Issues with committees revisited

By , 28 September 2007 8:45 pm

Two weeks ago I expounded on the way that writers and readers of fiction overlook the way that major events are often made not by epic acts of heroism but by seemingly boring committee meetings. There were some suggestions that I might consider this theme further and so here we are.

It is often said that committees acquire a life of their own, as if the very process of half a dozen human beings gathering together creates a new and monstrous psychological and spiritual organisation. At one level this is true, but we need to be a little more rigorous in our analysis. Why is this the case? Let me make some observations.

The first is that committees are able to allow evil to occur because they give the participants the illusion that they are no longer personally responsible for what happens. It strikes me that when we personally are asked to take a decision then, if we are people of principle, we carefully consider the outcomes in the light of our own morality and only then do we proceed. In some shape or form we know that we as individuals will be held accountable. And whether we fear God, man or the verdict of history we tread warily.

However as a committee member all is changed: we feel absolved from all this. We are now part of a collective organism and our responsibility ends the moment we sit down round the table. The result is that men and women who would willingly shed their own blood to help someone now feel an extraordinary freedom to condemn innocents to a life of suffering. We need reminding that while there may be strength in numbers there is no exception from judgment.

A second observation is that committees are oddly open to manipulation. I’m sure a number of my readers have been in some sort of committee meeting and suddenly found themselves surprised at the way the decision was going. The theory of committees is that because everybody has a say then a committee should come to the wisest decision. The reality is that often – perhaps because people assume that it can’t happen – committees can be gently and discreetly managed by those with agendas. It’s easy to assume that such people must inevitably be the chairman or chairperson; in practice it might easily be someone else, possibly someone who merely makes a few minimal comments but who with quiet steady suggestions pushes an otherwise unpalatable decision to its conclusion.

A third observation is that because in any group of human beings there will be some sort of clash of personalities then dynamics are set up in a committee which may easily affect what happens. Consider a fairly simple case. Young Charlotte, recently appointed to the committee against the wishes of one or two of the senior gentlemen, comes up with a jolly good proposal. The senior gentlemen consider it not simply on its merits but with other factors in view. Might agreeing to this proposal encourage this young lady to go further and possibly tread on their own territory? Might it perhaps be appropriate to teach her a cautionary lesson? It may even be that they vote against the proposal just because they don’t like her. The upshot is that a decent proposal might not be approved simply because it was, in that dreadful word, politic for it to be rejected. The results of the committee’s deliberations have produced nonsense. And lest I be accused here of inverted sexism, let me suggest that when the committee meets again Charlotte deliberately vetoes one of the elderly gentlemen’s proposals on the grounds that some degree of retribution is valid. Very soon the committee becomes a battleground of egos rather than a method of resolving problems. All too often what is at stake in committee meetings is not success or failure or truth or falsehood but one’s own personal prestige.

There was much that was wrong with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. One of the worst things was the portrayal of the Sanhedrin as exotic, woolly wild Jews alien to all that we are. It would have been far more telling (and far less anti-Semitic) to have portrayed them (as the gospels hint they were) as men who when they came together in committee, let the strange dynamics of collective decision meeting push them into the most terrible of deeds.

Dismissed, Derided and Distorted

By , 21 September 2007 7:21 pm

A double apology. One, I promised to write more on committees (and I will) and two, this is largely a repeat of the monthly Speculative Faith blog which I wrote this week. I have my reasons for repeating it.

One of the greatest masterpieces of art is the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is an oratorio for soloists, two choirs and, for those days, a reasonably sized orchestra. It was written for what must have been a very long Good Friday church service in 1727. In length (well over two hours) and in musical style it broke new ground and is one of the towering peaks of music. It is also explicitly evangelical. Through the use of hymns and choruses listeners are deliberately drawn into the events surrounding our Lord’s trial and death. Bach clearly makes the point; it is we who crucified Christ. Even when your German is minimal (as mine is) it is still a moving experience. (Unfortunately there is only really one version in English, and that is rather old-fashioned.)

Now this summer the St Matthew was presented as an opera at the UK’s famous Glyndebourne Festival. In itself, an opera version is not a bad idea; the music is dramatic and you do wonder whether Bach did not dream of something far less static than an oratorio in which men and – just possibly – women stood up and sung. I should say here that I didn’t see the performance but followed the reviews with interest. What happened is that the director set the work in an unspecified modern community (Beslan?) that had been affected by the violent deaths of children, so that the entire work became about counselling the bereaved. Let me quote from the Guardian: “the Passion story is a project that they are led through by four therapists, who form the central quartet of soloists. Every so often, one of the participants gets spooked and makes a run for it; seeing how any genuine emotion from the chorus members is immediately damped down by the insufferably sincere therapists, you can’t blame them.” The Passion was thus interpreted as a prolonged meditation on grief, suffering and loss; presumably with the intention of making it ‘more relevant’. Readers will probably not be surprised to know that the audiences were not impressed: one headline simply read ‘Crime of Passion’. Even non-Christian reviewers sensed that this was not at all what Bach was about.

Now here, long-suffering readers, let us turn to fiction. You see, it seems to me that the unbelieving world has three possible strategies in dealing with Christian art. Firstly, it can be dismissed. So it is a genre that is ‘insignificant’ and ‘not worthy of comment’. The writing of gay and lesbian authors is worth critical comment but not that of Christians: their books go unreviewed. Secondly, it can be derided. We all know the words: ‘old-fashioned’, ‘conservative’, ‘puerile’, etc., etc. Now consider the problem faced by someone hostile to Christianity when they come across a piece of such surpassing excellence that it cannot be dismissed or derided. The St Matthew Passion (one of Richard Dawkins’ Desert Island discs, by the way; there’s hope for him yet) is such a work. Here a third strategy is opted for: distortion.

