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

Stephen Fry and the gods No One Believes In

For those of you not from the British Isles, Stephen Fry is an English comedian and gameshow host who is very erudite and much loved. Gay Byrne is an Irish talkshow host and road safety authority who is very skilled and considered a sort of historic cultural figure in Ireland.

They feature together in an episode of a series Byrne hosts for the Irish state broadcaster called “The Meaning of Life”. I don’t think they ever invited Terry Eagleton on, which is unfortunate because he is funnier and smarter than Fry and more skilled than Byrne, and he literally wrote the book on the topic.

Anyway, if you missed the controversial bit, here it is:

Many people believe that Fry hit the nail on the head. He spoke the truth. How can the delusions of faith stand in the face of such articulate and elegant reasoning? I watched it and thought, “He’d never say that if he was around for dinner with me and my friends.” Well, of course he wouldn’t. It would be rude. Wife-unit and I would have made him a lovely aubergine parmigiana and some brownies. How churlish it would be. But it would also be laughable. Maybe he would still think it, but such pomposity doesn’t play well when you are dining with atheists who became Christians.

That is all Fry’s comments are: pompous bluster. There is no god that he is referencing, except that vague god that atheists sometimes think Christians and Jews worship. (Have you ever noticed that for all their talk about how heinous Islam is, atheists still seem to think that Muslims worship a different (worse) god (that doesn’t exist) than Christians?) There are many philosophical problems with what Fry lays out and I am sure there are hundreds of pieces already written that enumerate them. One such problem is that putting God in the dock requires an expectation of God that seems to demand a metaphysical explanation for goodness. In other words: if we fail God for not being good, where does the standard of good come from?

Just as a side-point: that is not the same thing as saying that we need a god to generate good. The knotty problem I have alluded to doesn’t get resolved quite so simply. It is a variety of Augustine’s contention that the problem that the human is faced with isn’t why is there suffering, but why is there joy? The grand puzzle of reality is not so much the horror of the burrowing insect as the satisfaction of a cold glass of water on a hot July day. That and why did I not enjoy that film “500 Days of Summer” because looking at Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt for an hour and a half sounds like something only the blind could find boring.

My interest isn’t (any longer) in such philosophical tinkering. It has its place, but that place isn’t at my dinner table. In our gaff, we’re very, very interested in Jesus.

When Christians talk about God, they are talking about Jesus. Jesus reveals who God is. God reveals Himself in Jesus. The God that Christians expect to meet when that time comes is a God who comes to us as, in one particularly disturbing image in the New Testament, as a slaughtered lamb. He comes to us as a Palestinian tradesman with a gash caused by a Roman sword down his side, and nail holes in his arms and ankles, his forehead scarred by a cruel joke and his back lacerated by a whip. That God, that Christians worship, is not a God who will be impressed by rich white Englishmen saying “How dare you?!” The 1st century equivalent of rich white Englishmen hung him from the tree. That bunch of men encountered this Godman and decided that if they banished him, their life would become “simpler, purer, cleaner, and more worth living.” It didn’t. They didn’t know what they were doing. That pattern continues. Always expect the powerful to prefer their gods like the Greek deities. Those titans supported power instead of subverting it.

There are many problematic things about Christianity, perplexing and troubling things. Early on, the church developed or adopted big words to cope with all of them. Election. Trinity. Incarnation. Personhood. Kerygma. Parousia. Eschaton.

It is very significant that it was well into the Englightenment before we had to come up with the word theodicy, that Fry references at the beginning. Still, most of us prefer the simpler word suffering. Contrary to the widely propagated myth, Christian people are not running from suffering. The torture device they use as their visual calling card should remind you of that.

There are many problematic things about Christianity. There are weak points where opponents can score points. Suffering isn’t one of them. The God that the Christians declare is one who revealed his divinity in momentous suffering.

There is a basic rule of argumentation that holds that you cannot be making a good point if your opponent cannot recognise her viewpoint when you describe it. Fry makes the mistake of the new-atheists. He does not respect his opponent enough to hear them. Ironically, this is the mistake Christians made when they were in the cultural ascendancy in an earlier age. The kind of “gotcha!” argument that Fry deploys is the kind of argument that swallows itself. It works when you are up against Gay Byrne on a tv camera. It falls to pieces when you are sitting across from the people in my congregation who can testify from their suffering to their conviction that no human has ever been more human than when the Godman suffocated under his own weight.

