The Taming of the Shrike

I never really planned to get a pet.

Apart from the various buckets of tadpoles and jam jars of caterpillars I inflicted on my mother, I never had an animal growing up.

A lot of Americans seem to have this theory that a kid needs to have a dog, but I wasn’t that kid. I’d have taken a cat, and I thought I’d have liked the idea of a lizard or snake, but dogs just looked like too much work.

My mother in particular doesn’t do well with animals. She gets very nervous around things that move of their own volition, even small furry ones like gerbils and kittens, and I knew better than to even float the idea of a reptile. And to be honest, I’m not sure I really had the temperament for any kind of pet, or if I’d have quickly become disillusioned with the upkeep. Reptiles aren’t easy pets, particularly not in a cool climate like the UK.

A lot later, my Dad had tropical fish, which look really nice but are quite a lot of upkeep for not much interaction, and are fiendishly expensive in terms of start-up costs too.

Strangely, I never really thought about a bird.

My wife, on the other hand, had a succession of budgies (“parakeets”, in American) after her earlier goldfish kept on trying to go outside the tank to play, and I think she only stopped having them because of the travelling she, and later we, were doing.

That and the fact that pets are darned expensive are the official reasons we’ve never done the apparently American thing of getting a pet for the kids.

The unofficial additional reason is that I perceived pets as a hassle. Dogs and cats need their shots and their vet checkups and their special food; dogs need to be walked on top of that, cats need toys and litterboxes. Lizards and snakes need their terraria and heat lamps, fish need tankage and water and all the stuff that goes along with having fish. Hassle.

We recently pet-sat my sister-in-law’s rabbit, which was another type of pet I’d never really considered. It wasn’t really my idea to pet-sit, but I had no concrete objections. Might as well.

The bunny was very affectionate, but I don’t think rabbits are my thing. They shed, they poo everywhere (especially if they’re like my sister-in-law’s rabbit and used to having the run of the house) and they leave bits of their bedding strewn all over the place.

If you’re a bunny person, this is probably no problem. I don’t think I’m a bunny person, and even though I have virtually no sense of smell, rabbit urine is apparently in that cluster of scent frequencies that get through regardless.

It’s a pleasant enough animal, but I have no desire to emulate my wife’s sister and get one of my own.

Enter the cockatiel.

Chewie, the cockatiel

My pastor found the bird flying loose in the drive-through area of a local fast food restaurant.

Actually, he says it was sitting on the roof of the car in front, where two kids seemed to be trying to get it back. Being a good-natured and helpful man, he offered to help, reached out his hand and got the bird to come to him.

Whereupon the woman driving the car said “Don’t you give that bird to my kids! That’s not our bird!”

So he called the local pet sanctuary, but no-one had reported one missing. This was obviously someone’s loved pet, but neither he nor we have any way of tracking its former owner.

My pastor and his family already have a dog and a cat; they can’t do a bird as well. So my wife persuaded me that we could take it in, after the obligatory period following the making of the report in which you’re legally obligated to hold the escaped bird.

I was expecting this cockatiel to be Heather’s pet. She’s the one that’s had birds before; she’s the one that knows what she’s doing; she’s the one that wanted the thing in the first place.

The bird, which we have named “Chewie” after the Star Wars character and after its habit of nibbling gently on fingers and ears, is having none of that. It (“he”, we think) will go to her if I’m not around, but when I’m available, as far as it’s concerned its proper place is riding my shoulder.

Perhaps surprisingly, I’m ok with this. It’s mostly quiet, making some little chirrups and beak clicks, and if it is a boy we’ll be able to teach it to whistle (apparently the ability is testosterone-dependent) and it’s not a heavy weight to carry around. It seems intelligent (birds are generally far smarter than mammals of the same weight), and it’s affectionate.  It even likes LEGO.  How appropriate is that?

It doesn’t make the sort of smelly, annoying, gets-everywhere mess that the rabbit did. Its mess is either strewn seed shells and the like, or neat little blobs of droppings that don’t detectably smell.  Ok, rabbit poo is easier to clean up, but it rolls, and you can’t always find it all.

We’ve had Chewie for just over a week, now. And I find it remarkable that my former indifference to the whole notion of pet ownership should be so quickly and easily tamed by one solitary cockatiel.

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The Power of Story

It’s no accident that Jesus taught in parables. Humans are creatures of story.

Our movie and entertainment industry is largely engaged in the telling of tales, modern computer games, far from their relatively simple Space Invader-type antecedents, are replete with stories and missions and characters and plot. Go back further and the rise of the modern novel developed storywriting into a high art; go back even further and every inn or tavern had its old greybeard who would regale the patrons with tall stories of the doings of their youth. Ancient mythology finds its parallel in modern superhero stories (what are Jason and the Argonauts but the Avengers of the mythic age?); whoever we are and whatever our culture is like, we surround ourselves with many-coloured weavings of story.

Terry Pratchett, late author of the celebrated Discworld comic fantasy series, expresses the story element of humanity with his narrativium: the Fourth Wall-busting magical element that makes sure the universe doesn’t wander off-plot. It’s narrativium that determines why million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten – if heroes don’t overcome overwhelming odds, what’s the point? – and explains why magic works at all: stories want to be told, every story has a definite shape as it unravels, and a narrativium-based universe is very good at editing out the bits that don’t fit.

I’d go so far as to suggest that storytelling is part of the most basic set of traits that make us human, which would make it part of the Divine image that we are told humans bear. God is a storytelling God: look at the Book He communicates to us through. Not a list of commands or propositional statements (though there is some of that), not a hymn in praise of the Divine greatness (though that’s in there too); at root the Bible is a collection of narrative stories. We believe they’re true, factual accounts (with certain exceptions such as parables, which are couched in such language as to suggest hypothetical examples rather than real-life incidents, and symbolic writing like the book of Revelation), but they are primarily narrative rather than poetry, scientific textbook, discursive writing like a Socratic dialogue, or lists of commandments.

