Tuesday, 28 December 2010


Just before Christmas we had great footage of chaos in European airports as snowstorms left travellers stranded in mid-Christmas journey.  Yesterday we had a lucky escape from the Australian version as storms saw planes turned back from Brisbane airport all morning.  Fortunately we flew in the evening and were only an hour late, but there was chaos in Sydney airport as passengers queued for hours and airline staff desperately pleaded for Sydney residents to go home and try again the next day.

The British government is talking about whether it might have to upgrade its airports to make them snow-proof.  I don't think you can do the same for tropical storms.  There's no protection from wind, thunder and lightening except to stay indoors and wait it out.  If it blows hard enough even that doesn't help.

In any case, I wonder how temporary this will all be.  It's not too many years ago that we would spend 24 hours on a bus to Sydney because the plane was so expensive.  Now it's way cheaper by air and most of the bus companies have gone out of business.  Yet whenever I do one of those carbon footprint calculations, despite my frugal turning off of switches, cycling, public transport use and composting I'm in the exploitative zone as a result of frequent air travel.  I buy carbon offsets, but I doubt it's enough.

In any case, cheap air travel has to be on borrowed time.  As peak oil looms, airlines and their customers will just have to pay more - if the supply is even there.  Once again we'll think twice before we fly, holiday close to home like we did as kids, and take the bus more often.  We'll no longer be able to see some of those rellies we love quite so often and that will be a little sad.  But the National Broadband Network will make Skype even more lifelike.  Meanwhile, perhaps the airports will become scrapyards, a couple of terminals and runways in occasional use by those rich enough for the luxury while the rest sits deserted, summer and winter, storm and sunshine.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A Family Christmas

It's nearly Christmas.  Most of us are getting ready to hang out with our extended family, while those of us who are a long way from family are most likely lining up surrogates to stave off the loneliness.  This has come to be what Christmas is about for most Australians.  So with that in mind, here's a little Christmas gem from Kenneth Bailey's marvellous book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.

In our traditional view of the Christmas story, based on Luke 2:1-7, Joseph and Mary set off for Bethelehem.  When they arrive, however, the inn is full and they are forced to sleep out in the stable, where Jesus is born.  The story has become a symbol of Jesus' poverty and his status as a social outcast.  In Bailey's view it is also very European, and is a very unlikely scenario in the context of Middle Eastern culture. 

Firstly, Joseph was a descendent of David, going to the City of David.  Hence he almost certainly had relatives in town and these would have been honour bound to give he and his heavily pregnant wife hospitality.

Secondly, even if Joseph had no relatives, the Middle Eastern norms of hospitality dictate that they would have been offered room in someone's house.  In fact, they would probably have been besieged with offers and the main risk would have been offending the wrong person.

Thirdly, should all this fail then Mary's relatives, Zacharias and Elizabeth, parents of John the Baptist, also lived in "the hill country of Judea" where Bethlehem is located - so why not go to them for shelter?

Here's Bailey's solution to the dilemma.  Most English translations say something along the lines of, "she wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."  Notice no mention of a stable, only a manger - i.e. a trough or container for animal feed.  He says there are two words in Greek which are translated as "inn".  The first, pandocheion means a commercial inn or hotel.  This is the term used for the place the good Samaritan took the wounded man.  Luke 2:7, on the other hand, uses the word katalyma, which is a more generic term for a "place to stay" and could be translated "guest room". 

The typical Middle Eastern village house of someone wealthy enough to have a guest room is built along the lines shown in Bailey's illustration below.

The guest room was kept for visitors, who in Middle Eastern society would be frequent.  The family would all sleep together in the main room.  Their animals would live outside in the daytime, but at night they would be brought into the "stable", open to the main living room but on a lower level so the animals couldn't actually climb up and sleep in the family bed.  Their food would be placed in the mangers dug into the floor of the family room as shown.  Their presence inside would keep them safe and help warm the house on those cold winter nights.  

So in saying "there was no room in the katalyma" Luke was saying that the family who offered hospitality to Joseph and Mary, whoever they were, already had another guest.  Perhaps this was someone of higher social standing than Joseph - say, an elder member of the family - or perhaps they just arrived first.  No matter, though, Joseph and Mary were welcome to stay in the family room.  No doubt when the actual labour took place, Joseph and the other men would have been shuffled off somewhere while the midwife and the village women helped Mary.  Then when Jesus was born he would have been wrapped up nice and warm and put in the soft straw of the manger at the end of the room, near the warmth of the livestock.

Jesus was not born in a palace, amidst splendour and fine living.  But he was born in the midst of a family, whether his own relatives or hospitable strangers.  He was surrounded by love and care, warmed by a press of people and livestock. 

May you experience the same this Christmas.  Livestock are optional.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Orwell on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

For my last birthday my daughter gave me a selection  of booklets from the Penguin "Great Ideas" series.  They're extended extracts (100 or so pages each) from great works of literature or philosophy.  In my little pile are extracts from Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, Fyodor Dostoevsky and this selection of essays by George Orwell.  Both Penguin and my daughter know me well - a full volume of Kant would wait on my shelf for years, but I can promise you the 100 page version will be read pretty soon.  They're also good for plane flights.  I read about half the Orwell on a flight to Sydney last week.  

