A mystifying text and frustrating word

By , 27 November 2009 6:30 pm

I had an odd message on my old blog site yesterday. It simply read “用心經營的blog~您的部落格文章真棒!!”  and seemed to relate to a blog about a month ago. As I gazed perplexed at it, inspiration suddenly triumphed over commonsense and I pasted the text into Google Translate and pressed the buttons for Chinese to English. In seconds I got the following: ‘Working hard to blog ~ your blog article terrific!!’ I would give you the name of the sender but I suspect it is indeed from mainland China or (following last week’s blog) Tibet. I must admit I love the idea that illegally translated copies of Lamb among the Stars are being furtively circulated across China. Who knows? Anyway if you are reading this in China: may God bless both you and your nation!

Anyway back to the West. Our minister preached the other Sunday on spirituality and began to tease out some of the problems with this very enigmatic word. This stimulated me to think about this and I have concluded that what most modern people mean by spirituality bears very little resemblance to what older Christian authors understood by it. (Mind you, I’m not sure older writers used the word very much; I’m sure there’s a PhD thesis somewhere on the ‘Death of Religion and the Rise of Spirituality’.)  So I thought I’d pen some comments on this but I do have to say that my thoughts are very tentative.

My basic proposition is along the following lines. Modern writers when they use the word spirituality seem to be referring to the pursuit – or experience – of some mystical or extraordinary psychological experience. Older Christian writers, if they used the word spirituality or any such concept, would not have disagreed but would always have seen it as an experience in the context of religious creed and religious action. Although I suspect it’s not often been formalised, traditional Christianity has had three interlocking elements: right beliefs (orthodoxy), right practices (orthopraxy) and the mystical experience of God. (Ironically, the last element has often actually been considered the most minor one and, in some churches and individuals, almost ignored altogether.) In my view, within traditional Christianity, mystical experiences have always been constrained by right beliefs and right practices. There is a certain logic here: our internal experiences are notoriously susceptible to being affected by music, mood or what you’ve just eaten or drunk. They’re also impossible for others (or anybody?) to test for genuineness. Creeds and conduct are, in contrast, much less ambiguous. The result was that in traditional Christianity all experiences had to be tested by their  effects on what you believed what you did. A spirituality that led you to deny Christ or rob a bank wasn’t genuine. And a spirituality or spiritual experience that led you to understand the creed better or to love your neighbour more completely was more likely to be authentic. In summary, the untestable experiences of spirituality were thus constrained by the external creeds and codes of religion.

Today though I think things are very different. What we have today is, all too frequently, a spirituality that stands on its own and seeks no external authentication. The modern spirituality is a free-flying, liberated mood divorced from any concern with right beliefs and right actions. It is no wonder that so many people today claim to be spiritual without being religious.

The problem with modern spirituality is that of all internal experiences: namely, how do we know we have something of genuine value? At the risk of sounding rather unspiritual I would say that if you gave me a first-class restaurant with a fine view over beautiful countryside, I might easily have something close to a spiritual experience. Send me a Nikon D90 with the 18-200 VR (MK2) lens and the experience I will have on opening the box will, I assure you, be pretty much on the spiritual plane. Indeed I don’t have to be hypothetical: I have enjoyed near rapture on an ageing Boeing 707 at seeing Mogadishu vanish into the haze behind me. And seeing your newborn children is also awesome.

Put like that you see the problem.  A spirituality without religion is actually quite problematic. What can we say to someone for whom drink or drugs provides some sort of spiritual boost? What about those for whom shopping gives a spiritual high? And if we liberate spirituality from both creed and morality, why can’t violence or arson be spiritual?

Well, I need to think about this further. But you can understand why I’m a little cautious when I meet someone who says ‘I’m very spiritual but I don’t like religion’.

Have a good week.

The fate of books

By , 20 November 2009 7:02 pm

It would be very tempting to pursue the theme announced in the comments to last week’s blog that I am not simply banned in Tibet but actually threatened by Tibetans. The idea of mysterious Tibetan assassins lying in wait for me (what with? yak prods? yurt stakes?) is so wonderful that I refuse to countenance the possibility that the death threat merely comes from one of my mildly deranged students who probably thinks that Tibet is some sort of London fashion emporium.

Actually, the week actually brought fairly serious news for those of us engaged in Christian writing: namely the fact that the curious tripartite organisation that is Wesley Owen (bookshops), Authentic (books) and the United Bible Society are effectively bankrupt and are in the hands of something close to a receiver. This is sad and difficult news not simply because they owe me several hundred pounds in royalties. Nearly 500 jobs are at stake and I have a suspicion that with the state of retail and publishing in this country many of those who lose their job will not easily find other ones. Incidentally, this is part of something of a general malaise in this sector of publishing: I gather that Borders is also in a perilous state at the moment.

