Book: The Reason for God, by Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a successful church in New York. He’s written a book, The Reason For God, which he says is for people doubting Christianity, and for Christians wanting to answer questions from their non-Christian friends. nlj21 lent me the book, and I read it while on holiday recently. If you’d like to see Keller in action, you can watch his talk at Google, which rehearses some of the arguments from the book.

The success of Keller’s church sounds surprising when you learn that the church is pretty evangelical in theology, because (going by the people he quotes objecting to Christianity) New York is apparently full of the American equivalent of Guardian readers. But having seen Keller’s style, I can see why he’s successful. He deals sensitively with the human problems people might have had with the church or with conservative Christians as well as the factual arguments. He admits where arguments are only suggestive rather than conclusive, and he mentions the arguments against his position. He admits that there’s no argument that will persuade everyone, so the best thing is to look for arguments that will persuade most of the people, most of the time.

Ultimately, though, I think Keller shows more good will than reason, which makes the title a bit of a misnomer. Keller shows that you can construct a Christianity that hangs together, that a belief in God isn’t completely crazy. That’s certainly necessary, but hardly sufficient, for a reasonable person to believe it. A lot of the book is assertions without evidence for them, when evidence is precisely what is required.

That said, since the book is better than most Christian attempts at evangelism I’ve read or seen lately, I thought I’d do a couple of posts on it, of which this is the first.

Arguments against God

The book is divided into two parts: one dealing with the arguments against God, which Keller wants to show are faulty; and one dealing with the arguments for God. We’ll look at his responses to objections, using the chapter headings from the book.

There can’t be just one true religion

<lj-cut>There’s no logical basis for such an argument, as Keller rightly says, because there might actually be one true religion.

What people voicing this objection really seem to be worrying about is the danger that thinking you have the Truth will make you arrogant or even violent towards those who don’t agree. Keller says that the bad stuff done by Christians was against the teachings of Christianity, that is, that those people weren’t True Scotsmen.

Someone like Keller wouldn’t have gone on a Crusade and wouldn’t shoot abortionists, so those things are certainly against Keller’s sort of Christianity. However, Keller’s assertion rests on his interpretation of Christianity being the True Christianity (or at least, Truer), a view which wasn’t shared by Crusaders. As God is silent, how can Keller persuade Crusaders of his rightness? A general caution against arrogance when you think you know the absolute truth sounds like a good idea. Perhaps we should try believing things to the extent that we have evidence for them, for example?

How could a good God allow suffering?

<lj-cut>Keller argues that modern philosophers don’t accept that evil can be used to disprove God. God might have reasons for doing stuff which we don’t currently understand, and in fact, if he’s much cleverer than us, reasons we may be unable to understand.

This is true as far as it goes, and indeed leaves some possibility that God exists and is good. But, once again, I recommend believing in stuff to the extent that we have evidence for it. To use Gareth’s analogy, if we’re told someone is a chess grandmaster, yet is is apparently playing very badly, we might at first think that he is adopting some strategy we don’t understand, but as the game goes on, as his opponent hoovers up his pieces without apparent effort, we might begin to suspect we’ve been misinformed about this so-called grandmaster.

Some Christians might respond that a dramatic reversal is on the way, but their evidence for that is poor. Even by the late New Testament period, teaching about the Second Coming is being shored up by suspicious pre-emptive excuses for why it hasn’t happened. So far, the state of the board is evidence against the idea that God is good and able to intervene.

Keller goes on to say that atheists have no moral basis for calling something evil, re-iterating the moral argument discussed in a previous entry. He’s wrong, of course: the basis is our dislike of our own suffering, and our empathy for others, two things which are basic experiences in most people. Someone without these might not have a moral basis for expecting God to do something about suffering, but if you don’t like suffering and aren’t a sociopath, you’ve got a basis for worrying about theodicy.

Christianity is a straitjacket

<lj-cut>The objection to Christianity which Keller is responding to here seems to be a sort of “The Man is keeping you down, Man” statement, with God as the ultimate party pooper/Daily Mail reader/imperialist. It seems to come from woolly relativists who turn up to Keller’s church in New York. There’s no logic to this objection, since there’s no reason why such a God couldn’t exist and disapprove of the continual debauch which makes up the life of every atheist.