So despite everything the St Matthew Passion is presented as not being not fundamentally about Christ and the cross but about the universal experience of suffering and loss. And haven’t we seen this elsewhere? No matter how explicit we make our Christian statements, what is written is twisted into something far less spiritual and ultimately, far less significant. Of course, in an age of postmodernism, when the reader, not the writer, makes the decision on meaning, there is even a justification for this: ‘I do not really care what you meant to say; I am only interested in what it does for me.’

It seems to me that because of its use of images and the unusual, speculative fiction is very prone to this re-reading. Remember how Tolkien had to make it plain in the foreword to Lord of the Rings that the book wasn’t about European politics? The voices continue: that lion isn’t Jesus, it’s a universal symbol of hope. And so on.

So how we are to respond? One way is that somewhere, probably outside the books themselves, we need make it absolutely plain that our meaning is not negotiable. It perhaps needs to be written down somewhere for posterity that this writing is not about politics, sexual shenanigans or environmental issues, but about higher matters.

I have no idea whether my own Lamb among the Stars series (I am uneasy mentioning it in the same article as the St Matthew Passion!) will have any sort of long-term success. Equally, I have no idea whether future researchers will have access to what we now write on the Internet. But if, in the providence of God, both happen, let me say something to you who read this (and this is why I have repeated myself in two blogs). It is this. These books are only indirectly about the current political situation or anything else as ephemeral; they are ultimately about the very Christian matters of sin and redemption, hope and courage, judgement and eternity. At the end of the St Matthew Passion Bach appended three letters: S.D.G. Soli Deo Gloria. I have done the same. Readers, producers, directors: take note and please, spare me from your distortions.

A subtle peril of fiction

By , 14 September 2007 7:21 pm

I was at a church elders meeting last night, when I was struck by a totally irrelevant thought: how rarely fiction represents committee meetings. The chief reason of course is not hard to find: they are really pretty boring. (Another reason, incidentally, is that meetings where more than three people are present are very hard to portray; you end up saying, X said this, Y said that, Z commented, and so on.) Fiction, especially the sort that I write, and I suspect most of my readers read, is about action and events. If committee meetings do occur in such works, then we are generally taken straight to some climactic moment of decision: all else is dispatched in a few sentences.

Now thinking about this further, I think this is very misleading in an artistic sense. You see it is in such quiet committee meetings where great decisions are made. The fate of individuals, organisations, and even nations, is decided in slow rounds of often undramatic argument and discussion. It is in these rather low-key exchanges of views that destinies are forged for good or ill. Fiction, because it tends to concentrate on dramatic, emotionally charged events or confrontations, misleads us. The apparently still waters of a big river in fact move far faster than the turbulent bubbling of an alpine stream. In the same way momentous events often happen quietly.

From the Christian point of view there is something very significant here. We prepare ourselves to do the right thing at a great moment of crisis. Here, we say to ourselves, we will not fail! Yet actually what happens is that the pivotal battle is conducted somewhere else, often in a far less dramatic matter. And here, unexpectant and ill-prepared, we fail. We need to be prepared for moments of crisis in life, but we also need to beware of being ambushed by some subtle danger on what we expect to be a quiet stretch. I suspect many souls have been damned in those quiet committee meetings when the chairman has said, with no great fanfare, ‘So then. I take it we are all agreed?’ And unable to resist, a man or woman agrees to something terribly wrong.

Having just written this I have remembered what C. S. Lewis has the demon Screwtape say: “The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Exactly so.

Of iPods and eels

By , 7 September 2007 6:45 pm

It’s been a busy week. I went back to college to find my geology class is incredibly over subscribed (and that’s before they realise I have a Facebook fan club). As a result, they are going to give me an extra group, but it’s really rather awkward to fit it in the timetable, particularly as it will mean that I have to get taken off teaching geography and be replaced by someone else.

And on the Infinite Day front I had my first contact with my new editor and the good news is that they don’t want much in the way of major changes. One of the most useful comments I received from my previous editor was to consider broadening out the scope of the books to bring in other viewpoints. It was however, also one of the most time-consuming as it meant a major rewrite and made for much a longer, if better final volume. Anyway, I hope this means the editing process will be reasonably straightforward.

Two items of news caught my attention this week and are worth commenting on. Two days ago, Apple announced their latest line-up of iPods. I was reminded in reviews of the slick and polished presentation when in June Steve Jobs revealed the iPhone. One commentator, who I’d take to be otherwise reasonably sane, said, as he saw it revealed, how he found himself weeping.
‘For heavens sake, man, it’s only a phone,’ I wanted to shout. It came as close as anything I have seen to actually saying this technology is now my god. As my present iPod is getting rather full I am attracted by the idea of one with twice the space and three times the battery life at two-thirds the price of my old one. But please God, may I never weep over a techno-toy announcement.

The second piece of news may have slipped you by. It was that certain types of Moray eel have been shown to have a second set of jaws to help them grasp food. What was interesting about this is that almost every coverage of the story has referred to the film ‘Alien’ and its eponymous (and anonymous) double-jawed creature. It is a measure of the triumph of a film that its imagery is used as currency to explain something. When I mentioned the news to a teaching friend who has a background in fish genetics, he was gobsmacked. ‘How have they managed to evolve that?’ he exclaimed in near indignation. ‘That’s your problem, not mine,’ I replied. As someone has said, the problem with Darwinism is not the survival of the fittest; it’s the arrival of the fittest.

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