Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Greatest Show on Earth

I first encountered Richard Dawkins through The God Delusion, his tedious and ill-informed rant against religion.  Like Christians around the world, I shook my head ruefully and said, "no, I don't believe in that god either".  So I thought I'd try again with his most recent book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.

I have to say it's much more pleasant to encounter Dawkins on his own territory.  While his religious knowledge is patchy at best, he has a deep knowledge of evolutionary biology and a passion for the subject that really shines through.  Unlike Sam Harris, he even holds out an olive branch to moderate religious believers, opening the book with a discussion of his joint lobbying with various Anglican bishops on the subject of the teaching of creationism in school science classes.

The motivation for this book is Dawkins' horror that over 40% of Americans, and over 20% of Britons, believe in young earth creationism.  Dawkins responds by attempting to set out, accessibly and in plain English, the various strands of evidence that point towards the truth of the evolutionary view.  He draws heavily on Darwin's Origin of Species, the closest thing to a sacred text in Dawkins' world, but updates Darwin's perspective with research data accumulated over the intervening 150 years.

The evidence is grouped into nine main strands:
  • evidence from humans' experience with selective breeding and the changes in animals and plants which result from such selection
  • evidence from experiments with bacteria and fish in the laboratory, and in the real world, which show major changes taking place over periods of years or decades
  • the evidence of various radioactive dating methods
  • the evidence of the fossil record, including a lengthy response to the idea of "missing links"
  • evidence from embryology
  • evidence drawn from the similarities and differences of species on different continents and islands
  • evidence of the genetic relationships between various species
  • evidence within species of change and adaptation, including numerous examples of "poor design" which seem to stem from gradual adaptation
  • evidence of the "evolutionary arms race" in which predators and prey mutually improve their ability to catch and escape.
Personally I didn't really need convincing, but I enjoyed the ride anyway.  I'm an occasional reader of popular science books and I already knew a lot of this stuff, but there was still plenty that was new to me.  I found his discussions of comparative anatomy fascinating, as were his accounts of the evolutionary history of various types of animals including ourselves.  A lot of his asides and footnotes are fun, and his conversational tone kept the book light enough to keep me reading.

Not that this is a perfect book, by any means.  It could probably have lost 100 pages without anyone missing them.  If I was the editor I would have taken the red pen to the large number of digressions and multiple illustrations of the same point.  I would also have got rid of some unhelpful analogies, a few discussions of terminology he doesn't use, and most of the bits where he kicks sand in creationists' faces.  It seems cruel to kick someone when they're down, but then I guess that's how natural selection works.

Which brings me to the thing about this book that I found most jarring, coming from the world's best-known militant atheist - Dawkins' persistent, even relentless, use of the language of intent.  Like this, the first one I found flipping through the book, from Page 366.

...when our fish ancestors took to breathing air, they didn't modify their gills to make a lung....Instead, they modified a pouch of the gut.

Clever fish!  Or this one, from page 390.

Natural selection...chooses between rival individuals within a population.  Even if the entire population is diving to extinction, driven down by individual competition, natural selection will still favour the most competitive individuals....

The book is full of this kind of stuff,  Natural selection choosing, favouring, acting, achieving, tinkering.  Individual species making transitions, adapting, modifying. 

Dawkins knows that this is a mere figure of speech.  Only two pages later he says this.

Natural selection is all futile.  It is all about the surival of self-replicating instructions for self-replication.

So why does he use it so constantly?  Why does he speak throughout the book as if nature, evolution and natural selection are acting purposefully?  Why does he so consistently attribute agency to these impersonal, chance-driven, statistical processes?

I think part of it is that Dawkins is just not a particularly skilled writer.  To be sure, he is a great communicator and controversialist, but compared to the likes of Stephen Jay Gould or Stephen Hawking his English is pedestrian and unimaginative.  He is in too much of a hurry to get his point across to spend time teasing out the niceties of language.

However, my guess is that there's more to it than this.  Living under the beneficient influence of Charles Darwin, Dawkins is surprisingly Victorian.  Like Darwin, he is an upstanding gentleman, a person of high ethics and passion for the truth.  He is a natural seeker after meaning and structure.  His choice of language helps to shield him from the implications of the futility of natural selection. 