This is important because the ubiquity of story has implications for how we present truth, how we teach, even how we think.

As Westerners, we’re very attached to our propositional, analytical way of presenting information. If you were to ask almost any teacher from a Western country to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven, their first instinct would likely be to create a list or chart, detailing everything we know about the Kingdom: what is it, where is it, who’s in it, who isn’t, how do you get into it, all that sort of thing.

While this is a very good method for passing on factual information, it has very little in common with the way Jesus is recorded as having done it. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

  • A tiny seed growing to become the largest of garden plants; a tree that the birds come and perch in…

  • A net that fishermen threw down into the water…

  • A sower going out to sow seed…

  • A man going on a journey, who called three of his servants together and entrusted them with certain sums of money, each according to his ability…

Since we believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, we ought to trust that He knew what He was doing selecting the teaching mode that He did. Maybe our way of teaching isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.

I have to confess that I don’t personally read a lot of Christian books. If you like that sort of thing, there are some good ones out there, but most of the ones I’ve read haven’t stuck with me all that well. I’m blowed if I can even remember the main point of The Prayer of Jabez or Wild at Heart or The Purpose-Driven Life, but narrative stories like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Lord of the Rings or even something completely pagan like the Harry Potter books have stayed with me.

I’ve learned far more Biblical truth over the years from the Chronicles of Narnia than I ever have from any number of teaching books, and in a far more important way. The stories make it live, make the truth something you want to emulate and live and be a part of. There really is a great cosmic struggle of good and evil that will take every power you possess (and a few you don’t) to gain the victory in. The power of love and self-sacrifice really is stronger than all the powers of darkness arrayed in their hellish might. The small deeds of kindness and loyalty done by unlikely, out-of-their-depth heroes really can tip the scales; in the Divine economy, these widow’s mites weigh more than the great gifts of the high and mighty.

Our stories don’t need to be strict allegories in order to communicate truth, either. I’m right with CS Lewis in “cordially detesting” allegory, with its one-to-one correspondence of story and truth, so that the whole thing becomes one of those slot puzzles we give to babies to teach them pattern recognition and hand-eye coordination. The round block only ever goes into the round hole; character X only ever represents truth Y.

“Real” stories are more complex and subtle, alluding to truth rather than hitting you in the face with it. Gandalf’s near-death and return in The Lord of the Rings is suggestive of Christ’s death and resurrection, and Gandalf himself does become a sort of Christological character, but there is no absolute parallel. He’s Gandalf, not Jesus in disguise; you can’t take everything he says or does as What Jesus Would Do. But in his character as written there are truths which the Holy Spirit can recall to those hearts He has been preparing.

Allegory seems to be a persistent temptation for the Christian storyteller. It’s neat and tidy; by one imperious gesture on the part of the writer their story world incarnates the truths they want to focus on in visible form.

But it usually makes for a rather artificial or stilted manner of storytelling that seldom works as well on its own terms as a pure story.

While allegory can sometimes be profitable, it’s so rare to find a well-written one. The Pilgrim’s Progress may be a classic of Christian literature, but it gets heavy and didactic at times, and all the labels are placed so visibly that there’s little to tell but the eventual proof of a character’s name. Where’s the story in that?

I have to confess to a sneaking suspicion that our love affair with allegory as Christian writers reflects a refusal to trust that the Holy Spirit of God knows His business.

If we are truly regenerate, if we have truly come to the saving trust in Jesus Christ and Him crucified that produces real change in a person’s life, we will write regenerate stories. Writing from our heart as believers without necessarily worrying about symbolism will of necessity produce a story as spiritually distinct from that produced by an unbeliever as light is from darkness.

Not that all non-Christian storytelling is necessarily spiritual darkness, either. For those with eyes to see, you can find Scriptural parallels even in the Harry Potter books, and no-one is claiming that Joanne Rowling is a Christian author. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is downright sneaky, putting things in there that even the authors do not necessarily intend. Or as CS Lewis put it, “all good stories are reflections of the one Good Story”.

When we write about great themes like love, self-sacrifice, the struggle of good and evil, triumph against the odds, personal redemption and so on as Christians, of course our faith is going to find expression in what we write. Tolkien’s work is far more intrinsically Christian in this sense, even with its pagan cosmology and elves and gods and magic, than many books supposedly set in this real universe that is a direct creation of God.

Similarly, too, the Holy Spirit working in the heart of a reader might use a single sentence, comment, paragraph, even the very heart of a tale itself, in His drawing of that reader closer to the Lord whether as someone inside or outside the faith. I don’t pretend to believe that JK Rowling intended to present Harry Potter as a deliberately Christological character, but as a person of faith I can make connections whether she intended them or not. In the final book, for instance, Harry is killed by Voldemort, the chief adversary and evil character, and then comes back from the dead to destroy him forever. Sound familiar?

Harry isn’t Jesus any more than Gandalf is, but Joanne Rowling handed the church a great set of culturally-relevant parallels to draw upon when she wrote those books. And the series is a rollicking good tale on its own merits, too.

All this to say what we all already knew by instinct: that storytelling is a powerful thing.

But as to implications for the way we teach, I’m sometimes struck by how dissimilar a modern sermon is from one of Jesus’ parables.

Could you teach entirely in parable-type stories? It’s a fascinating idea. Jesus did it, but the Gospels record that His disciples frequently missed the point or had to come to Him privately for explanation. Not something many preachers of my acquaintance would have time for; the object is to do the explaining, not to tell an obscure tale which requires further explanation before it’s understood.

