Category: culture

By , 12 February 2010 6:30 pm

I have referred quite frequently to the issue of cultural values in various blogs but I want to return to it today. Two things have prompted it: first, the successful trial and prosecution of Police Commander Ali Dezai for ‘misconduct in a public office’ and ‘perverting the course of justice’. The second was an interesting article entitled No tax please, we are Greek on the BBC website, detailing the appalling levels of chronic fraud within the Greek political and cultural system.

Reading the post-trial coverage of the Iranian-born Dezai and how he rose to power I was struck by how he seemed to exemplify the very worst of Middle Eastern culture; those things I came to know and detest. There was a habitual and flagrant flaunting of the law, an overriding preoccupation with personal honour, and obsession with getting your own way to the point that bullying became a normal mode of operation. The article on the Greeks pointed out how endemic corruption was and how almost nobody paid tax.

Both cases point out the existence of very different cultural values. We don’t talk much about cultural values in the UK, partly because it leads into discussions that can become racist (but race and culture are very different things) and partly, I think, because it leads to that uncomfortable awareness that cultures are not mysterious belief sets that suddenly appear from nowhere but that they derive their values from the prevailing religion. For a nation that aspires to have no religion this is somewhat worrying.

British culture is, of course, shaped by the fact that for nigh on 500 years we have been a society whose ultimate source of authority has been the Bible. Oh you may have loathed the Church of England, you may even have been a practising atheist, but when it came to culture we were, in truth, all singing from more or less the same hymn sheet. The result was a number of distinctive values and I want to list some of them here because I fear in British post-Christian society they are quietly slipping away.

  1. Truth comes before personal honour. In many parts of the world the most important thing you can do is make sure that you do not lose face. Honour trumps telling the truth every day; rather than admit to a mistake or a failure, lie. It was not previously thus.
  2. Humility is good, pride is bad. It used to be held that the ultimate achievement in life was to do something wonderful but still be mistaken for a nobody. This has now been inverted so that if you are a nobody you should proclaim yourself to be someone wonderful.
  3. Serving others is good. In the Middle East you will almost never find anybody who wants to be a nurse. Bedpans? Mopping up vomit? Slaving over the sick? Leave that for the immigrant labour. Now, here we find that the service ethos is being eroded. Even in teaching, it now seems to be held that we should be over our students rather than serve them.
  4. Life is about duty and doing good rather than personal fulfilment. This is another enormous one. My understanding is that in the past you were supposed to aspire to do what was right and, God willing, you might find you actually enjoyed it. Now the rule is seek your own personal fulfilment and do what you want to do. This of course totally undermines the concept of being in the Armed Forces where dying for others is sadly not an improbable fantasy.
  5. Wealth is not to be flaunted. In the old days if you did have something like a Mercedes you were vaguely embarrassed if it was a new car. Now you are embarrassed if it does not proclaim from 300 yards that is the very latest, top-of-the-range model.
  6. All human beings have value. There are no second-class human beings. The poor the weak, the foreigner; all have ultimate significance. Increasingly I sense an us-and-them type attitude; we are something, they (said in a suitably contemptuous voice) are nothing.

I could go on and I’m sure each one of these could be expanded and developed. Please don’t get me wrong: I am not engaged in the sort of ‘Merrie England’ fantasy that some of our right-wing papers love to engage in; the idea that all was once sweetness and light in these isles. No, there were crooks, there were frauds, and there was a dreadful class consciousness. Nevertheless there were ideals that people were supposed to hold to which shaped the cultural values. And of course these values were not due to the surpassing excellency of British genes, climate or public school. They came from Scripture and it would be a fascinating exercise to try and put texts to each one of the six.

There are lots of questions that this raises and it would take a book to even try to answer them. But our culture derives from what we worship. We now have become hedonist consumers; is it any wonder that we are in trouble?

