Five Good Things for the Fifth of October

In my effort to get back into a blogging groove, let me return to one of the most basic ways of using a website. Before we had Twitter, blogs rose to prominence primarily as a place where people curated links that were fascinating. So here are five worthy things I have seen online recently, that you may or may not have missed:

1.

      I have supported Manchester City since I was a little boy. Yesterday I saw perhaps the most remarkable performance of any City player ever when their star striker, Sergio Aguero, touched the ball nine times in twenty-two minutes, scoring five goals. It is tradition that when a player scores three, they get to keep the game ball. Here is “Kun’s” claim:

Kun on five

2.
Jason Goroncy on the calling that creates Protestantism; an excellent essay that audaciously positions Mary as the Biblical figure who represents Protestantism:

It is a community that, as another great Australian theologian put it, is ‘prepared to live without guarantees, without the guarantee of an infallible book, or infallible creeds, or an infallible church’ (Davis McCaughey). It is a community that continually risks the judgement of God’s Word, and that lives in such a way that it is entirely uninterested and uninvested in its own self-preservation. It is a community that lives faithfully with the receding horizon of postponed dreams and made free thereby to throw itself entirely into the embarrassing service of Jesus, and that not for God’s sake but solely for the sake of the world. It is a community, therefore, that is always learning how to fail, always rediscovering its uneven record. It is a community that risks even its life with God so that it might become contemporary with Christ.

3.
As someone who is studying the problem of wealth for Christians, I found this article by Mallory Ortberg where she replaces the word “tithe” in the Biblical text with “Ass, Grass, Or Cash – Nobody Rides For Free” absolutely brilliant. It’s actually not merely hilarious but wonderfully apt theology.

4.
A searingly vicious book review is among the hardest things to pull off. The great Terry Eagleton does just that in this hilarious, unflinching take-down of a recent biography of the British theocrat Elizabeth Windsor.

5.
Finally, wife-unit and I harvested some blackberries over the weekend and that reminded me of one of the great Séamus Heaney poems.

Your Correspondent, Lives perpetually in the site of his spiritual dispanting

How Do You Map Near Absolute Conformity On A Graph?

Who’s rearing your children? Do you know where they are? Are they worshipping Satan while playing Dungeons and Dragons? Are they learning magick on World of Warcraft? Is that them in the other room playing a game … of MONOPOLY where they are socialised into disregarding the fundamental cornerstone of Catholic Social Teaching – the universal destination of material goods – and instead learn to love the twisted and perverted pursuit of profit without any regard for other humans or the created environment?

THE WORLD IS FULL OF FEARFUL THINGS OF WHICH YOU SHOULD BE AFRAID!

Or at least that is what this article by Breda O’Brien, a woman with a lovely voice, has had published in the Irish Times this morning. The Irish Times is the newspaper of record in Ireland, not some kind of clickbait, publish-anything sort of internet endeavour. And yet here we are, gathered as a nation sitting over our Aldi-brand cornflakes of a Saturday morning, enduring sentences like this:

If you want to experience blistering hatred, try posting content on Tumblr as a white, male, straight, middle-class Christian.

As a white, male, straight, middle-class Christian, I can honestly say that in any given week I am the recipient of far more aggression on the streets of Aberdeen while driving my little Yaris than I have received in my entire life on the internet, which began in 1994.

I have dabbled in this “Tumblr” over which O’Brien wishes to start a moral panic. It is true that there is a vast amount of smut available on there. I’m not just talking about porn where people dress up as polar bears and pretend to be, I don’t know, politicians, or whatever. People on Tumblr seem to spend way too much time on animated gifs of Dr. Who and reposting trite lists that basically find innumerable ways to enumerate the importance of self-esteem and other vague ideas.

For O’Brien, the “biggest worry is not that young people are more narcissistic, but that social media functions as a giant mechanism for conformity.” Yet for me, Tumblr has been a place where I found a surprisingly vibrant little culture of very thoughtful Christians sharing a rich variety of interesting things. Like out in the bricks-and-mortar world, there is conformity and strange cul-de-sacs of culture and there is also diversity and disagreement and complicated overlaps.

