On elections and speeches

By , 30 April 2010 6:26 pm

There’s lots of things I could write about, including some to do with writing, but actually the election is dominating almost everything here at the moment. It is a strange thought that in a week from now it is most likely that we will have a new prime minister. It is an even stranger thought that at the moment no one knows who it will be.

In an election campaign that had already been proving fairly interesting a joker was played on Wednesday when Gordon Brown’s microphone stayed on long enough for him to mutter a despairing cry about how he had just been talking with ‘a bigoted woman’. Interestingly enough, the microphone was supplied by Sky (proprietor Rupert Murdoch and supporter of the Conservatives) and apparently there is/was an agreed protocol that such private comments are to be kept private. The matter didn’t do Gordon any good at all, although it was curious to see him talk about himself as a ‘repentant sinner’ as the whole incident was replayed endlessly on British television. The language of Scripture, if little else, is still deeply embedded in the man.

Last night was the third and last of our television debates and I’m afraid I watched it all although at the end I rather wished I could have my time back. I learnt very little although I do have to say that I found Nick Clegg’s performance rather shallow; if I hear him defend his proposed immigration amnesty one more time on the grounds that it ‘will get illegal immigrants out of the hands of gang masters’ I will scream. What was interesting – and is the point of this blog – was with absolutely everything to play for, all three were curiously boring and dull. No one took up high flights of rhetoric, no one seriously strove for wit or humour and there wasn’t even much of an attempt by anyone to skewer their opponent with some deadly barb. The whole thing fumbled and bumbled along in the foothills of rehearsed oratory; the bland faced the bland with theatrical swords and British politics was much the worse for it.

At the end of the debate I asked myself why, with an audience of eight million, no one tried to strive for the heights? Those even more cynical than me suggest that it is because no one really wants to win this election; as a wise commentator pointed out, whichever party wins this election will have to make such unpopular choices as to risk being out of power for a generation. In the end I decided that television has a lot to answer for in reducing the quality of debate and here I return to Brown’s gaffe.

I can’t help but feel that the fact that everything is now recorded means that people are reluctant to take risks. Let’s face it: try and make some stunning attack on your opponent and slip, misjudge your words, bungle that quip and your demise will be endlessly recycled. Slightly misjudge your criticism and you will be pilloried before an infinite number of viewers. There is no forgiveness with television. Stand again in another four years and the same clip will emerge to haunt you. Jesus said ‘But I tell you that people will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken’ (Matthew 12:36). The media have brought that forward from the Last Judgement to the present. In fact, I wonder – and here’s a challenge to you, readers –whether anybody has ever made a truly great speech before a television audience.

We know why you believe what you believe…

By , 23 April 2010 7:16 pm

We are in the middle of the run-up to the general election here and in two weeks’ time we will probably have a new government of some sort installed. Not for us the luxury of a long American interregnum. If you’ve been following what’s going on you will have realised that we in the UK experimented this time round with a series of television debates that has utterly galvanised things. For all my life, the Liberals or the Liberal Democrats have been a mere curiosity in national politics, a harmless irrelevance in what was always a race with two contenders. Now suddenly they seem to be capable of shaping the next government. I shall reserve a fuller judgement on the television debates until after the third one. Even at this stage however I can say that they have been both a good and a bad thing. Positively, they have certainly aroused interest among the general populace (I was gratified to find that most of my students are going to vote). Negatively, they are reducing complex issues to soundbites.

It’s the soundbite thing that worries me. A colleague of mine was pointing out that Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader who is pro-Europe, seemed to have reduced his opposition on the vexed topic of our European links to a single stereotype. It is that the only people who are anti-Europe are those old-fashioned souls who nostalgically hanker after the days of the Empire, who have no understanding or knowledge of the modern Europe or its languages and who are probably slightly racist. Now, of course Nick Clegg never actually said that but my colleague is I think right: this is how opposition to Europe is portrayed. The reality is, of course, that you can be a Francophile or a lover of German culture (and I would put myself in both categories) but nevertheless have very real questions over the European experiment. My concerns for instance, lie in several areas and racism is not a part of them. One is whether we really need another level of bureaucracy. (I remind you that in Wales we already have some legislation coming from Cardiff and some coming from London; most of us are not vastly enthused about yet another series of bureaucrats issuing forms.) Another is the fact that some European countries are corrupt on a scale which renders our MPs pure amateurs. In business one does not normally enter into partnerships with those who habitually fiddle the books; I see no reason to break this rule at a national level. The third issue is quite simply that I do not see all cultures as being interchangeable and I’m not convinced that the world is much better by creating a single uniform one. There is much that is good in British culture that I would like to encourage and preserve rather than see diluted (or perhaps it is ‘die looted’) through some careless foreign union.

