Tuesday, January 31, 2012

In Defence of Munro Bagging..

Blue= climbed. Red= Not yet climbed!

Munro-bagging, (defined as the attempt to stand upon each 3000ft+ summit in Scotland, having climbed from the public road without mechanical assistance) is a fairly pointless and silly exercise. On the other hand, reduced to its most basic level, every sport is pointless - unless you define the point of existence as kicking a sack of air between some pieces of wood, of course. Munro-bagging has always had its detractors, of whom there seem to be two main types:

The first are non-hill walkers who mock the very thought that any pleasure could be gained by dragging ones weary and reluctant limbs up some tiresome Geal Charn or Meall Bhuide, while wading through relentless heather and peat hags in driving wind and pouring rain. These people would rather sit at home and watch The X-factor, thus giving me opportunities aplenty to return their incredulity about the nature of pleasure; while simultaneously disbarring themselves from participation in meaningful cultural dialogue. These people need detain us no longer!

The second group for whom Munro-baggers are an object of scorn are the self-appointed hillwalking elite, the mountain-puritans, the 'real-men' of the wild. For this group, the very thought of selecting a peak, and scaling it in order to place a tick in a book is an act of sacrilege - which demonstrates a failure to appreciate the true grandeur of wild-places, and reduces appreciating them on their own terms to a puerile game. This group however will find that their view of the countryside will be steadily eroded by the restriction of vision that occurs as their heads are shoved further and further up their own bottoms. Sadly, such has always been the fate of the self-important, and pompous. They may wear their pomposity with beards and goretex, rather than posh-accents and tweeds, but they are unmistakably one of a kind.

I began Munro-bagging quite by accident. When I moved to Scotland to go to University, I had already done a lot of walking in England and Wales, across the chalklands of the South, the broad uplands of The Peak district, and the rocky ridges of Snowdonia. I hoped to do some walking in Scotland and so one of my first purchases on arrival was a local OS map. The Scottish map confused me however. In England and Wales, the maps are covered in thin dotted red-lines which show public footpaths and bridleways. These formed the basis for any walk as everything else was pretty much private property and illegal to stand on! So when I looked at a Scottish OS map for the first time, I had no idea where to walk because of the total absence of red-dotted lines across the countryside. Not understanding the way in which the right to roam in wild-places in Scots law made such lines redundant, I felt very hesitant about taking to uplands without designated rights of way. I simply didn't know where to walk! One of the first presents I was bought was Cameron McNeish's little Munro almanac. It listed a series of hill-walking routes, where to park and directions for  walks. I tried a few - somewhere in the East Grampians, and had such wonderful days out, that before long I was merrily ticking off these routes. The map above demonstrates that over the last few years I have done a fair amount of pointless Munro-bagging!

The trouble with the Mountain-snobs who despise Munro-bagging is that they assume that the addition of the 'game' of ticking the book detracts from a deep and genuine appreciation of wild places. I suspect that the opposite may in fact be the case. The Munro-book entices the walker up from the cities to places accessible as Ben Lomond or Schiehallion, where the glory of The Highlands begins and is first glimpsed. But the book doesn't leave them there, it lures them on to The Cairngorms, Kintail, Torridon, Knoydart, Sutherland - giving a taste of all corners of the country and all kinds of wild places. I don't know any Munro baggers who haven't started off like this who don't also delight in other hills, like the magnificent sub-Munro-height peaks of Assynt. Likewise, I am sure that the ranks of organisations like The John Muir Trust, or the SSPB are packed full of people who fell in love with Scottish landscape and wildlife because they first went to the hills with a copy of Munro's tables in their hands.

Now, obviously refusing to climb a tremendous mountain because it is only 2999 feet high is daft, mad and indefensibly moronic. But, so is the assumption by the mountain-elite that such attitudes are common amongst Munro-baggers. I count myself as a Munro-bagger, but yet I have spent days on lower-hills, photographing them and their wildlife, walking along coastal paths, on long-paths, and up to waterfalls. I have walked with pensioners, and carried babies on my back through the hills. A Munro 'bagged' might add an extra dimension and challenge to a day out, but it is by no means restrictive. I certainly wouldn't miss out on a three hour walk near home, just because there wasn't time to drive to an unconquered Munro! And I suspect that my attitudes are more common amongst baggers, than the elitists would care to admit!

