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Ian Paisley and the politics of purity

13/09/2014

Ian PaisleyOn hearing of the death yesterday of Ian Paisley, I went back and re-read the chapter I wrote on Paisleyism in my book Evangelicalism and National Identity in Ulster 1921-98. [I see it is a bargain at £132.50!]

The title of the chapter was ‘”Ourselves Alone”: Paisleyism and the Politics of Purity’. It feels like it was written in a previous lifetime and sparked some thoughts below.

Tributes pouring in for the ‘big man’ have pretty well all revolved around two things: the wit, humour and warmth of the man in person; and the fact of his finally, and remarkably, doing the ‘right thing’ and participating in power-sharing with Sinn Fein.

There is of course no little irony that this move –  coupled with his bonhomie relationship with Martin McGuinness – eventually cost him the leadership of the party he founded. For it was Paisley who, from the late 60s onwards, dispatched one Unionist leader after another for ‘betraying’ the cause of Ulster by doing some sort of deal with the British or the Irish Nationalists. Finally the ultimate outsider ended up centre-stage and did what he had vitriolically attacked those leaders for doing – dealing with the reality of some sort of power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland.

His later alienation from the DUP, and relative estrangement from the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster which he also founded, seemed to have left him feeling bitter and betrayed. That last interview he did on the BBC with Eamon Mallie seemed to surprise many people who, making assumptions about his joking around with McGuinness, jumped to the attractive conclusion that Paisley had suddenly become an avuncular liberal who had left behind those problematic and divisive religious and political convictions.

I don’t think I would revise too much of what I said back in 2003. His was a personal and political identity forged in conflict; given shape and content by separation from the impure Other. The Other included the mother of all harlots Rome,  ‘liberal’ (!) Irish Presbyterians, the WCC, Methodists, Baptists, the British, the Irish Govt, Irish nationalism, Irish Republicanism, weak Unionists, even the Orange Order, and, towards the end, fellow DUP leaders like Peter Robinson who turned, Brutus-like, on their leader.

Paisley’s sense of persecuted righteous prophet was there in that BBC interview. His career was built on personalized politics. In 2003 I looked at some of his rhetoric and concluded that by it

Paisley establishes that hostility to him is equivalent, not only to hostility to Christ, but to biblical truth, the values of the Reformation, and Ulster’s place within the United Kingdom. The power of ideology lies not only in its connection of contemporary political events with dramatic spiritual battles, but in its fusion of traditional Ulster siege mythology with Paisley’s own destiny and actions. He has personalized the Ulster unionist myth of the persecuted faithful. In a sense, his whole politico-religious career has been a conscious re-enactment of the past. (179)

The remarkable success of Paisleyism, I argued, was built primarily on it being a particular form of nationalism that was organized around a theological core of deeply held evangelical beliefs. The result was an innovative cocktail of fundamentalism and an intense localised form of nationalism. There is no room for doubt, complexity and shades of opinion within a nationalist myth. This was why, in a BBC vox pop after his death, ordinary Protestants, one after another, primarily talked of him as a great leader / defender of Ulster etc.  The breadth of his support was political and nationalistic rather than being based on his faithfulness to the Reformation solas.

At the end of the chapter I wrote that Paisleyism would lose its coherence and potency without the threat of imminent betrayal. I think this has happened. Paisleyism had gone as a movement well before yesterday. The DUP continues to struggle out of the shadow of the big man and chart its way in a new power-sharing era. A key to the future in the North will be how successful it can be in leaving behind the ‘politics of holiness’ – as well as how successful Sinn Fein can be on the other side of leaving behind its own toxic nationalist myths.

Comments, as ever, welcome

True Detective: touch darkness and darkness touches you back

06/09/2014

This post is inspired by Jaybercrow’s recent rare 6-monthly post about the bleak inheriting the earth.

true-detective-posterI watched True Detective with the rest of the family a while back – well we all watched it at different stages, sometimes together, and talked about it later: such is modern consumption of media! I’ve been meaning to blog about it since then but something has stopped me – something Jaybercrow put his finger on. There is a fairly vague spoiler ahead btw.

