Friday, 4 August 2017

Review: Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (2005)

Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (Paulines Publishing House: Manila, 2005)

Like most papal documents, Paul VI's exhortation on evangelization is deceptively easy to read.  It is supremely quotable and textually dense.

Pope Paul VI
Image from here

The text spans the need for evangelization in the world of 1975, when it was first released.  It remains a necessary text today for many of the blocks of opinion which the church encounters in- and outside itself.  Chapter 3 demonstrates the point well.  This chapter seems to be a rebuff to Liberation Theology as an error, or at any rate as a sufficient form of church practice.  The Church's role in ending suffering and systemic injustice is accepted (¶30) -
It is well known in what terms numerous bishops from all the continents spoke of this [liberation] at the last Synod, especially the bishops from the Third World, with a pastoral accent resonant with the voice of the millions of sons and daughters of the Church who make up those peoples. Peoples, as we know, engaged with all their energy in the effort and struggle to overcome everything which condemns them to remain on the margin of life: famine, chronic disease, illiteracy, poverty, injustices in international relations and especially in commercial exchanges, situations of economic and cultural neo-colonialism sometimes as cruel as the old political colonialism. The Church ... has the duty to proclaim the liberation of millions of human beings, many of whom are her own children- the duty of assisting the birth of this liberation, of giving witness to it, of ensuring that it is complete. This is not foreign to evangelization.

However, readers are cautioned, this is not the end of the work: "in order that God's kingdom should come it is not enough to establish liberation and to create well-being and development" (¶35).

Two parts of this discussion are equally resonant today.  Commentators who view the church as tolerable only to the extent that it perform's socially useful services are cautioned that this limit is not acceptable (¶32):
[M]any, even generous Christians who are sensitive to the dramatic questions involved in the problem of liberation, in their wish to commit the Church to the liberation effort are frequently tempted to reduce her mission to the dimensions of a simply temporal project. They would reduce her aims to a man-centered goal; the salvation of which she is the messenger would be reduced to material well-being. Her activity, forgetful of all spiritual and religious preoccupation, would become initiatives of the political or social order. But if this were so, the Church would lose her fundamental meaning. Her message of liberation would no longer have any originality and would easily be open to monopolization and manipulation by ideological systems and political parties. She would have no more authority to proclaim freedom as in the name of God.

There is an equally stern rebuke to the modern writers who talk gleefully about 'Elijah house-clearing with a shotgun': "The Church cannot accept violence, especially the force of arms - which is uncontrollable once it is let loose - and indiscriminate death as the path to liberation, because she knows that violence always provokes violence and irresistibly engenders new forms of oppression and enslavement which are often harder to bear than those from which they claimed to bring freedom" (¶37).

The discussion of responses to non-Christian religions bears re-reading when Evangelical belief has shrunk to a crude rejection of encounters with other faiths as 'fellowship with Baal'.

Without conceding to a vague 'kumbaya', the significance of other faiths is firmly announced (¶53):
The Church respects and esteems ... non Christian religions because they are the living expression of the soul of vast groups of people. They carry within them the echo of thousands of years of searching for God, a quest which is incomplete but often made with great sincerity and righteousness of heart. They possess an impressive patrimony of deeply religious texts. They have taught generations of people how to pray. [However,] ... neither respect and esteem for these religions nor the complexity of the questions raised is an invitation to the Church to withhold from these non-Christians the proclamation of Jesus Christ. On the contrary the Church holds that these multitudes have the right to know the riches of the mystery of Christ - riches in which we believe that the whole of humanity can find, in unsuspected fullness, everything that it is gropingly searching for concerning God, man and his destiny, life and death, and truth. Even in the face of natural religious expressions most worthy of esteem, the Church finds support in the fact that the religion of Jesus, which she proclaims through evangelization, objectively places man in relation with the plan of God, with His living presence and with His action; she thus causes an encounter with the mystery of divine paternity that bends over towards humanity. In other words, our religion effectively establishes with God an authentic and living relationship which the other religions do not succeed in doing, even though they have, as it were, their arms stretched out towards heaven.
Chapter 6 covers the role to be played by members of the church in advancing evangelization, from the episcopate to the laity.  The merit in the monastic life is firmly restated: Monks and nuns "embody the Church in her desire to give herself completely to the radical demands of the beatitudes. By their lives they are a sign of total availability to God, the Church and the brethren" (¶69).  This bears repeating in the light of a hostility that seems to have begun in the Reformation and never quite ended:

Chapter 7 follows up with a reminder to the various Christian denominations that internal squabbles are deeply unhealthy for evangelization.  Polemicists from Catholic, Protestant, Mormon and Orthodox traditions will probably all feel a little stung by the criticism in ¶77:
The power of evangelization will find itself considerably diminished if those who proclaim the Gospel are divided among themselves in all sorts of ways. Is this not perhaps one of the great sicknesses of evangelization today? Indeed, if the Gospel that we proclaim is seen to be rent by doctrinal disputes, ideological polarizations or mutual condemnations among Christians, at the mercy of the latter's differing views on Christ and the Church and even because of their different concepts of society and human institutions, how can those to whom we address our preaching fail to be disturbed, disoriented, even scandalized?

