2008

In a conversation with a Christian (edited: who was actually robhu, as Rob’s given me permission to say) recently, I asked my usual question on personal relationships with God: why do all these people who claim to have one end up disagreeing? How do we know who to believe? To paraphrase their arguments:

<lj-cut>Some “Christians” aren’t true Christians. Which is fair enough, I think, if my question is specifically why Christians disagree. There’s a more general point though, of which more later.

God chooses to interact with humans in a human way, as exemplified by Jesus. He never promised to give people a way to tell who was right. A quick read of the Bible shows that God didn’t always interact in this way. Even in the New Testament, we’re promised there will be signs accompanying those who believe, some of which I’d find pretty convincing if I saw them: I’d certainly respect the religious claims of people doing that stuff more than people who don’t, because they’re showing they can do something inexplicable which is at least worth investigating. Any Christians volunteering to drink poison? 😉 Edited to add: robhu rightly points out that textual critics say this passage has doubtful provenance. Evangelicals generally say the Bible is inerrant “as originally given”, which raises some other questions, since there’s scholarly debate about what was in original manuscripts. Edited to further add: John 14:11-13 promises that whoever has faith in Jesus will do even greater miracles than him, so the odd amputee healing doesn’t seem too much to ask of Christians.

What is noticeable is that God seems to do special effects less and less as we get closer to the present time. Edward Current argues that God’s ability to hide shows how powerful God is, and that God is testing our faith, but, despite his obvious sincerity, I’m not convinced. I think there might be a simpler explanation.

God wants people to know him rather than treating him as an encyclopedia. I suppose the objection to treating God as an encyclopedia must be that it is impersonal, rather than an argument that having access to correct information actually impedes learning. So let’s imagine a world in which God was not an encyclopedia but a teacher of Christians, a good sort of teacher who made the lessons interesting but didn’t let fights break out in the classroom. Does that world look like this one?

Aren’t you just asking why God doesn’t announce his presence? I suppose I am. Annoyingly, someone has got to that question before me and made my arguments better than I can. The brilliant Richard Carrier’s essay Why I am not a Christian (not to be confused with Bertrand Russell’s essay of the same name) contains a section called God is Silent which points out the contradiction between what Christians say God is like and how he acts. Go read it.

My arguments about Christians and their relationship with God are, as my correspondent rightly says, a special case of the general argument that God is silent. Talking about Christians specifically negates one of the common defences against that argument, namely that if God were too obvious, it would do away with free will. But Carrier points out that such defences are ad hoc: who thought to mention that God values free will above almost everything else before people started debating the problems of silence and of evil? What is the evidence for this? If you’re evangelical, where does the Bible say that God values free will so highly? Christians can’t even agree that people have it, let alone that God values it.

God’s silence, and his entrusting of what we’re told is a very important rescue mission to a bunch of people who are pretty bad it, are pretty powerful arguments that he’s not there. If I saw any amputees miraculously healed, though, I’d certainly reconsider.

robhu made a post on the Two Ways to Live presentation, which summarises the important points of evangelical Christianity. That particular posting’s intended to be evangelistic without getting de-railed by knowledgeable atheists, so I’ve move my original comment on it from there to here at Rob’s request. This posting remains open for whatever discussion you’d like to have on it (as do most of Rob’s), subject to my comment policy. Here’s my comment:

Serious points about the video, rather than silly ones, in no particular order:

The video doesn’t summarise Christianity, it summarises evangelical Christianity. You won’t find many universalists or liberals agreeing with it, and I think the Catholics would at least take a different slant on it. So I think it’s a mistake to leave out the “evangelical” qualification when talking about TWTL, unless you really do think those people aren’t Christians (which I don’t think you do).

<lj-cut text=”And another thing…”>TWTL assumes the hearer is prepared to accept that God exists in the first place, and that reading the Bible the evangelical way is a good way to find out what God thinks. This isn’t a problem if the intention is to summarise evangelical Christianity, but it is a problem if your intention is to persuade other people to believe it (which is usually what TWTL is for), because you’re not presenting any evidence.

