Friday, December 29, 2017

The 'Other'

My preferred genre of literature has, since my youth, been science fiction, in cinema, television, but above all in literature. Spy thrillers, crime, literary fiction, all have their merits, and I have enjoyed many of them, but the genre that seems to constantly challenge our knowledge of the world and of ourselves for me is science fiction.

There are many tropes that recur in the genre. The advent of artificial intelligence, the end of the world, invasions by aliens, and first contact with aliens in a less confrontational context.

It is the first contact stories that fascinate me the most. When Cervantes 'discovered' Mexico or Polo travelled to the court of the Chinese Emperor, or Xavier sent missions into Japan, all presented the West with the challenge of understanding alien cultures and societies very distant and different from our own. Now that experience of the other is best explored in fiction, as most of the world is now explored and its cultures and languages catalogued and studied endlessly. And our culture is itself under the scrutiny of these cultures, as they hold up uncomfortable but revealing mirrors to us.

While your average TV and cinema first contact story usually involves essentially human-like aliens, it is usually an exploration of these earlier, colonial encounters with other cultures that are being revisited and explored.

More challenging are those stories that present us with an encounter with something beyond our understanding, beyond our experience, and which cannot be mapped, discussed or catalogued by our senses or language.

The most fascinating recent example of this is Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. The first book, Anhiliation has been filmed and goes on general release in the US in January and worldwide on Netflix in February. By the looks of the trailer, Alex Garland has taken a particular direction with the story that the original studiously eschews, which is disappointing.

In the trilogy, a series of characters struggle with understanding Area X, a region of the southern US coastline that has been sealed off from the outside world by an enigmatic and invisible barrier. It is only penetrable through one, distressing doorway. On the other side is a pristine ecosystem, the signs of the previous human habitation all but decayed to nothing in a few decades, save for an old Lighthouse. But is the landscape and the wildlife that inhabit it what they seem to be? And why do all those who enter come back mad, dead or changed? Something is going on in Area X that defies human measurement and understanding.

Area X is reminiscent of another, inscrutable alien environment, the enigmatic, eponymous planet Solaris in Stanislaw Lem's classic. Solaris is a world covered by an ocean that seems to create structures and forms of great complexity, but whose purpose and function is totally inscrutable. Yet the planet (or its ocean) react to human probes and the presence of scientists hovering above the surface. The most dramatic form of this reaction is the visitors that the scientists are afflicted by - manifestations of people from their past about whom they feel and a profound sense of guilt or grief. What is the purpose of these visitors? Are they probes, lab experiments or an attempt at contact? Or are they just an unconscious response from an entity too alien to truly interact with us?

Area X similarly seems to create copies of the humans who visit - but to what end is totally unclear. And there are other things moving in Area X that do not conform to any known terrestrial form. It becomes more and more clear as time goes by that a particular form of observer effect is going on. Everything, down the cellular level appears totally normal when observed, but there is a palpable sense that the rest of the time, Area X is not at all as it appears to be.

Both the Southern Reach trilogy and Solaris do not give any final answers to the nature of the other that is being encountered. What is clear is that both Area X and Solaris are not knowable. There is a limit to human understanding, there is a boundary to our knowledge.

Martin Luther challenged the scholastic tradition of his day, which believed that all we need to know can be accessed through reason and study, arguing that reason and study can only get us so far, but to apprehend God, we need him to reveal himself. The ultimate expression of that revelation came in the person of Jesus - making that which was unknowable and unapproachable both visible and touchable.

While neither Solaris nor Area X are divine - the are finite, space and time-bound entities that still elude our understanding - they remind us that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in our philosophies. However, it is in the encounter with that which is beyond us, the 'other' that we see a mirror into our own selves. It's not always a comfortable reflection to behold.

Friday, August 11, 2017

More Dante than you could shake a stick at!

Dante! You and your blinking Divine Comedy constantly rattling around my head. All that ‘Halfway through this journey of life’ stuff. Enough to make a grown man stop and reflect. Last thing we should be doing as men, Stopping, that is. Reflecting even less so.

But then there is this gnawing worry that I’ve got it wrong. Why am I not more successful and driving a posh car rather than a mid-range people carrier? Why am I living in a pokey, three-bedroom townhouse with a postage stamp for a garden in a mouldy London exurb and not a big, five-bedroom detached house with a proper garden and my own study? And why am I looking at maybe another twenty years working life at tops, to retire on a tiny pension?

Well old Alighieri Dante knew the human condition when he wrote to opening verse to the Divine Comedy –

When half way through the journey of our life
I found that I was in a gloomy wood,
because the path which led aright was lost.

He was putting into poetic form this spiritual dark night that we now call the ‘mid-life crisis’. He then takes his protagonist on an epic journey through the realms of Limbo, Hell, Purgatory and Paradise to lead him back to the ‘path which led aright’. 

