Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

An Atheist Presents A Compelling Vision of Paradise For Christmas

Tim Minchin has a lot of objections to Christianity that he presents his Christmas tune White Wine In The Sun:

But put that aside and you get to this part of the song where he addresses his infant daughter:

And you, my baby girl
My jetlagged infant daughter
You’ll be handed round the room
Like a puppy at a primary school
And you won’t understand
But you will learn someday
That wherever you are and whatever you face
These are the people who’ll make you feel safe in this world
My sweet blue-eyed girl

And if my baby girl
When you’re twenty-one or thirty-one
And Christmas comes around
And you find yourself nine thousand miles from home
You’ll know what ever comes

Your brothers and sisters and me and your Mum
Will be waiting for you in the sun
Whenever you come
Your brothers and sisters, your aunts and your uncles
Your grandparents, cousins and me and your mum
We’ll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Darling, when Christmas comes
We’ll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Waiting for you in the sun

I don’t understand a lot of visions people have of paradise – giant gold cities, endless orgasmic pleasure, it’s all kind of weird, but this, this I get.

The Continuity of Philosophy

I mentioned before about the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast as a great survey of the history of philosophy. One thing that stands out is that I do not think that either of the two popular stories we tell ourselves about the history of (especially Western) philosophy stand up all that well. There is the account that praises the classical Greek tradition, and then disparages tthe Middle Ages only to rejoice at the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. There is also the account that gives credit to the Middle Ages as a further enhancement of the classical tradition only to be wrecked by the Enlightenment.

The totality of Western philosophy seems much more continuous than that though. The themes that many associate with the Enlightenment are already in play in the medieval period, and these in turn were brought forward from the classical world (often via the Islamic world). There is no way that the Enlightenment could have sprung fully-formed out of the tail end of the classical period, and yet it also starts to appear to me to be so much the expected outcome of the medieval period too.

Thoughts About Religious Celebrities On Ashley Madison

This is all over, and I’m not sure too much more needs to be said about Josh Duggar being on a site dedicated to adultery. One thing though that I should like to note is that there has been the tendency to insinuate that the Duggar’s upbringing in the extreme “Quiverfull” movement was somehow the cause of his infidelity. While there’s lots that is frankly disturbing in the materials that the Duggars used to raise their kids, the fact remains that people raised just about any which way can end up cheating on their spouses. Everyone can then ex post facto gather around and say that the cheater’s childhood was too permissive or too strict or too structured or too disorganized or what-have-you. Josh Duggar cheated because he is a human being, and we have pretty good documented evidence that some subset of humans do this from time-to-time across all cultures. There’s no need to reach for an additional cause here. The only way that I can see his upbringing/subculture playing into this was in the fashion that cheated: on a website that promised anonymity, I don’t imagine he would be comfortable with the risk of trying to pick up girls in a more prominent fashion given his profile and the fact that his job was essentially to be a professional heterosexual monogamist.

Where Duggar’s upbringing and subculture do come into play more strongly is in how this will be dealt with. He’s already gone to a sort of “treatment centre” for some kind program. It’s also pretty clear that his wife will be under incredible pressure to stay with him. This might be something she would choose to do anyway, but then it might not be, I have no idea and neither do you. It also concerns me that, yes, he’s the guy with child molestation scandal following him around, and so there remains a question about how safe he is around his own kids, given that it’s clear that he has been hiding some other sexual conduct that is out of line with how he claimed to have been living his life.

Aesthetics in Church

I have been thinking about this topic recently and I wanted to use this space to act as a sort of sounding board for some thoughts I have on the matter. I should like to start with the simple premise that aesthetics matter. In the sort of utilitarian, practical-minded bent of many evangelical churches, this can sometimes be a difficult case to make. This has started to change, and not just in Greg Thornbury’s wardrobe:

Attention: This is not the next Doctor Who

Attention: This is not the next Doctor Who

(Seriously though, this man is well-dressed, and he has a White Falcon!) The sense of it that I get is that aesthetics are seen by many as this nice little dressing that goes on the top of more solid, practical things. But much in the same fashion that Keynes notes that most practical men were in the thrall of some long-dead philosopher, most people who think that church worship services should eschew too much of a consideration of aesthetics are simply acceding to aesthetic decisions that have been made elsewhere. This clip from The Devil Wears Prada explains it much better than I can:

Now this is not a call to become obsessed with aesthetics, we certainly wouldn’t want an elders board to look like the editorial meeting of a magazine, but simply to acknowledge that even neutral walls and dusty rose carpets are the results of much thrashing about design. All those cheesy patches on the church keyboard? Ditto. This starting point shouldn’t lead us to conclude that aesthetics should govern everything that is done in a worship service, but simply to accept that aesthetic choices are inescapable and that a dull aesthetic is an aesthetic nonetheless. You aren’t escaping this with khakis and unaccompanied psalms.