What’s the point, then? Why take the risk on your hearers misunderstanding?

Maybe some are going to misconstrue, no matter what you say. Maybe it’s a way of guarding your truths from being deliberately twisted by the ignorant and hostile.

Maybe, too, it’s a way to slip past people’s guardedness and plant seeds that will bear fruit in time. A good tale on its own merits can get a hearing where a bald statement of fact will be rejected. Phillip Pullman notwithstanding, there have been hardcore atheists who have loved CS Lewis’ Narnia even with its innate Christianness. We are, as I said earlier, creatures of story, we humans.

Even in politics, it’s easier to make a hardline statement of position if you never hear the story of someone on the other side whose life has been messed about by that self-same position. Listening to their story, you begin to enter into their world, see it from their perspective. Story energises our compassion; they’re no longer a statistic, but a person with goals and hopes and dreams and pain. Listening to their story, we become more fully human, more like the Divine image. We care, we start to love and show mercy. Because we know their story.

Good stories are incredibly powerful things.

Remember, Remember

Remember, remember the 5th of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot

I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot.

People in the UK don’t have fireworks on the Fourth of July. That much ought to be obvious, but I’ve met enough Americans that just don’t stop and think long enough to really realise this on a conscious level.

Anyway, our fireworks happen on the fifth of November, and for a different reason.

November 5th in Britain is vastly different, weatherwise, from July 4th in Texas. It’s cold and damp; not actually freezing (mostly), but weather for wearing coats and gloves and for having bonfires. Which you can actually do, usually, because unlike Texas, the British Isles are not a disguised desert in which rain is a legendary creature rarer than the chimaera. Trying to set a bonfire in Texas around the Fourth of July is asking to set the entire state alight. No exaggeration.

The bonfire also provides a welcome break from the cold and dark of a British November, but that’s not its primary reason for existing.

Just like the fireworks, and like the Liberty Bell and the Easter Egg, the bonfire is a symbol connected intrinsically to the reason we have a celebration at all.

(Incidentally, Brits definitely get the better deal with Easter Eggs. American Easter Eggs are small, plastic, and filled with various artificial-tasting American candies. British Easter Eggs are a hollow shell only slightly smaller than an ostrich egg, made out of chocolate (actual chocolate, too, not that awful Hersheys rubbish) and filled with vastly better-tasting British sweets. No contest)

Anyway…

The difference in history behind the US and UK fireworks days is emblematic of the difference in basal attitude between our two countries towards government. And with a US election just around the corner, it seemed an appropriate subject.

The Fourth of July is, of course, an Independence Day. In popular American myth, it’s the day when the heroic American patriots told the evil British tyrants that they weren’t having it any more, dumped perfectly good tea into Boston harbour and shot at the Redcoats until they all went home in disgrace. Give it a couple of hundred years more and Paul Revere will ride through town at midnight distributing presents of ammunition to all the good little redneck boys and girls.

Um, excuse me. I shouldn’t be facetious. This is serious stuff. The birth of a new nation by telling its former colonial power to butt out, and making it stick. The wisdom and foresight of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with its Bill of Rights.

The point I’m trying to make is that the essence of the Fourth of July is the celebration of independence. From whom? Well, we’ll look at that in a minute.

The Fifth of November, by contrast, celebrates the failure of an act of terrorism. I should probably explain a little for the benefit of my non-British readership.

The potted popular version is that back in the age when Europeans had long and bloody wars over which variety of Christian they were going to be, a group of Roman Catholic conspirators led by, or at least aided and abetted by, Guy Fawkes, plotted to blow up the overwhelmingly Protestant Parliament while the equally Protestant King James I (of England and VI of Scotland) was visiting. (Yes, the king visits Parliament. By tradition the Sovereign has to ask Parliament’s permission to enter; he or she may not do so merely as a matter of right).

The conspirators smuggled barrels of gunpowder into the chambers below the central House, where the aforementioned Guy Fawkes was to wait until he heard the sounds of Parliament in session above, light the fuse and make his getaway.

The scheme might have succeeded, leaving a power vacuum in which most of the powerful Protestant Lords were dead and the closest claimant to the throne was a Catholic prepared to unleash a new round of Bloody Mary’s burnings and torturings of Protestant heretics. British Protestants don’t have a spotless record when it comes to treatment of Catholics, but at least the official persecution stopped short of massed burnings at the stake.

It might have succeeded. The fact that it didn’t was due to the fact that a couple of the conspirators tried to warn four prominent Catholic Members of Parliament not to attend that day, and the four, whether from putting their country ahead of their religious allegiance or from a simple rejection of these violent means, in turn informed the King.

Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed and his ring of co-conspirators was apprehended. And for his act of treason against the lawful Sovereign and Government, he was put to death by burning. (It was a savage age in many ways, and the people were incensed. No pun intended).

Hence the bonfire, to remember his death, and the fireworks, to remember the Gunpowder Plot.

The point here is that the essence of the Fifth of November is the celebration of the preservation of government, and that’s the big difference.

For Britons, by and large, government is generally viewed as benign. Its purpose is to restrain lawlessness and allow decent ordinary people to live out their lives in relative peace. The Royal Family is emblematic of this; the friendly, cosy, limited authority of a good father or mother in a family, extended to the scale of a nation. The Sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland isn’t considered “the Father of the Nation” in the way the Tsars of Russia were, but it’s a metaphor. National government is fatherly, motherly, a close, familial authority which is, when the chips are down, for you, not against you.

This mindset might as well be Martian to most Americans (though if anything, Jupiter ought to be considered Britain’s presiding planetary power. King of the gods, and all that. Jupiterian, perhaps). The basal American attitude to government is that it’s at best a necessary evil. I sometimes suspect that a lot of Republicans are only narrowly removed from outright anarchism, but even a lot of Democrats seem to have a base-level distrust of government that even the most ardently republican (note the small “r”) Brit doesn’t.

