September 2006

Martin Amis writes on Islam and Islamism in The Observer:

It has been seriously suggested, by serious commentators, that suicide-mass murderers are searching for the simplest means of getting a girlfriend. It may be, too, that some of them are searching for the simplest means of getting a drink. Although alcohol, like extramarital sex, may be strictly forbidden in life, there is, in death, no shortage of either. As well as the Koranic virgins, ‘as chaste’, for the time being, ‘as the sheltered eggs of ostriches’, there is also a ‘gushing fountain’ of white wine (wine ‘that will neither pain their heads nor take away their reason’).

He refers to Philip Larkin’s Aubade and Church Going, neither of which I’d read before, both of which are well worth reading.

Amis thinks that Islamism is best tackled by raising the consciousness of Muslim women, which sounds like a good idea, but I’m not sure how you’d go about it. One can imagine that attempts to imitate Lysistrata will result in more women being on the receiving end of the belt he speaks of.

He ends with yet another call for people to take on the Invisible Friend followers:

Even so, the time has come for a measure of impatience in our dealings with those who would take an innocent personal pronoun, which was just minding its own business, and exalt it with a capital letter. Opposition to religion already occupies the high ground, intellectually and morally. People of independent mind should now start to claim the spiritual high ground, too.

Amen to that.

Edited to add: Steven Scholl takes issue with Amis’s generalisations.

Premier Christian Radio have put up the audio of the Unbelievable discussion programme I was on. You can download the MP3 from

Here’s my director’s commentary track (except I wasn’t a director, but you get the idea).

The first phone-in question from Steven Carr is a hard one for Christians. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus talks of God being like a shepherd who seeks each lost sheep. Steven said “a good shepherd is not one who says ‘I have given the lost sheep enough evidence to find its way home'”, provoking laughter in the studio because we all realised how Steven had struck home, I think. Some people (St Paul, for example) seem to get dramatic experiences, whereas some don’t. This is inconsistent with a God who we’re told seeks out everyone. The usual Christian defence is to say that God cannot over-ride our free-will and make us believe (C.S. Lewis says “he cannot rape; he must woo”). But God wasn’t so concerned with St Paul’s free-will and autonomy that he could not knock him off his horse on the way to Damascus, yet St Paul’s sort of experience is rare.

Marvin’s call was interesting, and all of us in the studio regretted that we didn’t get the chance to discuss all his points. His first point was that to accept the existence of evil one has to accept the existence of God who creates good and evil. I didn’t really follow that argument. The existence of evil seems to be merely a matter of people doing stuff I consider bad, and I don’t need to suppose that God made them do it. It’s possible he was arguing that without God we have no moral basis to call something evil, something which I’ve touched on before.

Marvin mentioned Anselm’s Ontological Argument, but Paul Clarke agreed that he’d concede that one.

Marvin’s second point was that we accept the truth of other classical writings, so why not the Bible? This argument fails because we’re not asked to live according to the teaching of those other classical writings. Something which we’re told to base our lives on should be held to a higher standard. But there are already many excellent arguments against Biblical inerrancy, so I’m not going to rehearse them all again here, but I will talk about the specific example I mentioned.

I don’t think that Paul Clarke’s response to my killer argument against inerrancy holds up. To say that the “we” of St Paul’s “we who are still alive” in 1 Thess 4 could encompass later Christians presupposes that St Paul knew he was writing to such people. My understanding of inerrancy was always that it did not and should not require such an assumption. At the Square Church they taught that the beginning of biblical interpretation was to work out what a passage meant to those who originally heard it (in this case, the people in Thessalonica, as is clear from 1 Thess 5:27). The method of interpretation where you read something like an epistle as if it’s personally addressed to you was right out, in fact.

Secondly, Paul Clarke’s defence of the inerrancy of 1 Corinthians 7 relies on some ambiguity about what the “present crisis” (verse 26) is. Paul Clarke suggested its a some local trouble affecting the Corinthian Christians. But St Paul himself spells this out in verses 29-31, ending with “for this world in its present form is passing away”. Something more than local trouble is being spoken of.

As I said to triphicus, it’s perfectly acceptable to concede the point (as she sort of does) but then look for what a Christian might take from that passage anyway (in this case, that the glories of this world are fleeting, and that Jesus could be back at any time so Christians should look busy). But to maintain that this sort of interpretation is what Paul actually meant to say in the first place, as Paul Clarke seemed to, seems like making work for yourself. It’s only the extra-Biblical assumption of inerrancy that requires evangelicals to go through these contortions when faced with texts like these. Removing that assumption cuts the knot. I’m reminded of the Washington Post’s description of Bart Erhman’s tortured paper defending some passage in Mark, and of the revelation Ehrman had when his tutor wrote a note in the margin saying “Maybe Mark just made a mistake”.

