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) (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


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!