There’s a difference between creating an inanimate object (like a mug) for a purpose and creating a person. People develop their own ideas about what their purpose is, and we don’t accord their creators (parents) the absolute right to determine it. Of course, a Christian could respond that God is supposed to be much greater than human parents, but in that case he stands in relation to us as a parent does to a very young child, or to an animal. In that case, we’d accept his right to bring us up how he wanted, but the way he ignores some children in favour of others and his eventual decision to shove those who aren’t his favourites in an oven when he’s tired of being patient with them would then become a matter for the NSPCC.

Penal substitutionary atonement doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. God is supposed to be so keen on justice that someone must pay for sin, but not so keen on justice that it matters whether he punishes the right person. Furthermore, in the Trinitarian understanding, Jesus is himself God, so the action of punishing himself starts to look like a game of solitaire. As gjm11 says, sin is so trifling that turning to Jesus can get you off, but so grave that an omnipotent God really has to send people to Hell if they don’t turn to Jesus.

The video guy repeats the claim that we shouldn’t wish God to deal with evil in case he zaps us right now, making God out to be about as clever as George Bush, with shock and awe the only thing in his toolbox. As we’ve discussed before, that argument doesn’t hold up.

It’s rather late, and I’m sat up listening to Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable programme. I’ve been following their podcasts since I was on the programme a while back. The chap on the latest programme (MP3 link), Jonathan Castro, believes in Christianity but doesn’t have the relationship with God which he’s been expecting, and sounds a bit fed up about it.

There was some discussion of what the relationship Castro expected was. One caller blamed the excesses of the charismatic movement (check out the responses for some other musical variants) for the expectation that the relationship would be an intense emotional experience. The Christians in the studio disagreed that this was what Castro expected. They thought the sort of relationship he meant was like a relationship with a spouse, which has emotional component without usually giving you the full Benny Hinn thing. Christians like the spousal analogy, but I think it’s pretty hopeless: they’re using a special meaning of the word relationship which encompasses warm feelings without any communication from the object of desire. I think it’d probably be more appropriate to describe Christians as God’s stalkers.

Listening to the programme, I wonder why Castro’s still going to all this trouble. In the comments on this exchristian.net article from 2007 he sounds like he’s already given up, but he turns up on Premier sounding like he hasn’t quite let go. If I were him there’s one obvious conclusion I’d’ve come to about whether a there’s a God who wants a relationship with me. I wanted to yell this spoiler at him.

Still, he has gone to the trouble, so I’ll add to the standard questions I usually ask of people who say they have a relationship with God: what of Castro and people like him, the earnest seekers who don’t find?

One of Castro’s criticisms of the churches he attended was that they were too emasculating. He turns up in the comments on the BBC’s article about Geezers for Jesus (“to the geezers, I become as a geezer, init”, as St Paul might have said), mentioning charismatic worship songs. Interestingly, Matt Redman, perpetrator of many of the “Jesus is my boyfriend” choruses familiar to anyone who’s been to Soul Survivor, agrees that worship songs aren’t for the blokes.

There seems to have been a reaction against this emasculation of the church, with Americans writing books about how Jesus wants Christian men to be Iron John. robhu recently wrote a scathing review of one of them, John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart. I’ve talked about my own experiences as a nerdy CU bloke in the comments.

Whenever I post a comment on LiveJournal, I get an email containing the text of it. I’ve written a Python program which turns these into an Atom feed, so that people could stalk me more easily by subscribing to the feed. I get into some interesting discussions on other people’s LJs, so I thought such a feed might be useful.

The program checks that the comment is on a public posting and doesn’t publish it if it isn’t (you can do this by submitting an HTTP HEAD request for the entry in question and seeing whether LJ redirects you to login or sends you a 4xx response, both of which I take to mean “don’t publish”). Edited to add: the program also periodically re-checks for posts changing their privacy settings (there’s a cache with an exponential backoff from a couple of hours to a month to avoid annoying LJ: the backoff is restarted if the entry’s privacy changes).

