Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sermons that Work and Sermons that are Hard Work

I've been doing quite a lot of preaching this term, both in my home church and other places. Some of these talks seem to have "gone well", while others have been laboured. I have been trying to analyse why this is the case. There are probably many reasons, but one of the common denominators seems to be to do with discipline, and sermon structure. The better sermons have had a structure like the first diagram, whereas weaker ones tend to indicate that I have slipped into my default settings where the structure looks like the 2nd one.

In the first diagram there is a clear sense that there is one main idea which needs to be explained, then illustrated and applied. Other material in the text is referred to and shown how it casts light on the main point. The sermon can be summarized in its content and application in one pithy sentence. It is faithful to the text, but disciplined in form.
The second diagram represents one of my sloppier talks. It is still faithful to the text, and seeks to both explain and apply it. However, there is no one main focus, it has as many central thrusts as there are sentences in the text! While a sermon like this can contain a wealth of material, it lacks two things; focus and engagement.

The question is, why if I aspire to the first type - do I sometimes actually present the second? The answers are many!

Firstly the second model is my default mindset. I am personally more inclined to think in this way, which may also reflect the fact that I am predominantly a reader of non-fiction and am not particularly artistic. I have discovered that a lot people do not relate to this approach, and so material presented in this way is less helpful for them.

Secondly tiredness or lack of time means that while I have done a lot of work on the whole passage under discussion, I have not had the time/energy to do the sifting and sorting of the material into priority areas. Tiredeness/lack of time can also be fatal for the development of effective illustration, and use of narrative.

Thirdly, lack of prayer can be fatal in this area! What I mean is that it is sometimes when praying through the material, preparing myself, and praying for the congregation who will (!) come to hear it, a sense of which element of the passage to stress emerges. Cutting corners here is very poor indeed. The Victorian orator-preacher C.H. Spurgeon preached on the same texts repeatedly, but often with a different element of it as the organising principle of his talk.

Fourthly, there is the matter of pride. Organising a sermon with a proper structure inevitably means cutting out some material which the preacher thinks is rather good! This material may or may not be as good as the preacher supposes - however, if it serves to over-complicate or distract from the main thrust, it is little more than verbal vanity!

Fifthly (and probably related to point 2 + 3) there is the temptation to reach for scholarly commentaries too early in the process. It is so important to consult the learned and the worthy! It is also important not to do so before studying the Biblical text itself. I find that when a commentary is my first point of call, it saps the imagination of creative ways to engage the most obvious points with contemporary ideas; replacing it with a wealth of fascinating but less helpful information.

Perhaps I am disappointed to be still making so many of the same mistakes which I have been aware of for so long - when I hoped to have been able to internalise these lessons to the point that getting these things right more spontaneously! This task remains a fascinating combination of inspiration and discipline. Nevertheless, I am also aware that while I must constantly critique my "performance", preaching itself is not one. The use to which God puts the word spoken, is not in any way proportionate to my trifling about with technique. Rather - 'doing my best' is an act of worship, a striving to present 'first-fruits' not leftovers to God in worship. That is something He self-evidently deserves.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Book Notes. After Redemption: Jim Crow & The Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta 1875-1915 by John M. Giggie

John M. Giggie's book, "After Redemption: Jim Crow & The Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta 1875-1915" is a bold attempt to re-asses a key period of American History. As is well known, the defeat of the Southern Confederacy in the US Civil War, lead to a re-unification of the United States, and the abolition of slavery. The period immediately following the war, known as "Reconstruction", was a time of rapid advance for African Americans in the South during which they gained an unprecedented role in public life. From the mid-1870s however, in the period known by white Southerners as "Redemption", sole Democratic Party control was re-established in the South which meant a reversal of many of these gains and the establishment of the segregated 'Jim Crow' system which would deny civil and voting rights to the Black populace, and which remained intact until the 1960s. The re-imposition of white-supremacy was not achieved without massive use of force, intimidation and violence; and this period is a bleak one in the history of American race relations.

During the so-called 'Redemption' period, it has traditionally been thought that in the deep South, African American culture was static as black people's attention was exclusively occupied with holding onto the Reconstruction gains, and coping with the violent onslaughts of white supremacist groups. It is precisely this view that John Giggie seeks to challenge in this book. His point is not to cast any doubt on the tragic history of violent repression that is well documented elsewhere - rather he wants to re-examine the nature of African American culture within that context. The results, he says are that far from a moribund and static culture; his research on African American Religion in the Delta 1875-1915 demonstrates that Black Religious culture was undergoing enormous and significant change.

