Thursday, December 27, 2012


You may have noticed that there are rather less posts in the Calvintaries series than you might expect, since I declared a M-W-F timetable for them. The truth is I have totally failed to do what I hoped and planned to do. Let's talk about why.

The first reason was a blow to my morale. When I struggled with the posts about Romans (more on why below) and missed several deadlines, I wasn't really sure how to deal with it. I had lost my momentum. I was going to break my self-imposed schedule, which would make me feel bad. The only way to avoid that feeling was to ignore the project and pretend it didn't exist. This has been a pattern in my behaviour for years.

The best way to fix this response to failure is to, upon missing that deadline, commit to getting the next thing done without reference to time. I think that this will help restore momentum (upon which I emotionally thrive) and get me over the shame of failure. Yes, even for a little blog project which like five people will ever see, I experience shame when I fail.

I struggled (struggle) with summarising Romans not because I can't understand what Calvin is saying but because I found it difficult not to simply transcribe the commentary. What I really want to do is look at what Calvin is saying about the passage, and how it relates to that passage, and why he might expound it in that particular way. Really I want to analyse Calvin's hermeneutic. This takes more time and brain power than I anticipated.

So that's why the blog has been dead. Hopefully it will regain some life in the near future. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Skyfall Is A Beautiful Mess

As an action movie experience, Skyfall works. It is exciting to watch. It is engaging. It draws you into its world and movements. It is the most visually beautiful Bond movie I have seen, and by far the best-directed of the Craig films.The theme song by Adele is beautiful and sums up the spirit of the film - but which film? Because Skyfall tries to be three different movies; and so it is totally lacking in cohesion and internal logic in both a narrative and thematic sense.

Also, there's a massive helping of misogyny to the point that I felt uncomfortable because my female friend didn't feel uncomfortable. Has she been living with this kind of stuff so long that it no longer registers? Anyway, spoilers (misogyny isn't really a spoiler).

As I said, this is a movie in three parts. There is the traditional Bond movie which holds our attention at the start and appears in brief flashes later: far-flung locations, Bond being charming and deadly, a villain with a plan that threatens the world. There is also a rather more grim movie in there about the challenges that MI-6 faces in a new world as its enemies not only proliferate but splinter, endlessly, into so many different faces that they might as well not have identities. And there is the beating heart of the movie which asserts itself most in the last quarter: the origins of both Bond and his enemy, and the dread machine of human intelligence into which they were both fed. Or into which they fed themselves - the movie is intentionally ambiguous about that point (and I can't really tell if that's a good thing).

The problem is that these three movies, these three plots, have very little to do with each other. The villain's identity as ex-MI6 rather undercuts the idea of MI6 suffering fundamentally new threats. And the intimacy which the villain shares with both Bond and M means the missing list of undercover operatives which ought to drive the plot never gets the space it needs to feel properly threatening. And as for the villain's big evil turns out to be to shoot M. Marvelous. The same M who was traveling about London in a Jaguar for much of the movie, and Jaguars are not known for their bullet-resistant properties. I understand that it is the mentality of the villain which drives this complicated plan, but the villain himself is a problem.

He's a former agent with a bone to pick with MI-6 and particularly M, who gives a brief justification of her abandonment of him. This issue is never questioned or expanded upon by any of the characters. Skyfall is content to let us know that there might be a moral issue here, but it has no interest in actually dealing with it. The brutal use of people, fed into the machine of human intelligence and gunfights that is the recent Bond movies - that goes unexamined, even though the entire motivation of the villain is to get M to examine herself. Because Rodriguez nee Silva never gets a chance to be right, he is never proved wrong and so his hatred of M lingers with the viewer longer than I think it was intended to. That Javier Bardem makes the character work at all is a testament to his talent and presence on screen.

Let's now talk about the misogyny. First of all, the easy example. Bond meets a henchwoman in Macau. Her name is Severine (though in fact the movie develops her so little I had to look up her name on Wikipedia), and she is magnetic. The self-control covering gnawing fear, the self-possession of her body language, the strange and fragile hope which she places in Bond to free her from slavery. Then she is killed by the villain to mess with Bond. Perhaps the point is that Bond failed her, that agents cannot rescue everyone who needs rescue - but this is never pointed out in any way by the movie, and in fact her quiet, senseless death is overshadowed by the arrival of Bond's backup. What should be a stirring moment was for me a waste. Why couldn't they have arrived ten seconds earlier and saved her? Why is her death so meaningless? Why is she in this movie if she has no purpose? Is she just here to look pretty and vulnerable, sleep with Bond, and then die?

Do not, please, tell me that this is part of the Bond movie milieu. Skyfall is not based on a Fleming novel, and even if it were there is no reason that an adaptation has to carry across misogyny and the linking of female sexuality and death. Nor ought it to contain its other strange message about gender: that women cannot be trusted in fieldwork or authoritative positions. Early in the movie Bond tells Eve that field work is not for everyone, and near the end she accepts his advice and accepts an administrative posting, becoming Moneypenny. This might fly if it was a decision she made herself, but because of Bond's blunt assessment earlier it has nasty undertones of women can't do this manly manly job. Screw you, Skyfall.

Now, I'm a Christian. I get my spiritual truth from the Bible. Let's flick to Judges chapter four, down to verse eighteen. Jael invites this guy in to her tent, gives him a drink to put him at ease, and when he's asleep hammers a tent peg through his skull. Now, this might not have been a moral thing to do. But it was certainly stone cold and I think's it pretty clear evidence - which is borne out in the world around us - that woman are just as capable of violence, and duties which involve violence, as men.

Also M is treated oddly. She tells Eve to take that shot, even though Bond is in the way. Later she gives a perfectly reasonable justification for her decision and Bond says she lost her nerve. Yes - because the heads of intelligence agencies are commonly very nervous people. The whole thing has nasty undertones of oh women are so emotional. And at the end of the movie, after M's death, she is replaced by a man. This would be no problem if it wasn't for all the weird gender roles stuff the movie had spent so much time implying. As it is, it reeks of the idea that women can't control their emotions and so can't be trusted with Important Decisions.

