Bitter Lake

It has always been a sign of his trustworthiness, to me, that Adam Curtis tends to begin his documentaries by saying, “This is the story of…”

The great danger of the documentary is that as children we are taught that there are movies – which are about dinosaurs, transforming robots, noble historical figures and BDSM loving billionaires – and there are documentaries which are “true”. As adults we rarely think about this distinction and how unclear it might be in reality. Curtis forces us to confront it.

In his most recent documentary, released on the BBC iPlayer at the end of January, Curtis tells the story of Afghanistan. The film is 136 minutes long, and largely consists of long sections of untouched “rushes” – the raw material of the news. These stretches of footage, without explanation or elaboration, are the heart of the documentary. The narrative that is wrapped around them, which tells how a meeting between Roosevelt and the Saudi King nearly a century ago set in motion a series of actions, reactions, counteractions and distractions that results in contemporary Afghanistan.

In short, this is the narrative. America needed oil. Saudi Arabia had it. They struck a deal. America got oil. Saudi Arabia got money, arms and an agreement that the West would leave their religious culture alone. The King used this money to grow unimaginably wealthy and to modernize his nation. The religious conservatives didn’t like this so he posed the Communists as a threat that Islam had to defeat. In effect, he exported Saudi Arabian Islam to the rest of the Arab world, and in so doing secured the Saudi throne.

But once released, that set of ideas we call Wahhabism refused to behave like a docile belief system. It gained traction among people long exhausted by Western Imperialism. One of the places it took a footing was Afghanistan, which was a subject of Allied nation-building as part of an effort to keep out the Soviet threat. When the Soviets invaded, the Allies, especially America, took to arming the Islamic militants who had been discipled by expat Saudi teachers to fight the Russian tanks.

Two great men of history make a deal on a boat to buy and sell oil and 30 years later in the middle of Asia, a grand battle of ideologies is unleashed.

We know how the story goes from there. There is a digression about how the oil crisis created the global financial hegemony that today ravages Ireland and Greece, Cyprus and Portugal. But the main story is the story of the Afghans. The great mujahideen, armed and trained by America, who received such praise at the end of Rambo III turned into the Taliban. Saddam invaded Kuwait. Bush invaded Iraq. The Saudis realised that their arms were not enough to keep them safe. Osama realised that his enemy was not just moderate Islam but the far country of America. Planes crashed into buildings. Blair and Bush II invaded Afghanistan. Then Iraq. Then tortured people, bombed villages, raped, pillaged and tore to pieces the very narrative they had been telling their people about war against terror and a battle against an axis of evil and the inevitable march of democracy and technology and liberation.

Rambo III, glorifying Jihadists

If you are still reading, then you should go watch this film.

But if you are just scanning now to see if I have any jokes about Zooey Deschanel in here, let me tell you why you, also, should go watch this film. It’s the rushes. The long tracts of unedited, untampered, untouched footage that Curtis pastes together. In one shocking scene we see an assassination attempt on the Afghan president that sees bystanders killed. In the West, we didn’t hear about this. The footage is live and clear and direct – the kind of thing that news networks drool over. We have the world at our fingertips, but only the parts of the world that the people who pay the cameramen choose to show you.

In another distressing scene, we have a long camera gaze at a small girl. She is missing her right hand. Her right eye also. She wears a dress. She is still in the hospital. Her arms and head are bandaged. There are casts on her shins. She is sitting in a chair, her father kneeling beside her. His eyes are wide with desperation. Her eyes are slow, from shock or drugs or weariness. The cameraman talks to the father. He tries to give her a red flower. He wants to see this child healed and made whole. She will not be.

The next scene is an Allied soldier, hunkered in a trench. A wild bird comes and rests on his hand. The bird lets him stroke her. Then the bird flies away, only to land on his helmet. Terence Malick couldn’t make the point better. The real world goes on, even as the lords of war unfurl their armaments.

Soon after, British soldiers are seen on a cliff above Helmand, partying by firelight to honour Elizabeth Windsor’s birthday. A soldier explains to camera how important it is that they mark this festive occasion, especially when they are so far from home. When asked why they chose such a visible point above the city, with fire, he laughs and admits he has no idea. The soldiers aren’t the problem. They are clueless.

The scene that lingers with me is not one of the many shockingly violent pieces of footage. Instead it is an Afghan man, sitting cross-legged and docile as an American soldier, wearing his uniform engineered at unimaginable cost, swabs the inside of his mouth to collect DNA. The Afghan man is 20 years older than the solider, who is little more than a boy. Democracy and technology and liberation do not look like this. The Allies see everyone as an enemy, and so they make everyone into an enemy.

If you cannot understand the attraction of ISIS, you haven’t been paying attention.

Your Correspondent, Living in a glasshouse

‘Review’ of Captive to Christ, Open to the World by Brian Brock

Reviewing a book by a friend is a difficult thing, because you are already pre-disposed to like it. Reviewing a book by your PhD supervisor is practically impossible, because even if you don’t like it, you have to pretend you do (for a few years at least). So don’t think of this as a review. Think of it as an introduction to a book I think you should read. Because I really do like it.

