Saturday, 27 September 2014

Reflections on Ian Paisley

When Ian Paisley died, I tweeted a comment that at least he had passion for his faith. I had one response that even Hitler had passion. Which is true.

I think he was completely wrong in what he said. But I could admire his passions, his intensity. I would rather someone was passionately right than passionately wrong, but I would rather passionately wrong than meh and right. I think passion - especially in matters of faith - is more important than orthodoxy, because none of us are right entirely. Most are more right that Rev Paisley, but that is matters of degrees.

Passion is important. Dr Paisley believed in what he was saying passionately and intensely. In comparison to the logical and reasoned and calm comments from, for example, the various Archbishops in their New Year Messages, I might agree more with the archbishops, but I am more fired up by Dr Paisley.

It does seem that we have lost and sense of real passion, intensity, drive in our faith today. The only ones who seem to have any passion are those who preach hatred. I wish there were those who would preach a tolerant and open message with the same passion that people like Dr Paisley used to preach. I want passion in my faith. because otherwise it is a dry and meaningless discussion. I want people who get pent up and angry at the injustices that are perpetrated every day, people who get angry at the abuse that is suffered, people who will say "this is wrong". We don't need anyone else who wants to discuss the niceties of theology. There are plenty of people who can do that.

In the end, I don't think we need more people who breed and drive sectarian division in the way that Dr Paisley did. I do, however, thing that we need more people who have the passion of their beliefs that he had.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The problem of Bread

I have just finished reading "The Conquest of Bread" by Peter Kropotkin. He is an important author in the anarchist/communist reading library, and so I was interested to read what he had to say. However, this book has clarified to me one of the core problems of an anarchist/communist revolution, as he desires. At the core, it is the fundamental failure of the communist ideal, but adding in the anarchist beliefs, and so insisting on no rule, no control, simply exacerbates this problem.

The problem is that it relies on people behaving in the right way. At one point he talks about expropriation of all property, and inviting everyone to take a property that they need rather than the hovel they already have. To the question of "surely everyone will want the biggest and best property", his answer is to trust to the good will of everyone to take only something that they need.

There are a number of ways of addressing this and exploring why it is a mistaken belief - why people are clearly not fundamentally good and altruistic. He draws examples to illustrate his belief from the altruistic behaviour of people when there is a crisis or accident, and I would not wish to dismiss these cases, these situations, or to ignore the core goodness that these show. However, these are different situations - communities do often work together to help everyone in a crisis. We do care for our neighbours, because we all live in a community (however large or small). I know that in our road of 6 houses, we will look out for each other, assist if necessary, be prepared to go out of our way to be neighbourly.

However, the Christian message is very clear that we are not at a core level good. This is not a question of Original Sin, which is a doctrine I have real problems with - it is the Christian understanding that we are all "sinners", we all fail, at some level and some point, to live up to our own ideals, never mind Gods.

This means that, if it were to come to a property grab, we would not be lovely and altruistic. If it was about enabling an individual who was homeless to find a properly, we would support that. If it is about what we can get, we would tend to go for the best we can achieve. We are selfish at some level, and would want to get the best we can - maybe on the basis the someone has to, and we would use the space for something good and wholesome, maybe we would justify our greed, but we would still be greedy. That is part of the human condition.

But it is not just the Christian message that tells us this is a flawed approach. The core problem that the communist writings explores is that some people earn money form other peoples work - they are fundamentally greedy or lazy, wanting the riches but not wanting to do the work to make it happen. There is an underlying assumption to this that it is a certain class of people who are like this, wanting something for nothing, whereas the good honest workers, who are oppressed by this system, just want a decent days pay for a decent days work. This idea occurs in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists too, and other works expounding radical left-wing politics.

The truth is, as we can see quite clearly from those who have raised themselves into positions of power and wealth, that this is not just a few who are avaristic. It is all of us who, given the chance, would tend to grab more and more. And, as these writings make clear, if some people take more, this is always at the expense of others. In a global economy, we may delight at being able to get school uniforms for £5, while ignoring the fact that this almost certainly means slave labour has been used to produce them. Somewhere in the world, people suffer for our advantage.

That is why I cannot support that approach to reform - the communist/anarchist approach. That is why I temper my anarchism, and why I am a socialist, not a communist. In the end, I don't believe this approach would work, because it is failing to take a realistic attitude to human failings. It is idealistic, and assumes that everyone could be won over to the ideals, not just the results.

Change is needed. But change has to be realistic, not idealistic. That is a real problem, a real challenge to any political philosophy. Otherwise all that happens is that a different groups of selfish, power-hungry people obtain the power.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Recent reading

In an attempt to read as much as I can around the subject of leaving church, I have read a couple of books recently that have been very disappointing. I will (eventually) put these up on my site, but I wanted to explore a little more here why these have been problematic books, why I would not recommend them to others in my position.