In summary: a beautiful movie as long you don't listen to anything anyone says.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Solomon's Story (First Draft)

I was king of Israel, and I ruled from the city of Jerusalem. I decided to spend my life studying, to become wise and understand the things that happen in this world. I studied everything that happens under the sun and none of it meant anything. It was like a dog chasing cars.

And I said to myself, "I am the wisest king my country has ever had. I know as much as anyone in the world about wisdom and knowledge." So I stuck with my study of the world. I studied madness, and folly. And I realised that my wisdom didn't mean anything, either. I was no better than a dog, still chasing those cars.

So I stopped studying and started having fun, just enjoying myself. And the fun meant nothing. Laughter got nothing done, fun got nothing done. I started drinking and acting like an idiot. If human lives were short, I might as well do whatever.

I built things. Great projects and monuments. I built more houses for myself, and vineyards, and gardens and parks with all kinds of fruit trees. I built dams and water tanks so I could water my trees. I owned slaves, and sheep, and cows: I was the richest man who had ever lived in my country. I had silver and gold and music and sex - all the things that make a man happy. And I was still wise.

I knew that it was better to be wise than be an idiot. But then I realised that I was going to die, just like an idiot; and death wasn't going to care that I was wise. So I hated all the things I had built, and all the wealth I had, because it was all going to go to someone else when I died.You can work as hard as you like but it won't last. What do people get out of all their hard work? So I hated the whole world, and I decided it meant nothing.You can't do any better than eating, drinking, and enjoying your work. But no one can enjoy anything without God.

I looked at the world and saw that in the places where it was supposed to be fair and just, it was evil. And I decided that it was like a test. A test so that humans can see that they aren't going to live forever. And who knows what happens after we die? I saw that there was no point being envious of someone else. And there wasn't any point being greedy. Nothing we have will last after we die.

So I decided the best thing anyone could do was eat and drink and enjoy their work. It's a gift from God, and people who are happy don't worry about how long they are going to live. Some people are rich, some people are poor. Some people live for a long time, some people die young. But they all go to the same place. Sometimes good people die because they are good. Sometimes evil people live for a long time because they are evil. And really, no one in the world is always a good person. God created humans to be good people but none of us are.

I realised that wisdom is better than being an idiot, and better than power. But even a wise person dies and is forgotten. There is so much to learn that no one can learn it all. The only thing you can do is to listen to God and obey his instructions. Because everything you do gets judged eventually, even the things that you do in secret.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Calvintaries 02 - Romans Part One


(gosh it looks funny written out in allcaps)

Translator's Preface 

I think it is important for this project to at least skim-read these prefaces. I am reading a translation from the Latin: the translator's mindset has affected the text I read in some way. Even the most rigorously literal translation does that. The translator is Reverend John Owen, who I think wrote a rather useful commentary on Song of Solomon (though I might be thinking of another Rev Owen).

Owen first places Calvin within a tradition of commentaries on Roman stretching back to Origen and forward to Fry, Haldane, Chalmers - Owen's contemporaries. I believe he is doing this to show that Calvin need not do everything that could possibly be done with Romans, for other works exist as well; but also to implicitly put all Catholic use of Romans outside faithful tradition and thereby render that institution's view of Romans irrelevant.

Secondly, Owen addresses Calvin's style of commentary. Calvin does little verbal criticism but mainly tries to show the logic and sequence of thought. Owen spares a few paragraphs to rebuke those who insists on finding novel meanings for bits of scripture; I have noticed from prior reading of Calvin that he is quite definite about what passages mean and not given to embracing ambiguity.

Thirdly, Owen notes that the style of the epistles is Hebraic and steeped in Torah rather than largely classical. Certainly it is true that Paul was a Hebrew, a Pharisee son of Pharisees, but he was also a Roman citizen who likely had rhetorical training. It is not entirely out of line to see some classical touches to his epistles, so long as they are not first seen as classical letters.

Fourthly, Owen assumes a consensus on Romans being written about AD 57-58, to a church which was not founded by Peter and Paul together; Owen suggests that strangers from Rome were converted at Pentecost and started the church on their return. This is important for an understanding of Paul's original audience, and also refutes contemporary Roman tradition.

Fifthly, Owen lays out several potential structures for Romans. The analysis he presents at length is address-justification-God's dealings-Christian duties-conclusion. He presents the two main themes of Romans as merit and grace; as he puts it, "the righteousness of man and the righteousness of God". He also notes that just because there is argument about the meaning of Romans doesn't mean that there is not a single, clear, correct meaning. Owen attributes the false understandings of Romans - those that deny its assertion of salvation through grace alone - to the earthly man not being able to discern spiritual truth without the Spirit in him. I think this is an important point: not all interpretations are equal, and some of them are wrong because of a dearth of salvation rather than a dearth of logic or linguistic understanding. This point is particularly important here in Australia, where the culture is positive towards entertaining the possibility of all manner of spiritual things being true, but negative towards the certainty of just one Spirit. Pluralism is good as a mechanism for facilitating the formulation of beliefs - it is not, and functions badly, a means of encouraging everyone to be uncertain about anything society cannot agree upon.

Owen further notes that the doctrine of salvation by grace touches the very heart of human sin and pride. Even those who profess belief can try to earn their salvation through ceremonial acts, their moral acts being obviously insufficient - and this Owen ascribes also to Israel, who substituted the rituals of true religion for the religion itself and thus stripped themselves of faith and hope. The solution is Paul's: to show what all men are, and how all men may be saved through unmerited grace, and thus to show how worthless are all our moral works.