Government seems to be viewed as the enemy. Necessary, perhaps, but needing to be caged and imprisoned and limited and controlled in order to keep the blighters honest. Give them the chance and they’ll turn on you in a heartbeat, eviscerate you and eat your lungs. The US political system of checks and balances is an institutionalised version of this mistrust of authority; no one agency has all of the power, because government is by nature untrustworthy.

Even at our most strongly pro-democracy, most Brits maintain a subliminal belief that the institution of government itself is basically trustworthy. While this is not true of any particular government or group of politicians (most of them, in fact, could do with having their feet held to the fire to keep the blighters honest), the integrity of the institution of governmental authority itself is not up for question. On some level, we trust government to at least try to act for the good of the country and its people, whether or not we trust the people involved to recognise what the good of the country is.

Americans are largely the inverse of this. They might place trust in individual political figures or parties, but the system itself, the institution, the nature of authority, is that it is an enemy and capable of great and nefarious evil. We’re free Americans! No-one tells us what to do! Hooah!

The Fourth of July celebrates freedom from the evil forces of government, embodied in the “foreign tyranny” (personally disputed on both counts, but let’s not get into that) of British rule.

The Fifth of November celebrates preservation of the government from evil forces. It’s a significant difference.

And on that note, I’ll leave all you Americans to go and vote on Tuesday, and all you Brits to reflect on the strange mindset that leads many Americans to vote the way they do. And I can’t even shoot up a single firework here in Texas to celebrate the day, because they’re not allowed to the general public within city limits.

Sanctuary

For once, I’m not going to whinge about Halloween this year.

Three years ago I don’t think I was even blogging, but I was moaning about it in the privacy of my offline life.

The year before last I grumbled about the inescapability of it and wanted better answers for my kids on why I didn’t want anything to do with it.

Last year we decided to counterattack by attempting a resuscitation of All Saints Day.

In the course of that discussion with the kids, we apparently managed to penetrate the sugar-induced pink haze around All Saints’ more well-known lead-in and communicate to our children that we weren’t trying to be killjoys who didn’t want them to have fun and get candy; there was and is a serious point to why we don’t do Halloween.

“You mean it’s about the devil? Why didn’t you say? No, I don’t want to do it if that’s what it’s about!”

Now, I know there are plenty of Christ-followers who do feel a freedom of conscience to joyfully engage with the rest of the world on this holiday, but I’m not one of them. I’m not going to tell you you can’t, or even that you shouldn’t. But for us, Halloween really is a celebration of the dark and disturbed. As for me and my house, we ain’t gonna do that.

These days, it seems like the popular Christian thing to do is increasingly to try to co-opt or join in with Halloween but to stand firm against Father Christmas to the extent of raising a generation of Santa-atheists.

Once again, I’m out of step with the up-and-coming in thing, but it looks to me as if the generation of which I was a part, that were refused permission to join in with Halloween as children by well-meaning Christian parents, are now all grown-up and fulfilling their childhood vows to themselves that “when I have kids, I’m going to let them do Halloween!”

However, it seems like our All Saints idea worked.

The family All Saints party was not a great party, as parties go, but the kids got to stay up a bit later than usual, dress up and get candy, so they were happy.

But in its larger aim of silencing the ubiquitous sucking sound of Halloween, it succeeded very well.

This year, our kids haven’t been pestering us about going Trick-or-Treating or celebrating Halloween. The Eve of All Hallows has been once again relegated to its proper place as a non-event.

And in this peace and freedom, a pumpkin can once again be just a pumpkin. Bats and spiders can be just (freaky-looking) creatures that God made. They aren’t symbols of acquiescence in the Grand Hallmark and Hershey’s Plot to let Halloween take over the world. All of the ghost and skeleton decorations are still there, of course, but they no longer feel like they’re taking over. I don’t feel quite so much like the Duke of Wellington’s army at the Battle of Waterloo: trying desperately to hold the thin red line against the enemy’s inexorable advance.

We have found, or built, a refuge. The treacherous Fifth Column elements that kept trying to open the gates have been brought back to the Side of Light.

As the Scripture puts it: “This is the victory that overcomes the world; even our faith.”

Happy All Saints’ Day, everyone!

The Brexit: Reactions from Over the Sea

When something like this happens, as a Brit living in America everyone wants to know what you think about it. What is going to happen now? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? What about this, that or the other?

It’s rather flattering to be treated as a source of primary information regarding whatever I’m being asked about concerning my country, but the truth of the matter is that my first-hand experience of Britain on a long-term basis is now over a decade old and there have been many changes in the interim.

Nonetheless, for the record, here are my thoughts on the Brexit we’ve just voted for ourselves: I don’t know.

I really don’t. I’ve been sceptical of the federalising nature of the European Union for decades now, mistrusting its stated aim of creating a single European state that I feel little to no emotional attachment to (and yes, that has been the stated aim right from the beginning). I don’t like the concentration of EU power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats, I dislike its general wastage of time and money (the British government isn’t really any better, but at least it operates on a smaller scale), I mistrust the necessity of giving up control of our borders, and I do not like the distant, basically faceless nature of European government.

However, I’ve been living in the US for long enough now to understand exactly how small a fish the United Kingdom is in the global pond. London is still one of the great financial centres of the world, but in American financial news it’s frequently less important (and therefore less mentioned) than the French or German markets. And the collective “European markets” are only one beside the USA, China and Japan.

The UK together by itself is a much more viable proposition as a state than something like Scotland trying to go it totally alone, but we’re still pretty small and should not get arrogant as if we still owned a quarter of the world’s land surface.

