Wednesday, November 24, 2010

You've Got to Move!

Paul Jones and his wife Fiona Hendley were at our church last week, talking about their lives and 'showbiz'(!). Paul was an atheist for a quarter of a century, Fiona experimented with all kids of spiritualities - until together they came to faith in Christ in the 1980s. Here's a YouTube clip of Paul (this time with his Blues Band, not with his wife!) singing a gospel blues, and giving it some welly on the harmonica for good measure.

Book Notes: Lenin's Tomb by David Remnick

I remember standing outside The Kremlin one icy November day and watching Mikhail Gorbachev, Fran├žois Mitterand and their entourages, sweeping by in a fleet of black limousines. By then, Glastnost was eroding the secrecy and oppression of Stalin's state, while Perestroika was CPSU's final attempt to overcome the stagnation of the Brezhnev era. Little more than two years after I stood there, Gorbachev would be swept from power along with the Communist system on which he depended.

Throughout this period, from the death of Konstantin Chernenko, until the death of Soviet Union itself, David Remnick was present - writing insightful dispatches for the Western Media.

His book Lenin's Tomb, wonderfully captures the last years of the Soviet system. The first part of the book details many individual stories of people, moments, and movements - as they jostled to comprehend and influence the changes around them. His understanding of, and sympathy with, the people he writes about is affecting, and his knowledge of the dark world of Kremlinology and the inner wranglings of the one-party state is so thorough that he writes with great skill. Most striking of all however are the contacts that Remnick seems to be able to draw on in documenting his history. When the Stalinist faction within the CPSU first began to resist reform their spokesperson was Nina Andeeyeva. During that crucial time, Remnick spent time with her, listening and debating ideas. Likewise when Gorbachev rehabilitated Bukharin as a method of seeking to detach the extremes of Stalinism so as to protect the Leninist legacy - Remnick discusses the matter with Bukharin's widow. She was clearly as fascinated by the developments of the 1980s as she was to recall the tragedies of the 30s. Ligachev, Yeltsin, Kalugin, Fr. Men, Sakharov - and many more figures of significance appear in these 500+ remarkable and breathtaking pages. The book concludes with a detailed account of the attempted Coup d'Etat which finally ended the old order and the trials which followed it.

Alongside these sketches of the famous, infamous and powerful are also a handful of pen-portraits of lesser known figures, which are equally significant for what they represent. These include the amateur historian who collected the names of the people who disappeared in purges for decades, storing little index cards in shoe-boxes, which kept the flame of history gently burning below the radar of the censors and controllers of information.

The book begins with another story about the re-awakening of history, and features an army general with a huge decision to make. In the forests of Eastern Russia Gorbachev had finally allowed the excavation of a mass-grave dating from WWII. The Russians had always claimed the massacre was committed by the Nazi's, but the Poles and German's always insisted that these were the victims of Stalin's orders. The digging would reveal for all what CPSU files secretly contained - that the occupants of these mass-graves were sent there by Russian bullets; and laying the shame of the communist party open for all the people to see. As digging commences, word reaches the Colonel that the reactionary coup is underway. He receives orders from the Stalinist putch-ists to cease digging (the past must be kept from the people) and simultaneous orders from the more legitimate government to continue! Obviously if he continued to dig and the coup had been successful - he might have earned himself a place in the next unmarked grave of the disappeared. His choice, mirrored the choices of tens of thousands of people, soldiers, nomenklatura, apparatchiks, party officials, and citizens, as they decided whether or not to bow before this threat to their emerging freedom. Many more of their stories fill the pages of this book.

