Thursday 31 December 2015

The greatest literary characters and how they work

“The choice of the point of view from which the story is told is arguably the most important single decision that the novelist has to make, for it fundamentally affects the way readers will respond, emotionally and morally, to the fictional characters and their actions” (David Lodge, The Art of Fiction, 26).
If you asked me who are the four greatest characters in literature, I would say Plato’s Socrates, the Jesus of the Gospels, Boswell’s Johnson, and Don Quixote. The first three all conform to a particular literary type. Let us call it the Revered Friend type. The characteristics of the Revered Friend are as follows:
  • he has some particular genius that sets him apart from the common stock;
  • he has a circle of admiring friends who enjoy his genius;
  • he is depicted in third-person narrative by one of these admiring friends;
  • his character is conveyed mostly through dialogue, i.e., through his own speech and his interactions with other speakers.
The distancing effect of third-person narration is absolutely critical to this character type. The reader is drawn into the character’s inner circle and quickly achieves a friendly rapport with the character. That is the effect of a third-person friendly narrator. But because the narrator also reveres the character, the reader is never allowed to get too close. In most of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates’ own opinions remain elusive; we hear him questioning others, but we never quite find out what he thinks about it all. In the Gospels, we are drawn into Jesus’ inner circle but we are also kept at a reverential distance. We are reminded that his identity is enigmatic, that his teaching is hard to understand, that he is liable to be misunderstood by the world and betrayed or abandoned by his inner circle.

Again, the reader of the life of Dr Johnson shares Boswell’s friendly point of view, yet the reader also shares Boswell’s awe. We are not allowed to get too close. The third-person narration helps to keep us at the correct distance from the character. In one famous scene, Boswell reminds us that there are parts of Johnson’s character that must remain forever hidden from our view. Johnson’s friends at the dining club have often observed his habit of squeezing oranges into his drink and then stuffing the orange peels into his jacket pockets. In Johnson’s room one day, Boswell sees a pile of orange peels from the night before, all scraped clean and arranged on the table. He plucks up the courage to ask Johnson about it:
Johnson: “I have a great love for them.”
Boswell: “And pray, Sir, what do you do with them? You scrape them, it seems, very neatly, and what next?”
Johnson: “I let them dry, Sir.”
Boswell: “And what next?”
Johnson: “Nay, Sir, you shall know their fate no further.”
Boswell: “Then the world must be left in the dark.”
In a scene like this the reader is drawn into an extraordinary friendly intimacy with the great man: we are in his room; we are observing the subtlest eccentricities of his character; we are hearing him talk about the things he loves (in this case, orange peels). But at the same time we are kept at a reverential distance. The narrator leads us to the brink of revelation, only to conceal the very thing we long to know (in this case, the meaning of the orange peels).

It is the same technique, a hundred times over, in Plato and the Gospels. We are constantly oscillating between the beautiful and the sublime (to use Edmund Burke’s categories), between intimate friendship and astonished awe.

This technique is possible only in third-person narration. Would Socrates have been the greatest philosopher in the world if he had written books? If, instead of the memoirs of the evangelists, we had received a first-person Memoir of the Messiah, would anybody ever have become a Christian? You might love and admire an autobiographer, but you will never end by putting down the book and confessing him Lord. Only a third-person narrative can induce a response of that magnitude. Only a third-person narrator can depict both the beauty and the sublimity of a great personality, so that the reader becomes simultaneously friend and worshipper.

I have mentioned that I think Don Quixote is the only other character who can be set alongside Socrates and Jesus and Dr Johnson. Though Don Quixote does not conform so neatly to the type of the Revered Friend, Cervantes uses some of the same techniques in a comical and ironic way. The narrator is portrayed as a historian and a researcher, rather than as a personal friend of his subject: on the first page he admits that he doesn’t even know Don Quixote’s real name. Yet through the process of telling the story of this delusional knight, the narrator increasingly comes to adopt the perspective of an admiring friend. He loves Don Quixote and regards him as a kind of moral genius, even while regularly reminding the reader that the character is quite mad.