Now the interesting thing is that this type of assumption with respect to one’s enemies is fairly widespread. I can think of many arguments where no attempt has been made to recognise that the reasons for belief or non-belief in a position may actually be really quite complex and varied. If someone is uneasy about immigration, it is assumed that they hold this position simply because they are racist. Or if you want to decrease the prison population, it is assumed it is because you are soft on crime. We have a stereotype of the opposition and we expect them to fit it.

Such smearing – and the word with its connotations of rubbing out detail is very appropriate – is very common. The implied stereotype is actually rarely precisely stated – that of course would give the game away and invite the rebuttal – but it is nevertheless made pretty plain. Of course it happens elsewhere. It is generally assumed that most people who are Christians are Christians because they were ‘brainwashed’ as children and have never really considered the alternatives. The fact that some of us became Christians later in life is a little bit too complex.

Now I could leave this argument exactly there. Nevertheless I suspect it works on the other side of the fence as well. I have no idea what makes atheists atheists but it may well be that I have created my own stereotypes there. So for instance when we hear that someone has lost his or her faith it is all too easy to assume that it is the moral claims of Christianity rather than its intellectual justification that has become a little bit too difficult to bear.

So on the edge of the election let me make a plea for us to be prepared to work to say not just that we hold such a position but why we hold such a position. And at the same time let’s be not assume that those who disagree with us, disagree with us for the reasons that we expect.

Planes: who needs them?

By , 16 April 2010 6:34 pm

I think many people in Britain, particularly if they were half asleep, did a double-take at hearing the news on Thursday morning. UK airspace completely closed? Due to what? An Icelandic volcano? Surely some mistake! There must have been more than a few who checked to see whether there had been some timewarp and we were back to April 1st. Yet indeed it was true and 36 hours later there are still no planes flying over the UK. I spotted a low-flying Cessna today but that’s about it.

I confess I’ve actually rather enjoyed it, although I do feel sympathy with those who are stuck at the airport waiting to leave. (I have less sympathy with those who are trapped on desert islands and tropical beaches because they cannot return.) Let me suggest three good things about this bizarre and remarkable incident.

The first is that it has given my geological profession some real street cred. There are geologists appearing on the television who I don’t think have ever been in front of a camera. You can almost sense their astonishment that someone from the media is asking them a question about volcanoes or Icelandic geology.

The second thing is the particular challenge for the media in pronouncing the name of the volcano. Do they dare to try to say Eyjafjallajökull? Wikipedia helpfully tells us that this is pronounced ˈɛɪjaˌfjatlaˌjœːkʏtl̥’ ( which I’m sure makes things much clearer, especially as WordPress/HTML doesn’t seem to render it properly) but then just to confuse you provides a sound clip which appears to bear absolutely no resemblance to the letters and is clearly no more than a drunken Icelander with a speech defect attempting to portray the sound a glacier makes when a volcano erupts underneath it. So I now realise the contrary to their reputation, Welsh place names are actually very user-friendly indeed.

The third good thing is that the sky is free of the vapour trails. And as the weather is pleasantly dry and cloud free you can stare skywards into the perfect blue sky unmarked by the celestial graffiti of the human race. The sky belongs to the birds. It is actually quite thought-provoking. We have come to take for granted our right to fly through the air and leave vapour trails behind. Yet as you stare upwards at the unmarked blue you do feel that there has been an element of arrogance about our conquest of the air. It is surely significant that in so many languages the word for heaven and the sky is the same. And being unsoiled by aircraft, the sky does indeed look in every sense much more heavenly.

The whole thing raises the question as to whether or not we really do need so many aircraft. We pay a very heavy price for air travel. It would be fascinating to create a balance sheet of good and bad and see whether we had really benefited from cheap air travel. It has certainly set me thinking. If air flight was ruled out on a permanent basis we would have to upgrade ferries and railways. We would have to grow more crops ourselves and we might have to put up with the fact that for the considerable portions of the year some kinds of fruit and vegetable might actually be unavailable. We might have to holiday closer to home. Foreign trips would not be taken lightly. We might actually have to make things in the UK rather than simply buy them in cheaply from China where they can be produced by what is little more than slave labour. And of course we would reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and lower the complex but undoubtedly major climatic effects of putting so much dust, pollutants and moisture high in the atmosphere. We might even actually slow down. You know I think I could live with those things. Indeed I am almost tempted to propose a toast to our Icelandic volcano. It’s just a pity I can’t pronounce it.

