St Andrew’s Day

November 30, 2009

It’s very strange that a country in the northern hemisphere should adopt a patron saint with a feast day during the dark and cold early winter days!  But St Andrew is a really good choice of a patron saint, exemplifying many of the virtues that we would like to associate ourselves with.  Not only was he a fisherman (and we all know how important fishing has been to the Sottish economy over the centuries) but in the Gospels he plays an important role in mmaking people feel welcome. It’s Andrew who brings the first Gentiles to Jesus, and it’s Andrew who finds the boy with the loaves and fishes used in the feeding of the five thousand.

It’s good to be associated with someone whose recorded deeds are those of accepting strangers.

But we must not forget the circumstances of his death.

Tradition has it that Andrew preached the gospel along the Black Sea coast and in Greece, and whilst preacing he converted Maximilla, the wife of a Roman proconsul.  Maximilla was being ill-treated by her husband, and Andrew encouraged her to leave him rather than submit to the ill treatment.  The pro-consul then had Andrew crucifed.

It’s important to stand up for others, especially the weak.  2000 years on domestic violence is still an issue affecting all levels of society, and perhaps we should remember this rather than treat St Andrew’s day as just a reason for a party.

Prejudice

November 24, 2009

It’s quite amazing where you find prejudice cropping up. The newspapers have been full of it over the last few weeks, almost giving the lie to the claims that we are a more tolerant society.

The first episode was over the Prime Minister’s hand-written note to the mother of the soldier killed in Afghanistan. The comments about the handwriting displayed little or no understanding for the difficulties experienced by the partially-sighted; it would have been so much easier (but so much less personal) to have produced a type-written letter. Mind you, you can imagine the offended reactions to that as well – “my son gave up his life for the country and all I get is a typed note – no one could be bothered to write properly!”

And then there were the reactions to the choice of a Belgian to be “President of Europe”: nothing about whether he was competent, nothing about whether his career in Belgian or European politics fitted him for the job (perhaps the fact that he has managed to get the Walloons and Flemings to speak to each other might have counted in his favour) but much of the commentary revolved round jokes either at the expense of the Belgians or the President’s name. The final straw was the cartoon by Steve Bell in his “If..” strip portraying him as a Smurf – not for any reason other than that he’s Belgian, and so are the Smurfs…

And (again in the “Guardian,” which really should do better) comments about the Prime Minister’s accent from Simon Hoggart which simply reveal him as an unconscious English nationalist with no ear for dialect.

It’s easy to mock, less easy to criticise constructively. If this is the attitude of “opinion formers” we cannot be surprised if people’s attitudes to politicians are affected only by the way they present themselves, and not by their policies!

Remembrance

November 9, 2009

Yesterday was Remembrance Sunday, and the mood seemed to be even more reflective and sombre than usual.  It’s a difficult day.  The anniversary is no longer shared by anyone who actually fought in the First World War, and it has always struck me as strange that this is the limit we place on remembrance, especially as we are currently re-fighting wars that appeared to have ended (at least for us) many years ago.

Britain has been at war in one form or another for longer than it has been at peace over the last 150 years: during the reign of Queen Victoria there was hardly a year without a colonial war of some description taking place.  Even since the Second World War there have been many conflicts involving British troops – Korea, Malaya, Kenya, Suez, the Falklands… it is to Harold Wilson’s great credit that he avoided involvement in the Vietnam War.

It is in some ways a fortunate (though in Britain hardly recognised) co-incidence that this week also marks the fall of the Berlin Wall, which in many ways actually marks the end of the sequence of European conflicts provoked by the approach to the First World War.  The fall of the wall was a decisive move in the process of  Western European integration in a way that makes inter-European wars increasingly less likely.  The European Union is exactly what its original designers intended it to be – a direct response to the lessons that we should have learned: that in an age of total war there are ultimately no victors.  Many people now living are too young to remember the aftermath of the Second World War – hunger and poverty that took years to eradicate. Only cooperation offers a way forward – and that’s the path that European nations have chosen.  It’s only those who wish to re-awaken ancient rivalries and hatreds who oppose this.

But if we only remember the lessons of the two great wars, we miss lessons that are still relevant today.  Many of the colonial wars in Queen Victoria’s reign were fought in and around Afghanistan and the tribal areas of North West Pakistan.  There is little comfort in looking back that far.  No attempt to enforce an external settlement on Afghanistan against the wishes of the tribal factions has succeeded – in fact the Afghans wiped out a 20,000 strong British army that occupied Kabul for a short time.  This is a lesson that the Russians also failed to learn: a country like Afghanistan, where communications are difficult, and there is no tradition of strong central government cannot be ruled by force alone.

Each time Afghanistan has been invaded it has been for the same basic reason: that the “lawlessness” of the tribes is a danger to the country’s neighbours.  And each time the only long-term answer has been the same: to form a coalition of  tribal leaders (the current jargon is “war lords”) to enable a modicum of stability to allow the population to live their lives in peace.

The initial defeat of the Taleban should have provided an opportunity for this kind of coalition building, but extending the “War on Terror” into Iraq simply made a difficult situation worse.  Now the West appears to be just like the Russian Communists, portrayed as a godless invader whose ultimate purpose is to eliminate Islam – more easy propaganda for extremists.

Negotiation is the only way forward.  We do not have the will to try to impose a puppet regime on the country, as the Russians did (and even they did not have the military power to sustain that regime), and the failure of the democratic process simply makes negotiations even more vital both in the short and long term.

But that means that we have to define why we are in Afghanistan in the first place.  If it is simply to oust Al Qaida from its strongholds (which was the original reason) it cannot be done by force alone, as the past years of destruction have shown, unless we are willing to contemplate an open ended commitment to fighting a guerrilla war in terrain that gives all the advantages to the guerrillas.  Such wars cannot be won militarily by the means that we are willing to use – and the methods required to win a military victory are repugnant to civilised society.  The British Army learnt that lesson in Malaya and Borneo.  The US should have learnt the lesson from Vietnam.

