Of prophecy and life in a horror movie

I enjoy horror films. This is a somewhat bizarre taste for a clergyman I suppose (a legacy of a very secular youth) but I find them cathartic. After all, classic horror is deeply conservative – there is a peaceful status quo; there is a violent interruption to the status quo; then the violent interruption is repudiated. My taste tends more to the supernatural thriller side of things (The Exorcist, The Conjuring) rather than the gory schlock (Friday 13th) but I can enjoy most of them – particularly if I find myself in need of an emotional purging. Sometimes I can get really tense and a good ‘Aaaagh’ is effective therapy.

One of the most striking horror films of the last twenty years was the film ‘Saw’, which I thought was very interesting, and had a remarkable central conceit (ignore all the sequels and derivative copies). The premise of the first film is that an evil genius has trapped people in a room, and forces them to make painful choices if they are to survive. The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov wrote “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” Well, the film ‘Saw’ gets its name from the object lying on the floor in the opening act…

Why am I discussing such things here? Well the interesting thing about that film isn’t the gore but the exploration of the nature of choice, specifically, of the way in which we prioritise certain things rather than others. It is a measure of our humanity that we are able to step away from our own immediate needs and see a larger picture. The film is an exploration of values and it operates very effectively as a critique of the collapse of conventional western values and their replacement by mindless and selfish consumerism. Each character is faced with a particular choice, rooted in their previous patterns of life, and the challenge for each of them is to ‘choose life’.

There is a strand of theology rooted in some passages of the Old Testament which relates quite strongly to this. Specifically, in Deuteronomy chapter 30 God gives the Ancient Hebrews a choice. Either they choose life, which means to worship YHWH and establish social justice, and they shall flourish; or, they choose death, which means worshipping foreign gods and tolerating injustice, and then they shall be destroyed.

This fundamental message is repeatedly forgotten in Old Testament times, and in order to bring the people back to the right path, God sends prophets to them on a regular basis, to repeat the ‘Word of God’ and call the people back to life. Prophecy is often misunderstood as being principally about a prediction of the future. Such predictions are a part of what the prophetic ministry means, but they are a byproduct of the primary task.

Jesus himself, as the quintessential prophet, sums up the prophetic message when he describes the two great commandments. The first is to love God with all that we’ve got, to put him first in our priorities; the second is to love our neighbours as ourselves, which means to establish social justice, to ensure that no member of our society is flung onto the garbage heap. Where such priorities are not in place, the consequences are terrible. When the prophet denounces such activity he usually follows the denunciation with a vivid description of what the consequences will be, using the language of God’s wrath.

These consequences are principally geo-political. The political leadership of a country that has turned away from the right priorities is – by definition – operating in an unreal situation. This means that their decisions become less and less guided by truth, and more and more guided by the illusions held by the ruling class. The most vivid example of this in Old Testament times came with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army in 586 BC. The ruling class had felt themselves immune to the consequences of their actions; the prophet Jeremiah denounced their foolishness (and was thrown into a cistern for his troubles); the false prophet Hananiah told the rulers that everything was going to be fine – but reality broke in and scenes from a horror movie ensued, culminating with the slaughter of the royal family on the steps of the temple.

It is a useful rule of thumb when considering the nature of God to substitute in the word ‘reality’ – instead of saying ‘God won’t like that’, say instead ‘reality won’t like that’, in other words, ‘it won’t work, it will go wrong’. To be properly attuned to God in any situation is essentially to see the underlying truth clearly, to not allow any distortions of value to mislead our judgements, to step away from illusion. This is essentially what the prophet does – he simply speaks the truth into a situation. Sometimes this truth is heard by the leadership of a community – as with Jonah in Nineveh – and the people repent, and the foretold disaster is averted. Where the truth is not heard, however, then the consequences are terrifying.