Even the term "natural selection" itself is a misleading analogy.  No selection is involved.  Some things survive, others do not.  Those that survive continue to reproduce, spawning other things which also survive or don't.  These things change between generations, and the changes which survive subsequently lead to other changes.  That's it.  That's all there is.  Outside of human minds there is no such thing as purpose and meaning.

Dawkins can't face the despair of that view of life.  Nor can I.  He papers it over with the language of intent.  I remain a Christian.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Writing about what it means to be human made me think of Philip K Dick's lovely science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.  The title alone has got to be worth the price of the book. It poses a tricky, if hypothetical, problem which is not that different from the problem of post-humanism.

The story centres on two humans.  Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter whose job is to destroy escaped androids.  The intellectually disabled JR Isidore is a delivery boy for a company that repairs electronic animals.  They live on an Earth that is a virtual wasteland, where almost nothing survives except humans and even these in rapidly decreasing numbers through mass emigration to the outer planets. 

In this lifeless world, every human dreams of owning a real animal, but these are such rare and expensive items that most have to settle for incredibly lifelike electronic substitutes.  These dreams provide a deep emotional core to the novel.  Deckard, already the owner of a electric sheep, takes his flying car out into the wilderness for a little time alone and finds what appears to be a real, living toad.  He carefully catches it and takes it home to his wife, only to be shattered as she ruefully flips it over and opens its battery cavity.  JR has better luck, finding a real live spider in the abandoned unit block where he lives and taking it back to his own unit.

In this world there are also human-shaped androids, so lifelike as to be almost indistinguishable from real humans.  They look exactly like humans, they sound like them, they smell like them, they are as intelligent as them and they even behave like them.  Used widely as servants on the outer planets, these androids are outlawed on Earth.  Nonetheless they frequently escape and try to blend in with the Earth population, and it is Deckard's job to find them and destroy them.

This is not easy, as androids have no trouble blending into the human population.  Short of pulling them apart, the only detectable difference is that androids have no empathy.  They know what it is, and can mimic it, but they do not feel it.  When Rick identifies a suspected android he has to administer an "empathy test" in which he hooks it up to a monitor and meaures its response to various emotional stimuli.  A human will have an instant physiological reaction to shocking ideas and images.  In an android this reaction will be ever so slightly delayed, as they first process the idea, and then consciously create the appropriate response.

This difference is crucial, as we see when a group of escaped androids move into JR's apartment block.  JR takes them for humans and befriends them.  At first things go fine, but then they find his precious spider and slowly torture it to death in front of him, oblivious to his immense distress.  JR himself is rescued when Rick tracks down the androids, but his relief is tinged with sadness for the loss of his "friends".

This is, of course, a version of the Frankenstein story, and it poses a similar moral question for us, should we succeed in creating artificial intelligences that really live.  In Dick's view, our creations may be monsters, highly dangerous in much the same way as Frankenstein's monster.  Yet the book's title insistently asks us to empathise with them.  Perhaps they do dream of electric sheep.  They certainly dream of freedom, or else why would they escape so regularly?  Like Frankenstein's creation, they dream of being truly human.  Could they be, or will they be always wholly other?

Saturday, 25 June 2011


Post-humanism is one of the favourite themes of speculative fiction, and the world is not short of futurists like Cory Doctorow who believe it could one day be fact.  The basic idea is that through technology humans will one day transform ourselves into something different to what we are now. 

Greg Bear (among many others) imagines that humans will be able to upload their consciousness into a huge database in which they will potentially live forever, divorced from any physical existence but preserving their individual consciousness in the company of other disembodied "elders". 

Doctorow imagines that our memories and thoughts might be recorded at a remote back-up location, to be refreshed and revived in the event of a catastrophic local breakdown. 

Iain M Banks describes a society where medical technology enables people to become whatever they want.  They can change gender, physical appearance, even species with the essence of their personalities preserved through a potentially infinite number of such changes.  People can potentially live forever, although most choose not to.  Those who do most often live on only as disembodied memory pods, waiting to be revived at some unspecified future when something comes along that might be interesting enough to rekindle their interest in life.

There's something seductive about these futures.  They promise us eternity, relief from our physical suffering, relief from the dangers of accident and illness, relief from the ravages of dementia.  Yet the term "post-humanism" is a good one, because you have to wonder to what extent the beings created in this kind of world would be human.  So much of who we are is conditioned by our physicality.  We see, hear, smell and feel through physical membranes and nerve endings.  Without these, how would we perceive the world?  How would our relationships with one another, our empathy and solidarity, survive?  Would we suffer from sensory deprivation and go mad?  Would we become the detached, pure spiritual beings envisaged by Buddhist or Christian mysticism?