The new-atheists never try to kill that God. He’s already died. He sides with the suffering and the broken, the oppressed and the downtrodden. He is most welcomed by the people oppressed by men bearing Union flags, Stars and Stripes, and the 12 golden stars of Europe. He is many things, and in many ways confounding, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about him being defeated by suffering. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Your Correspondent, Young, rich, and full of sugar

Progressive, Western Liberalism is the Mother lode of Bad Ideas

Wife-unit watched Good Will Hunting again recently. It is a masterpiece of a film, full of glorious moments and superb performances. My favourite scene in the film is where Ben Affleck’s character stands in for Will at a job interview.

“Until that day comes, keep your ear to the grindstone.”

Of course, as the years have gone on, Affleck emerged as an outstanding scriptwriter, actor and director. Argo is as rollicking and enjoyable a film as I can remember winning an Oscar and his performance in To The Wonder is utterly iconic.

One of the things that I liked about Affleck’s appearance on the Bill Maher show this week was how easily dumbstruck he was. He is obviously a deeply intelligent and compassionate man. By his fruits we can assume as such. But faced with the smug smarminess of the unfunny Maher (lionized recently by Dawkins as “brave”) and the comedically evil Sam Harris, all Affleck could come up with was a resigned “Jesus Christ”.

He did manage to point out that Maher and Harris’ liberalism was gross, racist and blind to the decades of slaughter that America has inflicted in majority Muslim lands. For that he deserves our gratitude.

But let us take the Maher and Harris logic and try the simple task of turning it back on itself. Presumably, for two men who believe themselves to be intellectuals, coherence is an essential aspect of any argument that they wish to back. How does the claim that Islam is “the mother lode of bad ideas” stand up if we examine American liberalism and American progressives with the kind of suspicion that Maher, Harris, or many in the Obama administration hold for the entirety of the global ummah?

If Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, what is American liberalism? It insists that all humans are intrinsically good, invested with inalienable rights. And yet in a world populated with good men, it has been at ceaseless war since 1939. American liberalism is such a bad idea that it cannot even account for the causes of wars that it endlessly fights. Oh you American progressives, answer us this: “All the evil people, where do they come from?”

Islam is oppressive of its women and homosexuals. But American liberalism has just recently decided that homosexuals were people too. And the argument used to support this change of heart is that gay people are born this way. But at the same time, every single person’s sexual identity and practice is an expression of who they want to be, a free and autonomous act of self-creation. A nation that forgets that its psychological association only declassified homosexuality as a condition in 1973 affirms gay people by simultaneously saying “You are made this way” and “you make yourself”. Liberalism forgets its own sins, while it convicts Muslims on terms that Islam does not accept and even contradicts itself in the action.

And let us not forget the great liberation that women in the liberal west now enjoy. They can do the same jobs that men can do, for less money, while doing all the work they historically had to do in normative patriarchies as well. “But,” says the western woman who is expected to dress to a higher standard than her male colleagues, is afflicted by drastic body-image issues and who has often heard bosses make comments about how her “refusal” to get pregnant is one of the reasons they can “really trust her to do the job”, this woman says, “but the hijab is oppressive.

Sam Harris loves to tell us that Islam is violent. But Sam Harris is a citizen of a country that has been at war without end for longer than my dad, who is not a young man, has been alive. America kills with secret agents, and with robotic drones, and with trade sanctions, and with intellectual property clauses over essential medicines, and with soldiers carrying guns, jet fighters flying faster than the speed of sound, submarines powered by nuclear reactors and through the slow, determined, dedicated acts of torture they unfurl without any accountability and justice. America kills its own citizens, in botched capital punishment and in alarming numbers at the hands of police officers who aren’t racist but they just happen to only shoot at black people. Liberals say Islam is violent, but they ignore the fact that Affleck tried to make. More Muslims, innocent children and elderly ladies as well as young Jihadis, have been killed by western Liberals than westerners killed by Muslims. Putting a murder on YouTube isn’t what makes murder wrong. Putting murder in the hands of soldiers doesn’t make murder right.