The Church is responsible for so much injustice

<lj-cut>Along with C.S. Lewis, whose works Keller treats as a sort of New New Testament, Keller argues that you shouldn’t judge Christianity by Christians, because the church attracts strange and damaged people (like me, for example) and when you meet someone, you don’t know what they’ve been through in their past.

The assumption here is that there’s a good reason for changes brought about by God to take a long time. It’s odd that it does for some people and not others, though, isn’t it? If God can turn around Saul and those former drug addicts you get giving their testimonies at some churches, you’d’ve thought he wouldn’t have so much trouble making some Christians (who the Bible says have God living in them, remember) less insufferable, for example. It’s almost as if there’s no supernatural involvement at all: some people dramatically change their lives when exposed to some ideas, and others only partially absorb them and take time to move.

The rest of the chapter is the religion vs secularism murder drinking game (drink if the theist mentions Pol Pot or Stalin, drink if the atheist mentions the Crusades or 911, down your glass if anyone mentions Hitler). This can be fun and can motivate your side, but I’m not sure it moves the theist/atheist debate anywhere, so while I have engaged in it in the past, I now think is pretty pointless. I don’t see any way of showing that Christians are any better or worse than atheists, so the original objection that Keller is responding to doesn’t seem a good one. Arguably, though, if Christianity is true, Christians ought to be clearly better.

How can a loving God send people to Hell?

<lj-cut>Keller says that our problem with judgement is cultural, and that other cultures exposed to Christianity like the judgement stuff but don’t like the turning the other cheek stuff. He says he asked one person who objected to Hell whether she would say that her culture was superior to non-Western ones. The right answer to this is “Well, I think my personal morality is, otherwise what the Hell am I doing?” or possibly “Well, maybe not in general, but I’m fairly sure eternal torture is a bad thing”. Keller’s politically correct one-up-manship is a good way to make woolly relativists back down, so presumably works against the liberals who turn up at his New York church.

Keller then moves on to argue that God doesn’t send people to Hell, as such. His view of judgement owes more to the bowdlerisation of Hell in C.S. Lewis’s New New Testament than it does to the New Testament. Lewis and Keller think that Hell is a continuation of the soul’s trajectory at death, that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside, that Hell is ultimately God saying “have it your way”. Lewis says “It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us, there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud”.

To support Lewis’s ideas, Keller quotes Romans 1:24-26, a passage about God “giving people over” to their sins. This passage is actually about red-hot girl-on-girl action, not the fires of Hell. The New Testament is a bit less reticent about God’s role in sending people to Hell than Keller. Reading it, you’ll find that God has appointed a day, and a judge who will condemn people to the fire. It’s hard to fit this positive action from God into Keller’s scheme.

So where did Keller’s ideas come from? Lewis’s (and hence Keller’s) Hell is the Buddhist Hungry Ghosts realm, but without the possibility of rebirth. People in Keller’s Hell are dominated by their addictions, but these cannot satisfy them, and this continues forever. The fires of this Hell are the disintegration caused by self-centredness and addiction.

Alas, you’ll find none of this stuff in the Bible, where the fire is punishment from God (the correct evangelical term is eternal conscious torment). Keller quotes the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in support of the Hungry Ghost Hell. His exposition of the passage talks about how the Rich Man is self-centred in that he still expects Lazarus to fetch water for him, but unfortunately ignores the fact that this is because the Rich Man is being tortured by fire.

Since Keller’s Hell is the Hungry Ghosts realm, I wondered what his response would be to people attempting to avoid self-centredness by other means. Keller says that “When we build our lives on anything but God, that thing – though a good thing – becomes an enslaving addiction, something we have to have to be happy”. This claim is asserted without evidence.

Keller offers poor evidence for believing Lewis over the Bible about hell. The Bible’s actual view is less palatable than Lewis’s, and evangelical Christians (like the rest of us) need to face up to the parts of their beliefs which hurt to think about. Hell is torture at God’s express command. If you believe in the Bible’s version, you think your non-Christian family and friends morally deserve to be in torment forever, and you accept that they probably will be unless they convert. Somehow, in tandem with this, you must try to believe that God is loving and very intelligent. Good luck with that one. It’s no wonder that most evangelicals (with some notable exceptions) believe they should believe in Hell, but don’t actually believe in it.

Science has disproved Christianity

<lj-cut>Keller, quoting Nagel, argues that naturalism is a philosophy which science uses but cannot prove. So, he says, if anyone’s arguing there can’t be a God merely because they have a prior commitment to naturalism, they’re assuming their conclusion. I wouldn’t disagree here.

