Monday, 21 December 2009

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

another partner in musical crime

These days I am giving lots of recitals with Jane, tanking through the violin repertoire, so anything other than that deserves a special mention! The month of January will see the first of two duo recitals with an excellent Japanese pianist, Yukie Smith (whose website is here). Mozart, Brahms and Satie for the first one: we'll try to blend sublime and ridiculous, established masterpieces and hidden gems. And for some reason this combination of musicians lends itself more readily to humour than any other, except maybe Hoffnung's garden hose + orchestra... ;-)

another stepchild?

What I didn't make clear just then is that I loved Verduin's book! On of those works I havn't stopped talking about since I read it, and I'm still working through and chewing over the implications for me personally.

As a friend said, "history with teeth". Very compelling, and enough to push anyone in a pacifist direction. For all thinking Christians with an interest in history and patience to get through some dated (but fairly elegant) prose, this is a must-read.

Shame it's so expensive. But if you see one in a second-hand bookshop snap it up.

The Reformers and their Stepchildren

storming title for a book, eh? And someone got there first, in 1964, in fact...

Review of Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and

their Stepchildren (Exeter: Paternoster, 1964)

Verduin aims to rehabilitate the so-called ‘Radical Reformers’ by examining more critically than most historians the charges hurled at them by their opponents both Catholic and Protestant. He calls these ‘radicals’ the men and women of the ‘Second Front’, or the ‘Stepchildren’ of the magisterial Reformers, with whom they shared much in common in doctrine but less in ecclesiology and vision of society.

Their main bone of contention was with ‘medieval sacralism’, a social order designed to ensure homogeneity in religion, ritual, political thought and many strands of culture. Verduin goes so far as to say that this sacralism was ‘monist’. He is fighting fire with fire, since the Stepchildren are often labelled ‘dualists’, which is unfair

unless it be dualism to insist that the rule-right that comes to expression in the State (which is a creature of common grace) and the rule-right that comes to expression in the Church (which is a creature of common grace) are discrete. (p.99)

Finding that the social world envisaged by the New Testament is plural – for there are always two groups in a society, the believers and the unbelievers – Verduin argues that the sacralism challenged by the Stepchildren was unbiblical and inherited from the Roman Empire. The Reformers, because of their concern for a certain kind of peace and order, and because they imagined that their reforming efforts would be more likely to succeed with the backing of the sword, courted secular powers. The Stepchildren ignored secular powers, defied them, or in some cases tried to seize the sword directly in the name of the peasants or an apocalyptic ‘prophet’.

Verduin returns to the bone of sacralism in each chapter, reasoning that it lay behind the insults made, whether apparently theological or not. “Donatisten” (Donatists) is the first and most fundamental charge, since its object struck directly at a monistic sacral order by claiming that another, purer church could (and should) exist alongside the mainstream one. The Stepchildren were also callsed “Stäbler” (Staff-bearers) since they did not want a sword in their hands, “Catharer” (Pure Ones) since they emphasised holiness, “Sacramentschwärmer” (Sacramentarians) since they opposed the Catholic teaching and practice of sacraments, “Winkler” (Corner-gatherers) because they wanted to meet in homes to study the Bible, “Wiedertäufer” (Anabaptists) because they wanted a church for believers with entry by believers’ baptism, “Kommunisten” (Communists; perhaps the most easy to refute) because they allegedly abolished private property, and “Rottengeiester” (Sectarians) because they split off from mainstream society and the church insofar as they refused to take the oath of allegiance. Verduin also tries to trace similar ideas – peaceful resistance to sacralism, greater biblical knowledge and concern for holiness, and a certain amount of dissembling before the authorities – through European history, in the sporadic records of heretic trials or passing comments in mainstream catholic writers. He has some success in this, as he is slightly more measured than Broadbent’s The Pilgrim Church, though adopting a similar position. By implication, the (wilful?) misunderstandings shown by the 16th century opponents of the Stepchildren were shared by at least some earlier medieval heresy-hunters.

Verduin is very direct: he wears both his analysis and his heart on his sleeve. This is refreshing in an age of fudge, but did make me a little suspicious that he was over-stating his position. For example, when he says that it was not concern for the salvation of infants that drove ‘the medieval paedobaptist’, so much as its potential for promoting sacralism and the magistrate’s interests (see pp.192-5), I would hestiate to be quite so sweeping about the motives of the average parish priest or monk, though the point is taken. He is briefly carried away by his passion when discussing the burning of Servetus. It is enough to argue that the sacral order that executed heretics was wrong to do so, and that Calvin was wrong to acquiesce in the case of Servetus. It is not necessary to (falsely) argue in addition that Servetus’ false teaching wasn’t really all that bad or wrong (p.52). The case against sacralism and its co-opting of the sword stands or falls regardless of the heresy in question.[1] Verduin usually realises this, but he does sometimes find (or widen) orthodoxy where it isn’t really present.[2]

The extensive use of primary sources is a real srength; surprisingly, Verduin assumes that his readers know Latin, German, French and Early Modern Dutch so he doesn’t always translate the quotations from those languages! Where translated, it is wonderful to read the Stepchildren in their own words, and rather less wonderful to read some very telling comments by the famous Reformers that reveal how deeply they were steeped in sacralism. Sadly Luther’s famous quote about siting back with his beer and letting the word do its work sounds rather hollow: ‘I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion…’ (Reeves, p.75) feels to me like a half truth, given what the Lutherans did to the Anabaptists.

Having argued the case well that (most of?) the Stepchildren were not dangerous in the way they have often been portrayed, it would have been helpful to have some more detailed sociological analysis of their various groups/movements and a careful assessment of the numbers of pacifists versus the number of violent revolutionaries. Verduin’s marshalling of sources tells us a lot about quality, but not so much about quantity. I am trying to resist being carried away uncritically by Verduin’s enthusiasm, given Reeves’ pages on the Anabaptists theological weaknesses (pp.82-85), but since Reeves does not quote the sources I will need to delve for myself…

The Reformers and their Stepchildren has pulled me up sharp in my general ignorance of the Anabaptists and encouraged me to read some of their writings, and some Yoder for a modern take. I have found myself telling people all about the book in conversation, partly in the excitement of new learning, and partly as an encouragement. Despite the persecutions The Reformers and their Stepchildren recounted there was evidence of plenty of spiritual life in Europe in times and places we might not have realised. Insofar as Verduin is right about the social-political attitudes of the Stepchildren then there is a lot to be said for the idea that they are major contributers to the modern idea of a religiously plural and tolerant state. The question that remains open, however, is how much their beliefs link directly to John Locke and others who argued for religious freedom over a century later. So, it has stimulated my political thinking again, which is helpful in advance of a possible swan song Cambridge paper on eschatology and politics.

[1] Here, Verduin has the edge on two recent popular evangelical histories of the Reformation, Kirsten Birkett’s The Essence of the Reformation (1998) and Michael Reeves’, The Unquenchable Flame (2009), which are great, but rather light on the Anabaptists. Both Birkett and Reeves try to defend Calvin on the Servetus issue as a man of his time (Birkett, pp.55-57; Reeves, pp.106-7). This argument fails because the Stepchildren had been around for several decades preaching and practising non-violent ways of dealing with heresy, and, as Reeves points out, (p.82), suffering horribly for it.

[2] He is reassuringly cautious about endorsing possible docetism among the Stepchildren (pp.258-59; compare Reeves, p.84), and an over-eagerness to be martyred (pp.252-56).

Friday, 27 November 2009

Fail blog

Oh dear. this really is a good website. Well, not exactly good, but the creative and ungrammatical (or should that be unsyntactical?) use of the word 'fail' all over the shop is only the icing sugar on the icing on the cake of amusement.

Just one to whet the appetite...

what's in a name?

Well, if the name is PET-CESSORIES, then an unfortunate allusion to something you might put somewhere you might not want to think about.

And yet, remarkably, that is the name of some pet equipment shops in and around Cambridge (and maybe elsewhere for all I know). It's not clever really, is it? Now, Axcessories, a hardware shop, that would be a good name. Maybe someone's thought of it, but Pet-cessories? Please...

On the M1 from Sheffield to Leicester this afternoon we did, however, see a very good company name on the back of a white van:


that is actually quite good for a fire-retaring services firm. Well done to them. But Pet-cessories...?

Iconoclastic Controversies!

Discussing what seminar papers we were going to write for today's NTI moot on 'Idolatry', and running through 'Are sin and idolatry synonymous?', 'Review Tim Keller's book Counterfeit Gods', 'Why does 1 John end the way it does?'we came across 'Assess the contemporary relevance of the iconoclastic controversies in the Orthodox church of the first millennium'. And of course that's the one I chose.