I was reminded of this by an article in The Australian by Greg Sheridan, a lifelong Catholic.  He says

...there's one aspect of orthodox Christian belief I have found strange and mysterious in ways that almost make me uncomfortable, and that is the doctrine of the bodily resurrection...that not only did Christ rise from the dead  in bodily form, that is to say his physical body, in a transformed state, rose from the dead...(but) that all human beings will rise from the dead in their transformed bodies.

There are two difficulties I have with this doctrine.  One is that growth and decay seem of the very essence of humanity....  The other is that it is just impossible to imagine the body renewed and lasting forever.  And a third, how is there purpose in changelessness?

He goes on to say that this is not a faith killer for him.  It's just one of the infinite number of things he doesn't understand.

It seems Sheridan and the post-humanists are struggling with the same issue.  The post-humanists, in their various ways, are struggling with our intuition that we are eternal beings, that there is more to our existence than the physically finite eighty years (give or take) of human life.  Their technological triumphalism leads them to replace God with ourselves, or perhaps with an artificial intelligence which grows out of what we create. 

This surrogate god confers on us the gift of eternity, but this gift is not necessarily an unalloyed good.  It is something we have to wrestle with, because it changes us irreparably.  It's possible that our nature will change completely.  It's possible we won't be able to stand eternity in the end and will choose to bring our lives to an end.  On the other hand its possible that in our new bodies, fleshly or electronic, we will find possibilities we can't so much as imagine from our present prisons of flesh and bone, and that these possibilities will be enough to fill several eternities.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Biblical God

Don Rogers over at Reflections recently posted this quote.

"Those who claim they “believe the whole Bible” and “take it literally” are being dishonest. Their pastor may have preached recently on the story of the fall of Jericho, but it was applied to God “making the strongholds of sin in your life come crumbling down”, not to a battle plan to take a city.

To be fair, not all Biblical authors view God in the same way. And so there is no single “Biblical view of God”. But certainly God as depicted in some parts of the Bible is not the concept of the deity served by Christians today.

The question a Christian needs to ask is whether they have the courage to admit that their view of God is not the same as that of many depicitions in the Bible. Do you have the courage to take the Bible’s actual words completely seriously, even when the result is that you are forced to acknowledge that you do not accept their literal truthfulness?"
~from Dr. James McGrath’s "Exploring Our Matrix"

It says some things I've been thinking, and says them much better than I could.  What do you think?

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Neil Gaiman

I've read a few of Neil Gaiman's fantasy novels now as well as watching the film Mirrormask, for which he wrote the script.  I've enjoyed all of them in that "I just want to keep reading this" way that good genre novels should have. 

However, I've started realise that he has a template.  All the stories he tells are variations on the one story which goes roughly like this.  A well-intentioned but hapless young man is trapped in a rather unsatisfactory life.  He works in a dead-end job, is in a relationship with a woman who is wrong for him, and is stumbling down the slope to a sub-optimal life.  Then some apparently chance encounter or freak event tips him into a completely bizarre parrallel world, in which he must achieve (or help someone achieve) some great and incredibly dangerous task in order to get back to his old life.  In other words, these are quest stories.

My most recent (but Gaiman's first) is Neverwhere, in which Richard Mayhew, mild-mannered London accountant and fiance to the formidable Jessica, finds a young homeless woman bleeding from an injured shoulder.  His innate sense of compassion makes him ignore Jessica's protests, take her home and help treat her injury.  As a result he is literally tipped out of his life (ordinary people are no longer able to see him and his friends and colleagues have forgotten his existence) into the world of "London Below", a bizarre realm of homeless people, forgotten places, talking rats, mythical creatures and incredibly dangerous assassins.  Here he has to help his new friend, the Lady Door, and her odd and slightly suspicious group of companions to find out who had her family killed, and why.

Because it's a quest story you know it will work out OK in the end.  Just like it does for Charlie Nancy in Anansi Boys, or for Shadow in American Gods.  Yet despite knowing the ending you keep reading.  Partly it's his skill as a writer dragging you along, revealing unexpected twists just as you think you might know what's happening.  Partly it's that you want to understand the new, mysterious world Gaiman has created, which he shows bit by bit like a conjurer.  Partly its because you like his characters, and really want things to turn out right.