So you can see that there is useful stuff even in the translator's preface, and one gets a clear impression of Owen as a devout man wrestling with Papist doctrine. I apologise for my style here - I tend to absorb the writing style of those I read, so you have gotten an attenuated version of Rev Owen's style. He translated Calvin's commentary on Romans from the Latin in 1849. Praise God for his work.

I assume hope that my summaries of the prefaces will get shorter as the summer continues.

Epistle Dedicatory 

If the preface has benefited us, how much more the dedication by Calvin himself?

Calvin describes the expounder's goal as "lucid brevity", to lay open the writer's mind as succinctly as possible. He sees an understanding of Romans as a passage to understanding the whole of scripture. I can agree, but then all of scripture is a passage to understanding all of scripture. One could just as easily pull salvation by grace alone out of Lamentations: it is how things must work, and so it is how things do work, all through scripture.

He then summarises the commentaries of his contemporaries. Melancthon - useful on the main points, avoids tricky bits. Bullinger - learned but in a plain style. Bucer - gifted with many excellencies and hard-working. Calvin says that he will cover what others have covered, so that he has a complete exposition for the humble reader. He notes that even people of faith can disagree about points of interpretation, and all we can do is make sure that we don't disagree for stupid reasons (hatred, defamation, a desire for novelty) but only by necessity.

Calvin closes by asking Simon Grynaeus, to whom the book is dedicated, to judge the commentary. Calvin humbles himself not before every reader but before a friend and colleague.


What on earth is this bit? Well, as far as I can tell, it's the sixteenth century version of an introduction. Calvin lays out his general understanding of Romans and his view of its structure. He describes Romans as methodical and artful in its construction, dealing primarily with the relationship between man's action and his salvation (or rather the lack of such, as signalled in the dedication).

What follows is my summary of Calvin's summary of Paul. Don't take it as gospel - read the book yourself.
  1. Paul first deprives both Jew and Gentile of any defence or excuse they mighty have against God's judgement, then returns to the subject of justification by faith.
  2. As above, so below.
  3. He ends the third chapter by claiming the same salvation by faith for all people.
  4.  In chapter four this is defended by the example of Abraham and the words of David. He takes the opportunity to discuss how Abraham was righteous without circumcision, and how salvation does not come from the law.
  5. The fifth chapter is largely illustrations and comparisons to show that God's mercy is greater than our sin.
  6. Chapter six discusses sanctification, reasoning from baptism as participation in Christ that we are buried and resurrected with Christ. The death of the human with Christ is what allows new life in Christ - so no one can be saved without regeneration. He mentions the law as being "abrogated" (Calvin says, though I would say consummated or perhaps recapitulated).
  7. Law is useful because it condemns us plainly, but our own state means we cannot obey and so cannot be saved through the law. The Spirit and the flesh are in opposition to each other as long as we live in mortal bodies. 
  8. Consolation for the regenerate in the forms of: the absence of condemnation, the testimony of the Spirit, the certainty of eternal life and God's power over all evil.
  9. Israel isn't the people who are descended from Abraham, but those who trust in the promise he was given - hence references to where faithful son inherits rather than all sons inheriting.Essentially, God rejects some and elects other and it is just, but without any higher reason than the will of God. Calvin sees some sort of predestination even in the family narratives here, or at least in Paul's reading of them. 
  10. Paul essentially discusses whether the Jews are in any way different from Gentiles. The conclusion seems to be that, in salvation terms, they are not. Paul quotes Isaiah to show that God was always speaking to Israel, and they rarely heard him; and now he speaks to the Gentiles too, without ceasing to speak to the Jews. The whole point of this is to gather all Israel to him - not the nation, but the people of God. The faithful. 
  11. I struggled with this, because the eleventh chapter appears to vanish from Calvin's argument of Romans. In any case it follows the trajectory of chapter ten and closes with a very Hebraic doxology.
  12. General precepts on Christian life. It is interesting that this bit of Romans, which shapes the modern church so powerfully, is summarised in a single clause while other chapters get multiple paragraphs of argument. Perhaps it is because Calvin is more interested in expounding Paul's movement towards his conclusions than the conclusions themselves, which are quite plain once the logical flow is explained.
  13. Establishes that spiritual freedom does not require rebellion against what Calvin terms "magistrates". 
  14. Neither contempt nor unquestioned honour for the Mosaic law is helpful. The guiding or enclosing principles ought to be love and edification.
  15. Repetition and conclusion of the subject: the strong should help the weak. Paul tries to establish unity in the one salvation his audience shares, and gives them hope of a personal visit.
  16. Calvin mentions that the last chapter of Romans is salutations and a "remarkable prayer". My NIV only has fifteen chapters of Romans. It is possible that Calvin had different divisions, which would solve the Mystery of Chapter Eleven. I imagine the actual exposition will give some hint about this.
In summary, Calvin's argument of Romans is focused on Paul's discussion of the differences between Jew and Gentile, and between the weak and strong in faith. There is very little discussion of the fundamental Christian doctrines which Paul explains in the process of his argument; our translator, Owen, felt a need to talk about justification and sanctification but Calvin does not. This could be because he wants the argument to give an understanding of the letter, not what we take away from the letter; it could be because Calvin only proceeds to systematic or biblical theology after doing structural exegesis. Doubtless the exposition will clarify this issue - or not.

Next part of Romans goes up on Monday. The book will probably be at least three posts.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Calvintaries 01 - Intro

My resolution for the summer holidays was to read all of Calvin's commentaries. I picked up the series second-hand for a remarkably fortunate price this year, so I might as well actually use them rather than let them sit prettily on my shelf. Well, they're actually sitting messily on my floor.

I am planning to read them in the order Calvin wrote them. I am going by the dating of his dedications; if I get them a little out of order I won't be that worried. I will try to maintain a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule but I don't think that will last long.