Islam, it is said, hinders culture. It drapes social life under a theocratic strait-jacket. It slows economic development. All this may be true. It may be false. But let us consider again on what shaky ground the liberals stand when they make this claim. The western progressive laments the state of societies they have never visited, while living in cities segregated so thoroughly by internal poverty that there are neighbourhoods they have never visited and would feel unsafe to do so. Somehow, this is exclusively the fault of the people who live in those council estates or projects. Such social utopia we enjoy in the EU and the US! We are segregated by race and by creed and by capital. But the people up on top who get invited onto hilarious talk shows with Bill Maher don’t need to worry because they never need to see what happens to families when no one can get a job and kids go to schools where the teachers have 38 students in a class and where libraries get shut down, sports centres never get built and the only place where you can congregate with friends is the pub. Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, but our increasingly unjust distribution of wealth, decaying social fabric and paranoia represents the pinnacle of human culture.

Finally, the sophisticated liberal distances himself from the crude, gross, racism of Maher and Harris but they do quietly suggest, in tones informed by tomes you have heard of but never read, that Islam has a problem with its status as religion. “You see,” says this mansplaining progressive, “Islam can’t have a separation of church and state.” Somehow this is meant to be a killer argument. We in the west have entertained a blind faith in the dogma that religion is a private endeavour that shouldn’t intrude on the public square. That the Muslim world refuses to embrace this doctrine doesn’t just make them heretics. In the eyes of the contemporary liberalism, it makes them savage. Until they progress beyond their primitive refusal to compartmentalize religion from politics, economics from ethics, liturgy from community and faith from reason, they will always be suspect. Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, but in the face of all evidence, we liberals will continue to irrationally insist that religion is something like Marmite, a taste acquired by some, offering marginal flavour to lives of those in the margin.

Let me close with a word from an American Muslim prophet:

Your Correspondent, Once visited the United States, Land of the thief home of the slave

God Hates “God Hates…” Memes

Tiffany windows in Topeka Presbyterian

This is a collage of images from the beautiful Tiffany stained glass windows located in the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Topeka. I have never visited the congregation but judging from their website, they seem like a wonderful group of people, humble and gentle in their worship of Jesus and sincere too.

Upon seeing that the newspaper of record in Ireland reported the death of Fred Phelps on the front page, it occurred to me that I didn’t know one damn thing about Christianity in Topeka, Kansas. I actually can’t tell you anything about Kansas, except that it is in the middle and Kansas City is in a different state. Since I couldn’t locate Kansas on a map, you can rest assured that I have no idea where Topeka is. Apart from the fact that it is home to Westboro Baptist Church that is.

***

Like you, probably, I encountered the Phelps family initially through a fantastic Louis Theroux documentary. It was hard to even understand how appalling these peoples’ religion was. I was an atheist and profoundly Biblically illiterate but even then I knew that Christ was big on forgiveness. That’s probably how I would have put it. “Big on forgiveness”.

***

More than fifteen years later, on a daily basis I hear from Louis directly. I follow him on Twitter. He is living in LA now. I am drowning in data now. Everything from pictures of hippos charging naked men (Louis shared it this week – it’s HILARIOUS!) to statistical analyses of the suicide rates among the American veterans that Phelps taught were hated by God. I have the information. What the hell do I do with it?

***

Here’s a thing. If you accept that the course of modernity is a course that encourages being spiritual but not religious, then it follows that the narrative the Phelps family represents was primed for potency. Or put another way, when we imagine that the “individual” is the best way to think of human beings, then it follows that we are going to be geared for suspicion against “organised religion”. After all, thick accounts of community are in contest with thick accounts of individuality.

If this is true, then when we encounter the Phelps we encounter community of the worst kind – a family that is also a church. NiGHTMARE, right? Sure, their spirituality is repellent. And their lives appear to repudiate the God that they are notionally aligned with. But what we find in the Phelps clan isn’t just a story about how bad “religion” is. Our offence is of course riled on behalf of the gay people and the army families who suffer the onslaught that the Phelps clan dispense. But our offence strikes us with such personal potency because they stand for us as a sign of what we have escaped.

