Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

Jack Chick and hell

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

Jack Chick, who has died in Los Angeles at the age of 92, was one of the most extraordinary, industrious and humourless comic artists of the 20th century. He claimed to be the most published author in the world. In an apparently unending series of pocket-sized cartoon tracts he laid out an idiosyncratic fundamentalism in which everyone who was not a Protestant Christian was in imminent danger of death followed by eternal torment.

Ecumenism had no charms for him and bigotry no terrors. He wrote and published tracts like “Are Roman Catholics Christians?” He even published the full length book “Convert … or Die! The Catholic Reign of Terror in Yugoslavia”. Both these, and more, I bought from a Christian bookshop on a trip to Belfast during the troubles. In that setting, they seemed less hilariously funny than when purchased from the Protestant Truth Society in Fleet Street.

Perhaps the vilest of all his works was a comic called “Lisa”, still available on the web, where Chick has become the subject of ironic attention. In this, Henry, a middle-aged, man loses his job, “and my wife had to go to work”, so naturally he turns to porn and starts to abuse his fourteen-year-old daughter. When his neighbour finds out, the girl is shared between them. When the family doctor discovers this, he explains that only God can save Henry. But it turns out this has nothing to do with what Henry has done to his daughter.

“You were going to hell before this ever happened, Henry … You say you’re good, but the Bible tells us that no man is good, no, not one. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
So the doctor gets him to pray and at once “
I feel different, Doctor … I feel clean. God has forgiven a horrible wretch like me. Oh Thank you Lord. You’re such a merciful and wonderful God to clean me up. I’m so grateful.”
After the epiphany he goes home and tells his wife about Jesus. She testifies in turn that she knew all along that he was abusing their daughter because she herself had been abused by her uncle. But Jesus saves her, too. In the last frame, the happy parents summon their daughter, who appears clutching a teddy bear.
“We’ve got wonderful news, Lisa. Your daddy and I will never hurt you again … Really, honey. We love you, and Jesus loves you too.”

Self-righteous and self-pitying, profoundly misgynistic, deaf and blind to the reality of evil and suffering, the Christians in Jack Chick’s little tracts add up to an entirely damning indictment of fundamentalism. Quite possibly, a tract like Lisa strengthened some Appalachian child abuser in his crimes. There is no suggestion anywhere that secular justice might be involved in the process. In the end, even the Chick organisation withdrew the tract from sale, and expunged its memory from the official web site.

The other thing that makes Lisa noteworthy is that it is one of the very few Chick Tracts that deals with anything recognisable as evil. As you read through the rest, it is almost impossible not to start laughing out loud, not just because of the puerility of the drawing and the story lines. There is also something fundamentally absurd and inadequate about the targets he uses to illustrate the depravity of our times. Feminists, evolutionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, players of Dungeons and Dragons, people who celebrate Hallowe’en, Witches, Jews, Rock Musicians, Gay people, Roman Catholics, Liberals – in all this library of paranoiac fantasy there is hardly anything that could worry a normal person, still less frighten them.

On reflection, this may be the secret of the appeal of Chick-type fundamentalism. It’s paranoia as entertainment, since no one could possibly be frightened of most of the things that terrify him. And then there are the sudden awfulnesses where he demonises (literally, of course) the groups that large numbers of American really do hate — Gay people, Muslims, and educated women. That’s when the paranoia stops being funny and you feel like one of his characters, suddenly borne off by an angel and dropped into hell.

Why I am not a Christian

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

My trouble with Christianity is that it is only true backwards. To take an example, here is a couplet from George Herbert –

Sin is that Press and Vice, which forceth pain

To hunt his cruel food through every vein

When I read it two things happen almost at once. The first is a stunned, visceral assent: a delight in the thought and its expression, and most of all in the way they are so perfectly united.

The second is to note that it’s not true. Pain is not always or even often the consequence of sin. My friend with the brain tumour and her husband are not being punished for anything anyone has done.

But suppose we read the couplet backwards – not as a description of the workings of sin in the world, but as a statement about the meaning of the word “Sin” and about whatever it is that “forceth pain to hunt his cruel food through every vein.”