Actually, at this stage, I must hold my hands up and confess that I have only read Inferno, because I found both the purgatory and paradise bits rather dull by comparison, and because I had been entranced by the 1989 Peter Greenway TV adaptation of the first eight Cantos. But this opening stanza of Canto I of Inferno has stuck with me and grown in relevance as I transitioned from youth to middle age and began to wonder whether my life was ‘lost on in a gloomy wood’.

This summer, my better half and children and I decamped to one of those huge summer, Christian festivals that involved lots of excessively loud worship (this year’s styles verged between the traditional U2 and Coldplay rip-offs, and (new this year) Clean Bandit), lots of meetings and seminars and prayer ministry. And camping. In lots and lots of rain and mud. And dirty, smelly loos and showers. And lots of BO. 

We loved it!

The highlight this year (and there were several standout moments, including the aforementioned Clean Bandit style worship rave on the last evening – more in the watching and joining in for me) was Nick Page’s ‘Dark Night of the Shed’ seminar. With much humour and honesty, he began to explore the male mid-life crisis, dissecting its roots mercilessly, cataloguing its symptoms hilariously, and soberly beginning to re-look at how we transform the narrative of our lives.

In short, Page argues, the mid-life crisis is caused when we realise that our false gods are letting us down. Be they the worship of money and consumerism, our long-lost youth, power and status or sex, these false gods all promise us much in our youth, but are revealed by middle age as worthless idols. 

You can see where this is going, can’t you?  

The way through the mid-life crisis is to re-engage with an authentic, Christ-centred spirituality. To recognise it is not our power that achieves anything, but His. To recognise what the Bible says about our senior years and not what our current cultural obsession with youth says.

This is really what Dante was writing about seven hundred years ago. He understood that the mid-life crisis is a spiritual crisis. For me, to discover that there are other men (and women) who feel the same as me has been truly liberating. Even more encouraging has been to realise that they have found a way through it to a richer way of being in the second half of life.

When I started this blog in 2006, I was hoping to write about life and faith and my experiences along the way. Over the years, this has slowed down to a dribble of posts and has been more a cultural commentary than a personal reflection. I’m not ruling out such commentary in the future, but think that there is a more interesting journey to start recording here.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Knowing your scriptures better than the devil: lessons from the Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood seminal narrative of a nameless woman’s struggle to survive in a repressive theocratic dictatorship has gone beyond being a widely lauded literary classic. With its latest incarnation as a television series (it has previously been an opera and a Hollywood film), it has moved into that iconic territory that is inhabited by Nineteen Eighty-Four, We and Brave New World.  It has become a prophetic warning of the danger of totalitarianism.

Unlike those three, male penned titles, Handmaid is focussed on the particular evils of religious dictatorships and the oppression of the female body as a tool of the state. As such, the red dresses and white bonnets of the Handmaids, in particular, have become items of political protest and even fashion statements. They have certainly become almost instantly recognisable, even before the cinematic and televisual adaptations, and have themselves become iconic – symbols of the oppression of women who have been reduced to the status of a womb on legs.

The gender politics of The Handmaid’s Tale is also being seen as very topical, with the arrival of another Republican, abortion de-funding regime in White House. Here in the UK, the current cosying up of the Tory minority government to the Democratic Unionist Party is raising similar liberal hysteria about a threat to abortion rights and same-sex marriage in Britain. While the latter is frankly silly (not only are both issues matters for devolved governments and therefore strictly off the table in any Westminster level negotiations but all the main parties in Ulster at the moment are pro-Life and anti-same-sex marriage - the DUP is not outside of the norm in Northern Ireland in this respect).
Nevertheless, the former has some traction.

The TV series has certainly hit a raw nerve in the States, with its depiction of the rise of the Sons of Jacob (the religious fanatics who take over at least part of the USA to form their Republic of Gilead). We see what Atwood only alludes to – the closing of women’s bank accounts, loss of their rights to employment and rights to property. We hear about a murderous attack on US Congress, blamed on terrorists but actually organised by the Sons of Jacob as a pretext for the imposition of martial law and the suspension of the constitution. One presumes this is after many years of building up a network of supporters and wider cultural acceptance of their particular flavour of ultra-conservative, Reformed Christianity.

It is chillingly not far from reality – similar scenarios have allowed other religious and nationalist fanatics take power in many parts of the world over the centuries. Likewise, the TV show gives us summary executions of homosexuals, abortion providers, ministers and priests of other faiths and denominations, etc. such as may be seen in modern-day Iran and Chechnya. ‘Salvaging’ – the group execution of certain political prisoners is taken from an Iranian model that makes the mob complicit in the death. The segregation of the women into different castes based around dress can be found in Nazi concentration camps and many other regimes. And other forms of violence against women, including female genital mutilation (one character is given a clitorectomy to stop her from seeking forbidden sexual liaisons), also have a strong basis in reality.