We don’t have to be like them. Brainwashed. Sheep. Blind. We can be rational. We can come to our own conclusions. We are not blinkered by prejudice or warped by bias.

***

We have no idea what Topeka is like. Is it mountainous? Is there a river running through it? Is it segregated? Do they prefer baseball or basketball? We know a family of lawyers went sort of mental and ended up creating a website called godhatesireland.com. We know that is ridiculous. It is theologically ridiculous but also, what do they know about Ireland?

Then we turn the page of the newspaper and click on the next link and get offended or appalled by the next thing designed to offend or appal us.

If you think I am being harsh in my description of the world in which we have immersed ourselves, ask yourself again why a newspaper published off Pearse Street and distributed around the island called Ireland would feature so prominently the report of the death of an old man in the middle of America who did horrendous things that mostly weren’t illegal? Why is that news?

***

Topeka Presbyterian seems like a community that is pretty interesting. In the aftermath of the Phelps family making Topeka famous for “religion”, I’d love to see a documentary about that congregation. Their three senior staff have doctorates. They are part of a rapidly shrinking denomination famous in many quarters for embracing every political and theological fad that passes by its General Assembly. But they declare themselves “missional”, even while they employ organists and proudly share photos of their stained glass. I suspect that if you hung out with them for a weekend with a video camera, you would find stories of deep human struggle and compassion, not a jot of anti-intellectualism, and a community of people comfortable with doubt and difference. It wouldn’t be weird enough for Louis Theroux and their leaders will never be memorialised on the front pages of Irish newspapers. But at least that programme would feed us data about Christianity as it is practiced, about America as it really is, about Topeka as a city where people live and breath and have their being. It would be hard to make that a programme about cartoon villains.

But seriously, what do I know?

Your Correspondent, The word “lover” bums him out unless it’s between meat and pizza.

Hector Goes… Holy

There is a hostility to Christianity in some parts of the Irish media. If that sounds churlish, remember that when a programme on RTE wants an input from Christian voices, they turn to the Iona Institute, which is a right-wing culture-lobbying charity. If letting those lads speak on my behalf isn’t a display of animus, then I don’t know what is. It is as ridiculous as inquiring about Christianity in America and consulting the talkshow host Bill O’Reilly.

So when RTE makes a big fancy programme about the Catholic church, all the religious people in Ireland, every single one of them, sits excitedly on the edge of their sofas to finally see their views represented.

Or not.

I did watch some religious television yesterday. After the stress of an exam, I ate my dinner while watching Rowan Williams talk about the cathedral at Canterbury. It was interesting only in this way – it proved that even phenomenally articulate people can be boring on the telly. For all his well honed thoughts, my attention was as wayward as his eminent eyebrows.

This morning I loaded up the big fancy RTE programme about the Catholic church that I had no interest in last night. I heard my classmates appeared so I felt obliged to watch.

For those not in the know, Hector is a DJ on one of the state radio stations. He is a likeable fellow who is disliked by many people for some inexplicable reason. He has these Louis Theroux-light documentaries where he goes on different quests and in last night’s episode, his was not so much a quest as a pilgrimage. Except it had no set goal so it was definitely not a pilgrimage. This is the kind of definition that the show painfully lacked.

For my readers from outside Ireland, listen to how strange an opening line there was:

There was a time in Ireland when there was a picture of the Pope, JFK and the Sacred Heart in every kitchen up and down the country…

Perhaps, foreign friends, you think of Ireland as a formerly Catholic country. But it is a bizarre note of fantasy to imagine that even in 1932 when the capital city was brought to a halt because of a public mass, every single family was Catholic. Of course, Hector doesn’t mean that. He is using hyperbole for effect. I am familiar with that tactic. I am the best fecking user of hyperbole that the world has ever seen. But Hector obviously imagines that the church means one thing and he imagines all of us think that as well.

How ever did Irish Protestants get the impression they could fuck off and no one would mind, I wonder?

