Wednesday, 30 December 2009

My Decade in Review

This is a personal exercise. Indulge me. Or perhaps you want to join in? Feel free to treat this as a meme, and do your own review of the decade (2000-2009) in the comments or on your own blog.

2000
. I returned to my native Canada for the first time since my family emigrated, in 1983. I spent 10 weeks with my aunt in the tiny, but beautiful BC town of Princeton.

2001. I graduated from Regents Theological College with a 2:1 in Biblical-Theological Studies. In May I returned to Princeton and became Associate Pastor of a small Pentecostal church.

2002. I had moved on from Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity, and was beginning to balk at evangelicalism, too. My relationship with the Senior Pastor was difficult. I made some wonderful friends in Princeton, but it was time to move on. I left in September to take up an internship at a small evangelical church on Bowen Island, off the West Vancouver coast. My ancestors (the Davies family) were among the first settlers there, my mom grew up there and I still had cousins and aunts there. I loved the place and the people, but I couldn't live off the modest stipend, and found it hard finding other work.

2003. I was stressed and broke. I had no choice but return to England in February. In May I was confirmed an Anglican. I joined my local parish church and began singing in the choir. In September I enrolled for a PGCE at Edge Hill College in Lancashire, and began teaching Religious Education and Citizenship.

2004. My PGCE was going formidably. After a shaky start, I was receiving consistently good reviews from my mentors and tutors. As the school year came to an end, however, I let myself down. I wrote great applications, but my nerves were my downfall in interviews and observations. I attended several day-long interviews for teaching posts, but unlike most of my peers, who found jobs within the first two or three attempts, I was left floundering, progressively stressed and depressed. My dear aunt visited us that summer for three months. Her health was deteriorating and it would be the last time I ever saw her. In September I began work as a substitute teacher, and by the end of the month I secured a one-year post teaching RE at a Catholic school. There, for various reasons, things went from bad to worse.

2005. By February I was at my lowest point. Teaching was going badly. I was so stressed, I would frequently stop on my way to the station to vomit or to cry. Then one chilly winter's morning I couldn't take it any longer. It was 6am and I was sat at my desk at home, the sweat pouring off me. I phoned in sick that day. And the next. And the next. Eventually I was signed off indefinitely by my doctor, and my resignation followed. I did not want to return to the classroom. But the best possible thing had happened: I had told my doctor about my depression and anxiety. I got help and for the first time in years I had self-confidence. There was literally a spring in my step. I began to write - about faith, fundamentalism, film. I got a job as a writer-researcher for 63336, then known as AQA. I joined my old schoolfriend Robert Howard in pioneering the Prescot Festival of Music and the Arts. In the spring of that year, at the age of 27, I took a step I never dreamed I would have the courage to take: I came out gay. I dated a lovely guy for a while, but it fizzled out.

2006. I had my first serious relationship since 1997. By the time it got serious, Tim had moved to Edinburgh, and it was to be a long-distance relationship, with us taking it in turns to travel between Edinburgh and Liverpool every other week to spend the weekend. It was demanding, but it helped that I loved the city. The Prescot Festival continued to grow under Robert as Artistic Director and myself as Assistant Director. I had a few writing successes, with a feature article published in Third Way magazine and a commission to contribute to a book called Leaving Fundamentalism.

2007. My aunt from Princeton died in January, aged 77. I was devastated. It was the closest death had ever touched me. In August I was Best Man at Robert's wedding. The Festival was still growing, and ran to 10 days for the first time. The star guest was actress Honor Blackman, performing her one-woman show. Nevertheless, I planned to leave Prescot for Edinburgh, to be with Tim. It would most likely be in summer 2008 - but eventually it was not to be. We broke up in October. I was gutted, but hopeful for the future.

2008. The Prescot Festival was big this year, as Liverpool was the official European Capital of Culture. I was resigned to being single, and actually quite content with it, eager to invest my time and commitment in my writing and the Festival. But I met someone online and it soon became clear it would be a lasting relationship. Hours of conversations turned into plans for me to return to Canada.

2009. The year began with a bang. My mother had a severe nervous breakdown and spent almost four months in hospital. Robert was also having a tough time, but we somehow got through yet another successful Festival. It was to be my last, however. In September I moved to St Catharines, Ontario, to be with Chris. With freedom from other commitments and a new sense of independence, my writing career has finally taken off. In October I was published by The Guardian (online), and again in November. I have other writing projects lined up. I've supplemented my income with copywriting. The year began badly, but it's ended successfully.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas

Have a wonderful, blessed Christmas and a happy new year.

Be like Jesus, who from inauspicious beginnings grew up to turn tradition on its head, announcing a welcome for the poor, the sinners and the outcasts.

(And don't be like Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society, who sadly appears to be having difficulty mustering up some festive cheer.)

Friday, 18 December 2009

Three religions: If I had my druthers...

Bible scholar James F McGrath of Exploring Our Matrix alerts us to the 'Three Religions' meme:
The rules of the meme are to list three religions, apart from your own, that you find fascinating and why.
I'd probably find it easier to list the religions I can't stand. But as per the question, here are the three religions I would try out if I had my druthers:

1. Sikhism.
Sikhism just seems to me to be a very sensible religion with some very sensible ethical principles. For example, I like that a Sikh temple (a gurdwara) is always ready to receive visitors (of any faith) and feed them.

2. Hinduism
. Its worship is a colourful, vibrant experience. You get to make lots of noise and eat lots of fruit and nuts. Its temples and deities are stunningly beautiful works of art. Frankly, Hinduism is fun.

3. Buddhism. Since it's the one major world religion that doesn't require belief in a deity, in the traditional sense, perhaps this is the one for me. I think learning the disciplines of Buddhist life, eg meditation, could be quite fruitful.

I'm aware my reasons don't appear particularly deep. They may even come across as offensive, especially the suggestion that I should try Hinduism because it's fun to make noise, look at pictures and eat stuff. I think there's something much more profound lurking beneath those statements, but I'd probably need to sit down and talk it all through for it to emerge.

The legacy of Oral Roberts

The late Oral Roberts was a healer, an exorcist, a preacher, a televangelism pioneer, an ecumenist and a cultural icon whose life and message united popular religion with the American Dream.
By his own admission he was a businessman. Early on in the post-war Pentecostal healing revival he distinguished himself among his contemporaries by running his ministry on a savvy business model that eventually made it a multimillion-dollar non-profit corporation. It is no coincidence that Roberts was instrumental in the founding of the Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship, an organisation at the forefront of the charismatic movement of the 1960s and '70s, when the once-ridiculed Pentecostal experiences of tongues, healing and prophecy broke into the traditional, more respectable churches and denominations worldwide.

In the early days he vowed to touch "neither the gold nor the glory," and proved remarkably resilient to public scandal over the years. Despite his increasingly ludicrous and manipulative pleas for funds, Roberts survived six decades of ministry without the moral and financial scandals that brought down other televangelists.

His message was a simple promise of health, wealth and salvation: Jesus wants you to be saved, healed and prosperous. It was a message that struck a natural chord with ...
Read the full article (by yours truly, David L Rattigan) at The Guardian's Comment is free.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

What is fundamentalism?

Defining Christian fundamentalism is a notoriously difficult task, and one that even scholars are still debating. Part of the problem is that it is generally a negative term, and therefore a label from which most fundamentalists want to distance themselves.

I freely admit I've not always gotten it right, and I invite others to comment on how I have defined fundamentalism in my writings. I think I was much too vague when I defined fundamentalism in the 2007 book Leaving Fundamentalism.

