We play the hosts, France, on Sunday, with battle commencing at 2pm GMT.
That would have been around the time I had hoped to have y’all in stitches as I answered your probing and smart questions about my theology of wealth with aplomb. Instead, the wise people in the church that are hosting the event had decided to move the event forward to 12.15pm and that means if you want to come, you can both hear my half-baked ideas about praying as a form of revolution and watch footage of Roy Keane sitting angrily on the sidelines as Irish players act as if the ball is a time-bomb that they don’t want to touch.
I am keenly aware that the god known sometimes as Juno but in this case Britannia – the power of ethnic identity – has this morning gone into battle with the god known as Mammon. The newspapers call this reality #brexit. It will have dramatic short and long term ramifications for the economies of the island of Ireland. I hope you will join me in praying for Britain this morning. That nation has made a catastrophically dangerous decision and the pain will be felt most keenly by the young and the unemployed, the disabled and the alien. I never thought I would be sorry to see David Cameron go. The world is an odd and baffling place. But it seems to me that a deep theological interrogation of how wealth can blind us to the reality of things is as important as ever.
Come and help me find a way to have that conversation.
In Maynooth on Sunday June 26 at 1pm I will be doing something I’ve never done before: trying to explain the last three years of reading and thinking and writing in a way that doesn’t require footnotes.
Basically, I have been invited by the church I used to work for, the Presbyterian Church in Maynooth, to give an introduction to the theology of wealth. I will be road-testing a theory I have about how to explain my academic research in ways that are accessible and meaningful and helpful. Invariably, it will be a horrendous mess and the people who take the time to attend will remember it only for comedic value.
Without giving the game away, I think that the only hope that wealthy western Christians have is prayer.
I have not been around here very much but that is only because I have been furiously furrowing my brow in an effort to figure out how to talk about Jesus and parables, Mammon and Ireland, greed and grace, in a way that passes a PhD viva. I am making progress but it means I might not make anything for this place for a while. I am reminded of these wise words from Karl Barth:
Is it not, perhaps, a weakness of Protestantism that we speak too much, too quickly (without proper punctuation), and without due and proper reflection? Might not a reasonable asceticism in this regard be a valuable asset even in our Christians and theological circles? Is it not indispensable to a true speaking?
– (CD IV.2, 16)
So consider my absence an attempt to shut up long enough to maybe one day speak truly.
Your Correspondent, Gonna make like a tree, and get outta here.
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
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.