Hector’s documentary is an example of three contradictions at the heart of our shared understanding of what faith/religion/Christianity means :

    1. The church means the Roman Catholic Church but the Catholic Church is not understood with Catholic ecclesiology but almost as just another denomination (what David McWilliams would call the Protestantisation of Irish Catholicism).
    2. The church is the people of God but when you want to have a discussion about the church the last thing you do is talk with or observe the actual people.
    3. Priests have their (fierce awful lonely altogether sure it’s hard now for ye) vocations foisted on them somehow

1.
Hector, more than half way through his journey declares that he has learned “The church is a theocracy, not a democracy…” Yes indeed. One of his commentators, a priest from a neighbouring diocese to the one I live in says “Why are priests not allowed to get married in 2012?” I know it’s bad form for a Prod to be telling Catholics how to be Catholic but seriously, lads, priests can get married in 2012. There are priests married and conducting their ministry out of Orthodox and Anglican parishes all over this island. And those streams of Christianity didn’t arrive at the decision to have married clergy based on the year. Their reasoning is theological and Biblical. The pragmatic-logic of a “user” (to use one of Hector’s clumsier phrases) centred approach to Christianity is more commonly seen in parodies of American evangelicalism. The absence of a sense of what it means to be Catholic is striking.

This was most clearly captured in a scene he shot at the Eucharistic congress. The irony was jarring as he spoke to the camera with a packed Croke Park behind him celebrating mass, as he claimed that ‘religion’ was “something you can’t put your finger on.” BECOME WHAT YOU RECEIVE are the 20-foot tall words on the stage above the altar, citing Augustine of Hippo’s 4th Century EUCHARISTIC slogan. The claim of Catholicism (and all Catholic Christianities) is that religion is very much something you can quite literally put your finger on.

2.
So in this show Hector wants to find out about Catholicism but he doesn’t go talk to people like my dad who goes to mass whenever he can but finds it hard to believe Paul is inspired and wrestles with what it is he believes and what it is that he just had beaten into him as a child. Instead he talks exclusively to priests. The “people of God” can’t be found because the priests that he talks to don’t even believe it. They themselves talk about “them” (meaning the congregation) and “us” (the priests). The clericalism in the Irish Catholic church is a massive problem, but it is striking that none of the commentators seem to have really wrestled with it. Hector thinks the church is an institution, he says so repeatedly.

3.
The two parts of the show I enjoyed the most were the shots at the start of Clew Bay (among the loveliest places on planet Earth) and the shots at the end of my college in Maynooth (among the loveliest places on, well, the west side of Dublin!). Hector went to interview some of my classmates. Aidan McCann, who is a seminarian from Armagh spoke with his typical ease and eloquence about the “beautiful responsibility” he felt in his calling. But Hector’s tone throughout was to ignore utterly what Aidan said. In the next scene he is chatting with some more classmates and my Monaghan namesake Kevin Malcolmson was obviously struggling to deal with the irrelevance of Hector’s proposal to remedy flagging vocations. Hector wants an ad in the newspaper about how priests get a “company car” and Sky Sports and their meals provided for them. It is a cringeworthy scene. Kevin is a grown man who has forsaken all the other ways he could choose to live to dedicate himself to prayer and the care of people. He doesn’t do the work he does because of remuneration but because he knows God is active in this world. I don’t want to speak for him, but while watching I desperately wanted to give Hector a slap and say, “You have three fascinating men who have made a subversive and counter-cultural decision. Listen to them!”

Instead the idea that priesthood is just social work with less swear words is the prevailing idea that the show communicates. Sure it’s fierce hard for them.

It is. And I think they should be able to marry. And I think they should be joined by women. But that conversation is deep and theological; it isn’t a failure of common sense as if the thought had never occurred to these men before the lad off the radio came along with some “fresh thinking”.

By the way, every priest who appeared on the show had a little subtitle with their names but the seminarians remained functionally anonymous. Clericalism my friends, is a tricky little beast to tame.