Orwell would have been a great blogger - he doesn't waste words, he draws you into the world he describes, he is prepared to live his art not just read about it, and he is interested in a wide range of things.   Here's something I thought was especially clever.  One of the essays is called The Art of Donald McGill.  McGill was a designer of comic postcards and the essay is an examination of the themes and ideas presented in those postcards - the kind of illustrated jokes you still see sometimes in tabloid papers or on comic blogs.

"I like seeing experienced girls home."
"But I'm not experienced!"
"You're not home yet!"

And so it goes on - you can see lots of examples here.  I love the fact that he takes an interest in this kind of popular culture.  I also love his explanation that these postcards "give expression to the Sancho Panza view of life."

If you look into your own mind, which are you, Don Quixote or Sancho Panza?  Almost certainly you are both.  There is one part of you that wishes to be a hero or a saint, but another part of you is a little fat man who sees very clearly the advantages of staying alive with a whole skin.  He is your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul.  His tastes lie towards safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer and women with "voluptuous" figures.  He it is who punctures your fine attitudes and urges you to look after Number One...

There is a constant, world-wide conspiracy to pretend that he is not there, or at least that he doesn't matter.  Codes of law and morals, or religious systems, never have much room in them for a humorous view of life....A dirty joke is not, of course, a serious attack upon morality, but it is a sort of mental rebellion, a momentary wish that things were otherwise.

Society has aways to demand a little more from human beings than it will get in practice....I never read the proclamations of generals before battle, the speeches of fuehrers and prime ministers, the solidarity songs of public schools and left-wing political parties, national anthems, Temperance tracts, papal encyclicals and sermons against gambling and contraception, without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from all the millions of common men to whom these high sentiments make no appeal. 

Nevertheless, the high sentiments always win in the end, leaders who offer blood, toil, tears and sweat always get more out of their followers than those who offer safety and a good time.  When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic.  Women face childbed and the scrubbing brush, revolutionaries keep their mouths shut in the torture chamber, battleships go down with their guns still firing when their decks are awash.  It is only that the other element in man, the lazy, cowardly, debt-bilking adulterer who is inside all of us, can never be suppressed altogether and needs a hearing occasionally.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Leaking in the Facebook Age

Everyone who's on Facebook knows (I hope) that anything you post can become public property.  You may think that your privacy setting will protect you, but if you'd be embarassed to see that photo in your local newspaper, then don't post it.

What's clear from the unfolding Wikileaks saga is that the same applies to diplomatic correspondence.  You may think your cables are confidential and sent through a secure network, but electronic data is so easily transportable that you have to expect that sooner or later it will get out.

This is part of the reason why the focus on Julian Assange is misplaced.  You will have noticed that even though Assange is in prison, the leaks are still being published.  The internet is a dispersed medium, definitively a network, and if you cut off one person from it you damage that person, but the network just finds another pathway. 

In response to the push in the US and elsewhere to prosecute Assange, many jounalists have pointed out that leaking is a time-honoured practice in politics and media, and that it is so widespread that the ramifications of making it illegal would impact on every media outlet in the world and on much of the practice of politics.  Politicians regularly leak confidential documents for a whole variety of reasons - to undermine an opponent, to test an idea before officially putting their name to it, to create a media buzz about an upcoming announcement.  Sometimes confidential documents are leaked because public servants believe the information is being wrongly suppressed.  Sometimes people leak from noble motives, sometimes from base ones.

Two things are different about Wikileaks.  The first is the sheer volume of material.  This is not a single report or document, it's hundreds of thousands of them.  The net is cast widely and fairly indiscriminately.  Most leaks are strategic and purposeful in a specific way.  This one is more like an explosion in a paper factory - its purpose is the act of leaking itself.

The second is the control of the information.  Normally leaking is very selective.  The person with access to the information seeks out a sypathetic journalist or two, hands them a document or briefs them, and the journalist writes the story.  It's highly controlled, highly contained.  Wikileaks, in the other hand,  has posted the original documents on its website and anyone can google them and read every single document.  They encourage as many people as possible to mirror their site and to store the material.  Neither the leaker nor the publisher has any control over what will happen with this information.

What will happen after the initial flurry of outrage and scapegoating?  Well, the most likely short-term response will be to slam the door firmly shut on the empty stable - to boost computer security, reduce the number of officials with access to confidential information, create new laws to punish future leakers and those they inform.  It's human nature.  When you feel threatened, make a new rule.

And after the new rules have also been broken, or proved unworkable?  Perhaps our leaders, and those who serve them, might have to think about the relationship between their private and public behaviour.  Will what they say in private stand the cold light of publicity?  When they stand up in public, are they speaking the truth?  Are their private lives consistent with their public lives?  And if they are consistently honest and speak the same truth in private and in public, they might find that we are actually able to bear it.  They might find that an increasingly informed public will be able to make mature judgements even if the message is not what we want to hear.