It was this era that the railroad network effectively penetrated the Delta for the first time, connecting rural Mississippi and Lousiana with the national network for the first time. This had an effect on the whole of the culture. Giggie's first chapter describes the way in which this had profound effect on the religious imagination and vocabulary of southern Black people. The trains which took routes such as The Illinois Central Railroad which would later become a major artery in the great migration, became a powerful metaphor for both political and spiritual deliverance. Strangely while the research on this chapter is massive, detailed and impressive, little weight is given to assessing the impact of these changes to the lives of Delta Blacks especially in the part that they played in the longer-term development of Black aspirations and achievements. As such its probably the books least impressive sections, and a strange choice for an opening chapter.

More persuasive was the section upon the development of Black Fraternal Orders. These bodies, secret masonic-style societies such as the Oddfellows, developed across the Delta region in parallel to the all-pervasive influence of the Black Church. However, unlike their white counter-parts, they were not in-tension with the churches but sought to be overtly Christian organisations. They played a significant part in developing Black culture in terms of self-help (funeral plans, insurance schemes) as well as confidence through their parades and uniforms. Significantly they also played a role in Booker T. Washington's movement to advance Black interests by showing white America that the Black population could emulate their mores of respectability.

Two interesting chapters follow which explore the opening up of The Delta during this period to market capitalism. This was naturally related to the noted impact of the railroad; but also had significant effects on Black life and culture. Where share-cropping was the farming system which had replaced slave plantations in the cotton-lands, the plantation store was an instrument of control through which operated a monopoly of supply to the poor share-cropping families. The encroachment of a freer-market had implications for this system. Likewise, black salesmen, and preachers (or preacher-salesmen) were able to take their goods across country on the railroads. In turn a material culture of religion grew in which a vibrant trade in religious artefacts and increasingly elaborate church-building took place. All of these were significant changes in African American Delta culture.

The book ends with a look at the development of 'The Holiness Churches' - whose sanctified revivalism, challenged not just the traditional doctrines of the Methodist and Baptist churches, but who significantly altered Black religious life in America. Emphasising the cleansing that comes from an experience of sanctification, these Holiness churches rejected fancy buildings, formal education, religious artefacts and the black fraternal orders. Instead, their emotional services offered a heightened awareness of God, and an internal sense of freedom which contrasted starkly with the loss of political freedoms that their congregants were experiencing during this era. The foundations for the Black Pentecostalism which is a marked feature of 20th C. American religious life were laid here. While this chapter is a brilliant piece of research, and is nicely written, again I was disappointed that there was perhaps not enough analysis of the impact of this change. A pressing question is whether this movement was a galvanising force which was a building block towards the civil-rights movement, or whether this 'turn inwards' to the matters of the soul represented (at best) a relief from or (at worst) escapism from the political disaster they faced.

Every year the Oxford University Press has a sale in which there are usually great reads to be had at very good prices. This was a cracking good read from the summer sale this year. Although I have noted some reservations, Giggie's vast research and engaging writing style effectively open a window into this dark, perplexing and dangerous era in history. Although this is a serious work of academic research, it is also deeply evocative. The vast array or footnotes citing Black newspapers, minutes of meetings, sermons, lyrics, and memoirs do not bog the reader down; but anchor the work so deeply in the realities of the time that the reader can almost hear the voices of the black-preacher, the clanking railroad engines, the field-hollers and fore-runners of the first bluesmen, the church choirs and the uniformed marchers, all holding on to what freedom they could, while the 'Redemption' of the South, stripped them of liberty and threatened them with violence.

Monday, September 20, 2010

New Paths at The Hermitage

The short walk from the NTS carpark by the A9 at Dunkeld through the falls of Braan at The Hermitage, is a popular jaunt - an done we have done many, many times since the kids were tiny. Only later did we discover that a lovely walk to the same spot is possible from 'rumbling bridge', walking downstream to the falls.
Walking in from the North side has two advantages. One, parking at rumbling bridge is free! Secondly, as well as seeing the falls of Braan, this walk starts by the impressive waterfalls which create the sound which give rumbling bridge its name.

