Lovely afternoon stroll in the Cairngorms, with old friends.......
Sunday, July 22, 2018
This film, although beautifully made, is rather disturbing. Isabelle Huppert plays a coffee planter in an anonymous African Republic, which had been a French Colony; and then a protectorate of some kind. Early in the film we learn that the French military are withdrawing, and urging all remaining white people to withdraw, as the country disintegrates into a bloody civil war. Huppert's character, remains defiant in the face of danger however, and persists with her determination to bring in the harvest, even as her workers leave and her family disintegrates.
Huppert is brilliant as Mm Vial, the feisty-yet-fragile planter, who never seems to surrender - always seeking to fight back against the ever overwhelming odds surrounding her. Her acting, accompanied by a hauntingly beautiful, lamenting soundtrack, and plenty of character's-eye-view filming, make the film arresting to the senses.
Without including plot-spoilers, what makes this film at times unbearable to watch is the cruelty and suffering which accompanies civil war. Child soldiers feature heavily in the plot; and it is gut-wrenching to see the reality of children (some the age of my own kids), heavily armed, roaming the countryside, with no hand to restrain their 'Lord of the Flies' like descent into barbarism. That evil men commit evil acts is of little shock value, I suppose, compared to such horror being unleashed from those we would normally see portrayed as innocents, is actually chilling.
The family plantation becomes the centre of the action, as it becomes known that a rebel fighter known as 'the Boxer' is hiding out there; and the war between government and rebels grows more fierce. The already divided family, divide further over whether to stay and fight, or cut and run, with the adult son, descending into mental illness after a brutal (probably sexual) assault by teenage soldiers. The film ends on a grim note of betrayal and revenge, even as the war itself seems to be running its course.
There are a few moments when the plot is not easy to follow, although these do become clearer as the memory-sequences are made more obvious. Part of this is quite deliberate, in that the confusion of a nation in civil war, with panic, information and miss-information, abounding being conveyed to the viewer. Characters are often in fact, seem listening to the demagogic rebel radio broadcaster, urging his troops on to trash the remaining vestiges of colonialism. But, what will remain with me far longer than the plot, are the incredibly vivid scenes, the sense of foreboding, and the fear and confusion of a country amidst violent revolt. This was very, very disturbing indeed.
A while ago, I had the pleasure of speaking to Dr Alister A. McGrath, who is Prof. of Science and Religion at Oxford University, about his new book. While some of this was published in Solas Magazine, this is the whole interview, reproduced here with permission, following the demise of that publication.
Tell us about your new book, “Inventing the Universe”. What is it about? Why did you write it, and who is it pitched at?
AEM: I wrote it because I wanted to explain to people the kind of journey I made from being an atheist, who thought that science explained everything – and that was it; to a Christian, who sees science as very important as filling in parts of a picture, but that there is a bigger picture as well. So I am writing this for anyone who is interested in the whole area of science and faith, I think particularly for scientist who are Christians who want to articulate the way they think more clearly, or for other people who just want to know that there are other ways of holding science and faith together – which is why I use the language of “enrichment”, which is effect allow us to see a bigger picture of reality in which both science and faith have very important roles to play.
Something of an intellectual autobiography as well, then?
AEM: Well, it is actually, yes! So its really me saying that over a 40 year period, this is what I have come to think – does this help you!? It’s not saying, “this is right”, it’s saying, “this is what I have found my way towards, and if it helps you, I’ll be delighted!”
I notice that in the book you often refer to the “warfare model”, of Science versus Christianity. Why do you think that has come to dominate – at least in the public discourse, so much, and seize people’s minds, and create such a problem for giving the Christian faith, or Christian apologetics, even a fair hearing?
AEM: I think it’s become a defining narrative or our culture. In part, because it’s been propagated by a media who tend to just repeat what everyone’s said in the past. But more importantly, I think, the New Atheism, has made this conflict narrative as normative, in other words “this is the way it is”. And I think that when you have very influential cultural figures supporting this, its quite difficult to break that stranglehold. And so, one of the things I say, is that we need to tell a different story and show that, a) it makes more sense of things and b), it’s much more exciting and attractive.
How do we help people to hear Christian apologetics when their plausibility structure has already told them that what we are saying is irrelevant?
AEM: Well what I think you need to do is to say, “look, here is a narrative which has been suppressed, here is a way of thinking that people are trying to drown out”. They find it threatening, they find it challenging, and we need to say that they may not like it, but they’ve got to hear it. You owe it to us to give us a hearing. I think that is something we need to say. C.S. Lewis; I don’t know if you know his sermon called “The Weight of Glory”?
AEM: Well in it, he says, look, the dominant narrative in our culture is, ‘what you see is what you get’, and he says we have been ‘entranced’ by that, and we need to break that spell! And then he says something interesting, he says, the way of breaking a spell is by casting a better spell! What he means by that is portraying Christianity in an attractive, intelligible, and an imaginatively compelling way, so that people stop and say, ‘we’ve got to think about this’. And we haven’t done that very well.
And the media is encaptured by this vision? And prevents people like you being heard at the public level, I suppose?
AEM: It’s become the dominant media narrative. If you read Charles Taylor’s book, “The Secular Age”, he talks about how this sort of thing happens, and the difficulty is that once a narrative takes root, anyone who contradicts it is seen as being irrational. And
says, that once that mindset develops it’s very, very hard to break it. So
we’ve got to see ourselves as a counterculture, a fifth-column, (or something
like that), but we are subversives who are challenging the dominant narrative –
a) because it’s wrong but b), because it’s pressing a much more meaningful and
exciting narrative. Taylor
And your book is going towards doing that..
AEM: Well, it’s a small step in that direction, I mean, scholarship disproved this ‘conflict narrative’ a generation ago, but it’s taken ages for it to filter through to the media who keep on repeating this old fashioned out-dated approach.
Is this a book you’ve been wanting to write for a long time? I notice that previously you’ve published books addressing particular New Atheists and their thought, or about CS Lewis as a Christian apologist; but this is drawing back and looking at the bigger picture? Is this something you’ve been working towards for a while?
AEM: It is! (we’re just getting into a cab, so there will be a gap for a minute or so). Yes, basically this is a book I have been meaning to write for ages, and it is cast as a personal journey because that is much more interesting format – and it does raise all the intellectual issues I’ve raised elsewhere, but it does it in a much better form and I introduce a lot of new material that I think people will find really interesting.