There's also the fact that you're trying to work out exactly what "right" is.  Richard wants his job back, and his flat, and his fiance.  But does he, really?  You feel like screaming at him, "No, don't marry Jessica and spend your life as an accountant!"  And of course that's the point of a quest.  You could go back to where you started, but it will not be the same for you because you have changed.  Richard returns to a group of people amongst whom he is a slightly hapless accountant, but in London Beneath he is a warrior, knighted by the Earl of Earl's Court, friend to the rats and birds, companion of the Lady Door.  Which calling will he follow?

I think ultimately the power of these stories (and they are tremendously popular) is in their psychology.  Gaiman is showing us that beneath the surface of our lives there is so much more than we acknowledge.  Not only are there people all around us who we don't notice - homeless, mad, fogotten people who could possibly turn out to be gods or mythical heroes - but there is a whole world of feeling and ambition, danger and possibility, that runs beneath the surface of our ordinary lives.  We rarely acknowledge it, we live as if it were not there, but if just once we allowed it to take hold of us we would never be the same again.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Letter to a Christian Nation

Sam Harris, an American neuroscientist and CEO of Project Reason, wrote a book called The End of Faith.  He argued that religion is not only completely unreasonable, it is so dangerous in a world where there are weapons of mass destruction that it is no longer safe for us to keep it around.  I haven't read this book, but apparently many Christians did, and some were so incensed they wrote him abusive letters.

(Note to my fellow Christians: writing abusive letters is definitely What Jesus Would Not Do!)

Harris replied not with personal abuse by return mail, but with a booklet called Letter to a Christian Nation, in which he responds to his correspondents with more grace than they deserve, restating his arguments simply and briefly.

He is primarily addressing fundamentalists, and I found I agreed with him on a lot of points.  He is right to be horrified at some aspects of the Old Testament punitive law, like the stoning of adulterers and disobedient children, although he is wrong to suggest that Jesus endorsed these.  He is right to point to the irrationality of belief in a literal six day creation.  He is right to critique the opposition of many Christians to "harm reduction" approaches to sexual health (eg promoting the use of condoms to prevent HIV infection).  He is right to suggest that religious people are not necessarily more moral than non-religious, although he is wrong to suggest that this is an argument against religion. He may even have a point about Christian opposition to stem cell research, although I think there is more to be said about that.

However, for a man who heads an organisation called "Project Reason" his critique is surprisingly unreasoned.  For a start, like his friends Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, he has a rather hazy grasp of the content of religion.  I'm not sure that he fully realises the extent to which, like Dawkins, he sees religion through fundamentalist glasses.  This is what enables him to write like this about what he calls "religious liberalism and religious moderation".

...the issue is both simpler and more urgent than liberals and moderates generally admit.  Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn't.  Either Christ was divine, or he was not.  If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordinary man, the basic doctrine of Christianity is false....If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for non-believers like myself....So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose.

It would be harder to find a better statement of fundamentalist belief in any fundamentalist publication.  The problem for Harris seems to be that he actually prefers fundamentalism to what he calls "moderation" and "liberalism".  Hence, he is able to toss two thousand years of biblical and theological study out of the window with barely a glance in much the same way fundamentalists do.  No wonder that, like fundamentalists, he sees religious moderation as dangerous.

Funnily enough, he is not willing to apply the same standard to atheism.

Christians like yourself invariably declare that monsters like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and Kim Il Sung spring from the womb of atheism.  While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organised religion, they are never especially rational.  In fact, their public pronouncements are often delusional...

So, if I were to say that the Christians who wrote abusive letters to Harris are not acting on the basis of Christianity but of some personal pathology or distortion of the faith, I am out of order.  But if Harris says that the bad deeds of atheist tyrants are based on personal pathology or delusion, that is OK.  Moderate Christians are dangerous because they mask the dangers of fundamentalism, but moderate atheists are fine - in fact the salt of the earth - because they bring the light of reason to a benighted world.