Walking a Saturday or two ago with our neighbours and their children also meant new discoveries for us around The Hermitage. They took us off on new paths, which we hadn't even noticed before. The woodlands tracks took us first past the bizarre, weird, contorted and profoundly odd-looking folly of Torryvald.
From here a new track winds its way up through dense woodland, until suddenly and surprisingly opening out to this strange structure.
Maybe it is supposed to resemble an eyeball? However strange this little wooden hut is, it provides a pleasant shelter, and seat with a magnificent views up and down Strathtay.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Triple Homework Nightmare

Life has changed in the last few weeks, as we no longer have any pre-school children at home with us in the afternoons - as little Doris has joined her brothers Boris and Norris up the road at the local primary school. That has created less pressure at some points in life, but seems to have created a huge daily pressure point after school, when they all come in weary, agitated and carrying volumes of homework to complete.

It always used to be the case that Boris would sit and do his homework without much need for supervision. He's fairly well organised and the work has been very straightforward. That meant that I could park little Doris in front of CBEEBIES for half an hour and sit with Norris to make sure his work was done. Norris is naturally quite quick, and grasped all the basic stuff with numbers and reading/writing with minimal effort. However, getting him to sit still to work patiently at something is an exercise somewhat akin to letting go of an inflated balloon and expcting it to fly in a straight line across the room! Putting it politely, 'presentation may require some attention' but I was able to sit and supervise. Things used to be simple.

This term however our peaceful post-school regime has been shattered. Firstly the quantity and demands of Boris' homework have shot-up. The things he is now being asked to do take real effort to work out, sometimes research and far more parental involvement. Norris still requires a parent's constant oversight to keep his work organised and coherent; but now little Doris is coming home with her sounds book, reading book and word box to go through each night as well!

Mrs Hideous coming in from a hard-days work was used to coming home to a scene of relative calm and state of organisation. Of late she has been greeted with a bit of mayhem, of a stressed Dad and cross children! What is worse is when I haven't had a chance to check over what either Boris or Norris have produced and when they finally get to the end their Mum arrives and makes them rub it out and re-write it legibly! If there was a book entitled 'how to make your 8 & 10 year old boys really angry', chapter one might well be on exactly this. However, the school will score through messy work and demand that it is re-written, so they might as well get it right on the first evening it is given out.

Then there is reading. How can we enable our kids not to grudgingly do the bare minimum but to embrace the joy of exploring a good book (or even 'the' good book, for that matter!). The joy of sport for Boris, or of gadgets for Norris has a far more instant appeal and addictive content; of stimulation without effort - with which sadly books do not yet compete. I would rather read a book than watch TV personally as in the old adage about well-crafted prose 'the pictures are better'. Driving the kids towards books has to be done - its their prescribed homework. But, I remember at their age devouring books, and saving up my pocket-money for the next inevitable Enid Blyton or Biggles story! At the moment the required reading is an exasperation for them, rather than a joy.

3:30-5:00 pm is not the time-slot in the day that I look forward with great enthusiasm at the moment!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Event: 'Science vs Faith' or 'Science and Faith'?

One of the great debates of the last two centuries has been the relationship between science and faith; a debate which has been re-ignited by the 'new atheists' in the last decade or so. Should people reject faith on the basis of science? Is science the new religion? Should people of faith reject science? Can science answer philosophical questions about life's purpose, the meaning of consciousness, beauty and love; or can it only answer physical questions? Do you have a 'soul' or 'spiritual life' that cannot be explained by science, or are you merely a collection of atoms?

Dr Alastair Donald is a research scientist who has also studied theology - looking at this debate from both perpectives. He will be leading a seminar in Perth on Saturday 25th September at Perth Baptist Church Centre. There will be the opportunity for questions and discussion. Everyone, whether they are believers, agnostics, or atheists, are welcome to come, listen and take part.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Blessed are the troublemakers?

The chief American soldier in Afghanistan has pleaded with them to stop; church leaders from around the world have appealed for them to re-think; protests are building around the Islamic world, and countless Christians are absolutely appalled; yet a tiny church in Florida remains the centre of an international media frenzy because of its plans to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11.

