Wednesday, 24 December 2008

The Great Days Are Passed

I've been re-watching Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. One of the aspects of the story that Jackson underlines so clearly is it's setting during the decline of Middle Earth. The films are littered with telling images - the elves in procession to the Grey Havens, the ruins of Moriah, the Fellowship looking in awe in the giant statues of the sons of Elendil.

The first movie begins with the tale of the Last Alliance of Men and Elves, where Isildur cuts the ring finger from Sauron's hand and appropriates the ring for himself. Elves and men together face their foe in open battle and win. In the Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, such a battle is impossible. Men and elves are too weak for anything but a skirmish. Nor is Sauron what he used to be. Perhaps literally disembodied, he sits in Barad Dur directing his fractious minions from afar, unaware of the hobbits carrying the ring right through his own country. Our heroes may be victorious, the power of Sauron overthrown, but this only hastens the end of the great days - Gandalf no longer works his magic, the last of the elves depart, even the men of Numenor continue their decline after their last flowering in the person of Aragorn. This pervasive sadness is part of the emotional power of the story. There can be no easy victory, no magical restoration of what evil has destroyed. The story has no "get out of jail free" card.

In creating Middle Earth Tolkein was inspired by mythology from around the world, so it can hardly be a surpise that this theme arises repeatedly in mythology. The Greeks had their heroic age, when gods and humans lived together and intermarried. The Britons had their own heroic age, appropriated by the Anglo-Saxons, in which Arthur and his company of knights kept order and spread the values of chivalry. Australian Aboriginal myths (of which Tolkein probably knew nothing) feature powerful ancestor figures who shape the earth and create different species of animal, bird and fish. This theme is echoed in much 20th century fantasy - in Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books, in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain, and in a host of lesser imitators.

Even the Book of Genesis has its powerful ancestor figures. Humans start out in paradise, living in innocence, and then falling, but their power doesn't disappear all at once after the fall, it wanes slowly. The first list of ancestors, found in Chapter 5, includes men who lived for over 900 years. The second list, the ancestors of Abram found in Chapter 11, starts with a man who lived for 500 years and finshes with Abram's father Terah living to the age of 205. The patriarchs themselves are attributed slightly shorter lives - Abraham lived to be over 170, while Isaac lived to 180. When Jacob appeared before Pharoah he was asked how old he was, and replied, "The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and difficult..."!

In our scientific age, what is striking is the contrast between these tales, and what we know about the lifespans of our ancestors from the archeological record. Analysis of remains shows us that our ancestors had much shorter lifespans than we do. They had less protection from disease and famine. As a result, infant mortality and death in childbirth were frequent, plagues killed large numbers, and even healthy adults could easily be struck down in their prime. They lived hard lives of manual labour and illness and as a result were probably weaker than we are.

How do we square these two visions of the past? Were the writers of myths simply wrong, deluded by their ignorance? This is how the modernists of the 19th century would have seen it. Unfortunately we don't have the luxury of such a black and white world view. The creators and tellers of the myths were not trying to create scientific history, they were trying to say something about the way they lived. No doubt plenty of people know more about it than me but I like to look at it this way.

We live in a world of sorrow and failure. We are surrounded by death, suffering and evil. Our deaths are not glorious, they are sordid and painful. Our lives are not glorious either, they are hum-drum, steeped in suffering and frustration. Yet we have a sense that this is not how it should be, that life holds the possibility of greater things.

We can project this desire onto the future - we hope for heaven, for Christ's return, for the millennium. But we can also project it onto the past. Our ancestors were great, lived long lives, did heroic deeds and died glorious deaths - or like the elves or Enoch, lived forever. The current state of the world is a corruption of what it should be, brought about by evil, by our own failings or the failings of our forebears.

Implicit in this world view is the possibility that it could be like that again. Perhaps, like Tolkein, we do not believe that is possible for us. Evil has done its work too well. But perhaps, just perhaps, there can be a late flowering, an Aragorn can arise, a hobbit can join the ranks of the great. And perhaps there is a future age, or another place, where all these glories can live again. In the meantime, the stories, the magic, the power, leave behind a residue which we can still use - a set of possibilities for us to aspire to in this life, a guiding light to help us rise above our squalid present.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Cricket and Terrorism

Being a huge cricket fan, I've been following the story of the England cricket team's response to the Mumbai terrorist attacks via http://www.cricinfo.com/. Of course I'm fascinated by the batting and bowling stuff but it's also interesting to see how people react under pressure.

As soon as the attacks happened, the England team flew home from India. This is fairly logical - Mumbai was their next stop and in fact their gear had already been sent on ahead of them to one of the hotels at the centre of the attacks. I believe it's still there.

There followed a debate about whether the team would return for the test series, demands for a "presidential" level of security, talk of some players not touring no matter what, and so on.  It went without saying that the test scheduled for Mumbai would be moved to another city. As of now it seems a full strength team is heading back to a training base in Abu Dhabi, with the commencement of the Test series likely but still dependent on security checks. The fact that about 8 backup players have been named seems to suggest that some players are still wavering.

Now wind back to England, 7 July 2005. Australia and England were playing a one-day match in the leadup to the Ashes and I tuned in the the SBS coverage one evening to see not cricket but coverage of the terrorist attacks in London which killed 56 people, injured hundreds and paralysed the London transport system.

The cricket, however, had not been cancelled - the broadcasters just thought the terrorist attack was more important. Admittedly the game was a couple of hundred miles away in Leeds, but only three days later, with the cleanup still going on, the two teams moved to London where they stayed for two weeks, despite another less serious attack on July 21 right in the middle of the Lords test.

You might think that Australia's cricketers are less nervous than England's, but this is the same Australian team that has refused to tour Pakistan a number of times in recent years because of security concerns. The Australians, along with the South Africans, English and New Zealanders, were branded "nervous Nellies" by both Indian and Pakistani authorities when they scuttled the 2008 Champions Trophy set to take place in Pakistan because of political instability there.

This makes me think that something else is at work. Should I call it racism? Perhaps that's too strong, but certainly Australian cricketers feel safe in England, (despite the fact that the London terrorists were English residents, as opposed to the Mumbai terrorists who snuck in from Pakistan), and the English feel the same way about Australia. You'd have to think that they feel comfortable there not because they have less chance of being bombed but because they feel at home in the culture. They speak the same language, they obey the same rules of decorum, they use the same body language, they have the same sense of personal space. On the other hand, Anglo cricketers feel constantly harried on the Indian sub-continent. The population is so much denser, people are so much louder, and they crowd around and insist on contact with the players in a away that seems belligerent and threatening to Anglos. Because of this, it doesn't take much extra to push them to a point where they feel unsafe.

In actual fact no international cricket team has yet been the subject of a terrorist attack. Instead it's been ordinary people going about their low-key daily business - riding the train to work, attending a family wedding, having a family holiday, going shopping...

Meanwhile the Indian cricket team is threatening to cancel a forthcoming tour of Pakistan. Because of safety concerns? No, because Indians are mad as hell with Pakistan over the fact that the Mumbai attackers were Pakistanis. Of course their organsiation is illegal in Pakistan, and none of the Pakistan cricket team is known to belong to it (most are devout members of a pacifist branch of Islam) but after all a Pakistani is a Pakistani. Us Anglos don't have any sort of monopoly on racism.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Deep Purple Sing the Blues

I’m sitting here watching a DVD of Deep Purple – “Live in Concert 1972/73”. They do those standards – “Highway Star”, “Strange Kind of Woman”, “Black Night”, “Smoke on the Water”.

Deep Purple were one of the first bands I ever got excited by, back in the mid-70s when I was at high school. I remember the end of one year (probably 1975 or 76) when instead of sitting in class reading and playing cards a group of us were detailed to dig weeds out of the cricket pitch on the school oval. It was a great assignment – no classes, not timetable, a bit of work, a lot of goofing off. And all done to a Deep Purple soundtrack. It was my first exposure to “Strange Kind of Woman” as performed live with the singer exchanging licks with the guitarist, trying to match the guitar sound with his voice. We all had a go at imitating him imitating a guitar but our voices had only recently broken so most of us were hopeless. It was a few years before I listened to Neil Young and heard music that I wanted to play for myself.

We knew Purple as a heavy metal band, before that title had the connotations it does now. I guess now they would be called hard rock. They had musical pretensions – their keyboard player, guitarist and singer all had classical training, they did long prog-rock solos (I’m listening to one now in the middle of “Space Truckin’”) and the keyboard player even wrote a “Symphony for Orchestra and Rock Band” which they recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. Yet like Led Zeppelin and many of the other heavy rock bands of the time the music is very close to it’s origins in the blues. A lot of the songs (like “Lazy” or “Highway Star”) are basic 12-bar, but even more ambitious numbers like “Fireball” or “Child in Time” are built around variations on the blues pattern.

M NourbeSe Philip comments that despite African peoples being actively prevented from expressing themselves in the colonies where they were taken, their underground self-expression permanently changed Anglo art forms. Nothing illustrates this better than the way the blues (as well as jazz and reggae) infiltrated Western popular music. You never hear a dancehall number on commercial radio. You never hear Gilbert and Sullivan. You have to go looking for English or American folk music. Yet on station after station if you’re not actually hearing black music (soul or hip-hop) you’re hearing white boys and girls singing the blues.