Sancho Panza, the faithful friend and squire of Don Quixote, provides another point of view on the main character. He supplies much of the book’s comedy by the way he adopts the role of an admiring friend in spite of his amply justified scepticism about Don Quixote’s claims.
“What’s the gentleman’s name?” asked the maid.
“Don Quixote de la Mancha,” replied Sancho Panza. “He’s a knight errant. One of the best and bravest the world has seen for a very long time.”
“What’s a knight errant?” asked the maid.
“Are you so green that you don’t know that?” replied Sancho. “Then I’ll tell you, my girl, that a knight errant – to cut a long story short – is beaten up one day and made Emperor the next. Today he’s the most unfortunate and poverty-stricken creature in the world; tomorrow he’ll have two or three kingdoms to give to his squire.”
Modern fiction has also blessed us with some very memorable examples of the Revered Friend. Why does Sherlock Holmes have such a lasting power over our imagination? It is because we see him from Watson’s point of view. We are part of Holmes’ inner circle, and we observe his genius from an astonished distance.

The greatest fictional comedies of the past century, P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, use exactly the same technique. Jeeves is an omniscient butler who finds brilliant and unlikely ways to extricate his employer, Bertie Wooster, from various social crises.
“Good Lord, Jeeves! Is there anything you don't know?”
“I couldn't say, sir.” 
The effect of Jeeves’ character depends entirely on the point of view of the narrative. We see Jeeves through Bertie Wooster’s eyes. We seldom know exactly what he is thinking. Even when it comes to matters closest to Jeeves’ heart – the colour of a tie, the selection of a pair of trousers – we are left to infer his opinions from what he does not say. Jeeves is the central actor in every plot, yet we rarely see him doing anything directly. He is a shimmering, mysterious presence, a kind of puppeteer who orchestrates events behind the scenes. His effect on the reader would be impossible if the stories were narrated from Jeeves’ point of view, or if the narrator did not take pains to hold Jeeves at the proper distance so that we never get too close to him.

Some very fine novelists have aspired to portray personalities of genius but have failed because of an imperfect mastery of the Revered Friend technique. One of the few criticisms that I could make of the Harry Potter novels is that they fail to convince the reader of the story's main premise, namely that Harry is a magical genius. All the characters, and especially the villains, keep assuring us of Harry’s genius; every plot hinges on this fact; but the reader is too close to Harry, and too closely shares his point of view, to feel that he is an exceptional person. To keep the story moving along, we are quite willing to believe in Harry’s genius – but we never come to feel it the way we feel that Sherlock Holmes is a genius of observation and inductive reasoning. It might have been quite different, and Harry Potter might have been a great character, if only the narrator had shared Ron’s or Hermione’s point of view instead of Harry’s. Indeed it is no coincidence that one comes away from the novels with the impression that Ron and Hermione and Dumbledore are the richest personalities. They are more interesting characters simply because we see them from Harry’s point of view. They are more lifelike because we see them from the proper distance.

I may be wrong, but I can’t help wondering whether Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels might also have been better if the author had made better use of the Revered Friend technique. Each of the two women, Elena (the narrator) and Lila, regards the other as a “brilliant friend.” But again I found myself having to believe this since the novels never quite manage to show it. The problem, as I see it, is that the narrator is too self-absorbed to depict Lila objectively. Lila is meant to be a deep and intriguing personality, but for the most part she comes across as a function of Elena’s ego. Elena’s life is defined by her obsession with her friend. She gazes relentlessly at Lila, but somehow her gaze is so intensely self-interested that we never get enough objectivity, enough distance, to see Lila properly and so to appreciate what it is that Elena finds so impressive about her.

Perhaps that is no criticism at all, given that Elena’s obsession with Lila is what the novels are all about. But, in fiction, obsession can be depicted in ways that render the object of obsession large and magnificent. Just think of Moby-Dick, and of how the reader comes to share in Ishmael’s enormous fascination with whales and whaling. Ishmael is one of the largest egos in literature, yet we learn far more about whales than we do about him – precisely because his ego is defined by its obsession with whales.