Here are six reasons why this group should immediately call off their planned bonfire:

1. Their proposed action is deeply unChristian.

Nowhere in the Bible do we find people involved in Christian mission insulting the culture to which they are bearing witness for Christ. Rather, we find in the ministry of people like The Apostle Paul, a deep engagement with the people to whom he was sharing the message of Jesus. Acts pictures Paul hiring lecture halls, debating publicly, and drawing on local customs as entry points for his message into people's understanding. The manner in which Christians are to conduct themselves towards those outside the faith (according to the Bible) is "with gentleness and respect." (1) Furthermore, the New Testament is full of injunctions to live at peace with those with whom we share the world, "as far as it depends on you - live at peace with all men" it says. (2), likewise Jesus proclaimed, "Blessed are the peacemakers." (3) To take deliberate actions to hurt others, insult their culture and to stir enmity between peoples, is to take an unChristian stance.

2. Burning the Koran brings the gospel of Christ into disrepute

The New Testament indicates that Christian believers should conduct themselves in such a way as way as to make the gospel of Jesus accessible and attractive to others. The way in which a church, and its pastor act in the public sphere should be to inspire those who see the broadcast to want to investigate Christianity themselves. Now there is nothing wrong with speaking boldly, speaking with faith and conviction, and even saying things which are unpopular in order to demonstrate integrity; but insulting others in Christ's name in order to gain self-publicity brings the gospel into disrepute. I know several Christian people who live in Muslim-majority countries, or who live in towns in the UK in which most of their neighbours are from a Muslim background. They have many fascinating discussions about religious matters with their friends and neighbours, and they answer the many questions about Christianity which they get asked; from people who have almost no information about it. They do so politely, respectfully, gently and they listen to their friends perspectives too! The very last thing they would do would be to insult the things their friends hold to be true - how ever much they disagree, or discuss or debate. This church in Florida, I suggest has no knowledge or experience of genuine interactions or friendships with ordinary muslims. The actions of these ill-informed Floridan's simply sets the church back decades in Muslim-majority counties.

3. Burning the Koran endangers lives

General Patraeous has asked this church to halt their plans as he knows that it will be used as a pretext to stir up hatred and violence amongst radicalising Islamists across Afghanistan. His claim is that this is an act of provocation which will cost the lives of many of his soldiers. However, US troops in other countries are only part of the issue as they are a heavily armed occupying force. Of far greater concern is the effect that these actions will have on Christians who live in muslim-majority countries many of whom already face persecutions. Where states curtail the civil liberties of Christians or seek to impose Sharia law on non-Muslims, or where Islamist mobs seek to destroy Christians, foolish people engaging in 9/11 publicity stunts of this nature will threaten their safety. While such regimes or mobs are undoubtedly responsible for their own actions, the reality is that in a world containing so many extremists, exacerbating volatile situations can have dire consequences. This means that this Florida church is also extremely selfish. I doubt that in Florida they will suffer much for these actions - however, it maybe that Christians in North Africa, Indonesia, or Pakistan will pay a heavy price.

4. Koran burning plays into the cynical media's hands

In the UK today the Christian church faces a very hostile media which seems to take a peculiar interest in stories about the antics of fallen-Vicars or unrepresentative extreme groups. In the furore surrounding the BBC's decision to air Jerry Springer the Opera, the calm and reasoned voices of the Church of England media office and the Evangelical Alliance, or even the BBC Governor Baroness Amos were almost completely unheard. Instead, the ranting self-publicist Steven Green of "Christian Voice" was allowed to use the event to launch his tiny organisation to a UK-wide audience. This church in Florida, has apparently only fifty members. They are not part of any major organisation or denomination and represent no-one but themselves. Their planned actions have been rejected by almost everyone. So why have they been able to gain the attention they so obviously crave? I suggest that it is in the interests of two groups to fuel this nonsense (a) the secular media (b) Islamist radicalisers.

