Thursday, 24 December 2015

I Wonder If This Christmas...

When I was looking for Christmas songs for church earlier this month, I came across my words and chords for this little gospel music gem we used to sing way back in the early 1980s.


It's got a pretty, catchy tune and simple words, and it's easy for a ham guitarist like me to play.  Plus back in the day we were heavily into trying to convert people (not very successfully) and this song really tried hard to do that.

Here's the thing though.  It never struck me as odd that although it calls itself 'A Christmas Song for All Year Round' it's actually an Easter song.  Look at the words.

I wonder if this Christmas they'll begin to understand
The Jesus that they celebrate was much more than a man.
Cos the way the world is I don't see how people can deny
The only way to save us was for Jesus Christ to die.

And I know that if St Nicholas was here he would agree
That Jesus gave the greatest gift of all to you and me
They led him to the slaughter on a hill called Calvary
And mankind was forgiven when they nailed him to a tree.

But most of all the children, they're the ones I hope will learn
That Jesus is our saviour and he's going to return.
And Christmas isn't just a day, and all days aren't the same
Perhaps they'll think about the word and see it spells his name.

No angelic announcement, no stable, no manger, no magi, no virgin birth.  Sure St Nick gets a go, but even he has to travel without his reindeer and as for elves, well, best not to mention them.  Not a single line based on the New Testament stories of Jesus' birth, but no less than three lines about his death on the cross, not to mention one about the Second Coming.


Randy Stonehill is not alone.  This year I've been noticing how embarrassed many Christians are about Christmas.  Despite all the hoo har about the 'war on Christmas' we can't wait to skip forward to Easter.  Sure, we do sing some Christmas carols in December but they are almost always mixed with Easter songs right up until the day itself.  Our sermons, even on Christmas Day, keep slipping across to Easter as we feel obliged to remind people that the child in the manger became the man on the cross.  As soon as December 26 rolls around the Christmas carols are put back in the folder and normal service is resumed.

On the other hand, like Randy Stonehill we see Easter songs as being 'for all year round'.  In fact, this is so much the case that we don't even realise they are Easter songs.  We see nothing unusual in singing, say, 'The Mystery of the Cross' or 'The Servant King' at any time of year.  No-one would bat an eyelid if we sang these songs in December.  If I were to put 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' or 'While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night' on the program in April people would want to know what I was up to.

I've been so acculturated to this that I never noticed it until this year.  Now I have noticed it, however, I can't unsee it.

The thing is, our wider culture is much more excited about Christmas than the Christians.  Carols have been playing in our shops since October.  Decorations have been up in public places for weeks.  Australians have been indulging in their customary Christmas splurge of charitable donations and acts of mercy.  People have been buying gifts for one another and travelling across the country to be with loved ones on the special day.  Even in Buddhist Thailand the streets of central Bangkok are lit up for the season.  Our culture gets that Christmas is special, even as Christians are embarrassed by it.

So what's the problem?  Why don't Christians embrace Christmas more wholeheartedly?  Why don't we celebrate it all year round?

I think we are uncomfortable with the idea of incarnation.  We have come to live by a version of Christianity that is shaped and determined by Easter.  It is about sin and salvation, about atonement, about getting to heaven and avoiding hell, about our wellbeing in the next life.

In the process the spirituality of our present life which Christmas symbolises is increasingly neglected.  Christmas tells us a number of things that we struggle to hear.
  • It tells us that this life matters, that God is so intensely interested in it that he chose to live it himself.
  • It tells us that it is a glorious thing to be human, reminding us that we are made in the image of God and that despite our failings this image is still alive in us, ready to be healed.
  • It calls us to practical compassion.  Our mission is not merely to drag people out of this world and into heaven, but to continue the work Jesus began, creating a kingdom of heaven here on earth.
If Christmas sometimes seems worldly it is not because such worldliness is evil, it is because we have abandoned this world.  We have given up on it and focused our sights on the next.  This is just the opposite of what Jesus did.  He didn't come into the world simply to die for us, but to live for us.  As his death approached the thought of leaving this life behind caused him such distress that he sweated blood and begged God to find another way.

The fact that we are uncomfortable with this highlights the weakness of our faith.  If we only focus on Easter, it becomes easy for us to lack practical compassion.  We become blind to the need for it.  Jesus tells us in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats that "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me", and conversely, "whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me".  This is the practical outworking of the incarnation, but in our Easter Christianity we find it so easy to to skip over this clear, simple message and use this parable as a weapon in our arguments over heaven and hell.


How is it that committed Christians can oversee our current punitive asylum seeker regime?  This is Easter Christianity with no Christmas.  How can church authorities be blind to the suffering of children abused in their care?  These are Christians who have forgotten that God was also a child.  How can we spend millions rebuilding our churches and cathedrals while there are beggars at our door?  It is because we have become blind to the fact that these beggars are God himself, pleading for our help.

So, with due respect and apologies to Mr Stonehill (who no doubt also has a more mature view 35 years on) I have attempted a rewrite of 'A Christmas Song for All Year Round'.

I wonder if this Christmas we'll begin to really see
The Jesus that we celebrate was just like you and me.
'Cos the way we set our face away from all God has to give
The only way to turn us was for Jesus Christ to live.

And I know that if St Nicholas was here he would proclaim
With hosts of angels, shepherds and the travelling wise men
The greatest sign in history that God is still our friend
Is a baby in a manger in the town of Bethlehem.

And all the children playing on this great and glorious day
And all the people mourning for the ones who've passed away
And every tiny sparrow, every single grain of sand
Are shown at their true value because God became a man.

Have a lovely Christmas and a compassionate beginning to 2016!

Thursday, 17 December 2015

How to Write a Music Memoir

As you know I like a good music memoir.  I don't even mind a bad one.  Being a music obsessive I like the insight a memoir can give me into the songs and the times, the way you can get a little way into the head of the person who wrote the songs or performed them and see the process of their creation.  Many of my favourite musicians are getting on in years and are not as prolific as they once were and are turning to writing as way to fill their time, boost their income or secure their legacy, so I have plenty to choose from.

Of course the down side is that the skill of writing a book is very different to that of writing a song.  A song is pithy, allusive, with a compactness that disciplines the composer to say what they need to say in a few short verses.  A memoir stretches out over thousands of words and lots of years.  It needs good (or at least adequate) writing to keep the reader engaged, characters with depth and resonance and a story that keeps you reading.

The most obvious way to write a memoir is to begin at the beginning, with the writer's parents and childhood, and work through to the end.  It seems the easiest choice as the life itself structures the book.  However, it's not necessarily as easy as it looks.  You need to be strict with yourself about what to include, what to leave out.  how much to reveal and how honest to be with yourself.  I was frustrated by Graham Nash's smugness and lack of candour because it made him seem so unlikeable.  On the other hand I enjoyed Bruce Cockburn's memoir despite its excessive length and slightly pedestrian prose because he was prepared to be honest with his readers.

If you are more ambitious you can try for something more arty - stream of consciousness, multiple points of view, leaps back and forward in time and so forth.  David Crosby, for instance, although he sticks to a roughly chronological framework, recruits a large cast of friends and collaborators to help tell his story in their own words, and allows them a fair bit of rope.  He also has a good co-author who keeps a firm rein on the whole.  The result is a highly engaging read.  Neil Young, on the other hand, crashes and burns spectacularly, as only he can do.

I've just read two more, both by seminal Australian singers and songwriters, which pretty much sit at opposite poles on the memoir spectrum.

Richard Clapton's The Best Years of our Lives is, perhaps, an object lesson in how to fail at memoir writing.  This is not because it's badly written - Clapton is no prose stylist but he writes well enough.  Nor does the story itself lack interest - Clapton was at the centre of the Australian music scene in the late 70s and early 80s, writing classic songs and albums soaked in Australian beach and pub culture.  He can tell us about his own music, about the inner workings of the industry, about close musical friends like Inxs that we all want to know about.

Yet despite all this it's hard to stay interested to the end.  The reason is that Clapton has made a strategic decision not to tell the reader much about his life.

It's not hard to understand why.  Clapton's life has not been easy, and everyone wants some privacy.  Still, if you really don't want people to know about you, perhaps it is better not to write a memoir at all.

Clapton begins his story in his late teens as he left school and headed first to the UK and then, after a couple of years, to Germany on a typical Aussie young person's pilgrimage to the northern hemisphere.  Right here is the beginning of the problem.  He introduces himself to us as Richard Clapton, the young nascent musician, making a choice in his late teens and early 20s between a stable career in graphic design and following his muse.  It is if he sprung up fully formed, at the age of 17, in a prestigious Sydney boarding school.  His family rates a single phrase in the entire book when he tells us he was "estranged" from them.

Yet any reader who knows a little about Clapton knows that this is not the story.  "Richard Clapton" is the stage name (using the surnames of his two biggest musical idols) of a man whose birth name is either Terry Goh or Terry Gonk, depending on the source.  He was born in 1949, the son of a Chinese doctor and an Anglo-Australian night nurse.   His parents' marriage was short-lived and bitter.  The first years of his life were spent in a series of rental properties interspersed with periods of homelessness as his mother battled mental illness before her death (from suicide, perhaps) in the early 1960s.  Young Terry met his father for the first time at the funeral and from this time onwards was technically in his care, but it was a distant kind of care, outsourced to a prestigious Sydney boarding school with minimal personal contact.

Little wonder, then, that young Terry fled the country as soon as he could, and changed his name.  Little wonder, either, that he doesn't want to talk about it.  Yet without its beginning the rest of his story makes no sense.  Having failed to be candid with the reader on this crucial point, other pieces of information just rattle around in an unconnected way.  His alcoholism (about which he is only minimally honest) his clashes with authority figures (about which he is quire explicit and with good reason - after all his record company blocked his chances of US success by refusing to license his recordings for US release) have their own emotional power but become hard to understand.  There are some gems here and his songs are still great, but I was left hungry and dissatisfied.

