Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Next time someone asks you what the BBC is for, listen to Kirsty's reaction to Martin Carthy's story about Scarborough Fair, and then listen to Benjamin Zephaniah reading the House at Pooh Corner for the first time. You just don't get moments like this on the tellybox. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cross Purposes

Can a place of work or a school have a dress code?

Ought a place of work or school to have a dress code?
Dunno. Depends on how extreme the code is and how good a reason for it there is. Asking people to wear hard hats on building sites, fair enough. Asking people to wear clowns hats in the office, not so much. Okay to ask men to wear a tie. Not okay to ban them from wearing trousers. Unless company in question was Jock McHamish's Kilt Emporium. Or the Perfectly Normal Transvestite Shop. Or, come to that, the Raunchy Nude Butler company. It's complicated.

Are you saying that dress codes aren't unreasonable in themselves, but a particular dress code might be unreasonable for some people under some circumstance?
It's complicated.

Is this a human rights issue?
We have to come up with a vocabulary and framework for talking about these things, and human rights seems to be the one we've decided. If they'd asked me, we'd have reserved "human rights" for the big stuff like torture and war crimes, but they didn't. When t.c Tony Blair talked about access to the internet being a human right, I started to think that "human rights" had become one of those phrases that used to have a meaning but now just indicate mild approval from the speaker, like "stakeholder", "zero tolerance", and "British".

Might this ever be a human rights issue?
If a prison or school or branch of Tescos had a policy of enforced nudity, then that would be a breach of someone's human rights, as well as an interesting premise for a porno movie. We should be careful of making assumptions about how different people from different backgrounds feel about modesty. If your culture tells you to wear a turban, what does it feel like to be caught with no turban? Is it more like "How incredibly embarrassing! I've come to work without putting a tie on"? Or is it more like "OMG my knickers have fallen down in public and everyone can see my arse!"? It's only a couple of generations since a woman walking down the high street without a hat would have caused a genuine scandal, after all.

If a place of work or a school has a dress code, should there be exceptions to it for people with strong religious convictions?
It depends on the importance of the original dress code and the importance of the religious conviction. I don't think that I should be exempted from wearing protective clothing at work because I happen to have decided that I feel like wearing my "Smile, Jesus loves you" tee shirt today. If a company has made a rule about wearing badges, then I am not sure that it makes any difference if the badge in question is a skull and cross bones or an icthus. 

What are these strange "badges" of which you speak?
I believe that they are what foreigners would call "buttons". You may have become confused about the differences between "trousers" and "pants" several pages ago.

Is the law prohibiting Christians from displaying signs of their faith a breach of their human rights?
I don't know. But it seems pretty intolerant and mean spirited to me.

Is there, in fact, a law prohibiting Christians from displaying signs of their faith?
No. Of course not. Don't be silly. Just walk down your street and count how many cars have Christian fishes on them, and, for that matter, how many cars have those nasty little Darwin fishes on them.

Do some companies have a dress code which forbids the wearing of jewellery at work?
Apparently so.

Are people who want to wear crosses, stars of david or rosaries at work automatically exempted from the "no jewellery" rule?
Apparently not.

Have you ever seen anyone wearing a rosary at work?
No. Of course not. Don't be silly. 

Should there be an exception?
It depends on the importance of the rule and the importance of the jewellery. If you are working on a production line and jewellery is dangerous, then there should probably not be an exception. If you are putting books on shelves in a library and it's a very small and discrete cross, then there probably should be. If wearing a small cross is a compulsory element of your sect, then almost definitely. 

Wouldn't that mean that Motorhead fans and members of the Liberal Democrats would suddenly decide that wearing small badges was a compulsory part of their faith?
Almost certainly. If you say that "literary merit" is a defence against a charge of indecency or obscenity then every publisher in the country is going to claim that his top shelf magazine is a work of serious literature.

Are there, in fact, any Christian sects for whom wearing a cross at all times is compulsory?
No. Of course not. Don't be silly. 

So how did "the human rights court is deciding if companies should be legally obliged to waive their dress codes for Christians who want to wear jewellery to work" become "the human rights court is deciding if Christians should be banned from wearing crosses in public"? 
See under "Eric Pickles", above. 