And that way madness lies

By , 29 January 2010 9:14 pm

I don’t often talk about teaching for all sorts of reasons but mention came up of something this week that has wider implications. It is the fact that we teachers are to be encouraged to pay attention much more to the ‘learner voice’. In other words, the students are to take a more active part in evaluating our courses. Now, of course, much of this is splendid. They are, after all, the recipients of our teaching and in theory well placed to assess its validity. Furthermore, it is no bad thing for people of my age (50+) who grew up in a very different culture to be reminded of the problems and difficulties faced by those growing up in the present culture. Nevertheless, it is a tool that needs to be treated with a very large amount of discrimination. The real danger is that students will start to tell us how and what to teach. And, as I remarked to a colleague as we discussed it, ‘that way madness lies’.

In fact, teaching a subject like geology is very much telling a story; we know the end, but our audience does not. We alone know what plot elements are important; that knowledge is hidden from them. So in geology I labour away on such topics as the classification of igneous rocks in the early weeks. I need no surveys to tell me that the students find it dull. Yet when, as will be the case in the next few weeks, we turn to volcanic eruptions, they will suddenly realise that the hitherto dully academic difference between basalt, andesite and rhyolite is, in fact, of enormous value. A friend of mine who teaches modern languages is almost in despair at the idea of ‘learner voice’. Any sort of competence in language must be built on solid, tedious and frankly unattractive foundations of grammar.

A reminder of how potent this pupil power can be came this week with a well reported Facebook protest by allegedly thousands of biology students over an exam board’s paper. My biology colleagues tell me that the protests were largely unmerited but it has set a rather alarming precedent. Once upon a time, students were in fear of the exam board; now it seems that exam boards are beginning to feel afraid of students. Fail the exam? Don’t blame yourself, blame the board and try and get the decision overturned.

There is much here that if you are at all interested in culture, is fascinating. We have now had a couple of generations of being told that we are ‘consumers’ and ‘have rights’, and during which market forces have been given almost unrestrained freedom. Yet most thoughtful observers – even those from the political right – are now finding some of the resultant muscle-flexing to be troubling.

Churches are affected by this trend. No church of course exists in total isolation from culture and this critical, consumerist attitude is becoming endemic. The result is that there is a danger that in organising our services and preaching, we are driven not by what we feel is right or what we think God wants, but market forces. Not only that but once the congregation sees itself as consumers (‘We can worship elsewhere you know!’) they can all too easily feel they have a right to demand that things are done their way. A number of ministers of my acquaintance have found themselves troubled and perplexed by members of their congregations who have insisted on dedications, baptisms, weddings or funerals being structured and performed according to the desires of those concerned. There are many arguments for and against a fixed liturgy (as in the Anglican prayer book). I am beginning to wonder whether one of the best is quite simply the fact that it limits consumer choice. ‘Sorry’, it says, ‘this is the way it’s done. Like it or lump it.’

As I thought of this I was reminded of the old Latin tag Vox populi, vox dei ‘The voice of the people [is] the voice of God’, and checked it up on Wikipedia. It sounds as though the congregation wishing to have its own way has been something of a recurrent problem in Christianity because the phrase is first cited by the eighth-century Northumbrian theologian Alcuin in a letter to Charlemagne. The translation reads as follows: ‘And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.’ There is indeed nothing new under the sun…

An odd parallel between Uniformitarianism and Evangelicalism

By , 6 February 2009 9:18 pm

Well it’s been an interesting and rather frustrating week. As many of you may be aware we have had an unusually cold winter in the UK and this week it really hit us. The problem was that the weather was rather unpredictable and, in fact, unsporting. So we had snow when we weren’t supposed to have it, and didn’t have it when we were. Because my college has a very large catchment area extending into the foothills of what we call mountains but Americans would probably dismiss as ‘lumps’, we have to be very careful about weather alerts. No one wants several hundred students camped overnight in a freezing college. The upshot was that the teaching week essentially fell into times when the students were either absent (or distracted) because of the expectation of snow, absent because of snow, or disinclined to work because other people were absent because of snow or the fear of it. Out of five working days, I feel I taught only about two properly. As a geography teacher remarked somewhat sourly ‘this would happen the very year they have put global warming on the syllabus’.