Also, Donald Trump thinks the Brexit is a good idea, which should give us pause.

Watching from a distance, I’ve become disturbed by the increasingly fascistic and anti-immigrant tone of UKIP and sections of the Leave campaign. Immigration is going to happen whether we’re in or out. We can’t and shouldn’t try to completely close our borders; the diversity of perspectives and understandings brought in by our immigrant communities ought to be a source of strength, not weakness.

Neither should we withdraw from the world into the snail-shell of our Island Britain, drawbridge raised and spears bristling against “contamination” or whatever. Britain really does have a vital role to play in the world, whether as a part of the EU or separately: we have real national gifts and perspective that the world needs. Too many of the Leave camp seem to want to do just that, and I am not with them.

Also, Donald Trump thinks it’s a good idea.

Would we be better off Remaining? I don’t know. We can’t hope to influence the European Union from outside, but we seldom seem to have very much influence on it even from within. Is it better to be a single small fish in a large global pond, or a single small fish in a slightly smaller European pond that wants to assimilate the shoal into being a single large fish? Either way it seems like we’re being eaten.

The EU is widely considered a nightmare of overreaching red tape and stifling regulation, but Britain’s recent record on actually beneficial legislation to protect the weak and the poor from predation of various kinds is not good. Typically we’ve opposed it until made to change our ways by Europe, and that’s not a good pattern. Take note, American Republicans. Sometimes government is there as a sheepdog to stop massive corporate interests from turning predator. The EU has been a force for human rights and peace in Europe. I recognise and honour that.

Also, Donald Trump thinks the Brexit is a good idea.

That’s been one of my main problems with the whole campaign, actually, but particularly the Leave folks. The fearmongering on both sides has been dreadful even from this side of the Atlantic, but the fascistic tone of much of the Leave arguments and many of the people who support an exit put me off, including just about all of UKIP.

One of the things this vote has done is expose how deeply divided our nation is. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain; Wales and England voted to Leave. Older people wanted to Leave, young people overwhelmingly voted to Remain. London voted to Remain, the rest of England voted to Leave.

Is the name “United Kingdom” a bad joke? We’ve seldom before seemed so divided. You probably have to go back to the time of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms before “England” was even a thing in order to reach a comparative level of disunity. What is “Britain” now? What is “Europe”? What are “Scotland”, “Wales”, “Northern Ireland” and “England”?

I suspect that part of the success of the Leave campaign is a reflection of this especial confusion of our national identity as British.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have strong identities as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They have done for a long time, and they hold them tenaciously. Not so the majority English. When I was young the English were always taught that it was wrong to say “I’m English” because we wanted to include our brothers and sisters of the several Celtic nations (that is, the Welsh, Scots and Irish). We were always taught to speak and think of ourselves as “British”, engendering a monumental confusion over what is “Britishness” as opposed to “Englishness”. This was brought to the fore by the recent Scottish independence referendum, but it’s been a real question for quite a while. And I’ve been out of the country for most of that time, so I’m not directly familiar with what sort of answers, if any, my country is coming up with.

Add in another level of “Europeanness” and an EU that really fundamentally doesn’t like the idea of separate national identities and it’s perhaps less surprising that the Leave camp won (or who it was that voted to Remain). Those with the strongest subnational identities (Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which have strong separatist movements and can view Britain as “English rule”) voted to Remain, while the confused English and the much more connected-to-England Wales (Yes, there’s a Welsh nationalist movement as well, but Wales has always been more integrated with England than Scotland is) voted to Leave. London, the determinedly cosmopolitan and internationalist financial centre, voted to Remain, the rest of England voted to Leave.

We don’t know what happens now. No-one does. In a real sense I have little invested in it any more; I live in America now. But I’m still at least emotionally committed to the country of my birth. I’m still a citizen of the United Kingdom rather than the United States, and I still don’t feel I can swear the US oath of citizenship in good conscience while it contains that clause about “renouncing all other allegiances” or however it’s worded. But the situation doesn’t affect me directly any more, so anything I say has to be viewed through that lens.

I’ve not been there for the arguments and wrangling. I’ve not lived in the UK for a decade. I’m viewing things from a distance, and that can sometimes play weird tricks on your perspective.

It will be very interesting to see how it all plays out, though I hope not in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse.

Britain is one of the top three or four economies in Europe. Her exit is going to leave a hole, not to mention potentially acting as the First Domino. But is this a fallacious “slippery slope” type argument? Only time will tell. And while I’m at least reasonably confident that Britain isn’t going to try to retreat from any and all engagement with the outside world, that may not be the case with all of the other potential exitees.

We don’t know what will happen as we try to extricate ourselves from the Union. At least we don’t have to get kicked out of the Eurozone and renegotiate our currency, but no-one can tell where the unravelling of that Gordian Knot will lead, whether for better or for worse.

So basically I’m still unsure over the whole thing. If I’d been registered to vote in it I would have done so (particularly if I’d been living there) but I don’t actually know which way I’d have voted. If I’d never left the UK, I might well have voted with the eventual majority, but I don’t know. It took moving to the USA for me to self-identify as a European, and I still mean that in a continental rather than political sense. But I’m a lot older and less naïve now than I was when I was in my early twenties in Britain, and watching the Scottish independence referendum gave me a certain sympathy for the rest of Europe who have been forced to deal with British Eurosceptics for at least a generation.

Who can say? As CS Lewis says, none of us are ever told what would have happened.

I hope that now we can all come together as a nation and do what’s right, making the best of the situation no matter how we (collectively if not actually personally) voted. We’ve historically been quite good at coming together and doing what’s right when our backs are to the wall. It remains to be seen whether that is still true.