I was impressed because I’m not a scientist (my background is in history) but it did make a lot of scientific ideas accessible to a non-scientist reader like me which was one of the things that I found so exciting about it.
AEM: Well, it is written for a general audience, although I think scientists will particularly like it. In fact we’ve just been doing a programme here at Premier Radio in which I’ve been debating with a leading British physicist – who is also president of the British Humanist Association, and actually we had an incredibly civil and interesting conversation because basically my science is right, and that makes it much harder for atheists to write it off. But also because it gets a really good conversation underway.
Interesting you were speaking to a physicist, One of my friends who is a physicist asked me to ask you, “Is it harder to be a biologist who is a believer than a physicist”? Because he knows so many people in physics and maths who are believers and so few in life sciences/biology..
AEM: And that’s my experience too. I think the answer is ‘yes’, and that’s partly because if you think of someone like Richard Dawkins, Biology has been ‘weaponised’, (if I can use that phrase), whereas Physics has not, if anything Physics is going in the other direction. Physics is very, very, supportive of a generally theistic world-view. Whereas Biology, precisely because, if interpreted in a certain way, seems to be anti-theistic, is being seized upon and in effect being made the weapon of choice by those who want to continue the conflict narrative and also offer an atheist apologetic.
Delving a little more into the book. The idea of ‘multiple maps’ seems to be a key idea in the book, to reconcile the supposed conflict between science and faith. Can you tell us what you mean by multiple maps, what did you have in mind here?
AEM: What I mean is, let me put it like this, assuming there is a big picture, science gives us one bit of that picture – religion gives us another bit. We want to see the full big picture, that means that we need to recognize that science is going to tell us some things, but not others and its really saying, ‘Look you can approach things from only one perspective and say that’s all there is to it’; but that’s simply unacceptable because if you are simply a scientist and you say that’s it. then you leave out massive things like the issue of meaning, the issue of value and so on. And so the idea of ‘multiple maps’ is to ensure that you have a full palate of colours to do justice to the richness of the world, our experience and so on, and it seems to me that that is a helpful metaphor for people to get into their heads the idea that any approach that says there is only one map and that’s it – is simply going to miss out on a lot of interesting stuff.
Which also would not just be an assault on Atheist Scientists, but also on Christian Fundamentalists, I suppose?
AEM: Absolutely. I think that what they’re doing is in effect locking themselves into a very small area and saying ‘this is it’ and I’m not able to dialogue with anyone beyond that. The method I’m adopting in effect is a wonderful platform for apologetics because it is saying, ‘look, we can talk and a very good conversation is going to be had here’, and in effect Christianity has a marvellous contribution to make, and it cannot be ridiculed, it cannot be ignored, there is something very significant here which needs to be heard.
Was I right in thinking that ‘multiple maps’ are the big idea of the book? A centralising thought?
AEM: I think it is a big idea – I supplement it with other approaches to make sure that there are other approaches that I personally find helpful. But I know from talking to people that the ‘multiple maps’ idea is so accessible that people find it very, very useful and I think in apologetics it has got a lot to offer.
And thought if multiple maps were a big idea in the book, “Scientism” was the big target in the book, Can you tell me (our readers), what do you mean by ‘scientism’, and the overreach of science/
AEM: Sure. Scientism is a non-Scientific viewpoint which says that science answers all meaningful questions and that if science can’t answer questions then they are not meaningful. So – in effect science tells us what the meaning of life is, it tells us what is good and what is bad. And you do find people like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris particularly – I don’t know if you’ve read his book on moral landscape, that’s very much the line that he’s taking. And my point is simple this, that this is an abuse of science! Science is science, you’ve got make sure that you respect it, not convert it into something else, and when science is done properly it has limits, and that is the best way of preserving its identity, its integrity, by forcing it to answer questions which its methods don’t allow it to do. So what I am saying is, I am protesting strongly against those scientists who exaggerate the explanatory capacity of science and I know the scientific community would do the same.
So why is there this persistent element among some quarters of science that wants to over-reach, into scientism. Is it purely a power-play or … what is driving that agenda?
AEM: It’s partly a power-play because some scientists feel threatened by cultural developments which they see as marginalising themselves. But the real answer goes back to that conflict narrative. It’s all about an understanding about intellectual history which sees a trajectory from the dark ages, to a modern, enlightenment period in which reason and science, are the drivers of progress and therefore science is the guarantor of rationality and progress, and anything else such as religion is seen as backward and unhelpful. And that is a world-view, not an empirical observation. That is in effect the imposition of a world-view and science is being ‘weaponised’ to consolidate that world-view.
‘Weaponised’ that word again! But are there any other key things from the book, that you’d like to mention, which I haven’t asked you about?
AEM: Well I think there are two things to emphasise. One is that I do not in any way criticise science. I think science is wonderful, I think it is great, but incomplete. We need a full picture, not just a partial picture. That’s very important. And secondly, I do hope that the book will encourage Christians to talk about these things, to feel more confident about their faith, but also to begin to really open up some of the questions I raise in that book, in public.
And where is your research and writing going to take you next?
AEM: Well, the next big book, written for an identical audience, is going to be on ‘what are we?’, ‘what is human nature?’, and that is a big debate in today’s culture and its going to be looking a scientific insights, cultural insights, philosophical insights, and in effect saying, ‘look there is a big problem in the naïve enlightenment view of humanity, which still dominates Western-culture, and here’s a better way of looking at it.’ And it will be very sympathetic, very friendly towards traditional Christian ideas of ‘The Image of God” and sin and so on, so in effect it will be absolutely rigorous in terms of engaging with where we are, but at the same time it will offer a perspective which often isn’t heard. And that will enter into a debate… I don’t know if you have read John Gray’s book, “Straw Dogs”, things like that. It really is entering into a big discussion underway right now about what is human nature that’s essential to so many political, social, and religious debates.
So is that a book-length treatment of what you probed at in Ch6, of the present book
AEM: Yes – that expanding it to a complete book, and taking off into new directions as well. Same readership, same length book, but the big topic is what’s in ch6 [of Imagining the Universe], but that will be expanded massively.