Why? We’ve all read about how Eric Clapton learned to play guitar by listening to tapes of Robert Johnson, how the white Woodstock-era American musicians appreciated the music of black people as a genuine expression of oppression. We’ve heard about how so many of the members of the big name British bands got their start in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (Clapton, Jimmy Page, various members of Fleetwood Mac, and so on). But that only describes it, doesn’t explain it.

I think there are two explanations. The first is that, like me listening to Neil Young, when they first heard the blues many of these boys didn’t go “wow that’s clever” (like I did when I heard Deep Purple or Pink Floyd and they would have when they heard jazz). Instead they thought, “I could do that”. The blues sounds simple and in a way it is. If you know three chords you can play the blues. Of course to play it well takes a lot of practice and a lot of emotional maturity but by the time they discovered that they were well on the way.

The other is the power of the music. You can drive it along angry and loud like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. You can extend it with long solos like Cream. You can complicate it with rare tunings and slide parts like Jeff Lang. You can make it dark and maudlin like Mr Johnson himself or the Audreys, or light and breezy like Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. You can make it the soundtrack for a party or a funeral.

Or a cricket pitch working party. I don’t think the sports master was pleased with the muddy mess we left of the cricket pitch (“but we only pulled out the weeds like you said”) but we had lots of fun, learnt how to imitate an electric guitar with our voices (or not) and had that little bit of blues infused into our bloodstreams, to stay with us the rest of our lives.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Death of Poetry Greatly Exaggerated

I’ve read a lot over the years about the death of poetry. People ament that no-one publishes poetry, that books of poetry sell such pathetic numbers that publishers won’t touch them, and that poets live on air, government grants and their day jobs.

Well I’m here to tell you that it’s not as bad as it seems. It’s just that we’ve forgotten what poetry is, and so we’re looking in the wrong place.

Poetry was originally an oral form, not a written one, and intended to be sung or chanted. For people who don’t read, poetry is a lot more interesting to listen to than prose – it has rhythm, it often rhymes, it uses repetition. If it’s accompanied by music it has an added emotional resonance.

The limitation of oral forms of communication, however, is that they require physical presence. The singer or reciter has to travel to his or her audience, or bring them in. The printing press made a big change in this, allowing mass reproduction of the verbal content of poetry – although much more limited reproduction of the music, since a musical score is only of interest to a trained musician.

The result of this is that over the centuries following the invention of the printing press, poetry gradually changed from an oral to a written art, and became divorced from its musical origins. Poets were able to spread their verbal wings, secure in the knowledge that their readers could go back and look again if they got lost. The form changed with less “musical” forms such as blank verse and heroic couplets becoming more popular. In the 20th century, even these gave way to free verse – not, as we often think, where there is no rhythm, but where the rhythm changes and becomes irregular.

However, why would you read poetry when you can read prose? Printing meant that poetry was much les necessary, indeed that prose was the easier form to read, with the various poetic devices serving more as a distraction than an aid. This being the case, poetry’s point of distinction was no longer its “musicality” – its rhyme and rhythm – but its beauty of language, it’s use of imagery and allusion.

What happened to poetry in the 20th century is that it was increasingly crowded into a narrow band of territory. The growth of the novel, and the development of artistic, lyrical prose, left less and less territory for poetry to call its own. The towering poets of the 20th century – Yeats and Eliot – are very different poets, but alike in their obscurity. Eliot’s masterpiece, “The Wasteland” is not a poem you read, it is a poem you study using extensive footnotes. Those that followed matched them – poetry became an art for an increasingly small literary class.

So far, we’re with the death of poetry, as widely announced. However, if the printing press turned poetry into a literary art, another invention has been restoring it to its origins. Sound recording (and its cousin, the recording of vision) is to the 20th and 21st centuries what the printing press was to the 15th. It has transformed the way we communicate, and created art-forms that were not previously imagined.

One product of the boom in sound recording is the boom in songwriting. Before sound recording was readily accessible, the creation of songs was largely a folk art, with songs performed in vaudeville and published as sheet music for other vaudevillians, or passed around orally between folk musicians. The development of recording technology, particularly since WWII, has allowed the massive expansion, and mass distribution, of recorded songs.

Of course, not all these songs are particularly “poetic” in the sense we understand it. When Chuck Berry sang “Roll Over, Beethoven” he didn’t expect anyone to be inspired by the lyric, he just wanted them to dance. There are plenty of songs like that. The Spice Girls made millions singing vapid lyrics for teenage girls. Nor was I surprised to download the lyrics of my latest favourite band, Fleet Foxes, and find that they were essentially meaningless.

The singer-songwriters of the 1970s are often credited with adding poetry to the world of song. As a teenager we had Paul Simon’s “I Am a Rock” and “The Sounds of Silence” included in our textbooks, and I was very jealous when some of my contemporaries got to study Bob Dylan as their “modern poet” while my class had to “do” William Bloody Yeats.

However, I’d prefer to give you a few examples from my personal favourites. Of course we could debate their literary merits for ages – feel free to leave a comment, but I’ll just let them speak for themselves.


“Strange Waters” by Bruce Cockburn:

I've seen a high cairn kissed by holy wind
Seen a mirror pool cut by golden fins
Seen alleys where they hide the truth of cities
The mad whose blessing you must accept without pity

I've stood in airports guarded glass and chrome
Walked rifled roads and landmined loam
Seen a forest in flames right down to the road
Burned in love till I've seen my heart explode

You've been leading me
Beside strange waters

Across the concrete fields of man
Sun ray like a camera pans
Some will run and some will stand
Everything is bullshit but the open hand

You've been leading me
Beside strange waters
Streams of beautiful lights in the night
But where is my pastureland in these dark valleys?
If I loose my grip, will I take flight?


“Ruby’s Arms” by Tom Waits

I will leave behind all of my clothes,
I wore when I was with you,
all I need's my railroad boots
and my leather jacket
as I say goodbye to Ruby's arms
although my heart is breaking,
I will steal away out through your blinds,
for soon you will be waking.

The morning light has washed your face
and everything is turning blue now,
hold on to your pillow case
there's nothing I can do now,
as I say goodbye to Ruby's arms,
you'll find another soldier,
and I swear to God by Christmas time,
there'll be someone else to hold you.
The only thing I'm taking is
the scarf off of your clothesline,
I'll hurry past your chest of drawers
and your broken wind chimes,

As I say goodbye
I'll say goodbye,
say goodbye to Ruby's arms.

I will feel my way down the darkened hall,
and out into the morning,
the hobos at the freightyards
have kept their fires burning,
Jesus Christ this goddamn rain,
will someone put me on a train,
I'll never kiss your lips again
or break your heart,
as I say goodbyeI'll say goodbye,
say goodbye to Ruby's arms.


“Dimming of the Day” by Richard Thompson.

This old house is falling down around my ears
I’m drowning in the river of my tears
When all my will is gone you hold me sway
I need you at the dimming of the day

You pulled me like the moon pulls on the tide
You know just where I keep my better side

What days have come to keep us far apart
A broken promise or a broken heart
Now all the bonny birds have wheeled away
I need you at the dimming of the day

Come the night you’re only what I want
Come the night you could be my confidant

I see you on the street in company
Why don’t you come and ease your mind with me
I’m living for the night we steal away
I need you at the dimming of the day.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Real Men

I really would like to write more often. Ideas pass through my brain and I think, “I should put that on my blog”, but I get busy and then I forget what I was going to say. However, part of it is my incompetence as a blogger, because I keep writing at such length. Most people’s blogs contain really short articles, just quick paragraphs. I guess having grown up in the age of the book, I’m used to going into detail so even the length I write at here seems over-compressed sometimes.

One blog cum chat site I recently joined in my local church’s new mychurch.com site (http://www.mychurch.org/churches/world/AU/Queensland/Brisbane/257600/St-Andrews-Anglican-Church). It’s interesting because in the discussion you see a side of people that you don’t see on Sunday mornings. One of the guys started a men’s group off with a discussion about a book called “Why Men Hate Going to Church” by David Murrow. I haven’t read the book but I have visited his website www.churchformen.com.

In a nutshell, he says the church has become “feminised” – it’s become a place which reflects feminine ways of thinking and doing things, and as a consequence most men hate it. Over 60% of church attendees are women, while the men who do attend often don’t get much out of it. Then they suggest various things which can help to make church more “masculine” – like getting rid of the flowers, making a more masculine church language by avoiding words like “precious” and “personal relationship”, being more “outdoors” and so on.

Of course this was all news to me. I go to church regularly although I’m not always very enthusiastic about it – so I can relate to that part at least. But I never though that was because I was a man – I thought lots of women felt the same, and in fact I know plenty who do. Furthermore, every church I’ve been to has been run by men. St Andrews is the first church I’ve been to with a woman minister – and even there she’s the assistant, the bloke is the one in charge! And his bosses, the bishops and archdeacons and so on, are all men. In our previous churches all the elders and deacons were men. So how has the church become feminised? Perhaps the d├ęcor ends up being feminine because that’s the only place women have any control.