Brock - Captive to Christ, Open to the World

In the introduction to Captive to Christ, Open to the World, Kenneth Oakes, the editor, shares one of the questions that Brian introduced him to: Who, exactly, owns the moon? Oakes beginning with the question about who owns the moon is totally appropriate. Conversations with Brian can be dangerous things. He reminded me with glee this week how one time last year, in a class full of undergraduates, a conversation with him ended up with me espousing an especially insane position whereby I advocated the murder of all the deer in Dublin. I never had any problem with deer, but I had serious problems with how I thought of animals. Brian’s conversations revealed that.

So the great strength of this book is that it is a collection of 8 conversations that we get to listen in on. The first two are conversations with Dutch theologians. The final 6 are conversations with Jacqueline Broen, who is now one of Brian’s doctoral students but back then was doing a masters in environmental theology. Like a conversation with Brian, this book is entertaining and illuminating and connections are made that you never realised were there.

The first chapter is a sort of introduction to the Brockian theological project, rotating around questions about his first book Singing the Ethos of God. I very much appreciated these sentences as a sort of summation of the key problem to be addressed by Christian ethics:

the way the theological academy teaches us to conceive our relationship to Scripture makes it difficult, if not impossible, to find our way from Scripture to the ethical questions of our real, lived lives, and conversely, we are taught that the people who are quite obviously doing this (like the Bible-believers I grew up with) were not doing so in an academically respectable manner.

So our job as theologians is to retrieve what we have lost. Earlier Christians could read Scripture and do theology hand in hand, they did their ethics as a form of theological commentary.

In the second chapter the conversation moves on to the topic of Brian’s second book Christian Ethics in a Technological Age. That is a sprawling giant of a text, full of meandering, illuminating conversations with philosophical and theological heavyweights. But in the new book, you get a sort of heavily compressed, verbal account of what is going on in that book. Technology is the repetition of the gesture by which Adam and Eve fashion coverings out of fig-leaves. It is our response to feeling the world is chaotic. Modern technology is a “fig-leaf reflex.” That is some deep theology pressed into a phrase.

This second chapter sees Brian speak about his relationship to Stanley Hauerwas, the technological wonders that mean that his son has survived leukaemia and the sharp end of our technological age. That sharp end is revealed when we consider how it is increasingly difficult to even conceive of the question that Christian ethics is about, namely: “How do we receive God’s sustenance?” My office-mate Taido joked yesterday that all the food in our local Tesco comes in plastic pods. In a world so habitually specialized, it is an imaginative effort to pray “Give us this day, our daily bread” and for those words to have meaning.

Chapters 3 through 8 are more general in nature, often discussing issues local to Aberdeen or St. Andrew’s and mostly hovering near an environmental agenda. But the range of issues touched upon is sort of staggering. What does it mean to do theology in a secular society (“in a public context you don’t have to make theological arguments all the time”), how church should relate to the world (“God does have something to give to us … the world needs the church to know who that God is.”), the utter dependence on cheap energy that gives our life shape, and how the false freedom of the market is revealed by a trip to Burger King are just some of the branches explored.

This book isn’t quite “Brian Brock for Dummies”. As I say, it is like over-hearing a conversation over coffee between him and other academics. As such, Nietzsche and Kant are referenced in answers. But so too are Donald Trump’s scandalous Aberdeenshire mis-adventures in environmental devastation for the sake of golf. It will tax the average Christian reader, but it will be richly rewarding. You’ll get a sense of how theology is done in Aberdeen: in worship, in dialogue with the world, in humility. You’ll better understand why my thesis or subsequent work won’t “solve” the problem of being wealthy westerners. And the reason why it won’t offer solutions isn’t just that I am nowhere near smart enough to do it. Rather, you’ll begin to see that to expect a “solution” falls short of what it means to be Christian. The theological ethicist’s job is “to allow theology to generate a different set of questions.” You’ll begin to see how the quest for Biblical principles that is so rampant in Christian discourse can be a way to evade God. After all, once we have the principles, we can discard the Bible and the living, active God. You’ll come to better understand what Brock means when he says that the core responsibility of the theologian is:

to teach students how to think and speak with one another as Christians.

Theology is no mere study. It is service to our neighbour as an act of worship. The goal is not to discover some ineffable truth and make it merely effable! It is truthful speech in love. It is action. It is service. It is worship.

Captive to Christ, Open to the World is, as such, a strange, different, curious little gem of a book.

Your Correspondent, His parents missed Woodstock, and he’s been making up for it since.

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

Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything

My supervisor recently lent me a formidable coffee table book just published about Douglas Coupland’s art. As a suburban boy, there is something positively Coupland-esque about the fact that I have never managed to see any of his work up close and in person. The world goes on elsewhere, in Berlin and New York and Santiago and Dalian, but in Maynooth I could track it all through a browser window – which is something for which we should be grateful. The title reminds us after all, that everything is now anywhere.