Alister McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, and Fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford. After initial academic work in the natural sciences, Alister turned to the study of theology and intellectual history, while also engaging in broader cultural debates about the rationality and relevance of the Christian faith. He is the author of many academic and theological works, as well as the bestselling The Dawkins Delusion and his acclaimed C. S. Lewis - A Life.
Wednesday, July 11, 2018
It is sixty-eight years since the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights was signed.
The lofty aspirations contained in that document have not been fulfilled, no more so, than those of its eighteenth article, which states: "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion." Outright persecutors of believers, such as the North Korean regime, are the obvious perpetrators of such human rights abuses. Less visible is what Ani Sarkissian calls “religious repression”. That is, violation of religious freedom by governments, which while not constituting full persecution, involves ongoing restriction, control and interference with religious people, organisations and activities. Her book, “The Varieties of Religious Repression: Why Governments Repress Religion” is an intelligent, rigorous and highly revealing study of the politics of repression implemented by non-Democratic governments, and is a most welcome addition to our understanding of a neglected field.
Sarkissian’s book uses an innovative typology of regimes which adds sophistication to our understanding of how governments behave. Regimes have traditionally been placed on a scale from fully-democratic, to completely autocratic. Sarkissian notes however, that while there was a tendency for more democratic regimes to repress religion less, “many states with low levels of political-competition… chose not to impose a large number of restrictions on religion, while some…. with relatively higher levels of political competition impose a large variety of restrictive regulations.” (p182). Instead she groups regimes into four categories; those who (i) repress all religion (e.g. China); (ii) those who repress all but one religion (e.g. Russia); (iii) those who repress some religions (e.g. Singapore) and (iv), those who do not repress religion (e.g. Albania). Using this schema, Sarkissian is able to demonstrate that it is not just levels of democratic participation in government which dictate the extent of religious freedom; but it is these in combination with the levels of religious division within the society which provoke governments to repress in the ways they do.
Non-democratic regimes appear to repress on a basis of their own rational choices in their particular circumstances as follows; “states with very low political-competition that are religiously divided tend to repress all religious groups, while those with higher levels of political competition but less religiously divided societies repress none.” (p183). Then, “States in the middle of the political-competition and religious division scales, repress some religious groups”, while a “subset of states that have higher religious divisions but more competitive political systems target repression at all but one religious group.” (p183). The final conclusion is that some highly autocratic regimes find it rational to allow genuine freedom of religion. The sixteen national case-studies with which Sarkissian illustrates her thesis are informative, well-crafted and compelling; and form the heart of the book.
The implications of Sarkissian’s work are important. Much western rhetoric and policy seems to assume that democratisation is an automatic route towards the flourishing of a full civil society, apart from the state. If that was true in the Cold War, it certainly does not reflect the complex realities of today’s world. Also, people of all faiths should beware of assuming that they have a monopoly on victimisation too, as state-repression by non-democratic governments affects all. Christians are, I think, provoked to move beyond simply invoking the inevitable enmity of the world to the church, to see that such tensions are mediated through political systems which can be understood and therefore reckoned with more wisely. She also notes that while she has studied non-democratic regimes, her work suggests that a democracy containing major religious divisions, and a single dominant political party, might equally begin to limit religious freedom (p185).
Sarkissian has done a great job in enhancing our understanding of the often fraught relationships between faith-groups and non-democratic regimes. She has done this by adding a vital layer of complexity to the ‘state’ side of the relationship. If the book has a weakness, it is simply that she has not done the same for the ‘religion’ side of the equation. There is a tendency throughout the book to treat ‘religion’ as a single phenomenon. That such a method is overly simplistic, in a world in which ‘religion’ leads some to armed jihad and others to pacifism, is obvious. Sarkissian acknowledges this in her closing remarks in which she both adds an afterword about the current problems in the Islamic world, and suggests that future research might nuance her model perhaps around a classification of religious behaviours. (p187) The reader is left hugely informed about how governments act, but also wondering how differently varying religious systems operate in this arena. Perhaps categorising religious groups according to their understanding of the state-religion relationship, would make a useful next step. Likewise, while this intriguing work of political science explains why regimes repress; it generally avoids the questions of political philosophy, such as what the legitimate limits of freedom are; and when governments are justified in imposing them.
Sarkissian’s “The Varieties of Religious Repression”, is an astute and penetrating analysis of one of the most critical contemporary issues.
First published in Solas Magazine. Used with permission.
Saturday, July 07, 2018
Alister McGrath's response to the various writings of Richard Dawkins is now a little out-of-date, having been published prior to Dawkins God Delusion (2006), in which Dawkins pushed his ideas even further. McGrath, it should be noted also responded to that book in The Dawkins Delusion? (2007) and updated this one. This volume from 2005, is however fascinating, and insightful, and gives some useful and sober background to the debates which became rather shrill after Dawkins somewhat ill-tempered subsequent diatribe.
McGrath began his academic career as a molecular biologist, which he pursued to PhD and research levels at Oxford. His subsequent career involved theology and the history of ideas, and a later PhD in that; leading to gaining the Andreas Idreos professor of science and religion at the University of. Oxford. The history of ideas is littered with people who are highly competent in one field, and as such do not appreciate their limitations in others. A recent notorious case involved a renowned theologian making foolish statements about science, simply failing to recognise the limits of his competence. McGrath is on the other hand a competent commentator here; and this is part of his complaint against Dawkins, that his scientific brilliance does not make him a good philosopher or guide to the meaning or purpose of life; in fact Dawkins very assertion that science is competent to do this, is the basis of the problem.
McGrath begins with a very useful guide to Dawkins main publications up until 2005. In good science/faith books, I often find that as someone with a very limited background in science (but having studied the history of ideas at some length), I learn more about science, than anything else. The admiration McGrath has for Dawkins academic work, especially his contribution to genetics (The Selfish Gene), is apparent, and his explanation of Dawkins work, is especially good, as his appreciation for Dawkins ability to communicate science to the public.