Keller goes into an extensive digression about how many scientists believe in God. Like the murder drinking game, we need to be a bit careful here, both when reading Dawkins and when reading Keller. What counts as evidence for God’s activity (or lack of it) is the opinion of domain experts in areas where God is said to have acted (like, say, the opinion of biologists and geologists on creationism, or the opinion of psychologists and anthropologists on religious experiences). The rest is pretty much irrelevant: there’s nothing so stupid that you can’t find someone with a PhD who believes it.

He talks a lot about evolution, probably because creationism is an embarrassment to Christianity for scientifically educated people who turn up at his church. He says he accepts some form of evolution, but, unlike Dawkins, he doesn’t accept evolution as a worldview. The argument is quite confused at this point, and it’s not clear what he means by “evolution as a worldview”. Quotable quote: “When evolution is turned into an all-encompassing theory explaining absolutely everything we believe, feel and do as the product of natural selection, then we were not in the arena of science, but of philosophy”. Keller appears to have mixed up Dawkins’s views on evolution with Dawkins’s general belief in naturalism, since I doubt Dawkins supports the quoted position.

Keller says he himself believes that God guided some kind of process of natural selection (making it a process of supernatural selection, I suppose). Keller has effectively retrofitted Genesis to modern scientific theories. God presumably knew he used evolution to create life when he inspired Genesis, so it is a little odd that he doesn’t mention it. A Bronze Age level explanation of evolution would have been no more wacky than many other creation myths, and would have the advantage that the Bible would look a lot more impressive when a scientific culture discovered it was right.

Keller tells his readers not to worry about all this disagreement among Christians about evolution. Look at the core claims of Christianity, he says, not at this side issue. Unfortunately, some of those core claims conflict with evolution. For example, there’s the claim that, just as death entered the world through Adam’s sin, Jesus’s death for humanity’s sins conquered sin and hence death, as demonstrated by the Resurrection. Does Keller think that the Fall was an event in history, and is he arguing that nothing died before the Fall? If Keller has answers to those sorts of objections (which usually come from other Christians, namely the creationists), he doesn’t tell us what they are and how he knows they’re right.

He rightly says that the evidence for the conventional theory of evolution can’t be used to show that theistic evolution didn’t happen, which is sufficient to do away with the objection he’s responding to, if the objector specifically has evolution in mind. It’s a pretty poor objection, though, as science doesn’t really prove anything. Perhaps a more interesting objection to claims of God’s activity in the world would be to say that God is inert and ask someone like Keller to show why anyone would believe otherwise.

You can’t take the Bible literally

<lj-cut>Keller limits himself to talking about the Gospels. He says that they were written too soon after Jesus’s life to be fictionalised accounts, because their first readers could have checked up on their accuracy; their content isn’t what we’d expect of legends composed by the early church (the female witnesses to the Resurrection, Peter’s denial of Jesus when Peter went on to head the church); and that the gospels have the literary form of eye-witness accounts, but the modern novel had not been invented yet, so they are intended as reportage.

I’m no historian, so I’m not really able to check these claims out. I’d be interested to know what my readers think, and I’ll probably be looking into this stuff at some point in the future. My meta-problem with this stuff is having to rely on ancient written accounts of stuff I give very low credence to by default. Does God really want us all to become experts in ancient literature? I can think of easier ways to convince me.

Keller then addresses cultural, rather than historical, objections to the Bible, arguing, along with New New Testament author C.S. Lewis, that such objections may be assuming that older societies were “primitive”, but that our grandchildren may find some of our beliefs equally primitive. Imagine Anglo-Saxons and modern Brits reading two stories, Jesus’s claim that he will judge the world, and Peter’s denial of Jesus and later restoration. The responses to the two stories will be quite different, Keller argues, so who are we to say that judgement is bad and wrong but Jesus’s forgiveness of Peter is right.

So, Keller argues, rather than saying “bits of the Bible are sexist, therefore Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead” (which is, as he says, a non sequitur), we should decide whether Jesus is the Son of God, and if he is, we should have confidence in what the Bible says because the Bible tells us Jesus had such a high view of it (even of the New Testament and New New Testament, which hadn’t been written yet). This is a perfectly valid argument.