The first book was Leaving the Fold by Marlene Winell. Her approach to the problem of those who leave church and/or faith is from the perspective of a psychologist and counselor. I suspect this is the problem, because she sees broken people, and seeks to help them from outside the church.

There are two issues I have with her book, however, that may be related. The first one is pure laziness, because she explains at the start that she is talking about the conservative evangelical church (in the States, which does give some context), and yet refers to it as Christianity, the Church, Evangelicals etc, as if the problems were across the whole spectrum of the Christian faith or even the evangelical wing of the faith. I say this is lazy because she is a medically qualified practitioner, she has a PhD, so she must know how to be rigorous in her writing, but she seems to want to slander the whole of Christianity based on the extremist positions taken by some groups - although, admittedly, a vociferous and dangerous group.

The second issue is that she seems to see the only resolution for those within the extreme conservative ends of the church is to leave their faith entirely. All of her talk is about having lost faith entirely, not about what I have experienced, which is a rejection of those parts which I cannot accept, but an acceptance of those parts which I still believe in. I think this issue is the really dangerous one. There is something really powerful in being able to think about your faith, change your views and position, reconsider what you accept and what you don't. If you can learn how to explore your faith, change your mind without it crushing the whole edifice, that gives you more confidence to rethink other areas, other issues.

The danger of Winells approach is that if you have to reject the entire Christian faith just because one expression of it is damaging and abusive, what happens when you find other beliefs are broken, are flawed? What happens when you realise that your idea of a "perfect family" doesn't work, because a family involves people, who are flawed? What happens when you realise that your politicians are flawed? Or your chosen profession? There has to be a way of accepting the flaws, while not rejecting the entire system. There has to be a way of saying "this aspect of the church sucks big time, but I can adjust my faith to cope with this". That seems like a good life skill to have.

The second book is Kissing Fish by Roger Wolsey. In truth, it is hard to know where to start with this book, because it is quite fundamentally flawed from where I stand. I suppose there are three main concerns I have:

1. What Wolsey promotes as "Progressive Christianity" is a version of liberal Christianity - exactly what I have heard form liberals for years. While I have no problem with liberals - although I don't agree with them - to posit this as the only viable and valid alternative to evangelical (again, because this book is American, a broadly conservative evangelical perspective) Christianity is exactly what kept me in the damaging positions for a long time. As an evangelical, I do not want to be told that if I reject the Official Church Teaching the only alternative is to be a liberal. I have found a different way - being an evangelical, maintaining all of the core principles of my faith, but rejecting the church and the rigid approach they had to acceptable faith.

2. Wolsey presents "Progressive Christianity" in a very authoritarian way. there are constant references to "progressive Christians believe ..." which sound to me very like the "Evangelical Christians believe..." that I have heard a lot of (although the wording does differ). I don't need another form of Christianity that has a large set of beliefs that I am expected to adhere to. Now I suspect Wolsey does not mean it like this, but to anyone coming from the more conservative end of the spectrum, this could be very off-putting. Of course, it could also be very freeing - going from one rule-driven version of faith to another - just not very helpful. It doesn't help people think through their own faith, it gives then a different set of rules to follow.

3. It is very "academic-lite". Now, I should point out that I don't mind if a book is academic or if it is trying to be light and easy to read, but trying to be both fails. It uses the proper theological words, and explains them for those who are not academically minded. But it doesn't follow rigorous academic approaches to issues. In fact, he uses the proof-texting and "Progressive Christians Believe" approach that is not uncommon in evangelical texts, and is just as meaningless. The problem is, stating a belief is simply that - stating what you believe to be the truth, not an argument for why this is valid and reasonable. Proof-texting has the same problem, because it tells you what a particular passage from the bible says, presumably one that seems to support your position. It does not tell you what the bible actually teaches on the subject, which would take a whole lot more work and exploration, and probably come up with significantly less clear answers.

In the end, I think these books are poor, and failing to address some of the crucial issues. That is not to say that some people will not find them valuable and useful - I am sure they will. I just could not recommend them to anyone seeking to rethink their faith and retain it in a different form. I do believe that there is a way for evangelical Christianity to progress in the UK at least (I realise that the term is far more loaded in the US, potentially beyond redemption) that does not involve reverting to liberal theology or rejecting faith all together. There is a place for tolerant, accepting evangelical faith, that may well reject the churches, the meta-organisations, the traditional approaches, but is honest and rigorous.

Maybe I should call it Greenbelt Evangelicalism....