We are, I believe, in a time when the consequences of our prior actions and decisions are coming back to haunt us. Western society does not have right priorities, and it is not concerned to seek social justice, and as a consequence we are running head long into the brick wall of reality. We have built an empire upon cheap energy and easy credit, and now both of those things are being taken away. We are going to have to start making choices about what we really want – what are we prepared to let go of, what are our deepest values? Where those values are aligned with God and social justice, then we still have a potentially prosperous future ahead of us, even if it means we have to saw off things that we are remarkably attached to. If, however, we refuse to make such choices, then a bloody fate lies in wait.

Night of the nihilist zombies

One of the contemporary successes in popular culture is the TV series “The Walking Dead”, based upon the excellent graphic novel by Robert Kirkman. What is it that makes zombies so popular, across the age range? Generally considered to have taken their modern form under the influence of the film director George Romero, zombies can be found in all sorts of surprising places, from children’s games where they fight plants to serious works of academic theology (eg “The Gospel of the Living Dead” by Dr Kim Paffenroth).

I believe that popular culture functions as a mirror to contemporary behaviour. So, for example, the Frankenstein stories take off at the same time that scientific research starts to reveal immense power; the vampire stories, especially Dracula, are driven by the Victorian taboos about sexuality. So what are the zombies saying about us?

Well what are zombies? They are creatures who are superficially human – two arms, two legs, hands, eyes and so on. They also, classically, exhibit some similar behaviours, most famously shopping in Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’. Yet this similarity is undercut by a monstrous hunger for eating normal human beings. In other words, zombies are consumers par excellence – and this, I believe, is the clue to what they mean.

For we live in a profoundly materialist culture. The one who dies with the most toys wins. We are encouraged by a vast advertising and marketing industry to think that the meaning of our lives can be displayed through our purchases, because we’re worth it. This materialist culture rests, of course, upon a materialist philosophy, the idea that we are ultimately nothing more than physical atoms bouncing off each other in random fashion. In other words, beneath our disordered culture of materialism lies a profound nihilism – a loss of meaning, a gaping hole in the fabric of our culture where the sacred used to be.

To my mind, therefore, the zombies represent nothing more than the foot-soldiers of nihilism, those for whom nothing matters, nothing has meaning. Of course, rather like zombies themselves, I’m not sure that a genuine nihilist has ever existed. We might hear rumours of fabulous creatures in far off islands, but in the mundane reality of our day to day existence, a genuine nihilist is as rare a creature as the fairies that dwell at the bottom of our gardens. After all, what would it take to be a real nihilist – to rigorously adhere to the notion that nothing has meaning? It would mean not simply that the big pictures that had previously provided meaning have to be discarded – so no Christianity or Buddhism or Stoicism or anything like that. No, all notions of better and worse need to be discarded, for those are quintessentially value judgements, and without meaning there is no value, and without value there is no meaning. A proper nihilist must be dedicated to the notion that there can be no discrimination between good and evil, and as a consequence, cannot be relied upon to serve anything which is good or resist anything which is evil.

What I find most sinister about the nihilist zombies is their unconscious innocence, the way that they function as useful idiots for the corporate machine. After all, the way in which the modern economy functions is by seeking to turn us into excellent consumers. Those patterns of resistance to consumerism all assert, even if only by a negative rebellion against the bad, a positive sense of what it means to be human, that there are elements of human life that cannot simply be reduced to a materialist analysis. Nihilist philosophies, however, are deployed as a type of universal solvent attacking the basis of resistance. There is a reason why capitalist culture does not like the local and particular – a reason why, for example, the EU wishes to standardise all the weights and measures across diverse peoples. It is because these local quirks and customs stand in the way of the great idol of material efficiency, and that is the only acceptable ground for behaviour within the corporate state.

Which is why the Walking Dead are such a powerful metaphor. Human beings live within a meaningful world in the same way that fish live within water, it is an essential element of our natures. Those who reject meaning are like fish proclaiming their independence of water (and doubtless the Darwinians will proclaim – but that is how evolution took place! See what wonderful things have come from fish who walked on land! Maybe so, but that is a meaningful claim not a nihilist one). I can’t help but see nihilism as an arrested stage of development; it is the teenage protest against the parent and their culture, a necessary first step in the establishment of a new personal identity, but one that rapidly becomes sterile unless further steps of genuine commitment are taken. So you are no longer simply the child of your parents? Excellent – what are you then?