I hope that my country doesn’t descend into the sort of ignorant anti-immigrant near-fascist mess that sections of the American electorate seem bent on becoming. I hope that we actually discover (or reforge) our real identity both as British and as English, Scots, Irish and Welsh. And as belonging to the European continent if not the Union. And as citizens of the world with something to contribute to the nations.

My optimism gives me hope. My cynicism isn’t so sure. And with the turn American politics seems to be taking, I see the same forces of ignorance, anti-immigrant nationalism and snaillike isolationism at work here.

What manner of world are we creating?

Fighting the Good Fight: Maz Kanata and Yoda

Being somewhat slow on the uptake where new films are concerned, I’ve only just seen The Force Awakens.

Today’s blog post (and the first in a while; I’ve been low on inspiration for blogging) concerns this excellent film, and some of the theological implications of it as compared with some of the other films.

In particular, I want to compare and contrast the character of Maz with that of Yoda.

Maz Kanata is a new character introduced in this film, and she’s fairly obviously intended to fill much of Yoda’s role – the wise counsel and mentor figure. Obviously, Yoda died in Return of the Jedi and they can’t bring him back, and someone needs to step into the shoes of such a powerful and iconic character.

Maz Kanata: a sort of bald wrinkly owl

She’s even somewhat physically similar – short of stature and wrinkly with age. There are some differences, though; she’s not a member of Yoda’s species (unless they have some very severe sexual dimorphism, which isn’t totally out of the question). Whereas Yoda looks rather goblinesque, Maz gives the impression of a bald, wrinkly owl.

It seems appropriate. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, and her symbol was the owl.

Yoda: a bit goblinesque?

It’s the character differences between Maz and Yoda that I want to focus on, though, because they’re really interesting and instructive.

We meet Maz operating a bar on Takodana. It’s an interesting place to meet a wise counsel and presumably instructress in the Force, but then, so’s Dagobah. This, in itself, is a really interesting difference. Master Yoda has always had a secretive hermitish streak in him, even in the prequel trilogy. Remember his switch from limping around with a cane to somersaulting in the air with a lightsaber? He interacts with the other members of the Jedi Council, but you’re always left with the impression that he’s fundamentally alone, that he holds them at arm’s length and keeps himself apart.

Maz, by contrast, is social. She runs a bar, which is about as far from hermitage as it’s possible to get. What we’re almost seeing, in fact, is TNG’s Guinan for the Star Wars universe. There’s a tradition of the wise old barkeep with his fount of common-sense wisdom, and Maz is firmly in that tradition.

For humans at least, social interaction is a vital part of what makes us human. Solitude is important (as a true introvert I should know), but interaction is equally vital. “It is not good for man to be alone”; the first thing recorded in Scripture as being “not good”. Maz’ social nature seems, in some ways, more fundamentally healthy than Yoda’s hermitism.

Like Yoda, Maz is obviously sensitive to the Force, and though we haven’t seen any direct evidence of it, every other time someone is revealed as being Force-sensitive in the Star Wars universe, it carries with it at least the potential for Force usage.

Leia has obviously not chosen to pursue study of the Force under her brother’s tutelage, but the implications of both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are clear: she’s at least a potential Force user, able to reach Luke’s mind and direct the Falcon to him in ESB and revealed as his sister in RotJ and blessed with as strong a measure of “the Force is with you” luck as he was in A New Hope. So, by the measure of everything we have been shown, Maz ought to be able to use the Force as well, at least in potential. She certainly seems to be foreseeing when she tells Rey that “the belonging you seek is ahead, not behind”. She may be, by her own testimony, “no Jedi”, but that in itself is an interesting statement with several possible meanings.

Maz’ main Force speech also contrasts favourably with Yoda’s. I’ve examined Yoda’s speech in detail on this blog before (in The Dark Side of the Force), and concluded that, much as I love Yoda as a character, he’s not really very Christian in either his philosophy or his approach.

Yoda’s speech is all about avoiding the Dark Side as manifested in “anger, fear, aggression”. By Yoda’s lights, it’s wrong to feel angry about injustice, wrong to be proactive in opposing evil. Remember, “a true Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defence, never for attack”.

Maz’ great Force speech, on the other hand, is practically bombastic. It’s all about resisting the Dark Side, actually fighting evil, standing up for what is right. The fact that she looks so much like a wrinkly owl is again appropriate, because Athena was also the goddess of battle strategy.

Maz gently takes Finn to task for his incipient cowardice: “I see in your eyes someone who wants to run away”, but she leaves the choice of what to do entirely up to him.

Finn himself is really interesting, too, from a theological standpoint, but maybe I’ll talk about him in another post.

Maz seems to have far more compassion on display than Yoda, too. Compare Yoda’s harsh insistence that Luke stay and complete his training even though he knows that his friends are suffering with Maz’ gentle treatment of both Finn and Rey. Maybe I’m being too hard on Yoda, but he does strike me as being more concerned with “completing Luke’s training” than with any suffering his friends might be undergoing. And yet when Luke returns to Dagobah, all he’s told is that he needs no more training.

Be that as it may, “compassionate” isn’t a normal descriptor of Master Yoda.

Maz is far more Christian in outlook than Yoda will ever be, and perhaps this is what’s behind her statement that she is “no Jedi”.

The Jedi philosophy is one of balance between Light and Dark. According to their religion, they are as uninterested in the triumph of Light as they are in the triumph of Dark. It’s seldom stated that openly, but this is the philosophy underlying the whole Jedi Order.