On my website LeavingFundamentalism.org, I offered the following definition:
[By fundamentalism we refer to] certain conservative Christian churches and religious groups, usually evangelical, charismatic or Pentecostal, who have the following features in common:
  • An insistence that their brand of religion uniquely represents "true Christianity";
  • Intolerance of and hostility towards views outside the accepted teachings of their church or group;
  • Exclusion, whether actively or verbally, of people whose 'lifestyles' are deemed immoral or sinful, e.g. gays and lesbians, cohabiting couples or divorcees;
  • A zeal for evangelism and conversion using methods and techniques that frequently border on psychological, emotional and spiritual manipulation and abuse;
  • A radical distrust of the secular world, often manifest in anti-intellectualism, and exalting the 'spiritual' and the 'Word of God' over reason or logic.

Because these fundamentalist groups are largely conservative, Protestant and evangelical, their distinct theological beliefs often centre around the following:

  • The Bible is the Word of God, without error, and is the only authoritative guide to morality and belief;
  • Their interpretation of the Bible is the 'clear meaning';
  • Only by being 'born again' (converted) can one be truly saved and be guaranteed heaven;
  • Those not born again will face punishment, e.g. hell.

In sum, fundamentalist Christianity encourages a very black-and-white view of the world, where everyone is 'in' or 'out', 'saved' or 'unsaved', and where belief and behaviour is cut-and-dry -- 'The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!'

On revisiting this definition, I think it is actually quite fair. Notice that the theological beliefs alone do not make someone a fundamentalist (I know lots of people who believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures, for example, but whom I would hesitate to call fundamentalists). Those beliefs may be seen as indicators, but the essence of fundamentalism lies in the other characteristics I first described.

But to this definition, I would like to add a couple of thoughts.

First, I now perceive fundamentalism as a centre, out from which various Christians form ever increasing circles. Rather than seeing Christians as being strictly in or out of fundamentalism, they are at varying distances from the centre. (I borrow this analogy from my friend John Halton, who once defined evangelicalism similarly).

Second, my recent experience of Christians from Bible college and church days has shown me what lies at the root of fundamentalism, or the difference between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists. The key lies in
the ability to make room for other people's stories. Fundamentalists shut out voices that represent other stories, other agendas. To the extent that a person is not generous enough to make room for others without insisting on conformity to their story and their agenda, that person is a fundamentalist.

I am pleased to say that many of my Christian friends have utterly failed to live up to my definition of fundamentalism - and I am grateful.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Three Scrooges

Watching A Christmas Carol in any of its numerous cinematic and televisual incarnations is an essential of the festive season for me, and eight days into December, I have already finished with the third of what will probably be five or six.

I began with Scrooge, the 1970 musical starring Albert Finney. This has always been my favourite, mainly because it was the first I ever watched. It enchanted me from the moment I first saw those gaslit Victorian streets. Despite being in his 30s, Finney manages to pull off the role quite convincingly. Leslie Bricusse's songs, as always, differ in quality, with some embarrassingly trite lyrics surfacing here and there. Overall, however, the tunes are hummable, with a few showstoppers that have stood the test of time, such as I Like Life and Thank You Very Much.

Oswald Morris's camerawork provides the film with a rich, multitextured look that has its dark as well as its light. The supporting cast are a treat, with Alec Guinness camping it up outrageously, yet delightfully as Jacob Marley, Edith Evans both wry and grandmotherly as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Kenneth More spirited and commanding as the Ghost of Christmas Present.

The second, and by far the least successful of the three, was A Christmas Carol (1938). Lionel Barrymore's declining health prevented him from playing Scrooge, so the role was taken on by Reginald Owen, who tries rather too hard in the part, playing him unconvincingly as a caricature. Leo G Carroll, on the other hand, looks perfect as Marley, and yet underplays a role that can really benefit from some pantomime hamminess (so Michael Hordern in 1951 and Alec Guinness in 1970).

This version contains none of the bleakness or creepiness of the story. Scrooge's offices are overlit, his bedroom too ornate, and the Cratchits look fairly well-off in their spacious house. It is perhaps understandable that in 1938 MGM felt cheeriness was the way to go - but this film is overloaded with it. Most of Dickens's episodes are replaced with saccharine, whimsical vignettes that do little to advance story or character. Elements from the book are too often dealt with in perfunctory fashion.

In happy contrast, I was enthralled by the BBC's 1977 production of A Christmas Carol, which was a new discovery for me this year. Michael Hordern, who played Marley brilliantly in 1951, now plays Scrooge. It is a short piece, lasting only about an hour, but it is perhaps the most faithful adaptation I have yet seen. It is typical vintage BBC drama: shot on video on a shoestring budget, a tad rough around the edges, but carried off with creativity, sensitivity and atmosphere. Unlike many versions, it really feels like a ghost story.

Hordern is pitch-perfect, avoiding caricature, playing the miser with the appropriate amount of nastiness and presenting a believable transformation. Clive Merrison commendably avoids the usual bland portrayal of Bob Cratchit. I couldn't decide whether I liked Tiny Tim or not. For a change, there was nothing mawkish about him; yet the child actor seemed rather nervous, even glancing unsurely into the camera at one point, and the classic closing line ("God bless us, everyone") was delivered hastily and with uncertainty.

I'll be revisiting at least two very good adaptations before Christmas is over: the 1988 comedy Scrooged, and the 1951 British film with Alastair Sim - perhaps the screen's finest Scrooge, and certainly the most popular.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

People-watching

I recently came across this short poem I wrote a few years ago, and thought it was rather sweet, if a bit twee. I share it here as it might raise a smile:
People Watcher

I am a people watcher:
I stare at them from nooks;
Peer down into my coffee-cup
If anybody looks.

I love to guess their story,
Delve deep into their minds,
Look hard into their faces,
See what lies beneath the lines.

I see their past, their loved ones,
Their homes, the books they read;
Send up a thought, unconscious prayer,
For what it is they need.

I am a people watcher:
I glance as they go by,
And duck behind my Telegraph
If they should wonder why.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

I opened the closet door, I found grace in the room

Last week, I wrote about "coming out" - coming out gay, coming out liberal among Christian friends, coming out as "David L Rattigan," my writing alter-ego.

It provoked a mixed response among friends, but there was one particularly gracious response that stood out. It was from a Pentecostal pastor, a fellow Bible College student and the wife of my former Principal, no less. If anyone were to take offense at my often-harsh assessment of my days as an evangelical Pentecostal, it would be someone closest to the situations I wrote about. So it was a welcome surprise that Alison recognized my integrity and greeted my story with openness and understanding.

She has given me permission to post from an exchange we shared on Facebook. In it, we discuss my Pentecostal days and my sexuality, and I think the discussion exemplifies a "generous space" (an expression I owe to my friend Wendy Gritter) we all need to find ourselves in if we're to live together.

Alison began:
I've just spent some time reading your open letter and a couple of the links to your writing which is, of course, challenging to those of us who haven't shared your journey. I thank you for your intellectual honesty and ability to analyse. Also for not misrepresenting the Christianity of your past and my present and not, therefore, having rejected it out of hand. There's a lot of ongoing discussion which could be had - my own thinking re sexuality attempts to be faithful to biblical revelation which I still believe to be God's word (with all that implies); my hermeneutics are very influenced by a feminism which makes me, I think, more liberal than many of my fellow Pentecostals, but wouldn't take me nearly far enough in your estimation, I have no doubt.

I am uncomfortable with the anti-homosexual rhetoric of much of my community but retain a belief that God's intention for sexuality includes the element that both genders should be involved. That men and women together make up the image of God seems to me to be important: faithfulness; vulnerability; give and take; complete openness to the other are all expressed in sexual intimacy with one person for life - sex is to that deepest of human relationships what worship is for the human and God. But I also have to acknowledge that all those things are possible in a gay relationship and that heterosexuality is no guarantee of healthy sexuality.