Part of becoming an adult is the process of developing a code of behaviour to which we are committed, a code of behaviour which represents something larger than our own particular and temporary desires, something more creative than our base biological appetites. All the wisdom traditions of the world offer ways in which a person can pursue such a code and thereby become more truly themselves – that, after all, is what a wisdom tradition is. In our dealings with one another, what we most wish to find out about another person is what their guiding code might be, for that will tell us where and how we might be able to work together, where we might find a common purpose and meaning, where it is possible to establish trust. With a nihilist there is always a sense that at any point they might turn and seek to start turning you into their next meal – for what is there to stop them other than your own capacity to resist? There is no consciousness, and there is no conscience.

Nihilism is the code of the zombie, and we are living through the night of the living dead. How can we resist? How can we support the human against the undead plague? It’s all a metaphor of course – but metaphors are the way in which human beings share meaning. The nihilist will cry ‘It’s all meaningless’ and when we hear such cries we need to translate it to uncover the fundamental truth: ‘I am an undead servant of corporate capitalism! You will be assimilated!’

Aim for the head.

The sin of being offended

(Slightly revised version of blogpost written in 2006, after the Muhammad cartoons)

Should a Christian be offended by blasphemy, in the way that various Islamic groups have – according to the official story – been offended by an obscure film on YouTube? I believe not, and I’d like to explain why.

There is no shortage of material that could be cited as offensive to Christians but I’d like to focus on the graphic novel ‘Preacher’, written by Garth Ennis, partly because it is a cartoon/ comic, and partly because it is a work that I am familiar with.

To understand ‘Preacher’ you must imagine a tale composed of a blend of three other stories, but then put through the blender of a particular film. The three stories that ‘feed’ it are: Unforgiven, the Clint Eastwood western; Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (although it predates the Da Vinci Code – it’s actually drawing on the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail); and Anne Rice’s ‘Interview with a Vampire’; and all of this is then fed through the stylistic blender of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”. It is certainly blasphemous, also obscene, disturbing and very funny. I believe it also makes some interesting theological points – not as profound or interesting as I had once hoped, when I was first reading it, but interesting nonetheless.

The basic plot is this: an angel and a demon come together and conceive a child; when the child is born it is immediately expelled from Heaven, and God vanishes from His throne. Genesis (the child) plummets to earth and is ‘united’ with Jesse Custer, a preacher (probably Episcopalian) who was raised by some rabid and violent fundamentalists in the Deep South of the United States. You could say he has some problems with his faith… However, once Genesis is united with him, he gains the Word – the power to command people to do whatever he tells them. Through various adventures involving the Priory of Sion and his best friend, an Irish vampire, he ends up producing a confrontation between God and the Angel of Death. God, of course, isn’t the God that a ‘normal’ Christian would recognise – God is schizophrenic, in the popular sense, in that there is sometimes a raging Old Testament father figure full of righteous anger, and sometimes there is a radiant New Testament figure seemingly all sweetness and light. The end of the tale is the death of God – and the continuance of the world without Him, seemingly all the better for it.

Ennis grew up in Northern Ireland, and there is clearly a kinship between the God in ‘Preacher’ and the attitudes of someone like Ian Paisley. I had hoped that there would be something theologically creative at the end – that was what kept me reading – along the lines of Genesis becoming a renewed God, essentially a retelling of the Christian story but in a modern idiom. Instead, Preacher is profoundly atheistic, and is in fact much more of a story about the importance of friendship than anything about theology. It remains deeply memorable, and the set-up I think is wonderful, but in the end there is little engagement with ‘mainstream’ Christianity – Christians within it are portrayed as either fundamentalist fascists or as idiots, and the ethics that are vindicated are those of the western, ie righteous violence.