Secondly the prescriptions were new to me. Would I feel more at home in church if it had a “tool time”? Or if we talked more about fishing? The picture of men drawn in this material was so stereotyped as to be almost funny – a bit like the Spooky Men’s Chorale or the Sensitive New Age Cowpersons. Nothing would be surer to drive me away. So here’s my entirely personal take on what would make church more useful and interesting for this particular man. Other men and women are free to differ.

1. We should be able to think for ourselves. Thinking differently from others and asking awkward questions should be encouraged, not frowned on.
2. There should be less sitting and listening and more interacting and discussing.
3. We should be able to go into something in depth, not just skim the surface then move on.
4. We should be able to play and sing music that wasn’t written and published by certified “christian” artists and labels. Why should the Devil have all the good music?
5. There should be a lot more laughing and mucking around.

I’ve always been one of those blokes that liked to hang around with the girls and so I ended up in community development not engineering. That means I’m not really qualified to talk on this subject. However my dad did give me a Y chromosome, so I assume there are other men who see things the same way – and probably quite a few women too although I know some who would come to church for tool time.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

The Worlds We Create

That’s enough of theology for a while. Not that I really know much about it but the joy of having a blog is you don’t have to be an expert. “Everything in this blog may be wrong”, to paraphrase Richard Bach.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how writers create their worlds. I've just finished doing a red pen job on the draft of my cousin Allan Smith’s second book, Owleye’s Songs of the Night. He’s self-published the first in the series, Quid and Harmony, with all proceeds going to the Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia – you can find out more about it at http://www.smithysbook.com/. It’s worth a read and if you don’t like the book, at least you're supporting a great cause. These are fantasy works but knowing Allan as I do, I can see various bits of the world that are drawn from his world – places and customs that are similar to his own, and ideas that fit Allan’s world view.

All fiction writers create artificial worlds. For many, the resemblance between their world and the one we inhabit is so close that we forget that the book world is artificial. Hence we use Jane Austen as a source of social history, forgetting that she has exaggerated some aspects of her society and minimised others. How do poor people marry in Austen’s world? Do the women who marry a man with 5,000 a year “in the funds” ever look wistfully at the poor charmer they turned down who ends up with 10,000 a year as a result of hard work?

One place you can’t mistake the artificiality of the world is in speculative fiction. As an 18 year old I was blown away by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books, and I still love them. Despite his clumsy prose and the fact that the most important events to the plot are the most boring for the reader, the world Tolkien created is so rich and detailed that readers love to immerse themselves in it. This is because Tolkien himself devoted so much of his imaginative life to the creation of that world – its history, its geography, its languages, its spirituality, the characteristics and cultures of its different people. In the short-term he was a publisher’s nightmare because he was so immersed in this imaginary world he was unable to meet deadlines or understand what readers might be interested in. Yet 50 years on he is a perpetual gold-mine for his patient publishers!

More recently I’ve been loving the work of two contrasting writers of speculative fiction – Iain M Banks and William Gibson.

I was referred to Banks a few years ago by another relative. He writes two kinds of books – as plain Iain Banks he writes a kind of dark literary fiction/magical realism which you should only read if you have a strong stomach. With the M in his name he writes the richest, most imaginative space fiction I have ever read. His “Culture” novels are full of strange life-forms and bizarre civilisations – creatures the size of small planets which create their own sub-creatures to do their bidding, immensely powerful spherical beings that live in the heart of gas giants, civilisations evolved from arthropods, mullusks, fish, birds, clouds and pretty much anything else you could name. The richness of detail is very similar to Tolkien, with an imagined (if only hinted-at) galactic history, a detailed political system, a set of technologies that could almost be imagined to work.

However, just as Tolkien created hobbits and humans that his readers could relate to, Banks centres his civilisation around two things we think we understand – humans and computers. The humans are similar to ourselves although they don’t appear to share our history – they are mortal although advanced medical technology means they don’t have to die, they reproduce sexually (and do a lot of other sexual things, too!), they have two arms and two legs, breath oxygen, and share our passions, delights, fears and failings. Even though many of them live aboard world-sized spaceships or huge artificial habitats, they are essentially the same as us.

His computers, on the other hand, are hardly recognisable as the same type of machines as the one you’re accessing this blog through. They are fully sentient artificial intelligences. Some of them are simple, human-like creatures built to maintain machinery or serve drinks. However, the great Minds which actually run the Culture – Minds of major ships and artificial worlds – have so much intelligence that the complexity of their thinking is beyond our imagination. Still, he uses little touches to “humanise” them. The ships give themselves bizarre names like “So Much for Subtlety”, “Of Course I Still Love You”, “Frank Exchange of Views” or “I Thought He Was with You”. They also have bizarre hobbies – the ship which is the central character in Excession, for instance, is creating a sculpture park made of real human bodies frozen in various attitudes of dying.

However while they are bizarre, his artificial intelligences are not psychopathic like the ones in the Terminator films or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – they are amazingly life affirming. Indeed, in the end what makes the Culture most home-like for us is that it is essentially liberal society writ large – a society in which people (and computers) are free to do and be what they like as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else, and in which intervention in other societies is well intentioned if not always 100% competent. Theirs is the society we would like to have, the dream of the great 19th century liberals inflated to a galactic scale. The sheer seductiveness of his vision makes you forget that the plots hardly make sense.

This same focus on world over plot is typical of William Gibson. Unlike Banks, Gibson’s world is recognisably our own. In a formal sense, the stories are set on Earth, either in our time or in the not-too-distant future. Yet in their essence they are set in an entirely different place – a version of cyberspace which could conceivably have grown out of the Internet. His characters don’t so much access information over the Net as live in it. In the novels set "now", the action and the characters are driven by the tracking of objects and information, by the way information can be controlled, stolen and manipulated. In the stories set in the near future he goes a step further, allowing people to live a large part of their lives online, to create their own identities, to travel from place to place, to kill and be killed, to take over territory, even to create new forms of life online. In these stories, physical place, time and nationality become almost incidental, people travel around the physical world at a frantic pace to keep pace with the virtual world, and at times the boundaries between the two become so blurred you can’t tell which events are happening physically and which virtually. Because of this emerging virtual world, the structures and systems of the “old” world – government, law enforcement and commerce – appear to be crumbling, lagging far behind those on the edge of the law who are masters of the new technology.

Is this our world, or what our world could become? Well clearly, few or none of us live this way, nor could we afford to. There are parts we hope are not true – like the way every movement, action and purchase it traceable online, or the way our systems of law enforcement become so rapidly outdated. Others seem exciting, like the way new sources of knowledge open up, the way physical boundaries can be transcended. Yet at its core, Gibson’s vision is much more pessimistic than Banks’. While in Banks’ stories the Minds are indeed watching you, they are both benign and effectively all-knowing, working out the statistical probability of everything and acting to obtain the best possible outcome. By contrast, in Gibson’s stories there are no Minds, no-one knows what’s going on, and you could just as easily be being watched by a well-intentioned corporation or an organised crime cartel – or both. It might be impossible to tell which is which, or they could be one and the same. Our certainties and securities are thrown out of the window, and there is nothing to take their place.

Both these writers show different ways of creating an imaginary world, and of linking it to our own. Banks seems to start with the imagination – what possible life-forms and civilisations could be imagined? He lets his fancy fly free before finally anchoring it to our own world through recognisable personality traits and philosophies. Gibson goes in the other direction – he starts with our world as it is, and particularly our current technologies, and then imagines what they could become and what the implications of that could be. It is disturbing precisely because it just could be true. Yet ultimately neither world is “true” – both writers take us into worlds of their own imagining, and invite our imaginations to play with them. Play on!

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Beyond the Law

This weekend I did one of my occasional preaching gigs at my church. The topic was “what is a good Christian?” and the passages Matthew 11:25-30 and Romans 8:1-17. It’s kind of an introduction to a huge subject which is at the heart of Christian teaching.

The background to the passages is a religious environment in 1st century Judaism dominated by the Pharisees. In human terms, the Pharisees were not bad people – in fact, they could be seen as very good. They had a strict interpretation of the Jewish faith, believing it was essential to obey not only the entire laws of Moses, but various extrapolations, interpretations and additions to the law and prophets by Jewish rabbis. The result was 100s of different laws, dealing with issues from how to punish murderers to how men should cut their hair. Being faithful to God involved obeying all of these laws.

There’s nothing unique about the Pharisees. There are plenty of Christian Pharisees around, whole churches of them in fact. After the service, people told me about some that they’d attended, and they weren’t just lunatic fringe sects – ordinary mainstream churches only need a little nudge and you suddenly find they’re banning lipstick and dancing and making it compulsory to tell one person about Jesus per day. And of course there are plenty of Pharisees in other religions, like extreme Islamists.

