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Category Archives: religion

Reading several books at once may do your head in…

… or it may set up a rather interesting and unexpected harmonic.

The three books in question are:

All three are well worth reading. 

I give Armstrong five stars more as a history than as a work that is entirely convincing theologically – it is if you agree with her, which I am inclined to do, but even so I still take the Axial Age hypothesis with a grain or two of salt. What is good in this wide-ranging work is the fresh insight it has afforded me into unexpected and often hitherto unexplored parallels in the thinkers and prophets of the ancient world in Greece, India, the Middle East and China. Armstrong is no fundamentalist; her very respectable scepticism on the historicity of much of the Bible as “fact” bears witness to that. On the other hand, her opposition of mythos and logos will not appeal to everyone, even if I think there is much to be said for it so long as one realises it has the weakness of all such dichotomies. Religion to Armstrong is not well served by being treated as logos. Paradoxically that is what fundamentalists tend to do. Mythos reminds me more than anything of John Keats and “negative capability.”

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

More on Armstrong: Heavy-hitter stands up for God and religion; Richard Dawkins vs. Karen Armstrong: "Where Does Evolution Leave God?"; Man vs. God – the Armstrong/Dawkins “debate” which was reprinted in The Australian this weekend: it mostly shows two contrasting sensibilities, in my opinion.

I repeat: Armstrong is an excellent historian of ideas.

D Michael Lindsay is an excellent ethnologist of religion. I very much agree with this review.

Summary: This author spoke with more than 300 leaders in politics, business, academia, media and entertainment between 2003 and 2006. All were self-identified evangelicals, a category Lindsay defines as "someone who believes (1) the Bible is the supreme authority for religious belief and practice, (2) that he or she has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and (3) that one should take a transforming activist approach to faith." His intent was to study the historical events and social forces that have facilitated the movement of evangelicals into prominent mainstream positions and roles during the past forty or fifty years. He focuses on four broad sectors reflective of modern life in America – politics, higher education, entertainment and business. How did evangelical influences come to wield any kind of power in this democracy, given the small percentage of adherents relative to that of the greater population of more casual believers?

Lindsay’s essential answer is that evangelicals have chosen to actively apply themselves (through both their labor and their not inconsiderable resources) to the job of ensuring that their understanding of Christian behavior and values seed the future direction of American culture and government. In his view, the various groups have accomplished a tremendous amount in politics and education but have had far less impact on the media and entertainment industries. In the corporate environment, he notes that influential business executives seem to put more emphasis on leveraging their faith at levels that don’t necessarily include local churches or parishes tending instead to focus on the parachurch. [Note: I had to look this word up; it refers to bodies that operate outside of and across denominational churches to accomplish specific goals. I gather the word tends to be used chiefly in evangelical circles.]

One of the great strengths of Lindsay’s documentation is that he makes it clear that evangelicals are far from being a monolithic group. Whether talking about specific individuals or evangelical organizations, he makes clear that they are diverse and sometimes accomplish their goals by aligning with clearly different belief sectors, such as the Roman Catholic Church, when necessary to achieve an end. Such alliances don’t always last, for obvious reasons, but the evangelicals have built social relationships and networks that foster the desired end result…

It is “thick description” – far more subtle than the standard rant pro or con religion in US politics. I found it fascinating.

SONY DSC                     Timothy Clack is far younger than I thought! He is “[St Peter’s] College [Oxford] Lecturer in Archaeology and Director of Studies in Archaeology and Anthropology. Tim is an anthropological archaeologist with diverse research and teaching interests. Themes with which he is currently engaged include: archaeology of experience, archaeological mediation, syncretism and religious fusion, anthropology of conflict, and memory and cultural landscapes. He has been fortunate in being able to conduct archaeological and anthropological research in the UK, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Borneo. Timothy is an elected fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Anthropological Institute. He is also holds associate membership of the British Institute in Eastern Africa and the African Studies Centre, University of Oxford.”

He has, however, not been well served by proof-readers – there are quite a few clangers in Ancestral Roots. For example, I am sure Dr Clack knows that T H Huxley is not the same as Aldous Huxley, though they are related.