Now, in the face of such a sustained and offensive criticism – how should a Christian react? Should a Christian shun any contact with such writing, with a view to avoiding ‘contamination’ from its blasphemy? My reading of Christianity, influenced from what I know of the work of René Girard, is rather the opposite, and that the degree of our ‘offence taking’ is the degree to which we remain to be converted to the gospel.

A key word in Girard’s analysis is skandalon. It means the taking of offence, seeing something as shocking or blasphemous. As part of his anthropology, Girard argues that scandal is contagious and reproduces itself across a society, forming a major way in which a society polices its own customs. The practices of societies are founded in sacred violence and scapegoating – in other words, societies reinforce their identity by choosing a person or group as the ‘cause’ of all their problems (think Jews in 1930’s Germany) and the society achieves a sense of unity by combining against that person or group, expelling them violently from their midst, and then telling a religious mythology justifying their actions. This practice persists over time, for the society is never able to completely eradicate tensions within itself, due to the maintenance of rivalrous desire, when one person wants what another person has.

Girard describes this contagion of scandal as the way of the world, and sees the Satan, the ‘lord of this world’ as that force which seeks to reproduce scandal, the taking of offence – for it is in the shared nature of the offence taking that the social solidarity is affirmed and reinforced. A society has a vested interest in ensuring the maintenance of scandal, for that is how the society itself is maintained. What such a society cannot accept is the continued existence of the source of scandal.

I believe this can be seen rather clearly in the case of the video posted to YouTube. When it was first uploaded, nobody took offence – hardly anyone even noticed! Yet certain authorities have a vested interest in shoring up the unity of Islamic societies over against the West, and so the West is then scapegoated as the source of the problems (internal tensions) experienced in Muslim countries. Thus it is Islamic sources which seek to generate a sense of scandal about the film – to great success – and at the cost of, amongst others, the life of the American Ambassador.

Christianity, however, begins with the scandal of the cross. That is, in the story of Jesus we have the unmasking of this process – a scapegoat who isn’t simply a victim, but one who is understands what is happening and who forgives those who take part in it. In other words, a victim who does not take offence. This “non-taking of offence” is central to Jesus’ entire ministry – indeed, he is regularly criticised for eating with sinners and tax collectors, and memorably criticises the religious authorities saying that the prostitutes will get to heaven before them! Through not taking offence, through not seeing religious pieties as things to be defended, Jesus changes the social dynamics and enables a non-violent reconciliation with the excluded to take place. That is the essence of the Kingdom – an unmasking of this process of scandal, scapegoating and violence, in order that a new common life, not built upon these elements, can come into being.

Thus, for a Christian, it is wrong to take offence, it is a sin. To take offence is to play the devil’s games, to enter into antagonism between the ‘righteous’ and the ‘unrighteous’, the ‘sinner’ and the ‘saved’. In letting go of any sense of offence, one is released from the mythological pressures embedded in all stories of ‘them and us’, and is set free to become the sort of person that God originally intended – living in peace and loving the neighbour. This is what lies behind the striking language in Matthew’s gospel (5:29), where Jesus commands us to pluck out our eyes if it “causes us to sin” – language taken up by a great many moralists seeking violent self-harm, as it is, of course, to scapegoat a part of oneself. The original language used in Greek, however, is related to this word skandalon and the passage means ‘if your eye is scandalized, pluck it out’ – in other words, if you are offended by something that you see you should blind yourself, for the fault lies in you, not in what is outside you.

This I find profoundly helpful, in terms of guiding my engagement and interest in the world. We are not to seek to preserve some sort of moral purity – that runs counter to Jesus’ own well documented practice. Nor are we to protest at being offended. If God does not take offence at the murder of his Son, how can we take offence at anything milder? It is precisely because of this bias against ‘offence’ embedded in Christianity from the beginning that Western society has grown up with this remarkable notion of free speech and free enquiry, which is what is now at stake in the confrontation with the Islamists. It is the unmasking of the sociological processes of scapegoating and sacred violence by Jesus on the cross that fundamentally enables the fruits of Western society that we presently enjoy – including, most especially, modern science. Girard puts it well: “The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer witch-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented. The scientific spirit … is a by-product of the profound action of the Gospel text.”