In fact, I think there’s a little bit of Pharisee in all of us. When we’re under pressure, things seem a little out of control, or we feel ourselves in danger we reach for the law to protect us or give us certainty. Whether it’s tougher national security laws, cracking down on illegal immigrants or adding to the 60 pages of Council dog ordinances, we’re always ready to expand the list of laws we have to obey. The church is just the same, as centuries of canon law attest.

Both Jesus and Paul agree that there is a problem with this, and that it is not with the law – it’s with people. Their responses provide an interesting contrast.

Jesus (Matthew 23), looking at the Pharisees from outside, responds with a surprising amount of anger. His response, while possibly a collection of saying from different times and places, reads like a tirade. They bind heavy burdens on people and then don’t lift a finger to help them. They slam the door of the Kingdom in peoples’ faces. They strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. They are whitewashed tombs clean on the outside but full of death on the inside. They are the spiritual heirs to the murderers of the prophets.

Paul (Romans 7), the former Pharisaic rabbi, responds with despair at his failure to live by the code he taught. He knows what’s good, but finds himself unable to do it. His mind acknowledges that the law is right, but he is unable to make his body obey. “Wretched man that I am!” he exclaims, “who will rescue me from this body of death?” Perhaps it was this kind of despair that provoked so much anger in Jesus.

The answer offered by both is a spiritual and moral life based on relationships, not law. Jesus (Matthew 11:25-30) offers to share his knowledge of the Father with his followers, and offers us rest, a light burden, an easy yoke. Unlike the Pharisees, he is offering to help us bear our burdens.

Paul (Romans 8) explains how he sees this working. First, Jesus death “fulfils the just requirements of the law” and this somehow puts our sinful flesh to death, freeing the way for a life in the Spirit. Second, his Spirit lives in us and among us, giving us the power to live as we should. Third, God has adopted us as his sons and daughters, his heirs, so that we can call him “Dad”. We have the security of a loving, unbreakable family relationship.

Christianity is not a new law which replaces the old. We are not asked to troll the writings of the Apostles finding a new set of instructions to govern our new lives. Instead, we are being offered a different kind of life. In Galatians 3 and 4 Paul describes the law as something for our immaturity. It is the equivalent of a babysitter, a guardian who follows us and instructs us in how to live while we are unable to make such decisions ourselves. Now, however, we have come into our inheritance and gained our majority. We can live as adults, not as children. Don’t put yourselves back into slavery, Paul says, seeing children as the social equivalents of slaves. Maintain your freedom.

But how can we live? How do we know what to do? Paul’s answer is first of all, live by the Spirit, listen to its voice. Secondly, live in love (Romans 13), because in doing so you will follow the full intent of the law - and so much more, as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount tells us. "Love does no harm to its neighbour." The challenge to live in love, not simply try and enforce a law, is the lifelong ethical challenge all Christians face.

It’s not easy to throw away our chains – they make us feel secure. But this is what Jesus and Paul are asking us to do. We should embrace our freedom, not retreat from it back into a new pharisaism.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Power, Wisdom, Love

Theologians tell us that God is omnipotent (that is, all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and that he (or she) is loving (or more so, that his nature is to love). If God had only one or two of these characteristics, Christianity would take on a very different character. For instance, if God was all powerful and loving but not all-knowing, he would do his best by us but would be inclined to make a lot of mistakes. If he was all-knowing and loving but not all powerful he would be consumed with despair. If he was all-knowing and all-powerful but not loving he would play with us, carry out experiments on us, even deliberately harm us. As it is, we are taught that God is all-knowing, all powerful and loving. He knows what we need, is able to give it to us, and wishes to do so.

This generates one of the biggest problems people of all backgrounds have with Christianity. If God is like this, why is the world so filled with pain and suffering? Surely God has either got it wrong (he is not really all-powerful) or he doesn’t really love us.

There are essentially two sources of suffering – nature, and other people. Most suffering involves a bit of both. For instance the recent cyclone in Burma, which has killed thousands and made hundreds of thousands homeless, is a natural event. Yet the suffering is made worse by the neglect and suspicion of the country’s military regime – a regime with more power than love. But let’s ignore that for the moment and pretend we can talk about them as separate types of suffering.

Of the two, human caused suffering is easier to explain (not easy, just easier). Why should we blame God for our own failings? The obvious answer is because he made us – so either he stuffed up, or he deliberately made us flawed. The answer to this problem is far from clear, but I think it lies in the nature of love. Love implies choice. Your computer doesn’t love you – it does what you tell it because it is programmed to do so. Nor does it hate you – it fails to do what you want because it is broken, or because you don’t know how to use it properly. In order to love or hate you must have a choice. Hence a loving God, one who wants to make creatures also capable of love, must give them a choice. If the choice does not include the possibility of making mistakes, or of deliberate rebellion, it is not a true choice and there can be no love.

This means that evil is not inevitable. If we can choose evil, we can also choose good. Because we are not all-knowing we can make mistakes, but we can learn from them and correct them. Yet because the choice is always there, people will sometimes chose evil, and will act in a calculatedly selfish or cruel way. God could prevent this, and his failure to do so seems unloving towards the victims. Yet at a more fundamental level, such intervention would be a violation of love because it would make real love impossible. So instead, God chooses to intervene by becoming one of us, sharing our powerlessness, and ultimately suffering at the hands of the evil which his own love has made possible. To the extent that such suffering is his fault, he takes responsibility by sharing the punishment, and in the process shows us in what direction love lies.

Naturally-caused suffering seems to be even more problematic. Where is the element of choice in being overrun by a cyclone or earthquake, or suffering from cancer? These seem to be evidence of a cruel, distant or indifferent God.

My first thought is that these sorts of events show that humans are not the centre of the universe. Without wishing to make light of people’s sufferings, they are only tragedies from a human viewpoint. From the point of view of the earth’s crust, an earthquake is just an ordinary occurrence, something that happens when parts of the earth’s crust come into contact with each other. From the point of view of bacteria, a raging illness is a triumph, a source of prosperity. For our part, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions which took place in the distant past are matters of curiosity and sources of beauty, not causes of mourning for the people or animals who may have died or been made homeless. This seems to be the meaning of the final chapters of the book of Job – Job believes God is unjust only because he has insufficient knowledge of the world which God made and maintains.

Yet is this what we learn from this sort of suffering – that the universe truly is indifferent to us? That in God’s management of the earth we are sometimes expendable? This seems once again to show a limitation on God’s love or power. Isn’t he smart enough to organise a world where such suffering is unnecessary?

Another option is to refer this type of suffering back to sinfulness. Before the Fall, as I have heard it preached, this type of suffering was unnecessary, but our sinfulness also involves the earth and makes it hostile.

This point of view is one that can only be accepted by faith, as a mystical explanation. There is no logical connection between our sin and the clashing of tectonic plates. Plenty of other “natural” suffering can be sheeted home to people and hence to sin – the effects of climate change, the foolishness of building cities on flood plains, and so forth, but this is at best only partial.

So for me, it remains a mystery. Can anyone out there answer it for me? Why is it necessary for thousands to suffer in the Chinese earthquake, or hundreds of thousands in the face of the Asian tsunami? How can we say that God cares about us in the light of these things? I believe that God is loving, and wise, and powerful, but it’s not always easy to keep believing so.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Fact or Fiction?

For some strange reason I’ve been thinking this week about the movie Galaxy Quest, and its relationship to fundamentalism.

For those who haven’t seen the movie, it’s a very funny send-up of Star Trek. The cast members of “Galaxy Quest”, a long-discontinued TV science fiction series, now eke out a soul-destroying career making appearances at fan conventions and answering inane questions about the show.

After one such appearance the actor who played the Captain is approached by a group of people in Galaxy Quest uniforms saying they need his help to combat hostile aliens. Assuming it’s another request for an appearance, he accepts.

It turns out that an alien civilisation has picked up transmissions of the show, and having no concept of fiction has assumed that they are “historical documents”. In order to win their own war against insect-like alien oppressors they adopt Galaxy Quest technology, building real spaceships on the pattern of the cheesy 1970’s SF sets, modelling their uniforms and command structure on those in the show. They even invent a device to hide their octopus-like form and make themselves appear human.

Unfortunately the war is not going well, and they decide they need the Captain and crew themselves to help out. Unable to explain that it’s just a show, and touched by the faith shown in them by the aliens, these second-rate actors find themselves having to fight a real space war. At the climactic moment, the enemy ship’s commander boards the imitation Galaxy Quest ship and forces the Captain to explain what those transmissions really were. He tries once again to explain that it’s all entertainment and finally has to give up and admit “they were lies”.

Christian fundamentalists view the Bible like that. For them believing in the Bible means believing it is that kind of “historical document”. To believe the Bible one has to believe that the earth was created in six days, 6000 years ago, that we are all descended from Adam and Eve, that there really was a man called Jonah who spent three days inside a whale, and so on. The alternative, from their point of view, is that these stories are lies.

Apart from the authoritarianism and blindness generated by this point of view, the saddest thing about it is that it misses the point. Take Jesus’ parables. Even fundamentalists understand that it is pretty much irrelevant whether or not these are true stories. They are stories with a moral. There may or may not have been a kind Samaritan who helped a poor crime victim when the holy men of Israel refused – the point is that this is how we should all act towards strangers, whether of our race or not.