I am therefore much less sympathetic to heterosexual promiscuity and abuse than to homosexual monogamy or monoandry (is that a word? - it should be). And probably feel that the current controversy re sexuality is analogous to the NT example of meat offered to idols, to which Paul's response in Rom14 is not to attempt to convince those on the other side of the fence (though you know which side he is on and that he is firmly convinced he is right!) but to accept that we all must stand before God and follow our own conscience with regard to how we act. Notwithstanding Rom 1, maybe a 21st century Paul would include sexual orientation issues as a 'disputable matter' (14:1). Thanks also for the Tillich quotation re grace; an unexpectedly lucid Tillich-ism (sorry, I always struggled to read him and usually fell asleep - liked this bit though!)

Let mercy triumph over judgement.
I responded:
Hi, Alison. I sensed from our conversations that you were definitely one to "live and let live," and that you were the sort of person who would be open to other people's stories - but still I am surprised you are so liberal compared to your Pentecostal peers.

I am so warmed to hear that you don't feel misrepresented as a Christian by the things I've written. I look back with a genuine affection - if ambivalence at times - on my days as a Pentecostal, and even though I have some harsh criticisms for evangelical Christianity, I strive to be evenhanded. It means all the more to me that you sense no malice in my writings, since if anyone is going to interpret me as unfair or spiteful, it would be someone so close to the situations I wrote about - an Elim pastor, a Regents member of staff or the wife of the RTC Principal!

Re: homosexuality, I agree that even from a perspective that treats the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, there is room to ask how someone like Paul would answer *today's* questions, and whether he might answer them quite differently from the questions of *his* day.

I can see a real honesty in the way you approach the sexuality question. One thing that led me initially to question the traditional teaching on sexuality was that so many Christians seemed to rely on slandering and misrepresenting homosexuals. It occurred to me that if homosexuality was wrong, surely the case could be argued without recourse to all kinds of myths, slurs and pseudo-science. (I'm talking about the old standards here: gays are a risk to children, being gay is just about sex, there's no love in gay relationships, all gays are promiscuous, being gay is a mental illness, the "lifestyle" is dangerous and ends in early death.)

You seem unprepared glibly to repeat the same deceptions and half-truths, and that's wonderful. When you show a grace like that, I can live with you being on "the other side of the fence," just as you've shown you can live with me as I am.

PS The Tillich quote comes from a sermon found in The Shaking of the Foundations. I've never persevered with Tillich's heavier academic writings, but I've really enjoyed his sermons. That particular one is called You Are Accepted. You can read it online here.
Facebook comments became too restrictive by this stage (the above exchanges had to be posted in tiny parts), so Alison wrote a full-length 'Letter to David' in reply:
David, thank you for the warmth I perceive coming from you. I was bold enough to write that i didn't think you had rejected our brand of Christianity out of hand, so I am cheered by your reference to genuine affection and I can affirm that I did not read malice in your writing, though there was, of course, lots of criticism.

There is plenty that is cringeworthy in Pentecostalism certainly; I can't defend excesses though I sympathise with people who are genuinely trying to hear from God and often make mistakes. Actually I don't have to sympathise with those people: I am one! Ah well. I happen to highly value the American prophetess about whom you have written and don't consider her to be extreme. I don't remember the particular prophecy about banks etc. so can't comment on that. As far as her workshop session goes, I was part of that and know that from her angle it was an introduction to teaching people to listen for God's voice. To give Christians the confidence that they are able to hear from God more than they think is, in my pastoral experience, an important thing. We do have the mind of Christ and most sincere Christians who wonder if they have anything to say which might be used by God to speak to others need to be given the confidence to speak out. Then there is the process of weighing and discernment which is where the Christian community and sensible leadership comes in.

What is indefensible is the sort of rhetoric which you mention which 'demonises' gay people. But (oops maybe I am approaching a defence? call it an attempt at explanation?) most evangelicals don't know any gay people personally (that's to say they don't knowingly know any ...) and when one's information comes from media which, referring to any kind of sex, is more concerned with titillation than information, they are afraid, uncomfortable and suspicious. Also there is the concern that society is concerned with equality to the detriment of Christian sensibilities and we are presented as less tolerant than we really are.

Still, I am happy to affirm that gay and straight (don't like that term) people probably: think about sex as much (or as little) as each other would rather not be defined by their sexuality - it is part of a person not the whole are capable of long term commitment and loving relationships often sin sexually.

I'm not sure of the value of vicarious repentance, but as part of a Christian community whose members have often made hurtful comments to you and others, I'm sorry.

BUT ....

I value relationships where I can genuinely disagree with someone without personal abuse intruding and I sense I have one here. I agree with you that if I think homosexuality is wrong then I should be able to justify that position "without recourse to all kinds of myths, slurs and pseudo-science." So here's the beginning of such an attempt.

For me the first two chapters of Genesis are foundational to a meaning of sex. Male and female are made in the image of God and as such express that image most fully when they get their relations right. I argue against many men (including church fathers) that women do not possess God's image in a secondary sense, but just as much as men; against some radical feminists I would insist that women need men too! Gen2 describes the creation of one being which is then divided into two. "For this reason" men and women have sexual relations, thus restoring the original (one flesh) complete image of God. The one-flesh relationship must therefore include the two. Not only that, it is a productive relationship: the two become one who then bear offspring.

So our sexual ethics must reflect our view of God. Promiscuity and prostitution are wrong because we must not create a one flesh relationship casually (1Cor6). Sex outside marriage is wrong because it should entail complete giving of oneself to the other for life, as God has given himself to us and we to him. That's the ideal: God knows that we are also sinners and Jesus said it was because of hardness of heart that Moses allowed divorce. It is no accident that there is so much sexual sin in the world as it is the one area which directly attacks the image of God in humans and when we get it right it is so good.

The danger of what I just wrote is that people will think I mean that single people or infertile people as well as homosexuals are somehow less than God's perfect image. That would be a gross misinterpretation. Man and woman as one flesh says something about God. But every individual also bears God's image and is precious.

There it is - a very imperfect offering which I hope does not wind you up too much!

I must thank you for recognising grace in my previous comments and hope there is just as much in the above. At root, though I'm clever enough to have been an academic, I am really a pastor who finds that my ethics have to work in practice. You said you thought I am the sort of person who would be open to other people's stories; thanks again. I believe it is a pastor's lot to listen more than she speaks, support and value. Please take these two long responses to your original letter not fundamentally as an attempt to (re)convert you to a particular point of view, but as the sort of serious response you deserve. To do less would have been to value you less.

Anyway will shut up now. I hope this has not been too polemic.

Grace to you,

Alison x
True to her signature, I found grace in Alison's words. I responded thus:
I'm really glad we're having this conversation. You have a lot of grace, and as someone whose experience of evangelical Christians has all too often been graceless, I cherish that openness.

Thanks for your exposition of Scripture, which I didn't find too polemical! For you the Bible is primarily the (infallible?) Word of God; for me it's primarily the word of humans. So biblical arguments may inspire me or lead me to reflection, but they'll never be authoritative in the same way as they are for you. The biblical idea of the image of God in humans strikes me as a beautiful way to view ourselves and our relationships, but I'd want to extend the metaphor to other kinds of human relationships. Since Eve was formed from Adam's side, perhaps Genesis contains the suggestion of androgyny in Adam. From that, can we ask whether two males joined together might adequately reflect the image of God? This is just a thought.

Onto the American prophetess. Following the lead of social scientists, I don't dismiss religious experiences such as prophecy out-of-hand as simple fakery. I think some of those experiences could be valuable. I regard them as "altered states," temporary "alternate realities," or "heightened states of awareness," but also I believe they originate in the human psyche, not the supernatural. My major problem with these experiences in Pentecostal circles is not the experiences themselves, per se, but how they are interpreted for and by the community. I think I would be more comfortable with Pentecostal prophetic experiences if they were framed as indirect impressions of where God might be leading, viewed more tentatively as subjective experiences and open to critical exploration, rather than being considered the "voice of God," or direct "messages," or "words" from God.