First up is Romans, coming atcha live from the year 1539.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Analysis of the Ending of the Videogame called Mark of the Ninja

I finished the aforesaid game recently. It is a 2D stealth platformer puzzle...thing. Very enjoyable. I particularly liked the ending and I have been thinking about why I liked that ending sequence so much, when the third act is usually when I stop playing a game.

I think the answer is something to do with thematic integrity. Spoilers ahoy, by the way. And they are important spoilers which will damage your enjoyment of the game.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

No Ending For You

I have been thinking about videogame endings since I finished Mark of the Ninja. I usually don't finish games. For example, I've put around a hundred hours into Deus Ex (the first one) but never played it all the way through. I thought I'd quickly list some reasons why I stop playing games before the game tells me I'm done.

First of all is difficulty. Games often ramp up the difficulty near the end, usually to increase tension. Sometimes this works. But it works best when the game feels more difficult without actually becoming so. If the game gets substantially harder I move through it at a different speed; I have to reload saved games more often; I get so familiar with the level that my every move is known to me minutes in advance. I stop trying to defeat my enemies (who or what ever they are) and start trying to beat the game itself, which is no way to play.

Secondly, new mechanics stop being introduced. Well, that's not true - that happens earlier. When a game moves into its ending it not only stops giving you new tools/environments/opponents but it stops combining them in new ways. For the ending has come! And you must draw upon all your hard-earned skills!
Except that I'm an exploratory player and I've now run out of things to explore. If this gameplay is going to be the same as before, but harder and put together a little differently, then what benefit do I get from continuing? Now, I do get the end of the story. But I am not reading a book, I am playing a game. If the gameplay is not drawing me onwards, if the things I am doing to advance are not important to the progression of the story, then I am no longer playing a game - I am watching a badly made movie.

Thirdly, sometimes I just don't give a damn about the things I am supposed to. Let's use Deus Ex as an example. That game is full of vast, impersonal conspiracies tugging the strings of the world and of the player character (JC Denton). But that's too large and vague to hold in my head. I didn't give a damn about M-12 or the Illuminati or what UNATCO was really created to do. I cared about the people I had met - Gunther Hermann, Anna Navarre, my brother Paul. Once their story arcs were resolved I had no emotional connection to draw me further into the game when I stopped exploring the gameplay (as discussed above).

I can only think of three points right now, so this post will end now.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Sometimes there's not enough of all too much
To keep your mind off your spiritual poverty.
It's a good look for me.
Keep an eye on your mental property.
You're not Mr Clean
You're not miserable.
Something heavy in your gut like Advil
Or an anvil
In your landfill.

It's not enough to proposition the universe
Or for you to get possessive
In the second person plural, literal
I'm just standing here
Seeing clear
Slap me if I get mystical.

You see humanity through a lens
It's your own faulty intent
Can't swim on land
Without getting the bends.

As long as I'm speaking in this person singular
You'll be drawing back now.
Keep talking all you like
I've got no space for all you.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Dubai International Airport

The first sign of being in a foreign airport is the helpful signage.
The blast of Western ads brands cares is solid, so solid it wears at the base.
It's all familiar, no alienation, how are you meant to feel at home?
No shopping centre or terminal back home gives you any help:
this is your manor, your patch, of course you know your way around.
A native will never get lost, so signage is not for the natives.
Nor for the lost.
If you are well lost no sign, not even lightning and fire, will help you.
Signage nullifies the possibility of getting lost and so, with no adventures
(mis or otherwise)
you never burrow into the landscape like a native.

This is all perfect for airports.

There is sure a limit to how much you can learn about a city from its airport
But, as the layovers hits that middle sweet spot not long enough to go
see something but just too long to be passed by several pots of tea
and conversation,
I shall similarly hit the sweet limit of my knowledge.

The staff all were in a hurry, the world about to fly apart if they
are not doing the best automaton impression they could be
No passengers hurry.
Some of them move like maniacs, sure
But that's just the downshift.
Stand on a travelator and walk off the end, feel the earth sap your momentum:
the downshift.
Going from screaming three hundred kays or more through the air –
sitting still –
to moving nowhere, fixed in transition, despite all the locomotion in the world.

I'm locomoting, putting each foot down with precision
As if the wrong distribution of weight may start a riot, make me the cautionary story.
Not tired but plenty wired, on lack of sleep and lack of coffee, which I self-denied to – note! get some sleep on the plane.
No one sleeps on a flying death tube, unless they are foolish or pilots or not me.
Wired, pock-eyed, pockmarked with pores and pimples stretched with hundreds of oil molecules cratering into my face, digging for whatever,
I roam the terminal like a caged tiger (if my moustache were more impressive)
See the people sprawled on chairs and floors, casualties of eighteen or sixteen hour flights from some place they didn't want to be to another place they didn't want to be
Trying to suck in the emotional oxygen to get through another flight, veterans now, one trip and they're veterans of this war on geography.
The defibs have signs saying they don't work, don't bother, do you want to wake up back in an airport?

Did catch some of Dubai during the descent.
Thirty-three Celcius at four o'dark! I'm convinced it's the streetlights.
An ocean of orange, careful to illumine all of the no cars.
Four a.m., okay, but Dubai – known for its hotels and everyone going to bed at nine with a glass of milk?
Pacing cross-legged sitting down, staring at a grey cityline in a grey morning.
Is Dubai even real? Are the houses you see from the flight path fictional, a city invented by rich bastards to golf or fuck or, unlikely, make love without marriage intruding?

Of course Dubai's real, of course it is. Dubai Dubai Dubai we've all been there man.
The ceiling is the same colour as a cloudy – or smoggy, I'm from Brisbane what do I know from smog – sky outside. In Dubai. 
I can't take it any more.
This terminal is making me free, master of my own destiny, I can't stand it.
I can see the fences and razor wire but I need them closer.
Need some boundaries to ricochet around to keep me moving.
I'm like a shark – only one piece of me worth selling.