So here's my Munro map. I am two-thirds of the way through. There are several that I have climbed several times - and will probably climb many more times. Last year was a poor year for bagging, a mere 8 new summits, despite the many hours I spent walking. I am hoping that 2012 will be a more bagging-successful year and I have a 'wish-list' of walks I would love to complete. The economy, the price of petrol, the weather, family activities, and the availability of hill-friends will all play a part in determining my success or failure in this ambition. Maybe see you in the hills somewhere...

An older view..


Click on the image - links to a film about Perth, made in 1936.

Ice on the Table

"The Stone Table", Kinnoull Hill not Narnia. Click on image to see at full size.

Smeaton's Bridge

Walking in to town for breakfast with my wife - mist hovering low over the Tay.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Dave, I had a word with the Fungus, they assure me that there's plenty of dead wood for everyone to share. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

How to Keep Warm

The storm last May brought down a lot of trees near us, but the chaos of that Monday evening was offset by the nice collection of firewood for this winter that it produced. Several happy Spring days sawing, splitting, and stacking in order to get the wood nicely seasoned has made cold winter nights a lot more pleasant now. 

The sweet smell of woodsmoke, the peaty aroma of a fine dram.. the way to spend a January evening.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


On the hill yesterday, with fog hanging around the Tay below, and the yellow morning sun above.. As ever, click on the image to see it properly.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Sinister Mr Snilloc

Some school reading book which my kids had featured a 'bad guy' called "Mr Collins". This Mr Collins, made quite an impression on the kids, because they designed a face for him, which started appearing in places such as the obligatory "Keep Out!" notices on their bedroom doors. The character took on a more sinister aspect when they re-named him, Mr Snilloc, as the word in reverse sounds infinitely more menacing. Mr Snilloc now appears routinely on the steamed-up glass by the shower, or icy car-windows, and birthday cards invariably are signed by both the sender and Mr Snilloc! The picture above is Snilloc's recent appearance on Tentsmuir beach.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Good Morning, Fife

Looks quite nice at full size - click on the image to see it properly!

At the pond...


Nestling between the two small hills near our house there is a spring which feeds a pond with fresh water all year round. Even when the main routes up Kinnoull Hill are very busy with walkers, dogs and mountain bikers, it' soften possible to sit by the pond and see or hear no human activity in the woods at all. The town rumbles away in the background, but here, wedged between the two hills, the air at the pond is often perfectly still.

When I am up there with my children in tow (and the inordinate volume at which they seem to function), the chances of seeing any wildlife are extremely limited. However, when on my own, I sometimes quietly wait. Within a few minutes of my noisy footsteps falling silent, the creatures of the wood resume their activity. On some Spring mornings I have seen young deer coming down to the pond to drink, while large Herons sometimes take a break from the Tay to fish the pond. Other large birds of prey stalk the woods too. I have seen Perigrines on the other side of the hill, but around the pond buzzards and a large owl  are regular sights. Squirrels, usually large greys, but occasionally little reds, clatter up and down the trunks, and countless smaller birds chatter in the branches. On Friday, a new sight; a fox was lazily patrolling the margins of the pond.

It's not a piece of glamorous mountain scenery, but it is a place of delightful calm, and charm. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book Notes: Screening the Blues by Paul Oliver

Some aspects of the so-called "Great British Blues Boom" of the 1960s are disputed. Not least amongst these questions is why so many affluent white kids in Western Europe found the  music of America's Black underclass resonated with their experiences in that turbulent decade - and became such a potent vehicle for their own self-expression. In short, what where guys in Surrey doing searching for rare Big Bill Broonzy discs in order to faithfully imitate them? There have been many answers to these fascinating  questions. However what is surely beyond doubt is that the historian and academic analyst of this music in the UK was Paul Oliver. An academic architect by profession, Oliver began a lifetime of study into African-American culture in the 1950s, publishing reams of articles and many books - documenting, classifying, describing and dissecting the music and lyrics of The Blues.

