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The trouble with religion (part 94)

In which we discuss a suitable Sunday topic


The Mother phoned up today, as she does regularly, to tell us all the latest exciting goings-on in her social circle. Her friend George, who she knew from church, has died aged 85, after a long illness. “Of course, he’d been ill for years,” she said, “and he was in great pain. By the end he was screaming. ‘Take me, Lord, take me!’ It was a blessing when he died.”

When it comes to religion, The Mother is a great fan of this sort of logic. If The Family Car Crash Of 1988 ever comes up in conversation, The Mother will no doubt say something along the lines of “You had such a narrow escape! It just proves that God was looking down on us.” Now, it’s true that I almost lost a) my life b) an eyeball;* but I’m not sure God deserves much in the way of credit. It is fair to argue, though, that the Family Car Crash Of 1988 was a Good Thing: the insurance windfall paid for a piano and a university education.

You can’t really argue, though, that taking the life of an old man after he’s had a long and painful illness, so bad he begs you to kill him, is a good way for any deity to behave. If God really wanted to bless a man who had been a devout churchgoer all his life, a churchwarden and church committee member for many years, someone who every Sunday had been up at the altar receiving the body and blood of Christ devoutly believing that the said God had personally told us all to do this every week,** if He had really wanted to grant him a boon, wouldn’t he have saved him the several years of pain and suffering?*** But, no, in The Mother’s religious logic, bringing the death after George had been calling out for it loudly for a while is the kindly Godly way to behave, not letting him die after a short illness a few years ago. It leaves me thinking: just what does count as compassion, for the religious?

* Strangely, although my life was saved by a pretty narrow margin, I never realised until many many years later just how close I’d come to being killed. Instead, I concentrated on the irony that my eyeball was probably saved by my poor sight, as the thick plastic lens in front of it absorbed the impact of the shards of glass that hit me. With extra irony, the sight in my other eye is almost perfect.

** Although of course, Jesus didn’t want me for a sunbeam do it on a Sunday morning.

*** Let’s not get into the tragic story of George’s wife, either.

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A Big Splash (Or, Films I’ve Never Seen, Part One)

In which we wonder what the film-makers were thinking


Every time I’ve been to the cinema recently, I’ve had to sit through a trailer for newly-released film Evan Almighty. And it makes me slightly uneasy. Because – if you’re lucky enough to have managed to avoid the thing – it’s a lighthearted family comedy based on the story of Noah And The Flood, from Genesis. God comes down to Earth, visits an innocent politician, and tells him to build an ark because he’s decided to do the whole flood thing again.

Read that again. It’s a lighthearted family comedy, where God comes down to visit a politician, because (going on what happened last time) he wants to warn him that everyone else on the planet is going to be killed in the biggest natural disaster you can imagine. Did anyone even think at all about this film before it was made? Did they get beyond “comedy, sequel, some Bible story that everyone vaguely remembers”?* To my mind, the idea of writing a comedy about God breaking the only promise he ever made to the whole of mankind,** and apparently planning to kill everyone on earth apart from an American politician, is a little … well, perverse.***

I assume – not having seen the film – that not everyone (apart from the blessed family) gets killed at the end. Surely no Hollywood studio is going to release a big summer comedy where everyone on earth apart from a handful of people dies at the end? Drama, maybe, but not comedy. All in all, it sounds like a bit of a mess. Does God turn out to be nice in the end? Does he say: “Aw, I was only kidding. I just wanted you to learn how to be a better person.” How many people are killed by the flood that I did spot in the trailer? I really don’t want to find out.

* Although most people forget the bit at the end where Noah gets drunk, and one of his sons is forever cursed for seeing his drunken father’s tadger.

** Because it – the promise that “I’m not going to kill you all ever again” – was made before the Tower of Babel incident, when God scrambles everyone’s brains and makes possible the Tourist Phrasebook – so, as everyone was rather samey, there wasn’t any one Chosen People. And he never does kill everyone all together again – after that, he limits himself to smiting one city at a time.