As much as I enjoyed the Neapolitan Novels, my complaint is that the narrator is too much like Ahab and not enough like Ishmael. Ahab's is a narrow and suffocating egotism that leaves no room for anything else, while Ishmael's is an expansive egotism that makes room for everything else, though always on its own terms and within its own peculiar frame of reference.

Or to return to an earlier example, I would have liked the Neapolitan Novels better if Lila had kept orange peels in her pockets and Elena had never quite understood why. But, as it stands, the Elena of the Neapolitan Novels would never even have wondered about the orange peels. She would merely have turned it into a contest by accumulating her own (even bigger) collection of orange peels. Our interest in Lila is deflected; we are left staring into the pockets of Elena.

Sunday 20 December 2015

And another thing about cycling...

1. Expert cycling, therefore, I adore

Glancing over something I wrote a few years ago (also published here), I noticed a teeny-weeny mistake:

It must have been a typo, I mustn't have been paying attention that day, I have no other explanation for it. Because, reader, I am altogether Expert in my approach to this whole grand business of riding a bicycle. I slide my skinny body into lycra; I strap a heart-rate monitor to my chest; I ride a sleek machine made of carbon; I analyse data; I train; I eat and drink according to Scientific Principles.

Not that I am obsessed with cycling. But in the past year I have ridden 10,000 km, have climbed mountains, plunged into valleys, entered races, lost races, ridden in rain and fog, in burning heat and numbing cold, have been chased by dogs and swooped by magpies and screamed at by psychotic motorists, have crashed and lost my memory and got it back again, have ridden in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Perth, in northern New South Wales, in northern and southern Queensland, in the country and in the city and by the sea, lugging my bicycle around on planes and trains and automobiles, and, all in all, having a pretty good time of it.

You will scarcely believe this, reader, but I even went so far as to watch something called the Tour de France – a sporting event! – on television, and, if I am not mistaken, enjoyed it too.

2. Why men need bicycles

I know of a gentleman who, on the day of his sixtieth birthday, went out and bought himself a $250,000 Porsche. He kept the car parked at work, he never brought it home. He didn’t tell his wife because he knew she wouldn’t understand. She learned about it later, by accident, when she happened to answer a phone call about the insurance policy on the car. The poor chap had been right: she didn’t understand.

Other men I know have kept a new woman at work, though in the long run this is even more expensive than a Porsche. They would like to bring her home, but again they worry that their wives won’t understand. Still other men have worked for half a lifetime to accumulate wealth and then gambled it all away in one night.

You see the kind of troubles a fellow can get himself into if he does not keep his arse firmly planted where it belongs, on the saddle of a bicycle?

At a certain age and at certain times in life a man feels instinctively the need to revenge himself upon his own life. As Freud got older he turned his thoughts from the familiar homely instincts of pleasure and pain to darker ruminations about the Todestrieb, the sinister “death drive.” Descending a steep winding road at 80 km/hr on a racing bike, knowing that any small error will be my last, is a very gratifying – and, compared to the alternatives, very safe – form of sublimated revenge. If ever I crash and die, the first thing I will say to myself afterwards will be: “Ha! Now we're even!”

3. The mailman

Once when I was wheeling my bicycle out on to the street, the postman, who was making his rounds, stopped and addressed me warmly: “Nice bike! Carbon, eh? They didn’t look like that back in my day, I can tell you! Cycling saved my life, did you know that? In my late twenties I was in a bad way. I was steadily drinking myself to death. I don’t think I ever would have lived to see my thirtieth birthday, and I didn't care either. Until I met this girl. She had cropped blonde hair and blue eyes and the firmest cycling thighs you ever dreamed of. She was an athlete, she did triathlons and bike races and marathons. I never thought I could stop drinking but I got a bike and started riding with her and, before I knew it, I had given up the drink by accident. Not because I ever tried but just because I found something I liked even better. I wanted to marry that woman, I wanted to have children with her, but it didn’t work out, you know how these things go. It doesn't matter though because after we’d said goodbye I got straight back on the bike and kept riding. It turned my life around. I don’t ride much anymore but if there’s one thing I learned from cycling it’s the value of water. Ah, now there's a thing for you! Water! I never really understood it, never really appreciated it properly, until I was on the bike. Even now, I always drink four litres of water every day. It’s the secret of my eternal youthfulness,” said the grizzled old fellow. “I’ve always had a powerful thirst, ever since I was born I suppose. But I never went back to liquor after I learned the value of water.” And here he produced a plastic drink bottle from the saddle bag on his postman’s motorbike, and said, “You see! I carry one of these around with me everywhere!” And I took the bottle from the bottle cage on my bicycle and toasted his health, and there in the morning sunlight we drank a mouthful of water with the profoundest brotherly contentment in the world. Then he handed me my mail – all bills, the bastard – and went on his way, and I went mine.

