Parasites of Christmas

By , 18 December 2009 6:37 pm

Almost no one has read the whole of Proust’s 7 volume epic À la Recherche du Temps Perdu but any self respecting pseud knows that the protagonist’s sudden recollection of the past which is the subject of the book is triggered by him eating a cake, a petite Madeleine. I was reminded of this the other week when I was at a carol service in an ancient chapel. As it came to its conclusion there was one of those wonderful moments when they dimmed the lights so that the only lighting came from candles (or at least the electronic facsimiles approved by Health and Safety Police) and we all sang Once in Royal David’s City. And as we did I was suddenly reminded of so many Christmases in so many different places and I was almost overwhelmed by a great tidal wave of nostalgia. Just like Proust’s Petite Madeleine in fact. And the thought came to me: isn’t this part of the wonder and joy of Christmas? The carols, readings and rituals (turkey, tree, crackers, cards) of Christmas act as a sort of similar trigger. (As an aside, I suspect the role of Christmas as nostalgia-fest becomes more and more important as you get older.)

A few moments later I came to my senses and realised that I had fallen into a trap. I do not wish to knock memories or remembering for they are indeed good things but it is the good things, not bad things, that can form the greatest peril for the Christian. We need to remind ourselves that Christmas is not – of course – fundamentally about remembering our own past, although the recollection of memories may be part of the blessing of the season.

In fact when you think about it there are any number of parasites that cling on to Christmas trying to suck the goodness out of it. There are the parasites of family, food, presents, parties and fellowship and fine music. All good things; but all in danger of smothering the Baby.

I’ve worked a little bit in jungles and there when you finish your fieldwork one of the rules is to check yourself for any ticks and leeches draining out your blood. I’m afraid spiritual equivalents of such parasites cluster around the celebration of Christmas. I am no fan of banning Christmas (on that score Cromwell was wrong), but I do believe that it too should be carefully and regularly scrutinised for blood-sucking parasites.

No, I’m afraid one of our tasks every Christmas is to make sure that our good does not get in the way of God’s best. Christmas is all about remembering God’s great intervention in Jesus without which we would have no hope. It is also a very convenient occasion to look forward to the Second Advent. In fact the writer of Once in Royal David’s City gets the tone just right for the last verse (sometimes not surprisingly omitted) which goes thus

Not in that poor lowly stable,
with the oxen standing round,
we shall see him; but in heaven,
set at God’s right hand on high;
when like stars his children crowned,
all in white shall wait around.

(And if you are fortunate whoever is leading the music or playing the organ will at this point be theologically acute enough to up the volume to forte. )

Well whoever you are and wherever you are may you have a good Christmas. The sort of Christmas that will give you good memories. But may you never mistake the memories for the reality.


Truth, lies and documentaries

By , 11 December 2009 6:30 pm

It was the last day of teaching today and I was delighted to be able to show a BBC documentary Hot Planet on climate change issues to my environmental studies students. The ability to project television programmes from the BBC’s excellent iPlayer in class is potentially revolutionary.  It was also a very relevant documentary. It was typical of the current fashion in documentaries: sexy presenters (male and female), dramatic imagery, continuous and often loud background music and it bounced from topic to topic so rapidly that it was hard to be bored. Boredom must be avoided at all costs! There was much about it that I thought was good and it was an excellent complement to my lectures and notes. And, as I mentioned in last week’s blog, I don’t really have much of an objection to its thesis that we face human-induced global warming on a somewhat alarming scale.

There was however something that troubled me to the point at which I think it is worth blogging on. I’ve seen it before and Hot Planet was by no means the worst offender. Quite simply it was the blurring and intercutting of computer-generated imagery (CGI) with real imagery. In places we shifted within 20 seconds from fantasy film CGI (clips from Day after Tomorrow) through digitally created computer reconstructions to true imagery from real events and all without warning. Frankly, I don’t like it.  I could tell the difference from real storm footage to Hollywood generated imagery but I’m not convinced my students could. In the past, the shift from reality to grainy and pixelated computer-created imagery was so obvious as to need no comment. Now it is much less easy to tell the difference between these, let alone the intermediate of ‘Photo-shopped Reality’. I should say, by the way, for the benefit of climate sceptics and conspiracy theorists that I was not aware of any case which materially altered the factual basis of the documentary. It was just done for effect. I have no doubt similar things occur in almost every documentary.

I don’t mind this sort of thing in the cinema, particularly in something like science fiction or historical fantasy. But I find it troubling in documentaries. Ideally, I would like some sort of icon or subtitle that states whether what we are seeing is authentic, enhanced or totally created. That is of course too much to ask given the almost universal occurrence of digitally enhanced imagery; we all tweak our holiday snaps in some way or another. To some extent distortion of imagery is as old as the camera; as the saying goes ‘the camera always lies’. Indeed, in the dim and distant days of film, you could always buy particular slide and print films that gave somewhat enhanced colours to make your holiday skies and seas bluer than they really were. But here we have gone much much further.