Thank god for the bars along the terminal walls or we would never get out.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Democritus (?)

He would have loved to be remembered on canvas
To stamp his imprint on a nation
we believe.
No one laughs like a philosopher.
Perversity is the root of humour
so they laugh and laugh
at death, taxes
long words and short phrases
long socks and short skirts
long lives and short loves.

My standup routine goes:
Democritus walks into a bar
and the barman says )?(
and Democritus says
_ | _

Friday, August 10, 2012


A room full of saints, in the Spanish style,
Violent drama
From quiet to whisper loud.

They never meet your eyes.
Caught on canvas doing things.
Things they never did
All marked in heart's-blood
Sympathetic magic
From their heart to mine
A long line of carmine
Passing the eye, the mind, the word
Clawing at the under-soul
The heaving breathy bellows
With ten thousand flensing knives.

An image, a snapshot
In salvation history
Tarted up with royal Photoshop
Here a tear, there an attribute
Every artifact tilted
Every illumination falsified.

Ah, my love, let us be true to one another,
Said the forger to his brush.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

To A Metre

Gallery-noise is a seasonal beast
Now sharp, now young; now soft-treading away.
Touching the eye with the touch of the fray
Gallery-love is immovable feast.
A certain mad haste is checked by the door
None becalmed, the still mind snared fast
Today's daily colours now torn from the mast
To heal, one lances the festering sore.

The orphaned eye, once fed, hungers for more,
Surfeit and surcease draw further apart,
The mind dwells, weaves spells, runs after fancy,
So go write upon the danger of art!

Monday, August 6, 2012


A man is playing Spanish guitar
In the lounge of the gallery.
An old man is sketching, with power,
With hands years younger
His eye dances back
From his object to image
He rubs his nose, irritated
That he is still made of flesh.

A couple: older, monkish
Watch the historical display scroll by
From beauty.

Voices echo from the foyer
A flock of school children, leaving
Having passed through once
Pausing at each point
And leaving
Some corner of their eye
Trailing behind.

The guitarist pauses
Begins with a fresh guitar
To make it new again.

On the floor above, the paintings hang.
One hundred melodies
From one instrument
Carved by one hundred songs.
On the floor above, the paintings wait
For a stray heart, a careless eye
Ready to be devoured
By the heart and eye
Of Spain.


Will be posting some poetry written while at the Prado exhibition currently at the Queensland Art Gallery.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Terrorism and Playing the Game

What is terrorism?

In the dictionary sense, perhaps "the use of violence and threats to intimidate and coerce, usually for political purposes." Another definition might be the use of violence to create an atmosphere of fear to further political goals. The argument over a precise definition continues. But in this post I don't want to talk about what kind of act can be labelled terrorism, but about what other labels can given to acts which have been labelled terrorism.

Please now imagine a historical act which you believe to be an act of terrorism.

What you saw in your mind was probably the consequences of terrorism, the scene after the act was complete, painted with emotional reactions as well as visual: pain, loss, anguish, fear, anger. Perhaps there was dust, or smoke, or fire, or only a human being now dead when previously they were alive. What is important is the emotional response.

It is quite possible you were imagining the September Eleven attacks upon the United States, which I will be using as my chief example. What I wish to argue from this example is that one of the main reasons why you find terrorism objectionable is not the death or destruction but the fact that the terrorist does not play by the rules. I mean by this the rules of safety: if you join the armed forces you may die in warfare, but ordinary citizens do not die in war. The fact that this has been true of only a handful of conflicts very recently in history in very specific circumstances does not diminish the fact that it is the rule in which people believe. And it is a very pleasant belief.

One reason for the strong emotional response which terrorists elicit is that they do not play by the rules. Acts of terrorism show that the accepted rules are not rules at all. They are temporary conventions which are sometimes accepted and sometimes rejected. Ordinary citizens often die in war. And what is more, they often die in wars which have not been declared by their own side, or even by the other side - there may not even be a readily identifiable 'other side' at all. The conflict which causes death may be entirely incomprehensible, even to a careful observer.

This is not because terrorists are playing a different game to armies. In fact, they are playing the same game. They are pursuing political goals through violence. What they are doing is examining the state of the game and doing what seems most effective to them. They simply reject the fleeting convention which you embrace. You are the scrub: the player - or component of a player - whose ability to play the game is limited before you ever consider what your opening move should be.

Terrorists, in other words, acknowledge no automatic or inherent restraints on what constitutes legitimate violence. Terrorism makes you tremble - in fear, anger, grief, confusion - because it reminds you that even the moral restraints which seem obvious and mandatory to you are in fact personal to you. The natural tendency of humanity is not towards good but towards evil. Nowhere is this more clearly shown to you than in the willingness of people - of brothers and sisters and parents and lovers and poets and students - to kill other people they have never met and cannot possibly hate in any individual or comprehensible sense. All of this in pursuit of an atmosphere of trauma and fear in order that certain political goals might, possibly, maybe, be furthered.

All this is not monstrous. It is as human as any act of love. And the reminder of this, the upsetting of the rules for not only warfare but your understanding of humanity, is what disquiets you so about terrorism.

Injustice and Suffering

H L Mencken, whom I respect in the same way that a woodcutter respects the tallest eucalypt in the land, once said that "injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice." And this is very true. I don't mean in the physical sense. A year in jail is not any shorter if you are innocent or longer if you are guilty. A slap does not hurt more if you really made that offensive joke, or less if some other person made the joke but slipped off before the target turned around.

What I am talking about is the ability to endure the suffering: to fix your attention on something beyond it. This is straightforward (though certainly not easy) in the case of injustice. The person suffering injustice, if they know that it is unjust, can see that it should not affect their view of themselves. The authority which dispenses unjust suffering has proven itself no authority at all and its opinion of you can be safely ignored. Almost all suffering is considered by Australian society to be unjust and therefore uninformative - it shows you nothing about the world or yourself.