I know there are pastors and teachers who try to various extents to emphasize the provisional nature of prophecy, but in my experience the effect is often nullified by the language of "words," "messages" and "voices."
Alison couldn't see my point about androgyny in Genesis, so I elaborated:
I think the androgyny point actually originated in rabbinical interpretation, but I could be wrong.

What I mean is that Adam had in him both male and female. I guess you could interpret that as either very anti-feminist (man is complete without woman) or radically pro-feminist (Adam was *neither* male nor female, so gender distinctions postdate creation).
The exchange continued somewhat, but it widened to include other commenters' points, so I shall leave it there.

Since I've outed myself as Rattigan to friends who only know me by my "real" name, perhaps I should step a bit further out of my closet for readers who know me only as Rattigan. I won't reveal my name (though it probably wouldn't take a great deal of detective work to find out), but I will share a bit more about my background, to put the above discussion in context.

I spent 1993 to 2001 in the Elim Pentecostal Church, which I think I'm right in saying is the second largest Pentecostal denomination in the UK (it is to Assemblies of God what Foursquare is to Assemblies in Canada and the US). I earned my theology degree through Regents Theological College, the organization's official Bible college. Despite being a conservative denomination, the college gave me a fairly thorough theological education, which introduced me to the full array of biblical criticism and alternative, non-conservative Christian and non-Christian ideas. (Not that everyone approved. I remember my decidedly anti-intellectual pastor warning me in advance of the heretical ideas that were "floating around" at Regents. Many pastors, and even some students, scoffed at the college's increasingly academic emphasis.)

I think the broad scope of my education this was partly the result of my choice of classes - I opted for the more academic modules, such as New Testament Interpretation, Philosophy of Religion and Contemporary Theology. Had I chosen just the more pragmatic subjects, such as Evangelism and Missions, it would have been quite easy to coast through college without ever encountering non-evangelical approaches.

Ironically, then-Principal William Atkinson's NT Interpretation classes were ultimately the most formative in my later liberal approach to the Bible. I think this is a credit to his ability to teach without simply imposing his own biases on students. I recall raising laughter by hugging William enthusiastically as I stepped up to the platform at graduation - but it was an embrace of genuine affection, which remains today.

Against this background, it's been a risk to share my changed perspective, my writings and my journey with friends, acquaintances and colleagues from those days. But I opened the door and I found grace.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

David L Rattigan on the Dr William Lester Show

I'm pleased to be the guest on Dr William Lester's radio show tonight for the second time. William and I will be talking about Hammer horror, and perhaps touching on other classic horror subjects, such as the Universal films of the 1930s and '40s, and the Amicus anthologies of the 1960s and '70s.

You can tune in online at Game Con Radio. The show is from 10pm to 12 midnight ET/7pm to 9pm PST. Alas, for listeners in the UK, that's 3 to 5am GMT!

Karloff: a fine horror star, an even finer actor

The greatest screen actors convey very much by very little. At his best, the British-born Hollywood star Boris Karloff did this masterfully well.

Although they made just eight films together - of which at least a couple are virtually forgotten today - Karloff will always be remembered for his association with the other legend of '30s and '40s American horror, Bela Lugosi. Yet it was an uneven pairing. Lugosi was, to be frank, a ham. Like Vincent Price after him, he excelled in roles that allowed him to make the most of his camp, overblown persona.

But Karloff was a notch above Lugosi. He was capable of camp villainy, but he was also capable of the subtlest of performances. Had Lugosi taken the role of the Monster in Frankenstein (1931), as was originally planned, it is difficult to imagine him giving the nuanced portrayal given by Karloff, who evoked as much pity as menace. For confirmation of this, you need only look at Lugosi's stilted performance in the 1943 spin-off Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. In many of Frankenstein's most famous scenes, Karloff is virtually expressionless. And yet the vulnerability, the lostness and the hint of feral unpredictability is all there in his face.

In The Mummy (1932), Karloff was once again given the opportunity of a role that demanded only the subtlest of expressions to exert the right amount of fear. As Im-ho-tep, he emerges from his tomb with the barest of movements but the maximum of terror; as Ardath Bey, he shuffles painfully slowly, his whole body betraying centuries of death and decay. One shudders to imagine the bloated pantomime that could have resulted in the hands of any other actor.

Boris Karloff was gifted with a wonderful speaking voice, a charming, slightly lisping English-American accent that many remember from his dozens of radio broadcasts. In celebration of his unique timbre, I leave you with a memorable clip from his 1968 film Targets, in which he narrates a short story by William Somerset Maugham:


This post is presented as part of Frankensteinia's Boris Karloff Blogathon, in honour of the 122nd anniversary of the actor's birth.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Coming out liberal: an open letter to my Christian friends

Peggy Campolo once wrote a wonderful short essay entitled In God's House There Are Many Closets. In it she describes how she once hid from others, afraid to be honest about who she really was, and she relates it to the experience of closeted gays and lesbians.

I can identify at least two closets in my own life, and although I with at least one of those I can point to a single moment of "coming out," at the same time I'm always having to come out of the closet. Every time a conversation turns in a certain direction, or every time I catch up with an old friend and face the inevitable questions, I come out all over again.

The first of those closets is of course my sexuality. I am (if it's necessary to put labels on these things) gay. I was over halfway into my twenties before I had the courage to accept myself for who I was, and almost in my thirties before I brought myself to tell others. And each time I am asked, "Are you married yet?" or "Do you have a girlfriend?", I'm coming out for a second, a third, a fourth, fifth, sixth and hundredth time.

The second closet is my faith. Or the ambiguity of it, lack of it or at least its strange metamorphosis over the last seven or eight years. Ten years ago I was a fiery born-again Christian, thoroughly evangelical and unabashedly Pentecostal. I studied theology and was an associate pastor for almost two years. I spoke in tongues, preached the Bible as the inerrant Word of God and condemned unrepentant unbelievers to an eternity in hell. Now I am a confirmed Anglican, too liberal for most liberals and pretty much agnostic on the question of God's existence.

It is unsurprising then that bumping into a Bible College friend, an old church pal, or someone who once knew me as Pastor Dave, is yet another coming-out. Coming out gay and coming out no-longer-evangelical often coincide, since the two journeys are closely intertwined.

The response from Christian friends varies. (Edit: Let me clear up some confusion here. I'm not eager to pigeonhole friends into the following categories. They're just broad categories based on my observations. Chances are if the issue of my sexuality has never come up in conversation, I don't expect a response.)

The most common response is simply to continue as if I never said anything. Some old friends and acquaintances seemingly pretend they didn't hear me. They don't affirm me, but nor do they condemn me; they just go very quiet for a while and then never bring up the subject again. It's odd, and in many ways I'd prefer it if they bit the bullet and just told me I was going to hell. It's strange to exchange emails with people and go through the motions of taking an interest in each other's lives when it's obvious they're avoiding the elephant in the room.

A related response begins the same way, but ends with me gradually dropping off their radar altogether. Eventually I'll notice they're missing from my Facebook friends list, or they've blocked me from their Messenger.

Another response is simply to live and let live. They don't affirm me, necessarily, and they don't go out of their way to condemn me, but nor is there an awkward silence as if I'd said nothing at all. It's not a big deal, and I'm not made to feel there are parts of me and my life that are off-limits.

Then there are those who patently don't have room for what and who I am. Perhaps surprisingly, this has been comparatively rare, but it still happens. These are the people whose only response is to condemn me, exhort me to repent, or worse, try to fix me. This response baffles me, since it indicates to me they haven't heard a word I've said. If after hearing my story you still think that quoting Bible verses at me is going to change my mind, you either haven't been listening or you think I'm a bit dumb. Frankly, when I get this reaction - especially after I've made a heartfelt effort to share my journey - I just feel patronized and insulted. This is what I hear: I don't care about your story, where you've been and where you're going. I'm not interested in hearing about you. I just want to fix you so your story fits my agenda again.