On the other hand, Paul Kelly's How to Make Gravy is a masterpiece of the genre, a true gem which I could hardly put down.

How to Make Gravy started life as a series of shows in which Kelly sang 100 of his songs over four nights, starting with titles beginning with A and working through to Z (he had to write a Z song specially for the show).  In between the songs he would tell stories, and these eventually became this book, published in 2010.

There's no question this is an ambitious way to write a book and the possibilities of it going wrong are endless.  What if the reader gets lost?  What if Kelly can't think of anything interesting to say about one of the songs?  In the wrong hands it could so easily become a catalogue of recording sessions.  None of this happens, and I think there are a few reasons.

First of all, this structure puts the songs front and centre, and songs are what Kelly is good at.  He leads with his strength.

Second, and perhaps surprisingly, he is very candid.  I say surprisingly because he is known for his reticence in interviews, for being reluctant and even surly with those who want to write about him.  Yet here, where he has control of the story, he is ready to put himself on show, to talk openly about his family, his relationships, his personal failings and successes, his songwriting process, his friendships in the music industry, the causes about which he is passionate.  There's also some off the wall curios - lists, quiz questions, Shakespeare sonnets.  Of course there are no-go areas.  He keeps his children out of the story, he doesn't slander anyone, he is kind when perhaps privately he may be a little more cruel.  But these things are acceptable, even proper, and you leave the book feeling you really know him, that he has been honest with you.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Kelly is a brilliant writer.  He knows how to tell a story, how to select just the right words and just the right incidents to make a point, how to lead readers on and hook them into the story.  Like his songs, his prose is tight and pithy, he doesn't say too much but what he does say is completely engaging.  This book is a long way from Neil Young's rambling opus and much more like that Australian literary classic, Clean Straw for Nothing, in which George Johnston tells the fictionalised story of his adult life in a series of episodes leaping back and forward in time, the story emerging in bits and pieces as the reader is drawn on to assemble the complete jigsaw puzzle.

The picture that emerges is rich and complex.  We see his grandparents and parents, the sprawling and supportive Kelly clan, the Catholic upbringing, the wrench of his father's premature death and his mother's heroic efforts to raise a large family on her own, his early wanderings and struggles with stage fright, his emergence as a singer and songwriter, the people who helped him along the way and some of those he helped in his turn, his engagement with the Aboriginal community, the life of a touring musician, and through it all his songs and their performance.

A couple of tales stand out for me.  The first is the story of his drug use, a tricky subject on which many others have foundered.  Clapton and Nash are inclined to sweep theirs under the carpet.  Crosby talks so much about his that you sometimes feel you're in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.  Kelly deals with his in a single, arresting story of his relationship with heroin.

Heroin was the one for me, the recreational drug of choice.  Its molecules and mine seemed made for each other.

He describes how he was introduced to the drug, and how he used it on and off for years.  He describes his marriage to a rehabilitating fellow user over the resistance of her father and their mutual falling off the wagon.

I didn't take heroin because I felt bad, or because I had an unhappy childhood. I just liked it. It suited me, freed me up inside.  There were long nights of funny, dreamy, storytelling sex.  Heroin was a lovely secret with a lover.  A big warm blanket in winter.  Shooting up together was intimate, tender, sacramental.

There is so much more along these lines.  A reward for hard work.  An aid to boring household chores. A tool to make you that bit more entertaining, that bit more fun at a party, a way of keeping going.

The trick was not to take too much, to get the dose just right so that people wouldn't notice anything different about you.  So your voice wouldn't be too draggy, your pupils too pinned, your eyelids too heavy.  Maintaining the balance was its own satisfaction.  I'm getting away with this! you said to yourself, purring along.

And you think, "oh no, it's another self-justification, another fake functioning-addict story".  Or else you think, "so, maybe I should try that".  Until Kelly bursts his own bubble.

But of course you weren't getting away with it.  People knew.  Or suspected.... You knew that they knew but you convinced yourself that they didn't.  Heroin rewires your brain.  It's a beautiful brainwasher that makes you believe the dumbest things.  

You weren't getting away with it at all.  What you thought was your witty charm caused intense annoyance, worry or fear (or all three) in those close to you.  You saw friends, long-time recreational users like yourself who'd kept it under control for years, suddenly go under.  The black dog was always snapping at your heels.  The hangovers got longer, roughly double the period of pleasure....

Your children knew when you were acting differently.  You and your wife, soon to be divorced, were like two people on opposite shores of a wide river.  She was waving but you pretended not to see.  You were ashamed of yourself, ashamed of wasting money, sick of deception and alarmed at the shoddiness creeping into your work.

I got lucky.  I met a woman who said, "It's me or it".  She gave me the number of a counsellor who made me write a list.  I threw out certain phone numbers, said goodbye to all that.  I thought about 'it' every day for along time.  Less now.

All this is told, without explanation, next a song called 'Coma'.  He goes on to describe how the song was written and how it developed over time with the band he was playing with, but he makes you wait until the last line to show you the connection.

...with Sian Prior, the 'me or it' girl, playing the clarinet.

You just want to draw breath, go back and read it again.  David Crosby's endless mea culpa can't pack anything like this emotional punch, the highs, and lows. the tentative happy ending and the depths of unspoken love and gratitude packed into those five pages.  And then it resonates through the book and through your mind as you see the story echoed, without comment, in other songs - 'Careless', 'When I First Met Your Ma', 'Stories of Me', and so on gain new meaning once you know this story.  He doesn't need to say any more.  You already have enough.

Other stories are more light-hearted, and he has a wry way of both expressing gratitude, and letting you see something of people's personalities.  One of my favourites is his account of his friendship with Don Walker and the writing of 'From St Kilda to Kings Cross', one of his earliest successful songs.  Walker is the keyboard player and main songwriter in Cold Chisel, already rich and famous when Kelly was still finding his feet as a singer and songwriter.

I played him some songs in the early 80s.  The songs didn't last but what Don said did.  Not that he said much - he's a man who chooses his words - just told me to keep writing.

All of those songs ended up on the scrap heap but Kelly took Walker's advice.  A few years later he ended up living with Walker for a short time in his Kings Cross house.  He wrote a number of songs on Walker's lovely white grand piano, including 'From St Kilda...'.

The day it came I couldn't stop humming it and by sunset a set of words was attached.  When Don came home I said, "Can I play you something?"  He listened and said "You've got your own thing now."

Eight understated words from a man famous for his reticence and his brilliant songwriting.  "Keep writing".  "You've got your own thing now".  Plus the use of a house and a beautiful grand piano.  You can feel Kelly's gratitude in the care with which he tells the tale, as much as in the explicit thanks that follow.

There's so much more but you should read it yourself.  You won't be sorry.  If you happen to be a famous musician and you're thinking of writing a memoir, read this one first.  Or maybe don't.  It will only make you weep at your own more pedestrian efforts.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Concentric Circles and Grid Patterns

If you've been reading, you'll know that I'm on the hunt for simple diagrams that can explain the entire world at a glance. Here's another one

A couple of years ago I did a piece of research for Shelter NSW on the redevelopment of public housing estates.  If you're a real nerd you can read it here, but unless you're especially interested in the literature on public housing renewal you'll find it very tedious.

One of the many reports I read involved the researchers interviewing residents who had lived in the midst of a redevelopment project in Minto, Sydney.  They suggested that a large part of the reason for the disconnect between the plans made by the redevelopment authority and its contractors, and the preferences of the tenants, was that they view the neighbourhood very differently.

Redevelopment professionals - architects, planners, project managers and so forth - see the suburb as a grid, as if viewed from the air, and for them all parts of the grid are of equal priority.  Residents see it in a more personal way, in a series of circles centred on their own home and radiating out to their immediate street and neighbourhood and then the wider suburb.  The planner wants to know, "How can I deliver this entire project in the most efficient and cost-effective way?"  The resident wants to know, "When will be able to turn my taps on again?  When will I be able to get back into my driveway?"

The more I think about it, the more this idea has grown on me.  It seems to be that it applies to much more than redevelopment projects.  Each of us in our personal, community lives view things in concentric circles.  Most of our attention is focused near the centre, on ourselves, those who are close to us and the people and places we know well.  As issues and events get further from this centre they become more abstract and distant from us and it becomes much harder for us to take any interest.


On the other hand, people who have responsibility for the wider systems - government ministers, senior officials, planners and so forth - tend to see the issues from a greater distance and are obliged to think about the system as a whole.  They tend to view things as if they were looking down from a great height, to see the whole picture and the way the parts of it interact and interrelate.  In the process, it is easy for them to lose sight of the individuals involved and to become exclusively focused on the whole system, to make abstract calculations about gain and loss, to sacrifice some people for what they see as the greater good.


A couple of examples illustrate how this might work.

First is the story of Mojgan Shamsalipoor.  Mojgan is a 21-year-old Iranian woman who was completing Year 12 at Yeronga State High School, just a kilometre or so from where I live.  She was applying for Australian residency after fleeing Iran and had recently married.  However her application was refused and in August she was arrested at the school without prior warning by armed Immigration Department officials and sent to the detention centre in Darwin.

The staff, students and parents of the school were shocked at her detention and have been protesting vigorously ever since.  They have protested at the office of the Immigration Minister, they have spoken about it in the media, they have made formal requests for ministerial intervention and a review of her case.  A couple of weeks ago they staged a half-day strike at the school to remind everyone that they haven't forgotten.

They believe Mojgan when she says she will be in danger if forced to return to Iran, but they also say quite clearly that her detention doesn't make any sense.  She is a popular, intelligent young woman, she studies hard and does well at school, she makes a positive contribution to the wider community, she is newly married to a young man of Iranian descent who has Australian residency.  What could make more sense than to let her stay?  What danger does she pose to anyone?