Harris and his friends are classic examples of the polarising effects of war,  In a war there can be no neutrals.  Either you are for us, or you are against us.  Voices of moderation are drowned out by the boom of cannons.  In the 1950s and 1960s the problem was communism, and people who looked a little bit communist - trade unionists, fabian socialists, people who thought maybe we should be a little more generous to the poor - were suspect and placed under suveillance.  The fact that most of these people were peacable, responsible citizens was neither here nor there. 

Now the problem is religious terrorism, and anyone who is a bit religious is suspect.  It doesn't matter if you are a moderate Christian, a pacifist, a peace-loving Indonesian muslim, you are suspect and your religion needs to be eradicated along with the distorted fanatical Salafism of Osama bin Laden.  Although apparently Harris would make an exception for Jainism.

Sadly, the CEO of Project Reason is making a basic category mistake.  He is suggesting that because our most recent terrorists are religious, religion must be the problem.  Yet there have been many terrorists in history, using a wide range of religious, political and nationalist justifications for their unjustifiable atrocities.  What they have in common is that they have managed to construct an ideology which allows, even obliges, them to impose their will on others with brutal force.  This is the problem, not religion.  I would happily help Harris combat this problem.  While he is combating it with reason, I would combat it with arguments from religion.  Perhaps between us we might get somewhere.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Jesus Clears the Temple - John's View

So to continue where I left off yesterday....

While Mark and Matthew place this story late in Jesus ministry, John places it at the start.  It forms part of John's counterpart to Matthew and Mark's "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand", and Luke's story of Jesus preaching in Nazareth.

John has two commencement stories.  The first, the story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, is not quite a public act, because although the wedding itself is a public event most of those present don't seem to know what has happened.  The story is also a deeply symbolic one.  The wine is symbolic of the life and vitality of the Kingdom of God.  Hence, when the original wine supplied for the wedding runs out, we should take this as indicating the bankruptcy of the old order, the order of priests and sacrifices which Jesus was confronting. 

Jesus' response is to ask them to fill with water, and then draw from, the jars which the household would use for washing - that is, jars for "unclean" water.  The response of the bridegroom (who perhaps represents God) is that the wine which comes from these jars is better than the original.  Thus the new life of God's kingdom, drawn from those excluded from the old order, is superior to the old.  This is the same message we saw in the passage from Isaiah 56, where the unclean - the eunuchs and "the nations" - are given a permanent place in God's temple.

By contrast, the clearing of the temple is very clearly a public act.  In outline John's version of the story is similar to that in Mark and Matthew, but it has important differences.  Firstly, the references to Isaiah and Jeremiah are replaced by a much simpler statement - "Get these out of here!  How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!"

Secondly, in typical Johannine fashion the action is followed by a dispute with the Jewish leaders.

18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

Here we see three things: the Jews' question, Jesus' response, and John's interpretation.  The Jews, in essence, ask Jesus to prove he has the right to give orders in the temple precinct, perhaps by performing a miracle.  Jesus' answer is cryptic - "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."  For the Jews this is a complete impossibility.  For a start, the first part of his challenge is absurd - they are not going to destroy the temple at his request.  The second part is equally absurd - how can anyone complete such a huge contruction project in three days?  The exchange is left incomplete - was Jesus arrested?  Was he expelled from the precinct?  What happened to the market?

These questions don't concern John, who skips years forward to report the way the disciples came to interpret this message much later - "But the temple he had spoken of was his body."  In other words, Jesus himself takes the place of the temple.  The nations, the eunuchs, the unclean, will not gather in the physical temple.  As we know the temple was soon to be destroyed.  Instead, they will gather around Jesus.  The new Kingdom of God, which is so much better, so much more lifegiving than the old, is not tied to the Jewish nation or the site on Mount Zion.  The destruction of that temple, symbolically prefigured in Jesus' action,  is just one of the events that ushers in the new Kingdom.  The pivotal event is the death and resurrection of Jesus, the animation and living presence of God among us.

At whatever point in Jesus' life this story takes place, the message is the same.  The old system of sacrifices and temple worship is irreparably damaged, because it is practiced in the face of hypocrisy and compromise.  Jesus' solution is not to reform it and purify it.  It is to build something new, something better, something that can give the kind of life the old worship could never give.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Jesus Clears the Temple

After my sermon on Jesus preaching at Nazareth some of us talked further on the question of how you should treat your enemies, if you're not supposed to kill them.  During this discussion we got onto the story of Jesus clearing the temple and I thought it would be worth a closer look.