Lastly, there are those who affirm me. They listen to my story and they accept me for who I am and where I am. They affirm me for being who I am and being true to myself, and they know that even though many of the externals have changed, I'm still me. They know I'm still the same Dave and that inwardly I still have the same grace, love, character and integrity that I always had. It goes without saying that this is my preferred response.

Those who choose the last option prove that their hearts are spacious enough to accommodate me. They accept my story as I accept theirs. And you know the conversations I most enjoy? The ones I find the most gracious? It's not when an old friend lets me spout off all the arguments I have against their religion and then turns round and says, "Hey, Dave, you're totally right. You've convinced me. I'm going to be a liberal like you!" (as if it ever happens that way, anyway). The conversations I love most are those when a friend genuinely listens to my story and I genuinely listen to theirs. We compare journeys, share openly where we're at in life, and sometimes puzzle over how we ended up at such different destinations. But our differences? No biggie. Friends like that prove that it's not our churches or creeds, but our common humanity that binds us.

This week I took a big risk and stepped out of the closet on Facebook. I've never been secretive about the fact I'm gay or that I'm a (very) liberal Christian, but I've also never publicly revealed the pseudonym I write under. Outing myself as David L Rattigan opens up dozens of old church and college friends to the whole scope of my writings - and some might be offended, some might be shocked, and some might not really want to know me any more. It's a risk I take, but as others have already pointed out, those who can't accept where I am are probably not worth knowing anyway.

If you're a Christian friend or acquaintance, don't mistake the brutal honesty of my writings with a desire to reject you. If you're still an evangelical, I don't want to fix you. My heart is wide enough to love and accept you if you can open your heart wide enough to love and accept me. When I emerge from the shadows of my closet, that's the kind of welcome I love best.

Addendum: For anyone wanting to get to grips with my writings, here are a few links to get you started:

Fantastic Voyage: Surviving Charismatic Fundamentalism from Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories, ed G Elijah Dann (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008)
Out and Cowed? Ex-gay in the UK from Third Way magazine (2006)
Leaving Fundamentalism (various articles from myself and others)
Rattigan Writes (my blog)
DavidLRattigan.com (my website)

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Why Liverpool's church leaders are right on homophobia

Like many statements, this week's joint announcement by Liverpool's church leaders condemning homophobia is incomplete without the actions to support it – but it is a good start, and as a Liverpudlian, as an Anglican and as a gay man, I welcome it.

No liberal-minded person, much less gays and lesbians, needs reminding of the church's shameful record on the treatment of homosexuals. At this moment, there is an unconscionable silence from Britain's leading clerics in on the situation in Uganda, where a parliamentary bill puts homosexuality on the verge of becoming punishable by death.

In light of these failures, when Christian leaders in the west make a move to decry homophobia, I'm inclined at least to hear them out.

It is easy to disassociate oneself from brute thuggery, of course, and glib condemnations of physical violence roll easily off the tongues of even the vilest of religious homophobes. But I don't detect such complacency in this latest statement from Liverpool. It comes in the midst of a real community that has experienced homophobia at its most vicious. In 2008, Liverpool witnessed ...
Read the full article (by yours truly) on The Guardian's Comment is free.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Boris Karloff Blogathon: November 23-29

I'll be posting about Karloff later this week as part of the Boris Karloff Blogathon, a gargantuan cross-blog effort spearheaded by Pierre at Frankensteinia, on the occasion of the great actor's birthday. On his Tumblr blog Monster Crazy, Pierre reveals his talent for finding the most wonderfully quirky photos and illustrations, such as this delightful portrait of the great Karloff himself:

Monday, 23 November 2009

Loftus defends Bill Maher's Religulous

Atheist John Loftus writes a thought-provoking defense of Bill Maher's Religulous, the 2008 documentary that pokes fun at religion, mostly through interviews with and about Christian fundamentalists.

Though I've watched the movie, I don't remember many of the specifics, truth be told. Perhaps that says something about its nature - it really isn't anything new, but a compilation of idiotic Christians saying and doing the same silly things we're used to hearing and seeing them say and do day in, day out.

I'm with Loftus in agreeing with Sam Harris for "calling upon thoughtful people to cease granting religion a free pass from criticism."

For the record, I generally agree with the atheist arguments against the existence of God, or rather I agree that the evidence for God is lacking, which I think amounts to the same thing. The best argument for atheism is simply the principle that if you're to believe something extraordinary, like the idea of God, you need some evidence - and it's just not there.

However, I think it's a mistake to jump from "God does not exist" to "therefore all religion is bad," as if it were self-evident. This is why I don't think I can let Dawkins off the hook as easily as Loftus does:
I myself question how much scholarship it really takes to reject any given religion. ... That best explains why Dawkins probably thought it was a waste of time researching into religion for his book. He already knew from the fact of evolution, his stock and trade, that religion is a delusion. Until someone can show him that evolution does not explain everything in the biological world, he has no need for the God hypothesis, and no need to put a great deal of time researching into it.
This more or less equates religion with God, and assumes that religion is only useful as long as theism is literally true. I'm not sure that is logical, and even if it is, surely it is primarily a social-scientific and philosophical question, and not one that Dawkins can presume to answer purely on the basis of biology?

What about about religion as metaphor? As a basis for philosophical thought and action, even apart from a literal interpretation? As a human creation that can nevertheless be a meaningful way for (some) people to connect to something sacred, but not supernatural? As a creative framework within which to explore, reflect on and bring meaning to the world around us, but again, apart from a literal interpretation? In other words, are the myths, language, values, rites and rituals of religion only of value if they describe a literal reality? Or can a religion still be a framework around which to structure life and thought, even a community?

I also think Loftus lets Maher off the hook too easily when dealing with the objection that the film deals only with the "fringes" of Christianity. Of this objection, Loftus writes:
This raises the question of “who speaks for Christianity?” There isn’t a consensus. There only seems to be a rabble number of voices each claiming to know the truth. The truth is that Christianity has evolved and will continue to evolve into the future. The Christianities practiced and believed by any denomination today are not something early Christianities would embrace. And future Christianities will be almost as different. The trouble we atheists have when attempting to debunk Christianity is that we have a moving and nebulous target which evolves in each generation. So how can any of us be faulted for not knowing which specific sect to take aim at if there is no consensus between believers on what best represents their views?
This strikes me as a little lazy: It's impossible to pick a single target; therefore no one can be blamed for picking any old target. There is an excluded middle here: we can at least strive for approximation. While Maher's targets represent a very large and disturbing swathe of religion, the extent to which it approximates religion in general is debatable.

Maher claims to adhere to the gospel of "I don't know," and I can agree with Loftus's protest at the suggestion that this makes Maher a dogmatist himself:
Professor MacDonald faults the movie for it’s own kind of dogmatism, especially the ending. But I think there is a huge epistemological difference between rejecting a metaphysical answer to the riddle of our existence, and affirming the correct one, since affirming an answer demands verifiable positive evidence that excludes other answers.
Here Loftus rightly identifies a fallacy frequently used by the religious to attack their critics.

I have mixed feelings about this final argument:
So who really cares if the New Atheists are attacking what liberal scholars don't consider true religion or true Christianity? They are attacking a real threat to world peace regardless! And who really cares if religion doesn't poison everything as Hitchens’ extreme rhetoric proclaims? Religion causes a great deal of suffering.
The first rhetorical question is fair enough. It is a ubiquitous, but unjustified trick of liberal Christians to argue that they alone should be allowed to define "true Christianity," thus insisting that any valid argument against the Christian religion should engage with their version alone. In terms of openness to critical scrutiny, in no other arena does (or should) one group have the unique privilege of representing the whole.