Better still, it's the perfect name for a Christian Rock band, n'est-ce pas? And the best track on their debut album would surely be 'Fallen into the eisegetical pits' (co-incidentally, a chapter from Greg Beale's meaty We become what we worship: a biblical theology of idolatry [2008]).

All comedy on this post courtesy of JR from Cornerstone.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

a draw, a palpable draw!

At long last I have achieved more than 0 in a correspondence game of chess with Charles! It's only half a point, but it's a start. And what a fun game it was. The swashbuckling King's Gambit was whipped out, and pieces were sacrificed all over the shop. If I had castled long and kept my King out of danger that piece sacrifice might even have netted me more (but, then, I always think that, and history is against me!)

1. e4 e5

2. f4 exf4

3. Nc3 Nc6

4. Nf3 Bb4

5. Bc4 g5

6. h4 g4

7. Ng5 Ne5

8. Nxf7 Nxf7

9. Bxf7+ Kxf7

10. Qxg4 Bxc3

11. Qh5+ Kf8

12. bxc3 Nf6

13. Ba3+ d6

14. Qh6+ Kg8

15. 0-0?! Ng4

16. Qxf4 Be6 (the doubled pawn charge is rather neat...)

17. c4 Qxh4

18. c5 dxc5

19. Bxc5 h5

20. Qxc7 Rh7

21. Qd6 Rf7 (the dance of the rooks, and I was very pleased with the next move, which saves the game...)

22. Rf3! Rd8 

23. Qxe6 Qh2+

24. Kf1 Qh1+

25. Bg1 Nh2+

26. Ke2 Nxf3

27. Qg6+ (draw by perpetual)


Tuesday, 20 October 2009

part of a Frame

A Review of John Frame, The Doctrine of God (P&R, 2002)

Under the wider umbrella of a ‘Theology of Lordship’, Frame sets out his doctrine of God. This work is a sequel to The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (1987), or perhaps that work was merely the introduction to this one. Major books on the Word of God (in progress) and the Christian Life (P&R, 2008) also come under this umbrella, and are part of the multi-perspectival approach to doctrine advocated by Frame and Vern Poythress. So in fact it is inappropriate to speak of any work as ultimately ‘prior’ to the others, whatever the heuristic or pedagogical value in starting with the volume on epistempology, for example.  

So Frame says of metaphysics, ethics and epistemology that each presupposes and even determines the other two, and thus none is prior to the others (pp.196, and passim). Thus there is great validity in approaching a subject from various directions, each of which is admitted to be incomplete

The Doctrine of God (DG) is a mere 806 pages, including Frame’s helpful appendices, which review contemporary discussions of theology proper and respond to some incompetent attacks on his earlier works. This review pertains only to the first 18 of the 29 chapters, since I have not yet got through the rest of the book. This is simply a question of time, not any weakness in the presentation of DG – Frame’s writing is lucid and a real pleasure to engage with. It is hard to imagine how one might communicate the subtleties of his discussion any more helpfully for the educated layman.

Frame has already presented a detailed outline of the work (xi-xx) so I won’t summarise here. Basically, I agree with everything I have read so far. DG is steeped in Scripture, extremely reasonable and careful in tone, confident in all the right places and generally amazing. Regarding reasonableness, the section on 6-day creation (pp.302-12) is a prime example of Frame’s humility and alertness to the variety of positions that are permitted by the text of Scripture, while still making clear which position he tends towards. His overall confident approach, the theology of lordship, beginning with analysis of how the OT in particular presents God as Lord/LORD is a useful fresh take on the subject. When he speaks of covenant lordship he does not use the adjective as a banner as some might, but he actually discusses what that means, such as the aspect of ‘covenant presence’ – God is near/here to bless/judge (pp.95-101). Rather than enthuse too much more, I will spend the rest of this review on interesting questions thrown up by DG and on a few places where Frame has been slightly less careful than usual.

Natural Reason.

In his (probably correct) critique of Aquinas on natural reason (as prior to revelation; pp.224-5) Frame almost ends up as an unwitting critic of his own position (as expressed in his discussion of ethics, pp.195-6) that that situational (sensory, factual) knowledge is necessary for us to be able to hold normative (Scriptural) knowledge. For Frame, these different types of knowledge are arranged in an equal triad, but sometimes he comes close to saying that ‘situational knowledge’ is mere fodder. This undermines the internal equality of the triad’s perspectives.


Frame convincingly argues that transcendence/immanence language in Scripture is not primarily spatial, but is about lordship and authority. But this does not in itself remove the ‘problem’ of how to conceive of ‘spatial’ transcendence/immanence. A footnote (p.105, fn.4) refers the reader on to chapters 24 and 25 so maybe my question will be answered there…!


DG contains a superb account of the greater-good defence of a sovereign God in the face of evil. Frame disagrees with the privation theory of evil because it posits degrees of being (unwarranted from Scripture, and tending towards pantheism) and because it doesn’t actually absolve God, since in the universe posited by the privation theory an omnipotent God is still responsible for ‘non-being’ as much as for ‘being’. Of course, Frame’s second point there does not tell us whether or not the privation theory is true, only that it is insufficient to defend God. To me, there does seem to be something more real about the triune God than anything in his creation, and thus something is left of the privation theory if used as a support to the greater-good defence. I was pleased to see that a little later on Frame agrees (p.180, fn.41)! But he is not completely consistent in his formulations. The main text continues to maintain equivalence between God’s being and our being (e.g. p.217, ‘there are no degrees of reality… God is real, and we are real’) while also saying that there is a difference, too – ‘ours at its very best, even perfected by grace, is the goodness of creatures’(p.218). He notes a distinction between uncreated being and created being, and thus implies that evil as a species of the latter may indeed be ontologically different from the (uncreated) goodness of God. There’s hope for modified privation after all.

He briefly returns to theodicy in a neat discussion of concurrence (pp.287-88). All good, but driven by his (plausible) rejection of any ‘laws of nature’ and the corresponding definiton of a miracle as simply an unusual event brought about by God for various purposes (see esp. pp.258-61) Frame is reluctant to identify any events that have ‘no secondary cause at all’ beyond Creation, Incarnation and the regeneration of the believer. What about the return of Christ!? And I’m sure we could think of some miracles that involved the addition of matter to the universe at a particular point in history after the 6 days of creation…


On the question of the drawing of lots Frame is rather hesitant (p.52) but this is because he has moemntarily forgotten to be careful over the use of the phrase ‘God’s will’. Sure, we never use lots to decipher God’s moral will (it is revealed in Scripture), but why not to reveal or precipitate (as it were) his permisive will for our particular futures? On questions where there is no right or wrong choice, that is. Of course there is plenty of biblical precedent for a thorough scripturalist like Frame to take more comfort in flipping a coin over his choice of burger relish or house purchase, or whatever.


A great many authors and speakers intimate, imply or even state that individual believers are the bride(s) of Christ. But I am surprised that Frame is one of them! ‘It is important for both male and female Christians to know, and to meditate deeply on the fact, that in relation to God they are female – wives called to submit in love to their gracious husband’. (p.385) Notice the plural wives there. I’m really sure about this. I think God relates to each believer as Father, Brother, Helper (and much more besides) but not as husband. That is his relationship to the church/Israel.


Frame on the ‘simplicity’ of God (pp.225-30) brings to mind the Islamic discussion of the attributes of Allah, and early medieval Christian critique of said discussions as compromising Allah’s supposed unity. There is more to think about here when my head is clearer!

More please!

Sometimes Frame refers to controversial issues only in passing. This is not necessarily a problem – in a book on the doctrine of God, a paragraph and a list of useful secondary literature are adequate for the subject of human gender relations – but there were a couple of places where the brevity was more unfortunate. First, soteric pluralism gets only a couple of biblical quotes without any interaction with the exegesis of those passages by proper pluralists or woolly liberal Anglicans (pp.92-3). This ought to be a significant topic in the context of a theology based around revelation, covenant, etc. Second, Frame twice speaks of ‘the rejection of Israel’ without grounding his discussion. Once it’s a passing reference (p.86, fn.10) concerning the faith of the centurion, whose faith – greater than any Jesus had seen in Israel – is ‘a sign of the Gentiles election and Israel’s rejection’. The other occasion is in the midst of a discussion of election without the full benefits of salvation. Frame gives two examples – Judas, an individal, so raising no conceptual problems, ‘and national Israel, which, because of unbelief, lost its special status as God’s elect nation’ (p.49, fn.3). I’d want more clarity here. Maybe en masse they were “elected without the full benefits”, but if so, in what sense does particular “rejection” need to follow, if the election was never unto full (numerical or depth across the board) salvation anyway? After all, we already know of plenty of apostate and judged Jews in the OT. Hmm.