I stumbled a bit when I mentioned Occam’s Razor because Paul Clarke rightly jumped on the fact that in some sense God’s miraculous healing of someone’s fibroids is a simpler explanation than them getting better naturally by some unknown mechanism. Edited to add: what I should have said was that this sense of simple isn’t the one Occam’s Razor applies to.

scribb1e points out that this doesn’t address those people who pray and don’t get better. She also says that unexpected stuff does happen in medicine but it’s not proof of anything very much more than the ignorance of doctors. If a Christian gets ill they will almost certainly pray about it, and some of the people who pray will get better (along with some of those who don’t). You can’t say it wasn’t God’s doing, but you have to wonder about his inconsistency. Edited to add: scribb1e elaborates in this comment.

nlj21 kindly batted off a question to both the Paul’s in the studio. Paul Clarke was right in saying that the fact that some people leave Christianity doesn’t prove it’s wrong, but it does make you wonder about CICCU and similar organisations, doesn’t it? cathedral_life‘s comments on this discussion (where she signs herself as “AR”) seem apposite.

I hope I gave a reasonable answer to nlj21‘s question to me, although I’m sure he’ll be along to disagree.

I loved the question about “a god that suits your lifestyle”, because lifestyle is a Christian code-word for “having sex in a way we don’t like”.

I was expecting someone to try the No True Scotsman argument about me leaving Christianity (“no True Christian leaves Christianity”) so Narna came up trumps and I delivered my prepared answer. Go me.

I found Paul Clarke’s summing up quite affecting, because it was clear that he genuinely was concerned about my welfare. In the end, though, as I said, you can only follow the truth as best you can.

LiveJournal have improved the site’s email notification stuff, so that you can register an interest in any thread or posting and get email (or just a message to your message centre) when someone posts a comment on it. You can also register an interest in a particular user’s postings, and in various other stuff. Currently this is only available to paid and permanent account holders, but I think LJ are rolling out something a bit less good to everyone else soon (looks like free users will be restricted in how many things they can subscribe to).

This system has been carefully designed to only tell you about stuff that you can see anyway. They’ve also thought about the situation where you forget to select the right option and make a public post something which you meant to be locked: the notification email doesn’t contain the text of the entry, so you’ve got some grace about locking it. The new system is a very nice feature, something that makes LJ a much more useful place to have a discussion, since you can now easily monitor interesting posts once they’ve disappeared off your friends page. I’d thought about building something like this into LJ New Comments, but now I don’t have to. So that’s good.

Despite this, there are countless whinging lamers posting to the announcement saying that this feature is going to aid internet stalking (because an internet stalker isn’t obsessive enough to keep hitting refresh on a thread, or to use a free service or browser extension which will tell you when a web page changes). People who believe in security through obscurity are silly. You always assume that the bad guys are as clever as you are (or cleverer, in the case of the complainers).

LJ are also talking about extending the notification system so that soon you’ll have the option getting notifications using LJ Talk, LiveJournal’s instant messaging service. If you didn’t know LJ had an IM service, now you do. It’ll talk to any program which uses the standard Jabber protocol. I’m using Adium, Windows users might like Gaim (both of these support other protocols like MSN Messenger and AIM, so you don’t need to keep multiple IM programs running). By default, your buddies on the chat service are your LJ friends. Say hello if you see me on there.

I’m back home after a long day, with a flying visit to London for my appearance on Premier Christian Radio, followed by lizardc‘s party.

The Premier show went well, I think. It’s all a bit of a blur in retrospect. They’re posting me an MP3 of the show, so I’ll put that up somewhere once I get my hands on it.

Paul Clarke, my opposite number, was friendly and interesting to chat to, both before and during the show. You can see why St Helen’s Bishopsgate made him an evangelist.

It was nice to get a friendly call from Steven Carr, as most of the calls and emails took the Christian side, as I expected. Steven’s question was why we can’t all have Damascene road conversion experiences, given that we’re told that God seeks us out as a shepherd seeks out a lost sheep.

The format wasn’t a in-depth discussion, but rather a rapid responses to calls and Paul Clarke’s points. We didn’t get to go back and forth on a topic, which was a shame but was necessary to stop the listeners getting restive, apparently. I think there was more to say about my favourite Biblical contradiction, for example. The other Paul gave the standard evangelical response to that, but I think I could have made my case better if I’d been allowed to respond to his response (1 Cor 7:29-31 seem conclusive to me, as I mentioned to triphicus in that thread).

I was told by both Paul Clarke and scribb1e that I’d done well in handling the callers. I’d already decided that it was important not to get angry or to deride the opinions of people, however much I disagreed with them. I hope I managed it.

It was an interesting experience, both for the discussion we did manage to have and for the coolness of being in a real live radio studio. Once the show began and my initial nerves had calmed, I enjoyed it.

I’ll write some more about it later, but right now I need some sleep.