If you take this point of view then you learn very little from looking at the world. Consider what is humorously called the justice system. Even the energy of a great many dedicated people can do no more than make this system less unjust than the usual chaos of the world. Any decision of a court will contain injustice because it will not be perfectly just. In the case of murder, what would be perfectly just would be to restore the dead to life, perhaps by using some portion of the killer's life force. This is quite impossible.

Instead the usual decision is for the killer to be deprived not of some of their time alive, or some of their capacity to enjoy life, but of their ability to dwell with society while living. How curious. If you want someone to realise that killing is wrong, depriving them of liberty and joy is an odd way to go about it. Many people have preferred death to captivity, and a murderer sent to prison might easily decide that they did their victim a favour in booting them off such a constrained and twisted mortal coil. I am not saying that I know a better decision for the court to make, or that there is one (though I hope there is). I am saying that the manifest injustice of the world should cause a thirst for true justice. But because this injustice is seen as uninformative it is not really processed by society or by the individual.

And because it is not processed by the individual, it is more difficult to endure. It is more difficult to fix your eyes on something beyond the present suffering when there is no reason for the suffering to ever end, because there was no reason for it to begin. Unjust suffering is a trumpet played (badly) at random in the night: you do not know why it began, and you do not know when it will end, so you do not know whether you should simply plug your ears for a few moments or find and admonish the trumpeter.

A Christian, if they are aware of their own sin, has no such trouble. A Christian knows that they are a sinner and that they deserve suffering - an eternity of suffering. I am not saying that there is a causal connection between an individual's sin in this world and their suffering. It is transparently obvious that that is not a general principle. But a Christian knows that sin in general is what caused and continues to cause suffering in general, and that the one cannot be abolished unless the other is as well.

And since a Christian knows that through faith in Jesus, the perfect sacrifice, their sin has been taken away, they can fix their eyes on the day when Jesus will return and abolish further sin and further suffering. Being a Christian does not shield you from suffering. But it gives you the knowledge that suffering in this world is justice, nor injustice; and being justice, it is purposeful; and being purposeful, it will end when its usefulness is at an end. When Jesus returns the usefulness of suffering will come to an end. I can fix my eyes on that while I suffer.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Virtue and Vice

When I did Intro to Philosophy at university, the moral system which appealed to me the most was virtue ethics: the idea that you should make decisions that exemplify the various virtues. Recently I was thinking about virtue theory again, and about how it seems much less wholesome only eighteen months later.

The virtues as patterns of behaviour - love, loyalty, courage, and so on - are not in themselves good. Virtues must be directed towards good objects to be good. Love of something which does not deserve or return love may be in some ways good, but it will not produce good. Loyalty to an untrustworthy or wicked cause can be the source of great evil. In fact, these classical virtues are integral to the functioning of systems of evil. No systematic evil larger than the basic conspiracy can perpetrate evil without virtues being involved. Criminal organisations are built upon fear, but also loyalty and trust. War, just or unjust, requires vast depths of courage, loyalty and love on the part of the aggressor as well as the defender.

Cultivating virtues does not create a good individual. It is the prevailing attitude - at least in Australia - that a person who does good things is a good person. You would never think of saying "That Felicity, she's brave and loving and courageous - and evil!" Not seriously, at any rate. But the truth is that virtuous people can do terrible things because of their virtues rather than despite them. People may be intelligent and loving and courageous, and quite wrong. Evil is not the absence of virtue but the absence of a worthy object.

I take comfort in the unquestionable worth of the object of my virtues, Jesus Christ. I am loving and faithful and courageous in service to him - in fact, I model my practice of those virtues upon his. Humanity was created to be virtuous, and to exercise those virtues in the magnification of God's glory. Fulfilling that purpose is the ultimate, and only, good.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Candle Is Not A Conflagration

Should Christians oppose the legalisation of same sex marriage?

The answer to this question is inextricably linked to another, equally complicated question: what should be the relationship between church and public life? My own answer is that the church should actively inject Christian values into public life, but should not project Christian expectations. Values such as compassion, mercy, justice, truth and integrity can do nothing to harm society; they are invariably positive for society, and for the gospel. Injecting these values into society through involvement in public life - specifically in the political process - is one means by which the church can be a light to the world. These are our values, both because they are good and because Jesus commanded them, and we should not hide them. We should inject them into all that we can: not hiding the lamp that is Jesus' church, but putting it on a lamp-stand. 

Truth is one of our values, and we must always preach the truth about the gospel and God's commands. It is clear from Paul's writings that homosexual lust and-or romance is inappropriate for a Christian. We must not hide or soften that. 

But we must be wary of projecting Christian expectations alongside our values. By this I mean the expectations we have of fellow Christians. Homosexual romance is outside God's plan for humanity, and so it is a form of disobedience, of the rebellion which is endemic in all humans. The church should expect Christians to turn away from their sins. But we should not expect or require society to do the same before they have put their faith in Jesus. It is important to consider what spiritual effect actually results from opposing same sex marriage in the political process.

It is more godly to abstain from homosexual romance. But the question of godliness means nothing for a life if it does not follow on from faith in Jesus. It is particularly hollow when godly behaviour, or avoidance of ungodly behaviour, is required by law rather than caused by deliberate choice. Without Jesus, an individual has neither the motivation nor the ability to live for God rather than in rebellion against God. Requiring that they act as if they were living for God will have no effect on their inward attitude, and likely negligible effect on their behaviour. The church should be a light to the world, but it should not set the world on fire to provide better illumination.