All these protests have predictably fallen on deaf ears.  Minister Dutton has provided his usual brick wall response to their requests, she remains in detention in Darwin.  Both Department and Minister are determined to deport her as soon as they are able to.

Now, it's only fair to point out that Yeronga High has quite a few refugee students and so their staff and supporters are sensitised to the issues involved.  However, they are not professional advocates or political activists, they are ordinary teachers and parents.  They are simply responding with common humanity, standing up for their friend, pointing out the opportunity for an act of mercy which will cost nothing and add a valuable member to the Australian community.


It's tempting to ask why Minister Dutton and his advisors and officials can't see this.  Is it simply that they are heartless psychopaths?  I suppose it's possible, but unlikely.  As far as I'm aware, Dutton is a kind husband and father and a fairly normal, if highly conservative, human being.  However, as Minister he is tasked with overseeing the wider system.  He is virtually unable to see Mojgan Shamsalipoor because he sees the thousands of asylum seekers in camps around the world, the thousands who have attempted to reach Australia by boat, the vast scope of the global refugee challenge,

He sees threats to the orderly management of Australia's humanitarian programs.  He fears lost political capital from any failure to stem the flow of asylum seekers coming by boat.  After consideration and advice he and his government have chosen a policy based on deterrence and they know for that to "work" he can't afford to show a compassionate face.  He sees the map, the grid, not the individuals who people it.  It's all a question of perspective.

You won't be surprised to hear that I'm firmly on the side of Ms Shamsalipoor and her school in this dispute.  I agree, it doesn't make any sense to detain her.  As a local resident I'd be more than happy to have her and her husband as neighbours.  Yet I also acknowledge that Dutton and co are dealing with a real problem.  Our planet has a huge refugee problem, and it needs to be solved.  I don't agree with their solution.  I think it attempts to solve a symptom while leaving the problem untouched, and victimises innocent people in order to achieve an abstract outcome.  However, in this debate it is not enough to appeal to compassion, we also need to develop an alternative systemic response to the needs of refugees.  Not bombing and invading their countries of origin might possibly help there, but I digress.

The point is that both perspectives have things to say to each other.  The staff and students of my local high school have a message of compassion which Mr Dutton needs to hear.  If he can't hear it and make a reasonable response (and it is clear that he can't) then his approach is flawed and needs to be changed.  However, he also has something to say - asylum seekers do drown at sea and this needs to be prevented.  We do need to retain some reasonably orderly process for receiving and assessing applications for asylum.  If we want to participate in this discussion we have to be prepared to address these issues.

In this case, the local concentric perspective yields a greater measure of compassion and humanity, but it's not the same for every issue.  Climate change is once again on the front page thanks to the Paris talks this week and the nations of the world - including us - are once again stumbling towards an inadequate response.


I suspect that in this case it is the concentric view of the world that makes us slow to act.  Here in downtown Brisbane, the impacts of climate change don't seem all that bad.  The weather is a bit less predictable (and hotter!), but we still have plenty to eat and drink, the occasional weather incident is covered by our insurance (I even got a brand new roof out of the last one!) and overall it seems quite minor.  Australians obviously think this way - the Liberal Party's campaign against the Carbon Tax was based almost exclusively on an appeal to our self-interest, and it was resoundingly successful.  If we show an inclination to respond to the problem, as we did in 2007-08, our commitment is shallow and easily reversed.

Yet the science, and the representatives of poor countries, tell us that climate change is anything but minor.  Some Pacific Island nations have their very existence threatened by sea level rises.  Millions of poor Indian and African farmers have had their livelihoods destroyed by drought and flood and are forced to move to increasingly overcrowded urban slums.  A multi-year drought was one of the most important triggers for the Syrian civil war that has given us Islamic State and our recent spike in terrorist attacks.

All these things - scientific theory, the plight of poor African and Indian farmers, the war in Syria, the fate of Pacific nations whose location we can't point to on a map - are on the very outer ring of the concentric circles.  It takes a lot for them to penetrate into the circle within which we are impelled to serious action.

In this case, we need to listen more carefully to the insights of the grid view, the view from above.  The danger in climate change is precisely the things we in the West don't see locally right now.  The people suffering may be far away, but they are still people just like us and they are knocking on our door in increasing numbers.  Furthermore, the scientists tell us that climate change is a slow burn - even if we stop emitting now, the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will continue to warm the planet for decades and our own environment will get worse.

This creates a big communication challenge.  What will motivate us to act, in the absence of a local impact that makes us take notice?  Perhaps it's real stories of climate change in other places to help us put a human face on the issue.  Perhaps it's future scenarios for our own communities.  Perhaps it's a shift in our mindset which helps us think more globally and see the planet as our home, rather than just our suburb.  Perhaps there is an element of self-interest we can play on.  Either way, those who see the climate change grid need to find a way to insert that knowledge into the concentric world-view that we mostly live by.

As I say, neither view is right or wrong.  They are different perspectives on the same thing.  We use both in our lives, and which one is dominant depends on how we engage with each particular issue.  We need both if we are to solve problems and make our world a better place.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Next Christendom

I haven't been blogging for a while because I've been too busy with other things - a couple of weeks holiday in Western Australia, lots of work before and after to clear two weeks for a holiday, a journey to a strange land to do a job I can't tell you about....

Anyway, I can tell you about a book I've just finished reading which provides a kind of counterpoint to our current moral panic about Islam.  It's called The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, and it was written back in 2001 by Philip Jenkins who at that point was Distinguished Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University although he has since moved on to other academic posts.  To some extent it may be a little aged, but because it deals with long term trends (both past and future) it remains largely relevant in 2015.

We often think of Christianity as a Western European religion, centred on Italy, France and Spain if you are Catholic, and on Germany, Netherlands and Britain if you are Protestant.   However, for most of its history this was far from the truth.

Of course we all know that Christianity originated in the Middle East, but we tend to forget that for its first millennium the strongest centres of the faith were in the Middle East and North Africa - in Constantinople, Alexandria, Carthage and so forth.  Even after the Mongol invasions of the early second millennium and the growth of the Ottoman Empire in the late Middle Ages there were still substantial Christian minorities in places like Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia and Egypt.

It was only after 1500 that the growth of Western European power and technology led to the spread of European Christianity throughout the world, and only from the early 20th century that Islamic regimes started to make life more difficult for their Christian subjects and their numbers seriously declined.  The result was that the various Eastern churches became weaker both in numbers and in influence, while Western Christianity (Catholic or Protestant) became the dominant form of the faith.

Jenkins' main message is that this era of European dominance has already passed its peak, and over the next 50 years the church is likely to become more and more dominated by the churches of South America, South East Asia and most especially Africa.

It's certainly true that in most cases Christianity came to these continents via European missionaries.  However, it would be a mistake to conclude that their churches are simply transplanted versions of Western churches or that their growth will just be a continuation of the old thing in a new place.  While Western missionaries founded the southern churches, their success and rapid growth in the 20th century was almost entirely due to the efforts of local leaders and evangelists.

Sometimes these operated entirely outside the structure of the existing denominations.  For instance, Africa has a long history of prophetic movements, with charismatic leaders responding to dreams and visions and founding rapidly growing, high energy independent apocalyptic churches.  These may depart from many aspects of what we would regard as Christian orthodoxy but nonetheless they remain recognisably Christian.

In other cases, newer and more peripheral trends in Western Christianity have been transformed and gained immense strength in southern hemisphere contexts.  For instance, Pentecostalism has swept through the traditional Catholic strongholds of Central and Southern America and also through South-East Asia, with large, wealthy and vibrant churches springing up rapidly in major population centres.  Some of the largest congregations in these places advocate an unabashed prosperity gospel, promising their largely poor followers wealth and comfort in this life as well as solace in the next.

Even where southern growth has taken place within existing denominations (and this is still the majority of the growth) these are not simply replicas of their northern counterparts.  They have often incorporated indigenous elements into their worship and practice and even their theology, just as early Christians consciously imported elements of Roman and Saxon religious practice into their Christian worship.  They have also taken on influences from the independent churches around them, including a strong emphasis on prophecy and other spiritual gifts and a much more lively, immediate perception of the involvement of the supernatural in every day life.  This includes both divine intervention, and the intervention of demons and spirits which need to be exorcised.

Jenkins argues very persuasively that these churches, not those in Europe or the US (or here in Australia) will be the future of Christianity, the next Christendom.  This is partly driven by demographics.  Populations in Africa, Asia and Latin America are growing rapidly, while those in Europe and North America are steady or declining.  If they have growth at all, it is as much through immigration from the South as through natural increase, and these immigrants bring their faiths with them.

Allied with this is the relative strength of the old and new churches.  In Europe and, to a lesser extent, North America the church's influence is declining,  Fewer people attend church, and the church has decreasing influence in public affairs.  In this environment, many Western churches have lost confidence in their own message and in particular have moved from evangelism to social concerns.  Meanwhile, the churches of the South are aggressively evangelistic and growing rapidly.

If this is the future of the church, what will it look like?

For a start, Southern churches are much more conservative than their Northern counterparts, both morally and theologically.  Debates like our current one over same sex marriage, or the long-standing one over whether the resurrection and other miracles should be understood literally or figuratively, are far from the minds of southern church leaders.  They promote and attempt to enforce a strictly traditional morality on their followers, and maintain solid orthodoxy.  Indeed, in recent years many Western conservatives, despairing of their own churches, have placed themselves under Southern leadership.  Jenkins cites the example of the several hundred North American Anglican parishes which have placed themselves under the governance of the Archbishop of Rwanda.  In other cases, Southern churches have begun to re-evangelise the North, starting with their own expatriate populations but often consciously branching out from there to minister to "white" populations.