Western civilisation is under threat and it is worth defending, but not by being offended by those who hate it, whether the Islamists, or even artists like Andres Serrano.

Anders Breivik’s "Christianity"

In his own words:

If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian. Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.

European Christendom isn’t just about having a personal relationship with Jesus or God. It is so much more. Christendom is identity, moral, laws and codexes which has produced the greatest civilisation the world has ever witnessed.

I’m not going to pretend I’m a very religious person as that would be a lie. I’ve always been very pragmatic and influenced by my secular surroundings and environment.

As a cultural Christian, I believe Christendom is essential for cultural reasons. After all, Christianity is the ONLY cultural platform that can unite all Europeans, which will be needed in the coming period during the third expulsion of the Muslims.

As this is a cultural war, our definition of being a Christian does not necessarily constitute that you are required to have a personal relationship with God or Jesus. Being a Christian can mean many things: – That you believe in and want to protect Europe’s Christian cultural heritage. The European cultural heritage, our norms (moral codes and social structures included), our traditions and our modern political systems are based on Christianity – Protestantism, Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity and the legacy of the European enlightenment (reason is the primary source and legitimacy for authority). It is not required that you have a personal relationship with God or Jesus in order to fight for our Christian cultural heritage and the European way. In many ways, our modern societies and European secularism is a result of European Christendom and the enlightenment. It is therefore essential to understand the difference between a “Christian fundamentalist theocracy” (everything we do not want) and a secular European society based on our Christian cultural heritage (what we do want). So no, you don’t need to have a personal relationship with God or Jesus to fight for our Christian cultural heritage. It is enough that you are a Christian-agnostic or a Christian atheist (an atheist who wants to preserve at least the basics of the European Christian cultural legacy (Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter)). The PCCTS, Knights Templar is therefore not a religious organisation but rather a Christian “culturalist” military order.

There’s lots more in the same vein.

I’m about to go away on holiday. I might have more to say about all this when I return, but it will be on my other more political blog – Gandalf’s Hope.

Motive

If it turns out that he’s “a right-wing Christian fundamentalist” and those doctrines provided a motive for his behaviour then such doctrines need to be denounced and combatted. In just the same way that the doctrines that give rise to terrorists shouting ‘Allahu Ackbar’ also need to be denounced and combatted. Of course, that would expose a contradiction at the heart of our society – or, perhaps more accurately, a self-hatred. Muslims etc are victims of the oppressive West, therefore they are on the side of the angels. This Norwegian nutter is an expression of the oppressive West, therefore he is on the side of the devils.

Perhaps there are all sorts of mitigating circumstances and doubtless we will come up with all sorts of explanations but in the end evil is as evil does and he is responsible to the Almighty for what he has done.

Why, O LORD, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak,
who are caught in the schemes he devises.
He boasts of the cravings of his heart;
he blesses the greedy and reviles the LORD.
In his pride the wicked does not seek him;
in all his thoughts there is no room for God.
His ways are always prosperous;
he is haughty and your laws are far from him;
he sneers at all his enemies.
He says to himself, Nothing will shake me;
I’ll always be happy and never have trouble.
His mouth is full of curses and lies and threats;
trouble and evil are under his tongue.
He lies in wait near the villages;
from ambush he murders the innocent, watching in secret for his victims.
He lies in wait like a lion in cover;
he lies in wait to catch the helpless;
he catches the helpless and drags them off in his net.
His victims are crushed, they collapse;
they fall under his strength.
He says to himself, God has forgotten;
he covers his face and never sees.
Arise, LORD! Lift up your hand, O God.
Do not forget the helpless.
Why does the wicked man revile God?
Why does he say to himself, He won’t call me to account?
But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand.
The victim commits himself to you; you are the helper of the fatherless.
Break the arm of the wicked and evil man;
call him to account for his wickedness that would not be found out.
The LORD is King for ever and ever; the nations will perish from his land.
You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.