*** And not in the good way

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The churchgoer in the street

In which major international issues do not disturb the local parish


Given that today, in the news, there’s rather a lot about the slowly-growing and now likely forthcoming schism in the Anglican church, I thought I’d ask the average churchgoer in the street about it. Well, the average churchgoer who is also my mother, at any rate. She’s a fairly average “active” Anglican, though. She’s white, middle-class, female, edging towards elderly, lives in a commuter village, and goes to church every week. She’s a Sunday School teacher, has organised the parish’s Christian Aid collections, sings in an ecumenical Christian parish singing group,* and generally is far more active and puts more effort into religion than most churchgoers, never mind the huge percentage of Anglicans who tick the relevant box on the census but never cross the threshold of a church for anything other than weddings and funerals.

So, I said: “what are you going to do if the church splits in two? Is anyone going to leave St. Nick’s over it?”

Her answer: “What split?”

“You know, the one that has been rumbling for the last few years.” I tried to explain how the rather homophobic Peter Akinola is a figurehead for a group of largely-American homophobic conservatives, who do not like the Archbishop of Canterbury and have been threatening for some time to lead a schism, sometimes in the hope of bending him to their will, sometimes apparently meaning it.

“I’ve not heard about any of that,” she said. “We don’t talk about that sort of thing at church. That’s nothing to do with us.”

So, there you have it. I don’t think The Mother is particularly ignorant. As I said above, I think she’s probably less ignorant than your average churchgoer is likely to be, because she takes a very active interest. But to her, the politicking of a motley band of Americans and Africans isn’t important. An earthquake in Lambeth Palace isn’t important. The Second Coming occurring in the Lady Chapel of our parish church probably wouldn’t disturb most of the congregation, so long as it didn’t disrupt the Mothers Union or the bellringers, and everyone still got a cup of tea (or coffee) after the Sunday communion service. For your average English Anglican, dogma is something you recite during the service without really listening or understanding. It certainly isn’t something to get all argumentative about.

* where “ecumenical” means “Anglican and Methodist”, because they’re the only churches in the village. I’m not sure what they’ll do if those often-suggested plans to subsume British Methodists within Anglicanism ever make much progress.

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Topical

In which we beware the homophobes and have milky tea


Talking of things that are very English: tea is much more healthy if you drink it without milk. The news isn’t going to help me, though, because I will never ever drink the stuff without milk in. I’ve tried it. It makes me ill. Without milk in, without fail, it brings up my stomach. So the news that it’s healthy raises a bitter laugh.

More serious news: as I type,* people are protesting on the streets of London for their God-given right to be nasty people. More specifically, they’re protesting that homophobia should be legally sacrosant, on religious grounds. I’m not sure I understand these religions for whom “keep away from the gays, you might catch gayness” is apparently more important than “love thy neighbour”. Take the Christians, for example – Jesus famously didn’t say anything at all about sexuality. St Paul did, but St Paul said lots of things.** The Old Testament does, but the Old Testament also says that wearing mixed-fibre fabrics should attract the death penalty.*** If being able to turn people away because they’re gay is such a religious issue, how come it’s never been a major tenet of your faith historically? If it’s not, why are you being nasty?

* see, that’s damn topical

** Then again, most Christians probably pay more respect to the teachings of St Paul than Jesus himself. St Paul wasn’t even one of Jesus’s followers, but he still managed to invent most of Christianity. For one thing, he came up with the controversial and shocking idea that you didn’t have to be Jewish to be a Christian. Want to feel like you’re going to heaven but can’t give up the bacon rolls? Thank St Paul! Trying to get your child into an Anglican school, but don’t want to have to stay away from everybody when you’re menstruating? Guess who you should thank!

*** I will look this up and check it later, I promise.

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Miscellany

In which various things happen, and FP listens to Thought For The Day


First Christmas present bought already, but I’m still going to have to devote the weekend to running around the county hoping desperately to find something inspirational. I’m not saying what I’ve already bought. It’s for my dad, and I don’t think he reads this place, but you never know.

When I get up in the morning, I have Radio 4 on in the background. I like Radio 4, but I normally try very hard to avoid listening to Thought For The Day, in case of the very real risk that it will make me want to throw the radio through the kitchen window.* Today though, I caught a quick flash of it. I can’t remember the exact phrase I heard, but it was something along the lines of “lots of Christians use phrases like ‘God willing’ and ‘if God wishes it’ all the time”. Which left me rather puzzled, because even though I’ve known a large number of devout Christians over the years, none of them have ever said any such thing in normal conversation. Maybe one of the good aspects of Thought For The Day is that it makes you realise there are people out there whose view of the world is so partial and skewed, that they really do believe they are standard conversational phrases, just because that’s what all their friends say.