The secular media has a consistently hostile editorial line towards Christianity and as such wants to seize on the fringe and pretend that it is in some way representative of the whole. They also want to be free to condemn Islamic extremism without seeming to be biased, and point out that they have savaged Christians too (fair enough!). This is why a church of 50 people in Florida planning an act of insult and foolishness gain their attention, while my church in the UK of over 200 people fundraising for Pakistan's flood victims through "Save the Children" - will never be even a footnote in the regional news; never mind a national lead story! American Evangelical journalist Cal Thomas told a researcher about the way the media works: "they'd have all these professors from Princetown or wherever on Good Morning America, representing the secular perspectives, then they'd have this West Virgina hick with a missing couple of front teeth representing the Evangelical perspective... and they'd all laugh it up because all these religious nuts are... religious nuts." Likewise Christian PR man Mark de Moss complains that influential shows like Larry King Live in the USA will not carry moderate, weighty or considered Christian commentators because they want to "prop-up a stereotype" of Christians who are "red-faced, angry and wanting to pronounce judgement on the world".(4)

Islamist radicalisers obviously feed on stories like this, as it enables them to paint the whole of the West and the Christian church as seeking to destroy them. For all their public venting of anger, the only people who stand to gain from this church's actions are the radical Islamists. They have driven the propagation of the story around the world.

5. Burning books is not the act of assured people of faith; but of cultural philistines!

Book burning itself has a very dodgy history. By joining in such actions, this minority church alies itself with Stalin, The Nazis, The Taliban, Mao Zedong, and totalitarians the world over. Books are not meant to be burnt, but read, debated, discussed, wrestled with and engaged with. I have a copy of the Koran and have read much of it. I neither wish to set-fire to it, nor to embrace it as a flawless tome descended from heaven, which I do not believe it to be. But it is a volume worthy of our attention, as one of the most influential books of our age. It is a book which should be considered if one wishes to understand today's world - and to engage meaningfully with those people who seek to live by it. Destroying copies of important historical texts are the actions, not of people who are at ease with themselves in their own faith; but of the paranoid, the desperate, the agitated, and those who feel threatened by opponents. This church in Florida should engage not destroy!

6. Burning the Koran in response to 9/11 is a foolish political mistake.

It is a noteworthy fact - and one that this church in Florida do not seem to have appreciated - that on 9/11, Al Queda did not fly their plane into a church building. Washington, London, New York, all have enormous landmark Cathedrals which would have made impressive symbols if they had been targeted. Or perhaps Al Quaeda could have taken-over a plane and flown it into St Peter's square during a massive Papal mass or into a football stadium during a Billy Graham rally. But they didn't. The target in 9/11 was not the Christian infrastructure, but the heart of American capitalism and government. Part of Al Quaeda's rationale is that American Capitalism is colonial and expansionist, and one of their key demands is the withdrawal of western troops from what they deem to be 'Muslim lands'. Primarily 9/11 was a war between Islamic radicals and secular, Western consumer-capitalism. When a church burns Koran's in response to this, it abolishes the distinction between the church and consumer-capitalism, seeing the church and the American economy and Foreign-policy as two arms of the same entity. This is a political, and theological error of almost unimaginable proportions. Western Consumer Capitalism and its colonial aspirations are not to be 'baptized' by the church in this way - but critiqued by the church using the yardstick of the Bible's standards. The church should be raising up a prophetic voice against both the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism and its enormous threat to basic civil liberties around the globe; as well as to the insatiable greed of consumer capitalism and the violence and corruption of much western foreign policy. The church has no place to be the cheerleader for either side in this escalating crisis - but in faithfulness to Christ should strive to be the servant and witness to both. This church in its headline mongering stunt, has allowed the 'religicisation' of this tension from the Christian side - something which the likes of Al Queada are anxious to propagate. No wonder President Obama has called this a 'recruitment bonanza' for the terrorists.

A Christian response to this situation should be based on the teaching of Christ. Rather than, blessed are the trouble-makers, the self-publicists and the agitators; in The sermon on the mount, Jesus puts it like this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemiesi and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.


1. 1 Peter 3:15
2. Romans 12:18
3. Matthew 5:9
4. D. Michael Lindsay. "Faith in the Halls of Power" p 150

Monday, September 06, 2010

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Marriage Time (and quite a room-name!)

Several years ago when Mrs H. & I, did the 'Marriage Course', we realised that the thing our marriage needed most was ... time. Before we were married, we had loads of it, we were students with long holidays, we had few commitments, no children, no house to maintain etc etc etc. Several years later and with the hours in the week disappearing under ever-deepening layers of things-to-be-done, we realised how much we missed the time we once had for each other. The Marriage Course recommends setting aside 'marriage time' for each other on a weekly basis. This involves switching off the computer (for me), switching off the TV (for her), and doing something different that will enable us to talk at length. Our usual is a nice French coffee shop in the town.