I knew of some of Coupland’s artwork before, like his Digital Orca installation and his security blanket covered with the world’s most trusted corporate brands, but so much of it was new to me:

Coupland art

In Coupland’s introductory essay he tells us that growing up in North Vancouver – a logging centre turned into the suburb of a dynamic, utoptian city – taught him that enlightenment invariably comes at the expense of nature. Coupland’s work, in his art and in his writing at its best is testimony to this. The world where everywhere is anywhere and where anything is everything is a plastic world; creation has been superseded in our minds and replaced in our space with invention.

With essays from some of my favourite artists like Chuck Klostermann and William Gibson and Michael Stipe, this was a treat of a book to peruse. But it is Coupland’s art that rightfully lingers. For the Biennial of the Americas, held in Denver, Colorado in 2013, Coupland erected this sign on a vacant lot in the city.

Detroit everywhere

A week later the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy. Today, it’s drinking water supply is undergirded by help from the United Nations. Everywhere is anywhere is tinkering on the edge of oblivion.

I am intellectually inclined towards the aphorism. Surely this is why Hauerwas is my theological mentor and Vonnegut is the saint I would pray to, if I prayed to saints. It is why the parables exert such a mighty influence over my mind. It is even why Lincoln Harvey is my favourite Christian on twitter. In 2012 in Berlin, Coupland exhibited his “Slogans for the early 21st Century”, stark zen koans, daubed in black capitals on bright backgrounds.

Slogans by Coupland

ACCELERATION IS ACCELERATING
EVERYONE ON EARTH IS FEELING THE SAME WAY THAT YOU DO
IN THE FUTURE WE’LL ALL BE SHOPPING FROM JAIL
I MISS MY PRE-INTERNET BRAIN
KNOWING EVERYTHING TURNS OUT TO BE SLIGHTLY BORING
WE’VE NEVER BEEN SMARTER | WE’VE NEVER FELT STUPIDER
REAL TIME OFTEN FEELS LIKE NEITHER
THE FUTURE LOVES YOU BUT IT DOESN’T NEED YOU
THERE’S NO SHOPPING ON STAR TREK
WE PITY PEOPLE IN 1970S AND 1980S MOVIES AND TV BECAUSE OF HOW LITTLE TECHNOLOGY THEY HAD
BEING MIDDLE CLASS WAS FUN
WHERE DOES PERSONALITY END AND BRAIN DAMAGE BEGIN?
A FULLY LINKED WORLD NO LONGER NEEDS A MIDDLE CLASS
REMEMBER NOTHING YOU DON’T HAVE TO
ARE WE TOO FREE?
I DON’T KNOW
ONE DAY YOU WILL SPEAK WITH YOURSELF
MULTITASKING IS A MYTH | WE ARE SERIAL THINKERS
FEELING UNIQUE IS NO INDICATION OF BEING UNIQUE
ZOOM
OH MY GOD
HUMANITY HASN’T BEEN AS MENTALLY HOMOGENIZED SINCE THE LAST ICE AGE
TOO LONG TO READ
DELETE ENTIRE HISTORY?
FEAR OF MISSING OUT
YOU ARE THE LAST GENERATION THAT WILL DIE

The piece of art that struck me most forcefully is his collection of “hornet’s nests”.

Hornet's nest

Writing a book is an audacious thing to do. To capture a story you made up in ink pressed on to paper is to make a statement that lingers long after you may have repudiated the tale you told. These delicate nests, that mimic the homes created by fierce, angry and painful tormenting insects, are constructed by tearing out pages of his own books, chewing them up in his mouth and then gently drying and peeling them into these hives.

But the works that will probably resound into the future are the works that Michael Stipe writes about. One, called The Poet, looks like just another piece of dotted art, the kind of thing that you see in every final year exhibit in every art college. But this is 2014. Even with art that doesn’t instantly resonate with us, we feel a need to take out our iPhones and Galaxies and Nexuses and snap a photo to stick on Facebook later. When you take a photo of The Poet, the cellular phone machine you carry in your pocket interprets it for you.

You see the Falling Man from September 11th.

You carry the ability to see and hear and learn everything you would ever want to see and hear and learn in your pocket and your handbag but you use it to read puns sent out by an Anglican priest in London. Or at least I do. The total availability of data forces us to choose where we will register what the data represents. As Stipe puts it, Coupland “offers us the choice to either see or not see these deeply internalized images.”