Summing up

Some of the objections Keller gets from New Yorkers are ill considered, and Keller bats them aside easily. In other cases (theodicy and Hell), his method is to argue that there’s still a chance that Christianity is true, so the objections aren’t completely conclusive. I don’t find this that impressive, because the sensible objector isn’t claiming that their objections are conclusive, merely that they’re strong evidence. To defeat that, one must produce stronger evidence, which as we’ll see in the next part, Keller fails to do.

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Morality again

There’s a popular evangelical Christian argument against atheism which involves morality somehow.

In the unsophisticated form it’s that atheism leads to immorality (like the caller on a radio talk show Dawkins was on in the US, who said that if he thought there wasn’t a God he probably would murder his neighbour). This isn’t really worth engaging with, because it’s not an argument that atheism is false.

In the more sophisticated form the argument is that atheism, if true, necessarily means that morality is an arbitrary personal opinion. But we strongly feel that some things are just wrong regardless of anyone’s opinion (in this argument, rape and the Nazis are the canonical examples of things that are just wrong). This contradicts atheism, so atheism must be false.

The latter form of the argument came up recently in an interview that Premier Christian Radio’s Justin Brierley did with Richard Dawkins after a debate Dawkins was in. Brierley wrote a piece about it on the UCCF‘s BeThinking.org site. robhu has posted about it on his journal, and has a poll on what people think about the morality of very bad things. Some lively discussion has ensued there.
Edit: but unfortunately Rob deleted his LiveJournal a while back. Here’s what I said:

Although this “OMG you atheists can’t claim Hilter/rape is wrong” argument seems popular among evangelicals at the moment, I’m not sure what the argument against atheism actually is.

Most atheists demonstrably do claim that Hilter and rape are wrong, so the argument seems to be that such claims aren’t well-founded if atheism is true, so that atheism is inconsistent.

There are atheists who are moral realists, although I’ve not checked whether their arguments are any good. Still, there are some serious names in that Wikipedia article (and Ayn Rand), so I’d be reluctant to conclude that they’re inconsistent without looking into it.

Even if atheism is inconsistent with the existence of moral absolutes (note: I originally wrote “moral realism” here, but that’s not the topic), in the absence of evidence that there is such a thing as objective morality, this sort of argument does not seem to demonstrate that atheism is false, merely that if atheism is true, the universe is not as we’d like it to be (in the sense that we’d like it if there were moral absolutes). The objection to atheism on these grounds seems to be wishful thinking.

Personally, while I think there could be beings who thought that rape and Hitler were not wrong, most of us are not such beings and (crucially) do not want ourselves or others to become such beings. That is, arguments that these things are wrong can be recognised by most humans, but aren’t guaranteed by the universe/God/whatever.

I also responded to one of Rob’s objections:

You suggest that it’s wishful thinking if our deepest sense of what is true does not match up with your criteria for objective proof of that sense. Which I take to be a position where you say you have some strong inner sense that say the holocaust is wrong (even if everyone who disagrees is exterminated or brainwashed to believe otherwise), but because that doesn’t match with the worldview you have (that is there is no God, and so no objective morality) you say that it’s just wishful thinking. For those of us have the worldview that God is real, it makes a great of deal of sense.

So, if I understand what you’re saying, “our” is moral absolutists, “your” is me, right? So you’re saying I, pw201, have a strong sense that Bad Stuff is wrong (which is true), further, that I think it’ll be wrong even if everyone else disagrees (which is true). But I also think such a position (i.e. my own) is wishful thinking, which means I look a bit silly.

But in fact what I think is wishful thinking is the objection to atheism on the grounds that it would mean there are no moral absolutes, because the only grounds for that objection I’m aware of at the moment is that the objector would like it if there were moral absolutes, not that there actually are moral absolutes.

You might be saying that what I’ve said about Bad Stuff two paragraphs ago means I do accept that there are moral absolutes, but in fact all I’ve said is what I think, not that God/the Platonic Form of Moralty agrees with me.

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On getting in to Cambridge

livredor did a post on getting into Oxford, inspired by j4‘s original posting. It’s almost a meme. So, here goes. Contains a picture of an 18 year old pw201, so cut for decency 🙂

Portrait of the artist as a young man

The artist as a young manI was bright and incredibly geeky at secondary school (that’s school for 11 to 16 year olds). I went to St Bede’s, a church school. This wasn’t because my family are particularly religious, but because I was ill at around age 11 and they wanted me to go somewhere with a good reputation for pastoral care, and wanted a school which was smaller than the local comprehensive. St Bede’s didn’t have a Sixth Form (that’s the optional bit of school for 16 to 18 year olds, which is sometimes provided by the same place that does 11-16, sometimes not), but after some to-ing and fro-ing, I got a place at Hills Road Sixth Form College.