Monday, 19 October 2009


There's a seriously amusing picture of me on the Hope website, thanks to Dave's excellent media skills (in fact almost all the website is down to him). I'm the one holding forth on the left. Of course, it is important for any visitors to the site to know that not everyone is as shiny as me, hence the full heads of hair in evidence in all the other pictures.

double whammy

A site that gently pokes fun at Germany and America at the same time?

How could I refuse such a recommendation!? (Thanks to CW, a German cineaste friend, for the heads up)

The consequent enjoyment has delayed my breakfast this morning - that's how witty it is; the Asda Shreddies are still in the bowl.

Also, I'm still recovering from man-flu and not that hungry... but nonetheless well able to chuckle.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

a warm feeling

Someone sent me a very nice comment in response to some publicity about my chamber concerts this term.

I love your selections. I know they will be 'human' - and also challenge me to take some more steps in musical appreciation.

Job done!

I notice they didn't mention the quality of the playing   ;-)

What have I been doing?

Good question. Poor blog has not got a look in lately, although there are plenty of things in the wings when I get my act together.

The last 6 weeks have been fairly full - seminar on music at the UCCF Forum (covered in red mud), church plant a little busier on account of paternity leave on the leadership team (praise God!), extra publicity and time input for the old people's cafe we run, and helping with organising the real workers to put up nice blackout roller blinds in the old chapel we are using in Teversham, became an elder at the mothership, which has brought its burdens and sorrows, some very enjoyable diploma accompanying for a couple of cellists, new term of NTI, piano students returning from holiday, more cooking, as Mrs L was full-time at work till last week, lots of people-time, including long deep chats trying to get head round various misunderstandings/arguments and help people move forwards, action-packed badminton on Monday nights, a nice visit from the mother-in-law, planning to move abroad, buying a house...

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Recent film watching

The cinemas have done reasonably well out of me and various mates this summer. As have the manufacturers of Minstrels, that essential film companion. Alas I have not done all that well out of the cinemas...

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

2/5 Hugh Jackman and Liev Schrieber's rivalry was reasonable and there were some god set-pieces (and I suppose it helped make some sense of some of the other X-men films, though why that should matter, since the tangled web of comic books they are based on doesn't need to make much sense...) but most of the rest of the film was a wasted opportunity - a naff Gambit, a load of teenage mutants doing not a lot, silly effects, you name it.

Star Trek

3/5 Central plot twist so ludicrous that they pulled it off, and scenes set on the large Romulan ship were all over the place in terms of continuity and plausibility of movement (maybe no worse than Shakespeare in that regard?!), but excellent performances and good humour.

Terminator Salvation

1/5 Even the normally reliable Christian Bale was going through the motions here. The whole second half was pants, despite coming close to being heart-warming in the central robot-man (who am I?) plotline. Poor Helena Bonham Carter.

Red Cliff

3/5 A big canvas with a lot of paint, sometimes in unusual colours, shall we say. Chinese folk history and myth meets Hollywood, sort-of, in an epic swashbuckling thing. Lovely to look at, if rather stagey in execution. I think we Western Europeans have different dramatic expectations to the Chinese!

Sunshine Cleaning

4/5 At last something decent! Surely the smallest budget of the lot by a factor or 10, and certainly the best. Heart-warming without being cloying, funny without being silly, tender without being toooo sentimental, and perfmormed very well by all and sundry. Two sisters attempt to set up a crime-scene cleanup business while one comes to terms with being a grown-up and the other struggles to raise a child alone... Alan Arkin is their dad. Just see it.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The performances were great, compared to the earlier Potter films, and despite its length I wasn't bored, but structurally the film was a disaster. Very much a 'middle' section, with no shape or direction, not to mention a very anticlimactic final twist.

Friday, 28 August 2009

culture you can't argue with

While I languished on the sofa this evening, trying to shake off man-flu and skimming the internet, Mrs L was engaged in some serious and worthwhile fun - finishing off a sewing project that has converted an old jumper (shrunk in the washing machine) into a shoulder bag. Nice lining, nice button, good original material. If weren't decades behind the technological times I'd post y'all a picture of it.

'Horror in other forms', or 'Modern Pastimes'

THQ and Games Workshop's Dawn of War. Is this one big waste of human potential!? My feelings on computer games are very mixed. Half of this is a general critique and half of it is directed at me and my particular weaknesses. 

First, the facts. I have spent many hours of my life playing computer games. Most of those hours were in my teenage years, but twice since then I have picked up the cudgels, so to speak, on the flickering screen (aside from the obligatory Wii-ing when round friends’ houses, getting crushed by small children at that Mario racing game and spraining various joints in the bizarre dance of Wii Tennis). In the spring of 2007 I had a burst of activity on Dawn of War, and since New Year this year I have played on a few console games with Ad and Phil (co-op military/mercenary shoot-em-ups) and have rekindled Dawn of War in the shape of the expansion pack Soulstorm.

A note on the silly names. Like the imitators of Tom Clancy or C-movie action flicks (Ultimate Force, Zero Tolerance, Death Kiss, Colateral Damage, Colateral War, War Kiss, Death War, Death Force…) the names just get sillier and sillier, and are often unrelated to the content of the game. Some of them are (unintentionally?) poetic – I particularly like Gears of War, in which one apparently descends to the earth’s core in a team of muscle-bound troopers and attempts to riddle various odd creatures with bullets. Gears? Mundane, but oddly wholesome in tone.

It should also be admitted that I have also wasted hours on computer-hosted more traditional pursuits – playing chess and shogi… So much so, that a few years ago I threw away my copy of Chessmaster7000 since it was the only way to keep me from gratuitous use. (That painful decision sprang from the maxim “know your limits”!) I have also uninstalled the Japanese shogi programme and that has now ceased to be any sort of temptation to indolence, thankfully. It’s not that chess/shogi/gaming in itself is bad. There is value in intellectal activity and game-playing as mental exercise and exploration. Furthermore, playing against human opponents over the board is a very sociable activity, so that should not be considered a waste. Admittedly, at the moment I am reduced to correspondence chess which largely lacks that personal interaction, and is more of a luxury intellectual tussle.

What of the ‘violence’ in computer games? Dawn of War and Call of Duty are, if you look closely, pretty red in tooth and claw. However, neither of them dwell on the gore, or are driven by gore. There are games that revel in graphic shots of entrails or mutant human forms served up to be chopped up. These seem to me to be more disturbing than those whose premise is war and whose cash value is in tactics, strategy and a developing storyline. Of course, the nasty games can often claim those things, too, but why all the nastiness? Why dwell on it? I must admit, however, to being fearful of wielding the WWJD sword here since Dawn of War would not have been in Jesus’ repertoire, no matter how tame it might seem in comparison to some games.

I guess the conclusion has to be – everything in moderation, unless it’s a genuine stumbling block. And just as the most gory games are a stumbling block (to all of us, or ought to be), so is (to some of us) the very idea of computer gaming, and the problem there is idleness rather than love (or misplaced tolerance) of violence. In either case, sin is sin.

horrific interlude

From a blog I just stumbled upon by the swashbuckling Dan Philips, of pyromaniac fame. When people can write and have a good eye it's a joy to spend time grazing. 

Among many great pieces, here are some useful throughts from DP and from his comment-adders on the question of horror as a genre.

Funny how none of them seems to like Frank Peretti. I really do like him, but perhaps because I read his books as a teenager, insulated then from any charismatic or noe-pentecostal connotations which might be irking these hard reformed types. I also have a cassette version of This Present Darkness read by the author, and I think it's great! He didn't simply tack some cod theology onto the end of a Stephen King imitation there, let me tell you.

more sadness

Aslam weaves together throughts and ideas, some of them inside his characters' heads, some outside, and sometimes you can't tell. The chilling hold of superstition over the lives of Russian Christians intrudes into Lara's mind, pp.307-08...

       A blue rectangle of the ceiling stands revealed wherever a book is missing above her. They look like openings onto the afternoon sky. It was to prevent a haunting that in certain parts of Russia a dead body was carried to the church through an open window, or even through a specially cut hole in the roof. The idea was to confuse the dead person's spirit, making it more difficult for the ghost to find its way back home.

      Earlier David had received a call to say that the Jalalabad police have found the head of Bihzad at last, flung into a drainage ditch in the bombing. The young man who thought he was on his way to paradise. To commemorate the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan, the Tsar - accompanied by the entire court and the leading churchmen - would emerge from the Hermitage on 6 January every year, descend the steps of the Jordan Staircase, and walk out onto the frozen Neva. A whole would have been cut through the ice, and Tsar and Metropolitan would bless the water. Children were then baptised in the icy river. What amazed the visitors from other lands was the reaction of the parents if ever a child slipped from the numbed hands of the holy men, never to be seen again. They refused to grieve because the child had gone to heaven.