Why does he think its such a big deal?
It isn't quite clear. He doesn't think that people should be allowed to wear crosses because everybody should have the same freedom as everybody else and subject to that as much freedom as possible; he thinks that people should wear crosses because Faith is a good thing and we want more of it. It doesn't matter too much in what. But he has a purely instrumental view of this Faith stuff.  He doesn't think Faith is a good in itself; he thinks it's a good because "it provides a clear moral compass and a call to action that benefits society as a whole", whatever that means.

So he really cares about "society as a whole" and sees Faith as a means to an end?
That's what I meant by "instrumental", yes. 

So, in fact, he worships "society" rather than God?
Yes Socrates; that is indeed the case.

Is that roughly what you would expect a member of discredited right wing government to do in a country where the dominant folk religion has always been a sort of Christian tinged secular pelegianism?
Oh, Socrates, you are so much cleverer than us!

Would the world be a happier place if I refrained from reading the Daily Telegraph even when someone has left a copy of it on my table?
Very probably.

What's the difference between analogy and allegory?
Analogy is when strawberries being you out in spots. Allegory invented the internet.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Loose Ends (5)

C.S Lewis's "trilemma" was never intended to be a proof of the existence of God. Again.

The radio broadcasts were never aimed at atheists. There weren't any atheists in England in 1940, and if there were they didn't listen  to religious talks on the wireless. They were specifically commissioned to appeal to those who "on whom church membership sits lightly."  Lewis's target audience are people who may think that "cardinal sins" are the kinds of sins committed by Roman Catholic cardinals and that the "begotten, not created" bit in the creed has something to do with the virgin birth. People who don't know but want to know, or who are prepared to listen. Translating big ideas for the benefit of the Common Man who is certainly not stupid but is almost completely uneducated. His attitude can certainly seem incredibly patronising, as indeed can everything else that the BBC did between 1922 and 1984; but they were wildly, wildly popular, turning Lewis into an instant celebrity and cult figure. 

I therefore become exasperated in a not at all mean spirited way when people just repeat the old saw that Lewis was a bad or dishonest polemicist because the "aut deus aut malus homo" argument is merely a "dodgy rhetorical flourish". He is directing the argument at people who think of themselves as Christians, but who honestly don't know what kinds of claims are put into Jesus' mouth in the New Testament; who honestly believe (because generations of dishonest clergymen and schoolteachers have told them so) that the Jesus of the Bible was a moral teacher and nothing more; that to be a Christian means "to be good"; that the expression "Son of God" means "person whose moral teaching we agree with". Lewis is showing why this doesn't work. It obviously doesn't work. 


The aforementioned Francis Spufford gives the trilemma very short shrift, as I mentioned in the review. He argues, very interestingly, I think, that the mystical transcendent sense of being in contact with God can be very emphatic even for very ordinary believers; so it would have to be utterly overwhelming for a remarkable and holy man such as we must suppose "Yeshua" to have been. Believing that you are God is a perfectly imaginable response to such an extreme experience. If human experience is such that perfectly sane people can come to believe that there is a God, it's possible to see how a perfectly sane person could come to believe that he is  God.

Of course, Dawkins has sufficiently poisoned the discourse that most people probably don't think that it is possible for a sane person to believe in God: me and Jesus and Rowan Williams and the Vicar of Dibley are mad and bad by definition, so the whole argument is rather moot.  

While Spufford is, in my opinion, a bit harsh on Lewis, he is very good about the whole scholarly debate about the New Testament documents and the "historical" Jesus. The Gospels are clearly stories, not news reports, and have to read as such, something which Lewis, curiously, never really came to grips with. On the other hand the, the populist notion that the stories depict a sweet Lennonist moral sage and nastybadjewish St Paul perverted them into a religion about a deified saviour is completely false. The earliest Christian writings we have are about a divine, resurrected saviour who is coming back Real Soon Now. The narratives are written decades later. 

Granted, those narratives must have had antecedents and sources - St Luke says explicitly that he's editing previous accounts - and all scholars agree that our best link to the really really original totally historical utterly authentic Jesus of history is a lost fifth Gospel that collected a lot of parables and teaching. [*]

Spufford cleverly makes the point that, even if this is correct, that still doesn't get us back to a sweetly human Jesus of simple morality as preached by Douglas Adams, Charles Dickens, Queen Elizabeth II, Woody Guthrie, Geraldine Granger, Miss Govey who taught R.E at my infant school, John Lennon and David Icke. 