In Maz, the filmmakers seem to have woken up and remembered what the prequel trilogy completely glossed over: that the Jedi are Jedi Knights. Knighthood implies a fiercely protective, proactive warrior nature that was abundantly contradicted by the prequel movies. In Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan says that the Jedi are “keepers of the peace, not soldiers”, and the entire portrayal of the Jedi Order in the Old Republic is more in the nature of the Shaolin Monks than the Knights Hospitaller. Their headquarters is a “temple”, and they avoid the word “knight” as assiduously as if it were carrying Bubonic Plague.

We have no way of knowing how quickly Maz’ species ages, but she certainly looks old enough to remember the Clone Wars and the rise of the Empire, and she could easily be old enough to have been around and active at the time of the Old Republic.  (Wookiepedia in fact says she’s over a thousand years old).  Maybe she’s “no Jedi” for philosophical reasons, not those of ability. Her presentation of the stark reality of choice to Finn suggest that she’d be uncomfortable with the coercive influence of the Force on “the weak-minded”, and her proactive stance is a very uncomfortable fit with the Zen-like Jedi philosophy.

I know The Phantom Menace implied that there was some sort of Force-potential testing on at least the Core Worlds, and implied further that any child showing such potential was virtually conscripted nto the Jedi Order, but this is one of many problems with that film. There must be those who slip through the cracks, else why Anakin? At any rate, though the implication is that the Jedi Order represent all of the Galaxy’s Light Side users of the Force, there are practical reasons why this cannot possibly be the case. Maz seems like an example.

We haven’t seen her use any of the overt aspects of the Force, like lifting heavy objects, but she seems to be able to foresee, which is itself a Force ability, as Yoda demonstrates in The Empire Strikes Back. She has, however, evidently recovered Luke’s lightsaber either from the bowels of Cloud City or the surface of Bespin, and I’m unsure as to which possibility is more impressive. Clearly, the Force is with her.

Oh, I’m not saying Maz is definitively a Christian character. Her speech to Rey about “following the light within” sounds a lot like the sort of “follow your heart” crap that the Disney corporation usually peddles. But equally, you can choose to selectively interpret, and see it as a reference to the Holy Spirit, or a particular instruction to Rey, who already knows deep down what she must do.

At any rate, Maz certainly seems a far more Christian character than Yoda is: compassionate as well as wise, social and relational rather than secretive and a hermit, proactive in resisiting evil rather than aloof and desirous of a mere “balance” of Light and Dark.

I like her, and I hope she’s in the next film!

SciGirls and the Fine Art of Being a Boy

It seems like a while since I blogged anything, and it’s somewhat unlike me to let the entire Lenten/Easter season pass me by unacknowledged, but Easter seemed to sneak up on me this year in a way I wasn’t ready for. I didn’t have much to say, and I’ve never been very good at nattering on about nothing in particular.

Anyway, here I am again, with something to say:

My kids have discovered a new TV show that they love. It’s called SciGirls and, as the name implies, it’s a group of girls that do various sciency things, run investigations and experiments and try to answer the question of the day.

It’s a combination of live-action exchanges between real women in various scientific fields and school-age girls asking them questions with an animated overarching story that exists to set up the question of the day. If the overarching story is more than a little contrived, the science is real enough, and usually interesting.

Raising a pair of daughters of whom one is the epitome of nerdette tomboyishness and the other is more conventionally girly but still loves anything sciency, this is a great show, and one I can unequivocally get behind. Girls that do science. How cool is that?

And yet.

I have to wonder whether we aren’t creating future problems for ourselves with educating boys.

Hear me right, this is a worthy concept and a great show. It’s important that both girls and boys be shown that girls doing science isn’t something weird or unfeminine. I’m certainly not saying that girls would be better off learning something “traditional” like Home Economics or some such. Within the spectrum of personality and capability, there are indeed girls that love and are good at “boy” things (like science and mathematics), just as there are boys that are good at traditionally “girl” things like art and cookery. Rigid enforcement of gender roles is not now and never has been the answer.

But as I remember my own childhood and look at my own son’s development, I find myself uncomfortably wondering what it’s going to be like for him to try to discover what it is to be a boy in a world where there are no “boy” things any more.

When I was a kid, by and large the girls played House and the boys played War. Girls didn’t want to play War because there were no good girl roles in how we played it, and boys didn’t want to play House because we had only the vaguest idea of what our dads actually did out at work all day (and I’m old enough that it was usually traditionally arranged with the father going out to work and the mother staying at home to manage the household) and the only other boy roles were the kids, and that meant being bossed around by whichever girl was playing the mama.

These days, home situations are complex and confusing enough that no-one knows how to play House, if they even want to (it was always pretty boring to me) and they’ve probably banned the playing of War. In these times the kid’s about as likely to have a soldier for a mother as for a father, which means there are now good girl roles for the game, but we can’t have our kids playing something violent and jingoistic like War, can we?

The point of this reminiscence is that there’s a stage in kids’ development where they start to become aware of the different genders. No, I don’t mean when boys discover girls and girls discover boys in the romantic sense, I mean the age when boys begin to avoid anything contaminated by the presence of girls and when girls begin to think that boys are stupid. The age of, to use the wonderful American word, cooties. For my Brit readers who don’t have this useful Americanism, “cooties” are the mythical gender germs that make “boy stuff” unpalatable to girls and “girl stuff” unacceptable to boys. For my American readers, we Brits have the idea of cooties, we just don’t have as succinct and useful a term for it.

As enlightened adults, we don’t like to see the exclusivity of “boys only” games or the cloaked bullying of gender taunts, and while a lot of complete crap has gone on in the past under the general heading of Boys Being Boys, there is a valuable developmental purpose to the Age of Cooties.

The Age of Cooties is unformed minds groping their way towards an understanding of what it means to be male and female, and in boys, it manifests itself most typically in an avoidance of anything that girls do. At that age, gender identity is a matter of externals as much as it’s anything; men and boys do men things, women and girls do women things. As they continue to develop, gender identity becomes more and more a matter of numinous internals, but they have to pass through the Age of Cooties first.