The story appears in three of the gospels.  In Mark 11:15-19 and Matthew 21:12-17 it comes in the final week of Jesus' life, right after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  In John 2:12-25 it plays a somewhat similar role to the story of Jesus in Nazareth in Luke, a public introduction to the purpose of his ministry.  I have read some commentators who think this means Jesus did it twice, but this seems to be an absurd concession to the idea of inerrancy.  John has placed the story in a different place but it serves the same purpose - to introduce Jesus' terminal conflict with the Jewish authorities.

Here is the story as it appears in Mark.

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written:

‘My house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations’?

But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.

Mark records that the previous day, "Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple.  He looked around at everything, but since it was already late he went out to Bethany with the Twelve."  Hence, this was not a sudden act of passion brought on by seeing the desecration of the temple.  It was considered and well planned.  So first I'd like to look at what Jesus did, and then what he meant by it.

The temple, as rebuilt under Herod the Great, consisted of the main temple building, in which worship and sacrifice took place and to which only ceremonially clean Jews were admitted, surrounded by a walled courtyard which measured something like 300m by 450m and had as many as seven entrances.  This area, known as the "court of the Gentiles", was a public area almost certainly the scene of this story.  It was overlooked by the Roman garrison, and included a market area where visitors could exchange their foreign currency and buy sacrificial animals.  It was also a place where rabbis would come to teach their students, or to lecture in public, and beggars would sit at the gates to receive coins from the passers by.

It is impossible that Jesus, acting single-handedly, could have cleared this whole area and prevented access to it.  This means that you could see his action in two ways.  One is that when the gospels say that Jesus did this act, they mean that he led it, and was assisted by his disciples and perhaps other followers.  This would see Jesus as the leader of a protest movement and his act as a kind of demonstration, a political protest against the practices of the priests and leaders of Israel.  The other option is that he acted alone, and that his symbolic "cleansing" only served to disrupt the market and attract attention for the teaching which followed.

Whichever of these it was, it did involve a certain amount of force - the tables were overturned and the animals and perhaps people were driven out.  However, it was not violent in the sense of a military act.  John emphasises this point by adding the detail that Jesus "made a whip out of cords" - that is to say a whip of rope designed to sting but not harm, such as you might use to herd your sheep or goad your donkey, not a cat-o-nine-tails used for flogging criminals.

In any case, during or after the protest Jesus taught the crowd who had been attracted by it.  In this teaching, summarised by Mark in a few words and compressed even further by Matthew and John, he provides a rationale for his actions grounded in two pivotal Old Testament prophecies.

The first comes from Isaiah 56:7.  The quote in context is shown below.

3 Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”

4 For this is what the LORD says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD
to minister to him,
to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
and who hold fast to my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.”

Jesus and the gospel writers often show their attachment to these later chapters of Isaiah, with their vision of the suffering servant and the welcoming of the Gentiles as equals into God's family.  Jesus' allusion to this passage while standing in the Court of the Gentiles would have amplified its message.  Here is the place into which all the nations should come to worship God.  Here is the symbolic centre of God's kingdom.  But if the Gentiles should come into it, what would they find?

Jesus' response to this is to quote from a passage which is, if anything, the exact opposite of the Isaiah passage - Jeremiah 7:11.  In saying "but you have made it a 'den of robbers'", Jesus is quite likely drawing attention to the dishonest trade of the market he has just disrupted.  However, this is not just any market - it is a market which changes profane money into sacred currency, and sells animals for sacrifice.  It is a market which sits at the heart of the temple worship.  If the market is disrupted, the worship is disrupted as well.  The scope and meaning of this disruption is shown by the full context of the Jeremiah passage.

1 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 “Stand at the gate of the LORD’s house and there proclaim this message:

“‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. 3 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.

9 “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.

12 “‘Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel. 13 While you were doing all these things, declares the LORD, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer. 14 Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your ancestors.

Jesus is effectively standing in the same place as Jeremiah and repeating his message.  Instead of being a blessing to the nations as Isaiah wanted them to be, they have become cursed because of their corruption.  This corruption is represented by the market, but it is much more than that - the whole system of sacrifice and worship is worthless because the actions of the temple leaders, the leaders of the nation, do not match their words.  The result is that the temple will be destroyed, and their home will become desolate. 