It is exceptionally powerful television. The desolate cinematography perfectly captures the sense of menace within lost backwaters of southern Louisiana in which cops Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaghey hunt a serial killer over 17 years. The foreboding soundtrack sets the scene for what follows - check out Far from any Road by the Handsome Family so see what I mean.

The plot isn’t unfamiliar: ritualistic murder, corruption, bad religion and politics. But what the writer, Nic Pizzolattto, managed to achieve brilliantly, is telling of the story of the compelling and complex relationship between Harrelson’s ‘Marty’ Hart and McConaghey’s ‘Rust’ Cohle.

Both actors give, I think, perhaps the best performances of their careers. Cohle’s relentless nihilism against family-man Marty’s flagrant hypocrisy sets up a narrative that shapes the whole series. That is, just below the surface of our apparently advanced ‘civilisation’ is a dark dark world: a world of violence, abuse, fear and horror in which the powerful take advantage of the weak with impunity. That darkness embraces individuals, the law, the church, the powerful, drug-dealers as well as obvious victims – murdered prostitutes and children.

Every major character is deeply flawed. But it is McConaghey’s Cohle who, alone, sees the world as it truly is. No-one can live with such searing ‘prophetic’ honesty – he can hardly live with himself.

And so the story under the story is whether there is any hope for McConaghey. And therefore is there any hope for any of us? That question is sort of answered in the last episode – of which a little more in a moment.

What’s so compelling about such a bleak tale? Well, its truth for one. ISIS? Indiscriminate killing by Drones? Child abuse covered up in Rotherham? In Ireland? A world in which the weak and vulnerable are ruthlessly exploited by the powerful with impunity. The sin and hypocrisy in my heart – and dare I say in yours. Law and politics, when working well, will never deliver utopia. At best, they will put boundaries on the depravity of the human heart and we fool ourselves if we believe otherwise.

Dwelling in such unremitting darkness feels true to life: it captures the reality of a globally twisted world that perhaps we now know far too much about. News about the darkness assaults our senses every day. It is compelling to watch someone like Rust Cohle face the darkness head on, with no illusions or sentimentality.

And it’s here that my ambiguity about watching True Detective comes from: there is such little light in TV series like these that they leave you in the dark. I’m thinking of other superbly made series like The Sopranos and the (Scandinavian) film / book series like Girl with a Dragon Tatoo, both of which I hugely ‘enjoyed’.

I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that there is a little shaft of light at the end of True Detective. But, for me anyway, it was unconvincing: the darkness had been so well drawn that the light felt contrived and out-of-place.

The gospel of Jesus Christ shares the truth that ‘Rust’ Cohle sees. Like him, it is not remotely sentimental or optimistic. Like him, it is unflinchingly realistic about human nature and the injustice and sin that is woven into all areas of life. But True Detective’s gospel struggles to get out of the darkness that is has so brilliantly described. It lurches, unconvincingly towards an illogical optimism.

Put it this way: Christian hope does not rest with you or me – or with ‘Rust’ Cohle or with any individual seeing life in a new way. Such hope is transitory, individualistic and ephemeral. But Christian hope is based on what God has done in history. It is not ‘cheap hope’ – but a deep hope that rests entirely on God’s victory over sin, evil and death at the cross and resurrection of his Son. It is only in God’s redemptive work that there is hope of the healing of this beautiful yet tragic world in which you and I live:

 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.  (1 Cor 15:55-58)

 

Pet punctuation peeves: in defence of the apostrophe

04/09/2014

eats_shoots_leaves_coverI’m re-reading Lynne Truss'”s wonderfully witty and acerbic Eats, Shoots & Leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation.