I have some specific comments on these matters but they are not really suitable for blogging. Let me instead say that I’m praying for some sort of solution to this problem but I feel that whoever takes over has at least three deep obstacles to deal with

Obstacle 1) Book readership has declined catastrophically in society in general and only slightly less amongst Christians. I commented to someone earlier this week that if I walked past five hundred of our students in the corridors and common rooms I would barely see one reading a book (and, in all probability, that would be a vampire book). They text, they wriggle and tap at computer games, they play cards, they access the Internet, but they very rarely read. (The fact that some of our students are of the highest calibre makes it all rather more worrying.) As so often with social trends I suspect the church is merely a few years behind. Our own church, which includes a very high number of doctorates, is not marked by high levels of reading. It would be a fascinating exercise to ask from the pulpit, how many people had bought or read a Christian book in the previous month. I’m not sure I have the courage to raise the question. Exactly why there has been this decline ought to be discussed some other day. Is the key factor the rise of experiential-based worship? Or the growth of the Internet? Or is it just the busyness of modern society? Anyone attempting to market Christian books these days has to grapple with this waning literacy. And trust me, when you get out of the habit of reading books then soon the very idea of reading a book becomes a hurdle that has to be overcome rather than a delight to wallow in. Incidentally, I should say that not all young people in churches do not read: both our sons are very literate members of theologically conservative churches that regularly proclaim the importance of reading.

Obstacle 2) Purchasing on the Internet has now become the norm rather than the exception (thanks Phil for the correction here!). To be honest it is so easy buying books on the Internet that I find myself doing it more and more frequently. Let’s say I realise that I need a book. What are the alternatives? I could get out the car, drive down to town, try and park, find a bookshop, locate the book section and then probably find that the book wasn’t there but they could get it for me in a week or so at full price. I then have to return back home. Goodbye the best part of two hours. Or I could call up Amazon, browse around, check the reviews, order online and have it delivered within little more than 48 hours at a discount price. All without leaving my seat and probably within ten minutes. It’s not a hard decision is it? I wish it was otherwise: I love bookshops but the equations don’t stack up

Obstacle 3) Digital downloads are finally beginning to make inroads against paper books. Around ten years ago someone got in touch with me trying to get digital publication rights for the two books I wrote as John Howarth, Heart of Stone and Rock of Refuge. I was assured that digital book readers were going to take off. They weren’t then but it looks like they will soon will with Kindle and its kin. In fact my most recent purchases of theological literature have been in digital format. I have recently moved to the new Logos Bible Software 4 (very nice) which seems to be the winner in the battle for Bible study and research software, and bought some books for that. No, I don’t like reading on screen but I do like to be able to painlessly reference and search books like this. But I can’t help but feel that, as digital downloads have largely squeezed record shops out of existence, so downloads may do just the same for bookshops.

So with these three big obstacles you would probably assume that I am pessimistic. Curiously enough, I am not entirely so. I feel convinced there must be a way forward for Christian publishing. However I have a strong feeling that it will be based, not around the model of the Christian bookshop as a major profit-making enterprise, but as the Christian bookshop as an expression of church service to the community. But I’m open to bright ideas. And I’m pretty sure our publishing companies are too.

Have a good week,


Rethinking the Internet

By , 13 November 2009 6:32 pm

If you remember my Lamb among the Stars books you will remember something called the Technology Protocols where the Assembly critically and carefully evaluated any technology before adopting it. This, of course, is in total contrast to our own dear world where we blunder in first and only worry later. Anyway this week I have been thinking about the Internet. My meditations were triggered by references to comments by Eugene Kaspersky, the eponymous Russian CEO of Kaspersky Labs, who wants the abolition of net anonymity and for us all to access a newer faster and cleaner web through a digital passport.

My ponderings were heightened when, having received an e-mail from the DXO Labs saying that version six of their excellent (if slightly expensive) photo processing software was now available I checked on the Internet for reviews on it. To my astonishment, I found that within two days of the software being launched six or seven sites were already claiming to offer cracked downloads. (Incidentally, don’t even think about it; there is an awful lot of evidence that most – if not all – of such sites are teaming with viruses.) So what are we to do with the Internet?

There’s certainly a lot morally wrong with the web. There is cracked software with viruses, porn, Facebook bullying, slander, an awful lot of lunacy as well as an almost infinite number of ways to separate you from your money. (We had a missionary friend staying with us last week who, while checking his e-mail, found that he had an apparently authentic message from an old friend saying that he was in Nigeria and had been robbed and urgently needed some money to get his passport replaced. It was merely the latest twist on an old, old scam.) I suppose too, if you want to look for them, there are also terrorists and paedophiles.