The book is in the evolutionary biology genre, but ranges much more widely than most. According to Alan Bilsborough in The Times Educational Supplement: “Overall, Ancestral Roots is a fluent and wide-ranging account of the human condition viewed from an evolutionary perspective, although the author’s preaching sometimes obtrudes to interrupt the flow. The text suffers from the selectivity of all such eclectic accounts, and there are sufficient errors of detail in the bits I think I know something about to make me wonder as to the accuracy of those I don’t. In other words, read this book as a stimulating and engaging survey, but don’t take it too seriously as a definitive diagnosis of our current predicament.”  I didn’t mind the preaching, personally. Loved what he says about ethnocentrism, religion, and co-operation – just to name a few areas.

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Some reading matter for you

1. South Sydney Herald

The August issue has been out for a week or so. I have been slack about uploading you copy, but it is a good issue. As usual there are plenty of articles that transcend the parochial, but the parochial may also be interesting. Inner Sydney/Redfern is an interesting place.

August 09 SSH — PDF

2. More from Colin Chapman.

I gave Chapman’s Whose Holy City? the thumbs up in Is objectivity about Israel and Palestine possible? Today I give you a couple of substitutes for those without access to the book.

A Biblical Perspective on Israel/Palestine from the Arizona publication EMEU goes into some depth about a more balanced evangelical perspective on the matter. It is for the theologically inclined, more so than the book. EMEU is Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding – and further from John Hagee and company it can hardly be, but it is an evangelical Christian site, remember.

‘Islamic Terrorism’ and the Palestine-Israel Conflict: Christian Response is a special issue of Encounters, a Christian mission e-zine from the USA. Not by Chapman is an article I strongly recommend as it is not too far removed from my own thoughts on the subject: Muslims – Friends or Enemies. (Dr Jonathan Ingleby, 1548 words) – a PDF file. I have added here the abridged version of Chapman’s ‘Islamic Terrorism’:  How should Christians & the West respond?

Chapman PDF

 

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Is objectivity about Israel and Palestine possible?

One does despair. The nearest I have read to an objective account is an ageing book called The Palestine-Israeli Conflict by Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Dawoud El-Alami (Oxford, Oneworld 2001) – and that achieves “objectivity” by placing side by side a Jew and a Palestinian with space at the end for “addresses in reply”.  It seems you can buy a used copy from Amazon for one cent!

So I was surprised to find an evangelical writer – albeit what I would call an “informed evangelical” – veering very close to objectivity on the question of who “owns” Jerusalem. While the opening chapters of Whose Holy City? (Lion 2004) treat the accounts of Genesis through to Judges less critically than I would – for example I don’t believe the stories of Abraham, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, are strictly in the realm of history – or no more or less so than tales of the Trojan War, Colin Chapman becomes a very reliable guide to what happened from the reign of Constantine to close to the present day. He does concede that the Book of Daniel was written some four centuries after its apparent date, and further that it is reading against the grain to use it as any kind of road-map of the future.

A former Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Chapman well understands the claims of all parties to the “Holy City”. His solution is, unfortunately, not one the current Israeli government is likely to countenance.

One very useful contribution Chapman makes – just one of many – is to unmask the currently fashionable “rapture/Christian Zionist theology” as, well, heterodox in the extreme, a Johnny-come-lately in Christian history and, frankly, a parodic interpretation of the Bible. On that see too this page of quotes and reviews of another book, Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism, Inter-Varsity Press (an evangelical publisher) 2004. I haven’t read it.

Related too is the Joint declaration by Christian Leaders on Israel’s 60th Anniversary, signed by, among many others, our own Tim Costello.

We, the undersigned, church leaders and representatives of our different denominations and organisations, join together on the 60th anniversary of the Israeli state to offer a contribution to that which makes for peace.

We recognise that today, millions of Israelis and Jews around the world will joyfully mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel (Yom Ha’atzmaut). For many, this landmark powerfully symbolises the Jewish people’s ability to defy the power of hatred so destructively embodied in the Nazi Holocaust. Additionally, it is an opportunity to celebrate the wealth of cultural, economic and scientific achievements of Israeli society, in all its vitality and diversity.