The conflict arises however when Dawkins moves from raw science, into the world of ideas, starting with The Blind Watchmaker. McGrath here, rather forcefully demonstrates that Dawkins repeatedly hammers one particular view of faith, which is actually a grotesque parody of what Christians (in particular) view it as. Furthermore, Dawkins expends great energy comparing what he sees as the Christian view of science, and demolishing it with science. McGrath's view is that this is the classic straw-man argument; because what he actually demolishes is William Paley's English 19th Century view of science, which was only ever a theological cul-de-sac, totally unrepresentative of Christianity as a whole, either historically, or today. McGrath's view is that Dawkins misleads his readers, as to the nature of faith, either by ignorance or deception, in order to maintain the 'warfare' model of science versus faith; which is at least a century and a half out of date. (!) The fact that McGrath provides several examples of places in which Dawkins misquotes, misreads or misunderstands faith positions and writers, only adds weight to his argument. That Dawkins re-cycles popular misquotations from church-history to score points suggests that he hasn't engaged with the things he wishes to dismiss, as carefully as his academic credentials would suggest that he might.
If McGrath is highly respectful of Dawkins work in biology, he is bordering on scathing about his attempts to use Darwinism as a tool for explaining how ideas work, Before it became social-media slang for a funny, satirical joke, picture or video shared across the internet; Dawkins proposed the "Meme", as the equivalent of the gene, in the realm of ideas. McGrath assesses the evidence for Dawkins view of the meme, and is withering in his dismissal of the concept, as unscientific. Dawkins end-point, of course, is to view any form of theism as a mental virus, an illness or form of insanity - rather than a reasonable response to the evidence we have. McGrath is deeply unconvinced, and explains why.
The book ends on what should have been a hopeful note; a plea for faith and science to actually engage with each other in an open, honest and respectful examination of evidence, search for truth and exploration of our humanity. Deploring closed minds on either side of the debate, McGrath hoped for a better standard of discussion. Looking back over the intervening years since McGrath wrote those words, it now seems rather sad, that despite such reasoned voices, there were those such as certain religious fundamentalists, and The New Atheists, who actually took this discussion to new lows.
It seems to me that while there are vast numbers of academics, pursuing research and adding to the sum of knowledge within their respective fields: human progress is held back by our failure to integrate the key insights of different disciplines. McGrath has at least done the hard work of reaching the heights of academia in two distinct arenas; and as such should at least be given a hearing when he critiques those who stand on one hill, dismissing out of hand, things they know little about on another. In this regard, the original edition of Dawkins' God (Genes, Memes and The Meaning of Life), is an excellent, if now slightly dated, place to start.
Friday, July 06, 2018
Although the high water-mark of the New Atheism has passed, argues Nick Spencer; one of its’ lasting influences has been the almost complete triumph of the secular attempt to airbrush Christianity from the cultural landscape. His book, “The Evolution of The West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values” is Spencer’s attempt to reverse this process and reacquaint us with the formative importance of Christian thought. Spencer’s argument is that The West, would not look as it does today, without the influence of Christianity; indeed much that liberals and secularists most cherish about the West, would not exist in its current form, were it not for this particular influence. However, the voices who wish to exclude Christianity from the contemporary public square, do so on the basis of this selectively amnesiac view of history. Spencer’s quest, in this absorbing and profound little book, is to meet such critics on their own terms, and demonstrate by careful and scholarly analysis, that such exclusions are unwarranted historically, and are therefore unjustifiable today.
Spencer frames each of his arguments extremely carefully, and is anxious to avoid the error of attributing every gain to Christianity. The obvious point that some Christians opposed Wilberforce, is enough to wreck some superficial attempts at historical apologetics. Spencer’s approach is far more nuanced, and as a result far more robust. His view is that both good and evil existed in our past in a deeply Christian context which influenced everything. “The tree of Western values did grow in Christian soil, but it would be a mistake to imagine that soil had some precise blueprint for what the tree would eventually look like”, he writes. (p6) Rather than drawing neat lines between social gains and Biblical proof-texts, Spencer demonstrates the way in which Christian thought was the structure within which all these debates were worked out; and an essential element in their outcomes.
While the scope and range of this book is enormous, and the ground covered in less than 200 pages astonishing; the beauty of it is Spencer’s ability to distil vast amounts of research into remarkably clear and concise theses. The book is a series of themed essays, which are so well presented that they enable the reader to gain easy access to difficult and complex areas.
In the twelve essays Spencer covers areas as diverse as the development of the rule of law, equality before it and due process; the formation of nation-states, democracy, Darwin, humanism, human rights, and welfare. In each of these areas he presents a historically viable case for the vital influence of Christian thought. Two areas seem to crop up repeatedly. Firstly there is Christian anthropology based on the imago dei. Secondly, there is the idea that the attempt to merely assert “human rights” and dignity as absolutes, without having a universal foundation to underpin them is insecure. The blunt instrument of the old ‘axe the root, and loose the fruit’ argument is re-stated here in elegant and nuanced tones, fit for the 21st Century.
If there are any criticisms to be made of this book they are simply these. Firstly, chapter ten is written at a higher academic level than the rest of the book, making it rather uneven. More importantly though, there are times in which Spencer, in his quest to meet secular contemporaries on their own terms, somewhat underplays the value Christianity has added to the fields he assesses. Seeking only to present a scholarly case against the exclusion of Christian thought from the public domain, he doesn’t press his case further to seek to persuade the reader of the value or truth of the Christian message itself. In this way, he presents a very different assessment of Christianity and history than say Vishal Mangalwadi (previously reviewed in these pages). If Mangalwadi is accused of sometimes overplaying his hand in seeking to persuade; Spencer might be accused of underplaying his, in seeking to appeal to the cynical, secularist reader he has in mind.
What is undeniably the case is that the story of “how Christianity crafted the building blocks that made the West” has been lost, and that as a culture we are deeply ignorant of the “Deep reasons why the West became what it did” (p24). Spencer’s book is a superb corrective to this historical fallacy; which should quietly strengthen the Christian Church’s confidence to resist being silenced.
(Nick Spencer is the Research Director of Theos.)
My review first appeared in Solas Magazine (www.solas-cpc.org), used with permission.
Obney Hill is a tremendous viewpoint high above Dunkeld on the Murthly estate. On a scorching hot day my wife and I parked on the A822 just before Rumbling Bridge, and followed the estate road towards Balhomish Farm, signposted as footpath route "Bankfoot via Glen Garr".