Furthermore the idea of the separation of church and state, so deeply enshrined in Western democracy, is largely unheeded in the South.  In Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Church leaders have been at the forefront of political movements, both peaceful and militant, and have often ended up at the head of governments or in positions of formal authority.  Here they are not shy of attempts to impose Christian standards on the wider population.  Often this leadership has been a beacon of justice and freedom (Oscar Romero in El Salvador, for instance, or Desmond Tutu in South Africa), but not always.

A final point, which has only grown more relevant since the publication of The Next Christendom, is the implication of this rapidly growing Southern Church for inter-faith relations.  As he was writing, religious wars and violent clashes were already taking place in Sudan, Nigeria and other African countries where Christianity and Islam faced each other across regional or national borders.  This clash between Islam and Christianity continues to occupy most of our attention and probably represents the greatest source of religiously-inspired suffering and warfare.  He points out that while in general the rhetoric of Christians is less aggressive and violent than that of Islamic militants, Christianity also has its share of armed warriors.  He believes a new crusade is a highly possible, even likely outcome during this century.

However, he doesn't limit his analysis to relations between Christianity and Islam.  For instance, the murder of Australian Baptist missionary Graham Staines in Orissa in 1999 is used as a starting point for analysis of a much wider but less publicised (at least in the West) trend towards Hindu militancy in India which includes attacks on churches and centres of other faiths.  This is at least in part a reaction to widespread conversions of dalits ("untouchables") to Christianity as way of protesting or escaping the entrenched discrimination imposed on them within Hindu society.  Even Buddhism, renowned for its penchant for non-violence, can serve as a stimulus for aggressive nationalism, as we have been seeing recently with the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar.

For a somewhat liberal Western Christian like me, Jenkins portrait of the present and future church is a little disturbing as well as heartening.  It is heartening that the faith, far from dying out, has gained a new vitality.  However, it is disturbing to think that its future could be as a militant, conservative bastion, enforcing conformity and waging war in Christ's name.  Furthermore, it is scary - but essential - to realise that this is just one aspect of the gradual decline of Western hegemony.  In a century's time it seems likely that not only religion, but global politics, economics and trade will be dominated by the Southern nations.  My grandchildren will live in a different world to the one I have lived in, and my certainties will not be theirs.

Although this is disturbing for me, it is probably not objectively a bad thing.  For all the good things we have brought into the world our hegemony has hardly been an unmixed blessing, especially not for the people of the South.  Perhaps they will end up doing a better job.  I certainly hope so.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Taqiyya and the "Islamic Conspiracy"

When I was a young man the World Government Conspiracy was quite popular (or should I say unpopular?) in the conservative church circles in which I moved for a while.  The basic idea was that various powerful forces were working in secret to create a single world government, perhaps with the United Nations as its initial vehicle.  This government would appear benign and desirable initially, but once firmly established would show its true Satanic character in fulfillment of various prophecies in the Book of Revelation.

There were a number of usual suspects in this conspiracy - Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Club of Rome, Jewish bankers (or Jews in general) and Communists.  Many elements were imported from earlier conspiracy theories.  For instance, the Jewish aspect of the conspiracy was imported directly from Nazi propaganda.  The Protocols of the Elders of Zion - a clumsy forgery created by the Russian secret service which purported to describe a Jewish plot for world domination - was still being taken seriously by right-wing conspiracy theorists in the 1980s.  For all I know it still is today.

The thing about a good conspiracy theory is that it is pretty much impervious to criticism.  Of course conspirators will lie, cover their tracks and create false records.  Hence, those producing evidence which discredits the conspiracy theory are either part of the conspiracy, or duped by it.  Once this mindset has taken hold, all argument is futile.  Even the clumsiest and most outlandish conspiracy theories are protected behind this wall of circularity.

I haven't heard anybody advocate the World Government Conspiracy for years, but lately my Facebook feed has been infused with a steady drip of articles and memes about the Islamic Conspiracy.  This particular conspiracy has quite a bit on common with its older cousin.  Islamic forces (vaguely defined) are plotting world domination.  They wish to impose Sharia Law on the whole globe, by force if necessary.  Where it is feasible to do so they will impose their will by force (as in Saudi Arabia, or Iraq and Syria), but where it is not feasible they will do so by infiltration, getting a foothold in Western countries through immigration (sometimes as "refugees") and having large families to mavouvre themselves into a position of demographic dominance.

In the vanguard of those promoting the notion of this conspiracy are neo-fascist groups such as Reclaim Australia and its counterparts around the globe.  However I'm also hearing these ideas from people who I know are definitely not neo-fascists, including many conservative Christians.

While many aspects of the Islamic conspiracy are less detailed and less well-thought-out than the World Government Conspiracy, it far surpasses the older theory in its capacity to insulate itself from criticism.  This self-protective structure is founded in a rather peculiar interpretation of the Islamic concept of taqiyya.



The anti-Islamic website Religion of Peace provides the following description of taqiyya, which it translates as "lying".

There are two forms of lying to non-believers that are permitted under certain circumstances, taqiyya  (saying things that aren't true) and kitman (lying by omission). These circumstances are typically those that advance the cause Islam - in some cases by gaining the trust of non-believers in order to draw out their vulnerability and defeat them....

Leaders in the Arab world routinely say one thing to English-speaking audiences and then something entirely different to their own people in Arabic.  Yassir Arafat was famous for telling Western newspapers about his desire for peace with Israel, then turning right around and whipping Palestinians into a hateful and violent frenzy against Jews.

The 9/11 hijackers practiced deception by going into bars and drinking alcohol, thus throwing off potential suspicion that they were fundamentalists plotting jihad.  This effort worked so well, in fact, that even weeks after 9/11, John Walsh, the host of a popular American television show, said that their bar trips were evidence of 'hypocrisy.'

These are just some extracts to give you the flavour.  They cite a number of verses from the Quran and the hadith to back their case.  Other anti-Islam sites provide similar arguments, and there is no shortage of such sites out there.

The upshot of this description is that Muslims cannot be trusted.  Even if you make friends with a Muslim or work with one and they seem nice and "normal", chances are that they are simply practicing taqiyya, lulling you into a false sense of security, waiting to strike when the moment is right and either make you a willing convert or force you to bow to their will.

There is a lot wrong with this argument.  For a start, it is not clear that Yasser Arafat, never mind the 9/11 conspirators, are models of Islamic behaviour.  It may well be that Arafat practiced deception - plenty of politicians of all religious persuasions have done the same.  It may also be that the 9/11 conspirators deliberately concealed their Islamic fantaticism in order to throw police off the scent - after all, they were desperate criminals.  On the other hand it could be as Robert Pape suggests, that they simply weren't that devout and were motivated by nationalism not religion.

If we turn to Islamic sources we find the term understood very differently.  We learn for instance that the idea is mostly argued by Shiite Muslims rather than the majority Sunnis.  The Shiite online library Al-Islam.org describes it in the following way.

The word "al-Taqiyya” literally means: "Concealing or disguising one’s beliefs, convictions, ideas, feelings, opinions, and/or strategies at a time of eminent danger, whether now or later in time, to save oneself from physical and/or mental injury.” A one-word translation would be "Dissimulation".

…a better, and more accurate definition of "al-Taqiyya”is "diplomacy.” The true spirit of "al- Taqiyya”is better embodied in the single word "diplomacy” because it encompasses a comprehensive spectrum of behaviors that serve to further the vested interests of all parties involved.

It goes on to provide a lengthy exposition, citing various seminal Sunni and Shiite teachers, the upshot of which is that the purpose of al-taqiyya is self-preservation - such dissimulation is to be used in the face of persecution, at which point it is permissable for believers to conceal their belief and even commit forbidden acts in order to preserve life and limb.

A kind of footnote at the end of the article responds very dismissively to a Wahabbist comment suggesting the wider meaning.  (Wahabbism, remember, is the interpretation of Islam preferred by Al Qaida, IS and Saudi regime).  Al-Islam's author suggests that this is a fringe interpretation based on an ignorance of Islamic tradition and scholarship.

The Washington Post quotes Khaled Abu El Fadl, a professor of law at Harvard and leading authority on Islamic law.

“Yes, it is permissible to hide the fact you are Muslim” if a person is under threat, “as long as it does not involve hurting another person,” Abou El Fadl said. “But there is no concept that would encourage a Muslim to lie to pursue a goal. That is a complete invention. Any Muslim is raised on the idea that lying is a sin.”

Neutral sources echo this more narrow interpretation.  For instance the article on Rational Wiki says this:

This concept has been seized upon by bigots to suggest that all Muslims are constantly focused on deceiving their neighbors to appear more likable, and then once they've lured you into a false sense of security - bam - the old fork in the eye.

The truth of the matter is that the standard for employing taqiyya is particularly high. For example, during the Spanish Inquisition when Muslims (along with Jews) were tortured by the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, it would have been permissible for a Muslim to claim to convert to Christianity to avoid torture and death for himself and his family, while continuing to practice his faith in secret. 

Even such a sober and neutral source as the Oxford Dictionary of Islam expresses the same view.  It defines taqiyya as follows.

Precautionary denial of religious belief in the face of potential persecution. Stressed by Shii Muslims, who have been subject to periodic persecution by the Sunni majority. 

I could go on but I don't want to labour the point.  The interpretation of taqiyya advanced by anti-Islamic campaigners like Religion of Peace is at odds with the vast majority of Islamic teaching on the subject.  Islamic scholars are clear that deception is permissible in extreme situations where there is a direct threat to the life of the believer.  This is why it emerged first in Shia Islam, whose followers have been much more subject to persecution across their history than the majority Sunni faith.

This is not to say that no Islamic person will lie to you, or even that no Islamic preacher will advocate the more expansive interpretation of taqiyya.  What I'm pointing out, though, is that if this is taught it is a minority position which does not reflect the mainstream of Islam.  It is a problem within Islam rather than a problem with Islam, just as white supremacism or the Children of God are problems within Christianity but do not reflect the view of the majority of Christians.