Most of the points His Holiness made in 1975 were strong than.  Many have become even stronger in the intervening 40 years.  Evangelii Nuntiandi should be read by anyone of a religious persuasion who wants to share their faith with the world.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Review: Sarah Palin, Going Rogue (2009)

Sarah Palin, Going Rogue: An American Life (HarperCollins: New York, 2009)

I wasn't sure whether I was going to like Sarah Palin's autobiography or not.  Having finished it, I'm still not sure.

Image from here
Palin came to (inter)national prominence with her nomination as John McCain's running mate in the 2008 presidential election.  Since then she's bobbed about on the political scene as a speaker and talking head, but not as a candidate.  Her 2008-and-after career, however, is a little misleading. It distracts from her time as a competent and effective governor of Alaska.  This is fundamentally the puzzle with this book.  Slightly over half covers her early life, the start of her political career, and governorship of Alaska. This part is genuinely interesting.  The discussion of the process of reforming the oil industry is a gift for a policy wonk, taking in issues of revenue, royalties, land use and resource planning.

It's less easy to like the discussion of her time as a Vice Presidential nominee.  This section of the book feels remarkably disjointed, as if each episode were remembered and written down separately and then copied and pasted into more-or-less chronological order.  It may be that Ms Palin did write this section that way: the book came out in 2009 - the year after the election - and the memories may still have been a bit raw.  It's also possible that it reflects the McCain campaign itself.  The presidential and vice presidential wings of the campaign seem to have barely communicated with each other, resulting in the latter learning about (say) the decision to abandon Michigan from the morning news.  More seriously, the professional campaign staff seem to have decided to retain a tightly controlled message which meant they could not effectively utilise Palin's skills as a grassroots campaigner.  One must, of course remember that this is Palin's side of the story and (like every political writer since Thucydides) there will always be a temptation to set the record crooked on key points.  That said, the impression from the book matches my recollection from the time. That is, the McCain-Palin campain was poorly organised and wasted the opportunities it had to finesse a win from an already difficult hand.

Image from here
The style is folksy throughout and I'm not sure how much was ghostwritten.  This becomes a little tiresome after a time (the phrase "commonsense conservative" is used ad nauseam).  It also rather does Palin a disservice: one has the impression of a competent backwoods politician out of her depth at a national level - a kind of Alaskan Joh Bjelke-Petersen, with none of Bjelke-Petersen's ruthlessness or strength of personality.

This book is useful as a record of a time.   Not everything in it is sound, but it will repay reading by students of the art of campaigning.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Shot during sex

The further I drift from my life as a university graduate and lawyer into a life of hi-vis and manual work, the more I find myself seeing the world through the lens of rounded edges and sharp edges.  That is, it's remarkably easy to be relaxed about parole laws if you live in (say) low-crime Toorak.  It's much harder if you live in Noble Park (which is basically a war zone with a postcode).    It's easy to encourage drug decriminalization if you live a safe middle class life and you're not likely to encounter a nutter in an ice-fuelled rage.

In both cases, one group of people live in a life of rounded edges, where few actions have truly serious consequences.  Even truly anti-social acts are more a cause for therapy than punishment.  The other group lives in a life of sharp edges.  That is, where misfortune fuelled by crime or economics occurs essentially arbitrarily.  Where cruelty is esentially casual.  And where bad decisions tend to have long-lasting potential impacts.  In general, the people I have met in the State Emergency Service and other emergency service organizations tend to live in a world of sharp edges.  Pain and loss, in our world, is as easily caused as a moment of distracted driving and as arbitrary as a summer storm.