This suggests a belief system packed with half truths, leaving me rueing once again the many blind alleys and false turns made by the church over the centuries.

On another note, the links implied here between the political theology, thanatology and popular practice of Christendom (in its 'Third Rome' incarnation in Moscow) and those of Islam is suggestive. Reminds me of Leithart's stimulating "Mirror of Christendom" essay.

a novel sadness

The Wasted Vigil, by Nadeem Aslam (2008). All about Afghanistan since the time of the Soviet invasion. After 30 pages I had to stop reading. Whether it was anger, or sorrow, or both, or a heart-bursting despair, I don’t know. Page 8, as we learn a little about why Lara, a Russian, has arrived at the secluded lakeside house and perfume factory of an elderly English convert to Islam…

      From the various plants in the garden he derived an ointment for the deeply bruised base of her neck, the skin of their almost black about the right shoulder, as though some of the world's darkness had attempted to enter her there. He wished pomegranates were in season as their liquid is a great antiseptic. When the bus broke down during the journey, she said, all passengers had disembarked and she had found herself falling asleep on a verge. There then came three blows to her body with a tire iron in quick succession, the disbelief and pain making her cry out. She was lying down with her feet pointed towards the west, towards the adored city of Mecca a thousand miles away, a disrespect she was unaware of, and one of the passengers had taken it upon himself to correct and punish her.
       Her real mistake was to have chosen to travel swaddled up like the women from this country, thinking it would be safer. Perhaps if her face had been somewhat exposed, the colour of her hair visible, she would have been forgiven as a foreigner. Everyone, on the other hand, had the right to make an example of an unwise Afghan woman, even a boy young enough to be her son.

What religion is so weak as to require propping up by this kind of oppression? How can such careless violence be nurtured? Who can seriously imagine that God cares about which way your feet point, and that he has appointed you to sort out the feet of others?

By the time we started to hear about the petty jealousies of local characters and the truly inhuman brutality of the Russian soldiers in the 1980s it was all too much.

Friday, 21 August 2009

eschatological expectation

Is a fancy way of talking about looking forward to the end of the world. Rather too many Christians are rather too preoccupied with this, either wasting hours on numerology or so-called ‘interpretation’ of biblical prophecy, or peppering conversations and e-mails with dark hints as to imminent turmoil (as if there hadn’t been enough and wasn’t enough already) and apocalyptic upheaval across the globe. The fact that people have been confidently predicting all sorts of things concerning the return of Christ for centuries and have always been wrong so far does not seem to provide any sort of deterrent! Today’s rant was sparked off by this one from the 18th century, not usually considered a time of millennial fervour.

In a letter (c.1755) to William Perronet from his father Vincent, a leading Methodist, we read…

The season is by no means healthy: your B. Briggs has been ill at Canterbury; poor Charles, at the foundry; and poor Jacky at Shoreham. It is no wonder that individuals are in disorder; when all nature seems to be in confusion. Indeed we are only at the begninng of alarming providences; a few years will produce still greater events. Happy would it be for a sinking world if they could see that the end of all things is at hand; and would therefore grow sober to watch unto prayer!

I don’t remember the years 1745-1755 being particularly doom-laden, but, then, I am getting on a bit, I suppose… 

[Quoted in Kenneth G.C. Newport, ‘Methodists and the Millennium: Eschatological Expectation and the Interpretation of Biblical Prophecy in Early British Methodism’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 78:1 (1996), 103-22 (107). There are many other 18th- and early 19th-century examples given in the article, ranging from the more careful and scholarly to the more wacky and wide-eyed.]

Any number of similar portentious statements (sounding eerily like the stuff of seaside palm-readers) can be found on the Internet today. All rather cartoonish and silly in comparison to the excitement that real biblical eschatology should bring us. Of course there have been and are many millions of godly Christians inspired to zealous preaching and faithful living by the thought of imminent armageddon, but there are ways of thinking about what the Bible does say about the future that avoid wasting time on over-confident predictions and messing around with Daniel and Revelation. Less worrying about trying to interpret historical events and more focus on being with Christ and how that transforms us now would help.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Concert again

Back to Brahms’ G major Violin Sonata yesterday, which I first learned to play for a concert in Downing College in 2000 with an errant NatSci-turned-English-student. Those were the days when I didn’t have to practise quite so much… Or maybe those were the days when I didn’t have to do much else so the practice just seemed to slip by…! Anyway, Jane and I prefixed a few other works to that great, pacific Sonata, and wore exceedingly colourful clothes. My crazy waistcoat even sported plastic buttons in the shape of elephants. At my age I really should know better.

Joaquín Turina (1882-1949)
Variaciones Clasicas

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Sospiri, Op.70
Salut d’Amour, Op.12

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Sonata No.1 in G major, Op.78
Vivace ma non troppo – Adagio – Allegro molto moderato

With every work in this recital we step back a little further in time. Turina’s Variaciones were published in 1932, the year after he became professor of composition at the Madrid Conservatoire. The Western world was then gripped by a recession even more damaging even than the one we are struggling in today. Perhaps the uncertainty and anger that characterise the theme sprung partly from that source and from the political turmoil that engulfed Spain in the 30s. The four variations (plus vigourous finale) that develop the theme are generally more upbeat. The first shares the A minor tonality of the theme, but moves like a dance; variation two is a gentle waltz; variation three a foot-stamping blaze of B major and variation four begins with a shout of triumph and dissolves into mystical wanderings on the black notes.

In Sospiri (“Sighs”), published in 1914, we hear an Edwardian elegance full of regret – regret for a glory that was fading fast, and indeed that was about to be rudely shattered by the onset of the Great War. Deceptively simple, it is full of aching melancholy as well as the nobility that one expects from Elgar. In a totally different mood from a more optimistic era comes Salut d’Amour, one of the early pieces that made the composer famous. It was completed in July 1888 just a few weeks before Elgar’s engagement to its dedicatee – a most fitting “Love’s Greeting”.

Travelling further back is Brahms’ sun-soaked Sonata, finished off in the summer of 1879 on the tranquil shores of the Wörther Sea in Austria. Buoyed by the success of his Violin Concerto (1878) Brahms took up the instrument again to produce one of the greatest works in the repertoire. The opening movement is in a complex sonata form. The first few notes of the first subject are the seeds of the whole work. There are lilting cross rhythms introduced by the second subject, a slower, darker development section, and an ecstatic coda. The warm central Adagio bears a nobility worthy of Elgar, and in its funeral-march episodes hint at the tragic death of Felix Schumann, son of Robert and Clara Schumann, in February 1879. Brahms had in fact written out a portion of the main theme of this slow movement and sent it as a decorative gift to Clara and her son only days before his death, adding “Dear Clara, if you play the material overleaf very slowly it will say to you more clearly than I otherwise could how affectionately I think of you and Felix – even his violin , which I believe to be silent”. The third movement, in G minor, driven along by the sound of rain (its main theme is a quotation from the composer’s Regenleider of 1873) refuses to give way to despair. Brahms weaves a quiet, poignant triumph out of familiar threads, the magical return of the Adagio and the final discovery of the tonic major.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Church unity

These are some musings not on universal unity or the question of denominations, but on what unites believers in a local congregation.

Is it perhaps class?
In many Western societies, alas, class plays a large role. A friend of mine was a pastor in Canada for some years, and the first church he served was a very wealthy congregation. The members were rich white people and rich Chinese people, who were known as “banana Chinese” – yellow on the outside, white on the inside – a nickname they apparently enjoyed. Today in the UK many conservate churches – particularly the commuter churches in southern cities – are very middle class, with roots or aspirations to the upper middle class.

Maybe it’s politics?
In Northern Ireland we see a common language, and more social mixing between people of different income and ‘class’, but politics divides. If Catholics find a living relationship with Christ and join local evangelical protestant churches it is also frequently assumed that they will exchange their Republican political views for something more supportive of the Orange Order.

Is it ethnicity?
A local congregation to where we live has recently begun to collect together believers of different social standing (professionals and low-skilled workers) and different denominational background (conservative Fundamentalist baptists and pentecostals). The thing is, they are all from one ethnic group. The trouble is that most of them are leaving “British” churches in order to commit to believers who are like them in culture, nationality and language. Ah, language, a powerful uniting force - and perhaps a necessary one!? Unfortunately the language card is undercut by the presence of a few Brits in the group who don’t speak the national language (husbands or boyfriends) and so much of what they do publicly as a church happens in English… which makes the casual observer wonder what the point was exactly…

In each case some barriers have been overcome by the gospel – but others have not. It always pains me that the radical UNITY that the New Testament speaks of is being undone in practice by the ‘natural’ (but anti-Christian) drift towards homogeneity.