The problem is, I can argue this all I like.  Those who are convinced that there is an Islamic conspiracy will simply say that I have been duped, that Al-Islam and Abu El Fadl have practiced a clever piece of taqiyya and that people like the Washington Post journalist and even the Oxford Dictionary have been taken in.  Conspiracy theories are not rational, they are expressions of our deep fears, and we cannot argue them away.

However, their existence makes the goodwill of the rest of us all the more important.  Just as it is important to show that terrorism and deception are  not the norm in Islamic communities, it is important to show that bigotry is not the norm in secular Western societies, or in Christian churches. Acts of friendship and humanity can help to bring down the wall, or at least lower it.  Do you have Muslim neighbours?  Say hello.  They will probably say hello back.  They will not mean anything sinister by it.  They are just people, like the rest of us.


Monday, 5 October 2015

Bee Apocalypse

There are many different ways to bring on the Apocalypse.  One of them, apparently, is to be so careless as to lose all the honeybees.

Bees make honey, which is very tasty, but they also cross-pollinate plants, including many of our food crops.  Apparently about one third of all the crops in the world rely on bees to pollinate them, including most fruits, nuts and seed crops.  If the honeybees were to disappear some of the slack might be taken up by other species including other bees, butterflies, dragonflies and birds.  However, none of these do such a good job, and at such volume, as our cultivated honeybees.

Unfortunately, large-scale honeybee loss is not pure speculation, it is an actual, present risk.  I've just been reading a book on the subject by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum called A World Without Bees, first published in 2008.  Benjamin is an environmental reporter for the UK Guardian and McCallum is her partner and fellow hobby apiarist.

A World Without Bees is about a condition known as Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD, which was first observed in the USA in 2006 and subsequently affected hives across the US and Europe.  In 2006-07 some US beekeepers lost more than 50% of their colonies to the disorder, and losses occurred on a similar scale in 2007-08.  They have continued to take place each year since although on a smaller scale.

CCD has a baffling and disturbing pattern.  Colonies that seem healthy and thriving will collapse, with the adult worker bees disappearing leaving behind the queen and unprotected larvae which rapidly starve.  There are no bee carcasses, and unlike normal hive abandonments the honey and larvae are not raided by other bees or predatory insects.

Although Benjamin and McCallum wrote their book in 2008, more recent information like this from the US Department of Agriculture suggests that entomologists and apiarists are no closer to understanding the phenomenon in 2015 than they were back then.

A number of causes have been suggested - neonicotinoid pesticides; genetically modified crops such as sunflowers; mites such as varroa and tracheal mite; viruses such as Israeli paralysis virus; intensive management practices such as trucking bees the length of the US and artificially rousing them in February to pollinate California's almond crop; a shrinking gene pool brought on by breeding for docility and honey production; and loss of diversity of flowering plants in their environment due to monoculture and urbanisation.

However, while each of these has been shown to have some connection with the phenomenon none can be shown to cause it, as opposed to simply being correlated with it.  It is not even clear if all instances of CCD are the same - is it a disease, or the end result of a number of different problems?  It is also possible that a number of these causes may act together to stress the bees to the point where the colony collapses.

My current quest to describe the world through a series of diagrams made me immediately think of a diagram to describe bee collapse.  Here it is, with a set of hexagonal boxes to match both the shape of honeycomb and the shape of the lenses in the bees' compound eyes.  If you click on it you can read the words.


Colony Collapse Disorder is shown surrounded by a cluster of factors.  At the first step out from CCD is the immediate bee-related causes - the mites and viruses, the insecticides and modified plants, the loss of food sources, the factors related to breeding and management.

However, each of these things also have their own causes and factors which aid their spread and these are shown in the second step out from CCD.  These are more general factors in the environment and the human societies with which bees co-exist - increasing monocrop agriculture, urbanisation, loss of biodiversity, increasing economic pressure on agriculture, habitat loss, globalisation.  My list here is hardly comprehensive, it's just to give you the idea.

What's interesting about this process is that the more steps you take, the larger and more universal become the issues.  For instance, varroa destructor is pretty much just a parasite that affects bees.  However, the process of global trade which allowed it to spread from bee populations adapted to it to those which were not, and from there around the globe, is pretty much the same process which has led to the spread of a large number of other invasive species.  Similarly, the habitat loss which affects bees affects hundreds of other species as well.

No doubt you could also take the diagram out a further step, finding further factors which contribute to these second level causes.  You would find that these are the major ecological challenges facing our planet - climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity, habitat destruction and population growth.

Our global ecology is indeed so fragile that something quite small could bring it down - even something as small as a bee.  However, the bee itself is only this fragile because it is connected to a number of crucial aspects of our ecology, all of which we have been damaging with foolish abandon.

In European folklore bees are wise creatures and they need to be kept informed, and listened to carefully.  It's time we started listening!

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Islam is Not the Problem

If you were to watch the world news and listen to the pronouncements of our leaders, you would think we were at war with Islam.  Almost every night we see images of fanatical people brandishing flags with Arabic slogans and proclaiming Allahu Akbar (God is Great) alongside images of bombed out building, beheadings and abductions.  We hear stories of Christians and other religious minorities fleeing for their lives to avoid the choice of execution or forced conversion.  Is this an inevitable result of Islamic dominance in society, or is something else going on?

I have been convinced for long time that Islam is not the problem.  Not that Islamic extremism isn't a problem, but that this is an historical anomaly not an inevitable result of Islam. I want to try to explain briefly why I think this.

When these persecutions and religious cleansing efforts first became headline news and various commentators and friends started suggesting they were a logical result of the teachings of the Koran and Hadith, my first thought was that this didn't make any sense historically.  The Prophet Mohammed received his revelations in the early seventh century CE and Islam has been the dominant faith in the Middle East since the eighth century - 1,200 years and counting.  For much of this time the Arabic-dominated cultures of the Middle East and North Africa were the most powerful and advanced civilisation on earth, dominating and threatening their Christian neighbours.

Yet through the 20th century there were still substantial, thriving Christian populations in places like Egypt, Syria, Sudan and Iraq.  There were also other historic faiths such as the Yazidi, the Samaritans and communities of Jews who remained in the Middle East after the fall of the Roman Empire and rise of Islam.  There is also a diverse set of minority interpretations of Islam - Shi'ites, Druze, Alawites, Sufis and so on.  If Islam is inherently intolerant, how has such diversity survived for 1,200 years?

The answer is that the level of intolerance we are seeing in the some parts of Middle East now is a relatively new development, imposed by a radical minority.  The majority view in Islam, and the view that has prevailed through most of history, is that minority religions, particularly "religions of the Book" including Christianity and Judaism, are to be licensed and tolerated.  This toleration has not always been totally benign and there have been instances of persecution throughout history, but these are the exception, not the norm.  The norm is the type of regime we now see just to our north in Indonesia and Malaysia - a regime in which Islam is dominant and demands to be respected as such, but followers of minority religions are permitted to practice their own religion (often requiring payment of a extra tax known as the jizya) provided they respect the sensibilities of their Islamic rulers.

We can also see this dichotomy in Australia.  There are currently around half a million Muslims in Australia.  Recent news reports suggest that there are less than 300 Australian supporters of Islamic State including 120 fighting overseas.  In other words, about 0.06% of Australian Muslims actively support IS.  What of the other 99.94%?  Every indication is that the vast majority are as appalled by IS as anyone else - indeed many of them have fled similar regimes.  This horror is the norm in Islam.

If the current radical activism is historically relatively new, and is a small minority position in Islam, why is it gaining increasing power and influence now?  What has led to this change?

Earlier this year I attempted to develop a framework for understanding immediate surface phenomena and their underlying causes through a simple pyramid diagram.  The diagram below reworks this to provide a context for the current Islamic radicalism.  Click on it so see it full-size.


At the top level is the phenomenon we are focused on - the rise of radical political Islam with its extreme fundamentalist interpretation, its radical intolerance and its use of terror as a weapon of war.  We are right to be frightened of this, but what has brought it into being after all these centuries?

Sitting just beneath this surface is a history of international tensions.  These are quite complex but we can think of them as being of two types.  The first is the long-standing ethnic and religious tensions that have developed through the centuries within the Middle East and North Africa.  There are tensions between Peninsula Arabs, Northern Arabs, Persians, Kurds, Egyptians, and so forth.  There are also tensions between the branches of Islam - particularly between Sunni and Shia - and between different interpretations within the Sunni majority.

In the past century these tensions have been further exacerbated by increased American and European intervention in the region's affairs.  The fall of the Ottoman empire after World War 1 saw the region divided between the victorious powers who created states and protectorates within their spheres of influence, often cutting across ethnic and religious divides and exacerbating existing conflicts.  This led to the creation of unstable states which degenerated fairly quickly into various forms of dictatorship.  At the same time, US and European meddling has sowed the seeds of our current problems - Al Qaeda (of which Islamic State is a breakaway faction) and the Taliban were both covertly supported by the CIA in the 1980s as a way of undermining Russian rule in Afghanistan.

A preference for manipulation at a distance and the fighting of proxy wars has given way to increasing levels of direct intervention, beginning with the first Iraq War in 1991.  On the third level down we see an explanation for why these conflicts have escalated in the past 25 years. We are starting to hit a number of hard ecological limits and these are biting in the Middle East in various ways.  The approach of peak oil has led to greater competition for increasingly scarce oil supplies.  In particular, the dwindling of the US's own supplies at home has left it more dependent than it has ever been on Middle Eastern oil and hence more desperate to secure its access.

At the same time the processes of climate change have worked alongside the ravages of sanctions and war to impoverish large parts of the populations of countries like Syria, Iraq and Egypt.  Displaced farmers and rural workers have moved to the cities, escaping drought and joining throngs of urban unemployed.  These populations become hotbeds of dissent, attracting the wrath of dictatorial rulers.  A good deal of their anger is directed inwards, but some is also directed outwards towards the West as the US and its allies are seen as responsible for many of the problems they experience.  The further resulting breakdown in these countries is not necessarily an accidental by-product of Western intervention - Noam Chomsky, for instance, has suggested that the creation of weak and divided governments in oil-rich states serves US interests by removing barriers to oil wealth.