Anyway this week I thought I would share with you a curious coming together of something in geology and preaching. In Geology I was discussing the fundamental principle of uniformitarianism; the great rule that we interpret the past according to present-day processes. A key point of uniformitarianism is that it majors on steady and predominantly gentle processes. As an aside I made the point that this idea had really come to prominence in 19th-century Britain and that our society then had welcomed a concept that elevated slow steady change over drastic, traumatic upheaval. The memory of the French Revolution just across the water haunted 19th-century British culture, particularly the aristocracy. (Incidentally to spare some of you writing to me; I have no doubt that most of the time uniformitarianism is the correct view and no doubt whatsoever that the Earth is very old indeed.)

On the Sunday evening following I was preaching on Jesus as Prophet and in passing touching on the extent to which we were to be prophetic within the church. Now my understanding of prophecy is that it is primarily forth-telling more than fore-telling; speaking God’s Word to a particular situation in the present is probably more important than some word about the future. I then made the point that evangelicalism tends to be rather cosy and well mannered, an attitude which often prevents us from being as blunt and open about such matters as social wrongs as perhaps we ought to be. And feeling a vague sense of déjà vu, I realised that the formative years of British evangelicalism were exactly those of geological uniformitarianism. In other words, it was probably not just geologists who had decided to be nice and cuddle up to society but also evangelicals. What we have assumed to be an evangelical standard is probably not that at all, but a two-hundred-year-old cultural one.

It is probably a minor insight but it is possibly a helpful reminder that we need to be very careful to examine what we stand for. Perhaps more often than we realise, our values may be culturally rather than biblically determined.

Have a good week.

On suicide bombers and cultural suicide

By , 4 January 2008 5:55 pm

Over the last year or so, I have found myself wondering about my hearing. Conversation in crowded places and restaurants has seemed difficult and I have, on odd occasions, misheard students in class. Anyway I got my ears tested this morning and was pleasantly surprised to discover that my hearing was perfectly normal. The sensitivity of the left ear was very slightly down but it was still within normal parameters.

As I thought about the results, two related (trust me) thoughts came together. The first was sitting at my desk, eating lunch in Beirut one Monday in April 1983. In a paroxysm of sound somehow incarnated as brute force, I was picked up off my chair and thrown to the floor. As I staggered to my feet I could see through the door to left of where I had been sitting, shattered windows. Beyond them, a billowing black and grey cloud was angrily boiling rising up from the American Embassy, barely a hundred yards away. It soon transpired that a truck had driven in with what was later determined to be nearly 1,000 kg of high explosive. As stood amid the broken glass, my ears ringing, I heard the surprise in the voices of my Lebanese colleagues as they passed on the rumour that it had been a suicide bomber. Despite nine years of civil war it was an novel concept; it is now generally held that this was first suicide bombing of its kind.

I also remember going up to the American University Hospital shortly afterwards for some reason I cannot now remember. As walked up I saw a young couple – evidently Americans – walking away from the hospital, holding each other for comfort, their once smart clothes, their hair and their grief-stricken faces covered in a fine pale dust that made them look like as if they had returned from the grave. When I saw their kind again on 9/11, I shuddered. So I do wonder whether my slightly weaker left ear is a tiny scar of that blast. In which case I got off lightly: sixty-three people died.

The second thought was this: if it isn’t my hearing, is it my students? Actually I think there is something in this. My students – bless them – as a whole no longer read and they no longer read to people. Many of them have lost the art of clear speaking or any sort of verbal clarity. Their music shouts at them and they mutter at each other and mumble back. With exceptions, they do not express themselves with either clarity or coherence. I’m probably oversimplifying and I’m not blaming them. But I do think we have lost the art of speaking properly and what that portends seems to me far more worrying than any number of suicide bombers.

On a more cheery note; our younger son, Mark has just announced his engagement to a splendid lass, Alice. We heartily approve and the wedding is set for 15 November in the rather tasteful (and more importantly) very evangelical London church of St James Clerkenwell. Hurrah!

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