Perhaps this is a distinction without a difference, but I think not. To read the couplet the first way, straight ahead, is to treat “Sin” as an almost scientific term: it becomes part of the chain of cause and effect, a name we give to an observable, predictable, and in principle even measurable pattern of events in the world. It becomes an explanatory hypothesis. Used in this sense we can postulate “Sin” rather as we postulate the Higgs boson and then go to see if it helps us understand the world a bit better. But in that sense, “sin” clearly does not exist. It is an epicycle, a meme, a failed would-be explanatory mechanism.

Read backwards, however, the couplet tells us something about the meaning of the word “Sin”. This is more interesting. There is a “press and vice, which forceth suffering through every vein” – we know this because we see people and animals tortured all around us, usually by disease but sometimes by deliberate wanton act. This is clearly something that has evolved, in the sense that the earth was once lifeless and for billions of years without conscious life or feeling. So there is something in the way the universe works which has produced the capacity to suffer and maintained and refined it through innumerable generations. Calling that something “Sin” illuminates what the word might mean. It gives the doctrine of “Original Sin” something real to refer to, and makes it worth thinking about.

Thinking about doctrine in this way is not a habit that I am ever going to kick. I’ve done it almost as far back as I remember. Perhaps the most shameful thing I will admit to publicly is that I won a scholarship to Marlborough on the strength of my essay in the “Divinity” exam. But I remember, too, the feeling when I had finished writing – that I had no idea at all whether any of it was true. It was just a rhetorical exercise, in a mode in which I happen to be naturally gifted. So I concluded that the man who marked it so highly must be bluffing too.

Subsequent, banal experiences with Christians who were stupid, cruel, smug, pharisaical, and otherwise human cemented this disillusionment. I could read the Prayer Book and love it but when I attempted the Bible I would recoil, simply unable to believe that anyone would take it as the word of God. When people describe themselves as “bible-believing Christians” I can attach no meaning to the words, except as a label: it’s like being “flag-believing Britons”. Similarly, I don’t know what it could possibly mean to believe in a Creator.

None of this innoculated my imagination. I have had numerous experiences that would count as conversion if they’d actually converted me. I remember Robert Runcie celebrating a eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral, when it seemed quite irrelevant to ask if it was true: it was clearly something to be part of. At the other end of the scale, a couple of fundamentalists who had given up their lives to working with junky prostitutes in a provincial town broke bread with a quiet prayer over a linoleum tablecloth and that worked too. In Medjugorje I got zapped by the Holy Spirit and was for a while quite speechless with love for my crass and ignorant fellow pilgrims.

All this made me think that it didn’t matter whether I called myself a Christian but the Lambeth Conference of ’98 made me resolve not to do so. It was a triumph of the bullies, of the self-important, the vain and the thoughtlessly cruel. I may be a sinner, I thought, but at least I am miserable. I do not wish to be mistaken for a bishop.

But the New Atheist movement made it quite clear to me that I’m not one of them, either. I don’t believe that “religion” exists as a coherent category, let alone something which can or should be extirpated.

None of this is terribly satisfying. It is natural to suppose that our philosophical conclusions are the distinctive marks of our moral and intellectual excellence, but that doesn’t work for me. I know Christians who are nicer, cleverer, braver and more honest that I am. I even know some who appear to have no difficulty in believing the whole thing backwards and not all of them are Roman Catholic intellectuals. But I still can’t do it myself.

So why worry? Why not see it all as nonsense?” Because really it isn’t all nonsense: as a friend of mine, a former missionary, said once “It’s about the thing that is true even if Christianity isn’t true”. Christian language does things that no other use of language can. I can only conclude that God has called me to be an atheist.

This piece was written on impulse for the Church Times, so it assumes some familiarity with the culture of the Church of England. But I thought I would put it here to save explaining to people what it is I actually believe, or don’t.

good riddance to 1819

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

I’m not entirely sure when Hazlitt’s Table Talk was written, but I was reading it over Christmas, at my sister’s house, and discovered, to my horror and astonishment, the best description you could imagine of recreational comment pages. It comes in his essay on Coffee House Politicians which is a bitter denunciation of timewasting gossips by someone who has obviously spent far too long researching the subject.

