Thursday, 29 October 2009
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Thursday, 15 October 2009
In late December of last year, hundreds of thousands in Asia underwent a devastating water baptism without precedent. Up till then, I'm not sure we westerners quite appreciated the terror wrought by the oceans upon non-westerners.
In the Bible, too, the image of the ocean evoked demonic, destructive force, hence the mythology of 'Leviathan' found in the Psalms and Job, Jesus' calming of the storm at sea, and John's beast rising out of the sea. Hence also the significance to John's ancient readers of a future earth where "there is no longer any sea". The seas were not an image of picture-postcard tranquility, but the unpredictable agent of evil spirits, a harbinger of death and tragedy.
I don't know why, but until something sparked a thought last night, I'd never tied in this aspect of water-imagery with baptism. The significance of the baptismal waters to me had always been that of cleansing and purification, never terror or destruction. Even with Paul's picture of baptism as a dying and rising with Christ, I never made the connection.
Look at how the baptism metaphor is used biblically, however. Jesus proclaims that he has "a baptism to undergo" (Lk 12:50), but the baptism of which he speaks is fiery and distressing. Paul describes the Israelites' journey through the parted oceans as a baptism (1 Cor 10:2). How frightening must that passage through the Red Sea have been for an ancient people for whom the waters held nothing but fear?
And so back to Paul's dying-rising metaphor, a ritual drowning, a sacramental burial. The baptismal waters, then, are not merely a picture of cleansing, but an ancient picture of the terror of death, perhaps something we in the West today find hard to appreciate, even if the recent catastrophe has brought it somewhat nearer home.
But therein is the irony of the gospel -- that death contains the very seeds of life. That's what gives me hope in the midst of fear, chaos, amid the choppy waters and fierce storms of life.
Monday, 12 October 2009
When Dawkins admits that scientists are "working on" finding answers, yet "don't know everything," O'Reilly retorts: "When you guys figure it out, then you come back here and tell me, because until that time, I'm sticking with Judeo-Christian philosophy."
Dawkins nails the fallacy on the head, replying: "It's a most extraordinary piece of warped logic to say that because science can't answer a particular question, you're going to throw in your lot with Jesus, when there's no evidence he did it either. ... Throw in your lot with science, which at least is working on the problem."
O'Reilly's core assumption seems to be that we need answers, and therefore any system that claims to provide the answers is necessarily superior to one that cannot.
Perhaps I'll put my life in the hands of pixies, because pixies can do magic spells and modern medicine can't. But of course, we all know that a real doctor who can't work spells is infinitely better than an imaginary pixie who can.
Whether something is true doesn't appear to figure in O'Reilly's argument - just whether it gives answers. Although I doubt O'Reilly is a fundamentalist, per se, he has unwittingly reproduced a classic fundamentalist argument that amounts to "anything is better than uncertainty." This fear of not having the asnwers the worst possible reason for sticking with belief, though probably the strongest when it comes to keeping people in the grip of an irrational faith.
Dawkins continues: "You must see that it's a most remarkable piece of illogic to say that because science can't fill a particular gap, therefore we have to turn to Christianity?"
And he is right. That science doesn't answer every question is no more a reason to embrace Christianity than it is to embrace Islam, Hinduism or Scientology.
Oddly, when Dawkins makes this point, he is accused of fascism, a remarkable non-sequitur in a debate that makes O'Reilly look facile and desperate. Surely the defenders of theism can do much, much better?
Update: At the BHT, the same commenter adds:
OK, so O’Reilley didn’t make the greatest case in the world. But he did pin Dawkins down on the essential question: you can [tell] me how we get here, but you can’t tell me who or what started it all. All Dawkins said was that science would come up with the answer, eventually. Give us scientists more time, after all, we’ve done a good job on everything else.
On one hand, I was impressed that Dawkins admitted that he couldn’t answer “who started this”? He didn’t give us some lame, probabilistic, stuff-can-appear-out-of-nothing nonsense. So Bill basically pinned him down to having to admit that he can’t answer the important questions: who we are, why we care, etc…
I'm not sure how this is an "admission," if that implies some sort of failure; nor is it a case of being "pinned down," as if the information were squeezed reluctantly from Dawkins. Why should it be a surprise to hear a scientist admit that science does not have all the answers? Science has no problem with unknowns. Having unknowns is only a shortcoming if you assume what needs to be proved, namely that the answers are there to be known in Christianity.
I founded Leaving Fundamentalism in 2005 as a resource for people facing the very painful journey out of religious conservatism. It also helped me to reflect on a difficult time of my life. It's not a huge site, but it will continue to develop, and in the meantime you'll still find a number of helpful articles by myself and others. In particular, I recommend:
Sunday, 11 October 2009
People don't talk about mental health enough. Having mental illness is a source of shame and embarrassment, yet there are few of us who don't suffer with it in one way or another. We just don't want to look weak, so we pretend everything's okay, and so the cycle of shame goes on and on.
I live with anxiety and depression. In my case, though by no means in all cases, part of the answer is medication. I am not ashamed to say I have been using antidepressants (Citalopram) since 2005. I say part of the answer, because I often encounter the charge that antidepressants are a panacea, a one-step solution that simply covers up the "real" problem. Like any medication, antidepressants can be used that way - just as you can take tablets for a bad heart, but still carry on smoking, drinking, slobbing around and gorging yourself on take-out every night.
I cooperate with my medication. The tablets give me the strength and presence of mind to face my anxiety, but it's still there, and I still have to fight it. I still have to train my mind; I still have to make an effort.
Antidepressants might not be part of your solution. But you'll never find what your solution is if you can't admit to yourself and others that you're unwell. Take the first brave step and talk about it.