We also recognise that this same day, millions of Palestinians living inside Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and the worldwide diaspora, will mourn 60 years since over 700,000 of them were uprooted from their homes and forbidden from returning, while more than 400 villages were destroyed (al-Nakba). For them, this day is not just about the remembrance of a past catastrophic dispossession, dispersal, and loss; it is also a reminder that their struggle for self-determination and restitution is ongoing.

To hold both of these responses together in balanced tension is not easy. But it is vital if a peaceful way forward is to be forged, and is central to the Biblical call to “seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:14). We acknowledge with sorrow that for the last 60 years, while extending empathy and support to the Israeli narrative of independence and struggle, many of us in the church worldwide have denied the same solidarity to the Palestinians, deaf to their cries of pain and distress.

To acknowledge and respect these dual histories is not, by itself, sufficient, but does offer a paradigm for building a peaceful future. Many lives have been lost, and there has been much suffering. The weak are exploited by the strong, while fear and bitterness stunt the imagination and cripple the capacity for forgiveness.

We therefore urge all those working for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine to consider that any lasting solution must be built on the foundation of justice, which is rooted in the very character of God. After all, it is justice that “will produce lasting peace and security” (Isaiah 32:17). Let us commit ourselves in prophetic word and practical deed to a courageous settlement whose details will honour both peoples’ shared love for the land, and protect the individual and collective rights of Jews and Palestinians in the Holy Land.

See also Changing Sides in the Middle East: Zionist and Palestinian Exchange Opinions about Jerusalem.

 

Why the religious Right can be dangerous, but…

… how their influence is both exaggerated by and strengthened by the media.

As we know, the media thrive on conflict and dichotomy. We have a good example today in the Sydney Morning Herald where the activities of a minority group in Australian Christianity are puffed because of the potential for sensationalism: Christian leaders plan anti-Islam conference. Now how anyone can take seriously something that is the brainchild of someone who “was widely criticised for issuing a press release in the week after the Victorian disaster claiming the fires which claimed 173 lives were punishment for the relaxation of Victoria’s abortion laws” escapes me, but it does make good copy. A much more mainstream approach to the issue of Islam may be seen here.

The great irony of simplistic and confrontational approaches to Islam is that they mirror and give credence to the views of the violent extremists who are the cause for concern in the first place. Forget for the moment reflex cries of “racism” and “Islamophobia”. The truth is that such “good souls” as those concerned Christians are feeding the “enemy” whose recruitment drive among the young, idealistic or alienated* totally depends on believing that Islam is under attack. I am sure they thank Allah daily for the work of Pastor Nalliah, Fred Nile and David Clarke for making that belief even more acceptable. So without meaning to, some of the greatest friends of violent jihadist extremism in this country are Pastor Nalliah, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

evangelicalnation That the influence of the Religious Right in the USA is something of an illusion for which the US Right and liberals have both fallen is the thesis of an excellent book by Christine Wicker: The Fall of the Evangelical Nation (HarperOne 2008). By carefully examining the available statistics and how they are created Wicker proves, to my satisfaction, that the voice of the Religious Right has been magnified way beyond its actual potential strength. Rather than the commonly quoted “fact” that 25% of US citizens are “fundamentalists” the true figure is between 5% and 7%. That seems incredible until you see Wicker’s very readable analysis. According to Wicker, the fastest growing “religious” movement in the USA is “nonbelievers” – even if there is still a reluctance for various cultural reasons for Americans to identify on a census form as “atheist”. Then too there is a very active Religious Left, of which we normally hear little. Evidence of that may be seen every day on this blog: check “God’s Politics” in the side-bar.

Updates

See my 217 posts tagged “Christianity” and 151 tagged “Islam”. Go to Imran Ahmad for a fresh and good-humoured Muslim view and check Phillip Adams interviewing him. See also: “Jessica Stern is an expert on terrorism. She teaches it as a subject at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and was recently the Superterrorism Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. In this conversation, first broadcast in 2003/4, Jessica talks about her book which is the result of 4 years research, interviewing a range of Jewish, Christian and Muslim terrorists.”