At the time, Hills Road had a reputation for being one of the more academic schools in Cambridge. In retrospect, the environment was a bridge to university: the pupils had chosen to be there and were pretty bright, there was no school uniform or, thank God, compulsory Physical Education lessons, and a lot of the lessons were fairly traditional chalk-and-talk affairs, a bit like lectures.

I loved the place. I took A levels in Maths, Physics and Chemistry, and an AS level in Further Maths. The lessons were taught by university graduates in the subjects, often with PhDs. I enjoyed my subjects (although I started to get a bit bored of Chemistry later on) and responded to the enthusiasm of the teachers. In particular, Dr M, the physics teacher, had a great way of explaining stuff and made the subject enjoyable. I began to consider studying physics at university.

Hills Road had a good library, and I spent a lot of time reading books, stuff like Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid and Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind, as well as the print version of the New Hacker’s Dictionary. The latter introduced me to the idea that there were other people who found doing stuff with computers fun, and in fact, there was a whole culture associated with it. It wasn’t quite enough to sway me from physics, but it did show me I wasn’t alone.

Wondering where to go

I suppose I started to consider Cambridge after my teachers saw my results from the mock exams we did at the end of the first year and told me I should 🙂 For a state school, Hills Road sent a lot of people to Oxbridge, and they were well set up to provide the coaching for the entrance exams. Being fundamentally lazy (one of the virtues of a programmer), I thought I’d like to continue to study in Cambridge (we didn’t live in Cambridge, so I wouldn’t be on my parents’ doorstep), and that I didn’t really want to do any more exams than I had to. There was the business of picking a college, but Churchill seemed like a good idea: it was modern (so undergraduates could walk on the grass and didn’t wear gowns for meals), it focused on science and engineering (so there’d be lots of people to talk to about that, I thought), it was close to the Cavendish, and it didn’t use the STEP exam, only A Level results and interviews, to offer places.

I went to open days for other places, which occasionally involved a chat with the faculty, but it wasn’t much like an interview. Southampton gave me a two E offer (lots of universities would do that to Oxbridge applicants, hoping to catch someone good if they missed their A level grades), but I liked the look of York, so that was my second choice after Cambridge. I have vague memories of an open day at Churchill, but stronger ones of the interview, later.

Interview

Oxford and Cambridge were, and are, two of the few universities in the UK which interview applicants, rather than reading their personal statements on the centralised application form. Like everything else about Oxbridge, there were legends about the interview: the rugby ball thrown from behind the door, the interviewer who looked over his newspaper and said “Do something interesting” (the candidate set light to it), the quirky questions, slightly crazy dons, and so on. I was a little bit nervous.

There were two interviews in the course of the day, as well as lunch with actual students. The first interview was for your subject, the second was more of what, if it were a job interview, would have been the HR interview. I don’t recall much about lunch with the other candidates: as I was reasonably local I didn’t stay in college, so I didn’t meet many of them.

Dr G did the subject interview, which I actually recall enjoying. There were some questions on orbits and gravity, which went OK. Then he pulled out a Crookes radiometer and asked me whether I’d seen it before (which I hadn’t). So he shone a light on it and asked how it worked. Better than that, he asked me to ask him about it, as part of working it out. So I asked whether it works if the bulb is completely evacuated and he said “no”, so it’s not light pressure (which is actually far too small an effect, it turns out), and I noticed the vanes are dark on one side and light on the other, and so it went, until I got to the standard, not quite right, explanation. We talked about the Penrose book a bit, too.

I remember nothing of the other interview, with the college’s admissions tutor, other than that he asked what I’d say to convince him of my enthusiasm for physics, and didn’t seem that impressed that I’d read a few books. He can’t have been completely unimpressed, I suppose.

A little later a letter turned up informing me a had a place at Churchill, conditional on three grade A’s at A level. When the A Level results came out that summer, I knew I was off to Cambridge. I remember having some misgivings about it. Like many of the big transitions which for which we get some prior warning, I couldn’t imagine what it’d be like on the other side. Still, I was hardly going to back out now.