O’Brien writes of the alleged liberal consensus on Tumblr:

“If you spend enough time on Tumblr or other such sites, you may begin to believe that this is only way to think, unless you have very strong, real-world social networks to act as a corrective.”

There is so much wrong with this sentence taken on its own. When you factor in that O’Brien is writing as some sort of Christian ethicist (!), it is catastrophic thinking. To begin with, the corrective to thinking there is only one way to think is… to think. Strong real-world social networks are wonderful, but they are barely even necessary for the low bar of ethical empathy that O’Brien is calling for. The internet is the real world for one. It doesn’t reside in clouds, but in actual hard-drives sitting in actual servers in actual buildings. The task of delineating what a social network is has been made more complex since the world-wide web, but Christian ethicists are meant to have some what of a head-start on that conversation since their entire activity takes place within and is directed towards the social network called church.

But let me not wander off on some Hauerwasian adventure. Instead, let me keep talking about a trivial social media network operated by the Yahoo corporation, which is listed on the NASDAQ and is in the business of returning profit to shareholders, not advocating for some kind of cultural revolution. If there is money in maintaining a platform that exchanges Anchorman memes, Tumblr will keep doing it. If it suddenly became lucrative to exchange Patristic poetry, then Tumblr would start doing that.

O’Brien argues that “These young people have been socialised to believe there are some opinions that are so shocking they should not be heard at all.” Are we still talking about Tumblr, where pro-ana sites are commonplace, porn is traded freely and I presume racist bile is spouted without censure? Does this pass for informed Christian comment? Why am I not a columnist for the Irish Times? I’ll tell people how brilliant things can be found on Tumblr, which is surely a better theological beginning than strange warnings about being “cool with the internet raising your kids.”

For example:

Terrible Real Estate Agent Photos reminds you how dangerous it is to leave your child unattended with Monopoly, lest they become a real life profit-seeking landlord in adulthood.

Even worse, they could become very bad architects and design houses in Belgium or get addicted to 20th Century ideologies and re-start a Brutalist phase.

While Breda might be slow to admit it, the old-skool print and telly media do a hell of a lot of damage to the socialisation of our young ‘uns. If we aren’t careful, our kids might end up being so astute with photoshop and so deft at media studies that they produce something like an entire gossip page dedicated to superheroes.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows hasn’t been updated in six months, which deserves a word all of its own because it is a haven of humanist beauty.

Breda is a member of the Iona Institute think-tank, which among its many theological mis-steps places a huge weight on natural law thinking. The only fittingness that a good Barthian like myself is willing to get behind is the fittingness of things fitting into other things. Thankfully, there’s a tumblr for that.

Nutella biscuit. Mmm.

There is a social network that has caused serious disruption to the Irish economy that probably has never been criticized in the pages of the Irish Times. Amazon. And there is a very amusing Tumblr that collects the worst Amazon reviews together for your delighted perusal.

Flannery O’Connor has a Tumblr. Can someone please tell the Catholic think-tank!

Francis Spufford has a Tumblr. Can someone please tell the Catholic apologists?! And also, tell Francis, who is a white, straight, male, middle-class Christian. He might not know that he is hated.

Finally, I have some “friends” that I made on Tumblr. I have never met these people but I think of them as friends because when I read their Tumblrs I had that realisation that the “secret thread” that runs through my interests and loves and fascinations runs through theirs as well. This is what a social network does best. It crosses divides and connects people who otherwise would never meet. Breda and I are part of the only generation in all of history who will have had the experience of both living with and living without the internet. The future generations will be socialised the same way that previous generations were. By living in society. The idea that we face some horrendous threat of a “liberal agenda” or a “PC brigade” or whatever other bankrupt and tired trope of conservatism you prefer because now we have http:// is beyond the pale of what is reasonable.

Naming Animals, Irregular Theology, Bogwitch, and Invisible Foreigner are among the people I look forward to having coffee and beer with in the future, who I initially encountered on the internet. They are part of what it means for me to be socialised. Not one of them conforms to the pattern of this world, but are being transformed by the renewing of their minds. If only to account for the brothers and sisters in the mix, O’Brien and similar Christian cultural critics should be much more careful.

What tumblrs would you send Breda to, if we wanted to help her revise her opinion?

Your Correspondent, Found a social media page that has that full C.S. Lewis quote.