This is on my mind this evening particularly following the account of a police shooting last night in Melbourne.  According to The Age (which is basically the journal of record for the world of rounded corners) -
Superintendent Hardeman ... said police received "a number of phone calls in relation to the male with the firearm, including from the venue ... People observed the firearm down the front of his pants."
The police "shot the man after he aimed a gun at police"  The man and a female partner -
... were attending the erotic Saints & Sinners Ball, which is described as "Australia's raunchiest party" for "broadminded adults".   It is believed the couple were engaged in a sexual act in front of other party-goers when about 40 police from the heavily-armed Critical Incident Response Team stormed into the club.
The venue operator's comments are revealing -

I'm struck by the casual statement that the man was "in a compromising position with his female partner, which is a normal activity with the nature of this event".  To a police officer (indeed, to anyone in the world of hard edges) a man apparently with a weapon in a 'compromising position' sounds remarkably like a man committing a serious crime.  And while the people may well have been "enjoying each other’s company", one cannot descibe it as 'innocent' in anything but a legal sense.

Image from here
On the information to hand, I'm struck by the different world views on display.  On one hand, people who appear to have believed they could behave as they wished, in any circumstances, without consequence.  On the other, people who must deal with the hard edges of the world, and where everything has consequences for themselves and for others.  Kipling's bitter observation on the divide is as true as it was a century ago -
Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap;
An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.
    Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?"
    But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll,
    The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
    O it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll.
I don't know if the world is becoming more anarchic and less self-restrained.  I certainly don't think peoples' desire for order and safety is any less.  But I think it will be ever more the job of people in the world of sharp edges to provide that security.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Review: Berlitz, The Lost Ship of Noah (1987)

Charles Berlitz, The Lost Ship of Noah (W.H. Allen & Co: London, 1987)

Berlitz's exploration of the Great Flood and the search for Noah's Ark is much better than it should have been.  It's a compact 187 pages but still gives the impression of covering significant ground at a slow amble.

The Lost Ship of Noah by Charles Frambach Berlitz

The book is best described as an examination of different aspects of the tale of the Flood.  Each chapter more-or-less stands alone.  One covers Flood myths from around the world (and the different personages 'Noah' has taken).  Another covers the difficulties of climbing Mount Ararat, and still another the verbal accounts of sightings of the Ark in the mountains of Armenia.  This has a few drawbacks.  The book seems fairly undisciplined and no real line of argument emerges.  Sometimes information seems to be included simply because the author was aware of it rather than because it was relevant.  I'm not sure why the final chapter discussed the prospects of the world ending in 1999 (pp. 171-187).

The author seems to have made a genuine effort to be objective.  For example, he recounts that timbers brought which Fernand Navarra claimed to have recovered from Ararat were variously dated to 5000BC and 560AD (pp. 94-95).  On the other hand, he studiously avoids commenting on how documentary evidence of Ark sightings can miraculously never be located.  For example, the report of a Russian search for the Ark was apparently destroyed by Leon Trotsky (p. 33).  People who have photographed the Ark will show the pictures to others but not release them to the press or allow them to be copied (pp. 41-42).  A statement from an eyewitness is mysteriously destroyed in a house fire (p. 150).  Newpaper reports can somehow never be found (pp. 42 and 150).  He is also remarkably unselective about his material.  He accepts as genuine an absurd claim by a man in Arizona to by the son of Tsar Nicholas II (p. 37).  He quotes from a fourteenth century Ark sighting by Sir John Mandeville, despite Mandeville being a fictional character! (p. 18).  And his account of flood legends from around the world seems to be drawn from secondary sources quoting secondary sources quoting secondary sources quoting ... you get the idea: what the primary source material might be is anyone's guess (pp. 129-136).

Fundamentally, this book is less history and more a collection of folklore.  It's worth flipping through on a long train ride, but don't take it too seriously.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Book Review: Knight and Lomas, The Second Messiah (1997)

Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas, The Second Messiah (Century Books: London, 1997)
Some while ago I wrote a fairly cranky review of Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods.  I think I should apologise.  To Mr von Daniken.  He actually hasn’t written the worst piece of faux-scholarship I’ve ever seen.  That honour goes to Messrs Knight and Lomas for The Second Messiah: Templars, The Turin Shroud and the Great Secret of Freemasonry.
The Second Messiah by Christopher Knight
Image from here
The authors basic hypothesis runs like this:  Jesus Christ was the child of a teenager called Mary who was sexually assaulted by a priest of the Jerusalem Temple.  Paul the Apostle misunderstood that Christ’s resurrection, which (the authors say) was a Jewish ritual and not an actual return from the dead.   As a result, Christianity developed into a strange set of ideas which Jesus would not recognise.  The priests of the Temple fled to Europe as refugees after the destruction of the Temple in 70AD.  There they established themselves as the “Rex Deus” families and, a thousand years later, conspired to launch the First Crusade, recapture Jerusalem from the Saracens, recover the scrolls and other knowledge buried under the site of the Temple, and found the order of the Knights Templar.  This order continued to exist after its suppression in 1307 (the image on the Shroud of Turin belongs to their final Grand Master, Jacques de Molay).  It morphed into modern Freemasonry, which has itself lost sight of the ancient knowledge it was meant to preserve.
I think it’ll tell you everything you need to know about this book that before I’d finished reading the first page, I’d already written “bollocks!” in the margin.  I repeated that word, and worse, for the next 244 pages.  In fact, the only pages that I didn’t write something like that on were the ones were I’d largely stopped reading and was just skimming with increasing annoyance.  Let’s speak plainly: the authors have not done even basic research into their subject.  They appear to be unaware of the scholarship surrounding how the New Testament came to exist (for example, they seem to believe that Mark’s gospel came into existence spontaneously, and don’t seem aware of the hypothesised “Q Source”.  They plainly know nothing at all about mediaeval spirituality (reading Norman Cantor’s landmark ‘The Crisis of Western Monasticism, 1050-1130’* and JH van Engen’s ‘The “Crisis of Cenobitism” Reconsidered’** would have done wonders, for instance).  Weirdly, they seem to think that a priest and a monk are the same thing (pp. 23 and 75), that canonization and beatification are identical (p. 40), and that the Celtic church denied the divinity of Christ (as, in the authors’ view, did some parts of Christianity(!) before the Council of Nicaea (pp. 70 and 199).
More exasperating, though, are the errors suggesting that not only did the authors do no research, but that nobody actually read the manuscript before it was published.  How else can one explain the baffling conflating of the Greek letter Tau (Τ) with the Hebrew letter Taw (ת), when the shape of the letter is critical to their argument (p. 41)?  Equally, how did nobody notice their bizarre claim that the serpent-and-rod symbol for medicine is the Rod of Asclepius from Greek mythology and not a symbol from the Jewish Essene sect (p. 213).
The entire “Rex Deus” argument is based on an account given to the authors of a story spontaneously told to another writer by “a distinguished [French]man of advancing years” who claimed to be a member of the Rex Deus family.  The Frenchman is never identified, although one wonders if it was the infamous fraudster andhoaxer Pierre Plantard (pp. 77-9 and 198-9).  The authors seem unfamiliar with the concepts of “hearsay”.  Or “lying”.  Or “bullshit”.
It would take a couple of pages to itemise the errors in the book, and I’m not going to do that.  It's simply not worth it.  The authors should perhaps not be condemned for writing drivel if the public was willing to buy it.  The publishers, however, should be strung up for aiding and abetting this exercise in historical negligence.
* (1960) 66 American Historical Review 46.
** (1986) 61 Speculum 269.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

First visit to an LDS Church

Hi everyone,

I spent most of the weekend in Melbourne at an SES Unit Controllers' Conference.  I had some time spare on Sunday and so I went to an LDS Church service in Wantirna South, not far from the conference venue.  I hadn't been to one before and it seemed a good opportunity.

LDS Temple, Wantirna South, Victoria, Australia (Image from here)
The congregation could not have been more welcoming.  One of the older gentlemen there (he told me his role but I'm afraid I can't remember) took me in hand.  He introduced me to a number of members of the congregation as well as to the Bishop and Missionaries.  They were welcoming but not overwhelming, which I found ideal.  I happened to have arrived on the Sacrament Sunday, where the bread and water is passed around and members give testimonies about the church and about the Book of Mormon.  In addition a "Sister Alice" was approved by the congregation to be a Sunday School teacher.  Three things stay strongly with me about this part of the service.  Firstly, there were many families there, from babies through to the elderly.  That part isn't new to me: any given Sunday a Catholic church will look the same.  Secondly, everyone was well dressed.  The women and girls wore sober dresses and blouses.  The men and boys wore suits.  I'd opted for Tommy Hilfiger slacks, a white shirt, blue tie and black windcheater, and felt almost slovenly!  This really was different: usually I attend church as neatly as I can, but I've been known to go wearing work clothes stained with mud, diesel and soot.  Thirdly, everyone seemed happy to be there.  Excited even.  The young lady who was appointed the Sunday School teacher positively beamed.

In my Sunday best.
The second part of the service was described as "Sunday School".  Notwithstanding the name it consisted of group scripture study by adults.  The discussion covered the Millennium and end times, particularly as covered by the Doctrine & Covenants.  I noticed that everyone had a keen knowledge of the Bible, Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine & Covenants.

I think I was allowed into the third part of the service - the Priesthood Meeting - as a favour.  It sounds terribly catty to say it (and I only mention it because it's a strong recollection) but it was at this point I realised what I could smell: soap.  Every man present was not only clean shaven but seemed clean enough to be performing surgery.  This was appropriate: the discussion finished by noting elderly and infirm members of the congregation who needed help in one way or another.  Everyone was genuinely keen to see that these people were safe, looked after and cared for.  The outer cleanliness matched inner goodness.