In 1968, when bands like Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, and The Rolling Stones, had brought the sounds of Mississippi and Chicago to thousands of people, Oliver published  Screening the Blues: Aspects of the Blues Tradition. It consists of a series of essays which Oliver had previously published in various journals, covering subjects as disparate as Blues and Christmas, nd Preaching the Blues (on the complex, multi-faceted, and often over-simplified) relationship between The Blues and Gospel music and their respective orbits. The Forty-fours, is a very long essay tracing a 'family-tree' of songs, musical forms and influences, tracing Blues back into the 19thC, while Policy Blues examines the gambling rackets which feature so heavily in African-American 20thC history, and which were such a fertile inspiration for the Bluesmen and Women. In the course of this, Oliver makes some observations about the apparent lack of social comment, let alone protest coming forth from a people for whom the central narrative of their experience in America, was one of oppression. The book concludes with a extended discussion about Blue Blues; that is blues with sexual content or innuendo and some of the games the blues musicians played to get black community innuendo under the radar of the predominantly white censors.

The book now has a dual significance, as it was written as a history book, but also is in itself now also a historical document - a snapshot of where academic study had reached in 1968. In many cases, Oliver calls for further research, and expresses frustration at the lack of serious studies in the field. In nearly every case he cites there are now a plethora of articles and books addressing his questions. Acceptable language in debates about race has also changed a lot over the last four decades. Contemporary readers will wince at Oliver's consistent use of terms like "Negro", but should remember that it was a perfectly acceptable term at the time,  used throughout the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr, for example. As a historic document, its also fascinating to note that a generation previously, the thought of a white, British historian being utterly consumed with analysing the Lomax Library of Congress field recordings of the Blues from the 1920s would have been unthinkable. By the 60's it was 'merely' pioneering!

In terms of the content of the book Oliver writes with a voice of academic detachment (earning the disapproval of some Black authors for whom the Blues is part of the Black experience which can only be lived - not externally analysed). His research is extremely thorough, and if not exhaustive - sometimes detailed and repetitive to the point of being laborious. The essays on The Forty-Fours and The Blue Blues, especially could be massively improved by moving a large proportion of the cited examples and lyrics into the footnotes to allow the analysis itself to flow more naturally and build towards conclusions. Nevertheless, Screening the Blues is important history, and is now in itself an important way-marker in the outward rippling of the Blues from Mississippi to the world.


Monday, January 09, 2012

So, what does this button do then?

Ooh-eck, I like that! Looks even better full size (click on it to see).

Book Notes: Mark Steel's in Town by Mark Steel

One of the highlights of recent Radio 4 comedy has been "Mark Steel's in Town" in which the radical and acerbic stand-up satirist visits a town, researches and writes a comedy routine based on the place - and then delivers it to an audience of locals. The format has worked really well on the radio for three series, as Steel brilliantly dissects the quirky, weird, odd, or wonderful aspects of a place and its people, drawing on his experiences today or on the history of the places. Each show features his entertaining monologue - (much of which he we invariably delivery in a cod version of the local accent), the local crowd reaction to this outsider affectionately teasing their foibles with laughter, cheers, boos or hoots of derision; and an interview with a colourful local character who seems to personify one of the town's most endearing eccentricities. Most of the last series has been excellent, and listening to it usually provokes a wry grin, and occasional peals of laughter.