Tuesday, 9 September 2014


Well, I have taken a little while before writing something up about this years Greenbelt. Last year, I wrote a number of posts about various aspects, but this year there were less thought starters for me. Which doesn't mean it was worse, just that it was more an overall experience. There were highlights, and there was a lot to experience, a lot to understand.

Music: Well, there were some highlights here. Lau, on the Friday, were superb, bringing an interesting perception of folk music, after it has been taken round the back and given a good kicking. Or folk music played while listening to metal. Really enjoyed them, a great act, and a good choice. Luke Sital-singh on the Saturday was also very good - a brilliant voice, if somewhat lacking in stage-craft. And finally, Sinead O'Conner on the Sunday who was exceptionally good - I would put her as one of the best live performances I have seen. She totally owned the stage.

There was also the extraordinary Grace Petrie, who is still brilliant. And something different which was Giles Peterson, playing a DJ set on Sunday afternoon. The setting of the Glade stage meant that there was a field where people were dancing in the sun, and sitting and listening, and just enjoying the music. I have thrown in a video of a couple of girls who were having a wail of a time for the whole 90 minutes (sorry that the sound is appalling). This was something fantastic, and we should have this more often. It did appeal to all ages, there were a whole range of people dancing and enjoying it.

Talks: Well I didn't hear that many talks, partly because there were some great ones that started at 9:00, and I couldn't easily get in for that time - I do intend to download these when they are available. I did hear Brian McLaren, who was very good, and made me think a little. I need to explore his ideas more, and have purchased one of his books. I also heard Nadia Bolz-Webber and Sara Miles, who were very relaxed and very interesting. I don't wholeheartedly agree (which is perfectly reasonable - I don't expect to agree with anyone, and find it a pleasant surprise when I do), but they were open, honest and enlightening. I was especially struck by the first question - the talk was on accepting the "others" - which was "what do you do when the person who rejects you has a dog collar and is the vicar". What was most intriguing was that they were stumped, and struggled to believe that it could happen. That - and the huge applause that the question got - said it all for me.

Worship: I don't tend to do that much of the worship at Greenbelt, struggling to find anything that really resonates for me. However I did go to a guided meditation run by Moot on "the Mound" - a huge, man-made hill. It was excellent, and a really important and positive aspect of my time. There was also the Sunday Communion, which I always struggle a little with, but this year, I found it reasonably acceptable. I know that others didn't, which is the problem with this service that you cannot please everyone, or even all of those who attend.

There are so many other aspects I could talk about. the food selections were, as usual, excellent. The layout of the site, and the location of the site in the park were brilliant. The village was easy to get around and to find places. There were various food offerings wherever you found yourself, and there was not too much wandering between venues - sometimes, at Cheltenham, you could find yourself a long walk from the other end of the site. This was much less of an issue - and everyone I spoke to agreed that the village site was brilliant. This is a huge achievement for the first year there.

Boughton House is a great place for the festival. The sculptural landscaped gardens, of which The Mount is a part, are odd, beautiful, and a brilliant resource to have for just messing about in. The estate as a whole is also fantastic - unfortunately we couldn't wander in the trees, but they did set the festival in the countryside, which was brilliant.

Of course there was one issue - that of getting between the car parks and the camp site or the village site. Each day, I had a 20 minute walk from the car to the site, which was tough at the start or end of a 14 hour day. However - and this is crucial - these are issues that can be resolved. The organisers know this is an issue, and they will be looking at how to resolve it. Some of the resolutions are to take the theme of this year seriously, and "travel light" - take less stuff, make sure that you can carry it. I might be staying on site next year, which will ease the problems I had. The mud on the Monday/Tuesday was an interesting challenge to deal with. But these teething problems.

The festival has been at a very different site in Cheltenham for 15 years. The challenges of moving the festival somewhere different are huge. The fact that the festival happened, and that it was a great festival, is testament to the amazing effort. I hope we can stay at Boughton House, because I love the site and the potential of it is enormous. It will take time to sort the teething issues out.

Was it a good Greenbelt? Yes absolutely. If you have never been, I can recommend it. If you are unsure about the new site, then give it a try, and talk to those who have been. It will take time to settle down, but the site is brilliant, inspirational, and I can't wait until next year.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Gaza conflict is not taking place

The title of this is an homage to Baudrillards book "The Gulf War Did Not Take Place". It is not about the politics of the situation. Baudrillard exponds the idea of hyperreality, which is his thesis about how we see the world.

The concept of hyperreality is that we never see the truth, the reality about situations in the world, because all of our information about reality comes through the filter of the media - this is not just the news media, but covers all of the television, print media, the internet. So all of the blogs you read, the emails you get, they are included. Baudrillards concept is that because our knowledge is always filtered through these media, we do not know what actually happens, but only what the media want you to know.