As I've discussed elsewhere, this is what happened within a few decades.  Yet Jesus was also holding out hope to them.  The vision of Isaiah still stood.  The nations could still be blessed and could still worship at God's feet.  But this post is already too long, so I'll talk more about that in my next post.

Monday, 6 June 2011


"Now it happened that Kanga had felt rather motherly that morning, and Wanting to Count Things — like Roo's vests, and how many pieces of soap there were left, and the two clean spots in Tigger's feeder."

As you do.  Even though I rarely feel motherly on account of my Y chromosome, I felt like labelling things.  I tried labels on this blog when I first started and soon gave up as I had a new label for each post.  Now that there's over 150 posts here it's getting hard to find your way around, so I thought it was time to be a bit more organised. 

Every post has a label, and every post has only one because that's the tidy way to do things.  I know the real world is much messier than that but that's not my problem, I didn't make it that way.  I tried not to have too many labels.  Hope you enjoy using them.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Evaluating the Malaysian Solution

In today's edition of The Australian, Denis Shanahan says:

The key to success for the Malaysian solution for Labor is to be seen as hard-hearted and uncompromising, putting asylum-seekers on planes, manacled and at gunpoint if necessary, to convince people-smugglers and their customers the corrupt "business model" will not work.

Refugee advocates are starting to look back at the detention centre on Nauru as "the good old days" and advocate for its re-opening.

What more can I say?  I previously opined that the differences between Gillard and Howard on asylum seeker policy were so slight Gillard may as well shave her head and put on glasses.  I was wrong.  Howard should buy a red wig and get himself contacts. 

Friday, 3 June 2011

Why Do Things Take So Long?

I bought myself a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald this week and was fascinated by two stories.

The first was about a nameless Chinese citizen given the moniker "NK".  He entered Australia on a student visa not long after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, but in 1992 was convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years in jail.  In 2006 the parole authorities judged him suitable for release.  However, as a convicted murderer he is no longer eligible for an Australian visa because he fails the "character test".  He should have been deported immediately.  However, he is at risk of being retried for the same offence in China and being executed, and the Australian government is prevented by law from returning him to that kind of danger.  Unable to resolve the dilemma, the Immigration Department has been holding him in the Villawood immigration detention centre for the last five years. 

The second is the ongoing saga of cyclist Alberto Contador's positive drug test.  Contador was found to have a small amount of the anabolic steroid clenbuterol in his system during last year's Tour de France, which he won.  He claims he didn't take it deliberately and got it from eating a contaminated steak.  Leaving aside the question of how he knows that, the Spanish cycling federation accepted his defence, but the International Cycling Federation and the World Anti-Doping Agency appealed the decision in the Court of Arbitration for Sport.  Now we hear that the case will not be heard until August, after the end of this year's Tour and more than 12 months after the positive test.

What struck me about both these cases is that the questions in view, and the options for resolving them, are not that complicated.  For "NK" there are basically four options. 
  1. Waive the character test and allow him to stay in Australia.
  2. Negotiate a guarantee from the Chinese Government that it will not prosecute him, and then return him there.
  3. Negotiate with a third country to accept him.
  4. Return him to China despite the risk of execution.
How long could it take to try each of these options in turn, and then pick the one most likely to succeed?  Surely not five years!

The question in the Contador case is even simpler.  Are the authorities prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, or not?  It's fairly easy to identify the possibility of his telling the truth.  There are only two questions.
  1. Is it medically possible that the amount of clenbuterol in his system got there through a contaminated steak?
  2. Do European countries import meat from farmers who use such substances to speed animal growth?
If both answers are "yes" then there is enough doubt to let Contador off.  The facts will already have been established in his initial case.  Why would it take another six months to review them?

These are not isolated cases.  I've been involved in a couple of rather less glamorous but equally frustrating government decision-making processes in the last couple of years.  In each case, all the parties have been agreed about the final outcome, and the issues at stake have not been very large, but the administrative processes have been stiflingly slow, so much so that they put the project at risk as partners start to look for other alternatives.

Why is it that our governments and legal bodies are not able to make decisions?  Why do so many issues sit in limbo, with no apparent action, while the people most affected wait in frustration and often (as with "NK") in detention or poverty?