As academic terms begin, all students should drink deeply of the punctilious wisdom of her ‘inner stickler’!

It’s probably just me getting older rather than the result of any objective study, but my impression is that punctuation standards are in decline. Is it a fruit of the texting generation? I don’t know. But here are some of my pet punctuation peeves regarding the poor abused apostrophe when reading student work:

1.It’s and its

This is the big daddy of punctuation confusion. As Truss puts it,

To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses such feelings not only of despair but of violence. The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler.

This is very simple to get right.

It’s = “it is” or “it has”. “It’s a long way to Tipperary.” NOT “Its a lovely day today.”

Its = any other use apart from “it is” or “it has”. “The table has lost its shine.” NOT “Welcome to the British Library, it’s services and catalogues.” (BL pamphlet, quoted by Truss).

Truss refers to the Law of Conservation of the Apostrophe.

For every apostrophe omitted from an it’s, there is an extra one put into an its. Thus the number of apostrophes in circulation remains constant, even if this means we have double reason to go and bang our heads against a wall.

2. God’s and gods

Teaching at a theological college rather unsurprisingly means that God gets talked about a lot. Now, as far as I know, Christians are monotheists who believe in one God, but you would begin to doubt this reading some essays. For example, God’s love becomes Gods love. If the Law of Conservation of the Apostrophe is correct, then a lot of apostrophes are being used where they shouldn’t for they are sure being saved when it comes to a possessive characteristic of God. On occasions, I have resorted to making comments about trinitarian orthodoxy, tritheism and such things, but most often have to restrain myself.

3. whose and who’s / we’re and were and other forms of illiteracy

Truss gives some cringe-worthy examples

“… giving the full name and title of the person who’s details are given in Section 02.” (UK Passport form).

“Your 21 Today!” (birthday card)

4. Confusion over the singular and plural use of the apostrophe

Truss lists some amusing mistakes:

Pupil’s entrance (on a very selective school, presumably)

Adult Learner’s Week (lucky him)

Member’s May Ball (but with whom will the member dance?)

Pansy’s ready (is she?)

Cyclist’s only (his only what?)

Please replace the trolley’s (the trolley’s what?)

5. Dates

I confess to being somewhat chastened reading Truss on the proper use of the apostrophe in dates. For years I’ve been self-righteously correcting 1980’s to 1980s. However, things are not quite as simple and obvious as I thought. Until fairly recently, it was the convention to write 1980’s and (unusually for Americans who love cutting out every possible letter from perfectly good words like neighbour and honour) it still stands in the USA (see The New York Times). But we aren’t in America and the accepted convention is now 1980s, so I stand by with pen in hand.

Truss calls for a rising up of apostrophe vigilantes to get out on the streets, determined to save the little mark from extinction and equipped with the following:

correction fluid

big pens

stickers cut in a variety of sizes, both plain (for sticking over unwanted apostrophes) and coloured (for inserting where apostrophes are needed)

tin of paint with big brush

guerrilla-style clothing

strong medication for personality disorder

loudhailer

gun

I guess a gun is inconsistent with being a pacifist – but surely on extreme occasions cannot a just war for the apostrophe be required? Or at the very least, can students please use spell and grammar check on their wordprocessors? (Yes, I know it’s probably Microsoft, but it’s better than nothing).

Now I’ve confessed to my inner grammar fascism, have you any pet punctuation peeves to share?

 

The Christian Consumer: eschatology

02/09/2014

In this final chapter of The Christian Consumer Laura Hartman turns her attention to how God’s ultimate purpose for the created world can shape consumption in the here and now.

Two Christian practices embody eschatological hope Sabbath keeping and Eucharist.

Sabbath

In the discussion she brings in Marva Dawn (who we had the privilege of hosting during an IBI Summer Institute some years ago – a wonderful theologian and godly woman of faith). She talks about the Sabbath as a ‘weekly eschatological party’ that anticipates ‘the future, eternal consummation of Joy.’ Sabbath keeping can lead to new habits of consumption.