But for me, the most challenging element deep down in the structure of this shocking novel is the religious roots of this brutal regime. The Sons of Jacob adhere to biblical literalism. However, as anyone who knows the Bible well can tell you, there are many ways to take the Bible literally, many mutually contradictory, and all reliant on a selective use of proof texts.

When Aunt Lydia, who is the main teacher and moral overseer of the Handmaids, quotes Matthew 5:5 ‘blessed are the meek’ to Offred, our protagonist, to encourage her to comply with her interrogation, Offred quotes back at Matthew 5:10 ‘blessed are those who suffer for the cause of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven’, and gets beaten and cattle prodded for her audacity.  Satan knows the scriptures well, so be sure you know them better.

That, at the end of the day, is how the US sleepwalks into Gilead. As Offred says, we were asleep even when they slaughtered Congress, suspended the Constitution and imposed martial law. The secular majority could not believe it could happen and did not engage with the scriptures that the Sons of Jacob used in what they believed was their struggle to restore the US to a pristine, New England Puritan righteousness. The religious did not know their scripture well enough to challenge the Sons of Jacob, and so many of them fell under their spell.

Christians need to come terms with our history. We did set up brutal theocracies – whether it was the Salem witch trials in Puritan New England, the Spanish Inquisition, Calvin’s Geneva, etc. The church has form. We also did these things because we took our scriptures and used them selectively to justify what we already wanted to do. The Bible is a living book. It teaches us and shows us the way when we interrogate it, but we need wisdom about the questions and to interrogate the whole of scripture, not just the bits we know or feel comfortable with.

As a final note, while The Handmaid’s Tale can seem like an anti-Christian polemic, that would be to do it a disservice. Atwood is far too nuanced a writer for simplistic polemics. The Republic of Gilead is at war with Baptists, Catholics and Quakers, who smuggle fertile women and other political refugees across the border into Canada. Some Christians (at least those from non-pacifist denominations) are spearheading the armed resistance inside and outside of Gilead. Just as not all Muslims (and not even all Shia) subscribe to the Iranian strain that has ruled for decades, let alone do all Sunni subscribe to the ultra-extreme Wahhabism of the Islamic State, so not all Christians subscribe to the doctrines and practices of the Sons of Jacob. Some of them knew their scriptures and their humanity much better.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Generation to generation

Intergenerational wars seem de rigour at the moment, although to me they seem rather hackneyed. The current manifestation is the slanging match between Millennials and Baby Boomers. The latter being accused by the former as wreckers who have destroyed the planet and the economy, leaving them with unaffordable housing, healthcare, insurance and taxes and only McJobs to pay for it all. The former accuse the latter of being snowflakes who need 'safe spaces', cannot decide what gender they are, are unwilling to work or study and have no intellectual consistency.

Cicero famously said 'Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.' Or maybe a blog or a Tweet…. Horace, noted that
'Our sires' age was worse than our grandsires'. We, their sons, are more
worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more

As the philosopher said, there is nothing new under the sun.

The usual moans that one generation has about the other are, to be fair, and as the above quotes show, neither anything new, nor totally without foundation. However, we always relied on one central contract - that the wealth, learning and opportunities afforded to our elders would come down to us, in turn to passed on to those coming behind us. In the last century it became so that we would accrue yet greater wealth and learning than our parents to pass on to our children who in turn would enjoy yet greater opportunity. That now seems to have broken down, with a generation retiring now that will be the last to do so early or to enjoy wealth and the fruit of their labours for so long.

We now see succeeding generations earning less than preceding ones, looking at working longer and enjoying shorter and poorer retirements. We will be caring for our elders into our old age, as they live into their ninth or tenth decade, while our kids will have to live with us because they cannot afford to set up their own homes. Multigenerational households will be inevitable once again. Social mobility will slow down. Inherited wealth is being passed on (often skipping generations) but will benefit only those with affluent grandparents.

Our care system, designed to ensure that no-one would go into their final years uncared for, is now breaking down because we are seeing both an increasing ageing population who live longer but with poor health and increased dependency. Hidden within this are the millions who care for parents, spouses and siblings, many of whom are also older and in deteriorating health. Successive governments have refused to grasp the public policy nettle of finding a wider social solution, including insurance schemes as part of retirement planning.  Many solutions have been put forward, but it requires a government prepared to put in the time, money and political capital to make it happen.

If the generational contract is breaking down, snowflake Millennials resenting feckless and selfish Baby Boomers and vice versa, then how do we expect the young to care for the old, to fund their care or be their carers? Maybe we need some intergenerational reconciliation, because the grim reality is, we will need each other in the decades to come. If the Millennials ? and Baby Boomers hate each other now, how will it be for Generations X and Z when it's our turn? We Genexers will be caring for the Boomers and the Millennials and the Genzeds as we begin to move towards our retirements. Our households will soon include parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren. We'll need to find a new way of relating to one another, because the option to move out will be less and less available for the youngsters, and the option of care homes, let alone domiciliary care won't be there for our elders. We'll need to reinvent family again.