When I studied social work, all those years ago, we read the writings of Richard Titmuss, an English social policy thinker and champion of the welfare state.  Titmuss talked about the idea of discretion.  Resources would be made available through the welfare state and there would be broad guidelines as to how these resources should be applied.  However, it is impossible to foresee all the individual circumstances of the people who will be applying for help, so frontline officials needed to be given a lot of discretion in how they applied these policies in particular cases.

Titmuss was a generous man, and expected that the officials would use their discretion generously to promote the wellbeing of the people who came looking for help.  However, human nature being what it is things didn't always work out that way.  Often officials were mean and arbitrary, acting as gatekeepers and making unfair judgements about "deserving" and "undeserving" applicants.

As a result, a lot of secondary structures developed to right these wrongs - review panels, appeal tribunals, grievance and complaints mechanisms, judicial review for extreme cases.  These gave applicants a better chance of getting bad decisions reviewed, but a sad side effect is that they made officers cautious in the use of their discretion.  Public servants knew people were looking over their shoulders, and this made them careful.  They made a list, they checked it twice, they got their superior to check it too.

Then something else happened.  That superior, up until the end of the 1980s, was a carreer public servant.  Through the 1990s all the senior ranks of the public service were effectively converted into political appointees, on short-term contracts and with their jobs under threat with each change of government.  Their focus shifted from service delivery to political management.  The Minister had to be protected, kept out of trouble.  Your job might depend on it.

Everyone got super-cautious.  Now every decision is subject to endless review, multiple sections of an official's own Department and other departments have to be consulted.  If they disagree with each other, they have to be consulted again.  Every letter has to be checked.  I once asked a State official if he could let me have a copy of a form that is sent out regularly to over 400 organisations.  He told me I would have to write to the "Access to Information Officer" who would consider my request and may or may not then send me a copy of the form within three weeks.  I asked a friend in one of the 400 organisations for a copy and got it the next day.

The result of all this timidity is that major decisions do not get made.  "NK", having served his sentence, is imprisoned for a further five years for the crime of creating a dilemma for immigration officials.  Alberto Contador, if he tries hard enough, could stretch out his case until after his retirement.  The wheels grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Darcys vs the Knightleys

Even though their courtship makes an absorbing story, I fear the marriage of Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy will be a rocky one.  A marriage across class barriers might seem romantic, but there will be a lot of learning to do on both sides.  Fitzwilliam will not find it as easy to shed his arrogance as he thinks, and Elizabeth will not suffer it meekly.  He will sulk after an argument and they will not speak for days. 

In those times especially, but at other times too, she will be lonely.  She is used to a small house filled with five other noisy, combative women and a father whose wit cuts the air.  Here she inhabits a cavernous mansion with a taciturn husband, his timid young sister and so many servants that she struggles to remember their names.  Yet if she invites her mother or sisters to visit her husband becomes even more difficult, because he despises them.  Of course they will eventually make up, passionately and with a great show of repentence, after each argument, and perhaps eventually a brood of children will mellow them and fill her loneliness.

I feel a lot more optimistic, though, about Emma and George Knightley.  They are of the same social class, the prince and princess of their parish even before their marriage.  They share the same values, both kind and generous in a condescending upper class way.  And of course they know each other inside out, having spent so much of their lives together that they are almost (but not quite) like brother and sister.  Her warmth and kindness make up for his occasional aloofness, while his sharp intelligence compensates for her occasional brain fades. 

Nothing could be easier or more natural than for them to take their friendship to the next level.  The only barrier to this marriage is Emma's immaturity.  As we see from Jane Austen's story, that is nothing that a few well-intentioned bungles can't solve.  Of course they will squabble now and then like all couples do, but they will always make up before bedtime.

One day the Darcys and Knightleys will meet at some ball or garden party.  As they are undressing for bed that night, Fitzwilliam will say to Elizabeth, "Those Knightley's are rather vulgar, don't you think?"  Elizabeth will snap back, "I found Mrs Knightley perfectly charming."  They will both go to bed in a bad temper.

Emma, of course, has sworn off active interference in other people's love lives.  However, she can't help remarking to George as they get ready for bed, "I don't know what Elizabeth sees in that sulky, ill-mannered husband of hers.  I'm sure she just married him for his money."  George will look shocked and say sternly, "Emma, you are so uncharitable sometimes!"  Then they will catch one another's eye in the mirror and both burst out laughing, and he will help her unbraid her hair.