The Poet

The most affecting essay in the collection is by Sophia Al Maria, “A Millennial Moment”. She is an artist based in Qatar who was born around the time I was born. Her essay charts how her life has changed along with the period Coupland’s work has been prominent. The descent into the madness of the never-ending war on terror is captured powerfully. She has an anecdote about recognising a voice behind her on an escalator in Doha and realising it was the boy from high school she had a crush on. Now he was a US Marine and as she is “swathed head-to-toe in the black polyester of my Qatari national dress: the abaya,” she is not recognised. Her old friend walks by without seeing her. We choose what we see. Al Maria becomes “Anonymous. Obscured. Out-of-focus.” Now she is “like some tacky shadow of death, a target in whatever pre-combat simulator he probably trained on, not a girl he went to high school with.”

Coupland grew up in that generation after the post war economic boom. He grew up in a military family in the midst of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation. He grew up in a time where people still felt utterly convinced that optimism was the right way to respond to the world. When I first read his early works I found a man preaching my Gospel – humans are advancing. As I aged, I have come to see I am right about that and very wrong too. Coupland’s art is about progress – but the progress that actually did happen. Tyler Johnson, the protagonist of Shampoo Planet, progresses from his parents failed hippie commune to yuppie certitude. The prefab dreams of North Vancouver gave rise to a world where we try to forget the falling man of Manhattan. The digital logic of clean, straight-edged LEGO may have cognitively conditioned us to imagine a future where things fit together, but we have broken them up.

We are creators who are creatures. We are creatures who unmake as fast as we create. That Coupland continues to unveil the vulnerability entailed in that means he is a friend you should make. He isn’t always a happy friend, and his books are sometimes very badly off course. But as Chuck Klostermann quotes it in his essay, “Bad taste is real taste.” Coupland, even when is off-course, is somehow headed in the right direction.

Coupland's slogan before his YouTube event

Your Correspondent, Shopping at face value

Who Owns Scotland?

In The Poor Had No Lawyers, Andy Wightman does four things:

    > He recounts the history of Scotland as a history of successive land grabs.
    > He explains how these land grabs express themselves today in the wildly unbalanced patterns of territory ownership in Scotland.
    > He offers some cogent and well thought through arguments about how land reform could happen.
    > He puts yet another nail in the coffin of the “Vote No” campaign.

My mother is not the kind of person who has a list of “personal heroes”. She is not easily swayed. But growing up it was evident that at least one of the great titans of Irish history had her allegiance and that was the one armed land agitator and trade-unionist, Michael Davitt. Davitt hailed, like my mother, from the western county of Mayo. But in the late 1800s his influence across the island of Ireland and even into Britain was massive. He secured tenants rights for the multitude of farmers that up till then had relied on the graces of their absentee landlords to get by. He initiated a land reform movement that would successfully deconstruct the vast estates, owned by the landed gentry of England, that covered the island. He tried to preach his message of worker solidarity and agitation in Britain.

But Scotland still needs a Davitt.

The first land grab came soon after the Norman invasion, back in the 1100s. The monarchy installed feudalism at the expense of the existing clan structure. The second land grab came soon after the Reformation. The state installed Presbyterianism at the expense of the existing church and monastic lands. The land grabs continued up until the turn of the 20th Century, as common land that was a rich resource across the country slowly got stripped away and appropriated by landed interests.

The common agitation that ought to be Irish and Scottish independence is revealed as far back as 1609, when the Royal Privy Council forced the clan chiefs to submit to English ways or lose their lands. Notice how the legislation sees “Irische” as the root of the problem. Schools would be established in every parish in the Highlands so that:

the youth be exercised and trayned up in civilitie, godlines, knawledge, and learning, that the vulgar Inglische toung be universallie platit, and the Irische language, which is one of the chief and principall causes of the continewance of barbarities and incivilitie amangis the inhabitantis of the Ilis and Heylandis, may be abolisheit and removeit.

Abolishing language because it is barbarous and uncivil is the height of urbanity and civility.

From Wrightman:

The pattern of landownership in the nineteenth century became more concentrated as the new Highland elite extended their holdings. By 1870, for example, Sir James Matheson, who had amassed a vast fortune from trade in China, owned 424,560 acres of land. The Marquis of Breadalbane owned 458,421 acres across Perthsire and Argyll. The Duke of Sutherland held all but a few glebes and lighthouses across the 1.2 million acres of Sutherland. And, by 1900, over half the land area of the Highlands was owned by just fifteen landowners.

– Andy Wightman, The Poor Had No Lawyers, 46.

Things of course have vastly improved between then and now.

969 people own 60% of Scotland.

If a people do not own the land, the people are not free.

Counting inland water and land, Scotland consists of about 19.5 million acres. 1,550 people own over 10 million acres of that. Voting yes at least opens the possibility of land reform. Voting yes at least puts some distance between the governance of Scotland and the culture of English aristocracy, most perfectly captured in the ongoing expansion of Elizabeth Windsor’s private estate at Balmoral, which she inherited from her parents, who inherited it from their parents, who bought it under a dodgy deal in 1852 and then had a law passed in 1853 to make sure that they could keep it. It has been expanded at least five times since the end of World War II.