The Fault In Ourselves


If you care about these types of things, then I am sure you already know that one of TV’s famous Duggars has admitted to sexually assaulting a number of underage girls including, apparently, some of his siblings while he was a teenager. There’s a great deal that one can make of this case, including the Duggars’ link to über-creep, Bill Gothard and his disturbing approaches to sexual abuse. There’s also Benjamin Corey’s very salient point that when church leaders encounter sexual abuse, it’s their moral – and sometimes legal –  duty to report it to the police. Apparently the Duggars did this at one point (only to result in a stern talking-to by a man now serving jail time for child pornography), but then actively resisted further investigation when Oprah, of all people, notified the authorities.

I think this scandal demonstrates the futility of believing that one can somehow insulate oneself or one’s family from this or that kind of immorality. This happened to a family that homeschooled their kids in a rural environment hours from a major city with no TV and no and internet while enforcing a strict dress code (particularly on the female members). I don’t know how much further a family can be separated from the wider world, and yet somehow building these types of alleged protections does not keep sexual abuse at bay. It calls to mind the sort of horror film trope where the protagonists do everything to barricade themselves away from the monster, only to realize that in the process, they’ve locked themselves in with the monster.

The fault, dear Duggars is not in our television/social media/education system, but in ourselves, that we are human.

Happy Easter

I’ll just leave this little ditty here:

Don’t Fall In Love With Yourselves On Good Friday

zizek toilet

These are excerpts from a talk that Žižek gave four years ago during the Occupy Wall Street movement:

“There is a danger. Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then? I don’t want you to remember these days, you know, like ‘Oh. we were young and it was beautiful.'”

And again at the conclusion of his talk:

“The only thing I’m afraid of is that we will someday just go home and then we will meet once a year, drinking beer, and nostaligically remembering ‘What a nice time we had here.’ Promise yourselves that this will not be the case.”

When I think about the crucifixion, one of the striking aspects of it was that in the most crucial moments, Jesus’ followers and friends abandoned him. They said they wouldn’t, but they did anyway, no one was prepared to go all the way to death alongside him. What they (and we) were denied was any kind of romantic notion about how they were with him and that they had had some kind of “nice time” together. Surely this must have been one of the things that spurred on the early church: the abandoning of Jesus to his fate. The disciples could not return to their daily lives with nothing but a warm nostalgia, they were left with something very different, the sense of an event (by the time Sunday roles around) but also a gnawing realization about how poorly they conducted themselves.

The easiest way to sap a movement of its power is nostalgia, especially with a myth that allows everyone to participate by proxy that so many events generate. For baby boomers the archetype might be Woodstock or the Summer of Love – everyone gets to pretend that they were there – at least in spirit and it is a good nostalgic feeling that gives them some kind of leave to go back to doing whatever it is that they are doing. Who would want to be there on Good Friday? Your leader dies and everyone cowers.

We live in an age where it is easier than ever to fall in love with ourselves. One doesn’t need to travel anywhere or do anything other than repost a clever graphic on Instagram, or like something on Facebook, or follow the right people on Twitter and retweet their sagacious insights, or upvote the right AMA thread on Reddit. I get the sense that many readers of this blog care about various causes (of a really wide range, I gather), but what is it that anyone does about them? If I try to think of a concrete action that I have taken, there aren’t that many, but then I get the feeling of having participated by merely retweeting stuff that I found agreeable.

I have neither the learning nor the authority to tell you the Meaning™ of Good Friday (and certainly there are lots of people who can and have). But I think one thing that stood out to me this year is the idea of our absence from it. There is no proxy that we can align ourselves with who really stands out in classic heroic fashion here (Jesus doesn’t even bother to defend himself, Socrates at least did that), there is no way to gather round and wax romantic about this event. It stands as a rebuke to every kind of mega Christian conference and gathering and every giant display of the church’s power by stained glass or by klieg light. These are all things that make it easy to fall in love with ourselves, these are the sort of events that are the opposite of Good Friday.

EDIT: The conclusion, that now seems obvious to me, but evidently eluded me whilst writing the original post, is that this is an argument for the centrality of celebrating the eucharist, there is nothing else in broad Christian practice that so effectively reminds us how easily we betray, and how we should not fall in love with ourselves.