2013 Week 27: Good Things I Saw On The Internet

A Dark Beginning
My soul is troubled by this link. You should know that before you click on it, as fascinating as it is. Hannah Arendt’s claims about the banality of evil are sustained when we discover that before the Civil Rights Movement, black citizens of Louisiana needed to pass a test before they could vote. The test, however, is truly evil. Participants had to complete it in 10 minutes, without any error. Racism seems evidentially stupid to us, but the delight in cunning meanness evident in this exam is deeply worrying.

Some Jokes to Lighten the Mood
Reddit - What's the Best Intellectual Joke You Know?

There is a very funny Reddit threat at the moment listing people’s favourite intellectual jokes. Well, I found them funny at least.

Since I am sharing links from Reddit, here is a classic from Something Awful, about what it would be like if films were reviewed the way computer games are.

Irish Society Remains Savage In The Margins
Less amusing, but more essential, is this report on the conditions that Ireland offers its asylum seekers. There is nothing I can predict more confidently than that the society that today bemoans the savagery of our church-provided institutional care in the past will be the subject of the same wrath at the hands of future generations who will not comprehend how we let this happen. At least the church’s “profit” was mediated to ends other than profit (I realise as I write this that it could be something I want to revoke when I think about it more seriously). This direct provision system is run entirely for greed.

We visited Millstreet on Thursday June 27th, walked the further mile outside of the town to the entrance of the Drishane Castle grounds, and the ten minutes further in from the main road to the castle itself and the former convent where the residents are housed. Our bus ticket from Cork to Millstreet return was €23 – asylum seekers receive €19.10 a week from the state. Having struck up a conversation with one of the residents, Thomas Duggan soon approached us, insisted on separating us from the man we were speaking to and informed us that it really would have been better if we’d phoned ahead to arrange an appointment to meet with anyone at the centre as otherwise we were technically trespassing.

Modern Art and the Christian
Consider this: there are few positive movements of the 20th Century more commonly misunderstood and misrepresented than evangelical Christianity and modern art (I realise both find their source and origin before 1901 but bear with my flippancy). Dan Siedell is an evangelical Christian and art historian who specialises in modern art. He wrote a lovely book a few years ago called God in the Gallery and this morning I listened to this talk he gave at an Anglican church a few months ago.

It is interesting on many levels. Firstly, here is an intellectual of the first class, who comes to give an account of his life’s work, which is a subject matter considered the province of the elite and refined. Yet it comes to us in the form of testimony. Just like an early Wesleyan, he stands up and describes how God has been at work in his life through modern art. It is exhilarating to listen in on how his heart was captured by the complexity of contemporary art.

Secondly, it is a fascinating glimpse at the potency of Reformed Christianity. Siedell was raised in a dispensationalist, non-denominational church in Nebraska. His background is the least likely place to give rise to the emergence of a world class art critic. But the Reformed faith that he grew into, informed by Kuyper and Calvin, feels no need to repudiate the simplistic, the anti-intellectual, the rural and provincial primeval (from the view of the sophisticate) swamp of confusion he arose out of. If Christ declares his Lordship over every square inch of Creation then that means modern art is a field for Christians to play in. This excites us. But it also means that uncool, unsophisticated mega-churches in the suburbs are places where the Kingdom can resound.

Thirdly, modern art deserves our attention (and in the form of folk like Siedell, we might say evangelicalism deserves our attention too):

Modern art contradicts our desires and I think that is a very good thing, given our fallen human tendency to make ourselves and our beliefs about ourselves and the world the centre of the Cosmos. To make ourselves the subject of our existential sentences. To be as, David Foster Wallace said, “Lords of our tiny, skull-sized kingdoms.” And we want our visual imagery to feed our Old Adam’s desire to shape the world around our beliefs and desires, to make art fit into our worldview. But modern art lives in discontinuities, it contradicts our belief that artistic value is found in technical virtuosity, that its meaning should declare itself immediately, that looking is easy and art is about making us feel good. It’s a stick shoved into the relentlessly spinning spokes of our incessantly spinning desire for emotional, intellectual and aesthetic efficiency. In other words, modern art undermines our desire to make art serve our theologies of glory.