The second rhetorical question is more than a little blase, perhaps irresponsible. I would suggest that statements as strident as "Religion poisons everything," if false, are not harmless exaggerations, but as potentially dangerous as generalizations like "Homosexuality is destructive," and "Jews ruin everything."

Even if I do think there's a lot of danger lurking in religion, even if theistic arguments don't hold up, and even if a lot of people do a lot of bad in the name of religion, I don't think religion poisons everything. In fact - and I think this is a reasonable position that has no logical connection to the question of God's existence - I think religion motivates a lot of people to do a lot of good in the world.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Stars of latest atheist ad are from Christian family

Ruth Gledhill of The Times (London) reports that the children featured in the British Humanist Association's latest atheist bus ad campaign belong to a well-known Pentecostal Christian family.

The youngsters appear next to the slogan "Please don't label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself." The message is not strictly atheist, but the campaign grew out of the controversial "There's probably no God" ads placed on London buses by the society earlier this year. The society is most definitely atheist, and the thought behind the ad is certainly that "religion is bad for kids."

So what was going on when the children of Bradley Mason, the drummer for Noel Richards, one of Britain's most popular Christian pop artists, ended up on this more-or-less atheist banner? The most likely explanation is that the photos were bought from an agency, and Mason had no say in how they were used.

But if the children participated with the consent of the family, I would suggest it is not quite so incongruous as it first appears.

Of all Christians, fundamentalists (which I would say includes most Pentecostals and conservative evangelicals) are actually the most likely to agree that it is wrong to identify a child as a member of a religion. Most positively scorn the notion that a person can be born a Christian. The evangelical argument begins with the hackneyed statement that "being born in a garage doesn't make you a car." One must be born again. For Pentecostals, who are traditionally Arminian, being born again is essentially all about personal decision.

Roman Catholics and middle-of-the-road Anglicans are those I'd most expect to object to the text of BHA's ad. The bare bones of the message - that children should not be called Christians until they decide for themselves - is something most Pentecostals readily accept. It's not likely that Mason knowingly put his children on the ads - but nor is it inconceivable.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Things I've learned from AQA 63336

Working for AQA 63336, the UK's best text-based question-and-answer service, is bloody good fun.

It's also a godsend for me, since it's regular, convenient work that I can adapt to whatever I'm doing in life. I can fit it in around other projects, prioritizing it however I like, depending on my circumstances. Oh, and they're recruiting researchers in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, US and Canada at the moment. If you're intelligent, creative and can write and research really, really well, give it a go.

But back to the important bit: It's fun. I'm convinced the work satisfaction and its nigh-on addictive nature are the major factors in 63336's ability to attract and keep researchers. So, to give you some idea of this, I thought I'd compile a list of things I've learned in the course of my work over the last few days. Enjoy - and if you're in the UK (or abroad on a UK network), text 63336 with any and every question. Every text you send costs 98p, and there's no further charge when you receive the answer.

It's 4.3 miles across the Solent from Lymington to Yarmouth, on the Isle of Wight.

Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy had Mendelssohn on the soundtrack.

In semantics, the terms "man" and "woman" have a coordinate relation.

A rumble bell was a bell attached to a strap on a horse, wagon or bicycle to "rumble" constantly.

The Gadget Shop shut all its stores and is now exclusively online.

A pregnant woman can get "morning" sickness at any time of the day.

The British Army stop offering student gap years in 2007.

"Born hall maniac" is an anagram of "Abraham Lincoln."

Piano removal costs about £1,000 in London.

A Rod Stewart song was later reworked as the theme song for Star Trek: Enterprise.

Kate Winslet has the world's most perfect breasts. (They are a 34C.)

UNICEF made the first ever Christmas charity card, in 1949.

Stretching the penis to make it larger is known as "jelquing." It could be harmful.

Russo-Baltique is the world's most expensive vodka, at £800K a bottle.

"Fella" is a term of address that particularly irks some members of the Royal Engineers.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

First Things and its strange Calvinist bedfellows

I'm not sure what First Things thought it was getting when it signed up a couple dozen mostly Reformed conservative evangelicals to blog on its pages.

First Things is an American journal of religion and public life with a reputation for being Roman Catholic - although I was informed by one of its own editors that it is actually ecumenical. The Catholic association probably owes a lot to its former editor, the late Richard John Neuhaus, who famously converted to Catholicism from Lutheranism. I've never been a regular reader, but on the few occasions I've read it in recent years, it has had a decidedly neoconservative, "culture wars" bent.

Evangel is one of a few new blogs to be hosted on the site. Its authors include Frank Turk, Jeremy Pierce and David Wayne, all well-known voices in the Reformed blogosphere. We're talking hardline Calvinists, what the folks at the vaguely evangelical Boar's Head Tavern call the Truly Reformed - the TRs - on account of their unswerving dedication to smoking out anything that doesn't conform to Calvin's Five Points. (I'm caricaturing here, but there's more than a kernel of truth to it.)

When Evangel opened for business a few weeks ago, it puzzled me what First Things thought it was going to achieve. Were they going to have an ecumenical dialogue? No chance. It is obvious by now that few of the most prominent Evangel authors even believe in ecumenism, although those familiar with the Reformed blogosphere knew that already. Most don't believe the Roman Catholic Church can even be called Christian.

It wasn't long before Frank Turk revealed his discomfort, asking whether it bothered anyone else that the site had banner ads for a movie about the visions at Fatima and (steel yourselves) books by the current pope. The guy accepts an invitation to blog at a place well known - perhaps chiefly known - for its Catholic allegiances, and is then surprised that he has to share the site with Catholic content?

So if First Things wasn't looking for ecumenical dialogue, what did it want? Allies in the neoconservative war on liberalism? Perhaps. But I think what it mostly ended up with was just the same Reformed blogs writ large. The same Reformed-centric voices continue to have the same Reformed-centric discussions and reach the same Reformed-centric conclusions. Judging by the comment threads, they appear to be attracting the same Reformed-centric, anti-Catholic audiences they attract on their own blogs.

To be fair, there are a few writers in there that don't fit the mould. There's Jared C Wilson, for example, a BHT fellow who early on conflicted with co-authors and readers alike. But it seems dominated by the same Reformed types preaching to the choir.

Hey, I don't really care that there's another culture-war/Reformed blog out there. I'm just confused what First Things expected to get from it is all.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Encountering grace

Back when I was still an evangelical, but tiring of the crassness of it all, I wrote about "grace encounters" as an alternative to evangelism of the "witnessing" variety. Grace encounters, quite simply, were opportunities in the course of everyday life to give something of the grace of God to others.

A few times since then I've been drawn back to that concept, usually when I'm feeling there's a certain "grace" lacking in my everyday life; when I feel I'm turning inward and I start itching to do something for someone, an act of service, a word or deed of compassion to share the grace that - despite all my heresy and unorthodoxy - I'm still all about.

Usually, when I ask for these opportunities, they come. So I've asked recently - and they've come.

(By the way, that phrase "grace encounter" sounds so evangelical to me now. "Encounter" sounds charismatic in the worst sense of the word. Ugh. But the moments I'm talking about are something "special," that I feel deserve some sort of name of their own. Any suggestions? Maybe I could even widen Paul's charismata and refer to these sacred moments as charisms?)

I'm reprinting below what I wrote on the subject in 2004:
I scan the coffee house to see where I can sit. An old lady is sat at the counter by the window. She is muttering to herself, and she seems lonesome. If I just sit down in her vicinity, I think, she can always turn to me and talk if she wants. I take a seat, and place my steaming fresh coffee on the countertop. She says nothing to me directly, but continues mumbling away, an incoherent string of half-finished sentences spilling ungracefully over her lips. She seems hardly to notice I am there. After about ten minutes, she takes a final gulp of coffee, and rises to leave. "Thanks for sitting with me," she says to my surprise. "Thanks for putting up with my talking. I can't keep everything together if I don't do that." I give her a smile and say, "No problem," and we exchange goodbyes.