We live in interesting times!

Monday, 6 December 2010

Leaking Crocodile Tears

On the ABC News this evening we heard the Republican leader in the US Senate declaring that Julian Assange is a "hi-tech terrorist" and should be treated as an "enemy combatant".  Of course since we've been fighting a "war on terror" it's become a lot easier to say such things.  But just who is Assange and his Wiki-leaks army terrorising?

Well, although new bombshells are exploding every day they seem to be entirely of the metaphorical sort, and I don't recall anyone ever being killed by a metaphor.  Of couse, it's possible that amongst the material there is confidential information which might compromise the safety of, say, an intelligence operative or informer, and this would be of some concern.  Australian Observer, a former senior Defence and Foreign Affairs official, strongly doubts it - the security of such contacts is much tighter than that.

It seems that the main people being terrorised are diplomats and politicians, quaking in their boots as they wait to see if that stupid thing they said or wrote will make the front page.  It's always embarassing when your dirty laundry is aired and people find out you're not exactly the person they thought you were.  Tiger Woods was certainly embarassed when his wholesome image was trashed by his wife trying brain him with a golf club after discovering his latest piece of infidelity.  Yet while we will never see him the same way again, he might actually become a better person as a result.

And this is the whole point.  In case you haven't noticed, things haven't been going too well lately on the international relations front.  The war in Afghanistan seems unwinnable, and we're pouring billions and sacrficing young lives to prop up a corrupt regime.  North and South Korea are on the brink of war, as are India and Pakistan.  International climate change negotiations are a farce. 

If things were going well, we might be inclined to trust our governments and leave their dirty secrets alone.  But this ain't working.  Maybe its better to get the whole sorry mess out in the open.  In the short term it will hurt.  We'll lose some credibility, some money and even a little skin.  Some people might lose their jobs.  But perhaps in the long term it can help get some things out into the open.  Jesus says:

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.  What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.

Slightly out of context, but the revealing of everything is the beginning of salvation.  Perhaps once the torch is shone on the sorry mess that is international relations, we will be able to begin the heal it.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Searching for Certainty

I guess this is a kind of addendum to all those posts on biblical inerrancy.  It's also the 100th post on Painting Fakes which is more than any of the Australians managed in the first innings in Adelaide (cricket joke, for the Americans among you).  The more I do it, the more I love it.

Among the incredibly wide variety of types of people in the world, there are two that I'd like to mention in this post.  The first are "black and white people".  They like things to be clear.  It's right or it's wrong, it's true or it's false.  The second are "shades of grey" people.  They rarely see the world in absolute terms.  Something may be true in a certain sense and false in another sense.  It depends what you mean by "true".

This distinction is a matter of psychology, not belief.  For instance, both Ken Ham and Richard Dawkins are black and white people.  The content of their beliefs differs, but they have a similar approach to belief.  This may be why Ham serves as Dawkins' model for religion - it's the type of religion he can relate to, whereas he sees more subtle and nuanced versions as wishy washy cop-outs.

The authors of the Chicago Statement are also black and white people.  The Bible is either true, or it's not true.  When they felt the need to defend its truth, the only alternative they saw was to defend it in black and white terms. 

Which brings me back to the recollection from the post at the begining of the series, of Francis Schaeffer drawing circles on the beach, and his fear and anxiety that in our age we have replaced successive coherent world views with incoherence.  This is a view I often hear from the pulpit and read in various places - that post-modernism means loss of meaning.  Modernism - the idea that the universe is a predictable and, in principle, comprehensible place in which meaning is fixed and actions are governed by immutable laws - is paradise for black and white people.  It provides them with certainty.  Religious modernists, like Schaeffer or Ham, search for the same in the Bible, and see its absence as the absence of meaning and the loss of faith.  This is why they resist so fiercely.

Shades of grey people like me, on the other hand, tend to be baffled by this.  We see faith and uncertainty as natural partners.  A little uncertainty makes life more interesting, and makes faith necessary.  A variety of views means we can all learn and grow.  Post-modernism is liberating, opening up more possibilities, bringing more ideas into the tent, allowing us to ask new questions and to think new thoughts.  It also enables us to more fully appreciate difference, to see things from other people's points of view.  Differences of opinion are not aberrations to be corrected, they are a consequence of the way the world really is and opportunities to learn.  I don't need to convince or vanquish my opponents, but I enjoy robust discussions with them.

One of the fears black and white people have about this - and not without justification - is that it leads to an "anything goes" mentality.  "Is it wrong to carry out genocide in Sudan?"  "Well, maybe, it depends on your point of view...."  This is why we need black and white people.  We need people with the clarity of vision to stand up and say "this is wrong" loudly and clearly.  We need shades of grey people to say "there's a few different ways to solve this, have you thought about...?"  If shades of grey people had things all our way, nothing would ever get done.  If black and white people had things all their way, the world would be a rigid, unimaginative place.  We need each other to survive.

Then I'm a shades of grey person so I would say that, wouldn't I?