In addition to that, the recommendation for those with small children is to try and engineer a few days away without them, once a year. Thankfully, my parents volunteered (or did we volunteer them - I don't remember!?) to look after Boris, Norris and Doris to enable us to escape. The sad truth about the UK is that the fastest growth in separation, divorce and marital breakdown is amongst the age-group whose children are leaving home. The analysis suggests that swamped by the rigours of parenting, many couples lose their close relationship, setting instead for a functionality masked by busyness - which unravels when the parenting pressures ease.

With 4/5 days to play with, we grabbed some cheap flights (Ryan Air stinks - but hey, it was cheap) to Carcassonne in southern France and booked into the wonderful Chateau du Cavanac, a haven of sunshine, and glorious French Cuisine. We were most entertained to notice that our room was entitled "Amour en Cage" (trans: "The Love Cage")... ! The chateau, is the centre of a wine-making estate, and they are very keen to let guests sample their wines as well as enjoy their amazing food. One of the things about France is that they appreciate that a good meal should not be rushed. Instead of serving one massive course, as so many places do here, we loved the way that a series of smaller courses was brought to us over the space of a couple of hours. This is perfect 'marriage time' stuff, hours to sit in the chateau courtyards, in the evening sunshine, sipping the local wine, and talking.

Marriage is much on our minds today. We have friends getting married far away - and sadly for us, too far for us to get to. We would just have loved to have been able to be with them. Alongside the obvious message that faithfulness, both to each other and to God is the foundation of a lifelong marriage; our experience has been that the investment of time for each other is essential, vital, and actually really enjoyable. It's easy to let it slip, its hard to carve out space in ever-filling diaries, and there are pressures from work, kids, church, and other responsibilities all of which are important but all of which can rob marriage of the time it needs to breathe. We've been back a week from France - and I am shocked by how little we have seen of each other in the frenetic busyness of everyday life. Making sure that marriage time happens, will require ongoing commitment and planning! We're already looking forward to a few days away next year!

Friday, September 03, 2010

On Cruachan's mighty ridges...

Most people who visit Ben Cruachan do so in order to view its insides - the famous underground hydro-electric power station, with its visitor centre. It is (apparently) Scotland's best subterranean tourist attraction. 'Victor Meldrew' & I visited the great mountain yesterday, but rather than using the plentiful car-park for the visitors centre, and underground tour, we wedged the car on the verge by the station, in order to make for the ridges.

Guide-books are divided as to the best way up on to Cruachan. Paths follow both sides of the burn that tumble down from the dam to the lochside. Older books favour the little lane that goes up by the railway arches, to the west bank of the stream. Newer books tend to recommend the steps up to the station, under the tracks and up the path on the burns east-side. We went up the west and down the east and found the eastern path from the station to be in better condition, whereas the older path on the other side of the stream is quite overgrown in places.

From the dam we took the west bank of the loch and then the incredibly steep path up to Cruachan. In blazing sunshine and awesome views from Ben Nevis to Ben More, Schiehallion to Mull, we followed the ridge from Cruachan to Stob Diamh and then back to the dam. In good weather this is simply wonderful, easy and breathtaking ridge walking, although in fog it would require careful attention in a couple of places. The much vaunted 'bad-step' which the local mountain rescue team describe as a 'fatality waiting to happen' (!) proved to be only a 'marginally awkward step' which presented no obstacle when ascending it (ie going west to east) in dry conditions. Descending it in ice could be pretty hairy however.
Having viewed Ben Cruachan's unusual summit from so many angles, so many places, and so many other summits - I was delighted to be able to climb it - and on such a cracking good day too. McNeish rates it the finest ridge walk in the Southern Highlands and he's probably right, it is quite superlative. A wonderful day out.


Canal du Midi

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Fishy Drainpipes

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Thursday, September 02, 2010

Film Notes: The Beat That My Heart Skipped

Jacques Audiard's film, "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" revolves around a young man, who is caught between two worlds. When we meet Thomas Seyr, (superbly played by Romain Duris) he is in the thick of corrupt property deals, violent evacuation of tenants, and affairs with various women who share his life in the Paris underworld. We soon discover that this is a world into which he has followed his father Robert (Niels Arestrup), who is now a vulnerable, drink-sodden victim of the property deals he once had the power to enforce.

