A New Easter Tradition

The Water Of LifeWhen the children were small, Easter eggs were a repeat of the excitement of Christmas. But now they are adults, I’ve decided we need a new Easter tradition that’s safer than all that sugar and more authentic than eggs.

There are two data points I’ve considered. First there’s the evidence of Dr Robert Lustig’s research on the effects of sugar. You can watch the video (which is probably the most important hour of video I have watched recently) but the relevant advice in this context is to treat sugar as if it were alcohol – in moderation and knowing it will harm you otherwise.  Second, the Gaelic expression for “water of life” is uisge beatha, which has given us the English word whisky.

Joining these together, it does no more harm to drink whisky than to eat chocolate; in fact, since it’s easier to detect the effects of whisky on your body, it may well be safer than chocolate. Whisky is also sufficiently symbolic of the message of new life at Easter to make an ideal token. As a consequence, I’ve decided on a new tradition for the adults in our extended household who consent. Instead of chocolate eggs, they each have 200ml bottles of single malt whisky.

This year it’s Caol Ila, and we’ll be toasting new life with the water of life a little later. Happy Easter!

Seeds of Idiocy

Christ the Redeemer statue, RioThis story from Antarctica, where I fully anticipate every visitor is well educated on the need for biological isolation of the place they are visiting, leaves me bemused and struggling to understand. Read it and weep.

To summarise for those who’d prefer to avoid both:  Two religious nutjobs, claiming to be from a “gospel group”, were caught intentionally spreading seeds of an invasive non-native species while visiting Antarctica. Having entered places like Australia and New Zealand myself and seen the strict, clearly explained controls over biological contamination, this wilful and calculated act in an even more sensitive environment is inexcusable.

That would be bad enough, but it seems it’s happened before. The previous nutjob to attempt this eco-vandalism even attempted to justify her sociopathy:

A similar act nine years ago on the same island was described by an American evangelist, Mary Craig. ”We scattered and released the seeds of the harvest of souls to be saved”, she wrote on her website. ”We understood that we were planting seeds that would sprout as others came to water and plant the church of Christ.”

Despite having a pretty good understanding of Christianity, I really struggle to understand the behaviour here. How can someone who’s clearly well-educated and wealthy enough to take one of these trips have such a weak grasp of the difference between metaphor and reality that they engage in an action so profoundly and clearly wrong? It’s even wrong within their own worldview; Craig herself says:

“It is said that Antarctica changes you; it is so pristine. Hopefully, people won’t ruin it while they take its beauty into their souls.”

Is there a (polite) name for the inability to distinguish metaphor and reality? One friend suggested that the right word is “psychosis“, but I ‘m not sure that’s correct. I think the people involved here are fully-functioning in all areas of their lives and neither generally delusional nor dangerously detached from general reality. The condition on display is more subtle and at the same time potentially more dangerous. Another friend suggested “fundamentalist”, and while that is likely to be a decent label for the people involved in both incidents, I don’t think the term fits perfectly. The terms “fundamentalist” and “creationist” (also suggested) describe other expressions of the same thought patterns.

This does dovetail into a book I’ve recently read and enjoyed enough to recommend – Marcus Borg‘s “Speaking Christian[Amazon UK | US]. He suggests that the problem is with an overall interpretive framework – he calls it “Heaven & Hell Christianity” – which provides a strong tool for interpreting metaphor and leads to cognitive failures by encouraging “force-fitting with the framework” rather than subjecting an action to wider critical analysis. I think that’s what’s happening here, and I fear it can’t be prevented all the time that dominant interpretive framework is so strongly reinforced by Christian teachers.

☆ Easter Message

Old Vienna Reflected In New ViennaWho said this?

“The Church in its own bubble has become, at best the guardian of the value system of the nation’s grandparents, and at worst a den of religious anoraks defined by defensiveness, esoteric logic and discrimination.”

No, it wasn’t Richard Dawkins or indeed any other spokesman for atheism. It was the Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, in a blog post this week entitled Time for a reboot, not a bailout. I’m hardly an insider to the topics he discusses, which are the manifestations of the deep politics of the Anglican Communion.

But for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long, I’m reading words by a bishop who has at very least a glimmer of insight into the problems Christianity has in the 21st century. Those problems have been a frustration to me for more than a decade now.

There’s a core to Christianity that’s impervious to change – the Heart of Christianity, as Marcus Borg put it. But that heart is not to be found in the traditions received from the society that embraced the industrial revolution. Throughout its history, Christianity has embraced society and found the essence of the Jesus Way in it awaiting redemption. “Tradition” changes.