Pierre does a sterling job at the Frankensteinia blog, though I have to say I get the biggest pleasure from his wonderful Monster Crazy, which is updated almost daily with horror, sci-fi and fantasy-related images. It's a mine of beautiful artwork and photography, most of which is rarely seen elsewhere.
Wednesday, 7 October 2009
Holger Haase shares his take on the film at Hammer and Beyond today, and I can't argue with any of his points. Yes, there are a few obvious inconsistencies - but it's never bothered me with any other Hammer film. They were never known for being tight on logic.
There are a few elements that make this a classic for me, though. The first is that it's a very original attempt at a new Gothic monster at a time when Hammer could easily have stuck with recycling the same old favourites.
Second, it has a truly effective atmosphere. I particularly enjoy the rainy graveyard scenes. Bernard Robinson's Cornish village set, built on the backlot at Bray Studios and already used for The Reptile's sister picture The Plague of the Zombies, is partly responsible for this atmosphere. Location filming at nearby Oakley Court also helps. And Arthur Grant's photography is first class as usual, as is Don Banks's score.
Third, it is among my favourite Michael Ripper performances. Although Hammer is popularly known for its bigger stars, such as Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, Ripper was in fact the most prolific of its actors, with supporting roles in over two dozen of their productions. He tended to be typecast in cheeky, often eccentric roles, but The Reptile is a change of pace for him. He plays a subdued character who risks isolation in his small, frightened community by gradually defying fear to pursue the creature of the title.
(Incidentally, the other Michael Ripper Hammer role that really stands out is as Mipps the Undertaker in the excellent Captain Clegg, aka Night Creatures, of 1962.)
There are a few other gems in the cast, too: the wonderful Noel Willman, the exotic Jacqueline Pearce, the strange Marne Maitland.
Hammer risked trying out new monsters several times - The Gorgon (1964), Hands of the Ripper (1971), Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) - and as here, the results were rarely less than fascinating.
Tuesday, 6 October 2009
The manifesto comes across like satire, but seems to be a genuine addition to the site. Here are a few excerpts to illustrate the thinking behind the project, which appears to be entirely politically and theologically motivated (mainly by hatred for "liberals") without any thought for linguistic or hermeneutical principles:
Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms ...Conservapedia attributes everything that's wrong with the Bible to liberal corruption, where it is clear most of the things they object to go back centuries, far beyond modern liberalism. "Government" is a liberal term that ought to be replaced, for example, and Luke 23:24 is a liberal interpolation.
Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning ...
Exclude Later-Inserted Liberal Passages: excluding the later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story [John 7:53-8:11]
Risibly, Conservapedia aims for conciseness, since wordiness (a "high word-to-substance ratio") is apparently a liberal trait, too.
None of the proposed changes is defended with appeal to good scholarship, linguistic principles, textual criticism or better methodology. Every one of the changes is justified by appeal to doctrine, political ideology or unsubstantiated claims about liberal corruption. It's all amusingly anachronistic and ought to embarrass any conservative with the least academic nous.
Monday, 5 October 2009
"I have here a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt.
"Unfortunately, Stradivarius was a terrible painter," he adds with perfect timing, "and Rembrandt made lousy violins." (And he promptly destroys both.)
I used to be a fan of star ratings, but the more I've broadened my taste in films, the more the idea of comparing them in such a facile way strikes me as ridiculous.
A great diner does hamburgers really, really well. A great a la carte restaurant might do steak tartar or lobster thermidor really, really well. You don't write off the diner because it doesn't do a good lobster, or rail against the restaurant for failing to provide loaded potato wedges to take out.
The late John Hughes did Ferris Bueller's Day Off really, really well. Orson Welles did Citizen Kane really, really well. What kind of a schmutz gives Ferris 6 out of 10 because it's not Kane? Frankly, there are lots of schmutzes (usually critics) who would do exactly that. To me, they're both 10/10 movies.
Henri Langlois was a French cineaste who believed films were meant to be shown. Good or bad, high art or cheap entertainment, they were all included on the program of his legendary Cinémathèque Française in Paris. (Incidentally, he was so notoriously disorganized, the overbearing French authorities eventually shut him down, provoking riots. See Bertolucci's The Dreamers for a fascinating insight into Langlois's era.)
These days, taking my inspiration from Henri, I'll sit down to a Truffaut or a zombie movie with equal enthusiasm. So the characters are badly sketched. Maybe, but why not judge it on its own terms? Is it important to the movie that the characters are well sketched? No? Then let hamburgers be hamburgers and lobsters be lobsters.
I am also an agnostic. I accept the intellectual arguments for atheism, and recognized about 18 months ago that I had long since given up on theism. I believe God is a human construct.
Where the mainstream arguments of atheists fall down, I think, is in assuming that because there's (probably) no God, there's no place for religion. In my experience, this just doesn't follow. I've had to radically reinterpret my faith recently, but its language, rituals, symbols and meanings have remained. To me it's all about metaphor, and the outward practice of religious worship is about acknowledging the sacred dimension of life and taking time to remind oneself to live in it.
Everyone has some way of connecting with the sacred. It might be nature, music, a relationship, an intellectual pursuit. Mine just happens to be a religion, and it's not inherently better or worse than anyone else's means of engaging the sacred. I frequently hear from atheists that we "don't need religion," as if "not needing" were enough of a reason to abolish it. "Don't need" is in itself ambiguous. What is need? Do you need a beautiful sunset? Do you need your wife? Do you need Beethoven's symphonies? There's a sense in which we don't need these things at all. We could live without them; we don't need art in the way we need oxygen, for example. Why must the next logical step be abolishment? There's another sense in which we can't live without these things.
I need religion only in the way other people need an art or a beautiful landscape or a loved one. An emotional crutch? Only if you can call Mozart or marriage or movies an emotional crutch. We don't all need these things, but we all need something.