Psalm 10, NIV

(NB for a flavour of what I’m guessing is part of his motivation, do some research on Fjordman and read his writings. They are very interesting and have been very influential.)

Respecting grim satisfaction

Osama Bin Laden is dead, and there seems to be rejoicing at that fact, a sort of ‘ha, he got what was coming to him!’ I can understand the idea that this is not Christian – the rejoicing in the death of any human being seems incompatible with Christianity. Yet I don’t see an incompatibility between accepting that and also accepting that the death of OBL was something to be pursued. It ties in with the wider pacifism/ Christendom arguments, on which topic I am someone who accepts the theology of ‘just war’ (and accept that this is a language that has often been abused to justify the unjustifiable). The core issue, for me, is about how to live in a fallen world. I accept the need for some to witness to the higher truth of pacifism as a specific calling (eg the Quakers), but for the general order of humanity I don’t see a problem in accepting violence, in specific contexts, as a lesser sin than the alternative. In a fallen world there are situations where no right choice is possible, as with Sophie’s Choice. As my ethics tutor at university so memorably put it ‘Hitler had to be stopped’. Quite so. Grim satisfaction seems the appropriate response.

The most important thing for a Christian, as I see it, is not to become persuaded of ‘righteous violence’, in other words, to still see the resort to violence as sin and in need of forgiveness and redemption. The tightrope might appear absurd, but it really is possible to walk on it.

A last thought on the koran burning

Whilst the liberal arguments against it are pap, it seems to be an action motivated in equal parts by fear and hate, tantamount to a declaration of war. Not a Godly act for a Christian pastor.

I keep thinking of a passage from Strauss & Howe’s Fourth Turning – which I can’t be bothered to look up for the exact quote right now – but the gist is that a principal sign of the shift into ‘winter’ is when people choose extreme rather than moderate reactions to a provocation, and the cycle escalates into open warfare. Oh dear.

A last thought on the koran burning

Whilst the liberal arguments against it are pap, it seems to be an action motivated in equal parts by fear and hate, tantamount to a declaration of war. Not a Godly act for a Christian pastor.

I keep thinking of a passage from Strauss & Howe’s Fourth Turning – which I can’t be bothered to look up for the exact quote right now – but the gist is that a principal sign of the shift into ‘winter’ is when people choose extreme rather than moderate reactions to a provocation, and the cycle escalates into open warfare. Oh dear.

A bit more on koran-burning

I want to round up some of the main arguments that have been employed on this question. It would be fair to say I feel ambivalent about it, but I’m still chewing it through (which is, of course, what a blog is for….)

Argument #1: it will endanger the troops (aid and succour the enemy)
On one level this is facile, in that, in a war, we assume that the enemy is trying to kill our soldiers already. It is not facile in that burning the koran will reinforce the ideology and remotivate their troops. So the good point here is not about fear but about pragmatism – you don’t give the enemy a propaganda victory.

Argument #2: it will endanger other Christians around the world

This may be true, but if so, it actually says worse things about Islamic culture, ie that a symbolic protest such as this might lead to loss of life, because the values and cultural norms are so uncivilised in such countries. So to not burn the Koran for this reason alone is simply to succumb to intimidation.

Argument #3: it’s rude and disrespectful
It undoubtedly is rude and disrespectful – it wouldn’t be worth doing if it wasn’t – but I’m not sure that ‘rude and disrespectful’ automatically make something wrong, it depends upon everything else.

Argument #4: it’s symbolic violence
Yes it is; it is not a peaceable act, it is not something that will generate good will and foster further understanding. However, again, I’m not sure that there isn’t (in principle) a place for symbolically violent behaviour. Whether such behaviour is defensible or not depends entirely on the wider context – is it simply bullying or spiritual abuse? Or is there a wider toppling of idolatries going on (leading to less abuse)?