Balmoral Estate

The United Kingdom currently holds the world record for invasion of other sovereign states. Only 22 countries haven’t had the honour of Her Majesty’s forces arriving with weapons and the threat of murder. How did a little temperate island in the north Atlantic come to dominate the world for centuries? They had a training grown for colonizing in Ireland. This laboratory meant their research and development, when it came to imperialism, was way ahead of competitors. But Scotland suffered in the same way. It continues to suffer, with a disproportionate number of its young working class men serving and dying in Britain’s contemporary wars of profit.

The final land grab that Wightman records is the grab for Africa, India and southern Asia, which was accomplished with technique, manpower and politics that originated in Scotland.

An independent Scotland will have many obstacles to face. Engineering the cogs and wheels of government will be complex. Devising an alternative economic strategy to the exhausting approach modelled in Ireland might be too much to hope for. And the people who will run this new country are as craven as the next batch of politicians. Watching “You’ve Been Trumped” demonstrates that! But land matters. Land reform will most effectively happen under an independent Scotland.

Your Correspondent, He’s the reason today bananas are called “yellow fatty beans”

Two Days And One Night

Who knows what the original title of “Deux jours, une nuit” means, but this morning I watched Two Days and One Night and it was the best possible use of a Thursday before lunchtime that I can think of.

It tells the story of Sandra, who is recovering from depression, and one Friday evening gets a phone call from her friend at work explaining she is about to be laid off. The boss put a proposition to the staff. They can either get their annual bonuses, or Sandra can stay. All but two of the sixteen factory floor workers vote to lay Sandra off and to get their €1000.

What follows is very simple. After her friend Juliette convinces the boss to run a secret ballot after the weekend, the film consists of the Dardenne brothers’ camera following Sandra – played with astounding brilliance by Marion Cotillard – as she wrestles with herself to go and plead with her colleagues to vote for her and against their bonus.

Marion Cotillard as Sandra

There wasn’t a moment where I felt bored and at the end of it I realised it was as compelling and clear a picture of the plight of the worker as I can remember seeing in my time. The film isn’t an uplifting story about the triumph of the human spirit. It isn’t a sentimental escape from the material problems that vex our cities. It is a profoundly humanistic depiction of the forces that pull and stretch and toss the people who are just wrestling to put food on the dinner table and get their kids through school.

Our jokes about first world problems are certainly hackneyed, but they might be callous too.

There is a scene where Sandra goes to see her colleague Hichim. The electricity is gone in the apartment building. She walks the stairs, flight after flight, the picture of exhausted dejection, climbing to reach a peak where she does not know if she will be welcome, in the dark now and facing future darkness. It is a simple 30 seconds of camera-work, but it is a better description of the economic world most people in the EU live in than anything I’ve ever encountered from a politician. She climbs because if she doesn’t climb, she’ll lose her house; but even climbing, she might still lose her house. She climbs to secure the basic dignity of having a job and a role and a thing to do, but to do it, she must humiliate herself by throwing herself on the mercy of people as taxed and strained as she is.

Here are three very brief thoughts by which I hope to convince you to go watch this before it leaves the cinema or to load it up on Netflix or whatever it is that people who don’t use torrents use.

1) The boss is always above the fray. Literally, in the final scene, his pristine and spacious office is on the first floor. He never gets dirtied by the fight that is the lives of these workers.

2) The workers are distant from the place they work. Sandra has to take a bus all over the city. Her husband drives her up hills and out into the countryside, she visits suburbs and flats in slums. The task of making money to get by dislocates the workers from their physical environment.

3) The world that the worker is forced to live in is agonistic. It is a battle. Many of the colleagues phrase the ballot in terms of “losing their bonus”. They have been convinced this world is one of scarcity and therefore it becomes one of desperate scarcity. Worker tears away at worker, the son lashes out at the father, the world is so shaped by capitalism and globalisation that we sacrifice our colleagues for a little more comfort.

If I say that Two Days One Night is a 90 minute illustration of Marx’s theory of alienation you might yawn and decide that sounds too lofty, or too earnest, or too damn boring to squander an evening on. It is not. Sandra, in her depression, laments that she does not even exist. Marx told us that the alienated worker:

only feels himself freely active in his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.

Capitalism dehumanises us. This film is a portrait of that process that manages to be fully and totally human. It is splendid.

Your Correspondent, At the end Sandra reminded him of a bird singing

Some Thoughts On Movies I Recently Saw

I presume someone has already made a parody of Room 237 where a bunch of film critics talk over the footage offering far-fetched theories about why Rodney Ascher put this together in the first place?

Byzantium continues to prove that Saoirse Ronan is fecking deadly, even if it is one of those Neil Jordan movies that leaves you surprised he made it.

Here’s how dumb I am. I was dumb enough to be surprised at just how dumb Lucy was. I mean, I expected a dumbfest, considering the “humans only use 10% of their brain mumbo jumbo”, but the godlike powers that accrued to Scarlet’s character was quite spectacularly stupider than anything I could have dared to hope for. The best blockbuster of the summer was Edge of Tomorrow, but this was almost as satisfying in its gun-toting momentum.