For mission purposes there can be no doubt that the Homogeneous Unit Principle (make your groups mono- anything and they will grow faster and be more attractive to people from that group) has a lot going for it. But for how long does it work? For what part of the lifecycle of a congregation? And what if the congregation is merely homogeneous out of preference and does not have a vision for mission to their, e.g., language group?

Maybe it should only ever be on a question of language?
Language is a necessary ‘divider’; one can always claim that to worship and hear the Bible in English/Spanish/Arabic/Vietnamese/whatever is not easy, and that one’s heart cries out for hearing and praying and singing in one’s first language. 

OK, but when we are talking about peacetime migration, a fluid coming and going of peoples who make temporary homes on economic grounds (so without the special sympathy that arises in the difficult cases of being a persecuted minority or persecuted for their faith back home) questions quickly arise as to the desirable level of integration into the host culture and its existing churches. The question does not just confront the migrants, of course – more important for the hosts is the question of why their churches seem to be so much “of” their surounding culture that economic migrants wish to set up groups for themselves. The responsibility for welcome and flexibility and inclusion lies more than 50% with the (relatively) powerful and established.

Iced tea

Not something we in the UK or in this household know a lot about.

I first encountered it on a school trip to the Mösel valley in 1993, which was notable for a lot of firsts, including wine, acceptance by a group of my peers who were fairly "cool", continuous Lord of the Rings reading from the front seat of the minibus…

But we’ve tried to whip some up recently – pineapple juice was the best additive so far, and it lasts at least 36 hours.

perceptive question?

"Is Darwin your king?"

asked a Saudi student at Central Language School last week.

Whether that tells us more about the educational provision in Saudi Arabia or about the cultured propaganada plastered around Cambridge at the moment is anyone's guess.

Levtzion on the expansion of Islam

A wonderful summary of this is found in Nehemia Levtzion, ‘Towards a comparative study of Islamization’, in Levtzion, ed., Conversion to Islam (New York: Holmes & Maier, 1979), pp.1-23, reprinted as chapter I of the volume of Levtzion’s essays edited by Michael Abitol and Amos Nadan in 2007, four years after his death, and published by Ashgate under the title Islam in Africa and the Middle East: Studies on Conversion and Renewal.

Source Material on Conversion to Islam
From Muslim perspectives there are usually no written sources until a couple of centuries after Islam was established – historiography developed only after a class of litterati had emerged. The works are largely of legal import, which makes distinguishing fact from fiction tricky. (2) In areas where a written culture already thrived the arrival of Islam impoverished the region’s literary resources – as in Java in the 14th-16th centuries or among the Christian communities of the Middle East from the 7th century onwards. (3)

Travellers’ accounts (Muslim and Christian) provide some indications of Islam’s spread, but ew also need to look at name changes in places and populations, tax registers (3-4), and even at how the various Islamic legal schools influenced new areas of Muslim expansion (4-5). Accounts of dream-inspired conversions and oral tales of family histories may be a fruitful area of new research.

The Militant Expansion of Islam: The Role of the Nomads
Conversion as immediate reslut of conquest or political submission was limited to the Bedouins of Arabia and the Berbers of Maghrib, and a few minor cases. The political secession of the Arab tribes after the death of Muhammed was interpreted also as religious apostasy (ridda). The Berbers apostasized 12 times according to Muslim traditions, rebelling fiercely and compelling the Arab to withdraw from N. Africa several times. In other words, they were initially taken as submitting to Islam as religion as well as political force, such were the harsh measures used to ensure their complete submission [islam]. (6)

However, military conquest did not usually lead to immediate Islamization of populations. It did open the door to two factors that encouraged conversion in the longer term: colonization of lands by nomads, and the evolution of distintively Muslim government and institutions (7). The settling of Arab nomads in the Fertile Crescent took place after the establishment of Islamic government; the settling of Turkic nomads in Anatolia preceded centralised Muslim rule in that area and was therefore more violent and overall more thorough. In the Fertile Crescent conversion accelerated once non-Muslims were attracted to work in the Arab garrison towns (previously segregation and non-conversion were encouraged to preserve Arab-Muslim purity along with the tax base). The Balkans are an interesting blend – conquered by the Ottoman state with restricted nomad influx, they retained even more of their Christian character than the Middle East. (8)

Conversion under Muslim Rule
By no means enforced by the new rulers, but increasingly promoted by them. In Iran, the military elite converted immediately in order to retain their status; the bureaocracy converted after 150-200 years in order to keep their jobs. By the 11th century 80% of the population was Muslim. Many conversions were clearly motivated by economic and social pressures. ‘The process was aided further by the fact that once conversion to Islam took place, there was no backsliding.’ (9) [This is the particularly sinister move. Is it unique among religions to enshrine such a thing in law or to claim it to be an essential part of the faith?]

Initial liberal policies towards non-Mulism subjects, so as to use their skills in administration and scholarship, gave way to less and less tolerance as the proportion of Muslims increased and as the ulama gained more leverage over the governments. They exploited the Muslim masses’ resentment towards rich/influential non-Muslims and in times of crisis (war or famine) were able to capitalise on massacres and other persecuting measures to reduce the standing of the non-Muslims or to force them to convert (10).

Truly forced conversions were not as widespread as Christian sources claim, but more common than Muslims admit (11). Under the Seljuks, under the Mamluks, under the Ottomans (especially the devshirme system), under some Mughals (notably Aurangzib, 1658-1707) there were forced conversions (10). In general, the creation of the total environment that fostered the supremacy of Islam was the route that Muslim rulers generally took. (11)

The Encounter with Other Religions
‘In all cases of conversion from Christianity, Muslims had a political superiority, achieved by military conquest. The same was true in the case of Iran and parts of India. But in other aresa, in the further lands of Islam, Muslims were considered to be superior because of their literacy, magical and healing efficacy, and their wealth’ (11).

In Africa and Indonesia, Muslims infiltrated the syncretistic religions, while denouncing elements of their latitudinarianism, thereby gradually Islamizing the state and the society. (12) But in China, with neither military nor cultural superiority, the Muslims had to battle to survive – choosing to be Muslim in private but Sinicized in public.

In India there were conversions from all levels of society Islam did not particularly appeal to the dalits, instead it confirmed the power/status of the Brahmans, whether or not they converted. (13) In Iran, Richard Buillet argues, the lower classes tended to be attracted to sectarian Islam (or Zoroastrian revivals) since they had a lot to gain from overturning the status quo: the upper classes fought to preserve the orthodoxy that guaranteed their position, gaining increasing strength against the Arab dynasties and eventually able to reassert a Persian ruling dynasty. (13-14)

In West Africa being a chief and being a Muslim were not usually compatible, since conversion carried overtones of ‘clergy’ that struck at the chiefs’ self-esteem, even when large proportions of the populations had become Muslim.

Traders as Carriers of Islam
Beyond the nomads’ military reach the merchants took the message of Islam. The early garrison towns of the Middle East were a focus for trade as well as religion. ‘In Islam, migration to the town is considered meritorious because it is in the urban milieu that one can fully practice the Muslim way of life’ (15). Thus urbanization increased the rate of conversion to Islam. Interestingly, as Muslim traders moved around (with a very good reputation among other peoples), sustaining Islamic cultural links and joining up various Islamic groups, some chose to settle on the land, in the process becoming de-Islamicized as they were cut off from trade routes and urban centres (in Africa and China at least). (16)

Saints and Sufis as Agents of Islamization
Indigenous accounts of conversion to Islam hardly ever mention the traders so beloved of historians’ explanations. They focus instead on wandering saints who accompanied the traders (16). ‘The frontiers of Islam were extended not through the work of the learned urban ulama, but by the efforts of the rural rustic divines, many of whom were mystics and often also members of institutionalized sufi orders’ (17). They drew many non-Muslims who had not been able to get healing, etc., through their traditional religions. On Hausa Muslim says “without non-Muslims, Muslim scholars would starve”! (17)

Before the 10th century, conversion to Islam took place only in the lands ruled by Muslims. Growing trade in Central Asia initially spread Nestorianism and Manichaeism for only heterodox sects (Kharjis, Shi‘is and Isma‘ilis) propogated without state support. But once the sufi movement grew, from the 10th century, so Islam spread outside the borders of Muslim political control. The sufis also worked hard to Islamize populations newly conquered, such as in Anatolia, India and Sudan (17).

In Anatolia (conquest), Bengal (conquest) and Java (peaceful penetration) ‘Islamization was not so muh a process of individual conversion, but what might be described as a religious transmutation of the society, in which nearly the entire population became Muslim, or was assumed to be Muslim’ (18). [Which puts any given individual in a tight spot when it comes to declaring another religious faith. What is not assumed is not accepted...]