4. The Frenchman

The first bicycle I ever owned was built for me by a Frenchman by the name of Jean Le Roux. He was a friend of the family, a kindly good old man, who was always tinkering with one machine or another in his garage and, one Christmas, decided to build me a bicycle. I was eight years old; I had always wanted my own bicycle; my parents told me they could not afford to purchase things like bicycles; I did not believe that I would ever own one. Then, on that blessed Christmas morn, Jean Le Roux appeared on our doorstep and presented me with the most magnificent pair of wheels I had ever seen. It was red with a top tube curved like a rolling wave. It had fixed gears and sweeping chrome cruiser handlebars and a plush black saddle mounted over two wide bright springs with steel studs along the back. The spokes glittered in the sunlight. I rubbed my eyes for fear that I was dreaming. The Frenchman had built it himself, assembling it out of spare parts and even painting it himself. He painted it red, he told me with a wink, so that it would go faster. It was amazing, it was as if he knew the secrets of my heart, for of every kind of bicycle that there is, I loved the red ones best.

For three weeks I pedalled that machine around the streets as proud as any king. I was the luckiest boy alive, and I knew it.

On the first day back at school I mounted my lovely bicycle and made my way to school, as slowly and majestically as if I had been in a parade. I wanted all my friends, the whole world, to behold the glory of my bicycle. I had nearly reached the school when Terry Nicholls, a big grown-up boy from Year 5, went whizzing past me on his brand new store-bought BMX. As he passed me he spoke the fateful words: “That’s a funny-looking bike.”

His words entered my heart as quick as snakebite.

At first I was merely confused. I thought he had misunderstood the brilliance of my bicycle. Then I arrived at school and saw all the other bikes, every one of them a store-bought BMX exactly like the bike of Terry Nicholls. It was then that my confusion turned to shame. Deep in my sinful heart I buried my love for the handmade bicycle of Jean Le Roux. When anybody mentioned my bike I pretended that I did not love it, that it was just a funny old bicycle, that I was only riding it until – oh, until! – I got a BMX.

Somewhere G. K. Chesterton has said that to pretend to like something is a sin, but to pretend not to like a thing is the sin against the Holy Spirit. I do not know if I will ever be forgiven for the way my treacherous heart turned against my own first bicycle, for the way I pretended to hate it when I loved it better than anything else this world had ever given me.

Sometimes I think all the troubles of my life began that day. It was the day the sin of Adam, lying latent in my little heart, took possession of me and turned me into a blasphemer against the good and holy handmade bicycle of Jean Le Roux and an idolator for the cheap and tawdry store-bought bicycle of Terry Nicholls. Mother of God, pray for us!

5. Why the bicycle is so beautiful to behold

Of all machines the bicycle is the most beautiful. The shape of the frame, the curves and the lines, the wheels, the saddle, the handlebars, the shining spokes: you would think it had been designed purely for aesthetic effect. But the beauty of the bicycle derives wholly from utility. The bicycle is a perfect unity of function and form. It is the beauty of nature translated into the medium of the machine.

The bicycle is the most energy-efficient mode of transportation in the world. It uses energy even more efficiently than walking. Nature is perfected by grace, and the human body is perfected when it becomes a cycling machine, when those imperfect appendages, the legs, are united to pedals that turn the crank that turns the chain that turns the cog that turns the blessed wheel.

To see a human body moving on a bicycle is to see nature: and more than nature: grace.