The same is true of those Old Testament stories. The first chapter of Genesis is a song of praise to the glory of the Creator, as shown through his creation. Whether it describes exactly what happened is beside the point. Jonah’s story is a tale about the perils of resisting God’s mission, and about the depths of God’s compassion contrasted with our petty vindictiveness. Whether Jonah really spent those three days inside the whale is beside the point. And even some of our favourite new testament stories, like the Virgin Birth…I don’t understand how God’s DNA could be transmitted in a non-sexual way, but I get the point – Jesus is God’s son in a special way which ordinary humans are not.

By asking whether these stories are true, we block off the much more useful and interesting understanding we gain from asking what they mean. I know Galaxy Quest is fiction, but its message that we can rise above ourselves, and really become what we once only pretended to be, is something I could aspire to.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Moses and the Stolen Generation

Moses, the greatest of Hebrew prophets, was a member of the first Hebrew stolen generation. As such, he brings a message of hope to current stolen generation people in Australia and around the world.


Moses’ Birth and Rescue

At the time of Moses birth, the Hebrews were a minority race in Egypt, and Pharoah had decided to reduce their numbers by having all their newborn male children thrown into the Nile. No doubt over time the women would then have no choice but to marry Egyptian men, and the Hebrews would be gradually assimilated into the Egyptian population. Sound familiar?

Of course the Hebrews didn’t just comply. Their midwives put themselves at great risk by failing to carry our Pharoah’s instructions. No doubt many mothers hid their children from the Egyptian authorities for as long as possible, and as we will see there would have been plenty of Egyptians who were prepared to help them.

Moses’ mother was one of these resisters. At first she hid her newborn child from view. When he became too big and energetic for her to get away with this, she decided on an act of token compliance – she made a little boat for him, and set him floating on the waters.

To fully understand this act, you have to think like an ancient. In ancient Mediterranean cultures, everything had its own god. The gods were all around, inhabiting and controlling the weather, the growth of crops, the change of seasons, living in every grove and stream. The Nile itself had a god, Hapi, attended by crocodiles, a fat, lazy god but one who it was best not to rouse – his fury, expressed in the regular flooding of the Nile, was a source of both life and death for Egypt.

Thus, the children thrown into the Nile were a form of sacrifice, perhaps asking the god to send his floods when needed, but not too much, and spare them both starvation and destruction. Moses’ mother, in placing her son on the water in a waterproof basket, was asking a question of Hapi. Did he truly desire these barbaric sacrifices? Would he be the angry god or would he show mercy? She let him go, reluctantly and with as much care as she could, trusting to the dubious mercy of a foreign god.

The god (or perhaps the Hebrew God who rules all the gods) did not let her down. Moses was carried downstream, washing up near where Pharoah’s daughter was bathing. I like to think (without a shred of evidence) that this was not entirely an accident, and that this is the “underground railroad” of ancient Egypt. Here’s how it worked. The baby was placed in its basket and floated downstream towards where the princess was bathing (how did they know she would be bathing there at that moment?). The baby’s older sister (in the absence of a sister, maybe a cousin or a young aunt) was left to keep watch – she could watch safely as only boys were targeted in this pogrom. The letter of the law was observed, the child was cast into the Nile. The princess saw it and feigned surprise – “What’s this? Oh, a Hebrew baby!” She sent her servant girl to fish it out, looked around and saw a young Hebrew girl watching anxiously. Even if this was not prearranged it wouldn’t take a genius to make the connection. Perhaps the princess had a sly smile as she said to the girl, “Do you happen to know a woman who might be able to take care of this child for me?”

Hence Moses was returned to his mother under the protection of Pharoah’s daughter. Now if the soldiers came around and asked what this woman was doing with a male child and why he hadn’t been cast into the Nile, she’d say “I’m caring for him on behalf of the princess,” and the name would be enough for them to check before taking the child away. Perhaps the soldiers themselves were aware of the ruse, and relieved to be spared another act of infanticide.


Moses Upbringing

In many ways Pharaoh’s daughter is like the white families who cared for Aboriginal children under the policies of forced removal in Australia. Many of these children are torn in their relations with their white families. On the one hand, they are hurt or angry that their Indigenous heritage was kept from them, and that they had no contact with their birth families. Yet aside from the cases where there was actual abuse they often have a genuine love for the foster parents who brought them up in a loving family environment. These foster parents were implementing a policy they did not make, believing that they did the right thing and acting with the best of intentions. They cannot be held entirely innocent in the Stolen Generation fiasco, but they can at least be credited with doing the best they knew how, in the circumstances and historical time they found themselves in.

Pharoah’s daughter would have been much the same. She would have been a wealthy, secure and important woman, but after all she was only a daughter in a patriarchal society. Nor do we know which daughter. The Pharoahs had multiple wives and concubines, and the comparative rank of their children would depend on the rank of their mother. The son of Pharoah’s sister-wife would be destined to inherit the throne. On the other hand, the daughter of a concubine would be a minor royal, perhaps married off at the appropriate age to an important palace official or military officer as a sign of favour and a cementing of loyalty. In any case, she would be important enough to be able to do as she pleased but have little or no influence on Pharoah’s policies – indeed, perhaps rarely even see him. She would be powerless to change Pharoah’s policy of genocide and forced labour, but she would be powerful enough to intervene in the lives of individual Hebrew boys to rescue them from this situation.

This is what she did for Moses. After his infancy in the care of his mother, she took him into her own household. This is not to suggest, as in the Hollywood movies, that he became a “Prince of Egypt” and potential successor to Pharoah. The movies subtly imply that this daughter became the sister-wife of the next Pharoah (although this is too shocking to their audiences to be spelt out) and that Moses as her supposed son became accepted as part of the royal succession. It is more likely that the situation involved a place as foster son or servant - the term “son” is often used to denote loyalty and dependence in this way – in an upper-class Egyptian household. He was brought up to be an Egyptian – to speak and write the Egyptian language, to learn Egyptian manners, and to learn a profession or occupation which would be valued in Egyptian society. He probably knew he was a Hebrew – after all, he knew his mother, and besides he would look like one – but he was taught to value his new Egyptian identity over his Hebrew one, to “walk like an Egyptian”. He was being assimilated.

Yet he could never become fully Egyptian. Even his name shows his rootlessness. The name “Moses” is Egyptian and means “son of…”. You can read it in the names of various pharaohs – Ramses the son of Ra, Thothmes the son of Thoth, and so forth – but we tend not to notice it because our typical transliterations of their names vary so much. Moses, however, was not given a prefix. He was neither exalted as a son of a god like the Pharoahs, nor named for an earthly father like an ordinary mortal. Instead, he was literally “Son of No-one”, not important enough to receive his foster father’s name, cut off from his birth culture, a man without family, people or inheritance.


Moses Chooses Sides

Moses had a cosy and protected childhood, growing up in his upper class home. He could have gone on to lead a comfortable life in Egyptian society, as perhaps many other Hebrew foster children did. Yet as a young man his conscience was bothered. He knew who he was. Perhaps from time to time he visited his mother, or she would be allowed to visit him. He saw the discrimination, the forced labour, the harsh treatment handed out to his own people, even his own relations. This was a challenge to him, a man brought up to value Egypt’s teachings and culture. Sooner or later, he had to choose sides.

In this he had a problem. While he sympathised with the Hebrew plight, he thought and acted like an upper class Egyptian. He saw their sufferings from the outside. He didn’t really understand what it meant to be a Hebrew, to be at the mercy of the Egyptian overseers. He didn’t understand how deeply rooted their oppression was in Egyptian society. Thus when he finally chose sides he did it in a disastrous way. Seeing an overseer beat a Hebrew, he killed him.

He succumbed to two temptations. First, he acted as if he could force change single-handed. Secondly, he personalised the problem, punishing a minor official without seeing the system. In doing this he placed the Hebrews at greater risk, without their knowledge or consent. Now they saw him not only as an outsider, but as a danger to their wellbeing. When he tried shortly after to settle a dispute between two Hebrews (that assumption of superiority again!), they let him know where he stood – “are you going to kill us like you killed the Egyptian?”

His first foray into the politics of liberation was almost his last – he became an outlaw in Egypt and an outcast from his own people, forced to run for his life.


Moses finds his identity

We are told that Moses spent 40 years in exile. Aside from getting married and earning his living, what this involved was gaining wisdom. Moses was taken into the household of a Midianite priest (we are not told what god this priest served), helped to care for his sheep and married his daughter. We could assume from this that he was learning two types of wisdom – the practical wisdom of working for his living, and the spiritual wisdom learnt from his father-in-law. In the process he acquired a particular kind of identity. In any society a priest occupied a peculiar position, respected but to some extent distant and “different”, set apart from the general populace. Moses was learning how an outsider could still belong.