The book based on the series contains a lot of material which will be familiar to the Radio 4 audience, such as the chapter on Douglas in the Isle of Man where he accuses the residents of basically being tax dodgers. It's written in Steel's distinctive tone, and is packed for of Steels trademark radicalism, disdain for the establishment, wonderful sense of irony and delicious use of ludicrous comparisons. He quotes lovely stories from the archives of the places he visits too, in Basingstoke he describes the way in which the droll and quietly spoken cricket commentator John Arlott got the better of a verbose colleague who concluded his description of the ground by "telling listeners he could see the sun setting in the West. When Arlott came on he said slowly, 'you can be rest assured that if the sun starts to set in the East I'll be the first to let yo know.'" And then in Wigan he discovered that local 1940s 'cheeky' banjolele songster George Formby  "toured pre-apartheid South Africa and upset his hosts by refusing to play segregated venues. As a result, a black member of one audience presented Formby's wife Beryl with a box of chocolates, and George gave the man a hug. National Party leader Daniel Francois Malan, who would introduce apartheid two years later, heard about this and phoned Beryl to complain, to which she replied, 'Why don't you p*** off, you horrible little man?'

While analysing London and rejoicing in its colourful ethnic diversity, Steel says: 
"My son once introduced me to a new friend, saying, 'This is Ernest, he's Polish. Don't worry, I don't miss any opportunity to remind him that his lot had to be saved by us in the war.'
I said, 'What?'
He said, "Everyday I remind him that his country would have been stuffed without us in the Second World War.'
I said, 'Listen, you know that aeroplane battle at the start of the war, over Kent, that meant that Hitler had no chance of invading?'
'Oh yeah, the Battle of Britain'
'Yes, the Battle of Britain. Well, do you know where a fifth of pilots on the Allied side came from?  They were from Poland!'
He turned straight to his mate and said, 'See, you were nicking our jobs even back then'.
Now who wouldn't want to live in a city like that?

There are plenty of laughs in the book, but despite this I couldn't help feeling that it failed to live up to the Radio show. In fact, its a lot less funny and enjoyable than its Radio equivalent despite the fact that so much of it is the Radio show scripts. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that Steel has to tone his language down for the BBC, whereas his publishers allows him to barrage the reader with expletives which become wearisome. The second is that so much of the humour comes from Steel's delivery, and mimicry of local voices, or bursting into song, and interaction with the live audience - something which doesn't translate to the page. The result is that while the book is wryly amusing, it doesn't deliver the laughs like the Radio show. Fans of the show will feel somewhat underwhelmed by the book, I suspect.


Sunday, January 08, 2012

Along the River Braan

Click to enlarge - and see the picture properly!

The Falls of Braan at The Hermitage

A favourite family stroll starts at Rumbling Bridge near Dunkeld and follows the track alongside the River Braan  to The Hermitage.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Friday, January 06, 2012



One of the best things about the Christmas season this year has been having my parents up in Scotland, not just once, but twice. The first time was for my Dad's 70th birthday, a milestone we celebrated here with them and my sister's family too. The second time was for Christmas itself. As we went to the front door to wave them off, a stunning rainbow plunged down from the sky into The South Inch. 

Book Notes: The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller & Kathy Keller

The New York based pastor and author Tim Keller (most well know for his Christian apologetic work The Reason for God), has kept up a quite phenomenal publication rate over recent years. His latest title, co-authored with his wife Kathy is an exploration of a Christian vision of marriage. I have read quite a few books about marriage, most of which have been useful in different ways with their various emphases. Early in marriage I read Wallerstein and Blakeslee's The Good Marriage, a detailed piece of secular social research which helped to set us a good trajectory. Years later I read Nicky and Sila Lee's The Marriage Book - which is practical, and brutally realistic and full of brilliant ideas for day-to-day married life. They write as Christians, but make their materials accessible and useful to all. The Keller's book is something quite different to either of these however.

The Keller's book sets out a uniquely Christian view of marriage; its design, nature, power and purpose. It is based not just on biblical texts about marriage - but also (as one would expect from Keller) on a vision of life as being lived in response to the grace of God. His view of humanity is that we are sinful and flawed, but unreservedly loved by God in Christ who is in the business of reconstructing us. Obviously this has huge implications for marriage, not least because it sets the goal of life as the grateful pursuit of Christlikeness, something which in marriage becomes a shared, joint endeavour. They explore this endeavour through Biblical reflection, quotes from a range of thinkers, and anecdotes from their own marriage as well from several decades in pastoral ministry.