I should also raise the point that if the church wishes to legislate against ungodly behaviour, opposing same sex marriage is only the beginning of its pushing for legislation. The majority of heterosexual romance will also have to be banned, as well as most divorces and almost every aspect of the Australian economy. Perhaps this does not seem unappealing. But I find it relevant that Paul instructs the Corinthian church to resist the social norms of ungodly behaviour and speak against them, but not to stamp out those norms. Sin is a part of living in this world. Earthly laws are for maintaining order, not for building up each individual's faith and love for God. And I would argue that projecting Christian expectations into legislation is in fact a subtle form of rebellion against appointed rulers and authorities: rather than trying to build the kingdom of God within petty mortal kingdoms and democracies, the church sometimes tries to create the kingdom of God top-down through mortal legislation. This will never work.

The principal task of the church is to spread the gospel. A significant part of this is, in gentleness and love, making people aware of sin; of their rebellion against God. Ideally they then put their faith in Jesus and live for him, which necessarily involves some changes in their lives. But when the church tries to skip to the end, to push non-Christians towards Christian living (in this case by opposing same sex marriage) it is confusing at best and appears bigoted at worst. 

I do not think the church is bigoted. Most Christians who oppose same sex marriage do so because homosexual romance is a form of rebellion against God. But it is impossible for people who do not trust in Jesus to understand that motive, or to differentiate it from hatred and prejudice. This is particularly the case for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) couples and individuals, who continue to experience significant discrimination in Australia. Non-Christian LGBT individuals do not understand where the church is coming from and so they quite reasonably associate the church with the general stream of hatred. So the church, as it tries to project Christian expectations into society, ends up associated with hate rather than love. 

This is a real issue for spreading the gospel. It presents the worst possible view of Jesus' church to not only the LGBT community, but to all of society - particularly youth. Young Australians react badly to what they see as blatantly unfair laws. No defence can be made for the church's position without first delivering the gospel, which can never be done effectively in a political context. I believe the church should not oppose same sex marriage. It should continue to make it clear that it does not believe homosexual romance is appropriate. But it must do this in the context of the gospel, not in the context of divisive politics. This will make the difference between the church and society clear, and allow a non-Christian hearing the gospel to subsequently consider same sex marriage in light of the gospel. 

The church can and should help care for society through involvement in public life. But it cannot reduce or prevent sin through such involvement; dealing with sin is God's domain. And the church must do nothing to inhibit the proclamation of Jesus' glorious work on the cross to wipe away human sin.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Hunger Games Freaked Me Out

After its summer hibernation, the common or garden coffee-snouted blogging bear emerges into the light, snuffling the air like an X's Got Talent judge scenting a comeback tour.

It's not the softening of the

I hadn't seen a movie for some time, so the degree of audience involvement in the wrong way totally

I feel that the film-makers made some choices which rendered the intended message


What is the sound of a moral flying over the head of a cinema full of teenagers?
All the girls going "awww" when the two main characters kiss because they need to have an engaging romantic arc in order for their audience to send them medicine so they don't die of infection. Or, perhaps, half of the cinema applauding when one of the 'bad people' - a teenaged girl - is killed by a teenaged boy to avenge the murder of another girl.

The audience certainly engaged with the story. But they engaged with it as separate from them, created for their entertainment, to satisfy their expectations. They never considered that the rich and corrupt Capitol audience in the movie might be them. It was quite disconcerting, watching the audience respond only to the predictable (and predicted) beats of a movie about how an audience's expectations can create predetermined and constricting roles for those required to entertain them.

I could also feel the other message, about the banal destruction of violence, straining to emerge from the movie - held back by the rating. The shaky hand-camera work during the fight scenes - particularly the multiple-death opening of the contest - disguises the pain and fear that should permeate the cinema. Death occurs at a careful distance from the viewer. I think it is more than a little ridiculous to make a movie about teenagers killing each other and then do your best to avoid showing teenagers killing each other. It also makes no sense within the movie's world; it is obvious that the contest area is covered in fixed cameras, so the footage should not be shaky or blurred.

I haven't read the books. Considered only as a movie, Hunger Games is not even a swing and a miss. It fouls the ball off. Wait, that's a baseball analogy that no one outside the US and Japan will get. Let me think. It's the cinematic equivalent of rolling the last ball along the ground so the other team can't possibly hit the improbable six they need to win: it avoids defeat, but also avoids success. This movie ate the poisonous berries.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Devotion #004: Justified Before God

Luke 18: 9-14

What does God want from us?

We can never live up to the standards he requires of us. The only way for us to escape our just punishment is to accept God's mercy through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But having done that, what should we do? We have acknowledged God's authority over us. We want to obey him. But our sinful hearts make it impossible for us to obey and please God the way Jesus did. How are we supposed to deal with God after being saved when we know that we can't ever be what he wants us to be?

Context is important for this. We are not removed from God. He is not a legislator who sits far away and hands down stone tablets chiselled with arcane regulations. We are in a loving relationship with God. For Israel, the Mosaic law was a way to demonstrate and reinforce their commitment to that relationship. It was also a way to make Israel aware of their own perfidy and sinfulness, to make them realise that they had "the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out".

We wrong God. When we sin against him we wrong him, and that has consequences for our relationship. There is always more forgiveness - God's grace and love are infinite. But we can only come back into right relationship with God when we acknowledge that we are not there at the moment. If your best friend stays overnight and drinks all your milk, you will forgive them - but things will become much more fraught if they refuse to acknowledge that anything improper has occurred.

Consider the story Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax collector: a man who held to every iota of the Mosaic law compared to one of the lowest classes of sinners in first-century Judea. But it is the sinner who goes home justified because he acknowledges he needs to be. The Pharisee thinks that his actions make him righteous, and he fails to see that like all human beings - save one - he has wronged God.

We can maintain a loving and close relationship with God despite the knowledge of our inability to properly obey him. But we have to remain active within that relationship. God is always reaching out to us, but we still have to reach back.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Best of the Best: Digital Mumbles

Digital Mumbles got me excited about music. Until recently music was only background noise to my attempts to build a cultural identity for myself, or white noise used to blot out distractions when I was writing an assignment. Sometimes I used it as a means of expression - playing sad music when I was sad, all the classic music tropes - but I didn't get anything out of the music. The flow of emotion and intellect was outwards rather than inwards, and quite shallow.