Communal and Individual Conversion
In Northwest India and East Africa conversion was more individual and piecemeal, since the local Muslims (Turks and Afghans; Swahili) retained a strong and proud ethnic-cultural difference from the non-Muslims. Conversion required the adopting of a whole new identity. Anatolia, Bengal, Java and West Africa were far more gradual and communal. (19)

The initial communal conversion of the Arabs and the Berbers required very strong measures to maintain, when the converts decided they weren’t really converts but had only offered temporary political submission! The Syrians and others in the Fertile Crescent tended to convert more slowly and individually, renouncing their former identity and kin completely upon conversion.

Reform or the Perfection of the Initial Adhesion to Islam
A.D. Nock differentiates “conversion” from “adhesion”. Islam, as a great prophetic religion requires “conversion”, but, ironically, its growth has depended on processes much closer to Nock’s “adhesion” (21). The exclusiveness was often toned down, demands on new converts were toned down, and only after Islam had gained a foothold did it ramp up the exclusivity and the prophetic critique of laxity. Groups convert to Islam over long periods, tending towards greater orthodoxy as reformist movements arise to purify the people’s faith. (21)

While accommodation to local cultures helps Islam to survive, espeically in the early centuries in a new area, reformist movements generally try to purge Islam of the syncretism, stirring up hostility from existing soft ulama (as in Senegal or Java, where many Muslims view their syncretism as a true Islam). (22) Reformist zeal is often accompanied by military will, however, and in West Africa as a result of the jihads of the 18th and 19th centuries new states were formed on the basis of their adherence to reformist Islam, challenging and replacing those Muslim kingdoms that were still engaged with the pre-Islamic heritage. Shari‘a became the law, and observance became the norm. (22)

Friday, 31 July 2009

Dawkins again

Wandering through Jesus College Chapel (a very odd building) a few weeks ago, we came across a little booklet by the Rev'd Dr Timothy Jenkins, Dean of Chapel, called "Closer to Dan Brown than to Gregor Mendel: on Dawkins' The God Delusion", which is a very elegant discussion of how TGD is a kind of popular theodicy, and Dawkins a sort of populariser of quasi-scientific bits and pieces.

Fascinating, erudite, well-written, occasionally pulling its punches (perhaps out of politeness) but an effective and oblique demolition nonetheless. Say what you like about those liberal Anglicans, they know a bit about why atheism is pants and are (sometimes) not afraid to say so.

Busoni again, Bach and birthday

Great pianist that he was, he could not resist the lure of transforming works for other instruments, most famously the Chaconne from Bach's Sonata in D minor for solo violin, BVW1004. This is already a masterpiece that one can soak up again and again without ever exhausting it.

I have a splendid portrait, I guess you'd call it, of the violin score framed on the wall, bigger than A2 size, all flowing curves, which Mrs L got me as a birthday present a couple of years ago, and it never fails to interest passers-by!

Busoni said this in defence of his piano arrangment (probably made in 1891/2): I start from the impression that Bach's conception of the work goes far beyond the limits and means of the violin, so that the instrument he specifies for performance is not adequate [for its realization]. This begs the question of the separation of a 'work' from its performance and possibly undervalues the lyrical qualities of the violin, but I can't escape the nagging feeling that such a sentiment is true of a lot of Bach, which often seems to exceed its instrumentation.

The Busoni arrangement has a special place in my heart, as I first heard it on honeymoon. I next heard it on a lovely walking holiday in the Cotswolds when I bought a CD of Busoni himself playing it (via an 88-fingered piano-roll reader seated on a modern Steinway) from the most fascinating museum in the world (measured in terms of value per square metre), Keith Harding's World of Mechanical Music. This truly is a place worth walking to see, wherever you're starting from.

And now it has a birthday connection, since one of my piano students has a very generous mum, who gave me the score of Busoni's arrangement despite a blanket ban on birthday presents this year! I won't say I've been doing nothing but play it since I turned 30, but...

A great birthday it was, thanks jointly to Mrs L's organising and hosting-gliding on the day and to the great numbers of friends who made the trek (some hundreds of miles) to Cambridge to celebrate with me. The only down-side was that I couldn't spend more time with everyone! There were some Cambridge friends I hadn't seen for 5 years or more. It took a day to recover!

Thursday, 23 July 2009

they're not all like Dawkins

As a recent book argues, God is indeed back. And one of the authors is an atheist! If I had the time, I think I'd enjoy reading this. Mark Greene seems to like it, and provides a neat summary here.

Check out the negative 'reviews' on, though - one hasn't read it, one doesn't review the book but simply splurges briefly (mercifully) against religion, and one directs us to this further interesting site,

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Pyromaniac picture

Of how the emerging church conducts itself.

Of course it's a gross caricature (the mini version is on their blog for July, always worth a look in its own right, pictures or no, though they do do a fine picture...), and could be applied loosely to a great many traditions within the church, but that doesn't stop it being funny!

Friday, 3 July 2009

Art and the artiness of being

was the subject of a little email conversation I had recently with a distinguished evangelical pastor ;-) in South Leicestershire, no less... ;-)

After our NTI seminar on aesthetics back in April, he asked...

I also wanted to (if you have time) continue a little conversation about art that you began on Friday when you asked the question "on what grounds should we judge art?"

I think you asked it when I was madly defending Shrek 2 for its cinematic purpose, and you rightly asked "well, if you're defending Shrek 2, how can\ we judge something as bad art?"

Here's what Rookmaaker says:

"Some people feel we ought to define the principle of art solely by the aesthetic. Is this not the core of art? Is not this its true meaning? ...Personally I have many doubts about this...The strange thing is that artists, almost without exception, do strive to express something in their art, and only rarely are happy with the aesthetic element alone. To me, this is one of the proofs that any theory that goes too much in this direction is out of touch with real artistic practice... Another question often raised is this. Should art be criticized on two levels, one aesthetic, the other moral? I think not. First, the term 'moral' is too narrow. It is better to speak of content, or expression, or portrayal of reality..."

Of course his argument goes deeper than this, but I was wondering what you thought were the right grounds on which to judge art.

And I replied in a not-terribly-theorized fashion, along the lines of...

On the question of art, I like Rookmaaker's point there, and think that
we should have (at least?) two ways of judging art simultaneously, the
aesthetic and the moral. On aesthetic grounds there's lots of argument
to be had over what the right standards are to use, of course! And on
moral grounds, I like what HR says about not merely attending to
'content' or 'morality', but on a broader spectrum of things. I wonder [and only the Lord knows what I intended to write here - I unaccountably broke off this sentence!]

Another question worth thinking about is how the art is used, and how it
can be used. It seems to me that we need to look at this because from
the viewer/listener's point of view that is he prime consideration. We
can discuss the morality of art in the abstrct all we like, and talk
about, e.g., camera angles, cinematography, etc, but is it possible to
watch 'Hostel' (to pick a random example) in any other way than either
relish or prurience towards its goriness? If not, then in neither case
is the attitude worth having, and I'm not sure that any amount of 'good'
film-making can justify it being used as art.

So, I think I'm advocating a full-orbed hermeneutic of art - descriptive
(moral check on content), structuralist (the aesthetic, what the work
is), and reader-response (how it is used). Maybe with a combination of
all three measures we can arrive at a total score for each work of art!?
However, it must score above/below a certain threshold on each one to be
worth it.

What do you think? Perhaps we need some more examples...

And then I tried out this approach on Serenity.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

FIlms at L'Abri

Two years ago we went to this film festival at L'Abri in Hampshire. PG kindly drove us there and back in his teeny old car and we had a whale of a time listening to Lionel Richie (an education for me).

The films were...

Breaking and Entering
East of Eden
The Story of the Weeping Camel
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
Little Miss Sunshine
The Seventh Seal

The conversations were great (I stayed up for hours chatting with a Danish graphic designer working in Japan - just like being an undergrad at Cambridge all over again, except slightly less pretentious), the food was great, and although Ellis Potter's contention that "art = purposeful human activity" was slightly irritating, albeit nicely delivered, a good time was had by all.

We missed last year - just too busy - but this October we will be heading down to the Manor House again. The menu is...

Gran Torino

Mon Oncle


Kitchen Stories

Three Colours Blue


Man on Wire

And although I have seen two of those already, I shall cope!

A Christian Evaluation of Serenity (2005)

Having posted before on this great film, I thought I'd share the extended version, which I recently wrote up for NTI...


