Archive for the ‘Christian’ category

What are the Chances?

June 8, 2007

 

And those bizarre, one-in-a-million coincidences that seem impossible to explain are going to happen somewhere, to someone. Occasionally they’ll happen to you.

Derren Brown, Tricks of the Mind

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28

I’m not just talking about my wife, I’m talking about my life! I can’t seem to get that through to you! I’m not just talking about one person, I’m talking about everybody! I’m talking about form, I’m talking about content, I’m talking about inter-relationships! I’m talking about God, the devil, hell, heaven! Do you understand, Finally?

Harding, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Greetings.

I anticipate that this post may be slightly longer than the average, so please bear with me. I’m not sure whether a point will become apparent as I write. At present, the point seems to hang slightly beyond the reach of my fumbling articulation. However, if it all ends up in a chaotic mess, then, well, maybe that’s important in itself.

Recently, I’ve been reading Tricks of the Mind by bearded mentalist Derren Brown. I’ve just finished it. It’s a fascinating, not to mention challenging, read. I was reading it on the bus home from work on Monday, and he was talking about the nature of coincidence. His thesis, essentially, is that coincidences are really just those chance events which stick in the memory and are ascribed greater significance than other chance events.

 This struck a chord with me: earlier that day, two (and only two) new patients had been referred to me, from separate sources. A quick perusal of their respective addresses revealed that they were next-door neighbours. This sort of thing tends to make one look twice. On one level, it seems remarkable. But of course, it isn’t any less likely than any other two addresses appearing on the respective referral forms. It’s just that the latter scenario would never make it into a blog post.

You see, stuff is happening all the time. Most of it is unremarkable. That which happens to be remarkable is remembered at the expense of that which isn’t. Therefore, we over-estimate the frequency of the remarkable, forgetting that nothing, like something, happens everywhere. As I sat there on the bus, I started thinking about whether Derren Brown had the right idea.

As I write, I seem to recall putting together a post on this very subject. What caused me to put finger to keyboard in that instance? The fact that every single one of my patients turned up that day, the first ‘full house’ in over a year. It hasn’t happened again since, until today. What a coincidence.

Anyway, I hopped off the bus at Lothian Road and made my way down to the Exchange to catch the next one. And as I was on my way, a cursory pat of my various pockets revealed that I was walletless. After a repeated check of all possible pockets, pouches and orifices, I realised that it might still be on the bus from which I had recently alighted.

I took a moment to set my face into the expression of steely determination which seems to benefit the sprinter, and took off. I eventually caught up with it at the Mound. I was very pleased with myself. I staggered on board, taking a moment to explain my predicament to the driver via the medium of flailing hand gestures and assorted panting. Truth be told, I rather expected that having managed to catch the bus again, the wallet would still be on it. It’s quite hard to explain, but I almost felt like having negotiated half the length of Princes Street, it was only right that it should be there. That I was somehow entitled to find it, and that this was the way it would all work out. Naturally, it wasn’t there.

It is an extremely long walk from the Lothian Road to where I live. You’ll remember the day I lost my bus card, and the consternation it caused? This time, I didn’t have the luxury of paying with money instead. All my cards, money and a little bit of my soul were in the wallet, see? 

Anyway, I began to trudge home. Knowing how long it was going to take, and imagining the usurper of my wallet was already making extravagant purchases on Amazon with my debit card, I thought: ‘wouldn’t it be excellent to find a pound on the ground, with which I could get a bus home?’. I prayed that I would find one, but find one I did not. It seems you just can’t get a coincidence when you really need one.

An hour-and-a-half later, I was home. Once I cancelled all my cards (enlisting the help of Mrs H whenever I was told I ‘didn’t have the authority’), I made a mental list of everything that would need to be sorted out if the wallet didn’t materialise. While I was doing so, Mrs H told me that she’d received a text from Arnold Clark (our mechanic of choice) reminding her that the car was due a service. Apparently, the text arrived as she was driving past that very branch of Arnold Clark on the way home from work.

Anyway, the next day, I got an email from the bank. Someone had handed the wallet in. I phoned the receptionist at the bank, who said that I could pop in to collect it at my convenience. So I did. And when I got there, I was greeted by a familiar face. The receptionist and I, it turned out, share the same bus back from work every day.