This process of learning culminated in the scene with the burning bush. The spiritual lessons of this scene are many and complex but think for a moment of the fire which burns but does not consume. Moses had lived without the fire, in the cold comfort of Pharoah’s daughter’s household. Then he had been consumed by the fire to take hold of him, killing the Egyptian overseer and placing himself and others at pointless risk. Now he had to learn the middle course, to live withthe passion of God which gives life, not death, which inspires rather than destroys, which does not burn out at the first inspiration but continues for as long as it takes.

We can see how much wisdom Moses had learnt by his reaction – he acknowledged his inadequacy, and asked for help. Gone is the younger man who single-handedly took on the entire Egyptian army. Nor was his faith strong enough to rely simply on God – he also craved human aid, the heart cry of a lifelong loneliness. God relented and sent his brother Aaron to be his right-hand man.

What was Moses’ role to be? It was an ideal role for a stolen generation man – he was to be the go-between. He was a man caught between not two but three cultures – his Hebrew ancestry, his Egyptian education and training, and his Midianite spiritual and marriage ties. In addition he had that extra something – the fire of God’s spirit, the fire that does not consume, that inspired him to carry through his mission. This was what made him able to serve. As a Hebrew he could be seen as one of them, and gain their trust. Because of his Egyptian education, he could communicate with the Egyptians on their own terms. Because of his exile in Midian, and his acquisition of wisdom there, he could bring something new to the situation, be a circuit breaker. But his task would not be easy, and it would not bring him personal peace, because he remained an outsider, not himself belonging in any of these cultures. He needed that slow-burning flame of God to sustain him through the trial to come.

I am intrigued by Aaron’s role in this drama. He was to be Moses’ spokesman. Why did Moses need such a spokesman? His own explanation, from Exodus 4:10, is “I have never been eloquent…I am slow of speech and tongue”. One interpretation of this is that Moses had a speech impediment – that his tongue literally did not work. The second is that Moses needed an interpreter – that his Hebrew was poor because he spent too little time amongst the Hebrew people, and that his accent made him incomprehensible to the Hebrews. Aaron would thus be both his language interpreter and his cultural guide, helping him to cope in the new milieu. Many modern Stolen Generation children have benefited from similar cultural guides.

However, there were also times when Aaron played the same role between Moses and Pharoah. Surely Moses would be able to speak Egyptian? Unless his 40 years of exile had led to him losing proficiency in both languages, so that he required the fluency of someone who has spent all his life amongst the Hebrew community in Egypt – local knowledge and local language. If this is the case, Moses was even more the outsider, estranged from both his birth and his education.

There is another aspect of this relationship shown by God’s words to Moses: “It will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him.” Moses and Aaron were set up as a mirror image of Pharoah himself. Pharoah was seen as an incarnation of the sun god, and appeared before his people and courtiers masked, speaking and giving orders through intermediaries. By adopting the same mode of address, Moses directly challenged Pharoah, denying him the superiority of his godhood, and symbolically asserting the equality and independence of the Hebrew people and the authority of their God.

Moses had learnt another lesson from his earlier mistakes. Before he did anything else he took Aaron to talk to the elders of Israel. He announced God’s message to them, and assured them of God’s intention to force Pharoah to release them. They rejoiced, and although their feelings about the enterprise went up and down with the changing fortunes of the campaign, Moses continued to work with them, reported back to them, instructed them, reassured them. He was no longer a lone ranger, a one man band, but became both their leader and their servant.


Triumph and Tragedy

There’s no need to rehearse the story of the release – the ten plagues, Pharoah’s repeated duplicity, the final tragedy and triumph of the Passover and the escape through the Red Sea. We all know that under Moses’ leadership the Hebrews finally escaped Egypt and travelled towards the Promised Land. It is here that we see both the tragedy and triumph of Moses position.

The Children of Israel travelled from Egypt to Mt Sinai, where Moses went up the mountain to talk with God and receive the commandments. While he was away, the people persuaded Aaron (seemingly without too much difficulty) to make a god for them. “As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt” they said, “we don’t know what has happened to him.” Their indifference cuts like a knife, even at this distance. Moses was an outsider and, despite what he had done for them, out of sight was out of mind. Their reverence for him and his God never struck deep, and it only took a short absence for them to turn to Aaron, one of their own, and request the kind of god they were used to – a burnished gold statue of a bull, symbol of power and glory on which so many of the Middle Eastern gods were enthroned.

Moses was incensed but nonetheless interceded with God for them, persuading him to commute their death sentence to 40 years of nomadic existence. They wandered in the wilderness, learning their own wisdom and the art of following their new God. Moses wandered with them and yet at times it seems he is not one of them. Not only was he the scapegoat when things went wrong; even when they were going OK he had his own tent outside the camp in which he talked with God. He emerged with his face veiled, moving amongst them like Pharoah, hardly one of them at all. He was unable to reveal himself fully. His people, even his own brother and sister, never fully understood him or his message.

The final tragedy came at the end of the 40 years. Moses led them to the edge of Palestine. God permitted him to look from the hills at the rich country which is to be his people’s home, but he was not allowed to enter it. He died a wanderer, never knowing rest, peace and home.


Moses and the Stolen Generation

Moses tells us a lot about the fate of the stolen generation. He teaches us that their ability to cross cultures, to bring new insights from the multiple worlds they have inhabited, can be a powerful force for good. He shows them that they have a lot to contribute, and that some of what they contribute is uniquely their own.

However, he also serves as a warning. It will not be easy. They will find that they can never settle, that they will always struggle to truly belong. He shows them that they may never ultimately find their home, their placeof rest, this side of the grave.

Yet they should not despair. God can give them a slow-burning fire, a passion for good, for justice, that burns brightly but does not burn out, that gives life and warmth without destruction, gives purpose to their pain and alienation. With the aid of this passion, this slow burn, they can become truly great. If the current generation does not appreciate their greatness, perhaps future generations will as they did when they recognised Moses as the greatest of the prophets of Israel.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Not for Sale

I just read one of those horrible books that everyone should read. It’s called Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade and How We Can Fight It and it’s written by David Batstone, former editor of Sojourners magazine and long-time social activist.

Batstone reports that there are somewhere around 27 million slaves in the world today, even though slavery is not lawful anywhere in the world. This book describes how it happens. Beginning with his own discovery that his favourite Indian restaurant in San Francisco was staffed by slaves, he takes us on a tour of slavery around the world. He tells us about:

  • Young girls from poor rural communities recruited to work as waitresses or domestics in the city, only to find themselves forced to work as prostitutes
  • Family groups in South Asia imprisoned on the premises of brickworks or rice mills, forced to work long hours to pay off fictitious debts and hunted down if they try to escape
  • Children abducted to serve as soldiers and “wives” in the Lord’s Revolutionary Army in Uganda
  • Destitute women from the former Soviet republics trafficked into western Europe as sex slaves
  • Homeless children forced into brothels in downtown Lima
  • Immigrants in the USA forced to work as factory workers, prostitutes and domestic slaves.

It’s not a book of dry statistics – it intertwines brief “big picture” descriptions of various aspects of slavery with stories of real people who have been enslaved. It’s not pretty reading – the tales deception, abduction, assault, rape and economic exploitation are made more sickening by the corruption of police forces and judiciaries around the world.

Nor can people in the developed world rest easy, as Batstone’s own experience with his favourite restaurant shows. Some of the most sickening stories are about people you would expect to trust, like the American pastor who recruited Zambian children to tour the US as part of a children’s choir to help raise funds to build schools in Zambia. You can see what’s coming – the children’s parents were promised that they would be provided with education while in the US, then returned in 6 months after which the funds they helped raise would be used to build schools in their communities. In reality they were kept in the US indefinitely, forced to sing or labour for the pastor for long hours, provided with no education, and threatened with violence and imprisonment if they told anyone what was happening. Lots of money was raised, but none of it went to build schools for Zambian children!

Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. The stories of slavery are balanced with stories of abolitionists – organisations working to rescue and support former slaves and to prevent slavery. This is a story of individuals and small organisations that do incredible work with limited resources. The Italian priest who begins with running a shelter for women escaping sex slavery, and ends up running publicity campaigns in Moldova warning young women not to accept offers of waitressing work in Italy. The woman in Lima who runs a AIDS prevention service in Lima and offers a young boy the option of sleeping the night in her office, only to find herself unable to open the front door of the office later that night because the place is packed solid with hundreds of homeless children.

Perhaps my favourite is the Cameroon immigrant to the US who meets a teenage Cameroon girl who has just escaped from domestic slavery, and persuades her to tell him about other girls she knows in the same position. He then rings their captors’ homes during the day in the hopes of finding them home alone and helps them to escape. In the process, the first girl he rescues turns out to be the daughter of his first cousin!

All this talk of America and Europe made me wonder what the story is in Australia. A 2004 Australian Government briefing note says:

“The number of people trafficked into Australia is unknown. A recent parliamentary inquiry into sexual servitude in Australia was given varying estimates of the number of trafficked women, ranging from 300 to 1000 each year. The inquiry found that most of the women trafficked into Australia are recruited from South East Asia and China for the sex industry. According to the inquiry report, traffickers facilitate the women's entry to Australia by a range of fraudulent means, including providing visas (usually student or holiday visas), false passports and funds. The women are then sent to brothels around the country where their movements are usually restricted. It is not unknown for women to be forced to repay debts of up to $40 000.”