Pope Francis and The Light of Faith
Yesterday, Francis I published his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei. It was largely written by BXVI and then Frank tinkered with it before setting it free. There are the recurring themes of Benedict running through the document, including a heavy reliance on natural law, a sense that there is an urgent moral crisis facing culture today and a desire to show that “Hellenistic” thought is not in competition with “Hebrew” thought. There are plenty of citations of Lumen Gentium and Dei Verbum and it continues the recent tradition of referencing practically everything that is argued against the Scriptures. It also surprised me with its quotation from TS Eliot (along with John Henry Newman). The bit that lingers with me is paragraph 14:

Here mediation is not an obstacle, but an opening: through our encounter with others, our gaze rises to a truth greater than ourselves. Rousseau once lamented that he could not see God for himself: “How many people stand between God and me!” … “Is it really so simple and natural that God would have sought out Moses in order to speak to Jean Jacques Rousseau?” On the basis of an individualistic and narrow conception of conscience one cannot appreciate the significance of mediation, this capacity to participate in the vision of another, this shared knowledge which is the knowledge proper to love. Faith is God’s free gift, which calls for humility and the courage to trust and to entrust; it enables us to see the luminous path leading to the encounter of God and humanity: the history of salvation.

I love this! I might call this an epistemology of community. What he is doing here is asking a question many of us have asked in one form another, which is, why does God reveal himself through Moses and the patriarchs? Why doesn’t he come to me directly? Francis decides to use the words Rousseau, one of the fathers of the modern imagination, chose to craft that question. And then he answers it. Rousseau’s problem and our problem is forged in the first place because we imagine ourselves as rugged individuals. But the Biblical model, whereby we receive revelation through the Other, which Francis deems mediation, means that we can only access the most fundamental knowledge we need to understand ourselves and our world by sharing the perspective of others. This is Trinitarian thought. This is why we see God through the experience of Moses and the Israelites, through the experience of Paul and the Apostles and through the wisdom of the saints (or as Siedell might add, through Louis Le Brocquy or Francis Bacon). That our knowledge of God is mediated is not a problem, but a proof (or something towards it). God who is community can only be known in community.

Now to get the other side of the coin, the way in which God directly encounters us above and beyond mediation calls for the wisdom accumulated in the Protestant traditions… but maybe Francis will get around to admitting something like that?

Your Correspondent, Knock, knock! It’s K-Rock O’Clock!

2013 Week 26: Good Things I Saw On The Internet

That C.S. Lewis even aspired to respond to all the letters he got says something about the man he was. This letter is one of his most famous. Justly so.

I have never launched into The Brothers Karamazov but I am currently procrastinating having left down Crime and Punishment at page 240. So this tickled me considerably.

Evgeny Morozov is always worth a read and in Slate this week he made a brilliant case that Big Data is a concept lacking substance. The heart of the problem with PRISM and similar spying programs, in terms of efficacy, is that they are not efficient. The reason why they will fail to deliver what they promise is not because they need more power but because their power lulls us into thinking humans are random. Humans can be understood. Even enemy humans. Especially enemy humans. There are many reasons to oppose the surveillance State, but it can’t even be defended from pragmatic grounds. Or as Morozov puts it:

The great temptation of Big Data is that we can stop worrying about comprehension and focus on preventive action instead.

In a similar vein, I appreciated this article looking at how Germans raised in the East (GDR) view the revelations of universal listening-in. One activist, familiar with Stasi tactics, says:

“Everyone knows that gathering so much information is bullshit,” said Reinhard Weisshuhn, a political activist and foreign policy adviser. “It’s a total breach of trust by the government. This is how a society destroys itself.”

My dear friend Eoin O’Mahony is finishing up his PhD in Geography at Maynooth. If I was a millionaire, I would buy a copy of the subsequent book for every Presbyterian minister in Ireland because his engagement with Marian statues, sites of pilgrimage and other forgotten features of Irish society will do more to unlock for us what it means to live in a secular age than all the shallow discourse that is usually spewn out on that topic. In a great recent post which I sent to instapaper and only got around to reading this morning, Eoin talks about how Irish academic research is blind to working class communities as agents and creators of politics. Instead, the working class, the places the working class live and the things working class people do is just a way in to discussing social dysfunction. It is a really thought provoking piece that I think would apply to places other than Ireland. Wife-unit has a consistent bee in her bonnet about the ways in which we imagine the working class to be devoid of culture, that culture is something the middle class possess. Eoin is tackling that from another angle. In the midst of his discussion you see a trace of how his work will help Christians to think through the age we live within:

The Marian statues of Dublin have been erased from Dublin’s ‘official history’ because they don’t fit a particular way of creating Dublin. The City Council has a database of statues and monuments. Not a single Marian statue appears in it.