The book kicks off with a contemporary discussion of the way in which 'St' Paul taught that marriage is meant to be a "reflection of the saving love of God for us in Jesus Christ, which is why marriage helps to understand the gospel and the gospel helps us to understand marriage.(p15)" This is a helpful illuminating chapter which neatly lays out the spiritual vision for Christian marriage which fills the Keller's thinking. It's in this foundational chapter that they also offer an apologetic for marriage itself, as the covenant commitment - which rather than being a restrictive barrier to human happiness actually helps create the conditions in which human love and happiness thrive (a theme fully developed in chapter three).

The second chapter focuses on the Christian couple's dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit, to re-make character. Marriage properly understood will involve a loss of freedom, of independence and is commitment to lifelong compromise for the sake of the other. This, obviously militates against contemporary notions of the "me-marriage" in which the essence of the contract is the quest for self-fulfilment through the (presumably disposable) union. It also is in strong tension with traditional marriage structures, which see the imposition of strictly defined gender-roles as the key to marital stability and happiness.(p66) The essential problem of humanity they argue is innate selfishness, the corrective is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the power to change is The Holy Spirit. The book is actually worth buying for this chapter alone!

The vision of "Spiritual Friendship" is something that I have listened to Keller preach on as a model for Christian fellowship in the church. The fourth chapter of this book applies this idea as the "mission of marriage". St Paul's theology of sanctification provides a lens through which to walk through life with another flawed human being - with the vision before you of the person that both you and God will help your spouse to become!

In chapter five some of the common problems which surface in different phases of marriage are mentioned. The waning of initial infatuation, the point at which opposites no longer attract and begin to irritate, and some common misunderstandings, differing assumptions about marriage/homes/family, communication errors and typical gender differences, are discussed. While these different issues have each ruined marriages, the Kellers helpfully describe the power of healing love. The determination to love in all its forms and categories (eg Greek: storge, philos, eros, agape;  that is affection, friendship, erotic love, and service, respectively) can overcome these barriers - and the determination to 'love' even when there is a deficit of 'like' towards a spouse is the key to rekindling 'like'. The essence of love here is a covenant commitment to spend a lifetime investing in the other, especially when our emotions are rebellious. The "five love languages" (familiar to anyone who has done The Marriage Course) are also deployed here, intriguingly also described as "currencies", another excellent analogy.

In chapter six Kathy Keller wades right into the controversy between "egalitarians" and "complimentarians" over gender roles within marriage; and I suspect will annoy people in both camps! Typically many who style themselves as "complimentarians" take New Testament texts about the "headship" of the husband and infer from that very strictly gender divided roles on traditional lines. Many who call themselves "egalitarians" would dismiss biblical texts like that out of hand. Kathy Keller takes an unusual stand in both affirming the general principle of the text, but suggesting that how that works our in practice will vary according to time/culture. Therefore, "this has nothing to do with who brings home the biggest salary, or who makes the most sacrifices to care for the children. The family model in which the man went out to work and the woman stayed at home with the children is really a rather recent development. For centuries, husband and wife, (and often children) worked together on the farm or in the shop. The external details of a a family's division of labour may be worked out differently across marriages and societies" (p184). This is a serious blow to the hyper-machismo theology of the likes of Mark Driscoll which will delight egalitarians. However, before they try to claim Kathy Keller as one of their own, she will then dismay them by concluding, "the tender, serving, authority of a husband's headship and the strong, gracious gift of a wife's submission restore us to who we were meant to be at creation"! What is even more interesting than this are Keller's comments about her personal wrestling with these texts, growing understanding of them and book's appendix in which they describe how they have sought to outwork their understanding of the Bible in their own marriage.

Unusually for a book about marriage, there is a very useful chapter for unmarried people within it. It focuses on important matters such as the value and completeness of a single life, on dating, planning marriage and deciding whether to marry. Sixteen years too late for me to apply - but I can see the wisdom of much of what they say. The book then concludes with a frank, charming and helpful discussion of the 'covenant-cement' that is sexual love. Biblical texts, and personal anecdotes are marshaled to ensure that all readers are confronted with the Bible's exalted view of sex, and the importance of it for marriage.