(http://www.antislavery.org.au/slavery/pdf/Australia_response_to_trafficking.pdf)

These numbers are small compared to the staggering numbers for the US and Europe, never mind South-East Asia. However, if Australia is like the US this won’t be the whole story – homeless children forced into the sex industry, illegal immigrants enslaved in sweatshops or imprisoned as domestic servants: it seems unlikely that we would be exempt from these outrages when they happen across the world.

Australia has recently followed the US lead and moved from treating freed slaves as illegal immigrants, providing them with bridging visas and protection if they agree to cooperate with police. However, it makes you wonder about the destination of the people smuggled in on boats via Indonesia. Where do those who are not intercepted and detained end up? Are we really detaining the criminals, or punishing the victims?

Anyway, you should read this book. We should all do our bit to stop the trade in people.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Mr Umpherston's legacy

While we were on holidays we visited Mt Gambier in South Australia, famous for its beautiful crater lakes. The lakes were indeed beautiful, and we had fun walking around them. They are the visible part of a much larger water system, most of which is underground in limestone caves and aquifers. It forms the main water source for the 23,000 residents of Mt Gambier town, and the amount of water taken out, along with falling rainfall, means that the water table has dropped and many places which were lakes when Europeans first came here are now dry craters with trees growing in the bottom.

I’m tired of worrying about climate change, and besides I was on holidays. So instead, what caught my imagination were some of the other human interventions. Just up the road from our caravan park is a stone and concrete causeway, running along the side of the road cutting and looking out over Blue Lake. It’s a bulky structure, built entirely by volunteer labour straight after the Great War. A plaque there records that 500 men volunteered their labour and 300 women brought refreshments throughout the day. Most of the structure was built in one day, with subsequent working bees over the next 12 months completing the structure including a set of steps, a 2 metre high retaining wall running for a few hundred metres, a graded pathway and a solid little turret overlooking Blue Lake. Aside from visitors scratching their names in the stone at every available spot it’s weathered remarkably well – no sagging or crumbling after 100 years. How many more recent professional constructions will weather as well?

However, I was most fascinated by Umpherston Sinkhole. A sinkhole is basically a big hole in the ground caused when the roof of an underground cave collapses. There’s lots of them around Mt Gambier, including one on the middle of town, right across the road from the town hall. Umpherston Sinkhole is so called because the surrounding land was once a cattle property owned by the Umpherston family in the mid to late 1800’s. It’s a roughly circular hole about 20 metres in diameter and maybe 30 metres deep, with rough rock sides that slope inwards so that the walls overhang the floor. The fascinating thing about it is that Mt Umpherston decided to improve it, building walkways down into it, creating a little island in the lake at its bottom (now dry) complete with tiny cabin and planting a wide variety of native and exotic plants on every available surface.

If this site were being managed now, it’s possible we may have got the walkways, but otherwise it would be seen as a precious natural site and steps would have been taken to preserve it in its original state. Visitors would be encouraged to understand the natural forces that created it, the delicate ecology which is maintained within it, and the (generally negative) impact of human activity on this ecology.

None of that nonsense for Mr Umpherston! Good Victorian gentleman that he was, he had complete confidence in his capacity to improve on nature. The barren cave could be made to bloom, new varieties of plants could be introduced, human constructions could be added, and the whole thing could be made much more productive and entertaining than mere nature could do unaided.

After Mr Umpherston’s death the property changed hands and the cave was neglected. However, his spirit has survived in surprising ways – after the site was acquired by the SA timber authority in the 1970s its staff got excited about the sinkhole, and the staff social club put a lot of time and effort into repairing his work, fixing the walkways and steps, replanting the sink floor, and erecting fences, seats and BBQs.

To our more tentative, less flamboyant eyes the result looks rather awkward, even gaudy. The variety of plants, the criss-crossing walkways and the viewing huts at different levels seem to be trying too hard to impress. Even the magnificent curtains of creeper than hang from the lip of it sink almost the whole way to the floor seem to be hiding the true grandeur of the rock walls. Yet it’s hard not to feel the loss of the optimism which created it. For us, nature has become once again the frightening force it was to humans in earlier ages, a capricious beast with which we meddle at our peril. The cavalier interventions of the past two centuries are now seen to have created a monster, to have unleashed forces of nature which have the potential to sweep us away. Perhaps, while we learn from the Victorians’ mistakes, we need to recover some of their optimism and “can do” mentality to fix the problems they created.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Melville, Shelley and our shadows

I’ve recently read Melville’s Billy Budd and other tales. Melville, ex-sailor and adventurer, had a lot of success with his rollicking sea adventures. However from the publication of Moby Dick onwards he sailed into murkier moral and symbolic territory, lost most of his readership, and spent the latter part of his life working as a customs inspector.

Most of these stories come from that later period, when he was struggling to make a living as a writer and with the nature of good and evil. Billy Budd itself was first published 40 years after his death and it shows – no living author would allow a story to be published with that many digressions! Yet the story is the best and (digressions excepted) most gripping example of the moral landscape Melville painted in a number of stories in this collection.

Billy Budd himself is the “handsome sailor”, an innocent, a peacemaker and source of admiration. His opponent, Claggart, is a man “naturally depraved” who takes a dislike to Budd and persecutes him. The third main character, Captain Vere, provides a “normal” counterpoint to these symbols of good and evil, and has to decide between them. The allegory is plain, with Budd standing for Jesus Christ up against Claggart’s devil. Claggart first tempts Budd to mutiny and, when this is unsuccessful, falsely accuses him of the same crime. Budd, innocent but unable to speak in his own defence, kills Claggart in frustration. Vere, in the role of Pilate, has to decide Budd’s sentence and reluctantly orders his execution as required by law. Yet beyond ridding the world of Claggart, Budd’s death is not redemptive – rather, the extremes of good and evil are removed and Vere is left to ponder what wisdom can be gained from this conflict.

This triad emerges in other stories but different questions are asked of them. In Benito Cereno, Captain Delano, good captain of an ordinary sealing ship, comes across the San Dominick, a ship in trouble. It’s Captain, Benito Cereno, is closely attended by his Negro servant, Babo, and the ship is operated in shambolic fashion by a mixture of Spanish sailors and Negro slaves. The good-hearted, optimistic Delano sees in this scene a great example of kindness and faithfulness in action, accepting the captain’s story of storm and disease as the reason for the ship’s poor state of repair and admiring Babo’s faithful attention to his sick master. At the same time, certain aspects of the crew’s conduct make him uneasy, and he wonders if Cereno is a tyrant, or perhaps if the slaves are not as servile as they ought to be. Throughout the story he wavers between optimism and fear before events finally reveal that the slaves have revolted and Cereno is their prisoner, attended by Babo to prevent him from appealing for help.

Cereno is shadowed at every step by Babo, his evil counterpart. Not only are the two inseparable, it is almost impossible to tell which is good and which is evil, because good and evil wear each other’s masks. Delano, desiring only to do good, comes within minutes of supporting the wrong party and being an inadvertent accomplice of evil. Only when evil is dramatically unmasked as Babo attempts to murder Cereno and the tarpaulin is removed to reveal the skeleton of the ship’s co-owner lashed to the bow, is Delano finally able to tell which is which and quell the slave revolt. Even then it is not that simple –the slaves have committed murder, but what of the evil that enslaved them in the first place?

Other stories fill out this interplay of good and evil. In Bartleby the narrator, a respectable and kindly lawyer, is shadowed by the law clerk Bartleby, the man who “would prefer not to”. At first Bartleby would “prefer not to” perform some of the menial tasks around the office, but as time passes the list of things he prefers not to do gradually expands so in the end he prefers not to even eat, and he fades from life. Bartleby is not actively evil – his sole evil is his inaction. Yet the Narrator is unable to be rid of him. He discovers that he is living in the office. He fires him, but he does not leave. The narrator leaves, but the new tenants insist that Bartleby is his problem. Finally when Bartleby is arrested and imprisoned he is unable to wash his hands of him, and pays for the food which Bartleby prefers not to eat. As the narrator’s shadow, he is not so much good opposed to evil, as death opposed to life, pessimism opposed to optimism, negation opposed to affirmation.

One final cameo, from The Piazza. The narrator, buying a house in a beautiful valley, sees a view of the mountains which includes an enchanted house. He decides to visit this fairy palace, but finds only a hovel, half collapsing, inhabited by a desperately poor and lonely brother and sister. The sister’s one consolation is to look at the view down the valley and the vision of an enchanted house – the narrator’s own. What, then, are we to conclude about the reality of the narrator’s own home? Is it as idyllic as he makes it appear, or does it too hide sorrow and suffering?

Melville reminds us that evil and negation is always with us. He reminds us that there is a constant conflict between good and evil, and that it is not easy to tell which is which. It is easy to make a mistake, and to back an evil which wears a good mask. Yet he is ultimately optimistic about the result of this conflict. His narrator in The Lightning Rod Man refuses to accept that lightning can strike at any time unless he follows a set of detailed rules and insists that the God who made the lightning is not ultimately wicked or ill-disposed towards us. He gives us hope that the conflict will go well, although it may cost us in the process.