The impending election

By , 9 April 2010 7:58 pm

Funny the difference a week can make. Easter weekend was cold and we were definitely on the tail end of winter; from the top of the hill behind our house you could make out white smears of snow on the top of the Brecon Beacons. Yet in the last couple of days the temperature has suddenly risen and we have a nice stable high-pressure hanging over us. Indeed the sound of the lawnmower has been very common. In fact, the weather is so stable that all being well we will go out to Skomer Island off Pembrokeshire tomorrow and do some birdwatching. Ironically the nice weather has coincided with me desperately writing notes for the last six weeks of teaching. So I’ve seen even less of it than if I had been at college. Oh well!

It’s also been a week of change in that we have moved from general election being imminent to it being firmly on the calendar. It’s actually set to be a very interesting battle as it is something of a three-cornered fight and no one is sure whether there will be an overall winner. It is generally agreed that the British political system is fundamentally flawed, as the winning member of parliament in a constituency is elected on the basis of the maximum number of votes. No nonsense like proportional representation or transferable votes! The result is that there is going to be a lot of tactical voting where you vote for someone you don’t like it much on the grounds that he or she is more likely to win than the person you really don’t like at all. It sits ill with the conscience and seems to be a form of lying.

We’ve even had our first politician at the door although he really just wanted to post a leaflet. Fortunately for his sake, he was a Welsh Assembly member for Plaid Cymru who are largely blameless of anything except a naive woolliness about what they really want Wales to be. So I let him be and indeed was moderately polite to him.

Our constituency, Swansea West, is a traditional Labour one, going back to the days when the steel industry ruled the area and Labour actually represented socialism. One of the interesting battles is going to be whether Labour continue to hold the seat. The previous Labour MP, who was much respected, has just retired after an enormously long innings (sorry, do Americans understand the word innings? A long time batting at cricket). He has however been replaced by someone ‘parachuted’ in from outside the area. The newcomer is one Geraint Davies who lost a London suburbs seat in 2005. Much is being made of the fact that he was allegedly the most expensive MP in his last year in Parliament, claiming £176,026 in expenses and costs, and sending £38,750 worth of mail and 130,000 first-class stamps.

And here I’m pleased to report my first genuinely Christian act of the election. When I mentioned him to the Plaid fellow at the door his simple response was ‘Ah yes, the crook.’ At which point I murmured something along the lines of ‘well we don’t really know that do we?’ Not exactly the high point of grace was it? But I think it gives you some idea of the mood in the electorate. This is not only going to be an interesting campaign it’s also going to be pretty nasty.

Have a good week

On the weakening of theology amongst friend and foe

By , 2 April 2010 7:31 pm

As often the case what I’m stimulated to write on today comes from a couple of things coming together.

The first is some interesting research in the States from the Barna Group on public perceptions of Easter. Their conclusions include this. “The results indicated that most Americans consider Easter to be a religious holiday, but fewer identify the resurrection of Jesus as the underlying meaning.” Actually, I worry about the definition of Easter being about the resurrection; I always thought it was the cross and resurrection. But it fits with my own perception that in many churches the underlying framework of theology is slowly weakening. We worship and we celebrate and we rejoice but please don’t ask us why. I’m afraid I am irresistibly and troublingly reminded of 9/11 when for a long time the Twin Towers apparently resisted the effects of flame and blast before their heat-weakened steel framework suddenly and unexpectedly gave way.

The second was that I have bought the latest Philip Pullman book: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. This is his reworking (I think a stronger word than ‘reworking’ is needed) of the Gospel accounts in a somewhat bizarre fashion. Mary has two children Jesus and Christ. Jesus is good (in a rather weak and wishy-washy liberal late-20th century Anglican fashion) whereas Christ increasingly comes to represent the worst aspects of formal religion. Jesus becomes an atheist and dies on the cross whereupon Christ effectively forms the church. Needless to say the supernatural is absent.

The reason for getting it was that there had been some discussion with a publisher about whether to write a rebuttal. The moment I saw the book on the shelf I realised that we didn’t really need to write a response. Why? It was already reduced to half price. Anyway it is fundamentally a revisiting of the oft repeated, old old lie of the noble peasant preacher Jesus full of homilies and non-judgemental good sense who is made divine only by the early church, in particular Paul. It’s not actually a very good book in any sense and I really wouldn’t advise you to buy it because it’ll probably turn up in a second-hand bookshop very quickly and if whoever read it had grubby fingers I bet you won’t find the mark of their prints much beyond page thirty.

Now what is relevant here is that Pullman has incorporated elements of the Gospel accounts but he too is theologically light. Somehow the entire history of Judaism, the sacrificial system of the temple, the establishment of Passover, the priestly castes, the great division between Jew and Gentile and a hundred other things are all mysteriously missing.

So I suppose I am vaguely comforted that if the church is undergoing theological amnesia so are our enemies. Just as well really….

Anyway have a blessed and theological Easter.

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