And yet…. I was talking at length recently with someone who has worked an awful lot with the cults and he said how difficult they are finding the Internet. In the ‘good old days’ the cults specialised in restricting information to members. Knowledge was trickled down on a need-to-know basis and very heavily censored. If a Jehovah’s Witness, say, wanted to find out any alternative view on their religion he or she had to find a Christian or secular bookshop and openly purchase a book. Now though, a few keystrokes will reveal websites of ex-members, lurid details of scandals and very good arguments against what is being taught. In short, in the age of Google it’s hard to hide dirty washing, whether it be intellectual or moral. And the best argument against Kaspersky’s dream of the new, passport-only Internet is that it would be a bad day for truth if it ever came to be. I have no doubt that there are those in Beijing, Saudi Arabia and say it not too loudly, the Kremlin, who would love to see such a tamed, controlled and neutered Internet.

So what do we do about the Internet? Quite simply I don’t know. The problem in evaluating the problem from a Christian point of view is that here several competing concerns come together. A first is the Christian commitment to the publishing the truth: for nearly three hundred years Christianity grew as an underground organisation. And I am old enough to have helped smuggle Bibles across the Iron Curtain. A second concern is that we wish to protect the weak; I may have seen through that Nigerian scam but would everybody? A third concern is that we know that there is a spirit of corruption in the world which ruins even good things so that, in hindsight, the corruption of the Internet was almost inevitable. ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is a profoundly Christian saying. That applies very well to the awesome transnational potential of the Internet.

Yet even if I have no specific remedy I have no doubt that we need to do some thinking about what is happening. The temptation is that because of the very complexity of the problem we simply shrug our shoulders in despair. I think Eugene Kaspersky is wrong but he is right to open the debate.

A variety of things

By , 6 November 2009 6:39 pm

Thank you all for considering my mystery word last week. I think in the end I probably decided that it needs a combination of words: ‘unsensational-but-satisfying’, ‘delivers-the-goods’, ‘excellent-and-unflashy.’ I suspect that this sort of thing works much better in German than English.

I have just about recovered from my cold/flu. I have no idea whether it was the swine flu but I can’t remember ever having been knocked out so long. It’s a useful reminder not to take good health for granted!

I have started to run a series of lunchtime classes on what is called Critical Thinking. Critical thinking is the semi-formal process of analysing arguments to identify reasons and conclusions and whether the evidence fully justifies the claims. It’s an odd sort of subject; I suspect in the old days you probably did it as part of English GCSE. Nowadays it seems to have gone missing but our higher-level universities, notably Oxford and Cambridge, are increasingly setting test papers which require a fairly sophisticated analysis of arguments using this sort of approach. Anyway it was rather gratifying that my geology room was crammed full with 30+ students today, many of whom have a reasonable chance of being interviewed at least for Oxford and Cambridge. It is actually good because it encourages me to think logically.

I spoke at Swansea University Christian Union this week (it’s been a busy week) on God’s Omniscience, Omnipresence and Omnipotence. Phew! There were a hundred or so students and a good atmosphere. The one thing that somewhat perturbed me was that although I touched on all sorts of important and useful things the only questions I got afterwards were all to do with the creation and evolution debate; something that I had alluded to in the briefest possible manner. I find it somewhat disturbing that what is, by any account, a rather peripheral debate (we are all creationists in some sense  has taken centre stage.

What else? Without saying too much I have had a rather intriguing series of e-mails from someone (let’s just call him M.) from the Middle East who knows me as a professional geologist and who has been asking some interesting and penetrating questions about my Christian faith in a very friendly and open way. He has just asked me to explain the doctrine of the Trinity and how Christians can pray to Jesus without committing the sin of polytheism. Well that’s going to be an easy one isn’t it? (Is there an emoticon for irony?). That’s my next task this evening and I would value prayer.

Finally, for those of you who are fans of technology, Mr. Google has given us a nice new present which so far has not been widely publicised. If you use Google Earth (and I use it at least once or twice a day in teaching) turn on 3-D Buildings and Photorealistic on the side panel and take a look at New York, Birmingham, Cardiff or Dublin. All being well if you have a reasonably fast modem connection and a tolerable graphics card you should see the landscape slowly spring alive with wonderful 3-D buildings which really look realistic. (Two tricks for Google Earth that not everybody knows: 1. set vertical exaggeration to around 1.7 in order to make landscape look realistic and 2. use a mouse with a scroll wheel in the middle and press down on it. ) To say it’s awesome is an understatement: I showed it to our head of IT who one presumes has seen everything and twenty minutes later he was still playing with it  like a happy child. On a slightly reflective note, I’m actually wondering whether one of the side-effects of being made in the image of God is that we like to see things as he sees them. But that apart, it’s pretty awesome to swoop and wheel around the skyscrapers. I’m wondering if I do it enough whether it will cure my vertigo.

3D google

3D google

top-down skyscrapers

top-down skyscrapers

Have a good week!

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