We left the track to Balhomish and took the footpath through Glen Garr, which was an unexpected delight. Glenn Garr is a steeply sided gash through the hills which is an old right-of-way. It's a beautiful, and lonely place; we didn't see a soul, as we waded through the high bracken on the overgrown path through the glen. As we reached the south of the glen we followed a feint track up towards the summit of the hill. This path soon disappeared under the rampant vegetation, leaving us fighting through the head-high ferns, prickly gorse all on steeply rising ground. Eventually we broke through the overgrowth, and burst out into the glorious views of the upper reaches of Obney.
We opted for the straightforward descent down to Balhomish, following the signs around the farm, and back to the car down the estate road. Our children are (at last!) old enough to stay at home on their own and release us back into the wild, and onto Dunkeld for coffee and cake at the deli!
Wednesday, July 04, 2018
My daughter has been reading about Mary Queen of Scots, at school. That seemed like enough of an excuse to go out for the day to Inchmahome Priory ruins on the island in The Lake of Mentieth. It was here that the young Mary was taken from her home in Stirling, to conceal her when Scotland was under threat of English invasion.
Apart from all that, it's a lovely place for a day out, a picnic and time with my daughter......
Monday, July 02, 2018
In the early 1990s, the newly-married William Dalrymple, arrived with his wife Olivia Fraser in Delhi, where they would spend the first year of their marriage. The book which emerged from that year spent in that great city is "City of Djinns".
City of Djinns is an extraordinarily vivid read. Dalrymple writes with such a wonderful combination of humour, observation, love and respect for the people, along with the ability to delve deeply into the historical canvass upon which modern Delhi is sketched; that I found the book un-put-down-able.
The eccentricities of the Dalrymple's landlords, the death-defying taxi-driving, the summer,-heat, the longed-for monsoon and explorations of the modern city, and the historical sites all around it, are the entry points for literary excursions into religion, culture, archaeology, anthropology, and rich explorations into the vast arena of Indian history. The great Red Fort, opens up the whole Moghul era, of the Shah's prior to the British Occupation - which also left it's marks all over Lutyen's designed New Delhi. Earlier ramparts and temples lead to explorations of the ghastly Tughluk rule, which in terror, bloodshed, purges and paranoia read like an ancient Stalinism. Old Anglo-Indian eccentrics are tracked down, who tell their bizarre stories of memories of the British rule, and their subsequent marginalisation. Memories of the creation of Pakistan, the partition of India and the exodus of Muslims northwards and Hindus in the opposite direction are explored, and lamented, in some of the most memorable and sad scenes in the book. While Islam had come with severe military force centuries before, Dalrymple idealises the times in Indian history when the great cultures tolerated one another, mingled together and cross-fertilised one another; and conversely loathes the movements which drove them apart. The twin exoduses (exodai?!) of partition, and the suffering surrounding it, the uprooting of ancient peoples. and the subsequent 'ethic'cleansing' (to cite that ghastly Balkan term) are recalled from the memories of those willing to recall those dark days.
The book finds Dalrymple clinging to the inside of a taxi, in which the maniac driver reassures his passenger that all will be well as he is a "lucky" driver - the proof being that not one of his six major crashes have resulted in death! What might count as reassurance in India and Dalrymple's native Scotland, might differ a little it seems. Then it finds him in successive chapters exploring ancient Indian texts with a Muslim translator-scholar, Dr Jaffery; seeing wandering fakirs and holy-men, watching the extraordinary sights and colours of a massive Sufi festival, with the fits ecstasies and whirlings of the Dervishes in the quest for the divine, devotion to saints, and engagement the Djinns (spirits), some of which sound sinister. He discovers ancient and mysterious medical practices which go back millennia, and in all these fields finds practitioners who are sincere and those who are frauds; those who combine herbal cures with long-accumulated life-wisdom; with snake-oil salesmen seeking to cure his wife's terrible skin condition (freckles!). The Dalrymple's spend a long time in the Sikh mourning rites of their landlord, who dies towards the end of the book; respectfully engaging in the week-long, exhausting grieving process which follows a Sikh cremation.
The power of this book, is that even as I sit down to write this little review, scenes, images, people and events from thousands of years of Delhi tumble from my memory. I might picture Shah Jehan, the batty Haxby sisters, the bizarre Delhi eunuchs, slightly wrongly - but the images which Dalrymple's scintillating prose made on my mind are vivid, and remarkable. I have never been to Delhi, but Dalrymple's exploration of its history, culture, archaeology and people, is almost like smelling it from a distance.
The book is greatly aided by a large glossary of Indian terms at the back; (Charpoy = rope strung bed, Qalander = ecstatic mystic or holy fool, often mentally unstable, Bidi = cheap Indian cigarette, Mahar = severance fee paid to a Muslim wife in a divorce, Lu = the hot desert wind from Rajasthan in midsummer etc); and by a map of the city at the front; which helps to fix places in the travels described. A bonus would have been a simple time-line to help the less well-informed reader (me!) to get a better handle on some of the eras referred to, and which of all the waves of invaders, occupiers, settlers and dynasties who have ruled Delhi came in which order. That though is a very minor gripe which I could fix myself if I had the inclination and more time. It certainly does not detract from what is a brilliantly informative and entertaining book.
While the book concludes with the Dalrymples heading back to the Scottish Borders, I was intrigued to read (but not surprised) on his website that their current place of residence is listed as 'A farmhouse just outside Delhi'.
Wednesday, June 27, 2018
Vishal Mangalwadi’s “The Book That Made Your World”, is by any measure an extraordinary read.
Growing up in the Indian city of Allahabad, Mangalwadi sensed a disconnect between the predominant interpretation of Christianity, and his experience. Hindu academics such as Arun Shourie described the presence of Christianity in India as a “conspiracy of British Imperialism”, yet Mangalwadi observed that Christianity differed substantially from the colonial legacy. Furthermore wherever this Christian influence occurred it seemed to foster benefits to the whole community. Seeking to understand this dichotomy, Mangalwadi embarked on a massive research project, exploring the effect which the Bible has on cultures and societies. The results, which are brought together in this volume, are profound.