Looking around me, our little group of ten or twelve are a motley crew: Some in suits, some in sweaters and jeans, some looking like bums off the street, and some looking like they are off for a business lunch; and none of us, to my knowledge, have met before. We sit in a circle as we wait for the priest to come and preside over our midday Eucharist under the gothic arches of this downtown cathedral, and I notice the guy sitting next to me. He is wearing a hooded sweater, he has a face that most people would find aggressive, I think, and he appears to have some sort of disability that I can't quite pinpoint. When the time comes in the service to exchange the peace, we shake hands. After the Eucharist, I can't bring myself to leave. I have a feeling there is more to do, so I begin to walk out of the sanctuary only very slowly, and turn around as the guy in the hooded sweater approaches me. He tells me he felt instantly at ease when he sat down next to me for the service, and he didn't know why. He gives me a short tour of the cathedral, pointing out which are his favourite windows, and why. He tells me a little about his upbringing, and makes an enigmatic reference to something like the "rainbow cross of St Francis" -- apparently something to do with gay rights -- and then he laments that people in churches can be cold, but this church has been warm, and he has found a home from home. He gives me a big hug, and as I wrap up in my scarf to go out into the chilly November afternoon, he encourages me: "Stay warm."

As I cross the road to get to my bus stop, I am accosted by yet another of the city's many homeless people. This one is very persistent. "I'm afraid I can't give you any money," I tell him, "but I'll happily buy you some food and a drink to warm you up." He is pleased at the prospect of a hot coffee, and we cross the road again to one of my regular haunts, and he begins talking as his coffee is poured. He tells me his entire life has been one long mistake. I tell him I think God put all those mistakes behind him two thousand years ago in Jesus. He tells me he is a "man of God," but the Bible never made any sense to him. "I've met the love of God in other people," he explains.

God's grace has a way of getting to everyone. Peter calls it the "manifold" or "many-coloured" grace of God, and charges us with distributing it through our gifts. I'm through with "witnessing" -- that was always forced, unreal, pious and crass. The incidents I described above all happened in a single city within a couple of days of each other, and they're what I call "grace encounters": Spontaneous opportunities to distribute the grace of God in its many forms. To some people, the Bible does not and perhaps never will make any sense, but God's grace and love will find other ways to break through into their lives. As John says, Jesus, the Word, gives light to every person.

Look out for those opportunities that come along for an encounter with grace, those moments when you can share something of the love, acceptance and grace shown you in Jesus. They're blessed moments.

Friday, 6 November 2009

New-look davidlrattigan.com

If you're looking for words, look no further, because I deal in words - quite well, even if I say so myself.

Check out my newly redesigned website, and if you need copy, drop me an email and hire me!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Hate crimes: treading the thin line

There's a narrow line between prosecuting for inciting violence and prosecuting for speech, thought and so-called "hate."

I am torn on the issue of "hate crimes." Like Ed West of The Telegraph, I shudder at the idea of prosecuting someone merely for saying something homophobic. I believe in free speech. Causing offence, in and of itself, should never be a crime. Yet I cannot bring myself to dismiss hate crimes legislation wholesale, as Ed appears to, for it seems to me they identify an important element of a crime that warrants a different or more severe treatment.

The element is intimidation, threat or violence directed towards an entire community or group of people. A common argument against hate crimes is that a murder is no worse or different simply because the victim was gay or black, say. It devalues a life, say critics, to punish a racially motivated murder more severely than any other murder. Is one person's life more valuable than another's?

This might be a valid criticism if it understood the reasoning behind hate crimes legislation, but I think it misses the point. A hate crime is not punished more severely because one life is more valuable than another, but because it has - and was intended to have - more victims. If a murder can be shown not only as an attack on the immediate victim, but as an assault on an entire community, intending to cause wider fear and intimidation, then why should it not be punished more severely? If you kill two people, you get a harsher sentence than if you killed just one. If you steal $1 million, you get a harsher sentence than if you stole just a dollar. If a crime has multiple victims, the punishment is more severe.

This, to me, is the basic principle behind the concept of hate crimes.

But it doesn't end there. I'm undecided whether hate crimes legislation is the way to deal with this difference. First of all, "hate" is a regrettable misnomer. All sorts of murders are motivated by hate, regardless of the victim's ethnicity or social group. Hate - which implies thoughts and emotions - never can be a punishable crime in and of itself.

Second, does the presence of a racial motive (for example) necessarily suggest intent to target a community, rather than an individual? Does it automatically result in the victimization of a whole group of people?

The law must be realistic. If a crime has multiple victims, the criminal should be treated accordingly. Just as we cannot let the fear of racism and discrimination stifle debate on immigration and multiculturalism, so we can't let fear of political correctness, or of a future police state prosecuting for thought crimes shut down debate on racism, homophobia and hate crime.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

In search of a theologian

In January 2008, something clicked, and the realization dawned on me that I was no longer a theist, and hadn't been for some time.

As a practising Anglican, I was a little shocked by this sudden self-awareness, since it threw into question the point of continuing to belong to a church. I did some soul-searching, wondering whether I was a hypocrite to continue in religion, and initially thought it quite likely I would sever my religious commitments altogether.

After reflection, I realized there were two factors at play, and neither was more real than the other. The first was that I was not a theist, I no longer believed any doctrine literally, and I basically agreed with the arguments for atheism; the second was that the words, symbols, images, stories, rites and rituals of religion still made sense to me on some different level as a way - the way - to think about life, to live life.

I wasn't ready to give up on religion. Nor did I want to throw out the doctrines, as such. I actually wanted to keep the myths as a way of thinking about the world. I wanted to keep reflecting on the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, and I wanted to keep up with and continue to be fed by the strange, dramatic rituals centred around them. I didn't want to abandon the myths because I couldn't believe them; I just wanted to reinterpret them.

I'm not naive enough to think I'm the first person to have taken this journey and come to these vague conclusions. I've poked and prodded in a few places - Tillich, Bultmann, Cupitt's Sea of Faith - to try and find a theologian that will help me to appropriate and articulate the kind of faith I think I now have. I'm looking for a theologian or a school of theology not to confirm what I believe, as if I want or need justification for it, but to articulate intellectually where I'm at. But who?

You might be able to help. Do you have suggestions for an author, a theologian, a book or a stream of theological thought? I'm eager to explore, but unsure where to begin.

I'm open to reading ideas that present different conclusions, of course, if you think they address the same questions, but be aware I am a long way past the stage of Lee Strobel and William Lane Craig, and probably can't muster the will to flirt around any more with Alister McGrath and Richard Swinburne. Sorry if that sounds harsh; just giving you some idea where I'm at.

So, thoughts? Fire away!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Gripes with BeliefNet.com

I've only been using BeliefNet five minutes (I've known of it a long time, and have occasionally read linked articles, but I'm only just making a concerted attempt to familiarize myself with it), and already several things frustrate me.

The first two frustrations are to do with design and user-friendliness. The third is a philosophical gripe.

First, there's an annoying floating bar at the bottom of every page. It reduces the size of the page and makes it too busy.

Second, I can see a full article followed by a few comments, or a preview of an article followed by all of the comments, but I can't see a whole article followed by all of the comments. This makes cross-referencing between the article and the comments difficult.

Third, is it just me, or is the ethos that jumps out of the front page unbelievably crass? I get the impression someone thought religion, faith and spirituality (all interpreted in the broadest possible sense) were really good, and therefore a splurge of opinion and inspiration from every conceivable spiritual and religious source could only be a good thing.