By assuming the prudery of the 18th and 19th centuries defines “tradition”, the church has failed to understand or adapt to modern sexuality, globalist capitalism, the meshed society and more. Instead, it worships an idol. In each case “tradition” means intolerance of change and a failure to see where Jesus would have been found in each change. The result is the disconnect Bishop Alan describes:

” The C of E used to be the guardian of the nation’s morals, but is increasingly perceived as irrelevant, or even a threat to them.”

As well as all the things Bishop Alan pinpoints I keep hearing those “anoraks” voices calling for internet censorship – most recently the “snooper’s charter”, CCDP. I long to hear their voices speaking into the emerging meshed society instead of against it.

“The real fault line now in the Church is between those of all stripes who are at home with social change, and whose Jesus inspires them to find ways of living authentic lives in this culture, and those who fear it, and whose religion is a way to prevent it, or even reverse it.”

Yes, yes. Let’s hope the new Archbishop of Canterbury, whoever he is, understands these things and has the wisdom and courage to engage.

✈ Behind the façade

The architect who designed this church in Venice (Chiesa di San Vidal) tried to hide the building behind it, but ordinary life goes on behind the façade. There’s an ice cream shop doing brisk business, and the apartments above the shop seem to have no relation to the huge church window on the façade.

So it is everywhere. Religious or secular, business or personal, male or female, gay or straight. No matter how impressive the façade, real life goes on behind it if you look. It has to.

☆ Leaving Room For Mystery

Stave Church DragonThis post is a bit unusual for me – apologies if it offends you –  but I found my mind wandering after I re-read this letter that the Archbishop Of Canterbury sent in reply to a letter from a six-year-old asking “To God, How did you get invented?” I do recommend reading it.

There are so many ways to answer. Some are angry and negative; some are complex and technical; some are condescending; some are trite. This one seems to me to be a perfectly tuned answer, respecting the unknowable mystery of the subject, the trusting simplicity of the questioner and indeed the scepticism to the facilitator. The result encourages reflection and leaves room for mystery.

Leaving room for mystery is one of the things I feel the world lacks at the moment. Everyone wants precise answers to every question, with uncertainties eliminated. It’s possible to do that with simple, objective questions, but once the system we’re considering gets complex it’s entirely possible it will become unknowable to a single mind. Reductionism a great tool, as long as the system still works once it’s been reduced.

I’ve never been a proponent of a “god is in the gaps” approach of reifying the unknown, but all the same there are things that are beyond simplification, which have to be taken as a whole and accepted on the basis of experience rather than analysis. That was one of the conclusions for me after my direct/indirect causality essay. It seems to me that a “fundamentalist” is actually someone who refuses to do that, insisting instead on using the reductionist tools that worked on the easy problems and discarding the parts of the complex problem that don’t respond to them.

Doing that breaks things. The real world is deliciously complex, and there will always be mysteries – systems too complex for us to analyse. It seems to me that one of the keys to maturing is learning to identify those systems and leave room for them to be mysteries, without discarding the rest of rational life.

☆ A Sandman Reading List

Full moon rising over cloudAfter a few postings in various places, it’s clear quite a few of my readers are fans of Neil Gaiman‘s “Sandman” series of graphic novels. If that includes you, you may need some gift ideas to give friends and relatives, so here’s a list of meta-Sandman books that you may find useful. I already have Hy Bender’s book and really like it as a casual reference; the rest are on my wish-list if you’re feeling generous!

  • Sandman Companion (Hy Bender)UKUS
  • The Sandman Papers (Joe Sanders)UKUS
  • The Neil Gaiman Reader (Darrell Schweitzer)UKUS
  • The Sandman And Joseph Campbell: In Search Of Modern Myth (Stephen Rauch)UKUS

If the theory of myth fascinates you after reading those titles, you may find these two classics interesting – the first is more accessible and modern but the second is a must-have and since it’s out of copyright you can also get a free eBook version from various sources, like the US Kindle edition.

  • The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Joseph Campbell)UKUS
  • The Golden Bough (Sir James George Fraser)UKUS

I can also recommend the Absolute Sandman series. These are gorgeous tooled leather omnibus editions of the books, printed for long-term collectors and delivered in a heavy slip-case (buy some gloves for handling them!). The first four contain the main series, and the fifth contains the “extras”. I have all of them apart from Volume 5.

  • Volume 1 – UKUS
  • Volume 2 – UKUS
  • Volume 3 – UKUS
  • Volume 4 – UKUS
  • Volume 5 – UKUS

There’s also an Absolute edition of the spin-out mini-series, Absolute Death (UK, US).

I hope Santa (or your equivalent ironic embodiment of religio-mythic gift-giving) brings you just the gifts you’re seeking from these lists!