While this is a long book, and covers enormous ground, it is utterly compelling. There is a tragic beauty in Russian history, as there is in so much of its finest music. Remnick captures it all so well, in the most fascinating book on the subject I have come across since reading Susan Richards' "Epics of Everyday Life" many years ago. Space precludes mention of many very significant and moving chapters in this book - suffice to say that it a unique and brilliant read. As a teenager in the West watching the disintegration of the so-called 'evil-empire' I was amazed, shocked and scared in turns. Remnick allows the outsider to gain a little insight into what that staggering era was like from within the fragmenting system itself.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Speak Out for Freedom

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains the following statement, listed as Article 18:
'Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance’ (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18).
This has been a foundational piece of International Law for decades, and is especially important for individuals, families and communities in states where they form part of a religious minority. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the standard by which both extreme 'theocratic' (or perhaps just cleric-o-cratic) states and atheist dictatorships are held to account. Furthermore it is a document which claims support from around the world, from Christians, Muslims, Jews and Atheists amongst others.

Today, Article 18 of the Declaration is under attack. The 57 States who form the OIC (Organisation of the Islamic Conference) will seek to pass a "Defamation of Religion" resolution through the United Nations. This resolution effectively undermines the freedom of religion by giving states the power to define acceptable opinions within their boundaries. The "common statement" against this resolution, signed by people of all faiths and secularists states the dangers in the following terms:
United Nations resolutions on the `defamation of religions’ are incompatible with the fundamental freedoms of individuals to freely exercise and peacefully express their thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. Unlike traditional defamation laws, which punish false statements of fact that harm individual persons, measures prohibiting the `defamation of religions’ punish the peaceful criticism of ideas. Additionally, the concept of `defamation of religions’ is fundamentally inconsistent with the universal principles outlined in the United Nations’ founding documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms the protection of the rights of individuals, rather than ideas. Such resolutions provide international support for domestic laws against blasphemy and “injury to religious feelings”, which are often abused by governments to punish the peaceful expression of disfavored political or religious beliefs and ideas. Moreover, existing international legal instruments already address discrimination, personal defamation, and incitement in ways that are more carefully focused to confront those specific problems without unduly threatening the rights of freedom of expression and the freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
In many countries religious minorities, such as Christians in the Middle East, face either state-sponsored, or state-permitted persecution. At the present time, such activities are clearly a breach of International Law. If the 'defamation of religion' resolution was to be passed, it would by default provide a legal basis for persecution. As such it must be fought.

Organisations can sign up to the "Common Statement", alongside the signatories from the major world faiths, human rights groups, humanist and secular-societies, here. Individuals can sign any of the petitions which oppose this resolution, such as this one here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Haar haar haar

Not the blitz - just the haar

At least one of these white masses is a solid mountain...

The Tay steams in the morning sun

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010


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Over the last few years loads of people seem to have given up blogging. For many people Facebook has taken over as a place to post brief messages and pictures, while Tweeting less than 7o odd characters is time-consuming enough for others. I have always been disappointed when favourite blogs begin to slow-down, then are only updated erratically and then grind to a complete halt. This has happened several times with blogs that I always linked to from here and read enthusiastically. The latest one which seems to have ground to a halt was an intriguing photographic blog called "1 Pic a Day", based in Singapore. I don't know the photographer but have enjoyed her quirky and imaginative pictures for a few years - it's the latest apparent end-of-blog disappointment.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ben Vorlich, Stuc a Chroin & Perth

Fifty kilometres separate Kinnoull Hill in Perth with Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin by Loch Earn. On hazy summer days that gap seems to grow and those two most charming mountains give them impression of being almost beyond the horizon. The winter combination of the autumn trees and sandstone of Perth in the foreground, and the sun picking out every crease in the ice-dusted peaks behind - seems to bring these distant mountains forward to the very edge of the town itself.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Lifting Haar over Perth

As the haar begins to thin-out and break up, Perth City Centre
suddenly appears through the gloom.
(click on photo to see at full-size)

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Book Notes: Baptism Explored by D. Robin Taylor

D. Robin Taylor is a Baptist Pastor, who has written a very surprising book about Christian Baptism, the content of which has been the material he has used in preparing candidates for Baptism for many years. The book celebrates people turning to Christ in repentance and faith, and directs them to use their baptism as a way of expressing three truths which lie at the core of the experience of being a Christian. These three are: (i) washing and cleansing from sin, (ii) being dead to self, and alive to God, and (iii) deliverance from evil.

