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)