Eoin’s work is going to help you understand pilgrimage much better. So this is a good place to declare that I hereby officially add this pilgrimage to the list of things I would like to do- walking the way of Ignatius.

The Media Avengers is a seamlessly slick interpolation of the characters and plot line from The Avengers movie into the media outlets of our day. This is the kind of thing the internet does damn well.

The Reconstructionists is a yearlong celebration of remarkable women who have changed how we see the world. The pen portraits of the women are brilliant but it is the art work that really caught my eye. It is probably too American focused for my liking, but I’m sure they’ll get around to covering my mom soon.

Patti Smith portrait on thereconstructionists.org

Your Correspondent, Comes from a culture that values honour and respect… and Godzilla.

2013 Week 25: Good Things I Saw On The Internet

I don’t know what a “rising junior” is but I hope it means someone in a post-doc programme because this piece on “vocation” by the Calvin College student Hannah Meijers is so fantastic that you should go now and savour every word.

Disciplines, after all, aren’t mountains for bright young things to master. They are things you submit to. You let them tell you how to form your sentences, and structure your arguments. You read their canons and learn their own unique nuances and contentions. In turn, they allow you to see the world in new and exciting ways. They give you the shoulders of giants to stand on and roots that stretch deep into history.

An exhilirating interview with a US soldier who is discovering that the way of Jesus is the way of non-violence:

“I just can’t picture Jesus picking up a gun and heading over to the middle-east and killing people.”

Out of the blue this statement had come back into my mind and it wouldn’t go away. Over the next several weeks of leave I woke up several times in the night. Every time I woke up that phrase was playing in my mind. I couldn’t get rid of it! It was at this point that I felt I should give a second look to the issue of nonviolence, that perhaps God was saying something to me.

From the peerless Quiet Babylon, “an attempt to understand the geography of a drone strike”:

On October 24, 2012, Bibi Mamana and her grandchildren were gathering firewood or picking okra outside their home. They may have been in a field. Perhaps it was a militant compound with a weapons depot. 2 missiles were fired, killing Mamana and up to 5 other people, injuring 6 to 8 of the children. Some other men, maybe 3, maybe militants, may have been caught in the blast. A house and a car may or may not have been destroyed. Either 3 cows or 1 buffalo and 2 goats were also killed. The drones remained overhead and 5 to 7 minutes after the first strike more missiles fell.

This moment—the drones, the missiles, the people, the livestock—is a node in a vast network. It spans the globe, connecting villages to secret installations to office parks to seats of government. It reaches backwards for millenia and will resonate forwards for untold centuries. To trace it out completely is impossible. We are hampered by its size and by the fact that much of it is hidden behind classified protections and some of the rest is barely recorded at all.

What is it to write well? Marilynne Robinson says:

But it’s finding access into your life more deeply than you would otherwise. Consider this incredibly brief, incredibly strange experience that we have as this hypersensitive creature on a tiny planet in the middle of somewhere that looks a lot like nowhere. It’s assigning an appropriate value to the uniqueness of our situation and every individual situation.

“Assigning an appropriate value to the uniqueness of our situation and every individual situation” might be a definition of what it means to live life as a Calvinist.

The first banknote.

If you are Irish, the idea that you are relatively well paid compared to other economies is dependent on the fact that you not poor. In other words, Ireland’s ongoing descent into full scale economic class warfare continues.

Finally, this is the best response to PRISM I have yet encountered.

The first thing I did after I heard about the highly classified NSA PRISM program two years ago was set up a proxy server in Peshawar to email me passages from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. A literary flight of fancy. I started sending back excerpts from Gerard Manley Hopkins poems.

Your Correspondent, Loves maths so much that when he takes a dump, it actually comes out as a 2