Mangalwadi’s book ranges effortlessly though history, politics, economics, theology, sociology, and philosophy. His conclusion is that cultures which are rooted in the Bible, provide the best environment for human flourishing. He argues, for example, that Indian science was held back by the prevailing belief in ‘maya’, (the irrelevance of the material realm), and only prospered under the influence of a biblical worldview which affirmed that God had created. In education, he traces the successes of ‘western’ schooling to their biblical founders, who believed in knowledge, language and equality. He argues that Bible-rooted societies are more just; and presents remarkable evidence correlating such societies to low levels of corruption – which in turn facilitates economic growth. In the face of human suffering, Mangalwadi argues that religions which present a distant deity, and those who teach ‘karma’, are relatively indifferent to it; whereas the Bible inspires repeated assaults upon it. Politically, he argues that it is only the biblical notion of humanity made in the image of God, which has made functioning democracy and a free press possible. “Nonbiblical cultures only pay lip-service to a free press”, he states (p175). Likewise, it is societies with roots in the Bible, who have lead the way in women’s rights, he notes.
The book concludes with a plea to ‘the West’, not to abandon the source of what has made it great. His argument is that our society will wither, and we will be inordinately diminished if we abandon the biblical-worldview which nurtured our gains.
Western readers will be stirred, not just by these cultural observations, but also by a book which doesn’t limit the effect of the gospel of Christ to the individual, as we are peculiarly prone to do. Mangalwadi might at times appear to be a little more pro-Western than any European or American author might be comfortable with; but is free from any suspicion of being nationalistic or ethnocentric in this regard.
It is routinely assumed that Christian mission was a mere prop for colonialism. We are told that the biblical worldview is responsible for environmental exploitation, and that the we should cast our eyes Eastward for a more enlightened view. Likewise, the Bible is referred to in popular culture as a repressive or dangerous book. That such views are simplistic and misleading is axiomatic; but Mangalwadi’s “The Book That Made Your World” shows just what is wrong with them, and develops a strong case that where the Bible has been taken seriously, human societies have made some of their greatest and most significant advances.
Mangalwadi has provided a book of massive scope with huge implications, which should be read and reckoned with, by both the Bible’s admirers and detractors alike.
First published in Solas Magazine (www.solas-cpc.org)
Thursday, June 21, 2018
While the eyes of the world are trained on Russia (as I write we are in the opening week of the 2018 Football World Cup, being hosted there), I've been lost in the pages of Eugenie Fraser's Russian childhood memoirs, "The House by The Dvina". The World Cup's festival of football is very glitzy, and well polished, the millionaire football celebrities, play under dazzling lights. Russia though, seems to be a place, (an idea?) loaded with melancholy, a place alive with a living history cast in sombre tones, and bearing an unusual weight of tragedy. I love Russian music, and yet it is some of the saddest music ever written. Unsurprisingly then, The House on The Dvina, is a book full of characters, remarkable stories, evocative moods, several surprises, and deep, dark sadnesses.
The author grew up in Tsarist Russia, in Arkangel on The White Sea, in the Far North of Russia. Her family were comparatively wealthy, and were Russian Orthodox Christians, and Tsarist loyalists too. Her memories of this period are happy ones, of childhood adventures and gardens, and friends and Christmas parties - of sledges and frozen rivers in Winter, and swimming and adventures in the Summer.
Unusually (and I had no idea about this when I picked the book up in the Oxfam bookshop in Perth), Fraser's family were half-Russian and half-Scottish. Her Mother came, not merely from Scotland, but from Dundee's little neighbour, Broughty Ferry; some twenty miles from where I live. Early chapters of the book are concerned with the story of how her parents met, and contain fascinating portraits of life in turn-of-the-century Dundee; what it looked like, family-life, religion, work, transport and culture. This was an unexpected delight, in a book I had assumed was purely a Russian memoir. Her mother's journey to northern Russia, cultural transition, and life in Orthodox Russia as a Scots Presbyterian, is a great story. Having been brought up in the Cold War era, Russia and the Eastern bloc were always in some ways 'closed'. I did travel to the Soviet Union (Moscow, Leningrad, Gulf of Finland), in a highly controlled Intourist trip in the 1980s. But there was always the sense that while we could see the sights, we were kept well away from the real Russian people. We were there to bring in hard currency, not to engage with the culture. It was interesting to discover that in the era after the Crimean War and before the October Revolution of 1917, there was significant openness between Britain and Russia - and a young Russian coming to work in Dundee wasn't a ridiculous proposition, but a sensible exploration along thriving trade routes.
The tragedies in this story start with the dreadful situation on the Eastern Front in the First World War, the horrific casualty rates; and despair facing the country. The shenanigans at court, the unpopularity of the Tsarina and the machinations of the mysterious Rasputin feature as the backdrop to the unravelling of the life they knew in the old Russia. The first revolution in 1917 they coped with, despite the ongoing problems in the war, Kerensky is viewed as an orator of no substance; while the Bolsheviks are absolutely hated. The author's family supported the White cause in the civil war, and felt betrayed and deserted as the Allies withdrew and left Russia to the fate of Lenin, Bolshevism and then Stalinism. The Bolsheviks who appear in this story are murderous thugs, who smash all that was good in the country and produce little but vandalism and near starvation in its place.
Amazingly, the author and her mother and brother managed to gain passage out of Russia and back to her grandparents in Dundee - while their Russian father was unable to leave. They never saw him again. What happened next? I don't know - but I'm sure there's a sequel somewhere!
This sad, plaintive memoir works really well as a child's-eye view of the Russian Revolution - which is a story usually told in terms of Dumas, Soviet's, strikes, slogans and Marxist ideology. The Scottish (Dundee!) angle to the story was an unexpected twist - which made it all the more intriguing to read sitting here by the banks of The Tay.
It's not an academic read, or a real stretch - but it is nevertheless good reading. Interestingly, there is a childlike quality to the memoirs - even though they were clearly written when she was an adult, looking back over the troubled century.
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Laura Jockusch’s “Collect and Record!” is an essential piece of European historiography. For half a century, the events of the Second World War have provided the context for the development of our culture and political institutions. Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’, has a critical role in our understanding of those events, and therefore of our understanding of the present. It is hardly surprising therefore, that contemporary anti-Semitism feeds off the Holocaust-denial movement.
“Collect and Record” is a detailed examination of the sources from which Holocaust history is gathered. While Holocaust deniers wish to post late-dates for primary sources, Jockush has produced a groundbreaking study of early data-collection across
Austria, Poland and . She documents the way in
which survivors: Italy
‘founded historical commissions, documentation centres, and projects for the purpose of documenting and researching the recent annihilation. These initiatives arose as a grassroots movement impelled by the survivors own will and with no government backing’
Drawing on a tradition of pogrom-documentation, stretching back to the 1890s, the survivors have left us with an array of testimonies, questionnaires, diaries, photos, documents (both Jewish and Nazi), films and artefacts. Much of this recording began as a ‘sacred duty’ during the conflict, and most of the collection was achieved between 1945-7. This book is the remarkable story of the collection of that history.