And herein lies the problem.

As a society, we seem fundamentally confused about what gender identity really is. The old rigid gender role separation just looks like cooties for the adult world, but at the same time we’ve come up with ideas like “transgenderedness”, in which a female psyche is believed to inhabit a male body (why does it always seem to be that way round?) which I can’t help but view as effectively claiming the theologically-unacceptable that God made a mistake when He assigned my gender.

In trying to come out of our societal Age of Cooties, we’ve rightly recognised that women can do at least as good a job as a man in just about everything. We encourage women to go and excel in the traditionally male fields of military service, law enforcement, medicine, political leadership, science and so on. And this is a Good Thing. No, more than that; it’s a Really Good Thing. No-one is holding my girls back, and most of us have stopped trying.

But given the way the Age of Cooties manifests itself in boys – in an avoidance of “girly” activities and behaviours – I have to wonder whether all this right inclusion of girls won’t end up denying these fields to young boys.

We’ve rightly said to the boys that you have to let girls be doctors, be wage-earners, be managers and leaders, do science, go into combat. It is the enlightened stance that any and all of these are now appropriate for girls to do. We aren’t misogynist dinosaurs any more, I hope.

But if being a soldier is something girls do (and it is), what boy in the throes of their cootie developmental stage is going to want to be a soldier? If being a political or business leader is something girls do (and it is; if you come from a nation that has a queen, it’s really difficult to be against women in leadership), what boy in their Age of Cooties is going to think of it as a “boy thing” too? That’s not usually how it works.

And this brings me back to SciGirls.

I’m really happy with the show from the perspective of a father of daughters. It’s actively and presently cool. But as a former boy and current father of a son, I can’t help but feel a certain level of discomfort.

We stood by and let you make leadership a girl thing. We took the point that leadership ability doesn’t segregate neatly by gender any more than athletic ability does. We stood by and let you make military service a girl thing, recognising that if you have the desire and the physical ability then you should not be barred from something just because of the shape of your reproductive organs. We stood by and let you make combat service a girl thing, for the same reasons.

We had a good long struggle with letting women into the pulpit, but most of us recognise that if God genuinely gifts a woman with a preaching gift that it would be a sin to deny her the platform to use it.

And now you’re making science a girl thing. I wouldn’t mind something like SciGirls showing girls taking the lead in the sciences and doing the stuff, except that if you call it “SciGirls”, you can’t have a boy doing it too. The boy on SciGirls is there to have a problem caused by being ignorant or stupid and to call on the girls to rescue him. Like that’s any more of a positive role model for boys than it was for girls. And if you have a science show for teen and preteen girls on your network, that’s going to fill your “science show” slot and you probably aren’t going to also have a science show for equivalent-age boys, so science is now, according to children’s TV, exclusively a girl thing.

Part of the problem is that we seem to be making an assumption that young boys are going to keep on going into these fields anyway, so we are free to show it as an exclusively girl thing. And the only way we’re going to get the girls we desperately need in these fields is if we show it as an exclusively girl thing, because having a mixed-gender crew of juvenile problem-solvers Hasn’t Worked. I’m not so sure this assumption is accurate. I was one of the least “cootie-thinking”-dominated boys I knew as a child, but even I would have balked at SciGirls, asking why we couldn’t have some SciBoys as well. SciGirls is by definition girls doing science. It’s a Good Thing, but there’s nothing in that for boys.

And with every step, the world of masculinity contracts. What are we left with that isn’t something girls do? Heavy construction? Not so. My sister-in-law is in that field, and my own company has several women running dump-trucks and other equipment. Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment? Yeah. Ballet choreography for the overmuscled, with women reduced to the status of eye-candy announcers. Like that‘s something we want our sons to grow up to do. Really, we need to have better answers as a society for what masculinity is about than just a list of things we do, because we ourselves can show you women excelling in every single area we want to name.

Seriously, this is a vital stage of gender differentiation in young boys, and it’s beginning to look like we aren’t letting them go through it. We require boys to let the girls play, and rightly so, but in doing so we deny them the space they need to be boys.

We already have a gender problem with boys dropping out of school. If the subjects that they formerly had as a semiexclusive province get remade into girl things, are more boys going to be inclined to drop out? I don’t know, but I worry about the possibility.

I don’t have any answers, or even any ideas. I don’t advocate going back to a rigid separation of gender roles that never did us any good, but I do think we need to come up with some better concepts of what masculinity is all about. We need more men teaching our children, so that they can see good models of people being adults of both genders. We need to let our girls study science and mathematics and whatever else they want to without denying them the opportunity because those are “boy things”. But we also need to let our boys study and do traditional “girl things” if they want without raising questions about their gender identity. They’ll get enough of that from their peers without us adding to it.

Men can dance, for instance, using an activity that fell into my own personal “girl stuff” category, but they should do so in a manly way.

Maybe what we need is to abolish the categories of “boy things” and “girl things”, but I have a feeling that boys are going to create these categories anew by themselves as they go through the cootie developmental stage. I remember thinking things like “I don’t want to get out there and dance! It’s something girls are doing!” No-one told me that dancing was for girls; I knew of several famously good dancers who were men. But because most if not all of the people willing to get up and strut their stuff were girls, it was nonetheless a Girl Thing; that is, not a Boy Thing.

So what are we to do? Can we both include girls and give boys space to discover their masculinity? How do we go about it? If masculinity isn’t about what you do (and it isn’t), what are we, as a society, going to aver that it is about?

It’s a thorny nest of problems, and one that I have no answer for. Just asking the questions is not enough, but I’m afraid it’s all I’ve got right now.