The heart of the book lies in using the New Testament to map out the core of Christian discipleship, which revolve around those three things and which the texts link to baptism. This is foundational stuff, which is great to read and to re-affirm - even for readers who themselves turned to Christ many years ago. Exploring this material in preparation for baptism must make the baptism-services that the author takes in his church in New Zealand, very profound and inspiring occasions.

All of this is very wise, biblical and pastoral and inspiring. Yet there is something else about this book which means that the adjective 'surprising' must be added to that list! Since the Reformation, Protestant Christianity has been at war with itself over the subject of Baptism. The battle lines have been most starkly drawn over the subject of whether the children of believers are the fit subjects for baptism, or whether the only valid baptism is that which takes place post-conversion.

Taylor, although a Baptist Pastor who practices the immersion of believers on profession of faith, is one thinker who is convinced that it is time to bring this damaging war to a close. In his chapter on the subjects of baptism he outlines (very succinctly) a moderate position on baptism. His contention is that as scholars on both sides of the debate are godly men and women, handling scripture honestly - and both drawing hugely on arguments from silence, we must accept the validity of the baptism of all our Christian brothers and sisters, even if it is not the mode of our preference! In the schema that Taylor develops in the first third of the book, he demonstrates the reasonableness of both accepting the infant baptism of people whose Christian experience really did begin in their very first years as well as those who were baptised after profession of faith. Likewise he demonstrates why he will not withhold believers-baptism from an adult convert who was baptised prior-to-conversion, but for whom that fact has no ongoing significance. The thorny question of 're-baptism' is therefore not crudely formularised but placed within the context of the discipleship of the individual! This is so, so important because it makes discipleship the aim of the exercise, not party-allegiance or conformity.

Personally, there are two things which I find to be appallingly sub-standard in the baptism-war. The first is those of Presbyterian persuasion who smugly patronise Baptists as those who are not able to comprehend the depths of covenant theology. This is simply not true, there are many baptists who do, but their hermeneutics gives priority to the clear examples of the New Testament 1st generation baptisms, over and against the weight of such theological construction. The other shoddy occurrence is when Baptists disingenuously claim that receiving believers-baptism is simply a matter of obedience to Christ, nothing more. This is at best manipulative nonsense, at worst simply false. The truth is that it is a question of interpretation and obedience.

Two woeful errors flow from these twin evils. The first is that many Presbyterian (etc) churches will prevent gifted individuals serving in key roles if they do not present their offspring for baptism. This is a thoroughly unwarranted division of the body of Christ. Likewise, some baptist-churches practice a closed membership system in which those baptised prior to conversion are "in-Christ", but "2nd-class"! That such membership policies are hostile to the New Testament picture of the body (Paul) or the family (Hebrews) is so obvious that it is hard not to label them as being downright sinful.

Taylor's vision in Baptism Explored (let's get back to the book review!) is that Christian believers must unite around the gospel of Christ and that it is time to declare the baptism-war over. The oft-repeated claim is that a flexible approach to baptism is unworkable in practice and that churches must work policies of exclusion. Taylor's book - and the experience of his church shows why this is not the case.

It is a delight to read a book about baptism that is supremely concerned with Christ himself, and with a pastoral passion for the spiritual health of the disciple. Too many books subsume such concerns under the requirements of party-loyalties, for one side or the other and read like manifestos for the pompous or angry! Here is a book which calls people to baptism, to understand it, to live it, and to live out their baptism as part of living for Christ. There is one element which I would want to question Taylor on though. He deals with the cases of children who move from infant baptism seamlessly into adult faith without any apparent conversion. I think that his discussion here requires some clarification, maybe by more clearly differentiating between visible, outward conversion and inward regeneration. Unless this is clarified the book could be accused of either playing into the hands of the ultra-baptist critique that infant-baptism in inimical to genuine conversion or to having the 'Federal Vision' being espoused by a Baptist Pastor! The latter is quite an entertaining thought, at least!