Jockusch describes how the various historical societies differed in their methods and aims; for example, The Poles needed to preserve the threads of a decimated culture and memorialise the dead, while the emphasis in
was on gathering evidence for trials. She also traces the attempts to forge a
European-wide documentation movement in the late 1940s, along with its main
figures. The progress of the documents themselves from post-war refugee camps
to their current homes in International archives is also fascinating. Some of
these sources have been examined for the first time in this book. Austria
Oxford University Press have just published this significant work as an accessibly priced paperback. When the historical record matters this much, Jockusch has provided us with a genuinely “usable past”.
First published in Solas Magazine, used with permission (www.solas-cpc.org)
Monday, June 18, 2018
I had been looking forward to going back down Glen Etive - glorious, spectacular, wonderful Glen Etive - for such a long time. Stob Coir'an Albannaich though, turned out to be probably the worst hillwalk I have ever done. I have never experienced such a catalogue of mishaps in my life, some were unavoidable, others were of our own folly!
The weather was a lot worse than the forecast had predicted, and despite our late start to make the best of the "brightening conditions", the rain lashed down. Over in Perth, we've had a lot of dry weather recently, and the recent rains haven't really muddied the paths, or re-awakened the seasonal burns. Glen Etive though was alive with the sound of running water, gushing and cascading from the saturated hills on all sides. The brim-full River Etive was gliding under the bridge at Coileitir, with the kind of silky power a river possesses when it is untroubled by the bouldery riverbed, deep below the surface.
Our day, though damp, began uneventfully enough. We parked, crossed the bridge and turned NE along the track to Glenceitlein, where at another bridge we turned into the hill and climbed the steep, wet, rocky, slippery NW ridge of Beinn Chaorach. Despite the waterlogged ground frequently sliding from underneath our feet, we gained Chaorach with little difficulty (no visibility!), and found our way simply on and round towards Stob Coir'an Albannaich. The finest features of the hill only came into our restricted view around the summit, and my guess is that on a fine day it would have been stunning.
Our first problem really arose on the summit. No sooner were we celebrating another Munro, that my walking companion suffered a nasty attack of cramp in his leg. Unable to move very fast, he started to get very cold, and really quite uncomfortable. Realising that thoughts of the projected 2nd Munro (Meall na Eun), were off the table, and that descent back down our ascent route would be ghastly, we took the decision to head off the exposed tops and down into more sheltered conditions. We found the bealach between Albainnich and the adjacent top (Meall Tarsuinn), easily enough, and started descent. Sadly our way was blocked by a powerful waterfall washing over the descent route, at a point where there was no way round. we had to re-ascend and find an alternative - and it was here in the thick fog, and pouring rain that we made a schoolboy navigational error, and landed in the glen-floor a long way from where we had hoped to be.
Then faced with a series of dreadful, deep, river-wades, my bootlace snapped, I didn't have a spare. The last 8Km or so were trudged with a slightly loose boot full of river water. Nice. The extra time which our extra mileage, deer-fences and deep rivers had cost us, meant that we were tired by the time we came to our final ascent, up to the 633m bealach between Meall na Eun and Meall Odhar. This done, we trudged wearily back round under out ascent route, and back to the River Etive, the bridge and the waiting car. To add insult injury, the car was wrapped in a cloud of midgies, swirling in fury, like a little tornado. Being eaten alive as threw off boots and pulled on trainers to drive in, we drove off as fast as possible, with the fans on full, and windows open to create a midgie-defying wind. It was only several miles later that I realised that the midgies had created in us a frenzy like their own, and that as a result I left my walking poles in the parking space. Where they presumably still are.
I need to go back to complete Meall na Eun, and see if I have a decent walk, or whether Glen Etive will once more be the scene of obstacles and errors.
Wednesday, June 13, 2018
Book Notes: Not A Choice, Not a Job, Exposing the Myths about Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade by Janice Raymond
Janice G. Raymond’s book, “Not a Choice, Not a Job: Exposing the Myths About Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade”, describes a spectrum of responses to prostitution, stretching from
At one end, the Dutch government has pioneered an approach which provides a
legal framework, within which the ‘sex-trade’ can operate openly. Their view is
that prostitution is inevitable and so should be normalised, giving the state some control over its’ worst elements.
Foundational to this approach is the claim that there is an objective and
observable difference between consensual contractual sex, and coercive,
exploitative prostitution. Those within the industry who support this view
describe themselves as ‘sex-workers’. Amsterdam
At the other end of the spectrum, the Swedish government has adopted a model which criminalises the purchase of sex. Focussing their attention on the demand, rather than supply of commercial sex; they implicitly endorse the view that for vast numbers of women in prostitution, this is not a ‘normal industry’ but a global economy of abuse. They argue that there is no discernable dividing line between consensual sex-work and abusive prostitution in the context where the vast majority of transactions involve richer, more powerful men, paying pimps for their supposed right to buy the bodies of poorer, more vulnerable, women. This view is often supported by former prostitutes who reject the legitimizing language of ‘sex-work’, but call themselves, ‘survivors’. They repeatedly state that acquiescence to abuse under duress, or without other meaningful choices, does not constitute consent; and that prostitution is therefore little more than financially compensated rape.
Raymond’s book is a detailed argument in favour of the Swedish or ‘Nordic Model’, and against the normalisation of the purchase of women for sex. Raymond writes from a feminist-abolitionist perspective, and her book is a disturbing yet highly persuasive polemic, written with the tools of the scholar, but the passion of an advocate. Drawing on UN-reports, NGO studies and academic research, Raymond argues that legalisation and normalisation have failed to deliver any of their supposed harm-reductions. Cities like
, far from having
a decriminalised and controlled sex-industry, are in fact centres of crime,
abuse, people-trafficking and child sexual abuse. In contrast, Sweden’s
ten-year review of its policy saw significant reductions in abuse, high numbers
of survivors escaping the trade, and 70% public approval of their approach; she
Underlying Raymond’s approach is her view that all prostitution is damaging and exploitative. Therefore, attempts to reduce-harm are doomed to failure, and primarily serve to protect the profits of pimps and traffickers. Prostitution and trafficking are on the political agenda across
Europe. Raymond claims that the Dutch perspective is
being promoted by governments, those who profit from commercial sex, and the
media. In contrast, the merits of the Nordic model are not being heard across
the Continent, despite some smaller parliaments (such as )
recently adopting this approach. Northern Ireland
In seeking to understand the humanity and social benefits of the Nordic model, “Not a Choice, Not a Job: Exposing the Myths About Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade”, is the place to start.