I actually think that Hector Goes… Holy, by having little to no contact with the sociological and devotional reality of the Catholic church on the ground is useful because it is so unsurprisingly cack-handed. The Irish media can’t investigate the church and it is because of incompetence. An analogy which might illuminate what I’m saying is that Hector Goes… Holy is as insightful about religion in Ireland as Kevin Goes… Soccer Mad would be if the whole hour was spent with me travelling around the country talking with groundskeepers and asking them about the difficulties of saving their grass from frost. It is an almost intentional ignorance of the topic at hand.

Twitter was the site of a little moanfest during the programme (while I was watching a Sherlock repeat) about the “preachy shite” on the state broadcaster. But the fundamental thing I take away from the programme is the utter absence of preaching. This is not because the show was full of light and gracious contributions but because it had simply no content at all. Throughout the whole show, it was assumed that everyone involved in making it and everyone at home watching it knew what the church was and what it was about.

I grew up in a home like the one Hector cited in some ways. My parents marital bed sat for decades under a portrait of John Paul II. There is still a Sacred Heart of Jesus in my parent’s kitchen. I was an altar boy who went to Mass every Sunday. And I was a convinced and well reasoned atheist.

I encountered people who opened my eyes to the fact that generalisations like “sure, we all know what’s in the Bible” and “what Jesus was really about was…” were ignorances covered up by prejudices passed off as enlightenments. There wasn’t one aspect of the Apostle’s Creed that I understood, even though I knew the whole thing off by heart. No doubt I rejected it as all too much dogma from the past. It was never made present to me.

If I could wave a wand and change the discourse in Ireland around Christianity, I wouldn’t want to silence the mean columnists with their opinions in the newspapers or get rid of the technically sectarian keeping of the Angelus on the state broadcaster. What I would want to change is the belief that we can talk about Christianity without the same sort of fragile humility that we would take in making a documentary about Islam or Buddhism. I’d like to take every journalist and talkshow host and documentary filmmaker aside and convince them that they don’t have an innate understanding of the news about Jesus Christ simply because there is a harp on their passport.

Your Correspondent, Is distracting himself from study

The Worst Television Program In The World

I used to love The West Wing. As a teenaged boy I would stay up with my family to watch President Bartlett solve the world’s problems. Then I watched the whole series right through again on DVD. I was a married man in my middle-twenties at that stage though, which means I had less of an excuse because I still loved it.

I used to joke that Bartlett was a Jesus character. Then I became a Christian and slowly realised that he was a Jesus character. His sacrifice? Living with us compromising humans with patience until he would eventually set the world free with a striking piece of rhetoric and a creative policy solution.

Now I can’t stand The West Wing.

Like so many who doubt, it was evangelism that forced me to confront the crisis. I tried to convert my wife to the world of The West Wing and had to turn it off after the first scene. Toby is on a plane and he schools an air-hostess on the safety of mobile phones, in part because he’d know since his brother was an astronaut.

Now everyone is very excited about Aaron Sorkin’s newest program, Newsroom. It is truly horrendous.

It has all the errors of The West Wing. It has a near-perfect male lead whose only problem is that he is grumpy because he is so damn idealistic. It has a supporting cast of young people proving themselves capable of punching way above their weight and all of them are amazingly bright. Female characters exist to make the lead character look great. And most crucially, the problems of American society can be resolved simply by following through on our idealistic gut-instinct.

Of course, if the world’s problems can be resolved with simple solutions, then that means that the world’s problems are simple. But the reality is that the world’s problems are complex, even America’s problems. That is the reason the problems haven’t been solved.

2 Broke Girls is a bad television show. But its charming in its willingness to push the boundaries of rudeness the small amount that you are allowed to push it. It won’t harm anyone, even though it sags with crude jokes based around stereotypes and less-than-subtle allusions to masturbation.

Newsroom is a truly horrendous television programme. I have now watched three episodes. It is as bad as The West Wing and worse again. The preposterous, rapid-fire dialogue that bears no resemblance to the way human beings speak is still there. The physical beauty of every character, including the office computer nerd is still there. The astonishing moral and intellectual brilliance of the lead character is still there. The news anchor drinks Stella Artois. That shows you how sophisticated an American is. He makes everything simple by talking quickly and passionately. I do that when I preach on Sunday mornings and the world remains stubbornly complex. But I didn’t finish college at 19, qualify as a lawyer at 21 and then work for the Brooklyn prosecutor securing a 94% prosecution rate before becoming a news superstar. In one particularly ridiculous bit of speech, the quirky eccentric manager of the publicly listed news company that is currently deciding that ratings don’t matter anymore is a man in his late 60’s who uses the phrase “douchebaggery”.