Here's a short video clip of the Kellers talking about the book:

Broadly, this is an excellent book - which Christian married couples (and singles too) would gain a huge amount from reading (if possible together). It is biblical, wise, practical and yet pastoraly sensitive. The infusion of the Christian gospel and spiritual dynamics into a marriage book is a stimulating, challenging and inspiring project which especially in the early chapters of the book, they do remarkably well. Tim Keller is an excellent communicator, who has the ability to package detailed ideas remarkably simply. For her part, Kathy Keller was a book editor who writes equally well, opening up some deep and searching issues with deceptive simplicity. I have many friends who will balk at the complimentarianism of chapter six, however gentle, nuanced and non-hierarchical. Nevertheless, I would urge them not to dismiss the entire book on that basis, there is simply too much pure gold in here to be missed! It is a very helpful volume for anyone wanting to develop a fully Christian view of marriage, helpful for people who are married as well as anyone who might one day be. The great weight of this book is about how the Christian gospel shapes, inspires, empowers and equips us for the daily joys and challenges of developing a thriving God-honouring marriage. And that is priceless.



Monday, January 02, 2012

Book Notes: The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

During the Cold War era, the lines were drawn clearly. On one side stood communism, state-control of the economy, and lack of human rights and freedoms; while on the other side stood freedom, democracy and capitalism. The cold war narrative (at least as told in the West) was that this meant that freedom and democracy are the natural (indeed inevitable) partners of capitalism. The fall of  Russian and Eastern European communism was naturally interpreted through this prism. Likewise, when the Tienanmen Square protests began to gather strength the assumption made here was that the Chinese were striving for the political and personal freedoms which normally accompany free market economics. In "The Shock Doctrine",  "No-Logo" author Naomi Klein systematically demolishes this narrative, and reveals the extent to which the radical free-market principles espoused most notably by Milton Friedman, have most-often been the natural bedfellows of terror, human-rights, abuses, dictators, and corporations profiteering from war and natural disasters.

The "Shock" referred to in the title is a comparison Klein draws repeatedly on. She describes the CIA sponsored psychiatric experiments of the mid-20th Century in which doctors attempted to shock, disorientate, memory-erase, and then rebuild patients. Initially this was trialled as a treatment of psychiatric illnesses, but was also associated with attempts to break captured enemy combatants. Klein suggests that over the last half-century, 'disaster-Capitalism' has used exactly such tactics on whole societies, using (or creating) catastrophes in order to force through unpopular economic 'reforms' on disorientated populations. These 'reforms' are typically vast cuts in social spending, privatisation of state-assets, access to land and resources for Western Corporations, low tax-rates in regressive tax systems and multi-billion dollar contracts for Western Corporations to 'rebuild' after the disaster. Typically, such policies result in a wealth bonanza for shareholders in the disaster-capitalism elite, but vastly accelerated differentials in wealth in the reconstructed country. Where electorates will not vote for these policies but prefer even moderate Keynesian alternatives, pressure from international money -markets, IMF/World Bank ensure compliance. In the most extreme cases, democracy has been crushed by force to facilitate the forward march of disaster capitalism. This is Klein's thesis.

In chapter after chapter of tightly argued and extensively footnoted prose, Klein demonstrates the coherence and veracity of her central contentions. She takes the reader through South America in the 70s where social-democratic governments were overthrown by American backed free-market dictators like the murderous Pinochet; charts the ways in which Solidarity in Poland, and the ANC in South Africa have abandoned the manifestos on which they were elected and succumbed to IMF 'Shock-therapy'.  She details the way in which Yeltsin was able (during his war with the Russian parliament), to use the shock of conflict and the suspension of democracy to force through the deeply unpopular privatisations of state utilities which created the infamous Russian multi-billionaire's of today. Needless to say there is little evidence of any 'trickle-down' of this wealth to the Russian people. Klein also shows the way in which natural disasters such as the tragic Tsunami were seized upon by the disaster-capitalism complex to drive their agenda forward against the wishes of the victims of the destructive wave. She documents the struggles of many indigenous peoples to re-build their homes (such as Sri Lankan fishing communities) when their land has been given to Multinational corporations to redevelop as tourist attractions using Western aid money. 