He (Spufford) writes:

"Moreover, even if you try to discard everything in the biographies which is explicitly devoted to storytelling Jesus's divinity, and just concentrate on the bits which must have come most uncontentiously from the lost sayings-collection, you still don't get back to a layer in which he's just a wise person dispensing wisdom....'If someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt too' is not 'great moral teaching' in this sense. It is either foolishness, or something else."

Not great moral teaching. Either foolishness, or something else.

Now, what does that remind me of?  

[*] Except the ones who don't.

My previous seventeen essays on the Trilemma, can be found in "Do Balrogs Have Wings?"  along with that essay on Planet Narnia everyone wanted so badly. The unsigned copies are the valuable ones.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Loose Ends (4)

I may at some stage try and write a review of the Hobbit

But on the other hand, I may just sit in the corner and weep softly to myself. 

Man of Steel looks appalling, and after dubbing the last one The Abomination, I would be a bit of a humbug to go and see Into Darkness. 

I am greatly looking forward to The Miserables. 

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Even Looser Ends

(Responding to comments on previous thread. I will get back to writing about funnybooks soon, I promise.) 

Before writing anything about religion, I really ought to write, "I AM NOT NEARLY AS PIOUS AS I AM PROBABLY SOUNDING" in large letters at the top of the page.

The religious don't think of God as only, or even mostly, as Universe Createy Guy. (This is why most of them found that Hevolution required only relatively minor adjustments.) So I don't think that saying "God is like a father" can be mostly a way of conceptualizing the concept of Creation. In any case, Christians almost never talk in terms of God bringing the universe into being like a father bringing a child into being. If anything, it's more like a craftsman constructing something. (Hence "begotten, not created" in the Creed.) The reluctance to call God "Mother" is possibly connected to this: "God the Mother" is always in danger of giving birth to the universe, which changes the way you think the universe is related to God. Joseph Campbell goes on and on about this. 

Note that I didn't say "If Christians are right to conceptualizes God as sky-father..."; I said "If Christians are right to call God 'Father'" (or, as I then said "Daddy"). 

"What we call God" = "How we address God" = "What kind of relationship we think we have with God". 

Is there an imaginative difference between thinking that you can approach the divine as "Daddy" and thinking you can approach it as "Mummy"? 

I think there possibly is, maybe. 

At any rate, masculine imagery is used right through the Bible, and once you've said "God is neuter", "God is hermaphrodite" or "God is an energy field created by all living thing, he surrounds us, penetrates us and binds the galaxy together" you'd have to rethink all the other images and metaphors in the Bible. What would you do with the mystical wedding feast of the Lamb in the book of Revelation; the allegorical level of the Song of Songs; the parable of the Prodigal Son; the story of the Seven Foolish Virgins waiting for the Bridegroom; etc etc etc?

This is the problem with ultra free translations of the Bible. All very cute for Miss Muir to tell us that the Missionaries sometimes taught Natives that Jesus said "I am the coconut of life", but how did they then deal with the passage about the Jews leaving Egypt in such a hurry that they had to eat unleavened coconuts, which is clearly relevant to the story of Jesus' giving coconuts and wine to his disciples.

An evangelical pastor once posted a "wayside pulpit" poster outside his church, reading:


Back in prehistory, when the Church of England first debated the whole question of Lady Vicars, I think the position of most of us liberal evangelicals was along the lines of "Well, we are far from sure that a vicar does act as the ikon of God, because we are far from sure that we believe in that clergy are "priests" in that sense. But we are quite sure that a female priest can be an ikon of God the father just as much as a male one can." 

I mean, that was what we thought when we weren't thinking "This is a rather obscure and technical point to be making quite such a lot of fuss about." 

The only time we became jumpy about the whole thing was when a minority of women's ordination exponents said "A female priest can be an ikon of God because the Bible and tradition is completely mistaken to think of God as father". "Oor, er" we said "It now sounds as if you are making a change to the whole grammar of faith rather than, as we thought, correcting an obvious and silly historical injustice." 