Mumbles has a fierce love of music, but what inspired me was her taste for music: refined but not pompous, earnest but considered, willing to make value distinctions without losing enthusiasm for the subject. Reading her blog ensured that I was listening to inspiring music - not always to my taste, but always presented with context and guidance that illuminated what made me like or dislike a track.

Good places to start are her recent hour-long radio special or her Alignment Week, in which she matched tracks with the Dungeons and Dragons alignments.

Devotion #003: Parable of the Wicked Tenants

Jesus' parables are stories which use earthly concepts as analogies for the kingdom of heaven. These concepts are mostly agricultural; not only would they have been familiar to his first-century audience, but they make sense all over the world. Every culture has to grow food.

The context of this parable is important. Jesus' authority has just been questioned by the Jewish religious leaders, and he has refused to answer on account of their hypocrisy. Immediately after the parable, Luke tells us that the religious leaders wanted to "lay hands" on Jesus because they perceived that he had told the parable against them. This seems to be an example of their pride but also their knowledge of their own sin: the parable has a broad application, but the religious leaders assume that it is directed only towards them. This parable therefore sits in a section of Luke that illustrates Jesus' opposition to the contemporary religious establishment, and it explains why his message is so different to the teachings of the religious leaders.

The story Jesus tells is fairly straightforward: wicked tenants escalate their evil as the landlord escalates his attempts to restore the proper relationship. After the tenants kill his son the landlord will come and destroy them and give the vineyard to others. Jesus grounds this ending by quoting from Psalm 118:22, linking the parable to prophecies about the messiah and implicitly declaring himself the Messiah. His audience is presented with two options: they fulfil the terms of their lease and obey God, or be ejected from the vineyard and destroyed. Salvation is not a matter of following rules and regulations, but a binary choice: accept his authority or reject his son.

The religious leaders do not recognise Jesus' authority even though it is evident in every word he says and even the manner in which he performs miracles. This is their failing. Obedience and the struggle to be a good person is nothing if you do not submit to the Lord's authority - which is coterminous with his son's. Unlike the scene in Luke where Jesus tells this parable, we are living after the crucifixion and resurrection, so Jesus' authority has even greater significance: we are not cleansed of our sins unless Jesus was perfect, and we are not free from death unless Jesus conquered it. Obedience and salvation on one hand, rebellion and death on the other: easy choice.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sense Of It #001

Touch - Dark Matter by Andrew Bird: The agonising brush of a soft hand moving over a second-degree burn, fading out into a kind of pleasure never felt except immediately after pain.

Taste - Atom Bomb by Fluke: Salt and lemon and the slightly bitter taste of metal.

Scent - Swim Until You Can't See Land by Frightened Rabbit: Sea salt and petrol are dismissed by the nose as commonplace and unimportant, focusing the mind upon hints of lavender and rosemary. Melting plastic is barely detectable.

Sight - I Can Walk In Your Mind by The Servant: That one girl from the last weeks of your last year of university is standing in front of you, staring deep into you and looking perplexed. She unfolds backwards into a slide show dissecting your personality faults - but the windows burst inwards and the glass turns to snow.

Non-Daily Devotion #002: Lamentations 5:17-22

Lamentations certainly lives up to its name, huh? Today's text is the last few lines of the fifth poem in Lamentations where the author sums up Israel's suffering and appeals to the Lord.

There is a powerful contrast between the kingdom of Israel ("for Mount Zion lies desolate") and the kingdom of the Lord: "your throne endures to all generations". Much of the Old Testament is contrast between God's eternal faithfulness and the changeable loyalty of Israel, but in Lamentations we instead find a contrast in power, with Israel's faith strongly asserted while the author appeals to the Lord's covenant with Israel. The author is being very honest with the Lord: we are weak, you are strong, we're supposed to be your chosen nation! Where are you?

Christians often feel the same way. We feel abandoned and alone in a sinful world, in our own sinful nature, wondering when the Lord will get around to saving us.
He already has.
We know that the Lord has not "utterly rejected us". He may be "exceedingly angry with us" but his perfect wrath is tempered with perfect love and grace. We have what Israel did not have: the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. The Lord's everlasting faithfulness has been demonstrated for us in that he sent his own son to us, who died for humanity's salvation even as he was put to death because of humanity's evil.

The author of Lamentations knew that Israel would be saved, but not when. Our salvation has already arrived, and if we have accepted Christ's sacrifice for us, then we are already saved. We don't fell saved; we don't feel enthroned in the kingdom of God; mostly we're just wandering through life doing the best we can, trying to obey God. But that struggle is a response to salvation rather than an attempt to stay alive. None of us know when we will fall asleep, or when Jesus will return, so we share an ambiguous timeline with the author of Lamentations - but it is for the end of struggle rather than the fulfilment of salvation. We are not awaiting the kingdom of God because we are already there. We are waiting for when obedience will no longer be a struggle.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Response to Stimulus: Phillip and the Ethiopian

That is, Acts 8:26-40, which contains a road trip and the miracle of quantum tunneling.
  • God has a plan for his followers. Phillip is directed to the chariot of an official reading the prophet Isaiah, which contains prophecies about Jesus. The official has a context for the good news which Phillip delivers.
  • God's plan is not always explicable (it is often ineffable). Phillip "found himself at Azotus" rather than asked God to go there; his subsequent preaching in the towns between Azotus and Caesarea was not his idea but God's.
  • Phillip's sudden displacement was not only for the purpose of getting him to Azotus, but seems to have also been for the benefit of the newly baptised Ethiopian.
  • The Old Testament is not separate from or alien to Christianity, but is vital to how we understand Christ and his relationship to us and to the Father.