I was talking to someone last night about the next Book I Haven’t Read that I’m going to write about: House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. “Oh, I don’t think anyone’s read that all the way through,” she said. “I don’t think you can.” So maybe I should invite additional contributions to the next Book I Haven’t Read post – if you have read House Of Leaves all the way through without cheating, let me know.

Big Dave says he’s found a flat now. A “one-bed studio flat”, or what people Up North** still call a bedsit. At least this means he has the weekend to do his Christmas shopping in, rather than worrying about property-hunting trips down to Barking and Beckton.

* especially if Anne Atkins is the writer/presenter.

** apart from if you’re a property developer, of course. Or you live in Leeds, probably.

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The truth

In which we are worried about the New Puritans


I’ve spoken several times before about the proposed Extreme Pornography Bill. Which will, it’s planned, criminalise possession of pornographic pictures which appear to show people at risk of serious harm.

There are a few keywords in the proposals which suggest that some of its drafters do care, at least, about trying to make sure the bill only applies to very extreme stuff. Any videos with certificates, for example, would be exempt, because the bill is only intended to apply to things which would be too extreme to pass the censors to start with. The wording is still very vague, though, and leaves convictions down to the whims of judge and jury. Nevertheless, there is plenty of reason to be worried. The bill’s drafters are not those who will use it. Whether people get convicted under it may well end up depending entirely on where they live.

A short digression: Edinburgh has two big seasonal tourist attractions you’ve probably heard of: the Festival season, and the Hogmanay celebrations. You might not have heard, though, of its third big seasonal event: Beltane. Revellers climb Calton Hill to watch a grand fire-juggling performance. Some do treat it as a religious festival, but most are just there to have a good time;* and, like the other two events, people come to watch from all over the world.

You’d think Edinburgh City Council would support Beltane, it being one of the main tourist-attracting events outside the main season. They’re generally not very supportive at all, though – their support has always been lukewarm, if visible at all. And the reason for this, it is rumoured,** is the strong evangelical Christian faction on the city council. They see the Beltane celebration as Satanic and Evil, and definitely not something to be encouraged. They may be completely wrong, but they have positions of power.

BDSM isn’t evil, but there are certainly people who think that it is. If a high-ranking police officer was of that opinion, he could easily try to use this bill to push forward his own personal opinion on it. He may think that pornography itself is evil – certainly, there are people out there who say they want to ban “all pornography”*** There’s a high chance that such a hypothetical policeman would waste an awful lot of time and money aiming this bill at harmless Sensible Pervs, just because he doesn’t like what they do in the bedroom.

A lot of people on the BDSM scene are worried that this bill isn’t just a move against pornography, it’s a move against them personally; a move by a puritan government towards directly attacking people who don’t fit their own straitlaced morality. Maybe some of the bill’s supporters do indeed think that. You might not care about that, yourself, either because you’ve never had a kinky thought in your head, or you’ve never admitted that you do. The Sensible Pervs, though, are ordinary people just like you and me, ordinary people whose acceptance of their own psychological makeup has led some of them into wonderfully deep and supportive relationships. The bus driver who drives you to work, the signalman signalling your train, the IT guy fixing your computer or the shopkeeper of your neighbourhood shop – they could all, for all you know, have sex lives far kinkier than anything you can imagine. But, moreover, at the same time they’re all ordinary people just like you. And an attack on any of the ordinary people in our communities, is an attack on everybody.

(this post was inspired by Blogging For Backlash)

* like all the men who hang around Calton Hill on all the other nights of the year, it being Edinburgh’s closest equivalent to Hampstead Heath

** but it’s likely to be pretty close to the truth, because I heard it from a senior Beltane Fire Society official a few years ago

*** and they tend to think that the definition of pornography, too, is self-evident.

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Friday again

In which we recap


If this week seems to have gone quickly, it’s because I haven’t been blogging very much. My social life is getting the better of me.

Talking of blogging, one of the managers at work has apparently started too. I’m intrigued, but not enough to want to read it. The next thing you know, the managing director will be getting a Livejournal.

Update on last month’s post about Christian science fiction: whilst searching for something else, I discovered the book I was thinking of when I wrote it. It’s Operation Titan by Dilwyn Horvat. I’ve tried searching for more information about Horvat, but not very much has turned up. I’m not even sure whether Dilwyn is a male or female name.