Shortly after reading Melville I finally got around to reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Being aware of the films and film derivatives, the parodies and imitations, I was pleasantly surprised to find a profound if at times clumsy novel by a precocious 19-year-old girl. The novel is many things – commentary on the hubris of scientific experiment, proto-feminist reflection on men’s desire to dominate – but at its core it is an extended mediation on the nature of creation and the origin of good and evil.

Victor Frankenstein learns to create life. He creates a being in his own image, yet flawed and hideous. Then, like the Deist’s god, he leaves it to make its own way in the world. Will it be good or evil? Both are possible. If it had been shown love it would have become loving – yet its physical deformity ensures its rejection, and it turns into a bitter, vengeful murderer. It shadows Frankenstein for the rest of his life, killing those he loves and robbing him of joy and contentment until, on Frankenstein’s death, there is nothing left for the monster but end its own life.

The monster can be seen as an aspect of Frankenstein’s personality as well as the work of his hands. He tries to ignore it, and for a long time believes he has left it behind, but ultimately it is always with him. The crimes only cease when he takes responsibility and starts to hunt it. Yet this hunt consumes his life – he has nothing else but the fight and the chase.

Is this what evil costs us? Or is it simply that we ignore our own creations, our own shadows, at our peril? Is it that evil, left alone, will not simply go away, but grow and fester until it destroys every source of happiness? Yet if tamed early, and faced honestly, perhaps it can be turned to good. Nuclear technology, fossil fuels, colonisation…if we can’t bring good out of these things now that they have been created, then surely at least by diligence we can reduce their evil.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Saying Sorry

The whole of Australia is full of yesterday’s formal apology to the Stolen Generation made by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on behalf of the Australian Parliament. It was inspiring to see the parliamentary gallery full of black faces including lots of people who’ve fought for an apology for years, and to see them giving a standing ovation at the end of the apology speech.

Nonetheless, not everyone is happy. Of course there are plenty of Indigenous Australians who say “OK Mr Rudd, now what are you going to do?” or who see it as empty words when there’s no compensation fund to go with it. Who could blame them? More disturbing are those people who say the Stolen Generation thing is a beat-up, that most of the kids were taken away for their own good. That won’t wash. Just because people had good intentions that doesn’t make their actions right.

More interesting are people like veteran Liberal MP Wilson Tuckey, a strident opponent of an apology. He was very caustic in an interview after the apology, saying ironically “hooray, we’ve fixed the problems of Indigenous people now, little children can sleep safe in their beds, kids will reach the same educational standard as the rest of the community, remote communities will be safe happy places, Indigenous life expectancy will no longer be less than that of the rest of the community!” or words to that effect. In other words, he’s saying an apology is pointless because it doesn’t solve all the pressing problems that exist in the Indigenous community.

This is a really strange response. I’m sure Mr Tuckey doesn’t oppose improved dental care because it won’t do anything to fix heart disease, or oppose keeping our peacekeeping force in East Timor because it doesn’t do anything about Islamic terrorism. Of course the apology won’t fix child abuse or living conditions on remote communities. It’s not a response to that, it’s a response to the wrong done to the Stolen Generation.

It’s tempting to just think that Mr Tuckey is so stupid he can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. I think there’s more to it than that. There are two basic views about why Indigenous people experience social problems. One is that their society has been damaged by the British invasion and subsequent 200 years of domination. Indigenous people have had their land, their wages and their children stolen – how could they not be damaged? If you believe that this is the case, the solution to Indigenous problems is restitution – apologise for the wrongs done and then right them by giving the land back, paying unpaid wages and re-uniting families. At least, if things can’t be put back the way they were, compensate people for their suffering and loss.

The other is that Indigenous people are responsible for their own plight – they drink irresponsibly, neglect their children, mismanage Government funds, are lazy and dishonest. Thus, the solution to their problems is increased intervention in their lives – alcohol bans, quarantining of welfare payments, increased policing of communities. That’s the view Mr Tuckey has, and the view John Howard expressed while Indigenous community leaders turned their backs on him in that famously awful speech a decade ago. Mr Howard used to call it “practical reconciliation” as opposed to “symbolic reconciliation”, but really it was just an inability to see the white contribution to Indigenous problems.

If the second view sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It’s the way of thinking that led to the Stolen Generation. Aboriginal children, the argument went, are better off away from their families because their families were incapable of giving them a good life. White families or institutions can do better. A generation of pain and hurt says this approach is wrong.

Of course we need to walk and chew gum at the same time. We can’t ignore child abuse or poor living conditions, low life expectancy or high unemployment. But nor can we ignore people’s hurt, the legacy of our and our ancestors’ ignorance and insensitivity. There’s no point saying sorry if you go straight back and repeat the same behaviour.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Giving offence

I learnt something about being offensive this week. I occasionally work for some of the Aboriginal housing organisations here in South-East Queensland and as a result I'm on an e-mail list that gets a lot of news from around the Indigenous community. The other day - right after Australia Day or Invasion Day as Indigenous Australians call it - I got an e-mail with this cartoon attached. The cartoon had appeared in our local newspaper on Invasion Day. It depicts the "first property deal, 220 years ago", and the Indigenous auctioneer is saying "... sold for no money to the weird white fella in the funny hat". The person who sent this image added some indignant comments that included the following

"I'm astounded at how eurocentric and deluded this cartoon is in displaying the 'first property deal in Australia'. There was no deal...It outraged me and I shudder to think that many Aussies out there got a little chuckle out of it and kept reading...I hope you can send this out to your network of enlightened people and hopefully they will let the Courier Mail know how offensive, socially irresponsible and essentially evil such printed material is."

I have to admit that my first reaction to this was that the person sending the e-mail had misunderstood the cartoon. It seemed to me to be actually pro-Indigenous, using typical ironic white Australian humour to highlight the injustice of the British land grab. I too would have had a little chuckle and kept reading.

As I thought about it, though, I realised a couple of things. Firstly, the person who sent the e-mail was not a white Australian and therefore might not share that sense of irony (I was being eurocentric!). The second was that since I wasn't one of the people whose land got invaded, it didn't really matter what I thought. An Indigenous person was clearly offended by the cartoon, and I'm assuming she wasn't alone since the list moderator sent the message on.

This made me think about the difference between being accidentially offensive, and being deliberately so. In this case there is no doubt that the cartoon is offensive since Indigenous people were offended. Whether the cartoonist meant to give offence is another matter. I doubt that he did. He just didn't know enough about Indigenous culture to know what would give offence. Neither did I.

It reminded me of a quote from "Murder in the Collective" by Barbara Wilson. One of the characters says, "...you worry about being called racist as if it were syphilis or something. Like you were accused of having some dread, disfiguring, incurable disease. But I think it's more like telling someone or being told, 'Hey, you've got snot hanging out of your nose.' You say thank you and wipe it off. Though that doesn't mean the snot's not going to ever drip again."

So, I've just wiped the snot from my nose and I hope the Courier-Mail cartoonist can wipe his too.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Rain

This morning I rode my bike up Mt Cootha which is a mountain near the centre of Brisbane - it has a lookout which faces back towards the city so you can see pretty much the whole of Brisbane out to Moreton Bay, and the hills in the distance to the South and North. I got to the top and could see the clouds closing in around the city and rain falling on my home. A pleasant change after years of drought and anxiety about dam levels in South-East Queensland. As I rode down the mountain the wind whipped my face and blinded me, and by the time I got home I was soaked. Still, rain is such a novelty these days that I loved it.

Since creating this blog precisely no-one has read it which is hardly surprising since I haven't told anyone it exists but hey, I needed to post something before I forgot how and also needed to log in before I forgot my password - too late, I'd forgotten already!

Monday, 7 January 2008

Painting Fakes

Arthur Koestler told this joke in his book The Act of Creation.

An art collector once bought a painting from a dealer, which the dealer claimed was by Pablo Picasso. The collector wanted to make sure that it was genuine, so he visited Picasso in his studio. The great man was busy painting, so the collector waited, watching him for some time as he applied the paint to an almost-completed work. When Picasso was free he unwrapped his purchase. Picasso looked at it for a couple of seconds and snapped, "it's a fake!"

The collector was disappointed, but nonetheless felt privileged to have spent time watching Picasso paint. Imagine his excitement when a few months later, visting a gallery, he saw on sale the very painting on which he had watched Picasso working. He bought the painting and went to see the painter again. Pablo looked at the new painting for a moment and once again snapped "it's a fake!"

The collector was amazed. "But Pablo," he said, "a few months ago I sat in this very studio and watched you working on this painting."

Picasso replied in an offhanded manner, "I often paint fakes."

Hence the title of this blog. I've started this so that I can share my many thoughts, sensible and otherwise, with the world (or at least those who are interested and manage to find this blog in the maze of useless information that is the Internet). I'll be recording thoughts on social policy, music, literature, theology, politics and anything else that takes my interest. But you need not take any of it too seriously if you don't want to - a lot of it is likely to be fake.