- humility to put human agendas and frantic economic activity in their proper place. Rest from the gods of commerce.

- trusting in God’s provision and resisting the idolatry inherent in our consumption. For Dawn this works out as a simple daily lifestyle of lessened consumption, with a sense of celebration on the Sabbath. A rejoicing in community.

- For other Christians, Sabbath keeping is tied to justice as we imagine a better world. Jesus and doing good on the Sabbath comes to mind here. Hartman quotes Catholic, Lutheran and others in Sabbath keeping as far more than personal rest and renewal, but as a template or vision of social justice.

Eucharist

Eucharist for many Christians is associated with fasting and simplicity – the ‘meal’ itself is minimal, full of spiritual significance rather than an abundance of food. Yet it is also a feast, associated with the agape meals of the first Christians. Joy, hope and meaning come through participation in minimal physical consumption. A ‘savoured consumption’ or ‘sensuous asceticism’.

This is a sacrament God’s grace by which believers are united in Christ. It is backward looking to Christ’s death, but it also looks forward to Christ’s return and ‘a glimpse of a redeemed world’.

It offers a present experience of a future reality – a healed world of equality and peace in the presence of Christ. Hartman suggests, rightly I think, that this most fundamental Christian activity has profound implications for the way we consume:

- sharing food together

- a community equality, recipients of God’s bounteous grace

- deeper spiritual truth and hope beyond the mere material here and now

- Christ-like lives of self-denial and self-sacrifice in the service of others

- consumption that enriches and blesses rather than consumption which enslaves and destroys

Hartman has looked at four lenses of consumption from a Christian perspective

1. Avoiding Sin

2. To Embrace Creation

3. Love of neighbour

4. To Envision the Future

She concludes the book that at the heart of consumerism is a distorted view of human nature that sells the lie that we are what we own [192]. A Christian view of consumption offers a different anthropology.

- we are prone to sin but are called to renounce it

- we can delight in creation

- we are neighbours who are called to love others

- we are citizens of the new creation who are called to align our lives with the kingdom of God.

This is a right and constructive theological response. Hartman is reminding us that (as in all things of course!) we need to think theologically about the world around us. There are no simple solutions to hyper-consumerism, but Christians are called to a way of wisdom and discernment framed by the richness and depth of Christian revelation and tradition.

As she says, we do not face this challenge empty-handed.

We can consume both Christianly and well. [193]

Christianity as life-lite and other defeater beliefs

28/08/2014

In Northern Ireland there is a phrase that someone is ‘good livin‘. I don’t think it exists south of the border* (I’m not sure if it exists anywhere else actually).

There’s a lot of meaning and history in that wee saying.

It’s shorthand to describe someone who is ‘born again’ or ‘religious’. What that means in practice is rather vague, God doesn’t really come into it – he is only there in the background. The good living person is perceived not to be into certain behaviour as they try to live a good life.

Some guys I spend time with sometimes apologise to me when they swear more profusely than usual because I am perceived to be ‘good livin’. It’s sort of assumed ‘good livin’ people are different in that they don’t swear, tell dirty jokes, sleep around, drink too much etc and might get offended or shocked by such behaviour.

This is Christianity as vaguely moralistic, mildly negative and mostly inoffensive. A bit of a boring normal life. Life-lite if you like.

And at the same time the good livin person is trying to be better than others who are aren’t good livin.

The motive to be ‘good livin’ is left unexamined. Being Northern Ireland, with its embedded evangelical history, there is enough familiarity with born again salvation stories to know that some people, for whatever reason,  ‘get religion’ and are not the same again.

Seeing Christianity as merely an attempt at ‘good livin’ is a peculiar Northern Irish version of what Tim Keller would call a ‘Defeater Belief’. A belief, once held, that means those who hold it are innoculated against authentic New Testament Christianity. There is an inbuilt resistance to the gospel because it has already been dismissed as implausible before being seriously considered.