Perhaps the most shocking of all Klein's case studies is that of Iraq, and the Bush regime's privatised war which created a national 'shock' with which to rebuild the country as a free-market test-case for the Middle East. Klein documents the way in which the multi-nationals and mercenaries who fought much of the war were accountable neither to US or Iraqi law, whose conduct was frequently appalling but whose owners harvest multi-billion dollar profits. The scandal of the 'reconstruction' of Iraq in which billions of dollars of Iraq's oil wealth was harvested to allow firms like Haliburton to impose their plans on the populace is a terrifying read.

There are places where Klein undoubtedly asserts more than she demonstrates, in the case of her chapter on Israel and Palestine she's probably guilty of some significant over-simplifications, and on a few occasions some fairly significant factual claims aren't footnoted. Nevertheless, this book is a devastating indictment of the amorality of so much of the world economic system. What is perhaps most surprising is the reaction of surprise that this book seems to have generated in so many reviews. I must admit that I had always assumed that economic policy was the driving force in the conquest of Iraq, and that the world was full of corporations ready to profiteer from the misery of millions. 

In the final chapter of the book, Klein looks to highlight what she sees as hopeful signs of alternatives. She rejoices when she sees developing countries in the two-thirds world seizing the initiative and managing their own economic fortunes. Direct bartering deals between South American countries for commodities such as Oil or trained medics without reliance on the volatile manipulations of the international markets. When Klein published in 2007 she was able to trace what she described as positive signs of a post-shock alternative arising. IMF and World Bank Friedmanite loan and reconstruction shock packages were steadily reducing as she wrote. Five years later, as the world economy enters another year of crisis and countries across Southern Europe face severe shock, Klein's book makes essential and urgent reading. Economies and even currencies may collapse and reconstruction may have to happen - but whose reconstruction, and how it will be carried out will be matters of utmost concern. Klein argues that 'disaster capitalism' is poised to exploit crises for its own ends; real participative democracy must also therefore be as well prepared for the forthcoming conflicts.

On a more personal note, I have been involved with discussions on another blog about the attempts of the Christian-right in the USA to baptise capitalism as "Christian". This was I suppose understandable in the Cold War era, when there was a correlation between market-economies and religious freedoms, and the atheist propaganda and persecution that accompanied Marxist-Leninist government. Today however, I think that such schemes are deeply flawed because they are based on a series of errors. These include:

 (i) Various financial systems existed across Bible times.The Bible neither discusses socialism nor capitalism as we have it today, but it does deal in detail with the ethics with which wealth and money should be handled within whatever system we find ourselves. The leap from this textual data to an unequivocal endorsement of the late 20th Century American experience seems to be a capitulation to ethnocentric hermeneutics of breathtaking proportions. The idea that one economic model is to be imposed in all times and places, is one which resonates strongly with free-market fundamentalists, and with their Marxist protagonists - but is not  something which is found in the Bible. Western Capitalist theologians need to hear the voices of their brothers and sisters in the two-thirds world and ask why they read the same texts so differently. 

(ii) Christian proponents of Capitalism claim to be defending the principles of human responsibility and fairness of the free market, but in fact are apologists for Multi-national Corporatism, whose interest in profits and market domination skews market freedoms so that what exists in practice usually looks nothing like the theoretical model defended. 

(iii) The Bible is uniformly condemning of money-lending with interest, something which is intrinsic to contemporary notions of 'enterprise'. Christian-capitalists need to spend so much effort qualifying and avoiding these texts that they have tacitly admitted that there is a serious disjunction between their model and biblical norms. 