At the deepest level, what are the illusions that sustain this mutually destructive behaviour?  I would suggest there are two.  One is our absolutisation of our cultures, nations and "ways of life".  The Middle East and the West are in a symbiotic relationship over oil, reinforcing the mutual delusion that our economies and technologies can continue as they are.  We all know they can't, we are already bumping up against their limits, but we keep trying to eke out the current patterns for as long as possible, despite the damage they do, because they are making our elites rich.

Our rejection of the necessary fundamental changes - changes in technology, in wealth distribution, in food production - leads us instead to foster illusions about ourselves.  For us Westerners, it is an illusion about the present - our image of ourselves as enlightened and democratic.  This leads to us attempting to enforce a kind of moral ascendancy on the countries of the Middle East, to try to bomb them into being kinder and less belligerent.

On the Middle Eastern side, extreme Islam promotes an illusion about the past - an illusion of a pure, righteous form of Islam untainted by any compromise with the West, symbolised by such ideas as the Caliphate of Islamic State.  There was never such a pure state, Islam always compromised with those around it like we all do, but our 21st century radicals attempt to escape the humiliation of the present by returning to an imagined heroic ideal.

Neither the causes nor the remedies for complex global issues are ever simple.  My description oversimplifies and glosses over many things, but if I'm right it provides a framework within which we can begin to understand not only the day to day realities, but the bedrock of questions which underlie them.  It is not simply a matter of defeating Islam, nor even of defeating radical Islam, because so much of the problem lies within ourselves.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Farewell, Tony

So, it's kind of strange to find that once again our government has changed leaders.


Not because it was a surprise.  Abbott has already been challenged once since he became Prime Minister, and put on notice that he needed to do better.  He didn't.  Rumours have been flying for weeks, Cabinet has been leaking like a sieve, polls have been plunging.

What is surprising is that Malcolm Turnbull is prepared to take the job.  When Julia Gillard deposed Kevin Rudd in the midst of his first term it went really badly.  She couldn't criticise a government of which she had been part, nor claim it did a great job in the light of the fact she had deposed its leader.  She was left clinging to the rocks as the waves of negativity battered her from all sides.

Why have our recent Prime Ministers (and indeed, Opposition Leaders) had such a short shelf-life?  One possibility is that politics these days is not a very attractive career choice, so we don't have the calibre of people we once had.  There is no Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating or Howard in the current parliament.

This may be true.  Our current leaders are not an impressive lot.  The shallowness of their pronouncements on important issues, their inability to focus on anything beyond the 24 hour media cycle, is a constant source of frustration for anyone who cares about where our country is headed.

I suspect this is a symptom, rather than the problem.  No one person can grasp the complexity of the issues that face a national government.  Good governance requires a team, a group of people with different skills, backgrounds and training who work together.  Small things need to be delegated, big things need to be dealt with collectively.

Rudd, Gillard and Abbott all forgot this, and tried to solve problems on their own.  Of the three, Abbott was the worst at it because he was the stupidest of the three by a long distance.  He made absurd calls on things he should have left well alone, like knighting Prince Philip.  He took policy positions to Cabinet that had not been properly researched, and tried to force them through without discussion.  He continually acted like his job was to destroy his opponents rather than govern the country.  When people asked him difficult questions about the economy he just talked about something else.

Yet, even if he had a brain the size of the planet, being a one-man-band still wouldn't have worked for him.  After all, look what happened to Rudd.  I know I bang on a lot about presidential politics and the Westminster System, but at last we have a Prime Minister who agrees with me.  Here is what he said in his first press conference after taking over the leadership.

The culture of our leadership is going to be one that is thoroughly consultative.  A traditional...a thoroughly traditional Cabinet government that ensures that we make decisions in a collaborative manner.  The Prime Minister of Australia is not a President.  The Prime Minister is the first among equals.

Music to my ears!  At last, a Prime Minister who understands how the system is supposed to work!

Still, I'm not getting too excited.  To begin with, for this approach to work the team needs to be reasonably united.  They don't have to love one another, but they have to be capable of working together.  There are 44 people in the Liberal Party who didn't want Turnbull to lead them, You can bet your bottom dollar that people like Joe Hockey, Matthias Cormann and Cory Bernardi will not just quietly fall into line behind Turnbull.  The leaks and destabilisation will go on.

Nor is Turnbull's record that encouraging.  After all, the last time the Liberal leadership changed hands was in 2009, and the issue was that Turnbull had unilaterally decided to support the Labor-proposed Emissions Trading Scheme over the heads of his own party members who were implacably opposed.  What has he learned from this experience?

The other reason I'm not very excited is that whether they work together or fight like cats in a bag, they are still a bunch of Tories.  Turnbull may be a more reasonable, articulate Tory, but that's as far as it goes.  They'll still be cutting welfare, screwing the workers, promoting the interests of big business, trashing the environment and imprisoning innocent asylum seekers.  Who cares if they are doing it collegially?

Friday, 4 September 2015

The Inescapable Love of God

Over the past couple of weeks I've been reading Thomas Talbott's book, The Inescapable Love of God.   I'm not really obsessed with the question of universal salvation but it does form part of my Christian faith and the question has come up in my church over the past year as some others move in a more Calvinist direction.  So I thought I'd provide a quick review just to keep the pot boiling.

The Inescapable Love of God was first published in 1999, but has been out of print for a number of years before Talbott and Cascade Books released a second edition last year.  Universalism aside the author appears to be a fairly orthodox and even conservative Protestant, perhaps in a similar mode to Robin Parry whose book The Evangelical Universalist was published in 2006 (under the pseudonym Gregory MacDonald) and dedicated to Talbott alongside my cousin Alex.

Yet while Talbott's influence on Parry is clear, his book is very different to Parry's.  Parry concentrates on the biblical case, providing an exhaustive treatment of the various passages that relate to the subject.  Talbott, who is primarily a philosopher rather than a theologian, provides a briefer summary of the biblical case followed by a more lengthy exploration of the philosophical issues involved.  At the time of its publication Talbott had already been arguing for Universalism for some time through journal articles and other short works, and the book serves in part as a more detailed response to his critics.

Like so many Christian Universalists, Talbott's impetus to explore the question came from his confrontation with the problem of suffering.  In his case, it was a philosophical rather than a personal confrontation - as a young philosophy student he took a course in which his skeptical lecturer presented the class with a series of arguments against the existence of God, each of which they were encouraged to explore and do their best to refute.  Talbott found himself stumped by the problem of suffering, and this started him on the path that led him eventually to Christian Universalism.

He starts his analysis of the question by presenting three commonly held foundational Christian ideas - that God loves all his creatures, that he is all-powerful and will ultimately triumph, and that some people will be redeemed while others are condemned to eternal torment.  All three ideas, he says, can be plausibly argued from the Bible, but only two of them can be correct.

For Augustine, Calvin and their followers the first proposition is modified - God loves some of us, but not others.  For Arminians, followers of 16th century Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius, the second proposition is modified - God loves all of us but we are able to thwart his will by the exercise of our own, effectively condemning ourselves to hell.  For Universalists the third proposition is modified - all people will ultimately be reconciled to God.

Because all three propositions can be supported from the Bible, your interpretive procedure will depend to a large extent on where you start.  Which passages will you treat as foundational, and for which will you try to find alternative explanations?

Talbott begins with one of Paul's classic statements of universal reconciliation, Romans 5:18.

Just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life to all men.

This idea is repeated in 1 Corinthians 15:22.

As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

Since both these verses are paired statements, the most logical way of reading them is to see the "all men" (that is, all people) who were condemned or died as a result of Adam's sin as the same as the "all men" who were justified or made alive through Christ - that is, the whole of humanity. This was how many of the church fathers viewed the matter, including Origen and Gregory of Nyssa among others.

However, once the Empire-sponsored church of the fourth and fifth centuries imposed uniformity of doctrine it opted for the exclusivist view of Augustine and others, a view more congenial to an authoritarian Church and State which uses both physical and spiritual weapons to enforce obedience.  This meant these passages had to be interpreted in a less logical way.  Augustine, for instance, thought that the second "all" (but not the first) suggested all classes and nations rather than all individuals.  But why?  Not because it is the most logical reading, but because he (and others who came after) believed that the rest of Scripture taught that some people would be condemned to eternal torment.

Where in Scripture is this taught?  Talbott addresses three passages commonly referred to by his opponents - the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and 2 Thessalonians 1:9, "they will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord".

In relation to the two parables he points our first of all that they are parables, not literal predictions of future events.  Parables are typically designed to dramatise (often through the use of hyperbole) a central point.  The point of these two parables is similar.  The Sheep and the Goats teaches that we should see Jesus in the most humble and needy of those around us, and hence treat them with compassion.  The Rich Man and Lazarus teaches that those of us who have plenty should share our wealth with those who have nothing.  The purpose of the dramatic rewards and punishments is to reinforce this message, rather than to outline the future of a proportion of humanity.

His second point is that none of these three references talk about punishment that goes on forever.  The Rich Man and Lazarus simply refers to a present situation: "between us and you a great chasm has been fixed".  There is no indication that this chasm can't be bridged in the future - for instance, through the death of Christ.

The other two passages are more problematic - 2 Thessalonians refers to "everlasting destruction" while The Sheep and the Goats refers to "eternal fire".  Talbott's argument is that the Greek word aionios, translated "eternal" or "everlasting", does not mean something that goes on forever.  It means primarily something that comes from and belongs to God.  Hence the prevailing English translation of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is misleading - it would be more accurate to render it as referring to the "destruction (or punishment) that comes from God".  For Talbott (and he says for Paul) such punishment is redemptive, a destruction of what is evil in us so that we can present ourselves before God with a cleansed conscience.