The book concludes with the delightful 'liturgy' that Taylor uses in services of 'believers-baptism'. He favours a triple-baptism in the Trinitarian formula, with each immersion representing one of the three core meanings of baptism outlined above. This is a great way to end the book, and I'd love to attend a service like this! If I was ever personally persuaded of the requirement of post-conversion-re-baptism I'd probably go for something along the lines that Taylor suggests here.

This is a simple, but profound book, which (almost uniquely) champions discipleship and Christ-centred-ness itself, above the outward form of the sign that points to it. It promotes the unity that comes from making Christ himself the central reference point for all our discipleship. One critic suggested to me recently that where baptismal-parties exclude one another from the church it reveals that their baptismal-party is in fact an idol claiming a higher-allegiance than Christ in their policy making (ouch!). I fear that she may have been right in some instances, but even where that is the case, Taylor is seeking to help us to chart a course out of such a pointless impasse.

This book is a short, easy-read with a clear pastoral focus. On occasion it raises questions which are beyond its scope to answer. It seems abundantly clear that a full-scale theological work is now required to accompany this pastoral book, and to engage with those on both sides who will vehemently disagree with it. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said that he was in a 'minority of one' in his desire to chart a baptismal course that mediated between the two classic strict positions. I suspect that Taylor will find himself in similarly unpopular territory. Nevertheless he makes an important and idiosyncratic contribution to the discussion.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Perth Date for Paul Jones and Fiona Hendley

It's now only two weeks until Rock and Blues legend Paul Jones, comes to Perth with his wife Fiona Hendley for their "An Evening With....." event. Featuring songs, stories, reflections and thoughts on their long and illustrious showbiz careers, Paul and Fiona will also chart their journey from scepticism to faith in Jesus Christ, and how that faith now illuminates their lives. Tickets for this entertaining and thought-provoking evening are only £5, for details click here.

Monday, November 01, 2010

River Deep, Mountain High

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In the Gorge a L'Heric (click on photo to enlarge)

Film Notes: The Road to Memphis

Martin Scorsese's exploration of The Blues contains seven films made by different writers/producers each of whom have examined a different aspect of this distinctive musical form. Highlights of the series include Clint Eastwood's examination of Piano Blues, Mike Figgis on the British Blues Boom of the 1960s, and Scorcese's own look at the African roots of Blues forms in "Feel Like Going Home".

The Road to Memphis is Richard Pearce and Robert Kenner's contribution to the series, and focuses on the players who congregated around that city in the heydey of the blues movement. While this film does not scale the heights of Eastwood or Figgis' films, The Road to Memphis is nevertheless a charming exploration of a period in history, as viewed through the memories of he participants many years later. Bobby Rush, Rosco Gordon and Ike Turner all make nice performances, but there is no doubt that B.B. King steals this particular show. King always had enviable quantities of both talent and charisma - and was sufficiently individual in his playing and singing to be instantly recognisable despite his legions of imitators. Above all, there is the sweet, sweet sound of his guitar which is heard no better than on the version of "The Thrill is Gone" which King plays on his return to Memphis documented in the film.

Some of the performances in the film are quite eccentric, Rev Gatemouth Moore is in fact almost terrifying; although to be fair not as bewildering as Bobby Rush's backing dancer who is possessed of quite the most extraordinarily agile... The finest moment of the film is without any doubt the film of B.B. King returning to Memphis. The camera catches BB gazing wistfully from the tour-bus and reminiscing about times, places and players of the past. As he does so, his thoughts seem to come alive as archive film is spliced into the bus sequence. As they drive into the famous Beale Street, voices such as Howlin' Wolf and Fats Domino are conjured up.

It's not the greatest blues documentary around - but is a charming slice of history, with some lovely musical moments.

Gorge a L'Heric

This slightly spooky looking old bridge is part of an old walkway through the gorge. Click on the image to enlarge.

Sun, Sea, Sand, Shade