(iv) While the social-justice models applicable to Israel in the Old Testament cannot simply be applied to contemporary secular society as if it were God's Covenant people; the prophecies of men like Amos do still reveal something of the unchanging character of God - as revealed in those specific circumstances. We cannot therefore abandon all notions of equity as limited to that time/place and those recipients but should weigh contemporary options in the light of the broad outlines of how God requires that we live in His world. 

(v) The Reformation doctrine of Total Depravity emphasises that all aspects of our humanity have been tainted by the 'fall', and that not one area is unaffected by it. This means that all parts of our lives, (mind, emotions, bodies etc etc) have been influenced by sin. However it must also mean that all human endeavours and systems fall short of the standards of God's holiness. I am very suspect of any theologian who is 'courageous' enough to say that  all human economic arrangements are sinful - except the one which is benefiting me and my country right now! It seems like a refusal to adequately apply the doctrine of Total Depravity to ones own culture. The gospel of Jesus Christ stands above all cultural ferment and socio-economic battles, and must be seen to be so. If the American Christian right is allowed to weld their economic model onto the gospel as if they were one, the consequences for Christianity could be disastrous. If modern consumer-capitalism turns out to be the greatest human endeavour in the Tower of Babel tradition yet, and it falls spectacularly; what will be left of the church and the Christian witness to the saving power of Christ? 


Sunday, January 01, 2012

Reading the Bible... 2012+

I suspect that I am not alone in having failed to sustain overly-ambitious Bible-reading plans in previous years. McCheyne's famous and majestically constructed plan is one I have failed to complete several times. Furthermore, I found that just trying to get through that much volume was becoming a chore, and I became more interested in ticking off the box on the reading plan than listening to the text. That's like becoming so into Munro-bagging that you stop enjoying being out in the hills!

Tim Chester has recently been promoting a Bible-reading plan which avoids some of these pitfalls. Called "The Edge Network Weekly Bible Reading Plan", it divides the texts up by weeks rather than days, and takes three years to cover the whole Old Testament once and the New, twice. The plan is online here, and it looks pretty good to me. As of today, I am going to give it a go!

The Bible is by any measure or standard, a quite unique and remarkable book. It is agreed by all to be a work of massive historical and literary importance worth of serious reading and consideration by anyone who wants to understand our world today. Western culture in particular has been historically rooted deeply in the message of the Bible's pages, while over the last century the specific trajectory of secularism has been shaped by rejection of this book. The Bible is a constantly surprising collection of documents gathered from across centuries of different cultures and languages; it contains some things which a child can grasp, and others which perplex the scholars. It reflects on love, death, sex, food, ageing, marriage, suffering, pain, he origins of life, the destiny of the soul, the purpose of life, the nature of happiness, the causes of evil, the nature and existence of God, the destiny of the universe, and makes the remarkable claim that all of this is centred on a 1st Century Galileean carpenter/preacher whose work is the pivotal episode in the history of the world.

The human story of the Bible is enough to make it essential reading in itself. Christians however are convinced that there is another dimension to this collection of documents. Historic Christian theology and immediate spiritual experience converge around the claim that the Bible has a divine inspiration; that is that the life-experiences, personalities and circumstances of each author were so arranged that the words they wrote did not merely express their thoughts, but contained the revelation of God himself. Furthermore, the gathering of the whole collection was a supernaturally guided endeavour which gives authority and clarity to the 'whole' work together. This means that individual texts (however lovely or problematic) are not the sole  focus, but the shape of the great narrative which starts with the pre-existence of God, centres on Jesus Christ (who it maintains is God walking amongst us), and culminates with the New Heaven and Earth, in which God and His people are finally re-reunited, is. Christian spiritual experience includes the idea that The Holy Spirit was the person who 'superintended' the writing the Bible, and that He is still in the world today and indeed lives with the believer. As such there is a deep resonance between the person who is open to the Spirit of God and the voice of God, heard through the ancient words of The Bible.

So, it's January the 1st - and I am starting a new Bible-reading plan, if anyone is interested in reading along with me follow the links. Likewise, if you want to check on my progress during the year, and prod me back into action if I start falling behind, that would be welcome encouragement!