☆ The Tyranny Of The Urgent

Crocus TrianglesI’m nearing the end of the amazingly busy patch that March has turned out to be for me, and I can tell I must be getting older because I am running out of energy. I was reminded today of an essay that was given me when I was at University and whose lesson has stuck with me ever since. Not that I have learned it, as I keep allowing the urgent to block out the important.

Dating from 1967, the essay was actually passed to me as a religious tract called “The Tyranny of the Urgent” by Charles E Hummel – you’ll find it easily if you search, although it’s unlikely to be written to the taste of many of my friends! Despite its extremely clear evangelical message, the core of the essay is a crucial and obvious life lesson that still needs pointing out to me constantly. Hummel starts:

Have you ever wished for a thirty-hour day? Surely this extra time would relieve the tremendous pressure under which we live. Our lives leave a trail of unfinished tasks. Unanswered letters, unvisited friends, unwritten articles, and unread books haunt quiet moments when we stop to evaluate. We desperately need relief.

He goes on to explain the problem:

Several years ago an experienced cotton mill manager said to me, “Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.” … We live in constant tension between the urgent and the important. The problem is that the important task rarely must be done today or even this week.

Often the urgent is temporarily important too and our attention to it is justified to a large degree. But if we were to step back and lay out all the important things in our lives, we would probably find there were items on the list that would, if they were ever to become urgent, be too late to address. Maybe they are about our own life and health, mental and spiritual. Maybe they relate to our family – especially our children, who carry on growing up even if the things we’re dealing with are very urgent indeed. Maybe they relate to work, where each customer crisis in turn can crowd out our need to invest in product change or marketing needs.

In every case, repeatedly leaving these important things “until later” because there’s something urgent to deal with is eventually fatal, and when we realise those slow-burn important things have become urgent, it’s too late. Our product is trumped by a competitor, and the new customers we should have cultivated go buy it. Our children have grown out of the sort of time we could have invested in them. Our family have built a lifestyle without us. Our health is destroyed and our self-discipline to fix it doesn’t exist.


Just knowing that doesn’t help much, of course. The truth is, we will never get everything important done. There are tasks we fail to complete every day, every week, month and year. The true question is not whether we’ll end our time with important tasks left incomplete; we will, it’s guaranteed. The real question is whether we will do so mindfully, grateful for each success, respectful of each failure and satisfied that our considered priorities were right when seen from a distance.

Hummel has a detailed recipe for preventing the urgent ruling our lives. He prescribes:

  • A daily time for quietness, reflection, private study for personal growth and planning of the coming day
  • Responding to invitations to new tasks only after a day (or more) has passed, to allow the implications to present themselves, especially during that daily quiet time.
  • A weekly stock-take, spending a longer time both in stillness and in consideration of the tasks under way and planned for the next week.

He suggests that these disciplines are actually the most important priorities; if we are not respecting them, instituting them is our most urgent need. To successfully follow that prescription, I need a routine I can carry with me even when I’m travelling and where possible a place in which to conduct it. For me, a paper notebook and a pleasing writing instrument are at the core of the routine, and a comfortable chair in a place with no distractions (especially electronic!) is the place.

I personally need reminding of this regularly, not least right now. I know there are many others around me too who I care about very much who need to be reminded. This wasn’t written for any of you personally; but it was written personally for all of you, and as a lasting reminder for me. Feel free to bring it to my attention each time I forget!

✈ Awe

The huge public art event in Paris this weekend – Nuit Blanche – included some works on an absolutely monumental scale. One bridge was covered with a huge scaffolding structure with gauze wrapped over cubic sections illuminated by video projectors. The resulting work, accompanied by penetrating ambient music, was enthralling – holding thousands of people captive with it’s ever-changing, all-consuming imagery.

When we reached Notre Dame, however, it was clear something very special was going on. Usually flood-lit (and with the windows dark), the ancient cathedral was in darkness – but with radiantly-illuminated stained glass windows, lit from within. As we passed, they opened the doors to the building and we were swept in with the crowd.

Inside, the building was mostly unlit. Incredibly powerful white spotlights in the chancel were pointing up at each of the rose windows, and the area around the crossing was filled with votive candles whose smoke gave just enough opacity to turn the light beams into marble columns of light. Meanwhile, a gentle ambient soundtrack was being played, somehow enhancing the silence and overcoming the sounds of footsteps and hushed conversation. For me, the sense it produced was of awe – aweful, in the good sense.

This was all an art-work by Thierry Dreyfus, and if his goal was to capture and express the feeling of being in awe in the presence of greatness, he succeeded. His was for me the highlight in art and in communication for the year so far, and will remain a key Paris memory for a long time.

☞ Discoveries

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