The church seemed (I don't say it lightly) like a little vision of heaven.  It was clean.  It shone.  The people genuinely radiated the love believers are called to have for one another and for God.  This fitted: the more I learn of Mormon doctrine, the more I find in it which approaches perfection.  And I think this is why, right now, I doubt it's for me.  I don't belong in heaven, or at least in its earthly analogue.  Everything I know about serving God and loving my neighbour I've learned giving quick and dirty advice in a free community legal centre, or tarping rooves in the rain, or extricating casualties from wrecked cars.  The only things I do which are good involve dirty hands and cut corners.  I think that's why I love Pope Francis' call for the church to be a field hospital.  One columnist has put it particularly well -
One of Pope Francis’s gifts as a communicator is a peculiar feel for the memorable image: .... The most striking analogy in the interview is this: “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” No doctor doing triage on a battlefield is going to be fussing about his patients’ cholesterol or blood sugar levels. He is going to be treating major wounds and trying desperately to stop the bleeding.

I think my place is to be where people hurt and where I can help them, and where everything is imperfect and shopworn and down-at-heel and damaged.  I don't think I can serve God and neighbour as well anywhere else as I could do where I am.

There's one other thing.  I wasn't born into my church, but entered as an adult.  If I wasn't caught up by its firm teaching on divorce and remarriage, I might never have thought about leaving it.  To convert out of it feels a little like desertion.  No, actually it feels like something worse: cheating.  I know that my current status is problematic at best.  I know that if I repartner I'm in grave danger of damnation.  That doesn't seem a good enough reason to change my loyalty.  Whatever happens in this world or the next, I will not have dodged the rules*.

I have arranged, despite all of this, to speak to the missionaries in Shepparton next week.  At the very least one should put the question to them and hear their side of the matter.  They're such plainly good people that it would be a sin not to hear them out.  In the end, one must find the best place to serve God and neighbour and act accordingly.  Everything else is details.

* I'm endebted on this point to Camus -
They have wagered on the flesh, knowing they would lose. ... These men have not cheated.  They were gods of the summer at twenty in their thirst for life, and they are still gods today, stripped of all hope.  I have seen two of them die.  They were full of horror, but silent.  It is better that way
Albert Camus, 'Summer in Algiers' (transl. E.C. Kennedy) in P. Thody (ed.), Lyrical and Critical Essays (Vintage Books: New York, 1970), pp. 81, 91-2.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Ten years, new days

Hi everyone,
I'm typing this tonight on 1 June 2017 because I doubt I'll have a chance to do it tomorrow.  I'll cue it to post sometime in the small hours.
This post will go live on 2 June 2017.  June 2nd is my wedding anniversary.  This year would have been (is?) the ten year anniversary.  I'm sitting here typing this and wondering why I'm not reacting to it in any significant way.  I only noticed the date was coming up the other day.  In the last year or two, I've been generally aware of June 2nd in the same general way I'm aware of July 15th (Fall of Jerusalem in 1099) or October 25th (Russian Revolution in 1917).  Since noticing it, I've vaguely thought that I should do something to mark it.  Truthfully, though, I really can't be bothered.  Not in a huffy "letting severely alone" way.  I just can't really give a toss.
I suppose I should mourn in some way the life the ex and I started all those years ago, and the death of all that possibility.  Still, it's been over a long time.  I feel less regret now than ever.  It only recently struck me that after it all went kerplooie, I was entirely cut off by the my children's godparents.  The former in laws (save for the ex's parents) have made little if any effort to stay in touch.  These two points feel oddly liberating.  They are (or were) faithful and committed Roman Catholics, and their repudiation of me so much mocks the sacraments of Communion, Baptism and Matrimony that I feel largely absolved from my obligations of faith to anyone except my beloved daughters.
I have wondered if I am missing the city life I had with the ex.  I suppose I am: after all, I've gone from having a window office in two of these buildings -
Long time readers will know that I previously worked in Bourke Place and the Rialto Tower
- to working here today as a rouseabout -
Shearing shed near Costerfield, Victoria, Australia
It may or may not be significant that today in the shearing shed pictured I was working in the Tommy Hilfiger jeans she wanted me to buy years upon years ago!

The old life is slipping away a little more each time.  I guess I'm OK with that.  God does not intend us to be prisoners of the roads we have travelled.  If he did, He'd never have allowed us to see new horizons.
Image borrowed from Janie and Steve, Utah Trails: Almost Spring in the Grand Canyon