A woman's ordinands wrote to the Guardian and said "The only difference between me and Robert Runcie is that he has a penis and I don't." The great Auberon Waugh responded in his column "Even at the purely psyiological level, this argument is bollocks."  It is entirely possible that I have quoted that before. 

A 2007 post by me, entitled "A Completely Unfunny Posting" gets more hits, by a fact of about five to one, than anything else I have ever written. I initially thought that, since it contains a lot of bad religious jokes, it must be linked to from some religious or theophobic website that I can't find. It has been pointed out to me, however, that in the course of the piece I frivolously refer to Mr Dawkin's imaginary "memes" as "midichlorians", so the hits are probably coming from very disgruntled Star Wars fans, none of whom have bought my book.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Loose Ends (3)

I think that "Jacob" makes a very valid point

I think his very valid point is this: The whole idea that the relationship between two men might be lawful and blessed, but not sacramental; and the whole idea that it's perfectly fine for a female to to be Queen or head of MI5 but impossible for her to consecrate the Eucharistic clearly implies that differences (and therefore, in certain respects at least, inferiority and superiority) are built into the whole system. That makes the whole system rotten at a very deep level.

I am very sympathetic to this argument, and actually used it myself the first time I wrote about this subject, back in the Jurassic era. 

I would, however, ask "Jacob" to charitably consider my analogy with the pagans -- the ones who hypothetically believe that the male and the female principle are hard wired into the universe, and a man can't be an earth mother any more than you can make rabbit stew without a rabbit. It's not a rule that someone made up; it's a description of how things are. 

This would make things actually a lot more sticky because if 

a: Sexism and homophobia are actually implicit in the whole idea of calling God "Father" 


b: Calling God "Father" is a significant Christian belief 

then it follows that

c: telling Christians that they have to have female priests and marry same sex couples really does amount to saying that their whole concept of God is not permissible; which really does amount to saying that they can't practice their religion; which is either a very good thing or a very bad thing depending on how Christophobic you are. 

But I am now making a hypothetical argument on behalf of a hypothetical person whose hypothetical views I don't myself agree with and may not even have properly understood. Some people may question the usefulness of such an exercise.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Loose Ends (2)

Using analogies sometimes helps me to think straight. I think they may sometimes help other people think straight as well. 

Jesus once said "You don't know when you are going to be burgled, so you lock up every night. Similarly, you don't know when I'm coming back to earth, so be prepared for me all the time." I don't think it follows from this that Jesus is like a house breaker; or spirituality is like a mortice lock; or pastoral care is like being a a crime prevention officer; or that the second coming is going to result in damage to your DVD collection. I think that the burglar has one specific element in common with Jesus, i.e the element of surprise. (Jesus also said that human beings were to God as litigants were to magistrates; I don't think he intended us to think that the prayer involves filling out endless forms, knowing the correct forms of address, wearing funny wigs etc etc etc.)

I get very bored with people wilfully misunderstanding analogy. Only the other day, a friend of mine said to another friend "Oh, if your bike is a mighty stallion, my bike is only a little shetland pony." I naturally responded "That's outrageous and Shetlophobic! Have you ever seen a pony with wheels?"

When an organisation -- let's call it "The Church of England", for the sake of argument -- confuses two elements of its own anatomy, let's say for example its arse and its elbow - over some particular issue -- let's hypothetically say "the ordination of women Bishops" -- everyone naturally feels very cross / ashamed / defensive / bored. Christophobic writers are naturally inclined to jump up and down with joy and say "You see! That proves what I've been saying all this time".  Bloggers are inclined to reply "Well, I think it's actually more complicated than that" even though in this case it probably isn't. 

So I think it can sometimes be helpful to take a step back and say "Let us imagine a different organisation, called X, that has made a different arbitrary rule, prohibiting a particular group (Y) from holding a particular office (Z)" What would follow?  Does the breadth and significance of Z within the organisation, the position of Y in the power structure, or the influence of X in the community make a difference; or is prejudice against Y over Z just as serious as prejudice against A, B or C over D, E or F. Because I am a terribly funny and witty writer (terms and conditions may apply) I like to think of silly values for X, Y and Z in order to make the analogy more memorable, and the essay less boring. If I ask us to think about a custard factory which won't allow blue eyed people to sweep the floor, it doesn't, mean that I think that the historical oppression of women is no more serious than the historical oppression of blue eyed people, or that carrying out the Great Commission and administering the Eucharist is like manufacturing egg thickened confectionery cream. I'm just trying to sort out in my own head what exactly it is we are disagreeing about.