If we do not learn the lessons of history, then we simply make the same mistakes over and over again.

That is true remembrance

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

October 28, 2009

Today brought the printed version of the results of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, now sponsored by Veolia Environnement, and on line at http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/temporary-exhibitions/wpy/index.jsp.

Although the winning pictures are never less than good, this year is a stunning collection, with a number of pictures that I’m sure would have won in other years.  The winning photo, of a wolf jumping a gate, taken by Jose Luis Rodriguez, is both a wonderful image and an amazing technical accomplishment.  It’s the kind of picture any photographer would dream of taking, but only a few have the time and talent to both envisage and then execute.  The gallery is worth viewing for this shot alone, but there are so many more that deserve a wider audience.

The best photographs, like the best of any art form, open our eyes to see things in a different way.  Photography, though, is a little different. It still takes time and talent to take a great photograph, but it is more accessible, especially with today’s equipment, than drawing or painting.  Just about everyone has tried at some point to take a photograph: all you need is a camera and an “eye for a picture”: a way of framing and selecting a part of what you see with your eyes so that it makes a harmonious composition.  But when you see a great photograph, as with many of the shots on display here, you look at the world in a different way.  Ewald Neffe’s picture of the flock of bramblings, for instance, captures something really spectacular, and blurs the boundaries between nature photography and abstract art.

Looking at the images, you would not disagree with the verdict of the judges in choosing the “best” photograph.  But it’s not my favourite: the two images that most appeal to me were both in the Junior Section: Sam Rowley’s picture of the stag’s head at dawn, silhouetted against the rising sun, and Stephan Rolfes’ image of trees in the snow and mist, both give you a sense of being outside in the wild.  What more could you ask from an image of nature?

New hymns for old?

October 27, 2009

I’ve just discovered an article by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard on the “Mad Priest” blog http://revjph.blogspot.com/ which analyses carefully how modernizations of “For all the Saints” have completely diluted both the meaning and the impact of the hymn.

She particularly takes issue with the “de-militarisation” of hymns which have strengthened Christians who feel that there is a real struggle between good and evil in the world, and that there are times when the language of warfare is completely appropriate, however we might feel about wars fought for other reasons.

But changing the theology of hymns under the guise of making the language more accessible/appropriate is not just limited to hymns using military language.  Just compare the original version of “For the beauty of the earth” with the modernised version in Mission Praise: the view of the editors is completely at variance with the original.

It’s  not clear why the chorus beginning “Lord of all” was changed to “Father”: the change implies a restriction of God’s love for the whole world to those who are gathered to sing this particular version.

And it’s quite clear that if Folliot Pierpoint had wanted to thank God for his love for us (in verse 3) rather than his gift of love that we can all share, he would have been capable of writing in exactly these terms.  To change  the meaning of a hymn in editing does little service to it.

If editors don’t agree with the theological viewpoint of a hymn they should omit it rather than alter it.

Or perhaps the original is so popular that it might restrict sales if it isn’t included?  But maybe that’s just a worldly and cynical thought!

Measuring education by the wrong standards

October 23, 2009

Today’s Guardian reports on a proposal for league tables for universities and colleges including as one of the elements “wage gain for students” http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/oct/22/league-table-plan-for-universities.

This continues the worrying trend to down grade education into a production line measured by improving exam results rather than developing rounded people.  The “outcome” of the education system is not a 75% pass rate at any particular external exam, but an individual who should be skilled for living in modern society, which does not necessarily equate to a particular paper qualification, and certainly not to a vocational one.  After all, the banking system was run by professional bankers and economists, and look where that got us!

A society that values education solely in financial terms is surely one that has lost sight of the major aims of education.  It may be relevant to a student following a purely vocational course to find out how well prospective employers rate the college they are attending, but the major point of going to university is that you hope to grow in understanding throughout your course, and not necessarily end up following the career path you had envisaged at the start of the course you are following.

It’s also worth asking the question about how possible it is for the majority of college students to have any choice in the college they go to.  Centralisation of college provision and the difficulties of public transport make “choice” irrelevant for many young people, who need to go to their nearest college as it’s the only practical one to get to!

If we continue to treat the education system as a machine for turning out products, continually narrowing the curriculum to what is deemed to be relevant to the needs of the country, we not only miss the point of education, we actually become less and less competitive, as it is increasingly difficult to predict what specialisations beyond a good general education are going to be required in the future.  We need to educate our young people to be able to think and learn throughout their lives, not simply follow a vocational course that will train them for a specific job that may well not exist in 5 years time.

1989 and all that

October 22, 2009

Anyone who listens to the radio with even half an ear (and I have to admit that that’s the way I often listen) can’t help but be reminded of the events of 1989; the collapse of the communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe, symbolised by the opening of the Berlin Wall.

It bring back many memories; those of us who grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s thought that it was something that could never happen, that there were too many powerful interests wanting to keep Germany divided.  Both the British and French leaders tried to put pressure on the Russian government to stop any move that might lead to German re-unification.

What was it that gave the people of East Germany the power to bring their government to account?

The movement started in the churches.  It was sustained throughout by the power of prayer.  In the West we only saw the end of the process, but it started in small ways, with Christians coming together to pray for peace and freedom.

The meetings started in the early 1980’s, every Monday, at first just in Leipzig, but then spreading throughout East Germany, until the movement became an unstoppable force.

If ever anyone tells you that prayer doesn’t work, just remind them of what happened in 1989.

SDG

Hello world!

October 7, 2009

I’ll be using this blog to comment on anything that happens to catch my attention!