If a movie about tornado hunters doesn’t feature lots of people shouting “Hold on! Just hold on!” then the damn scriptwriters don’t know what they are doing. No fear of that with Into The Storm, a film so formulaic that the scriptwriters know exactly what they are doing because they have hunted the films that have gone before and delivered exactly what the audience wants: a film with strong winds.

The Congress stars Robin Wright as Robin Wright, a beautiful actress with an ambivalent relationship to acting and a tendency to make ill advised career moves. Surprisingly, her performance is superb. You’d think playing yourself is easy, but Wright is amazing in how she occupies that role so fully that you forget that she is playing herself. Made by the guy behind Waltz With Bashir, this is a fascinating set up: movie studios are digitally sampling their actors and then forcing them into retirement. Films will be stitched together by computer artists in the future from the stock footage accumulated from just a few hours capturing the movie stars of today. In the first half of the film, things are brilliant and compelling and philosophically interesting. In the second half of the film, things get more animated. Literally. And the momentum of the plot, the clarity of ideas and the enjoyment of the viewer suffers. It goes on too long and gets confused within itself. Wife-unit and I can’t put the plot together in such a way that it isn’t incoherent, but it’s one of those films where maybe we just weren’t smart enough to piece it together. When films mistake themselves for brain teasers, something is amiss. The animation is technically marvelous, but the narrative doesn’t drive it forward, so it is just impressive drawing. A failed masterpiece or a glorious crapfest – we couldn’t decide which but it is definitely worth watching.

Finally, This is Martin Bonner is a unique, flash of a film. It is sort of the opposite to The Congress. It is short and thematically sparse and so simple you would be mistaken for thinking there was no plot. As this review in The Other Journal (one of the single, finest pieces of film writing I’ve ever read) helpfully puts it, it is a film about sight and investment. It centres on two people: an older man starting a job with a Christian charity that help re-integrate ex-offenders into society and a middle-aged man who is coming out of prison after a 12 year sentence. It is a deep, quiet, humble film. There is no elaboration in the cinematography or inter-trans-textuality in the script. It is a mundane story about real people, compellingly told. Of all the movies I’ve seen since Sunday, this is the best.

Also, the lead actor can play Karl Barth in the Avengers’ style comic book movie I am writing about the great theologians (Peter Capaldi as Calvin and Meryl Streep as Catherine of Siena), cos he’s the spit of him, as we’d say in Dublin.

Your Correspondent, He’s smart, he’s sensitive, he’s clearly not obsessed with his physical appearance…

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”

An Inalienable Right To Talk About Rights

Last year I wrote an article for The Other Journal about the ambivalence with which Karl Marx engaged the concept of human rights. I argued in that article that rights-discourse may casually draw on concepts of universality but that the reality is that they are time-bound, culturally-conditioned and loaded with the biases, assumptions and convictions of the people who draw up the laws.

This is not a contentious claim.

I proposed that remembering that rights get “created” in this way helps Christians to engage in conversations about extending rights-talk to things they might be opposed to because it reminds us that the rights that are extended are always a compromise between the contingent factors at play in societies. So for instance, rhetoric of assisted suicide as a human right should be no more distressing than talk of assisted suicide as a medical policy in circumscribed situations. Both are things Christians object to. Both are things that will come to fruition in different states in the coming years. And both can be tolerated while our opposition to them remains (graciously) stubborn.

A friend sent me a book for my birthday that I would never have thought to get for myself and I read it recently. Is That A Fish In Your Ear? is the renowned translator and linguist, David Bellos’, introduction to the complexity and adventure of translation. It is far from a perfect book, being unusually dull-witted when it strays into Biblical interpretation, but it was a very enjoyable riot through some key considerations.

In Chapter 20 he argues that international law is one of the major sites for translation in today’s world and to investigate the difficulties involved he traces the path from the French declaration on the Rights of Man in 1789, through to the UN Declaration and its subsequent elaborations. The critical problem rests on gender language (very relevant to my recent posts). Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen explicitly states to whom it refers. Male citizens.

Human rights

While the UN Declaration on human rights is a direct descendant of the French declaration, you can automatically see the significant change that occurs between droits de l’homme and human rights. But when you translate human rights into other languages, all kind of ambiguities spring up and so the international jurisdiction that relies on the UN Declaration such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) or the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (1979) don’t even mention the phrase.

It isn’t just that human rights as a concept fails to achieve universality. It fails to achieve consistency even in its own semantic use. How could it be any other way? Human rights is a legal discourse and so it has to take the shape of legal languages in the various nation states where it applies. What law is in Ireland is different from what law is in Scotland. That’s why Ireland isn’t the same country as Scotland. The “universal” human rights that apply in Alba hold in Eireann because the two cultures are so similar, but the ways that they take form have to be different.

