Don’t worry, the world isn’t going to end today…

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The Ontological Argument

A few weeks ago, BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time did an excellent review of The Ontological Argument for the existence of God. It is available on iPlayer here and is well worth a listen.

On a sillier note, some of the Ontological Argument’s weaknesses, as flagged up in the programme, are dealt with by reference to good beer by Jeff Cook in an article on Scot McKnight’s blog here. Enjoy!

Algorithmic worship

OK, so it was probably because my brain was overheating in the service: Evensong after a rather hasty train journey in the kind of hot humid air you get just before summer rain begins. I only have one cassock, bought for my ordination, in “good value” wool for which I have been grateful in many a cold medieval church building over the years. But tonight was different – I was pouring sweat from every pore as we got to the last song of the service, a modification of an old Dave Bilborough number with dull linguistic monotony. But then I realised that it was possible to trace a simple formula for predicting the words with logical precision:

(Let there be x shared among us,

Let there be x in our lives

Now may your x fill the nations

Cause us, O Lord, to arise;

Give us a fresh understanding of

y x that is real;

Let there be x shared among us,

Let there be x.)

where x is a member of the set {love, peace, joy} and if (x>elements(set)), then x recurses to element 1 of the set in a final element substitution; and where y = {brotherly | sisterly} where (if the nth element of the x set is odd) then y=”brotherly”; else y=”sisterly”.

I’m sure that a proper mathematician or logician would be able to express this rule more elegantly, but at least this minor discursion took my mind off the heat. Also, since it was an Offertory Hymn, I wondered whether it would be in order to augment the x set with a further element, namely, “cash”, but sadly they hadn’t thought of this.

This logico-hymnological phenomenon has emerged steadily over the years as old choruses, which were originally “one verse wonders” have increasingly been pressed into service as full hymns as their original audience has aged, but the principle goes back a long way. For example, can you remember…

(q is flowing like a river

flowing out to you and me

spreading out into the desert

setting all the captives free).

In this case, q can be substituted with the same members of the set used in the Bilborough chorus in the first example.

Of course, like all logical systems, it is possible for bugs to get into the system. For example, the sets could be corrupted with alien elements, either substituted or added. For example, by adding “soup”, “beer” or substituting “lurve” at some point in the set.

I’d be interested if any readers (if there are any left) have other hymnological algorithms they would like to share with me (and the world) via the comments.

Coming to the Watershed in Bristol – 5th March

After the fun of last summer’s Banksy exhibition in Bristol, here comes the movie…

Strict Sabbatarianism on the Web

You have to admire the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland for keeping to their principles: anyone trying to visit their site on a Sunday gets the following…

I tried a superficial attempt to get their server to “break” the sabbath by changing my timezone so that my clock ran ten hours ahead (ie. in Monday), but it wouldn’t play – presumably their site is linked to Scottish time. However, it struck me that the website was, itself, using electricity which had been generated on the sabbath (unless it reverts to battery power). So even by responding to my http request, it was breaking the letter, if not the Spirit, of the law. By the way, I wonder if anyone has told them that the Sabbath Day is on Saturday, and that Jesus was raised on a Sunday – which is hardly a case of God “resting”…

Quit strumming that guitar and cut the cheesy lyrics

It was fairly early into our marriage that my nearest and dearest gave me an honest assessment of my long-term prospects as a worship leader. I’d fallen into it somehow, either because I was the only guy in the university Christian Union who wore a leather jacket or because everyone else was even worse at the guitar than I (except Keith J, who was *good*). But by the time I’d reached my mid-twenties, I’d been playing the guitar and leading worship for a number of years. The problem was that I’d been listening to jazz-funk instead of Christian albums since I was in my teens and it had infected my strumming style with dangerous backbeats, so it was kind of hard to understand my playing. (That’s my version of the story, anyway.) Like most Christians of my age, I never questioned the lyrics, despite the fact that anyone with a passing acquaintance with Freudian psychology cannot sing “Jesus, take me as I am…” without feeling terribly guilty about the sexual associations it evokes.

How refreshing, then, to read Andy Walker Cleaveland’s blog post on Christian cheesy lyrics, with some concrete examples. This is getting familiar territory: Nick Page has tackled the subject in his book And now let’s move into a time of nonsense but his book suffers because he was (understandably) unable to get permission of any of the song authors to actually cite the examples of silly or meaningless lyrics which his book is about. At last, someone’s pointed out that though Mat Redman’s tunes are good (as examples of the kind of genre in which he composes), his lyrics seldom convey much by way of theological substance – in contrast (I would contend) to the much-maligned Graham Kendrick.

But things aren’t as bad as they could have been. My wife’s early ministry of discouragement (“it’s either the guitar, or me”) has probably saved the Christian world from something much worse.

Banksy does some work outside the exhibition

Office-speak

The BBC today is running a great magazine article on the most loathed office-speak phrases. The interesting question is why such verbal nonsense emerges in the first place. The consensus seems to be that it comes from minds which are operating almost exclusively within a work environment which is demanding (or even threatening) but also which is intellectually unchallenging and infertile. The world of the middle-manager is betwixt and between: it is pressurized, but ultimately not to do with life-and-death issues (as is, say, the world of medicine). It is routine, dealing with things which are ultimately banal, but where strong demands are placed on the manager which don’t bear on those lower down the pecking-order of the workplace. It is far removed from the innovative, intellectually challenging and creative environment of the research scientist or the focussed thinking of the academy.