I’m not sure whether to do further checks before publishing the comment. On the one hand, all I’m doing is publishing my own words as they appear in someone’s public posting. On the other hand, sometimes people are quite surprised to find that people read stuff they’ve made public, and I don’t want to annoy my friends. Since I mostly comment on your journals, what do you think?

[ LJ Poll 1242038 ]

People who post D&D campaign reports to their blogs: death’s too good for ’em, I say. I think I’ll make an exception for this one of scribb1e‘s, though.

THE WASTE LAND

‘Antea, in stipendia Roberti, dicerem: ἀποθανεῑν δεν θέλω; respondebat dominus ludorum: alea iacta est.’

<lj-cut text=”The burial of the undead”>
I. The burial of the undead

Hathel is the cruellest month, breeding
Kobolds out of the undead land, mixing
Duty and revenge, stirring
Dire weasels with spring rain.
Joe kept us warm, lighting
A fire in the clearing, feeding
Us with rabbit stew and tubers
Iliriel surprised us, coming up from Arlin
With the falling night; we stopped at the camp
And went on in sunlight, into the castle,
And were shot at, and talked for a minute.
Bin gar kein Kobold, stamm’ aus Arlin, echt Elvish.
And when we were safe, inside the castle,
We climbed the tower with rickety stairs
And we were frightened. We said, Terseus,
Terseus, hold on tight. But down he went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
We watch, much of the night, and clear up the corpses in the morning.

What are the oozes that grapple, what beasts lurk
In this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken mages, who cannot divine
And the trees give no shelter, and the DM no relief
And the dry fountain no sound of water. Only
There is a secret door under this rock
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)
And I will show you something different from either
Skeletons at morning jumping out behind you
Or zombies at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of rust.

Wo ist meine Rüstung?
Was haben sie getan?
Sie haben es gegessen
Das war rücksichtslos.

‘You engulfed me first a moment ago
They called me the shimmering man’
– Yet when you moved on, later, to engulf another
Your flanks full, and my hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my strength failed
, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the corridor, the shadows.
Ich von Panik erfaßt werde.


scribb1e writes:

The Waste Land seems remarkably easy to do this to. Either because great art is characterised by its ability to sustain more than one interpretation, or because it’s a bunch of easily-imitated, pretentious twaddle.

Apart from scribb1e‘s, the greatest parodies of the poem are Wendy Cope’s and ladysisyphus‘s Harry Potter version.

T’other Paul W stepped into the breach for both Clive and Bruce this week, and jolly good he was too.

<lj-cut text=”Doing our bit for heteronormativity”>
The foxtrot from last time now has an ending, so go look at that if you care.

Quickstep:
Natural turn SQQ
Pivot turn: back L, pivot to to point RF to diag centre, forward R on heel SS, stay low and rise into lock
Forward lock, L, R, L QQS
Quick open reverse forward R, forward L, side R starting to turn L, LF back under body in CBMP, back R, S SQQS
Sway thingy: back L to point to wall with L knee bent, stay there and rotate slightly to R leading her to ponce around a bit. SS
Barrel roll: QQS to R, swaying R, turn R and QQS to wall swaying L, turn R and QQS up LoD facing centre swaying R, turn R and QQS to centre swaying L finishing diag centre pointing to opposite corner (not the one between the current long side and short side, the one after that)
Locks into corner, SQQS
Natural turn SQQ
Scoop: back L, side R to face diag centre of new line, lowering into knee with sway to L, SS wait there for SS
Sway to R and lockstep out on L, R, L, QQS
Side R with sway to L, forward L outside partner with sway to R, SS

Alternate easier ending, from quick open reverse:
Chasse to left,
Natural turn,
Chasse to right aiming to far corner of short side with sway to R (small steps to allow lady to move ahead),
Rotate to left shoulder lead and forward lock into corner,
Natural turn
Spin turn etc. etc.