Churchill

Hepworth, by wikipedia user DmnMy memories of the first term involve being tired and cold and a little lost. Cold because the first years got the rooms which nobody else wanted, so mine wasn’t particularly warm.

Tired because the programme for first year Natural Sciences students was punishing: lectures typically started at 9 am (including Saturdays), and they’d be followed in the afternoon by laboratory teaching. Supervisions and doing problem sheets in preparation for them fitted in around this, maybe a spare afternoon or evening. Lectures weren’t compulsory, but unlike the arts subjects, in Natural Sciences they more or less covered the exam syllabus for that year, so they seemed like the best way of learning the material.

Lost because for the first time I was a small fish in a big pond. I wasn’t the best by a long shot, sometimes I felt I was struggling to keep up. Most of my friends had been to state schools, but some people on the course had done more maths than me (vital for physicists), and some had further tuition from their private schools.

Most of my reasons for choosing Churchill turned out to be mistaken. Being near to the Cavendish wasn’t helpful, as the lectures were in the centre of Cambridge that year (it came into its own in the third year, where the lectures were at the lab). Few people at Churchill wanted to talk shop in the precious moments when we weren’t actively engaged in our courses. In my group of friends, we’d start an earnest parody of a customer/shopkeeper conversation if one of our number started doing it: “Hello Sir, What Can I Do For You?” “I’d Like A Pound Of Apples Please” “Certainly, Sir” etc. (this sort of thing partly explained why we found it so hard to meet girls, I suspect, the more important reason being that there weren’t that many of them at Churchill, a side effect of the science/engineering bias I’d not considered). I did like the informality of the place, but I envied the sheer Hogwartsness of the older colleges in the summer, as we punted by them on the river. Still, at least at Churchill we didn’t have to go across a freezing quad to go to the loo.

Things started looking better in the Christmas vacation (Cambridge, like America, refers to time away as a vacation). We’d been given past exam papers to do, and to my surprise, I discovered that with enough sleep and free from the stress of the NatSci schedule, I could do them. I returned with renewed confidence that they probably were right to let me in after all.

The improving weather lifted my mood and made Churchill’s overwhelmingly brown architecture look less grim. At these times, even Christians find their thoughts turning to women in floral print dresses. Previously, we’d tended to socialise in a largely male group of Churchillians, going to the Union Society (where I first heard Richard Dawkins speak) or to my friend PJR’s room, as he tended to accumulate the latest and greatest music and video (I remember a couple of examples: my envy that he had a laser disc player that took discs the size of LPs; and my initial scepticism when he said he was a fan of Kylie Minogue, as I’d not realised that she’d just re-invented herself). One day, though, my friend APW recommended ballroom dancing in no uncertain terms: “You get to hold women”, he said. The rest is history.

Summing up and application

For me, getting in to Cambridge was an illustration of what the very best of the UK’s state school system can do for you. Hills Road was so good that I knew people who’d come there out of the private school livredor went to, their parents presumably calculating that there was no point paying for something they might get for free. I was also lucky in having parents who could help financially. This was in the era after grants, when you needed a loan to live on (I left in debt, but not as much as I would have otherwise).

I was aware of people there who matched the upper-class twit stereotype, but as a scientist in an out-of-town, brown-brick college, they didn’t have much to do with me. I met a mix of people. I was lectured by some people I’d heard of. Most importantly, I found a niche outside of my college and subject, which is an important trick for staying sane (a couple of niches, in fact, the Christian Union and the dancers). Cambridge is huge and full of bright people, some a little shy or strange, trying to make a place where they fit. I am sure there are people who don’t find a such a place, but from my experience, you’d have to try quite hard.

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Catholics, Know Your Limits

or Bishops Gone Wild III (the first two parts being the statement that gays cause floods and Rowan Williams’s unexpected advocacy of the ideas of Heinlein).

According to the Torygraph, Patrick O’Donoghue, the Catholic Bishop of Lancaster, has said that educated Catholics have let the side down. It seems influential graduate Catholics in politics and the media have been tainted by the dark side of university education, which he helpfully lists as “radical scepticism, positivism, utilitarianism and relativism” (dialectical materialism’s good enough for meeeee).