Please remember this, reader, next time you open your mouth to pass judgment on a sweaty fat man dressed in lycra heaving himself up a hill. If you cannot see his beauty, that is not his fault: you must pray for better eyes.

6. Humiliation

My career in club riding had inauspicious beginnings. I had been out and about on my bicycle a great deal, but always alone, or at most with one or two friends. Several times I crossed paths with the local cycling group, several times they invited me to join them. I have never been much of a joiner, but one of these neighbourly gentlemen explained to me that I would learn more about cycling if I rode in a group. I liked the way he said the word, learn. I liked the prospect of initiation into the deeper mysteries of the bicycle.

So it was that, early one Saturday, not without trepidation, I embarked on my first bunch ride. After ten minutes I felt that I was getting the hang of it – staying close to the wheel in front of me, adjusting my speed to the speed of the group, pointing out the holes and hazards on the road and all the rest of it. After fifteen minutes I was confident. I was, as they say, riding like a Pro.

That was when we got to our first red light. We stopped, and things would have turned out fine if the light had never changed to green.

But, reader, it changed.

Everybody started moving. I mounted the saddle. I looked down to clip my shoe into the pedal. I drove my foot down hard and the bike surged forwards – straight into the wheel of the bike in front of me. It is, you see, a tricky business to clip your shoe into a bicycle pedal. I had been watching my shoe instead of watching the wheel in front of me. I crashed right into him. I fell. I sprawled. Little pieces of my bicycle and its rider clattered across the road.

I was in a state of shock as I peeled myself off the asphalt. My clothes were torn. The chain had come off. The water bottle had rolled into the gutter. My knee was bleeding. I don't need to tell you that it took a manly and heroic effort to resist the impulse to cry, to faint, to call my mother.

I am no stranger to humiliation. An acute capacity for self-disgust is, if I may say so, one of the strongest points of my emotional repertoire. So, all things considered, I was feeling pretty lousy as I mounted the battered bicycle. I thought: I am a laughing-stock. I thought: I will never be invited to ride with them again. I thought: I will renounce the world and retreat into a life of solitude.

Yet as I wobbled my bleeding way across the intersection I discovered that my fellow cyclists, all waiting for me, were as indifferent as lizards. When, shamefaced, I came alongside these dear good citizens, I merely heard the matter-of-fact question, “Ready to roll?” – and I have rolled with them ever since.

7. Ezekiel’s vision

When Ezekiel saw a vision of the glory of the Lord, he saw four living beings mounted upon intersecting wheels that can move in all directions. What is remarkable about this vision is that the four beings also have wings, but they use them only for display. When it comes to moving around, they prefer to roll. The rims of their mighty wheels are “so high that they were dreadful,” and are covered all round in eyes. On earth the wheel is a piece of machinery, in heaven it is organic, eternally seeing, eternally rolling. A little boy once asked me if he would still get to ride his bicycle in heaven. I told him no: in heaven you will be a bicycle. Our eyes will be wheels and our wheels will be eyes and wherever we look we will go.

8. Dawn

There are days, let's face it, when things don’t turn out right. But it is OK. The day was good before it ever started because I was up before dawn, riding in the cool dark with my friends. If everything else goes wrong, it will still have been worthwhile, and I will still be able to say, with the Psalmist, “this is the day that the Lord hath made, etc and so on.”

Even righteous Job, for all I know, might have felt that his day had not been a total loss if he had gone out that fateful morning and rolled a hundred kilometres on a bicycle before coming home to find that all his flocks and servants had been destroyed by fire that fell from heaven, and that all his sons and daughters had been struck dead by the Lord. He might have torn his garments and put ash on his head and cursed the womb that bore him and then added, “Ah but did you see the sun coming up this morning at the top of Bobbin Head!”

9. Birds

And sometimes, when I am gliding over the hills in the sunlight, the birds look down from their great height upon my whirling wheels, their little feathered faces flushed with envy.

Thursday 17 December 2015

Church attendance manual (5): church signs

Christians love signs, especially the big ones on street corners. They give us a rare and precious opportunity to share our faith and ideals with the public. Here is how ten different traditions make use of this important item of outdoor furniture:

Tuesday 15 December 2015

December doodlings

Surely reruns of The Roy Rogers Show and Only Fools and Horses should have Trigger warnings? And The House at Pooh Corner – a Tigger warning.