For Christianity as merely a mixture of being nice, bland, yet vaguely superior to those who aren’t good livin, isn’t exactly very compelling or attractive is it?

 What are some defeater beliefs that you encounter?

* I guess there is a parallel to Catholic culture and talk of ‘the Religious’ – which refers to nuns and priests; the religious professionals in it for life at the expense of all worldly distractions like sex and marriage and making money. Religion here is for the really serious types who are willing to sacrifice all to God. Normal people are only religious amateurs who need to (or at least should) turn up to Mass on a reasonably regular basis. The phrase ‘the Religious’ reveals the gulf between laity and clergy in Irish (Catholic) Christendom. In the past of course this calling was admired and venerated. There was nothing more to be proud of than a son going into the priesthood. Now a religious life is (for most?) an incomprehensible waste of a life.

The Christian Consumer: love of neighbour

25/08/2014

A third Christian perspective on consumerism unpacked by Laura Hartman is to love thy neighbour. She focuses on the Catholic Worker Movement of Dorothy Day in NY city in the 1930s as an example. [What a character and story!)

If God commands us to love one another as he loves us, then this will show in our consumption choices. Hartman uses a sixfold framework of proximity:

This could get a long post, so here’s a snapshot. If love is a ‘committment of the will to the good of another’, Christian love is framed by God’s sacrificial love  of even his enemies.

How then can you and I love those who touch our lives, and who are impacted by ours?

Hartman’s categories are useful for making us think about ‘consumption’ – we need to define what sort of consumption we are talking about.

1. SELF LOVE:-  – means caring for the self. What that means is slippery. A Dorothy Day who lived frugally cared for herself through eating and living modestly. Yet for most Westerners, such a simple life of voluntary poverty would be close to self-abuse. We Christians live lives of remarkable luxury. We over-consume food in a self-destructive way. I doubt that there is much difference in obesity stats for Christians and the wider (expanding Western population. When does self-love become selfishness?

2. LOVE OF CLOSE-OTHERS: – we consume things all the time in order to bless others. What is buying a present but other-centred consumption? (Yes, motives can be mixed but you get the point). Most parents consume for the benefit of their children, often putting their own needs last. Inviting friends round to dinner to consume lovingly prepared food is other-centred consumption. This is a life of generosity and giving.

3. LOVE OF SOMEWHAT DISTANT OTHERS: – the people you and I meet occasionally and can have some sort of relationship with. Perhaps the Good Samaritan and the guy on the road – their paths literally cross (well as literally as you get in a parable. In the context of consumption, Hartman connects this to love in the marketplace.

She quotes Luther here railing against unjust sellers. He links injustice and greed with lack of love of neighbour. The seller’s main concern should be “directed more toward doing him [customer] no injury than toward gaining profit for yourself”

Imagine such neighbour love being practiced by Irish banks ? Imagine the implications for capitalism if practiced with some sense of relational responsibility to each other? Imagine buyers not taking advantage of desperate sellers to sell as unsustainable prices?

Hartman has a discussion of neighbour-love in economics via feminist theologian Kathryn Tanner and Japanese evangelist Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960). To be loved and blessed by God is to share that blessing outwardly and generously with others. Such other-focused love leads to formation of community: co-operatives; businesses owned by the workers and consumers for mutual benefit, not for the powerful few.

Tanner counters capitalism’s innate privatization and individualism. A ‘common possession right’, while each person has a right to a share of God’s gifts, means that private property is relativised. A communal identity transcends the hermetically sealed ‘self’ that has little need of others or of neighbours. This is an attempt to re-envision the marketplace in terms of mutually beneficial relationships. A call to fair wages and fair pricing.

4. LOVE OF PLACE. For Hartman this is love of the ecosystem, primarily local. Love of the local, buying local, looking after the local ecosystem, walking the area etc. This section didn’t hang together for me.