Now, all this is very strange. At the same time as I am pondering the nature of ‘coincidences’, they seem to be happening all the time. Is it just because I’m looking out for and remembering them? And if there really has been an increase in ‘coincidences’ (conjunctions of events that seem meaningful to me) what does that mean? Of all the people thinking these sort of thoughts, at least one of us is likely to perceive an increase in these ‘coincidences’ at the same time. Perhaps that’s what’s happened to me.

Or is Someone trying to tell me something?

The Persistence of Memory

April 20, 2007

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I love Salvador Dalí. He is probably in my top five, as artists go. This is probably his most well known painting, though not one of my personal favourites. I thought I’d pop it in anyway. Have a look at his other paintings here.

I was in St Andrews the other day. Mrs H’s father has just retired (read all about it) so it was decided that we all go to St Andrews to get a family photograph. The task was entrusted to Peter Adamson, and a more amiable gentleman you would be hard-pressed to find.

It was interesting to walk around in St Andrews. It’s the sort of place where progress happens slowly, if at all. For the most part, all the familiar shops and haunts are still in their respective places. But now, walking down Market Street, I see no one I recognise. There was a time, of course, when one could walk the same route and be sure to be greeted by friends and acquaintances. But now the faces are blank.

I walked past The Coach House, where I used to live. The landlady’s grandchildren were outside in the garden. They look quite big now. They didn’t look up as I passed.

Towards the end of the morning, we found ourselves down on the West Sands, and we had a few snaps taken by the Elephant Rock. While I was there, I recalled a lazy afternoon on said Rock, a good five or six years back. I sat on the Rock with a couple of friends, just talking. There was nothing that needed to be discussed, but there was no pressure to be elsewhere. It was one of the last days we spent together in St Andrews. Somehow, it was a day that seemed to represent all that was good about being a student there. So much so, we decided to immortalise it, and our existence in it, by adding our signatures to the Rock.

The front door key to my parents’ house in Oxford was pressed into service for the purpose. When I got home to Oxford a few days later, it didn’t work. I never told my parents why.

Anyway, when we were there having photographs taken, I looked for my signature again. It had vanished, scoured away by a few years of gritty wind, and with it the last piece of evidence that I had ever been there at all.

I was just about to leave, when something caught my eye. The handiwork of one of my companions remained:

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As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more (Psalm 103:15-16).

It seems, however, that you can leave a lasting legacy. You just need to press quite hard, and use the right implement.

An Interesting Debate

March 14, 2007

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I had a very interesting evening last night. After work, I toddled on over to George Square for a public debate. The title was Darwin and Humanity: Should We Rid the Mind of God? The two speakers were Prof. Alistair McGrath (Christian) and Prof. Peter Atkins (atheist).

cenobite.jpgAmusingly, a quick look on Google Images reveals that Peter Atkins played the role of a cenobite in Hellraiser 3. I’m assuming it was a different Peter Atkins, but it’s hard to tell from the picture which, after all, could be anyone.

The debate was held in an enormous theatre, which was packed to the rafters. Every seat, stair and patch of wall was pressed into service to accomodate the audience. Sadly, those not in bona fide seats had to leave after the the opening speech. Through a minor act of civil disobedience, I managed to secrete myself into an unobtrusive seatless nook to enjoy the rest of the show.

The event was very stimulating as well as entertaining. The two leads argued their corners with enthusiastic, infectious vigour and were, for the most part, mutually respectful. A quick point here: debates about ‘the God issue’ are often clouded by personal insults flying back and forth. I find all the name-calling a bit distracting, and think that the need to denigrate and poke fun at your opponents is a sign that your arguments are insufficiently persuasive.

There were some interesting points made. Although I have a view about the issue, I will try to be impartial in describing the respective views of both sides. I won’t finish this today, but would like to return to the debate over the next little while.

Let’s start with the issue of evidence. Atkins asserts that there is no robust scientific evidence for the existence of God, and therefore that the only intellectually honest thing to do is to conclude that no such entity exists. McGrath responds by saying that atheism, like theism, is a position of faith: there is no evidence that God doesn’t exist. Of course, Atkins responds by invoking the notion of burden of proof. Essentially, this means that if I want to go around saying something exists, it is my responsibility to prove it, and other people are allowed to remain skeptical until I am able to do so. 