Does God read? But of course. Children’s books for serious reading, theology for laughs, and the Daily Mail or the Washington Times as emetics.

Peter and John are sitting at a table drinking cappuccinos outside the Guiding Starbucks in Jerusalem. “Hey, Andy,” Peter asks, pointing to a guy on the corner, “who’s that fruitcake waving the ‘Jesus died in my place’ placard?” “Him?” John replies. “It’s that evangelical, Barabbas.”

As Mary gave birth to the King of the Jews, I guess you could say that she had a Caesarean, right?

If you want to do something radically Christian this Christmas, something that might overcome ignorance and even contribute to world peace, give someone a Koran.

What chillingly prophetic timing. René Girard dies on November 4th and 10 days later there is an outbreak of religious violence followed by preparations for secular counter-violence, in its own way also sacred (see William T. Cavanaugh on the “migration of the holy” from the church to the state), and driven by the identification of scapegoats – pagans and apostates for Isis, the Muslim “other” for the West, either as collateral damage in the Middle East or as victims of hate crimes in Europe, North America, and Australia and New Zealand.

Nous sommes tous Carl Schmitt” – President François Hollande, on his declaration of war on Isis and his announcement of an extended “state of emergency”.

Criminalising the wearing of niqabs and burkas in public, as in France, is a huge mistake; rather, it should be compulsory. And Muslim men – I propose that they should be required to sew a minatory star-and-crescent badge on their outer garments. After all, there is good precedent for such mandatory religious self-identification. That way, no more marshmallow Islamophobia – female or male, we could pick “them” off one by one… Okay, you got me: I’m angling for a job as an adviser on US Homeland Security. But frankly, I am more frightened by the sulfuric stench of xenophobic vengeance in the air that I am by the threat of Isis on our urban streets.

Godwin’s Law has recently acquired a corollary called “Cameron’s Law”, named after the British prime minister. It states that if, in a protracted debate, someone smears his political opponents by calling them “terrorist sympathisers”, he has ipso facto lost the argument. In addition, if he is then called out on such irresponsible character assassination and refuses to apologise, he is an asshole as well as a loser.

If we were doing this Christianity thing correctly, the church (metaphorically) would have more physiotherapists than priests – to treat our chronic prepatellar bursitis.

The late and wonderful Roger Lundin said, “The older I get the less nostalgic I become, and the more I become oriented towards the future.” Absolutely. Or in the phrase of the late and wonderful Fred Kaan (in a hymn for Remembrance Sunday), in my late sixties I am learning how to “remember forward”.

The contemporary university seems to be a cross between a mall, a sanctuary, and a caliphate of correctness, its students at once customers, refugees, and ideological jihadists. How easily sensitivity and indignation morph into a discourse of trauma and oppression. Yet because it is inescapably compromised by egotism and self-interest (Simone Weil), “the language of ‘rights’,” observes Rowan Williams, “becomes a fully moral affair only when it connects with empathy” – when, one might say, it is embedded in a culture of generosity and inquisitiveness. Put it like this: there is a fuck-you feeling about student protest today quite absent from the late sixties (I graduated from Wesleyan in 1970), when teachers were often our comrades, and we liked arguing with opponents, even real bad guys, not silencing them, lest our own convictions become immutable and canonical. With grotesque Girardian irony, against scapegoating, campus activists now practice scapegoating.

You know the now ubiquitous trope “the perfect storm”? It drives me cyclonic.