Now, this may seem a petty rant but here there are deep issues here on how we portray truth in a society that has given up the idea of a divine truth. I suspect that a massive distortion of the truth never arrives in a single overwhelming tsunami of falsehood; instead it creeps in quietly like the advancing tide through the successive advance of a million wavelets of little deceits.

There is an interesting side-effect of all this that merits noticing. The effect of such CGI wizardry and Photo-shop enhancement is not, in fact, a mood of universal credulity in which people believe everything they see. It is actually the very contrary; an endemic and pervasive scepticism which doubts everything. I’m not sure whether credulity or scepticism is worse. Those who doubt everything will never believe lies; but equally they will never be able to trust the truth either.

Have a good week.

Something in the air

By , 5 December 2009 9:15 am

I don’t recollect that I have really talked about global warming at any point in these blogs. There have been several reasons for my omission: I have to teach the subject (and it’s not an easy one) and other people have been talking about it so loudly that I haven’t felt the need to say anything. However we are on the verge of the Copenhagen Conference and there are some very interesting things happening which I think merit some discussion.

Right at the start let me say that I hold to what I would say is still the ‘general scientific consensus’ that a) there is some sort of rapid climate change/global warming going on, b) that is almost certainly due to our production of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels and that c) it is a wise and prudent thing to try to cut CO2 emissions. In short, I am a cautious and not uncritical believer in anthropogenic climate change. (And incidentally last month was the wettest November on record in the UK, and one of the warmest too.)

Until about a week ago, I would have said that most of the attendees at the forthcoming Copenhagen conference would have held to that general scientific consensus. But something rather strange and troubling has happened. Someone downloaded many megabytes of e-mails and data from the prestigious Climatic Research Unit of University of East Anglia’s servers (as ever, see Wikipedia for details) and those perusing them have claimed to find evidence of fraud and fabrication of data to support claims of global warming. Within days, the Internet and even the newspapers have been full of allusions of conspiracy from that eclectic group that we might call climate-change deniers. The result is that, at the last minute, it may be hard to get any major decision at Copenhagen.

Let me make some comments here. First of all, I have read what are claimed to be the most revealing e-mails and frankly I am unimpressed by the claims that they demonstrate any fabrication of data. In terms of substance, I see no evidence that any significant claim of the ‘global warming is a fact’ scientists has been undermined, let alone overturned. In terms of style, what I have read sound no worse than the sort of hasty communications that go on between all scientists over publications and theories, particularly those in the hotly contested frontline areas of science. (Heaven help any of us if all our e-mails were ever published!)

Second, the timing of this piece of criminal hacking is very striking. I cannot believe it is an accident. I would love to know how it was done and who funded it. A lot of people have a lot to lose at Copenhagen: not just the big oil companies. I have a niggling suspicion that there will be some new revelation this weekend; just on the edge of the conference itself.

Thirdly, as one or two of the wiser commentators have pointed out, what is particularly striking about this series of e-mails is in fact the absence of any reference to a plot, a conspiracy or even a grand plan to spread the message of global warming to an unsuspecting world. I’m afraid the protagonists appear to be ordinary scientists more concerned with getting their papers published rather than inventing a monstrous lie that will terrify the World.

Finally, the most serious allegation has been that the climate change believers have been guilty of foisting a religious creed on a gullible world. Now here I pause. Indeed, much of the language used by the ‘global warmers’ has been religious in both tone and content. We have been asked to simply believe the men and women in white coats and invited to put our trust in the scientists. In fact, the language has been more than religious, it has been positively eschatological. We have wiId-eyed prophets of doom and their camp followers with their placards and banners. Didn’t I read somewhere that we had just ‘days to save the world?’ Actually, more than one prophet about the state of the future as a result of global warming has ransacked the book of Revelation for metaphors.

Yet what is interesting is the tone and language of the ‘climate change deniers’ is exactly the same. It is the dark counterpart of the affirmers. Here though instead we have talk of a sinister conspiracy, of fraud and manipulation of figures and the twisting of graphs. There are hints in some circles that these men and women are liberals, promulgators of dissolute lifestyles and even dark intimations that they want to undermine the very lifestyle of the Christian West. I don’t think anybody has yet identified the Antichrist among the global warming community but it cannot be long. Perhaps the newly appointed President of Europe (apparently a strong Catholic) may yet be pushed forward as a candidate. (The fact that he is from Brussels is slightly problematic: it’s hard to treat a Belgian Antichrist seriously. But perhaps that’s part of the diabolic disguise.)

Cautiously, I wonder if what is happening is that both pro and anti-climate change parties are scrambling to stand upon the high ground of the hill that Christianity once held but has now sadly vacated in the West. There is a double tragedy here: not only is the Christian voice muted, but in the ensuring silence both parties have sought to acquire the stern and solemn tone of religious truth.

I gather that it may not have been G.K. Chesterton who wrote that ‘once men cease to believe in Christianity, it is not that they believe in nothing it is that they believe in anything’. However I still think that it is true. What we are seeing is a version of this: ‘when men and women cease to believe in Christianity, they will continue to use its language to support whatever else they passionately believe in.’

Have a good week.

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