I realise that many of us would rather not sort out in our heads exactly what it is we are disagreeing about. I think that many of us would rather just form battle lines and shout at each other. Which is great fun and excellent aerobic exercise, I admit. 

I think that many of us really do think that the Church of England is really a social movement like the Campaign for Real Ale or the National Society for the Prevention of Children, that all the ceremonies and rituals are more or less dispensable decoration (like one of those Laurel and Hardy men's clubs with jokey initiation rituals). Whereas I think that some of the people getting their knickers in a twist about ordination probably think that the ceremonies and rituals are the main thing, possibly even the only thing, which the organisation is there for. I think that most people "get" that there are groups of people like wiccans and druids and Alan Moore who honestly believe in rituals and ceremonies and spells which have some kind of actual effect. (Most of us also think that they are as fruity a batcakes, but that's not the point right now.)So I think it is sometimes helpful to say "Pretend that we were not talking about Christians saying that a lady can do anything except perform Holy Communion; pretend that we were talking about a group of wizards saying that a blond haired man could do anything except cast a Fireball spell - what would you say in that case?"

Which isn't the same as saying that I think that the Church of England is similar to a covenant of fire wizards, or that transubstantiation does 1D6 damage per level, or that I am going to carry on labouring this particular point for the next twelve months, necessarily.

I believe it to be the case that in a modern wiccan ceremony, only a man can embody the horned god and only a woman can embody the earth mother, because the male and female principles are believed to be real part of the cosmos. Peter Owen-Jones certainly had to get into the nuddy. But I don't actually know anything about modern neo-paganism, which is why I prefer to make up hypothetical examples. 

To digress back to the last point but one: someone might say that a belief that there really are male and female cosmic principles is Sexist; some might say that such a belief is Sexist, but not in a bad way; and others might say that it is not Sexist, because it is true. And someone else might say that if it were true, it wouldn't be sexist, but since it isn't, it is. You can define the word how you like, but it is not much help to deliberately think up a definition which will apply to people you think are wrong and then say that they must be wrong because they conform to you definition. 

Someone will say that imagining wizards who, while not otherwise prejudiced against bald people, say that the best spells can only be cast by people with hair, doesn't change the argument at all, because discrimination is discrimination and discrimination is always wrong. Telling a white man that he can't play in your Very Authentic Traditional Blues Band, or a black man that you don't want him in your Very Authentic Traditional Morris Dancing Side is no different from saying that he can't stay in your hotel, sit in the best seat on the bus, or vote in election.[*] Once you have conceded one kind of prejudice, however minor, you have conceded that prejudice is okay really. There are no grey areas. Never compromise: even in the face of antidistestablishmentarianism, never compromise. 

As a matter of fact, I would probably agree with you, although I draw the line at mixed gender changing rooms. But I think that extended hypotheticals about the Red Headed League may have helped to clarify the point. No disrespect intended. No intention to trivialize important issues. I don't for one minute mean to imply that you really have been chucking feathers and lumps of lead around in a vacuum.

[*] It obviously makes a difference if you say that the only people who can stay in your hotel, sit in the best seats in the bus, or vote at elections are Morris Dancers, Bluesmen, or High Level Wizards.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Loose Ends (1)

I don't think that "having false beliefs about" and "hating" are necessarily the same thing.

Er. that's it, basically.

I mean, I could say some other things if I felt like it. I could arbitrarily decide that I was going to spend 2013 referring to Richard Dawkins as "Christophobic". I could speculate about whether the use of the same word to describe "having false beliefs about" and "hating" is inadvertent, or tactical or sometimes one or sometimes the other and sometimes both. I could play around a bit with with words like "antisemitic" and "islamophobic" and wonder if everyone who is bothered by (say) ladies wearing face masks is "islamophobic", and whether that means they are wrong, necessary  But I don't think I will. 

Having false beliefs and hatred are not necessarily the same thing. But sometimes they are. Really, that's it.