This in no way undermines the significant achievement of the UN Declaration. Nor does it neuter the power of human rights language, which for all its failings is at least one way that the majority world can demand equity from those with the money and the power. But it does encourage us to be careful in thinking about how easily we can talk about the universality of these rights.

It reminds us that the philosophical conceit that human rights are inalienable and just need to be recognised by society has reality only as a political lever. In societies where that leverage doesn’t hold, the rights will not be recognised. It does not necessarily follow that those societies and cultures are more primitive.

Further, when we imagine we are selflessly agitating for rights which today appear radical, we may find that future generations see us clearly as people engaged in everyday politics, but found guilty of using a particularly lofty language to achieve our aims. The French Revolution was intended by its leaders to be a liberation of society, but it defined society to exclude the majority of it.

In all likelihood, we’re making equally big mistakes, to which we are blind.

Your Correspondent, Thinking too much gave him wrinkles

A Better Way To Make Sense of Gender in the Church: Equal To Rule by Trevor Morrow

Here Comes A Resolution
This week I have sought to unpack (for myself, as much as anyone else) why the Kellers’ book The Meaning of Marriage disappointed me. On Monday I praised the good aspects, on Tuesday I introduced the core problem of complementarianism, on Wednesday I tried to show how this argument rests on natural theology and yesterday I picked at the big issue, which is how this form of complementarianism runs a risky game with an unusual reading of the Trinity.

Today I want to turn to consider a different book entirely, that I read at the same time. Equal to Rule (published in Dublin by Columba Press but available everywhere at a brilliantly low price on Kindle) is written by the former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Trevor Morrow.

I should begin by clarifying that just as Keller has had a huge, formative, positive influence on me, I have learned vast amounts from Morrow. Different from Keller, Trevor Morrow is a personal friend. I became a Christian listening to his sermons at Lucan Presbyterian Church and I am lucky to count him as a mentor who has guided me through my faith since then, encouraged me into preaching and then into ministry and came round to my house one cold January day in 2010, when I had two broken arms, to tell me that I needed to think about doing a Theology PhD.

So the clarification is that I am biased in favour of the book I’m about to discuss. I got to talk it through with Trevor over coffee before it was ever written and I got to read preliminary copies and I even get thanked on the Acknowledgements page. But if you think that means I will automatically like what he has to say, I remind you that my devotion to Keller is such that I once went on an expensive pilgrimage to hear him give two talks on how to preach, flying to London to learn from him in person. I appreciate both of these guys, who enrich and serve the church in significant ways. I think there are problems with the Kellers’ marriage book and I think that Morrow’s book is a much better approach. So let me explain how.

How To Decide Who Reads Gooder?
There has been one line of inquiry notably absent from my critique of the Kellers’ and that is Scriptural discussion. Whatever reference I have made to their reading of Scripture has been positive. The book can be read as an extended reflection on Ephesians 5 and the reading that it offers, apart from jumping off into complementarianism, is superb. It doesn’t offer extended treatments of the contentious passages. This is one of the reasons that the Kellers manage to espouse the doctrine in so winsome a fashion – they consciously avoid getting bogged down in defending “Biblical doctrine”.

The doctrine is defended Biblically by citing the passages in the New Testament that refer to gender issues (verses from 1 Timothy and 1 Peter are especially important to them). Only the most unfair of students would look at the complementarian interpretation of Scripture and deny that it has internal coherence (their Trinitarian theology might not pass such a test!). Yet on the “egalitarian” side, they have a strong and internally consistent set of readings for the verses that are at the centre of the debate.

How do we get out of this textual logjam? Christians have numerous ways of shaping tensions towards health. We might have an authority that declares the right way to read the texts, like the Roman Magisterium. Or we might have a big ecumenical council of all the bishops and they might issue some guidance (harder since the Orthodox schism and the European Reformation!). Or we might agree to live together and seek to embody our positions with grace.

This is the position that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland came to in 1973. We ordain women to eldership and to ministry and we still welcome people whose conscience doesn’t land in the same place. And in Equal to Rule, Trevor Morrow lays out the rationale behind why this decision was reached and why we maintain this decision. The sad fact is that the influence of American evangelical culture means that complementarians are increasingly influential in the denomination and they are perhaps more strident than old fashioned conservatives (although what do I know – I no longer even live in Ireland!).

 

What Complementarians Might Suspect I Am Like

A Diminutive Book With A Powerful Punch
So Morrow’s book is the rarest of thing. It is a churchman, explaining the position of a church, for the sake of church-members. This isn’t just of interest to people who are a part of my tiny denomination however. There are three factors that make it especially worthwhile.

Firstly, it is an excellent example of a Christ-focused interpretation of Scripture. He reads the Bible with Jesus as the controlling factor in interpretation. What does that mean? It means that Morrow reads the rest of Scripture informed by what Jesus, the best reader of Scripture ever, says first. He is “particularly concerned that women will experience in reading this the love and acceptance which Jesus brings in restoring them to be co-rulers with men over the new creation.” (8) In support of this he quotes this lovely bit from Dorothy Sayers, talking about how around Jesus women were:

first at the Cradle and the last at the Cross. They had never known a man like Jesus – there never has been such another. A prophet and a teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or ‘The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend.