Waltz
Spin turn
Back locks R, LR, L 1 2& 3 maintaining right shoulder back to end of bar
Back R turning L, pivot, side L, forward R continuing to turn to face centre, side L under body in CBMP, leading lady to step through 1 2 3&
Back L, chasse to left RLR 1 2&3, take your time over first step
Curving walks L, R, L 1 2 3
Outside spin: back L with toe slightly in, take heel of RF past lady’s right side and step around her, side L to end backing diag centre
Pivots (2), 1&2 3 1&2 3 (I can’t seem to make the feet work for these when I’m dancing them around the kitchen, since a 180 degree pivot on each beat leaves me on the wrong foot)
Natural turn

Cha
Hip twist to fan
Hockey stick ending
Forward, replace, back lock back
Back, replace (leading lady to alamana), forward lock forward (she locks forward towards you to end on your RHS)
Forward, replace, small cha-cha-cha to left as leading lady open out, replace, spiral, (she has 4 1, not 4&1 to give a foot change), ending in loose shadow hold
Cuban breaks with RF
Cuban breaks with LF
Forward R, spot turn, forward lock
Forward lock,
Forward lock (she turns on this one to get her foot change)

Paul’s Latin top top for the evening was about stepping forward or back in cha or rumba, where the passing foot should have the toe pointing down and the knee as high as possible without lifting the toe off the floor by the time it passes the stationary foot and then take the weight as late as possible starting with the ball of the foot. He was also keen for side steps to arrive with the body over the step rather than going foot-knee-hip, but allowing enough give to settle into the hip afterward. If I do all this, I forget how to do anything with my arms, but presumably practice makes it second nature.

Having dispensed with religion in my previous post, let’s move on to the really important stuff, namely, dancing. In the Melyvn Bragg documentary, and in the acknowledgments for The Amber Spyglass, Pullman credits On the Marionette Theatre, an essay by Heinrich von Kleist. In it, you’ll find the origin of the scene in Northern Lights in which Lyra fences with Iorek Byrnison, the armoured bear. There are also echoes of Pullman’s attitude to growing up: Lyra loses the natural grace to read the aleitheometer as she becomes self-conscious, but is told she’ll get it back if she works at it for many years.

I don’t agree with Kliest’s opinion that a marionette could be a better dancer than a person because a puppet is not self-conscious. If some dancers have their souls in the elbows, they at least have souls, unlike puppets. Watching a dance done well, I’m impressed partly because I recognise it’s a human achievement to make it look good, not merely impressed by the fact that it does look good. It’s hard to feel such a connection with a puppet.

Perhaps’s Kliest’s talk about self-consciousness applies more to doing a dance. There are times when you can lose yourself in it and become unselfconscious. Those are the good times. There are similar experiences in other fields. Programmers talk about the mental state known as flow, where they become immersed in the code, and find themselves looking up after a few minutes and realising hours have passed.

Why is this state so satisfying? Perhaps because the mind’s usual background chatter is silenced. Unlike armoured bears, humans can’t live in that state all the time, but that sort of break helps us keep our mental balance, as I’m sure any nearby Buddhists would tell you.

Metafilter had a posting on the ideas behind His Dark Materials a while back. It contains links to the video of a documentary where Melvyn Bragg interviews Pullman, as well as to articles discussing his literary influences, from Blake and Milton to Arthur Ransome.

The Plot

This set me to reading the books again. I enjoyed them. Pullman’s a craftsman, and the books show off both his skill in writing and his imagination. I still found the ending, the final separation of Lyra and Will, rather forced. Nick Lowe wrote The Well Tempered Plot Device, which partly deals with authorial insertions, not of a character who stands for the author, but of an object which stands for the Plot, so that, for example, we can say that “Darth Vader has turned to the Dark Side of the Plot” (this is also the essay which introduced “Clench Racing”, a sport for as many players as you have Stephen Donaldson books). scribb1e riffed on this, explaining that at the end of His Dark Materials “there can only be one hole in the Plot”, the one which leads out of the land of the dead.