The book I was searching for, incidentally, was How To Travel With A Salmon by Umberto Eco, because I wanted to reread his essay “How To Recognise A Porn Movie”. It’s a long, long story,* but it’s tangentially linked to this post from last August, one of the first things I wrote here. I’ll post more about it soon, I’m sure.

Big Dave keeps repeating random phrases over and over again. I’m sure he must be developing late-onset Tourette’s Syndrome. Oh, well, at least it’s Friday.

* which, to explain, would take several pages of context, description, links to discussions elsewhere, links to political campaigning sites, links to sites you probably shouldn’t read at the office, and lots more explanation, and probably, diagrams.

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Nationalistic

In which we go dragon-killing


Well, I sat down at my computer to write a long serious post about how I need to lose my shyness. But then, I thought: hang on a minute! It’s Saint George’s Day! So, I dressed up in a suit of armour and went out to sing Jerusalem and stab a few dragons instead.

Actually, that last bit wasn’t quite true. I love the fact that other countries have deadly serious national days; England has a national day to celebrate a mythical Lebanese man who isn’t even a Catholic saint any more. Bulgaria, in fact, has much better St George’s Day celebrations than we do, although no longer on the same date.* England has, well, nothing at all, and most of the people who campaign for more of a celebration are rather nasty nationalists. We could do with a decent national celebration, if only as an excuse for a party.

* because they still date their saints’ days with the Julian calendar, which is a couple of weeks out.

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Torn curtain

In which we wonder about the motives behind sacrifice


As it’s Good Friday, good Christians everywhere should be eating fish and following the Stations Of The Cross. I’m not any sort of Christian, good or bad, but even so it’s a good day to think about self-sacrifice for The Cause, whatever that happens to be.

Of course, whether that’s what Jesus did is a moot point. It’s debatable whether the crucifixion even happened; even if you believe it did, was it more an act of self-sacrifice or self-promotion? An awful lot of Jesus’s acts in Scripture have an air of deliberate planning about them. The prophets had said: the Messiah will go out and do X; therefore, Jesus went ahead and did those things. He was like some modern evangelicals and millenarians, deliberately trying to push history into a sudden new phase by carrying out others’ prophecy.

So, self-sacrifice, self-advancement or self-promotion? You could ask the same question about Malcolm Kendall-Smith, dismissed from the RAF and sent to prison yesterday after he declared that as he thought the Iraq was illegal, he would not fight in it. The judges at his court-martial, however, ruled that by the time he received his orders the legality or otherwise of the original invasion was irrelevant.*

Kendall-Smith has sacrificed himself, and his career – he said himself that the RAF was one of the great loves of his life. The judge, however, accused him of being more interested in self-promotion: of trying to make himself into a martyr for the cause. I’m not in a position to judge this myself: my own best guess is that he wasn’t, but he should have realised that that accusation would be made. Whichever is closer to the truth, it’s a strangely apt story to appear in the headlines on Good Friday.

* The Guardian article suggests in one paragraph that the judge ruled that members of the services aren’t allowed to dispute something’s legality: if the government says something is legal, those orders must be followed. However, that wasn’t something that the ruling itself relied on.

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Literature

In which we remember Christian Literature


You might be wondering, having read yesterday’s post, how I know quite so much about the founders of the Salvation Army. The answer: my mother.

My mother would frequently buy me lots and lots of books, usually from the local library’s “for sale” stack.* Every so often, though, she would pop down to our local Christian booksellers, housed in an old ice factory near the docks, and buy me something Moral and Improving.

Sometimes these would be factual books about the lives of great Christians, such as, for example, William Booth and Catherine Mumford. More often, though, it would be a children’s novel with a religious theme. They started off just like any other novel, but when it came to the crunch point, the characters would find that only God could save them.

One series I particularly remember was a series of science-fiction stories, set in a far-future solar system where Christianity had been long-banned, but was preserved by a group of secret space-age knights who had been heavily influenced by** the Star Wars movies. Their worlds were dark and gritty; but if the characters’ faith didn’t save them, a deus ex machina surely would. Indeed, the whole point of these books is that God definitely is still about the place, and can pop into the story for the occasional bit of divine intervention when needed. The reader can see that God is real, even if only the “good” characters can.

* “Withdrawn from stock, 25p each”

** or, less charitable people might say, “ripped off from”.

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