– Trevor Morrow Equal to Rule, 9-10.

Jesus was taught the Scriptures by a woman and he was witnessed in his glory by women, he taught women after Easter Sunday and sent them as his apostles and through his Spirit he gifts them today to lead and guide the church. This simple prioritising of Jesus clarifies a great deal.

Secondly, Morrow reads the wide narrative of Scripture. Of course, this is what all Christians with skill in reading the Bible do. The Bible interprets the Bible and Keller is as good at this as anyone I know. This is why the doctrinal reference to speculative inner hierarchies within Trinity is so disappointing. The dots that Morrow connects are not tenuous or arcane. You begin in Genesis 1 and 2 with equality. In Genesis 3 there is Fall and the distortion of gender identity that produces, among all the other chaos, misogyny and the rest of the sin that we bear. But from that point onwards the culture-transcending revelation of God pierces through with judges and prophets and poets and saints that direct our attention to the restoration of creation’s goodness. This comes to fruition in Jesus, and Morrow reads the succeeding letters of the New Testament as part of the real-time working-out of what the Kingdom means for worshipping communities. Figuring out what it means for gender is why we have the passages over which people battle. But Morrow is able to draw on as many fine resources as anyone else to justify the evangelical and Reformed position Irish Presbyterians took.

Thirdly, this is all achieved with a brevity and clarity that is sort of amazing. I sat down to write a quick word here about how Morrow’s book is a useful rejoinder to Keller’s. Now I’ve written over 1270 words. But Morrow gets this entire argument, an extensive set of practical advice for how to encourage women into leadership and pointers to further resources in 106 pages. He does it without using the words like “the epistemic relations within the hypostatic union”. I could leave out the line-drawings that head up sections, but my admiration for how straightforward this book is just grows.

My Experience Of the Egalitarianism of the Gospel
Morrow is an outstanding preacher, but when I was first considering Christianity he shared his pulpit with two younger ministers, one of whom was a South African woman. Lorraine Kennedy Ritchie would preach from the Old Testament and have me on the edge of my seat. She would cry in the pulpit, so moved by the words she was called to expound upon and so overwhelmed by the task that she had to fulfill.

In the congregation were women who are now leaders, evangelists, elders, ministers or in training to be ministers. These friends of mine had the same transformative experience, not just of Trevor’s gift for preaching, but the Gospel’s gift of community. Men and women were gathered by the Spirit into this little band of folk lit up from the inside by the goodness and beauty of God. I met one of my dearest friends in the world one Sunday in that church and she is now in leadership in a church plant in middle England. Her roommate is finishing off training for ordination. Her friend is the minister in inner city Galway. My wife runs an intervention programme for children in Aberdeen and preaches in the local churches. There are probably 10 women who are elders in the Presbyterian Church who I met in that relatively tiny congregation.

But the men went into leadership as well, to an extent unparalleled anywhere I know of. Men who are now ministers all over the island and as far afield as Switzerland were members at Lucan at some stage. They come under the influence of Lucan, where the practical steps of discovering and cultivating gifts in men and women were taken seriously, and they found a joyous call to dedicate their life to prayer and preaching, eucharist and baptism.

This is not down to Trevor Morrow, as much as I revere the man. It is down to the Gospel. Lorraine Kennedy Ritchie didn’t cry in that pulpit because she is a woman and my argument isn’t “Well don’t women bring something to the task that men can’t!” I know this because I cry in that pulpit. I cried in Lorraine’s pulpit when she had me preach there the week before I moved to Scotland. I cry in every pulpit because I, like Lorraine, am a human being incapable of comprehending just how glorious a thing God has done.

At the final stage for selection for ordination, I had to give a short sermon in front of a panel of ministers and elders. I broke down in tears there too, trying to explain how the older brother in Luke 15 couldn’t get past himself to see what his Father had for him (see how deeply Keller influences me!). As I remember it, in that slightly embarrassed quiet as I sought to control my sobs, Rev. Cheryl Meban reassurred me with a smile and encouraged me to take my time. In that moment of extreme vulnerability, I didn’t find myself grateful that there were women who were ministers. I found myself grateful that there were ministers who could pastor me. It was God’s choice to gift her the way He did, and gift me in a similar way.

Conclusion: Where we Stand
The brutish effect of careless complementarianism will leave men afraid to be human and women disbarred from being human. The Kellers don’t come anywhere close to that kind of machismo and princess-fascism, but nonetheless their argumentation is out of character, over-extended and highly problematic. The content of the good news is new creation. Man and woman are called to partake in it.

They become citizens of the Kingdom on the same terms. They are gifted on the same terms. They should be welcomed on the same terms.

Your Correspondent, Always finishes on a sexist joke