Serenity is a feature film developed from a cult sci-fi series called Firefly, broadcast by Fox in 2002. Disappointed at the axing of the series after only 14 episodes, fans and the scriptwriter-director (Joss Wheedon, of Buffy and Angel fame) lobbied the industry for funding to a least get a film made, if not more episodes of Firefly. The New York Times verdict on the original series was, ‘A very funny, very hip, very terrific sci-fi show’, which is about right, and in my opinion the film is even better. Serenity works perfectly well as a stand-alone story, though it is enriched if you are familiar with Firefly, so I shall confine my analysis to the film, with occasional reference to the world described and explored in more detail by the earlier series. This world exists hundreds of years in the future, when ‘Earth that was’ has been abandoned by the voracious and fecund human race, who have colonised many other worlds. Their galactic culture is a neat blend of American and Chinese – the more rural settings often look like the Wild West, as do some of the weapons and costumes, and the dialect English they speak is redolent of 19th century America; however, the urban settings are like the seedier parts of Hong Kong and the characters usually swear in Chinese! The writing is all in letters and pictograms. There are no aliens!

Plot Summary
This is the 100-word version: for a fuller summary see the Appendix. Better still, stop reading this and watch the film so you can enjoy the unfolding story as it was intended!

Lead by charismatic rogue Captain Mal Reynolds the crew of Serenity, a smuggling ship, stumble across a massive state cover-up concerning population pacification technology, the murder of millions, and the creation of human monsters. The key to the mystery is locked away in the memory of a traumatised teenage girl (a fugitive, with her brother, on Serenity) who has been psychologically conditioned to turn her into a weapon with the right trigger. Pursued by a sinister and ruthless Parliamentary Operative, after various adventures, battles and tragedies, the crew overcome self-interest and succeed in broadcasting the information at great personal cost.

The script is successful at a macro level, with the plot developing through tension and resolution, propelled by various contingent and necessary motors. The challenge of introducing those who have never seen Firefly is overcome nicely. Occasionally there are clunky moments are a lot of information is shared with us through a conversation (e.g. 6 minutes in when the Operative discusses Simon and River with the doctor responsible for her conditioning) but in most cases we learn what background we need through odd phrases and through action. A fairly conventional meta-story (a rag-tag bunch uncover a conspiracy and through adversity being largely thrust upon them discover the courage to sacrifice for a greater good) with several stock characters (muscle-for-brains, repressed rich boy, cool British villain) is enlivened through cinematic and directorial splicing techniques on display from the start. Serenity opens with a narrator over documentary footage explaining human history since the exodus from ‘Earth that was’, which is revealed to be the voice of a teacher in a gazebo-like garden classroom of 12-year-olds, which is shown to be a flashback-dream in the mind of crazed River, strapped into a sinister lab chair just before she is rescued, a dramatic sequence which itself turns out to be a holographic recording of said rescue as viewed by the Operative on their tail. Russian dolls eat your heart out!

The script is even more successful at the micro level, as Wheedon manages to bring out his characters with their flaws and their humour through a convincing dialect version of English. The language has enough grace and charm to conjure up centuries past where eloquence was valued more highly, while still being comprehensible to modern viewers. Combined with effective set design and sparing use of quality CGI Wheedon projects a world that grabs the audience. Nothing is too grand or too clean. Making a virtue out of the necessity of budgetary constraints, there is general celebration of parvus pulcher est, which is also an important theme within the world of the film.

The cast perform extremely well. Each of the characters is rendered consistently and the actors are completely believable while more than coping with a demanding script that ranges from flippant to deep grief and is peppered with cod-Chinese curses. I was engaged by their relationships and moved by their struggles and tragedies. The stock characters are given their own flavour through great facial expressions, quirkiness and costume idiosyncrasies.

Serenity pays homage to a great many other films from a variety of genres, notably Westerns and spacebound science fiction. Labouring the intertextual links would be wearing so I’ll mention just a handful. The use of the Universal Studios logo in the first scene recalls Waterworld, another futuristic human survival story (considerably more expensive and less successful!) River and Simon’s escape through a lift shaft into the belly of a spaceship honours Star Wars (episodes IV and V). Mal Reynolds is Han Solo, only better (“Heresy!” I hear you cry). The climactic and claustrophobic desperate rearguard battle with its high attrition is both Zulu and Aliens and more… This film is an artistic gem and a lovely example of how to work within a tradition but with originality.


A great many themes are picked up by Serenity in passing, many of which can be celebrated by Christians (in modified form), several of which cannot. Eccentricity and individuality in community is a major concern of the film. The crew have to deal with their differences and learn to recognise that fellowship is more important than ego or point-scoring, something they are not always successful at. Heroism expressed in sacrifice, not for the sake of glory but for the sake of others, is a clear theme; the crew, particularly Mal, learns that self-interest or feigned amorality as regards politics will not suffice in a fallen world if justice is to be done, even in a limited historical sense. 

There is a right suspicion of empire and human power, which chimes in with the Bible’s perspective, as does the recognition that people are in no way perfect. An optimistic/utopian belief in human ability to engineer goodness actually drives the plot. The explicit clash between this belief and the liberalism of the ‘Independents’ (neither blind obedience to the state nor chemicals can solve the human condition) occurs in a powerful piece of dialogue before the final act. Against a background of the slaughter of the innocents, Mal confronts the Operative on video phone about their respective motivations…

O: You should have taken my offer, or did you think that none of this was your fault?
M: I don’t murder children.
O: I do – if I have to.
M: Why? Do you even know why they send you?’ 
O: It’s not my place to ask. I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin.
M: So me and mine gotta lay down so you can live in your better world?
O: I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there any more than there is for you. Malcolm, I’m a monster. What I do is evil, I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.

As Mal stirs the crew to embark on a probably suicidal mission to broadcast the suppressed data he says of the state, 

They will try again… [t]hey’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people better. And I don’t hold to that. So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.

What Serenity lacks, however, is any answer as to how people are to be made better – by implication a celebration of diversity and resistance will be OK, but this is a serious aporia in the worldview. 

In its opposition to tyranny, Serenity also displays abhorrence of cover-up. The crew struggle, as we all would, with the cost to them of exposing the truth, but there is no doubt as to the morality of what they settle on. Mr Universe’s motto, ‘they can’t stop the signal’ displays a faith in exposure and in final justice, the idea that someone, somewhere is watching crimes and that the truth will out. CCTV and other technology along with independent-minded vigilance provide the all-seeing eye here, but Christians know that someone more reliable will provide ultimate justice.

 Several of the undercurrents or explicit messages of the film are less susceptible of a Christian embrace. While we can be grateful for a film in which the ‘Christian’ characters are neither pushovers nor hypocrites, the Christian faith of this galaxy is pretty bland, and the crew are happy to exploit this religiosity, carrying out their payroll heist during ‘Sunday worship’. The character of the Shepherd, representative of a deeper religious commitment, is ultimately called upon by Wheedon to be the mouthpiece for a kind of content-less will to transcend the self – as he urges Mal, with his dying breath, to fight on, he says ‘I don’t care what you believe, just believe it’. The clash between the Operative, ‘the kind of man who believes hard’ and Mal is ultimately a clash between the adherents of political philosophies who prove willing to die for their beliefs. But which belief is right? And is the morality of belief really to be reduced to the strength of feeling in the believing subject? Serenity appears to suggest this at the emotional climax, while of course undermining it in the case of the Operative and his beliefs.

 To put it another way, the gospel according to Serenity is that salvation can be had through cunning, decency and fighting for freedom with a strong dose of ‘belief’. Salvation is needed because people are not perfect but especially because big governments are tyrannical. The ‘fall’ was the formation of the central planetary Alliance at some point in the past. The moment of regeneration, as it were, comes with the enlightenment of knowledge – so long as we have unmediated access to information about everything (‘the signal’) we can deal with the evil. The major idols of the film are personal liberty and self-determination.

 Furthermore, while it may seem a little moralistic to bring it up, the crew are a bunch of crooks! Our heroes make their living from crime, and to argue that their hearts of gold make up for this is to veer towards Gnosticism on the one hand ('what you do doesn’t matter, it’s who you are'; as if such things could be separated) or anarchism on the other (power is bad, authority is bound to be worse than independence). Serenity thankfully does not endorse a revenge ethic – the one moment where revenge briefly captures the grieving Zoë, she becomes reckless and endangers her companions – but, rather, a libertarian and pro-prole approach to society. Petty crime and prostitution are OK, so long as it’s only the rich that are made to pay. 

To conclude this section I want to consider Serenity’s take on two old chestnuts, sex and violence. The film stands in an ambivalent relationship to the interplay of these most misunderstood of human activities. Final answers on whether certain levels of violence in a film are gratuitous or whether particular costumes/scenes constitute soft porn (or a prelude to it) are not easy to settle on. In a general sense as regards film I am not entirely happy with my current stance of feeling slightly uncomfortable while trying not to be puritannical, but neither general flight nor general embrace are satisfactory. 