Argument #5: We are told to love our enemies and this isn’t loving (Jesus wouldn’t do it)
If we take the feelings of the targeted audience as the end point of the process then “causing pain = not loving” follows. Jesus, however, often had a further end in view relating to the long term liberation of the people he engaged with. What this action does is totalise the argument. It’s an action which follows once reasonable discourse has come to an end (or not been started). The real question is one that Byron asked, about whether a creative and attractive alternative is being shown. The action is defensible to the extent that creative possibilities are held out (which is something that doesn’t seem to be the case here).

Argument #6: it’s ugly and stupid and childish (‘Ugh!’)
This is an expression of our cultural norms, and whilst I tend to the view that the argument from disgust shouldn’t be rejected on principle, I don’t see what it adds here. In principle (I’m abstracting again) it could be the cultural norms which are the idols needing to be toppled, just as much as any Islamist nonsense.

Argument #7: how would you like it?
What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The difference is that the power of the act would be different, given that Christians don’t see the New Testament (fundamentalists excepted) in the way that the Islamists see the Koran. Of course, what we do see as the Word of God was treated in just such a way – he was crucified – and therein lies some of the most important differences…

Argument #8: it’s retaliation
As a motive, I would agree that this is wrong. I’d simply point out that burning books is not on a par with burning down buildings by flying planes into them.

That’s my thinking so far; I haven’t finished yet.

A bit more on koran-burning

I want to round up some of the main arguments that have been employed on this question. It would be fair to say I feel ambivalent about it, but I’m still chewing it through (which is, of course, what a blog is for….)

Argument #1: it will endanger the troops (aid and succour the enemy)
On one level this is facile, in that, in a war, we assume that the enemy is trying to kill our soldiers already. It is not facile in that burning the koran will reinforce the ideology and remotivate their troops. So the good point here is not about fear but about pragmatism – you don’t give the enemy a propaganda victory.

Argument #2: it will endanger other Christians around the world

This may be true, but if so, it actually says worse things about Islamic culture, ie that a symbolic protest such as this might lead to loss of life, because the values and cultural norms are so uncivilised in such countries. So to not burn the Koran for this reason alone is simply to succumb to intimidation.

Argument #3: it’s rude and disrespectful
It undoubtedly is rude and disrespectful – it wouldn’t be worth doing if it wasn’t – but I’m not sure that ‘rude and disrespectful’ automatically make something wrong, it depends upon everything else.

Argument #4: it’s symbolic violence
Yes it is; it is not a peaceable act, it is not something that will generate good will and foster further understanding. However, again, I’m not sure that there isn’t (in principle) a place for symbolically violent behaviour. Whether such behaviour is defensible or not depends entirely on the wider context – is it simply bullying or spiritual abuse? Or is there a wider toppling of idolatries going on (leading to less abuse)?

Argument #5: We are told to love our enemies and this isn’t loving (Jesus wouldn’t do it)
If we take the feelings of the targeted audience as the end point of the process then “causing pain = not loving” follows. Jesus, however, often had a further end in view relating to the long term liberation of the people he engaged with. What this action does is totalise the argument. It’s an action which follows once reasonable discourse has come to an end (or not been started). The real question is one that Byron asked, about whether a creative and attractive alternative is being shown. The action is defensible to the extent that creative possibilities are held out (which is something that doesn’t seem to be the case here).

Argument #6: it’s ugly and stupid and childish (‘Ugh!’)
This is an expression of our cultural norms, and whilst I tend to the view that the argument from disgust shouldn’t be rejected on principle, I don’t see what it adds here. In principle (I’m abstracting again) it could be the cultural norms which are the idols needing to be toppled, just as much as any Islamist nonsense.

Argument #7: how would you like it?
What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The difference is that the power of the act would be different, given that Christians don’t see the New Testament (fundamentalists excepted) in the way that the Islamists see the Koran. Of course, what we do see as the Word of God was treated in just such a way – he was crucified – and therein lies some of the most important differences…

Argument #8: it’s retaliation
As a motive, I would agree that this is wrong. I’d simply point out that burning books is not on a par with burning down buildings by flying planes into them.

That’s my thinking so far; I haven’t finished yet.