These are just a few things that immediately struck me. Having said that, I'm sure there are good things about BeliefNet, and I've subscribed to a few blogs in that hope.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

The real crime of the balloon boy hoaxers

Police now say (admittedly a long time after everyone else was saying it) that there's evidence the family of "Balloon Boy" Falcon Heene are guilty of a hoax. They may face criminal charges.

May I suggest an appropriate charge? Child abuse.

If Thursday's story had been merely a hoax UFO, I might have appreciated it at the level of a prank, or even a social experiment. That there was possibly a 6-year-old boy trapped inside the runaway balloon made it very, very scary, however. And the possibility that the parents had lied in order to get the media's attention would be reprehensible.

But the aspect that really appalls me is not that they lied to the media or wasted police time. The thing I find despicable is how Richard and Mayumi Heene paraded their family in front of TV cameras and drew them into the hoax.

Just hours after the incident, the parents had cameras in their living room and were subjecting their three boys to national and international live TV coverage. In at least two separate interviews, young Falcon was very sick. The first time, he had to run out of the room and could be heard vomiting in the background while his family continued with the interview. His mother had to be prompted by the news anchor to accompany him to the bathroom. The second time, he vomited into a container live on air, but the father carried on with the interview regardless.

Then came Falcon Heene's telltale admission: "You guys told me it was for the show." Richard's later attempts to explain away the remarks and feign outrage at suggestions of a hoax were embarrassing displays of poor acting. But he roped his kids into the charade. As he wiped away tears in front of the cameras, the boys nervously tried imitating him, rubbing their eyes as their father sobbed about how he held Falcon the night of the incident and told him how much he loved him. Heartbreaking - and unabashedly manipulative.

It's not just the parents' manipulation. They've used their children in pursuit of their five minutes of fame. They've taught their boys how to manipulate and how to lie, and that is despicable.

If Richard and Mayumi Heene are to face charges over the balloon fiasco, let it not be for a hoax, for wasting resources, or for lying to the police. Let it be for shamelessly exploiting and abusing their own sons.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Non-religious want group within Society of Biblical Literature

While I don't know enough about the Society of Biblical Literature to know whether such a group could or should work, I sympathize with the desire of John Loftus and others to form a non-religious SBL sub-group of biblical scholars.

I have a BA(Hons) in Biblical-Theological Studies, and have often thought of returning to do postgraduate studies in the field. Recently, as I've glanced around the web looking for biblical studies and theology courses in southern Ontario, I've noticed how many theology departments, even of otherwise secular colleges, are affiliated to Christian churches and denominations. I am wary of studying at an institution that requires some level of religious commitment of me - whether that's adherence to a creed or devotion to a religious practice, such as attending chapel or prayers.

That's not to say I don't have any religious commitments. But why should that have any bearing on my studies? Nor do I think that a religious person cannot be a good biblical scholar. Everyone has personal biases, but a good scholar in any field knows how to look past his own biases and think critically.

For that reason, I hope such a group would be open to both religious and non-religious scholars, provided they shared the group's aims, which are laudable:
1. Promote scholarship of the Bible from a non-religious viewpoint.

2. Produce scholarly critiques of religionist biblical scholarship, and how it functions to maintain the authority and value of the Bible in the modern world.

3. Form a counterweight to the Evangelical Theological Society, and perhaps engage in cordial dialogue and debate with its members through written formats and through joint sessions.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Licence for prejudice: You died young... and you're gay

Jan Moir's column about the late Stephen Gately is an ugly and infuriating display of prejudice, even by the Daily Mail's standards.

Moir's tack put me in mind of the character of Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) in the 1997 comedy As Good as It Gets. Intimidated by Frank Sachs (Cuba Gooding, Jr), Melvin shouts for the police and threatens, "Assault and battery," adding with triumph, "and you're black!"

Analyzing the circumstances surrounding the untimely death of pop singer Gately, Moir pieces together a few apparently suspicious details before revealing the clincher: And he's gay.

What were those suspicious details? Gately and his civil partner Andrew Cowles had been out clubbing; they returned to their apartment with Georgi Dochev, a young Bulgarian man; Cowles and Dochev went into the bedroom while Gately remained in the living room. Gately had "at least smoked cannabis" that evening.

Quite slender details on which to hang a concrete theory, but Moir gives it her best shot, jumping from the few available facts to the statement "Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural one." To do this, she discounts the results of the post-mortem, and reveals an astonishing medical ignorance: "Healthy and fit 33-year-old men do not just climb into their pyjamas and go to sleep on the sofa, never to wake up again." Even I know this is not true.

The byline refers to the "sordid details" of Gately's death. Moir says that its circumstances are "more than a little sleazy." Gately and Cowles "took" the young Bulgarian to their apartment (how suggestive a little verb like "take" can be) and "a game of canasta ... was not what was on the cards." She ends boldly: "[Once again] the ooze of a very different and more dangerous lifestyle has seeped out for all to see."

Sadly, this ooze has seeped only out of Moir's imagination. That's not to say the scenarios she suggests are not possible, but how does she leap from possibilities to such certainties? Aha. With the all-important final detail: And he's gay.

It is clear Moir already has a chip on her shoulder about gays, and in particular the idea of civil partnerships. She betrays this with her assumption that if they are to be legitimate, civil partnerships should be held to a higher standard than straight marriage:

Another real sadness about Gately's death is that it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships.

Gay activists are always calling for tolerance and understanding about same-sex relationships, arguing that they are just the same as heterosexual marriages. Not everyone, they say, is like George Michael.

Of course, in many cases this may be true. Yet the recent death of Kevin McGee, the former husband of Little Britain star Matt Lucas, and now the dubious events of Gately's last night raise troubling questions about what happened.

There is no more a happy-ever-after to civil partnerships than there is to heterosexual marriage. But for Moir, the failure of a handful of celebrity couples in the public eye somehow throws the whole concept of civil partnerships into question.

Few other people are held to such high scrutiny or expected to maintain such high standards in order to earn legitimacy. No one holds up OJ and Nicole Simpson as reason to question interracial marriage. These blacks, always going on about tolerance, but just look at OJ and Nicole. What about Jade Goody and Jack Tweed? Cervical cancer? We all know what's going on there. I'm sure there are some very happily married chavs out there, but you can't help but ask the question whether these sort of working-class, council estate types should be allowed to get married in the first place, eh? Jade and Jack was one thing, but now there's Jordan and Pete.

The folly of this kind of reasoning speaks for itself; its underlying prejudice is obvious.

Moir thinks that Gately's relationship status warrants a more intrusive kind of coverage. She complains that the story was reported "as if Gately had gently keeled over at the age of 90 in the grounds of the Bide-a-Wee rest home while hoeing the sweet pea patch," and protests that the "sugar coating on this fatality is so saccharine-thick that it obscures whatever bitter truth lies beneath."

Why is it so imperative that Gately's death be reported in more detail? That the "bitter truth" (remembering that this bitter truth is so far just speculation) be revealed? Clearly it has nothing to do with a general ethical principle or a journalistic standard that applies to young and old, straight and gay alike. No, this is for one reason: because Gately was gay.

Gately was gay: therefore otherwise negligible details become suspicious; therefore his negatives - not that she has any firm evidence for their existence - can be applied to an entire community and used to put an entire group of people and their relationships under public scrutiny.

Gately's sexuality is the one fact that, for Moir, sets his death apart from others. It is the justification for innuendo and contrivances that reveal only the prejudice of their author.

Update: The Daily Mail website has changed the headline from "Why there was nothing 'natural' about Stephen Gately's death" to "A strange, lonely and troubling death...". The byline in the sidebar was changed to "Jan Moir on the tragic end of Stephen Gately" from something I can't remember exactly, but which definitely made reference to the "sordid details" of Gately's death.