The story gains its extra dimension when Thomas encounters some people who belong to a quite different world - that represented by his late mother. Rather than being a player in the world of property and organised crime, his mother was a creative artist with a huge reputation as a classical concert pianist. Thomas himself had shown (we infer) huge potential as a child pianist, but had abandoned the instrument upon his mother's death, and disappeared into his father's world.

As the gift of music is slowly but passionately re-awakened within him, Thomas is pulled in two different directions. His father's world; with deals to make, partners obligations to meet, evictions to force and most importantly scores to settle, is incessant in its desire to claim him. Yet - the force of music, the desire to create and inhabit a world of purity, integrity and beauty grows within him. The collision between these two moral universes is inevitable.

As the last half an hour of the film unravels, there is a straight conflict between the two worlds, the two forces, between which he must chose: criminal sensuality versus the creative spirit. Finally and dramatically forced to choose which will win, only at the end of the film do we discover whether this film is a dark, sinister exploration of the dark recesses of the human condition, or a redemption-narrative, with music cast in the role of saviour...

Brilliantly acted, directed, and with a luscious soundtrack, "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" was a worthy winner of its 'foreign language' BAFTA a couple of years ago.
(cert 15, strong language/adult themes. French with English subtitles)

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

House Grafitti!

Someone in Carcassonne has a 'Hugh Laurie' stencil, and enjoys spraying his 'House' face on walls around the city! But why? Hugh Laurie fanatics? House fab-club meeting places? A strange code, passing mysterious messages between secret agents? A bizarre religious cult? Does anyone know?

Carcassonne, old and new

Le Parking!

Le Parking!!

Flying Stone

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Carcassonne again...

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Book Notes: Faith in the halls of Power by D. Michael Lindsay

"Faith in the Halls of Power" is sociologist D. Michael Lindsay's exploration of American Evangelicalisms relationship with power. Given that it is an extremely thoroughly researched book, written by an academic sociologist, it is a surprisingly fun read - and is absolutely fascinating from cover to cover.

Lindsay, after some introductions about the term 'evangelical' and the definition that he works with, charts the course of this movement within Protestant Christianity. His particular concern is to map the way in which Evangelicalism moved from the margins of American society, to a place close to its centre. Landmarks include the birth of the neo-evangelical movement in the early 20thC, and the work of Francis Schaeffer who propelled the movement towards cultural, philosophical and political engagement with society, rejecting the fundamentalist drive towards withdrawal into voluntary ghetto-isation.

He shows that ways in which parachurch organisations, close social-networks of leaders, and deliberate cultivation of new leaders, have enabled evangelicals to penetrate the worlds of academia, politics and business, more successfully than they have showbiz and entertainment. Thankfully Lindsay is too good a researcher to simply write a parody of the 'religious right' but explores the complexity of the movement, the 'evangelical left', and the vibrant role given to Christian faith within the organisations of the Democratic party. His conclusion is that while US Evangelicals have taken a seat at the top table of American society, their influence as one of many voices at the higher echelons of the various hierarchies has actually been very limited. This despite the sympathies of Carter, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush.

Perhaps symbolic of the whole of the book is the section on C. Everett Koop. He was Reagan's controversial choice as USA Surgeon general, whose approval by Congress was only confirmed after a lot of political wrangling. The choice was controversial because while Koop's abilities as a clinician were not in doubt, his Evangelical Christian faith made him deeply opposed to abortion. Once in office, Koop made no lasting impact on abortion legislation, but angered conservatives by opening the eyes of the US government and public to the threat of HIV aids in the early 1980s, and sponsoring public education about safe-sex and the dangers of needle-sharing.

Helpfully detailing the differences between 'populist' and 'cosmopolitan' Evangelicals, Lindsay makes some fascinating observations about the successes and challenges the movement is likely to face over coming decades.

Too many people in the UK respond to a media-caricature of American Evangelicalism. Lindsay's book (written as a critical, if sympathetic, outsider) explores more deeply into the shades and complexities of the movement and its relationships with elite circles in America. For anyone interested in politics and American religious movements, in the 'religious right' and power, and the multi-faceted nature of US Evangelicalism, this is a great place to start reading.