Letter published in the British newspaper the i, 8 December:
As an expat New Yorker, I can confirm, with Stefano Hatfield, that not all American gun-owners are “right-wing nutjobs”; to wit, Mr. Hatfield’s American cousin, who owns a gun “just in case” (7 December). Just in case of what? Presumably just in case of a violent assault in his home, i.e., for protection. Yet this sense of security is completely ill-founded, as studies show that people who keep guns at home for protection are more likely to be victims of homicide than people whose homes are firearm-free; and that guns meant for protection are more likely to be deployed in domestic violence than self-defence, or to cause accidental injury, particularly to children. So no, not all American gun-owners are right-wing and insane. Some are actually quite liberal but just plain stupid.
It is not the Second Amendment but the First that is the real sacred text of the NRA. The right to bear arms is, foundationally, a matter of freedom of religion. The deity is Moloch (and Charlton Heston is his Moses): worshipped with weapons (V: “Praise the Lord!” / R: “Pass the ammunition!”), propitiated by blood (“Hic est sanguis tuus”) – a lurid liturgy – his providence unfolding in a national narrative of redemptive violence. Hence the remorseless fusillades against proponents of gun-control: they are not just liberals, they are heretics.

You think the tyranny of the majority is dangerous? Try unanimity.

When I think of sad times in the past, they make me feel sad again. When I think of happy times in the past, they make me feel sad now. And when I think of the future – don’t even go there. Time is a bugger. There is joy and hope only in its apocalyptic interruptions, which – Deo gratio – happen all the – time.

The bad news is that Donald Trump is raving. Or rather the good news, since the gods first drive mad those they would destroy.

At least a Trump presidency would have a silver lining for the UK, as the compassionate media personality Katie Hopkins (who called asylum-seekers “cockroaches”) has recently tweeted: “If Donald Trump wins the race … I’m moving to America.”

What is success but failure either in denial or waiting to happen?

More intimate than sex, prayer is an erotic act, and therefore, like sex, susceptible to pornographic distortion. For X-rated images and “money” shots, see God TV.

Many thanks to Digital Cinema Media for its pusillanimous decision to ban the C of E’s 60-second advertisement featuring a variety of people – including a traffic cop, a dairy farmer, two refugees, and some weightlifters – saying the Lord’s Prayer. What toxic proselytising! It’s always encouraging to see atheists du jour applauding PC at its most risible – unbelievers who are more quickly offended, more shrilly illiberal, more obnoxiously smug, and more proudly ignorant than many of us Christians. You are the shock troops of evangelism. Keep up the good work.

Jesus died to save me. From what? From killing him again … and again … Well, it was the right idea. Lord, have mercy!

“The Word popped, peeped, and pooped among us” (John 1:14, original autograph).

Finally: “Let me remind you of the ladies of the Spanish court, who always kept their pet apes by their side so that they themselves would look more beautiful” (from John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, 1952). My oh Myers, come January it will be 10 years since I have been an occasional blogger here at F&T. Never has a baboon been so indulged by – and so grateful to – his (Ben) Meister. Cheers, mate!

And Nadolig Llawen, everyone!

Wednesday 9 December 2015

A little skirmish on faith and reason

Australian philosopher Nick Trakakis has written a piece on why he is no longer a Christian. He has come to believe that faith is incompatible with an inquiring philosophical mind. In response, I wrote a piece arguing that faith gives fullness to reason.

Monday 7 December 2015

In praise of audiobooks: my favourites from 2015

There are three things I’d like to say to you, three pieces of wisdom I’d like to pass on before I die. Number 1, ride a bicycle. Number 2, original sin – Augustine was right. Number 3, get yourself a subscription to

The human voice can be annoying, it can summon armies and bring disaster upon the earth, I know that, but it can also be the friendliest and most consoling thing in the world. For the past few years I’ve taken to filling up the nooks and crannies of my life with audiobooks.

Do you have to commute to work by car? Why are you letting those wisecracking adolescent radio presenters yell at you when you could be charming away the hours with Jane Austen?

Do you have a train to catch? Why are you standing there playing video games like a child when Dostoevsky could be whispering his dreadful secrets in your ears, peeling back the onion layers of every human heart that jostles around you on the carriage?

Is insomnia troubling you again? O my friend, don't lie there in the dark running your tired mind upon the cruel treadmill of grocery lists and budgets and things said and unsaid in last week's committee meeting. The adulterous heart of Madame Bovary is here to take away your cares, and poor Lolita is ready to coax you sweetly into the land of dreams, or at least to keep you innocently entertained till dawn.