From a philosophical point of view, then, the onus is on the theist to provide evidence for the existence of God. The problem seems to be that, by definition, no scientific evidence could possibly exist that might support or undermine the existence of a supernatural entity, such as we might conceive God to be. Thus, as McGrath suggests, science simply cannot adjudicate on the existence (or otherwise) of God. But if science cannot provide a conclusive answer, where else can we go?

Stay tuned, folks.

Thinking CAP

February 25, 2007

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 I will set before my eyes no vile thing (Psalm 101:3)

Do any of you people read Empire magazine? If you do, you may know that they release a little book of film trivia every year or so, which they obligingly bundle up with their magazine. I think we’re about due another one, but I wonder if I could share some thoughts about an item from last year’s edition?

They compiled an interesting list of the least Godly films of all time based on ratings from the Childcare Action Project (CAP), an evangelical Christian organisation devoted to the study of contemporary culture in America.

There were some interesting entries. The likes of Jackass (recorded as ‘Jacka’ on the site to avoid any offensive connotations) we might understand. Basic was included in the list, but to my eye is more rubbish than morally odious. The one that really took me by surprise was Matilda: it was unrated because the reviewer could not watch it to the end, so overpowering was the torrent of moral squalor exuding from the film.

Now I’ve not seen it, but isn’t this an adaptation of a Roald Dahl children’s story? As I recall, it’s a light-hearted fantasy about a little girl who learns to move things around by the power of thought.

According to the review, ‘adolescent revenge by supernatural powers ran rampant’ in the film, which as a whole was labeled ‘child abuse from the entertainment media’.

I’m not sure what I make of this. I do believe that everyone (Christian or otherwise) should be discerning about what they watch. But is there no room for fantasy? Do Christians feel the same about all the magic and witchcraft in the Narnia books which, after all, practically constitute a gospel sermon? CAP certainly do, accusing C. S. Lewis of adding ‘a brushstroke or two to the painting of paganization of children’s culture’. Gulp!

Even films I consider quite innocuous will usually fall foul of the CAP criteria somewhere. What about Toy Story? Its moral shortcomings include a ‘somewhat graphic fall with no consequences’, which scores a hit in the Wanton Violence / Crime category. And who could forget that instance of Impudence / Hate when one character takes ‘off its lips to kiss its own backside to express opinion of another’? And that’s before we even get to the Sexual Immorality of ‘bare skin female legs’.

For me, the message of a film is a much more important index of its spiritual (or moral) worth than the number of swear words or thrown punches depicted. The context of any ‘Godlessness’ is what really matters. For this reason, I would rather watch a more graphic film with something important to say than some morally redundant rom-com. And I’d still prefer to think of young children watching Matilda (unrated) rather than Trainspotting (31/100).

On Gratitude

February 18, 2007

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I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Maybe it’ll come together about halfway through. Maybe not.

The other day, I overheard a conversation between a mother and her two young children outside the newsagents. The children were asking if their mother if could have some sweets. Their mother responded that she had 12p in her pocket, so they could have six penny sweets each. The resultant squeal of ecstasy almost took my ear off.

As they marched into the shop in pursuit of delightful saccharine goodness, I started to think. A lot of people (or is it just me?) think of children as an ungrateful lot. I’ve starting to wonder whether this impression arises because they aren’t able to articulate their gratitude like an adult. They do, however, know when they’re onto a good thing, and my goodness, they can make some noise about it.

Where does such boundless enthusiasm for the ‘little things in life’ come from? More importantly, where does it go as we get older? You never see this reaction from adults. Not over 6p worth of sweets anyway.

When you get to be an adult, you are able recognise that there are all sorts of reasons to consider ourselves fortunate. Often, these are things that, as children, we took for granted. So why does the volume of our squealing tend to decrease, rather than increase, as time goes by? Aside from at sporting events, adult enthusiasm seems to be a rather sober affair.

If you’re a Christian, there’s even more to get exercised about. If, as we believe, we have been afforded eternal life instead of cold oblivion, shouldn’t this merit some kind of exuberant response? Why do I sometimes feel less enthusiastic about it than a child given 6p worth of sweets? Whatever happened to ‘shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs’? (Psalm 100:1-2).