Pullman’s stories are satisfying because they borrow from the greats: the Bible, Milton, Book of Common Prayer (where else does anyone learn the word “oblation”?) and the the English hymnal (“frail children of dust”). I doubt the Bible’s or the BCP’s authors would approve of His Dark Materials, but, as lisekit says, great art is characterised by its ability to sustain more than one interpretation.

The authors

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that God doesn’t exist, and that evangelicalism is like fandom (the latter wasn’t entirely an original idea of mine: livredor defines midrash as Biblical fan fiction). All these people who claim to be in a relationship with God obviously aren’t, so what are they doing? I think they’re not writing fan fiction but living it, creating their own stories in a world they see as belonging to the divine Author, stories which occur after their canon has ended.

In fandom, inserting yourself into the world you’re writing fan fiction about is seen as passé by the experts. There’s a disparaging term for characters who are obviously authorial self-insertions, Mary Sue. In religion, it’s not quite the same. You can and should insert yourself into the story, but you’d better not get too far above yourself if you do, unless you’re very convincing (this isn’t that dissimilar to fandom, since the real objection to Mary Sues is that they’re too perfect). C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere that Christians do not know whether they will be given bit parts or starring roles, but their job is to play them as best they can.

The disagreements within religions which are based on the same book are similar to the disagreements within Harry Potter fandom before the final book came out, about whether Ginny or Hermione should end up with Harry. The bitterest disagreements are always about sex, as illustrated by the perpetually imminent division (Rilstone wrote that in 2004) of Anglicanism into the ones who believe God hates shrimp and the ones who don’t believe in God.

Unlike Potter fandom, in Bible fandom there’s no-one who can produce the universally recognised Word of God, settling the matter with a final book (if you want to remain within the canons of your religion, that is: the Mormons and the Baha’i have taken the approach of adding a new book, as Christianity itself did to Judaism), so people end up grouping themselves into communities which more-or-less share a view on the One True Pairing, and the ideas of each community become fanon to those within it. The Bible is rich soil for this sort of thing because it is great art and so admits multiple interpretations.

The Story

What’s the point of living this way? To be in a story with meaning. lumpley speaks of the fun of roleplaying games as coming from three possible sources: one, wish-fulfilment; two, strategy and tactics; and three, “the fun of facing challenging moral, ethical, or socially informative situations”. He splits up games into two approaches:

Approach one: “made up journalism.” The conceit is, the characters and events of the game are real. The lives of the characters don’t have meaning, the same way that our real lives don’t have meaning. Approach two: fiction. Fiction, unlike life, is all meaning all the time. I prefer approach two. In particular, it’s very difficult to take approach one and yet get fun type three.

What does he mean by “our real lives don’t have meaning”? That shit (notably death) just happens. Wash’s I’m a leaf on the wind/I’m a leaf on a rake death scene in Serenity is shocking, and Anyone Can Die is a rare trope in fiction (except if you’re watching something by Joss Whedon), because we expect fiction to give us meanings for significant events.

So then, God is the Plot, in Lowe’s sense of the word, and if you believe, the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse. If you die, it’s what the Plot wanted. Your community knows they’re reading the canon the right way, that Harry really loves Hermione, that God disapproves of gay sex, or whatever, and everyone else has misunderstood the Plot. Of course, it’s not just about reading the book: you have the spirit of a dragonGod in you, however odd that sounds.

The reason Lowe can mock the Plot is that bad fiction leans on it so hard that it becomes ridiculous. The reader becomes too aware that they’re reading fiction and loses their suspension of disbelief. Why lose it? Because all readers know deep down that reality doesn’t come invested with meaning in that way.

<lj-cut text=”That was a 2 shirt evening”>

Paul pp Clive

B rumba

Forward L, replace, side L,
Top (behind, side, close)
Forward L leading lady to step back and open out, replace, back L leading lady to close up and rotate further into cuddle hold.
Release hold with right hand taking it over lady’s head and out in front of you, rock forward onto R, replace, side R.
Forward and across L, replace R, side L (she ends up on your left)
Forward and across R, replace L, side R (she ends up on your right)
Somehow she ends up in front of you, forward L, replace R, side L leading alamana (I think, can’t see how else the feet for the next bit work)
Rock R, L, R.
close, side, close, L, R, L
Rock R, L, R
Forward L to start again.