There are many more passages Talbott could have referred to but these are enough to illustrate his point.  Once you accept the clear universal intent of passages such as Romans 5, it is then possible - and in fact preferable - to understand passages such as 2 Thessalonians 1 and the condemnation scenes in Jesus' parables as consistent with this intent.

The second part of the book deals with a number of issues of religious philosophy.  The first is the nature of God and particularly the idea that "God is love", as articulated by John.  What part does love play in God's character?  Augustinian theologians often portray God as having a number of attributes - love, mercy, wrath, justice and so on.  God's love requires him to have compassion on us, but his justice requires that our sin be punished.

Within this framework it is easy to slip into a picture of God at war with himself and of the Trinity as divided - the Father expressing justice while the Son expresses love.  Talbott is aware that this is a caricature but this hasn't stopped it finding its way into popular piety, as shown in some of our more gruesome worship music.  Talbott suggests it makes much more sense to see God's nature as simple and undivided - God's love, mercy and justice are expressions of the one character - his love is just, his justice is loving.  Once we understand this it takes us away from a view of justice as retributive, towards a view of restorative justice guided by love.

This leads directly into what Talbott refers to as the "Augustinian paradox".  The paradox is this -  those who God elects will be admitted to God's presence to enjoy eternal bliss, while those he rejects will be consigned to eternal torment.  However, we are not isolated individuals and our happiness depends on the happiness and wellbeing of others.  If I am in heaven but my mother, wife or child is in eternal torment, heaven will not be heaven for me.  I will be tormented every day by the thought of their suffering.

If, as we are generally taught, we will be perfected in heaven and cleansed of our sin and selfishness, our torment will be all the greater as we think of those who suffer, even if they are strangers to us.  To avoid inflicting this suffering on us God will either have to hide it from us (perhaps also blotting out our memories of those loved ones - in effect, a kind of spiritual lobotomy) or teach us to enjoy it.  Neither option is consistent with the character of God.  Heaven can only truly be heaven if we are all there together.

These considerations apply more to a Augustinian view, but Talbott also deals with the question of free will which is central to Arminian theology.  For Augustinians God consigns some people to hell.  For Arminians some people consign themselves to hell by refusing God's mercy and God does not force them - as CS Lewis says, "the doors of hell are locked from the inside".  Is this position logically tenable?

The key question here is: Can God save everyone, even the most reluctant and determined, without violating human free will?  Talbott accepts that a certain level of alienation from God may be essential for us to become truly human - to grow up, as it were, as independent thinking beings made in God's image.  However, is it essential that such alienation always be possible?

Interestingly Lewis himself talks about his own conversion in terms of compulsion - of coming to the point, with great reluctance, where he felt he had no other choice.  Is this not possible with everyone?  In a cosmos where God is ever-present and the veils are removed, why would anyone deny God?  Even those who are reluctant or firmly rebellious, brought face to face with God and perhaps, in the extremities, sent into the "outer darkness", would eventually acknowledge God as all in all without any violation of their free will, even if there is an element of pressure and a stripping away of alternatives as happened for Lewis.

Now, as you know I'm a Universalist and I find Talbott's arguments helpful and convincing, as you'd expect.  He is clear-headed and thorough in making his case, and he has honed his arguments carefully over multiple controversies.  I doubt he will convince either confirmed Calvinists or confirmed Arminians but he has ensured that the debate can continue and given comfort to Universalists who frequently find themselves isolated within their churches.

However, it occurred to me that he hasn't solved his own problem.  He started his journey into Universalism as a result of the problem of suffering, but Universalism doesn't solve this.  Certainly it eases it a little in psychological terms with the promise of its eventual end, something neither Calvinism nor Arminianism can claim.  Yet in the meantime we still suffer.  I suspect the problem is insoluble, but I would love Talbott to explain how he has solved it....

Friday, 21 August 2015

Rumours of Glory

If you read this blog from time to time you'll know that I'm a big fan of Bruce Cockburn.  So you won't be surprised to hear that I was very excited about the publication of his memoir, Rumours of Glory,  which hit the shelves in late 2014.

I first heard Cockburn in the early 1980s and his music was a revelation to me.  He was the first singer I heard (and still one of a select few) who combined an overt Christian faith with a deep commitment to justice and an immersion in political and social issues.  He is a big name in his native Canada - winner of multiple Juno awards (the equivalent to our ARIAs) and inductee to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.  Elsewhere he has a fairly low profile and a small but devoted following - especially from people like me.

I read Rumours of Glory over the Easter holiday as we travelled around western Victoria and New South Wales.  Among other things, it inspired me to fill some gaps in my collection of Cockburn CDS and I bought myself three - High Winds, White Sky,  In the Falling Dark and Nothing But a Burning Light.  I'll let them help me tell the story.

Bruce Cockburn was born in Ottowa in May 1945, while his father was on military duty in Germany.  His childhood was spent in Ottowa, a standard middle-class suburban family life with his father supporting the family with his job as a radiologist while his mum stayed at home and looked after the kids.  He was a quiet and artsy teenager with a healthy disrespect for the strictures of school curriculum which meant he failed subjects in which he was disinterested.  By the time he finished school he was already an accomplished musician and budding composer but his refusal to take maths seriously disqualified him from most universities.

Wanting to please his parents and at least attempt a university education he enrolled in the Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA to study jazz composition.  He lasted 18 months before realising that actually he wanted to play music, not study it.  He is self-effacing about what he got out of the experience, claiming that he struggled with the discipline of the repetitive practice of jazz scales and the intricacies of the music.  However, the evidence of even his first recorded music suggests that the discipline, even if only partly absorbed, placed him far ahead of most of his contemporaries in musical skill and sophistication.

Be that as it may, he returned to Ottowa at the end of 1965 and began playing and singing in rock bands, firstly in Ottowa and later in Toronto.  None of them became famous although one of them did get to open a show for The Jimi Hendrix Experience.  Cockburn played guitar, sang and wrote songs.  As time passed he realised that the songs of his he liked best sounded better when he played and sang them on his own and so in 1969 he gave up on the bands and launched a solo career.  The rest, as they say, is history.

High Winds, White Sky is the second album of Cockburn's solo career, released in 1971.  In many ways it's not a bad album.  The songs are engaging, his guitar playing is already a cut above his folkie contemporaries, he sings well, he seems to have mastered a number of styles.  However, while all the bits are in place the package doesn't quite hang together.  He has not yet found his voice, in a number of different ways.

For starters his voice is literally different to what it was to become.  He has a natural baritone but in 1971 he was still yielding to fashion and singing in a higher register like everyone else.  As well as this, he has drawn on a number of musical genres - the renaissance-tinged folk music of the likes of Pentangle, the jazz of his Berklee days, the finger-style blues of players like Mississippi John Hurt.  These genres jostle for space, sitting side by side but not really communicating.  He seems unsure of himself and this leads him to do some odd things, like playing "mouth trumpet" on 'Happy Good Morning Blues'.  The bonus tracks even include an attempt at a comic song, 'Elephant Blues', recorded live in 1970.

Cockburn was also yet to find his voice spiritually.  Certainly he was already carving his own path.  His songs are steeped in the mystery and beauty of nature and the brevity of life.  He refused, or perhaps just failed, to play the commercial music game, like by disappearing for long wilderness holidays after an album release instead of touring relentlessly to promote it.  This gave him a kind of cachet as Canadian music's resident mystic.  He was also already married to Kitty and their wedding at St George's Anglican Church in Ottowa was a deeply spiritual experience.

At that moment, when I held Kitty's hand to place her ring, I became aware of a presence standing there with us - invisible to the eye but as solid and obvious as any of the people in the room.  I felt bathed in the figure's energy.  I shivered and said to myself, "Well, I don't know who or what this is, but we're in a Christian church, so it's got to be Jesus".

While Christianity was part of the mix and Cockburn was starting to appreciate a side of the faith he had not experienced in his family's 1950s duty visits to church, he was still uncommitted, still exploring different spiritual pathways.  The album is clearly spiritual but it's unfocused, if anything a kind of nature mysticism best heard on 'Let Us Go Laughing'.



My canoe lies on the water
Evening holds the bones of day
The sun like gold dust slips away
One by one antique stars
Herald the arrival of
Their pale protectress moon

Ragged branches vibrate
Strummed by winds from o'er the hill
Singing tales of ancient days
Far and silent lightning
Stirs the cauldron of the sky
I turn my bow towards the shore

As we grow out of stones
On and on and on
So we'll all go to bones
On and on for many a year

But let us go laughing
Let us go
On and on and on
On and on for many a year

A lot happened between 1971 and 1976, when Cockburn released In the Falling Dark. For a start, he increasingly allowed himself to sing in his natural voice, a warm baritone with a definite Canadian inflection.  This means that all his albums from the mid-1970s onwards are recognisable as soon as he opens his mouth.

The same goes for his music.  It moved from being a slightly awkward pastiche of styles to his own fusion of them, a jazz-influenced version of folk rock with complex finger-style guitar parts.

Spiritually, he also progressed from sampling a smorgasbord of spiritual ideas to a more definite identification as a Christian.  His conversion was born out of personal pain as tensions in his and Kitty's marriage mounted.

I wanted a healthy relationship with Kitty.  It wasn't long before I was begging on my knees, consciously asking Jesus to help me, to fortify my mind and salve my soul, to make me the person he wanted me to be.  I prayed like a child, without reserve.  Suddenly it was there, the same presence I had felt during our wedding ceremony, in the room with me, its energy filling the air.  I felt my heart forced open.  He was there!  And it was definitely he.  A male entity, more fraternal than paternal, radiant with calm power, a saviour showing up to save me because I'd asked.  I made a commitment to Jesus.  From that moment I saw myself as a follower of Christ.