This is not the truth. this is a version of the truth.

In some circumstances, we can find the truth, as long as we take our information from various places, as long as we are aware of the bias that our sources have. So I can be pretty sure that Baroness Warsi resigned, and the reasons why she resigned. I have seen images of her resignation letter, and I have not seen anything that indicates that this was not the actual reasons. This is something that, with some work, I can get reasonable certainty on, sufficient to claim that I have a good idea of the truth.

I will talk later about how significant this concept is to our thinking. However the Gaza conflict is a prime example of the significance of hyperreality. The thing is, there is so much misinformation about the conflict that we cannot actually have any real grasp of what is actually happening.

There have been  pictures of victims of attacks - some of which have been shown to be from other conflicts. So we cannot trust the pictures that we are shown - yes some of them are real, and all of them are painful, but we cannot trust what we are shown to truly reflect what is actually going on. Blaming the Israelis for atrocities committed in Syria does not help either cause.

The thing is, all of the information that we receive in the West is biased. That is always the case, but in this case, it seems to be far harder to identify the truth because every agency - the BBC and other Western news outlets included - are biased. Usually, there is a news source that is trying to reflect the actual position, in this case, everyone is pushing a political position, so none of them can be trusted.

The concept of hyperreality is that everyone is impacted by this. All of those people who you trust have been impacted by biased information. Even those on the ground only get a small insight into what is happening - if they see an explosion, they are told who fired the missile, they are told why.

So the Gaza conflict is not taking place, not as we understand it, not as we know it. The conflict as it is represented in the West is not the conflict that is actually happening.

And this means, sadly, that men, women and children are dying and nobody actually knows why. All sorts of people claim the causes and the reasons. But in the end, people die for no purpose. That gets me angry.

This is not about the Gaza conflict, it is about our perception of issues. Those that are most significant to us are the ones that we need to be most careful about. The representation of this conflict is merely a more significant case of what we see all of the time.

The truth is out there. The problem is that getting access to it is, today, impossible. Once we recognise this, we then have a better grasp of truth.

//people also suffer from hyperreality, in that our understanding of stuff is based on our media inputs.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Lies, Damned lies and Statistics

As I write this, the latest unemployment figures have been released, indicating a reduction in overall unemployment, and specifically a reduction in youth unemployment.

I will return to these later, but it reminded me of something I came across in my research, which is that people tend to achieve according to whatever statistical measure you use. This means that if management see reports to indicate progress - however they understand that - those reports will tend to show good progress, because everyone want to show good progress. This is only a problem if the reports are not reflecting what management think they are.

So, if I am judged on the number of hours I work, I will probably work longer hours. That doesn't mean that I getting more work done, just that I am recording more hours. The fact that I could, possibly, achieve more working less hours is irrelevant because, according to those in charge, "achieving more" is the same as "working more hours".

This is not an issue as long as those in charge know that this is what they are measuring. Of course, as so many failed projects shows, this is not by any means always the case. So many failures are caused by this mismatch of managerial expectation and reality, because some people assume that information means one thing, when it doesn't.

So, back to the unemployment statistics. The thing is, Tory governments (especially, but not exclusively) have, for many years, taken these as the indications of the success of their policies. This means that they find a range of ways to reduce these figures - without necessarily meaning that people are in any better situations.

So moving people onto training schemes - some of which are good, others are not - keeps the figures down. Reducing the availability of benefits can also be used to reduce the figures. And how many of these people - especially given that the reduction is most significant in younger people - are in zero-hours contracts, or jobs paying less than a living wage?

This government has stated - wrongly - that people in work are better off than those not in work. That only applies if they are in reasonably paid work. Reducing the statistics while not actually helping people is deceptive. What I would like to see is how many people are existing on less than the living wage - that is far more of an indicator of how people are doing. I suspect the group of those working but on less than living wage (calculated on a weekly, received money rate, so zero-hours people can be based on how much work they actually get) is far higher now than it was a few years ago.

I do not want to dismiss the fact that some people who were unemployed are now in viable jobs. That is a good thing, and I want to see more of it. What I don't want to see is people being forced into unsuitable roles and low-paid jobs just to satisfy the politicians need to show certain statistics are down.

What is more, I know that the government will use reduced unemployment figures to "prove" that they are "doing a good job". That is, of course, the problem with statistics - they are presented as unarguable and unanswerable when they are anything but. They do not prove anything, except that the statistic being used has changed. It is academically poor to presume a changed statistic demonstrated something without looking at the whole picture.

So when the government claims that it is doing a good job because the unemployment statistics show this, remember - they don't. And they aren't.