The Bishop has produced a report aiming to make Catholics “better-equipped to challenge the erroneous thinking of their contemporaries”. I’d suggest a series of informational films, starting with Catholics, Know Your Limits, which would be a bit like this classic, but adapted for the problem at hand, so:

VOICEOVER: Look at this wretched unfortunate. He went to university. Hard to believe he’s under 25. Yes, over-education leads to ugliness, radical scepticism, positivism, utilitarianism, relativism and people mistakenly thinking they can live happy and productive lives without God.

UNFORTUNATE: Feck! Girls! Drink! etc.
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Books

I did a reasonable amount of holiday reading in Mallorca, in between walking along the front and falling asleep on the sofa.

Jed Rubenfield’s The Interpretation of Murder is one of those murder mysteries using historical characters, which are popular at the moment (if you like them, Giles Brandreth has done a couple of good ones where Oscar Wilde fights crime). In this book, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung visit New York in 1909 and are soon caught up in the investigation of a murder and a very similar assault, where the victim survives but can’t remember her attacker.

The book evokes the New York of the era convincingly, a bustling and corrupt city. Modern New York is coming into being: the builders of skyscrapers are vying for superiority, while cars are beginning to replace horse-drawn carriages on the streets. Rubenfield has obviously researched the details, down to the colour of the taxi cabs.

This isn’t a ghastly “Freud and Jung: together they fight crime” story (with car chases), but rather a weaving of their theories and disagreements into the plot, transplanting real debates to the time of their real visit to the USA (although the crime is fictional). With Freud it’s all about sex and death, and so it is with the book, which makes it perfect holiday reading.

John Irving’s Until I find you has all his signature tropes: the wrestling, the young man sexually initiated by older women, the death of a family member, the bizarre and sometimes hilarious set-pieces involving sex or death which make it perfect holiday reading (maybe not quite all the tropes: I don’t think this book had any bears in it). Initially, the book follows the toddler Jack Burns, illegitimate son of an organist and choir girl, as he and his mother trek around Europe in pursuit of his father. Jack’s mum is a tattooist, so we get an insight into the odd world of tattoo parlours, as well as a tour of Europe’s great church organs. Jack’s settled in a girls school, before training as an actor and eventually making his way to Hollywood. Eventually, he sets off again in search of his father, realising that things weren’t quite as they appeared to his younger self.

To say the book is about memory and loss makes it sound terribly portentous and gloomy, but it’s neither. Irving’s an accomplished story-teller, whose work reads to me as if it was made to be read aloud, with the author interjecting asides as the story unfolds. The humour and sadness of the book arises from events described in a straightforward way, without embarrassment or embellishment. I remain a fan.

Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was a bit a curate’s egg. It’s another book which explores memory, this time in the most direct way, following the narrator, Yambo, as he recovers from a stroke which has caused his episodic memory to fail him. Yambo is a book dealer, and still remembers things he’s read. He tries to construct a past for himself, turning to his family and friends, and then to his childhood house, full of the books, records and comics he had as a child. Like Irving’s protagonist searching for his father as an adult, the return of Yambo’s memories in the latter part of the book causes him to re-interpret what he thought he knew about his past.

Yambo was a child during the Second World War, so the book focuses on the rise of fascism in Italy and the necessity to appear to be going along with it, even while resisting privately. The war stories were the most interesting part of the book for me. There’s an awful lot of examination of Yambo’s comics and storybooks which I didn’t care that much for, formative though they were to his character, and the ending left me unsatisfied.

Jan Mark’s The Eclipse of the Century came with a recommendation from Philip Pullman on the cover, so I thought it’d be worth a go. The protagonist, Keith, has a near death experience, but instead of seeing heaven, he sees Quantoum, a remote town in Central Asia. Once he’s well again, he decides to go there. Walking down the disused railway track, he finds a ghost town, abandoned by imperial powers. What remains is a museum inhabited by a bunch of oddballs and deserters of various armies, and the camp of the Sturyat tribe, nomads with a strange religion.

Keith’s arrival and his struggle to work out who’s who are a little slow, as everyone is deliberately obscure in a way which makes the story longer, even the people who don’t really have a reason to hide things from Keith. As things start to get weird, Mark picks up the pace, making it a more satisfying read. There’s some fun mockery of New Age woo-woo in there, too. Unfortunately, the book ends abruptly in the middle of the denouement without resolving what’s going on. I wondered whether there were pages missing from my copy, but I don’t think there were. You’ve got enough clues to figure out what might possibly be happening, but to cut off at that point left me unsatisfied with the book, alas.

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