My dad is in his late 60’s. He doesn’t usually say anything rude and when he does, it certainly isn’t the word “douchebag”.

That’s why he runs a sole-tradership and the imaginary fellow with the bow-tie is the boss of a big imaginary fantasy news station, I suppose.

Newsroom hates reality, despises complexity and does so while being marketed as if it is talking about the real world in an intelligent fashion.

Go watch New Girl with an easy conscience and call bullshit on this fancy, glossy turd.

Your Correspondent, “FACTS ARE THE CENTRE” of this analysis

In Honour Of Friday Night Lights

This is what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna talk about TV.

If I ever had to live in America, one of my great consolations would be the potential for going to baseball games. I love that game. As many of you know, since this blog is largely read by people who know me, my two childhood best friends remain my constant companions. We’re awful nerds and so call ourselves the Triple Entente. One balmy summer evening too many years ago to remember, the Entente, joined by Wife-Unit and two native Oregonians, attended a game of minor league baseball.

A sport for kings that is! Designed for optimum drinking. Played at dusk when everyone is at their most attractive. Loaded with statistics for those of us who are friends with numbers. Being able to spend the summer following a local baseball team would more than make up for the crappy bread in America.

But now, much to my surprise, I love American Football too.

Previously my knowledge of American Football had been gathered from Madden 93 for the Sega Megadrive. I asked my parents to buy me Lemmings. They bought me an American Football game with a fat man on the cover. How’s that for being born under the wrong sign?

From what the games console taught me, the key to winning in American Football was to always play as the Buffalo Bills and to do something called a “Hail Mary”.

Now I know what a “Hail Mary” actually is because I fell in love with the hugely under-rated programme Friday Night Lights.

It is about the life and times of a small fictional east Texas city called Dillon, told through the lens of its high school American football culture. When I tell people that they look at me with what we can call the “Firefly” face. That’s the face evoked by being recommended to watch a tv programme that is a “Western but set in space”.

But actually underneath the teen soap, testosterone charged football arena surface, Friday Night Lights is an expressionistic wonder. Over the course of its five seasons it plays out as a kind of extended musing on one of the great philosophical questions: is it better to be effective or to be excellent?

See why the sport plays a part? Life is like football and we have to decide if we want to win or be good and those are not necessarily the same things.

The plot always hinges around Coach Eric Taylor and his wife, a high school guidance counselor called Tammy. Eric and Tammy always wear reflective sunglasses but you never ever ever see the camera or boom-mic in the lenses and that is a hint towards the stratospheric production standards maintained in this show. It has a kind of documentary style shooting that is unobtrusive but very effective. I could waffle about that but won’t. It is high quality telly.

Plus, in its depiction of this married couple as they struggle through the compromises and consolations of living together, you have the rarest of things: a believable depiction of what it means to be husband and wife.

The Taylors

It helps that they fancy the pants off each other. I hate how marriage is commonly a trope for sexual dissatisfaction or monotony.

There is some stellar acting and some utterly shite acting. There is occasionally a slip into Dawson’s Creek territory infuriating dialogue and teenage romance. There is a very strange plot tangent in series two that comes out of nowhere. This is not perfect telly. But it is deeply satisfying. It is full of total hotties so at least on that level it will always work. Plus it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It gives some space to considering the way in which the Christian faith shapes American culture without viewing that totally negatively. It depicts the elderly with dignity. The soundtrack is superb.

This is a show that has a strong leading female character who has a real moral compass. Not a Hollywood moral compass. She is not certain. She is not glib. She is not sorted. But she has virtue.

So too does her husband. And as the show comes down heavily on the side of excellence over effectiveness, one of the unspoken undertones is the way in which their virtue spreads. That’s some moral complexity from American pop culture. That kind of thing needs to be encouraged.

So go watch Friday Night Lights and try not to fall for Timmy Riggins.

Your Correspondent, Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.