It is important not to misunderstand this conversion.  Cockburn was never an Evangelical.  He never saw Christianity as the only truth, never set out to covert other people to it.  St George's, where he and Kitty were married and continued to attend through the 1970s, was a progressive Anglican church and he learned a form of faith that was humble and open to other traditions.  His view of such things is beautifully illustrated by his tale of a visit to Nepal in the late 1980s.  Prayer flags on every house, little shrines dotted all over the place, one of the most religious countries on earth.  There he chanced to meet an elderly Christian missionary.

The old man told me he had left his teaching job in the Midwest to come to Nepal twenty-five years earlier and bring the gospel to its people....  He proudly told me that he had taught Robert Schuller, of Crystal Cathedral fame, but he was bitter and seemed diminished.  In twenty-five years, he said, he had not made a single convert.  His words were "These people don't want to know God".  

I felt sad for him, as he appeared so oblivious to the spirituality built into the surroundings.  He had spent a quarter of a century wearing cultural blinkers, not seeing, not learning what he might have about the Divine.  If it's true that the attribute of God that is supposed to have the greatest effect on us is love, how can it flower in a soil of censure, tribalism, false pride...fear of the other?  But for Big Circumstance, that could have been me.

This means he did not abandon the lessons he had already learned prior to his commitment.  He continued to see God in nature, to appreciate various traditions, to see himself as a seeker rather than someone who had arrived.  He was quite open to the notion that the Divine who appeared to him as Jesus could appear to others in a different form.

Nonetheless, the songs on In the Falling Dark are clearly Christian.  The title track concludes, "Don't you know that from the first to the last we're all one in the gift of grace?".  In place of generic nature mysticism we have 'Lord of the Starfields', a hymn of praise to the Creator.

Oh Love that fires the sun
Keep me burning.

Perhaps clearest of all is one of the album outtakes, 'Dweller by a Dark Stream', written and recorded at the time but not released until much later.  Set to a simple country-style tune it sets out the idea of salvation in terms any evangelical would be happy with.  Nonetheless, if you listen closely you will see that even here there is a more progressive take on the story, like when he says Jesus "wanted us like you, as choosers not clones", and when, walking through the world, he longs for "a glimpse of your new life unfurled" like a shiny winged insect breaking out of its chrysalis.


It could have been me put the thorns in your crown
Rooted as I am in a violent ground
How many times have I turned your promise down?
Still you pour out your love
Pour out your love

I was a dweller by a dark stream
A crying heart hooked on a dark dream
In my convict soul I saw your love gleam
And you showed me what you've done
Jesus, thank-you joyous Son

You entered a life like ours to give us back our own
You wanted us like you, as choosers not clones
You offered up your flesh and death was overthrown
Now salvation is ours,
Salvation is ours

So when I'm walking this prison camp world
I long for a glimpse of the new life unfurled
The chrysalis cracking and moistened wings uncurl
Like in the vision John saw
The vision John saw

Another thing that is starting to happen on In the Falling Dark, although only in embryonic form, is the growth of Cockburn's social consciousness.  Even as his faith became more focused, he began to see more clearly the things in this world that seemed to pull against this "glimpse of the new life unfurled".  You see it most clearly on 'Gavin's Woodpile',  A series of meditations drawn from his time chopping wood for his brother's fire include, among pieces of nature mysticism from an earlier time, two very concrete images - one of a prisoner doing time, and the other of the catastrophic pollution of the English River in northern Ontario where contamination from a local paper mill poisoned the fish and the local indigenous people who ate them.

...Like the coloured slicks on the English River
Death in the marrow and death in the liver
And some government gambler with his mouth full of steak
Saying, "If you can't eat the fish, fish in some other lake.
To watch a people die - it is no new thing."

And the stack of wood grows higher and higher
And a helpless rage seems to set my brain on fire.

Cockburn didn't attend church regularly after the late 1970s.  He gives a few reasons.  One is that he moved from Ottowa to Toronto and never managed to find a church where he felt at home as he had at St George's.  It's not easy for someone who is both an introvert and a celebrity to just walk into a church, and it's hard for a musician who spends half his life on the road to become part of any stationary community.

However, I suspect that more telling is the fact that he moved to Toronto on his own.  His marriage to Kitty, troubled from the beginning, had ended.  He blames no-one for this but himself, acknowledging that he finds intimacy difficult.  This problem recurred throughout his life and he has had a number of relationships since which have gone the same way despite his best intentions.

He struggled to accept the idea that the vows he and Kitty had made in what he had experienced as the real, tangible presence of Christ could be annulled. His agony is written all over Humans, the album of songs he wrote during this time.  He was dealing, as we all have to eventually, with the problem of suffering.

Then there is the problem that from then on his love life didn't follow conventional Christian lines.  He recounts four other committed relationships as well as one steamy extra-marital affair.  This made for an uneasy relationship with the church.

In the early 1980s he got involved with a group called Jesus People USA, a hip and "alternative" but theologically conservative group based in Chicago.  He visited their church and got to know some of them, and their members attended his concerts and bought his albums.  However, when they eventually twigged that he was not only divorced but "living in sin" they dropped him like a hot potato, stopping their attendance at his concerts and advising members to get rid of his albums as if his marital status changed everything.  Naturally he was not keen to repeat the experience, and his knowledge that some of the people who follow the God of Love can be very unloving pushed him further in the direction of a tolerant, open spirituality.

Other things changed, too.  For one, he became more politically and socially active.  From the early 1980s onwards he started doing documentary projects and awareness raising for organisations like Oxfam.  This included visiting a number of global trouble-spots and observing first hand the plight of refugees, ethnic minorities and other victims of persecution.  He's been doing it ever since, starting with Guatemala in the early 80s and including  Nicaragua, Haiti, Nepal, Afghanistan and Iraq among other places, as well as ongoing support for the aspirations of Canada's first peoples.  All these experiences found their way into his songs by means of what he calls "reportage" - lyrics built from real, concrete scenes, events and images.  The book includes a number of diary extracts which later appear almost word for word as songs.  His songwriting began to take on a new life and vividness as he moved beyond nature mysticism to address suffering, resilience and hope not as theoretical constructs but as things affecting real people in real places.

Musically all this resulted in his moving away from acoustic music in the 1980s towards a more band-oriented electric sound.  He had never really been a folk musician but now not even the marketing department could call him one.  He picked up his electric guitar for the first time in a decade and his songs became louder, more jagged, more challenging.

You can hear some of this on Nothing But a Burning Light,  released in 1991.  In some ways the sound here is a little different from the albums before and after, courtesy of his brief working relationship with producer T-Bone Burnett.  It is more mellow, there is a rich warm keyboard sound prominent in the mix and a group of players a little more soulful than Cockburn's more usual collaborators.  Still it includes the elements - his distinctive vocals, the tight driving rhythm, the intricate and occasionally flashy guitar parts, the space for his collaborators to do their thing.

There is still Christianity here.  'Cry of a Tiny Babe' is a retelling of the Christmas story with a lovely chorus.

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

Other songs reflect this faith and hope, like the opening number, 'A Dream Like Mine'.

Today I dream of how it used to be
Things were different before
The picture shifts to how it's going to be
Balance restored
When you know even for a moment that it's your time
Then you can walk with the power of a thousand generations

The album also includes a rare cover, Blind Willie Johnson's 'Soul of Man', which also supplies the album's title in answer to the question "what is the soul of a man?".

Alongside this is a mix of more earthy stuff.  Tender love songs like 'One of the Best Ones' sit beside two acerbic songs about the uncomfortable history of the treatment of North America's first peoples.  'Kit Carson' deconstructs the legacy of this supposed hero of the Wild West, while 'Indian Wars' highlights how the war Carson fought is still going on today.

It's not breech-loading rifles and wholesale slaughter
It's kickbacks and thugs and diverted water
Treaties get signed and the papers change hands
But they might as well draft these agreements in sand.

You thought it was over but it's just like before.
Will there never be an end to the Indian War?

My favourite, though, is 'Mighty Trucks of Midnight'.


Used to have a town but the factory moved away
Down to Mexico where they work for hardly any pay
Used to have a country but they sold it down the river
Like a repossessed farm auctioned off to the highest bidder

Mighty trucks of midnight moving on
Moving on

Wave a flag, wave the bible, wave your sex or your business degree
Whatever you want - but don't wave that thing at me
The tide of love can leave your prizes scattered
But when you get to the bottom it's the only thing that matters

I believe it's a sin to try and make things last forever
Everything that exists in time runs out of time some day
Got to let go of the things that keep you tethered
Take your place with grace and then be on your way

Mighty trucks of midnight moving on
Moving on

It starts out a bit like a Bruce Springsteen song about America's post-industrial landscape as all the jobs are shifted south across the border, symbolised by the trucks rolling through the night importing cheap manufactures.  However, Cockburn's spirituality allows him to see further and deeper, to question the motives and to point the question back at the protagonists.

Religion, as he suggests, can be one one of many things used to oppress and rob, just as much as nationalism, sex or education.  However, those who are at the top of the heap can find their prizes scattered just as much as those at the bottom.  By the end of the song, the trucks have become a metaphor for a completely different kind of movement, an understanding of the brevity of life which makes our striving for wealth and our fetishisation of the economy seem not just criminal and exploitative but absurd and pointless.  In the end, love is what counts - not the soppy romantic love of the Beatles or their ilk but a costly love that has to be earned and learned.  You have to give up other things to have it.  You have to love actual people, not rob them.

The story continues. Cockburn takes it up to about 2008, but he is still alive and continues to make music.  If you want to know more read the book.  You could even do Bruce a favour and buy it.  Meanwhile, in the spirit of reflecting on a life well lived let me leave you with what is possibly my favourite Cockburn song, 'Strange Waters', from 1996's The Charity of Night.


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?