5 LOVE OF FARAWAY OTHERS: This is where global capitalism promotes anonymous goods in our supermarkets and shops. They ‘just are'; sitting there without context or any sense of where they came from or who made them or how they got here.

This is where it gets tough to make informed decisions. How do you love people you have never met and know nothing about? How can me deciding to consume less chocolate (for example) actually help the poor? It might help my waistline and wallet more immediately!

John Schneider’s response is not to worry about it. We can’t change the world, we are only responsible for what we can impact. Even trying to consume locally is impossible given globalisation. Otherwise we are overwhelmed by things we can do nothing about. This is pragmatic boundary drawing.

Schneider does have a point. It is very hard to figure out practical steps that don’t seem like mere tokenism when it comes to love of far away others. Yes, we buy only Fairtrade. Yes, we can say that there needs to be a massive readjustment of living standards in the West if the global majority are to share equitably in God’s creation consistent with their human dignity and environmental sustainability. But such abstract goals remain nice ideas.

But Schneider’s myopia is also all too conveniently self-serving. It asks no questions of Christians as to who is their neighbour. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan asks each of us what sort of neighbour are we? How does our consumption impact others?  Hartman talks of the will to love, regardless of how ‘successful’ such love may be.

She advocates virtue ethics of moderate consumption, temperance, prudence, and generosity. Love being the highest virtue of all.

6. LOVE OF GOD.  Loving God means loving what God loves – justice, the poor, the world he made. The loves described above are, Hartman argues, ways of loving God.

How does our consumption reflect love of God? Love of his creation? Love of those made in his image? Love of justice?

Loving others means a desire to transform the world and its economic systems.Visions of justice and love are framed by an ultimate eschatological vision of a re-made world when all will be made right. And it is eschatology that forms the focus of Hartman’s fourth and final Christian perspective on consumption.

Comments. as ever, welcome.

Learning from Rory and maintaining vocation in a googleized world

18/08/2014

Golfers, being hopeless optimists that their once-off best-ever score really represents their ‘normal’ game, are always desperately hoping and searching for a ‘secret’ of success; some new club, or thought or drill that will give them that edge – and make them a wee bit more like the pros on TV. [Hence they are endlessly suckered into spending hundreds on the latest cool driver or new fangled putter. Heck, you used to be able to buy whole sets of clubs for what one high-tech driver costs these days - but I digress.]

Anyway, this is to explain the numerous jokes out there about ditching the wife / girlfriend as a route to golfing nirvana, for it sure seems to have ‘worked’ for Rory. The moment the lovely Caroline departed, Rory’s fortunes have soared to new heights. 4 victories including 2 Major Championships, the WGC at FIrestone and the British PGA at Wentworth (flagship event of the European Tour), all done with stunning flair and breathtaking talent, have swept him back to the top of the world rankings. Once again, the statistical parallels (4 Majors by 25 etc) are being drawn with Nicklaus and Woods and you don’t more exalted company in the golfing pantheon than that.

As the wunderkind says himself, he’s been able to devote himself single mindedly to his profession in a way he hasn’t done before (or maybe not in the same sustained way). There is a new steel in Rory and a determined focus that seems to have released his remarkable free-flowing confidence to a point where he has just swept all the very best tough and prodigiously talented pros in the world aside. Over the last three weeks it has been a joy to watch  Rory give his very best (especially for a Holywood Golf Club man!).

All this sort of links to musings on technology, Google, and distraction in a world of Too Much Information (TMI).

It was significant that after his first 2014 win at Wentworth in May, Rory said he’d put away the laptop and switched off his phone (well at least for a while). Not being a celebrity world-famous golfer (or blogger, or theologian etc!) I can’t begin to imagine the pervasive clamour for your attention from a seemingly infinite number of people, both in the flesh and globally via the digital superhighway.