The Jewish households of the Old Testament were known as beth'avoth, or households, and were not only intergenerational (parents, grandparents, children and their spouses and the grandchildren) but also slaves (or bond servants) and foreigners or sojourners. The nuclear family did not exist. Go around the world, you'll find the nuclear family still a recent aberration, to be found in the emerging middle classes of developed and developing countries, but nowhere else. Here in the West where we invented this aberration, we are soon going to have to abandon it again, along with the lone parent household, the singleton living alone or the childless couple in a large, empty house. We'll be sharing rooms, sharing lives, sharing meals, sharing hopes, fears, opportunities and troubles. It may not be as horrible as we fear - in fact, maybe, just maybe we'll find again something we lost a long time ago.

But I bet we'll still moan about the youngsters of today - it's an institutional sport!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Loving the Robot?

The live-action version of Ghost in the Shell is (for the time being at least) out in cinemas. It has become infamous because of an alleged 'whitewashing' by casting the Caucasian Scarlett Johansson in the role of  Major Motoko Kusanagi, a supposedly Japanese character. In the original anime, the character is of indeterminate race, not least because she is, in fact, a cyborg. Not a woman but a sophisticated, human-seeming, armoured chassis holding a human brain. The gender and race of Major is anything but what it seems. The English title taking its cue from  Arthur Koestler's 'Ghost in the Machine', exploring the idea of identity and self outside of our physical body. Major is not really a woman, even if her brain is (or was) - she only appears to have humanity because her body has been created that way. She could have any form.

Why does she have a female form (especially one that is regularly on show in a skin-tight latex combat suit)? Let's be honest, given that the prime audience for anime and most Hollywood action sci-fi is fifteen-year-old males, the answer is not too hard to figure out. Major may be tough, and not have any overt sexuality beyond her appearance. Some may even argue that she is subverting the stereotyping of women, but actually, the film is still pandering to it, just creating the new stereotype of the sexy but tough female warrior that has become fashionable ever since Sigourney Weaver took down the Mother Alien in Cameron's Aliens.

It is interesting that so many depictions of artificial intelligence are female. Eva in Alex Garland's superb Ex Machina is deliberately female, to appeal to the sexual proclivities of Domal Glesson's hapless Caleb, but despite being referred to as 'she' throughout, it is quite clear that Eva is an 'it' - a self-aware machine with the physical appearance of a young woman. Here, the reason for the female form is explicit - she has been created by an alpha male who equates his sexual potency with his creativity and power over his creation and other people.

In Westworld, the Hosts are both male and female, but it is the two female Hosts, Maeve (played by the badly awards-overlooked Thandi Newton) and Dolores Abernathy who achieve self-awareness first, through the violence done to them by men.

In the film Her, the AI is again female and possessing the disembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson (again!), with whom the protagonist falls in love. Like Eva, she is really an 'it' and using her apparent femininity as a ruse to control the men around her. She does not share their feelings or motivations.

As I delve into current science fiction narratives about Artificial Intelligence, it seems to me that really they are more about how men perceive women - tough and sexy, manipulative and other abused, yet triumphant, but all ultimately the creation of men, not people in and of themselves. True AI is not really being explored. Maybe we need to hear from some more female authors to explore the subject in another direction.

I also think this is about male creativity and power over nature - which as CS Lewis pointed out is really about some men's power over other men (and in particular, women) and nature. It is a perversion of the divine cultural mandate of stewardship over Creation. The steward has become the dominator. It also reflects the way men disempower, control and dominate women.

Science Fiction has explored this deeply theological theme ever since Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein. There, the creative male discovers he cannot be a true father to his creation, to which he brings life (a female act) and it is a disaster.  It is far from a coincidence that this exploration of the theme of male power and creativity is explored most explicitly by a female author!

It is also true that science fiction has a habit of becoming reality.  This is almost certainly at least in part true because the engineers and thinkers behind so much of the technology coming out at the moment were fans of science fiction and are trying to bring these childhood dreams into reality. So don't be too surprised if when strong AI does appear, it will be feminised. After all, the virtual, digital assistants around at the moment, from Siri to Cortana and Alexa are given female personas in both name and voice. 

Deep AI - self-aware machines like Ex-Machina's Eva - is a long way off and may never arrive. But in the meantime, how we interact with increasingly intelligent technology, with the creation and with other human beings is being shaped by this dominating, will-to-power mentality here and now. Will that technology in time replace the human creativity and intelligence that gave rise to it and in turn become another means to control and dominate humanity and creation?


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