* 11 August the young, idealistic or alienated: See the sad tale of 18-year-old Jakarta bomber Dani Dwi Permana.

…Friends, neighbours and worshippers at his mosque yesterday said Dani – almost universally described as ”very nice” – was the unlikeliest of mass murderers, albeit someone who was easily persuaded…

His mother lived in Kalimantan after a messy divorce. Things got worse when his father was imprisoned about a year ago for robbery. It was then that Dani seems to have fallen under the spell of Saifuddin. ”Ustad Saifuddin usually spent time with the caretakers [young devotees] at the mosque. Usually they would gather here after evening prayer,” said Harno. ”Sometimes he would go out with them camping. But that didn’t seem to be suspicious because that is what an ustad should do.”

Even so, Dani had clearly become radicalised. According to a school friend, he talked openly of waging jihad, the Islamic notion of struggle that is typically a peaceful pursuit by the devout but is twisted by terrorist groups to justify mass murder…

”We now know that [Saifuddin] was trying to brainwash many young people here. He told these youngsters that American was bad.”

Saifuddin is believed to have groomed up to 10 men from the area. According to Indonesian counter-terrorism sources, Saifuddin is suspected to be one of Noordin Mohammed Top’s most trusted talent spotters. Noordin is thought to have organised the Jakarta bombings on July 17. On the weekend Indonesian police believed they had killed him in a siege but were mistaken.

That last, unfortunately, simply adds to Top’s legend.

 

Friday poem 13: Emily Dickinson

1406 010 

There’s a certain slant of light

There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

None may teach it anything,
‘Tis the seal, despair, —
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ’tis like the distance
On the look of death.

I found this on The Englewood Review of Books. Now there is an interesting site. I commend it to anyone who thinks they know what US Christianity is all about. Go there and have your stereotypes challenged.

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2009 in America, poets and poetry, religion, USA, writers

 

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South Sydney: Pentecost 2009

We had the Tongans in today. The singing was wonderful.

It was a special day, though I missed the afternoon’s activities as I had Sunday Lunch at the Shakespeare with Sirdan and B2. That too was good.

 
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Posted by on May 31, 2009 in Christianity, personal, religion, Sirdan, South Sydney Uniting Church

 

Notelets for end of May

Personal

  1. By sheer chance my current batch of my little pills is lactose-free! I get the generics, and thus far have never had the same brand twice. All so far have lactose as a filler, except this lot. This is a shame, as I (like many others) am lactose intolerant, and the lactase tablet antidote only works so far. I’ll try to make sure future batches are the lactose-free ones.
  2. Another grand-nephew has become a friend on Facebook. 🙂
  3. My story will be in the June South Sydney Herald and I have a feature coming up in July.
  4. No stats today as the end is nigh – of the month, that is.

Spotted on Arts & Letters Daily.

Very interesting review article: Free market faith by Caspar Melville on New Humanist.

Another day, another denunciation of Dawkins and Hitchens and their fellow New Atheists. No sooner have we absorbed Chris Hedges’ I Don’t Believe in Atheists (2008), Tina Beattie’s The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion (2008) or David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions (2009) when along comes God is Back: How the Revival of Religion is Changing the World, by Economist journalists John Micklethwait (pictured right) and Adrian Wooldridge.

But this "God book" is of a rather different order. Unlike its rivals it contains a wealth of fact and subtle argument, empirical evidence and expert witness. As we might expect from The Economist its perspective is global – it sweeps comfortably from the corridors of the Pentagon to a front room church in Shanghai, and speaks authoritatively about events in Nigeria, Pakistan and Egypt. Altogether it lays down a very serious challenge to any of us who had waved God a not-so-fond farewell…

Secularists might find some of the arguments in this book hard to swallow, though they should welcome the opportunity to sharpen their own against them, but as a clear and convincing case for the separation of religion and politics, it counts as a considerable, and unapologetically secular, achievement.

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2009 in health, intellectual spot, personal, religion