B waltz

Start facing diag wall of short side near corner.
Spin turn, usual reverse turn ending, back, side, close, forward, side close.
Check: back R with upper body rotating to L, recover to L, side R to face toward centre.
Weave ending: side L under body keeping as square to her as you can, back R begining turn to L, side L to face wall.
Curving walk to right, R, L, R.
Back lock 1 2 & 3
Outside spin (back R with toe slightly in, pivot L to step outside her, forward R continuing to turn to end backing diag wall).
Reverse turn (I always do a turning lock instead cos my brain is programmed to follow outside spins with it).

Cha, can’t remember which lession

cha-cha right
New York to R
New York to L
Fast New Yorks R, L,
Spot turn to R
Taking a firm hold with both hands, step diagonally outside partner with RF, forward side back turning R.
Back side forward continuing to turn,
Forward side back contuning to turn,
Back side forward (on last forward L, take small step and gather her up)
Top (RF behind) ending closed
Thing like cuban break but stepping to side with LF and closing, twice: 2&3 4&1
Side R, replace, back R, close L, forward R 2 3 4 & 1


C foxtrot

Starting diag centre on long side
Feather,
Fallaway, QQQ
Slip RF back, pivot LF to diag wall, cross RF behind LF QQQ
Continuing to turn L, step forward left, side R, side L under body (another fallaway) QQQ
RF back, LF side, RF forward (feather finish) QQQ into corner.
Forward L turning so diag to new wall with RF closed to L without weight S
Extend RF to side S
Put weight to RF and lower into knee S
Stretch up left side S
Recover and rotate left shoulder foward. S (that’s 5 slows, count ’em)
Recover on to LF, slip RF back to face new LoD QQ
Forward L, side close side backing wall S Q&Q
Weave ending: side L under body, back R, side L, forward R to corner, outside partner QQQQ
Reverse turn (that’s the one turning L), L, R, L, SQQ to end facing diag centre of new long side
Back check: back R with rotation to L
Weave again, forward L, QQQ QQQ


There was a rumba but my brain melted.


For the rest of you: I recently re-read Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, so I’ll post about that soon.

<lj-cut text=”Contains explicit steps”>
Bruce’s B waltz

Starts across a short side:
Natural turn,
Spin turn, (if you weren’t on a short side, you could over turn this)
Turning lock ending diag to centre on new LoD (sway to R on both natural and turning lock, but straight for spin turn)
Running weave: forward R, across lady L, back R, back L, 1 2 & 3, finishing with lady outside on man’s RHS, man backing diag centre. I’ve forgotten the sway 🙁
Tumble turn: back R (woman back in line) pivoting to diag wall, tightly curve steps to left, L, R, L for 1 2 & 3, to finish backing LoD. Sway starts to right and switches to left to assist the final step of the turn.
Oversway: back R, side L to point foot to wall, rotate foot and lower into left knee, right leg straight out to side, 1, 2, 3. Stretch up left hand side of body, allow right arm to give her some more space (one bar). Close R to L maintaining sway, rise and straighten into promenade position, take left foot to side in PP and we’re off again, 1, 2, 3

Clive’s C quickstep

Natural turn,
Open impetus to end in PP diag to centre.
Chasse to left,
Wing (SQQ for woman, only two steps for man obviously)
Chasse to right,
Back L, back R, lock L, SQQ
Two runs back R, L, QQ,
Back R, lock L, back R, QQS,
Back L, tipple to right with sway to right, SQ&Q
Swivel to left shoulder lead, LF forward into lock diag to wall on new LoD, QQS.

Clive also had a waltz which had the overturned spin turn/turning lock ending closed rather than PP and talking a toe pivot on the final step (L) to end backing LoD, but I’ve forgotten what happened after that, so traumatised was I about not ending in PP. Anyone?