Just a thought.

Clubbing Together

February 4, 2007

What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god!

Fight Club has been sitting in my ‘to sell on eBay’ pile for yonks. However, I thought I’d give it another watch before it went the way of all flesh. According the the IMDB Top 250, only 31 films in cinematic history have ever surpassed it. Some would even put it in their top ten. Personally, I find it rather heavy-handed (not to mention heavy-going) but can’t help wondering whether there are things we might learn from it, or at least whether it asks some important questions.

I wonder whether any of my gentlemanly readers can relate to what’s being implied in this film? Namely, that there are certain aspects of our nature which are relevant to the hunter-gatherer role but that are largely redundant in modern, Western society.

As a child, did you ever imagine your adult life? Did you ever imagine you would be sitting in a pallid, strip-lit office, pushing bits of paper around, staring at a computer screen with red-rimmed eyes? Or was your imagined life characterised by courage, risk and righteous aggression?

In previous generations, (what I believe to be) essential masculine drives had an outlet in the face of shared adversity. Fight Club highlights the lack of such common purpose amongst men today.

We are the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives.

It seems no one knows how to be a man any more. Boldness, fierceness and strength don’t always go down too well these days, so we no longer encourage them in our sons. Instead, we encourage them to be polite, articulate, nice. Does anyone remember the ‘New Man’ or ‘Metrosexual’ of the 1990’s? He looked like a man (maybe slightly better groomed) but had all sorts of feminine traits and was considered a ‘really nice guy’. What a twat.

Some say the tide’s turning again, and the Retrosexual is on the way back. I don’t really know.

However, I do know that Jesus said “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Sitting here, under the strip light, it feels like there is some important aspect of my nature that isn’t ever being taken out of the box.

I am Jack’s total and utter confusion.

Chasing One’s Tail

January 28, 2007

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We went to see The Pursuit of Happyness the other day. We had to go in the middle of the day, since Mrs H is still not well enough to maintain wakefulness through evening showings, the poor thing.

Don’t read on if you don’t want me to spoil it for you.

I really liked this film. It is the (seemingly true) story of one Chris Gardner (Will Smith), a struggling salesman who, in the face of financial meltdown, undergoes a competitive internship in the the hope of securing a happier life as a stockbroker. It was inspiring stuff.

The title refers to a exerpt from the United States Declaration of Independence. This was thrown together in 1776, after British settlers in America decided that (all things considered) George III was a bit of a rogue, and they were better off on their own. According to the document, The Pursuit of Happiness was one of the ‘unalienable rights’ endowed by the Creator to all mankind.

In the film, Gardner alludes to the notion that true happiness is elusive, and that, in reality, the pursuit is all we can hope for. I thought that this was an interesting perspective, which sadly crumbled when it turned out that, in fact, true happiness was readily attainable. You just have to be a stockbroker to get it.

For me, the film cut off slightly abruptly. I would have been interested to see whether his new life heralded the true happiness Gardner was expecting. I wanted to see whether this happy-go-lucky gentleman would find true fulfillment amongst the guffawing, convertible-driving fops, especially now that his marriage lay in tatters.

Call me a bore, but I wonder whether a safer bet would have been just to get a paid job, no matter how menial, in order to maintain a roof over his son’s head? I concede that this scenario would make a rubbish film, but I am left with a nagging feeling that Gardner’s pursuit of happiness was really just greedy and selfish.

According to Richard Layard, there is a relationship between wealth and happiness, but it only applies to incomes less than about $10,000. After this point, there is a plateau; in other words, after you have enough for the essentials, extra money does not bring about extra happiness. There are a range of fascinating reasons proposed, including the notion of diminishing returns: once we have lots of money, we get used to it and therefore want more. One rarely hears of a tycoon who decides that, at last, they finally have enough money and that they do not intend to accumulate any more.

Perhaps we’re all so consumed with the pursuit that we take for granted what we have. As one wag put it, ‘now and then, it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy’.

Or, as someone else once said:

Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income … Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work – this is a gift of God.
Ecclesiastes 5: 10,20