In a way that Nicklaus, and perhaps not even Woods, had to deal with, Rory lives in and has to negotiate living his life transparently under the fish-eye lens of social media and a voracious global media. As a ‘digital native’ he has participated freely in that world (in a way that a digital-settler like me can’t really get). But I wonder if his remarkable burst of success is in part the result of putting the babble of that ‘unreal’ world to one side and focusing on his ‘vocation’. Rather than it controlling him, perhaps he’s gained some degree of control over it. I hope so – and if so Rory, keep going! For I suspect it will be his ability to pursue his ‘vocation’ that will determine how close to Woods and Nicklaus he gets. As Roger Federer says, there is a lot of background ‘noise’ that is best ignored.

It is people with a clear sense of purpose and a determination to pursue their personal mission who tend to make the greatest impact in life. That focus is not only mental but physical. Rory has put in intensive work preparing his body to be in peak condition to thrash the ball repeatedly way over 300 yrds. Focus, discipline and training – these are words that come to mind with Rory these days.

Paul of course used sporting metaphors to describe his single-minded determination to preach the gospel whatever the cost.

25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. 1 Cor 9:25-7

Now I suspect every ‘age’ has bemoaned technological change and how it will ruin the (better) ways things were. I’m not going there. Take GOOGLE. I love Google search, Google Maps and reluctantly can’t do without gmail (prefer Outlook). Google docs are great for team interaction and I’m getting into Google Scholar. Google earth is fun. And Google books are deadly handy to get a preview of a work that you don’t have access to.

What Google does is bring the world to our fingertips in a way unimaginable to any previous human generation. Google’s mission statement is to organise the world’s information and make  it universally accessible and useful – a vastly ambitious goal which it is fulfilling brilliantly, rapidly and rather creepily. Its mysterious algorithims work invisibly to give us instantaneous results to any search. We have access to infinite information without getting off our derriéries.

But to what purpose? How can we process and filter TMI without drowning under a tsunami of data?

Have you ever found yourself spending far more time than you expected when planning to buy something fairly mundane? Maybe somewhere to stay on a trip? After looking at Tripadvisor and reading 25 (conflicting) reviews, you try Hotel.Com and a couple of other sites to get different options. One night’s stay becomes a navigation of 50 people’s opinions …all very interesting, often useful but also a time-consuming distraction.

And let’s not be naive, Google isn’t in business for fun, however much fun it supposedly is to be a ‘Googler’. Its main source of income is advertising and that stream of income is the driving force behind Google’s ‘open information’ culture. It’s been said that one of the dangers of the Web 3.0 is how it serves us. We are at the centre of our universe as Google serves us up with all our possible desires based on its predictive knowledge of our online habits. And I’m not going to get into Google’s virtual omniscience about everything you and I do on the web ….

And that reference to the French posterior is no small point. continuous googling is passive activity. Remember this wee saying ? As we spend more and more hours sitting looking at a screen we become fatter and and more unhealthy. There is an inherent mind / body dualism in the Google universe that echoes Gnosticism. The abstract (information, data) is what really matters. The body is relevant simply to tap buttons and click a mouse and soon I’m sure that won’t even be necessary either. But we are not disembodied minds, we are physical beings; mind, body, spirit.

There is no small irony in me writing this on a computer screen in WordPress that I opened with Google. I’m not anti-technology. But I do wonder how can Christians learn from Rory and pursue vocation through focus, discipline and training in a Googleized world?

How do you? Where is the googlized world distracting you and seducing you into running aimlessly? Where are you wasting your time in an e-world, consuming time and energy in trivia? How much time do you sit passively consuming someone else’s work via a screen? Do you suffer from paralysis by analysis due to too much information? How often do you just ‘google it’ to get the answer rather than think and pray about a situation?

What can you and I do to counter a sort of creeping Google gnosticism that relegates physical exercise and activity to a lower order behaviour?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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