Carol Ann Duffy’s Poem for Richard III

Today is the reinterment of King Richard III (1452-1485) at Leicester Cathedral. I wish I could have been there, how many opportunities do you have to witness the burial of an ancient king? Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s poet laureate, wrote these words for the occasion:


My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,

a human braille.  My skull, scarred by a crown,

emptied of history.  Describe my soul

as incense, votive, vanishing; your own

the same.  Grant me the carving of my name.


These relics, bless.  Imagine you re-tie

a broken string and on it thread a cross,

the symbol severed from me when I died.

The end of time – an unknown, unfelt loss –

unless the Resurrection of the Dead…


or I once dreamed of this, your future breath

in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;

or sensed you from the backstage of my death,

as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.


For more, see here.


The Reaper in the Room

Two remarks I recently came across.

(1) Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things. – Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 133.

(2) Ernst Kantorowicz, discussing the palpable contrast seen in funerary rites between juristic theories of the immortality of the king’s dignity and the mortality of his natural body:

In short, one revelled in strong contrasts of fictitious immortality and man’s genuine morality, contrasts which the Renaissance, through its insatiable desire to immortalize the individual by any contrivable tour de force, not only failed to mitigate, but rather intensified: there was a reverse side to the proud reconquest of a terrestrial aevum. At the same time, however, immortality–the decisive mark of divinity, but vulgarized by the artifice of countless fictions–was about to lose its absolute, or even its imaginary, values: unless it manifested itself incessantly through new mortal incarnations, it practically ceased to be immortality. The King could not die, was not allowed to die, lest scores of fictions of immortality were to break down; and while kings died, they were granted the comfort of being told that at least “as King” they “never died.” (The King’s Two Bodies, 437)

I suppose the trope is perennial, the human attempt to avoid and divert itself from its own mortality, but these days nothing represents to me this custom so much as the endlessly renewed but disposable constituents of the celebrity pantheon.

We Saw Someone Doing Journalism In Your Name…


So this kind of came out of nowhere for me, but Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette fame is a Christian and said as much in the Daily Beast piece I linked. I don’t think I’d ever contemplated what her religious beliefs were or if she had any. It’s not something I try to do too often with public figures, mainly because my sense is we often project our grid of what someone who believes X or Y ought to be like onto those people and force our information about them into that grid. And we end up making stupid assumptions by virtue of this practice. (I read a story once where a French journalist interviewing U2 insisted to them that their songwriting was repressed by their Catholic upbringings – even though three of them, including the principle lyricist, were raised Protestant.)

I suppose all this is to say that if Ana Marie Cox announced that she was an atheist or a Buddhist or Jewish or had some New Age practice she followed I would have been equally reacting with a sense of, “Oh, okay” much like I did to this article – at least for the most part. I don’t know Ms. Cox and so it’s not like I have anything to base my perception on other than her journalism, which I often enjoy but which, you know, didn’t scream anything to me about religion particularly. There were a couple things that stuck out to me, and I think that her reluctance about even writing on this topic was the most significant:

“My hesitancy to flaunt my faith has nothing to do with fear of judgment by non-believers. My mother was an angry, agnostic ex-Baptist; my father is a casual atheist. (I asked him once why he didn’t believe in God, and he replied easily, “Because He doesn’t exist.”)

I am not smart enough to argue with those that cling to disbelief. Centuries of philosophers have made better arguments than I could, and I am comfortable with just pointing in their direction if an acquaintance insists, “If there is a God, then why [insert atrocity]?” For me, belief didn’t come after I had the answer to that question. Belief came when I stopped needing the answer.

No, I’m nervous to come out as a Christian because I worry I’m not good enough of one. I’m not scared that non-believers will make me feel an outcast. I’m scared that Christians will.” [emphasis mine]

This should not sit well with anyone else who calls themselves a Christian. Yes, I think it’s fine that many Christians, particularly of the evangelical ilk will still insist that she change her views on any number of social or political issues, just as I think it’s fine that she insist the same of them. I hope however that I do not see an onslaught of people insisting that she is not really a Christian until thinks and acts like Sarah Palin or Michelle Duggar or whatever public figure is the celebrity Christian of the moment. Ms. Cox has also made it clear on her Twitter account that she’s not going to jump on the religion beat all of sudden. This is not religion as a career move, this is someone simply declaring her ordinary, simple faith in Jesus.

Go read the full article.