First published in Solas Magazine, reproduced with permission (www.solas-cpc.org)
Saturday, June 09, 2018
Roberts is a noted historian of Chartism, arguably the greatest of all the Nineteenth Century popular movements for social and political reform. This little book however, departs from the length, depth, style, price and purpose of his major historical works such as The Chartist Legacy.
Recollections of Victorian Birmingham, is a collection of short autobiographical vignettes, which were first published in local newspaper columns around the turn of the century, up until the First World War.
Roberts has done a splendid job of selecting and re-publishing many of these accounts in this little volume, which give fascinating insights into life in that great Victorian city. Through these first-hand accounts, we are allowed a glimpse into political, religious, social, civil, industrial, family and leisure activities. Some accounts are told by protagonists in the great dramas they tell (election candidates, politicians, or clergymen), in others, the writer was an observer, or a child bewildered and amazed at the great Chartist gatherings of the period, for example.
While a compendium of primary sources, is not the place to look for detailed analysis of data, or synthesis of evidence into great themes and explanatory hypotheses, it nevertheless allows the reader to 'get under the skin' of the period (so to speak), and to learn not merely the raw political facts about say Joseph Chamberlain; but what he looked, and sounded like - and what it was like to hear him stir a crowd. Some historical analysis, when event or statistics driven, can become clinical and sterile. This little book is the opposite, in that while it doesn't critique or analyse the material much, it allows the human voices of the era to be heard, and is therefore a wonderfully human history.
Alongside the selection of the pieces, Roberts' other great contribution to the book is his footnotes. Without these detailed explanations, the ordinary reader would be lost, yet his carefully added notations fill in all the blanks for the uninitiated, so that they can make sense of what they are reading. Where relevant, details of who people were, or a little background to the events described, open these accounts up in a very helpful way, making this a truly fascinating and insightful little volume.
Monday, June 04, 2018
Book Notes: The Invention of Russia; The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War” By Arkady Ostrovsky
Western observers of
today often appear perplexed
as to how a nation which emerged so optimistically from under the long shadow
of Soviet totalitarianism, seems to be so readily dispensing with liberal
freedoms. Arkady Ostrovsky’s book is a superb explanation of the causes,
development and consequences of that retreat, which both informs, and alerts
the reader to the ongoing difficulties which dealing with Putin’s Russia , will
present for some time to come. The
Invention of Russia won Ostrovsky the 2016 Orwell Prize for political
is an idea-centric country, and the media play a disproportionately important
role in it”, writes Ostrovsky. “Ideologists, journalists, editors and TV
executives” have not just been transmitters of the idea of Russia , but its
creators, he claims. (p5) In communist days, media and information were a state
commodity, “the means of mass communication”, essential to the whole Soviet
idea. But, he rather adroitly observes, “the Russia Soviet Union
expired, not because it ran out of money, but because it ran out of words”.
Ostrovsky’s account of the turbulent 1990s, of Yeltsin, and his tussles with the Russian parliament, is brilliantly told. He charts the way in which the threat of communism led Yelstin to depend on the emerging Oligarchs, who were allowed to gain inordinate wealth and power in return for their support. There was a short time in which the media were comparatively free, when it was “too late to rally the masses under the red flag, and too soon to rally them under nationalism”. (p168)
Once Yeltsin was gone however, the Oligarchs “behaved like caricatures of capitalism in old Soviet journals” (p229), helping to destroy the liberal media, as they moved power towards Putin, who centralised ownership and control of the press. It was this media who invented the
we have today. As such there is as much about the battles to control Russia ’s TV tower, as
there is as much here about struggles to control the Kremlin. Moscow
The Russia of Putin, is Anti-American, patriotic, collectivist, and celebrates derzharnost (geo-political prestige) and gosudarstvennichestvo (the primacy of the state). (p284).
Central to Ostrovsky’s thesis is that the free press was able to restrict Yeltsin’s Chechen war; but the compliant press under Putin has been central into whipping the population into a paranoid frenzy to justify the annexation of
Crimea. The media were responsible for stirring hatred
against anyone who opposed the war, such as Boris Nemstov, who was duly
murdered in 2015.
Most alarming is Ostrovsky’s assessment of contemporary
, where “The Kremlin is
cultivating and rewarding the lowest instincts in people, provoking hatred and
fighting” (p346). His view is that Russia is more dangerous than it was in the
Cold War, as the USSR were victors in WWII, but emerged from the end of
communism with a sense of defeat, and a volatile “inferiority complex”. (p3)
Today more than “fifty percent of Russians think that it is OK for the media to
distort the truth in the interests of the State”; but perhaps more worryingly,
“The vast majority of Russians now contemplate the possibility of a nuclear war
with America, [which] forty per cent of the younger ones believe that Russia
can win”.(p346) Russia
Ostrovsky’s book is a challenge to the increasingly inward-looking West, who are consumed with their own economic and constitutional affairs; as was exposed in the woefully deficient debate on the renewal of
’s Trident nuclear weapons
system. Both those arguing for renewal, and those for scrapping Trident argued
from within a vacuum; with barely a whimper of cogent assessment of the
resurgent Russian threat. Both arguments were essentially unilateralist, while
the absence of any multilateralist voice arguing for scrapping Trident, in
tandem with a wider de-nuclearisation of Britain Europe,
was telling. The possibility of an isolationist Trump US Presidency, and
subsequent straining of NATO, makes the need to understand Putin’s
a matter of growing urgency. Ostrovsky’s The Invention of Russia informs, educates and
counsels Russia Europe not to avert our eyes from
developments to the East.
Arkady Ostrovsky, is the
analyst for The Economist. This review was first published in Solas Magazine, used with permission. Russia