Are your children taunting and tormenting one another in the backseat of the car? Why are you blasting their tender spirits with the hot and nihilistic winds of the latest pop songs, why are your offspring subjected to the parade of hourly horrors on the news, when you have Jonathan Stroud and Neil Gaiman right here at your disposal, quite eager to tell their stories and to scare your little treasures into a blessed and salubrious silence? Instead of letting the children wage war against each other, let them bask in all the wholesome blood and glory of Rosemary Sutcliff’s adaptation of the Iliad.

Or perhaps you are one of those people who subscribe to podcasts. I do not reprobate the podcast; I will not pronounce a curse upon it. I heard a good one myself this year. But if you're the kind of person who listens to educational podcasts – I will say nothing of that excitable kindergarten of the mind, the TED Talk – well, I would like to ask you one question: what could you possibly stand to learn from any podcast, from all the podcasts in the world, compared to the intellectual exhilaration of 36 hours of Adam Smith or 10 hours of John Locke or 24 hours – a sacred number – of David Hume?

Are you struggling with your faith? Have you lost your sense of humour? The collected essays of C. S. Lewis will put the spring back in your step. Or if Lewis has made faith seem too easy and too confident, just put your earphones in and let Nietzsche explain a few things to you.

Do you want to know what love is? Plato can show you. Are you intrigued by the darker side of religious experience? Flannery O'Connor has a story to tell. Do you want to know how to win friends and influence people? Tolstoy can help. Do you feel bored and disenchanted with life? Saddle up your donkey and follow Don Quixote and he will show you how to live.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Advent ambiguity

It’s all a bit vague. Advent I mean. All this waiting … and waiting … and waiting. We know who we’re waiting for because he’s already been here. In fact, as Beckett said of Godot (alluding to Matthew 25:31ff.?), we may not know it, but he’s here now: he “is my neighbour in the cell next to mine.” Still, yes, even as the one who is coming is here, so the one who is here is still coming. But notwithstanding the asinine prognostications and genre-illiterate apocalyptic readings of the witless and deranged, though we know the who, and also the why – to “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5) – we don’t know the when, where, or how.

The same uncertainty goes for the four traditional themes of Advent – TRIGGER WARNING – death, judgement, heaven and hell.

No one knows the when, where, or how of the arrival of the Grim Reaper – though we do know that he will be infinitely more attractive than those who, in their ishoo-laden cosmetic attempts to delay the date, are only ensuring that they look more like a gargoyle than he does when he comes to collect them.

And judgement? Only someone who goes “Ee ore” would presume to know whether he will be going “Baaa” or “Meh heh” when the barnyard is finally sorted. We do know the criterion of judgement (Matthew 25:31ff. again), namely, whether we’ve been kind and compassionate bipedal beasts, but we know too that it will be a time of big surprises. Someone whose self-image is ovine might find himself a lamb chop.

Which brings me to heaven and hell. All we know about heaven is that the Cubs will be winning the World Series there, so if you’re from the South Side of Chicago you’ll know at once that you’re in the Other Place. Or not. Hell, after all, is a disputed doctrine. Were it not for the Yankees, I myself would be a universalist. And were I an annihilationist, I’d be drawing my imagery from the infinite void of cricket. Still, you never know. Or maybe you do. More’s the pity.

Yes, it’s all rather vague. Which, I suspect, is the point. The point of Advent I mean. Faith isn’t certainty. Faith doesn’t have all the answers. Faith requires what Keats called negative capability, being “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Faith can say, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.” Faith can even say “I was wrong” or “I’ve changed my mind.” Faith can embrace plurality and welcome the contested. “Clear” and “distinct” ideas and epistemological closure – that’s Cartesianism, not Christianity.

Shucks, I’m not even sure that I have faith. But then who cares, for who am I to say? It’s the faith of the one who is coming to meet us that saves (yeah, I’m a subjective genitive kind of guy). He is my Christmas carol, cake and cracker. How will I recognise him? Like Roy Rogers – TRIGGER WARNING – he’ll be riding a palomino (Revelation 19:11ff.). Or maybe not.

So here’s to Advent ambiguity. Yaki dah!


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