The middle-manager, in order not to go insane, has to invent a kind of linguistic universe where the excitement of other worlds inhabits his or her own. This results in the large-scale importing of metaphors from other contexts which then are over-used, largely because they make the banality seem somehow more imaginative and glamorous. The world of office-speak is, therefore, a game of the imagination which prevents the middle-manager from going crazy with the cumulative effect of pressure and boredom: it’s a survival mechanism buried deep within their brains to prevent them from becoming cleaver-wielding lunatics. For them, the alternative is horrendous. Put yourself in their shoes (you may indeed be in those shoes): you are handed a set of figures which have emerged from a spreadsheet. They indicate an arithmetic difference between profits achieved in the year to date and the profits which should have been achieved in the year to date. This is the result of a simple subtraction, but the implications are that if that difference isn’t closed, either the expectations of shareholders will not be fulfilled, or some people are going to lose their jobs, or someone higher-up the the hierarchy is going to have their over-optimistic assessment of the profitability of the company significantly undermined by facts.

The middle-manager is then placed under pressure. What can he or she do to survive? You can’t simply wave the two figures at the team and tell everyone that they’ve got to work harder to close the gap. The banality and boredom of the situation conspires with the facts to produce demoralisation and further loss of performance. Enter the imaginative metaphor! The middle-manager remembers the phrase from a recent seminar they attended: we’ve got to ‘up our game’ he or she says. Suddenly, the dreary office disappears in the corporate cranium, and everyone is dressed in American Football kit – the crowds are in the stadium all around and just down the field are the ugly-faced opposition. The middle-manager is suddenly transformed into Bull Durham and the adrenaline starts to pump. Imagination turns that little subtraction sum from the spreadsheet into a drama. [Oops, wrong game! see Paul Davison’s comment below!]

The last thing everyone needs is some linguistic pedant who punctures the metaphor with reality. The problem is that the work environment remains as dull as it ever was, which deadens the ability of the middle-manager to dream up endless imaginative metaphors. Eventually, the metaphors become routine, then they replicate and replicate until they take over the entire linguistic field. Eventually, nobody can understand what anyone else is saying because of this verbal fecundity. The whole office is drunk on metaphoric euphoria – until everyone is living in a parallel universe of disconnected imaginative images which have some vague connection to what they’re supposed to be doing. The whole office is on linguistic LSD, just about keeping things going in the real world, but in fact, off somewhere with the fairies.

The problem for English is that so much routine, boring commercial work is conducted in this language that there is a real danger that what started as an attempt at psychological survival has now attained the capacity to alter the language to the extent that it could become a meaningless stream of verbal dope. English could become the ultimate language of meaninglessness.

What is more worrying for me is that most of this is being reflected in church circles as well. The rich theological concept of ‘mission’ was, long ago, imported into management contexts, semi-digested by the behemoth of middle-management culture, then re-ingested by Christian leaders. These leaders have an impoverished view of mission which sees it purely in terms of the statistically quantifiable, where the spreadsheet is Lord. This theologically-starved view of mission debases Christian leadership from the truly apostolic into the managerial. As a result, we start to hear Christian leaders using management cliches, rather than biblical metaphors. So when you next hear your priest, pastor or minister talk about the Church needing to ‘up its game’, you know he or she has finally lost the theological plot. The answer is a sabbatical on a desert island with just the Bible to read. They may come back speaking in tongues, but they might also come back speaking plainly in English. For the mission of God takes place in the real world, not a fantasy one. And true mission involves true words, which call things what they are, and trustworthy language which opens people’s eyes to see what is really in front of them: that which the original Word brought forth and became flesh in order to redeem.

Google cockupiaith

The County of Monmouthshire is well known to be confused as to its national identity. From the Norman Conquest until the 16th century it was part of the Welsh Marches – a kind of geographical no-mans-land, under local feudal barons (the Marcher Lords). After 1542, it was created as a distinct county and added to the rest of Wales by Henry VIII. Nevertheless, it retained a very English identity – especially those parts of the county lying to the east of the River Usk.

The accent of the county varies hugely, from a definite South Wales (and therefore, Welsh) accent, to a very peculiar tongue as you approach the English border. The place-names are also heavily Anglicised, both in spelling and pronunciation, from Welsh originals. “Wenglish”, a curious mix of English and Welsh, is also not unknown. (It’s a kind of equivalent to “Franglais”, the language many Brits speak when in holiday over the English Channel – or if you’re French, La Manche).

Those of us who remember when all the Welsh county names (and boundaries) were changed in 1974 and then changed back again in 1996 can well understand that residents of Monmouthshire would get confused, after they had spent 22 years in Gwent, which was once also the name of the ancient Kingdom of Gwent which covered this part of Wales between the 6th and 11th centuries. People in East Monmouthshire are just plain confused as to which country and county they are in.

However, to add to their troubles, you will find that if you look at this part of the world on Google Maps, the nice people at Google have tried to be culturally sensitive in the marking of the border between England and Wales. They’ve marked the English side of the border “England”. They’ve marked the Welsh side of the border in what they deem to be the local language, so it’s marked, “An Bhreatain Bheag”. This language is Gaelic: spoken in Ireland and Scotland. Not Wales. The local language spoken in Wales is called “Welsh”. So the residents of Monmouthshire now have to contend with the fact that their side of the county border with England is marked in Gaelic. So are they now English, Scottish, Irish, or (just perhaps) Welsh?

The Welsh for “Wales” is “Cymru”.

“An Bhreatain Bheag”, apparently, is Gaelic for “Little Britain”.

Are Google trying to tell the Welsh something here? Or is it just the influence of one particular character in the BBC comedy series?

How come the Pentecostals have all the fun?

We need more of this kind of stuff in the Anglican Church … BOH!

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