There is a lot of violence in Serenity, but with two exceptions our heroes only use it defensively. Their spaceship is not armed. Male strongman stereotypes are in some ways upset: although physically brave Mal is in fact an expert at getting beaten up; hard-case Jayne is knocked out twice by River; the Operative is a martial arts expert but clearly of a very cool Oriental variety in contrast to the generally less effective and more blustery ‘Western’ style fighting. Across gender lines, the upsetting occurs in a surprisingly conventional way. Ex-military Zoë is an Amazon figure (something of a trope in science fiction) who is in fact happily married and demurely dressed; River, effectively invincible in combat, conjures up Artemis – a (teenage) warrior maiden who really is a maiden. But better than Artemis, she is clothed and not the object of anyone’s desire. The action scenes featuring River in fact cast a shadow on efficient martial arts even as we marvel at the physical skill of the ‘dance’. The first time she uses violence it is on a room full of innocent people – a dark parody of the typical cinematic bar-room brawl. Serenity thus just manages not to revel in violence and furthermore succeeds in dissociating its violence from sexuality – no mean feat amid the genre expectations of ensemble sci-fi/fantasy not designed for kids. There are relatively reasonable standards of modesty in female dress, and only occasional lewd jokes. Prostitution is treated as a fact of life in the film, and barely mentioned – whereas in the original series it was seen as somehow a noble career choice (perhaps one reason why Fox axed Firefly was its willingness to discuss the hypocrisies surrounding prostitution in modern society without condemning the prostitute).

Use value
An important measure of whether or not a work of art is “good” is what it can be used for. An aesthetic (structuralist or technical) analysis is only part of the picture of assessing artistic value. A moral analysis adds more but the morality of the art does not exist in a static or abstract fashion – it is blended by the artist(s) and is appropriated by the audience. So we need a third approach to the artwork in order to answer the question of its value.

Serenity can be used as entertainment. There is nothing wrong with diversion and entertainment in themselves (although in fact there is no such thing as entertainment-in-itself, we are always entertained in and by something), and along with the quality of the story what Wheedon asks us to enjoy is largely positive – heroism, sacrifice, humour, mocking the proud, valuing eccentricity, anger at oppression, and so on.

 Serenity can also be used as a way in for analysing culture and commending the gospel. I would suggest that the following questions could be asked of non-Christian co-viewers who are interested in exploring the film more deeply.

(1) What is meaningful “faith”? Can it simply be, or must it be in something or someone?

(2) Is there any hope for the future (personal and species) other than quick wits and whatever resistance we can muster to oppression?

(3) Is the centralized state really our biggest problem? Is the Operative right to suggest that sin is the problem? Given the flaws in his solution,

(4) How then shall we be made “better”?

(5) What is “the signal” in the real world (e.g. supposedly unmediated access to information, or divine revelation)? Can anything stop the signal? Do we need the signal?

(Religious) history is written by the victors

This is not merely a question of what words appear on the pages of textbooks out there somewhere. Everyday popular sentiments and prejudices are fuelled by this, too. The feelings and ‘truths’ of the victors operate at the level of conversations and reflex attitudes.

Consider the Caucasus: for centuries a hotbed of competition, oppression, violence, looming empires, local struggles, etc. For the last 300 years Russian domination of the region has led to injustice on a large and small scale, whether perpetrated by the Imperial, the Soviet or the present quasi-fascist Moscow government and its local puppets. 

So far in this post, you might say, there is not too much evidence of the history of the victors being dominant – given that I am able to make historical claims that attack the ‘victors’ in the Caucasus, claims backed up in the more sober scholarly sources.

Perhaps this can be partly brought under the main heading? As a Westerner I am one of history’s victors, with a global perspective to match the spread of Western culture, a perspective derived largely from Western historiography and journalism which is not particularly sympathetic to (among other ‘others’) Russia.

The other side of this view of the Caucasus is of course the downtrodden, mainly Muslim people who live there. But who are they and how did they become Muslim? Ironically, their conversion to Islam, certainly to anyting approaching an ‘orthodox’ Sunni Islam, was facilitated by the Russian march southwards…

The militancy of the Khalidiyya [the brotherhood of Khalid] found expression in the Caucasus. In parts of Chechnya and Dagestan, Islam, as brought by the Tatars of Crimea, had been accepted only by the representatives of the upper classes, while the masses remained untouched by Islam until the eighteenth century, maintaining their ancestral rites and beliefs. The preaching of Imam Mansur, who led a jihad in the years 1785-91, addressed the peasants in simple and direct language. His most durable work was the Islamization of the population of the north-west Caucasus, preparing the way for the Naqshabandi [a sufi brotherhood that emphasized the shari‘a] preachers and the jihad of Imam Shamil.
 Followers of Khalid
[an influential Sufi leader, hajji in 1805] spread the tariqa [method of reaching divine reality] in Dagestan and Chechnya in the early years of the nineteenth century. Shaykh Isma‘il al-Kurdemiri, a follower of Khalid, was active in Shirwan in the 1810s. With the progress of the Russian occupation, many of the local rulers submitted to Russian rule, so that the traditional political establishment was increasingly discredited. In this context, the message of the renewalist Naqshabandiyya tariqa had strong popular appeal, and the movement grew under the leadership of Muhammed al-Yaraghi, a student of Shaykh Isma‘il. Al-Yaraghi’s first concern was to establish respect for and adherence to Islamic law and to reform local practice.
 Hamid Algar asserts that the directives of Mawlana Khalid
[who, after 1820, because of various splits and disagreements, was actually in Iraq and Syria, not the Caucasus] consistently guided the political activities of the Khalidi Naqshabandi shayks in Dagestan and Chechnya, and it was there that the Khalidiyya survived in its purest and most integral form. The jihad of Imam Shamil from 1832 to 1859, had an important internal dimension. He created a territory where the shari‘a was supreme, and eradicated various local dynasties that had been associated with practicing the local customary law.

[Nehemia Levtzion, ‘The Role of Shari‘a-Oriented Sufi Turuq in the Reform Movements of the 18th and 19th Centuries’, in Islam in Africa and the Middle East: Studies in Coversion and Renewal (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), ch.XV, p.12.]

The end of the second paragraph sounds quite anodyne, but when we discover in the third paragraph that reform meant the eradication of those (in power, at least) who thought differently it makes me wonder what establishing respect for shari‘a involved!

Although these charismatic Muslim leaders – and for all their other-worldly and ‘spiritual’ reputation notice how involved the Sufis were in politics and political violence in the Caucasus (not to mention in Anatolia and India, though that’s a story for another day) – gained much legitimacy from the advancing Russian colonial machine, their greatest successes came in internal reform. The suppression of alternative practice and the imposition of Islamic law, a vital part of shaping the Caucasian Muslim consciousness today. What happened to those who demurred? We are not told. Where are the protests against the imposition of shari‘a in the 19th century? Where are the protests (by hand-wringing Western liberals or by conscientious Muslims) against the long term cultural changes, namely Islamization and destruction of traditional cultural elements, that came in the wake of Shamil’s jihad, crushed though it was in the end by the Russians? Nowhere.

(Religious) history is written by the victors.

 In this chapter we have traced the history of the manifestations of Muslim resistance to colonial expansion back to an earlier stage of renewal and reform within Sufi turuq, which occurred almost simultaneously in all parts of the Muslim world in the eighteenth century. This was the culmination and crystallization of undercurrents from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that reinforced the shari‘a orientation of Sufi turuq.
 If the nineteenth century saw the rise of militant movements, and the eigtheenth century experienced the restructuring of
shari‘a-oriented Sufi turuq, it was in the seventeenth century that Muslim scholars had begun to break out of the combination of legal taqlid and mystical pantheism. Sirhindi in India and al-Qushani in Medina, followed by Ibrahim al-Kurani, advanced the merging of Hadith and tasawwu [esoteric learning and practice], which became a prescription for shari‘a-oriented turuq. Indian scholars were important in the Haramayn as a result of the growth of the pilgrimage, during which they encountered Sufis and muhaddithun from North Africa, Egypt and Kurdistan. Pilgrims from the farthest lands of Islam – Indonesia, Africa and China – were initiated in the Haramayn into new turuq, and carried back to their homelands new ideas and the nuclei for more cohesive and structurally ognized Sufi organisations. It was in those countreis at the periphery of the Muslim world that the evolutionary process of Islamization reached a stage that called for a radical departure from past traitions, which could be achieved only through revolution.

[ibid., pp.26-7.]

A fascinating thesis by an expert on Isalmization, whose work is full of insight into Sufis and reformist Islam, particularly in Africa. I wonder why the murderous jihadi efforts of Shamil and others is not called colonial, though? 

Perhaps history is written by the…