No one here (generally speaking) has the slightest notion of any­thing that has happened, that has been said, thought, or done out of his own recollection. We may happily repose on dulness, drift with the tide of nonsense, and gain an agreeable vertigo by lending an ear to endless controversies. The confusion, provided you do not mingle in the fray and try to disentangle it, is amusing and edifying enough. Every species of false wit and spurious argument may be learnt here by potent examples. Whatever observations you hear dropt have been picked up in the same place or in a kindred atmo­sphere. There is a kind of conversation made up entirely of scraps and hearsay, as there are a kind of books made up entirely of references to other books. This may account for the frequent contradictions which abound in the discourse of persons educated and disciplined wholly in coffee-houses. …
A dearth of general information is almost necessary to the thorough-paced coffee-house politician; in the absence of thought, imagination, sentiment, he is attracted immediately to the nearest common-place, and floats through the chosen regions of noise and empty rumours without difficulty and without distraction.

Isn’t it awe-inspiring to think that all the essential characteristics of internet discourse were in place 190 years ago; and to discover that the essential ingredient wasn’t TCP/IP but – all along – caffeine?

Happy New Year in whatever may be your chosen region of noise and empty rumours! May you float through it without difficulty or distraction.

Academic manners

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

The current LRB has a wonderful example of one style of academic review: the long essay outlining the book that ought to be written about the subject, concluded by a paragraph dismissing the work under review. But what a paragraph!

André Burguière does not want to admit this. For him Annales remains a cause to fight for. But his book will do the cause no good at all. It is written seemingly without any knowledge of the wider historiography. Lutz Raphael’s Die Erben von Bloch und Febvre, the best and most comprehensive account of the school, is mentioned in the bibliography, but there is no sign that Burguière has read it. Self-important, pompous, pretentious, solipsistic, often obscure, sometimes barely coherent, his book seems to address itself only to those in the know. The translation by Jane Marie Todd renders all these faults with exemplary accuracy.

undiscriminating reads

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

on trains in and out of London

Ken MacLeod, the Night Sessions: very good and tightly imagined account of what a war on religion would actually mean; and what a secular Scotland would be like. Written with great sympathy for the villains; also I am extremely glad of the idea that the last best Calvinists in the world turn out to be robots. The best of his I have read to date.

Charlie Stross, Merchant Princes, books one two and three: ought to be really enjoyable fluff, and almost is. But in the end the mashup of chicklit, thriller and Marxism doesn’t work. The heroine is not exactly a Mary Sue, but she is too self-consciously meant as a a figure for readers to identify with. Either that, or the feisty, sexy, divorcee is this century’s answer to the carved white Victorian angel, and every bit as life-like.

Thomas Jackson, Darwin’s Error: very interesting book by an ex-Catholic with the subtitle “the poet who died”. Not about the science at all, but about the philosophy and the prose. I didn’t have room to squeeze it into my “big” New Statesman review,1 but should blog about it next week.

Nick Spencer, Darwin’s God, which, unlike Jackson’s, is actually about religion. A scrupulous account of the development of Darwin’s irreligious opinions.

And, since it is Easter Day, I throw in for free the news that a church in Västerås has, after two years’ work, and the collection of 30,000 white bricks, unveiled their life-size Lego Jesus.

1 I was sent a total of sixteen books, to be reviewed in 1400 words

Auden at press conferences

Saturday, April 4th, 2009

I don’t often go to press conferences nowadays, but whenever I do, I think that Auden had been there too, on both sides. In my edition of the Collected Shorter Poems, the pertinent observations face each other across pages 190-191. First, the view from the floor:

When Statesmen gravely say ‘We must be realistic’,
The chances are they’re weak and, therefore, pacifistic,
But when they speak of Principles, look out: perhaps
Their generals are already poring over maps.

And then the view down from the podium, at us:

Those public men who seem so to enjoy their dominion,
With their ruined faces and their voices treble with hate,
Are no less martyrs because unaware of their fetters:
What would you be like, were you never allowed to create
Or reflect, but compelled to give an immediate opinion,
Condemned to destroy or distribute the works of your betters?

Burned over

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

I’m sorry not to have posted here much. I have been very busy, but also approaching the condition of upstate New York, ca 1830, when it was known as the burnt over district because of the continual evangelical revivals which swept over it. Everyone in it had been saved till they could hardly stand up. No possible novelty of excitement could stimulate them any more. It was out of this spiritual charcoal that Mormonism emerged. I do hope I’m not going to invent a new religion. But I have entered the Sargasso Sea of feeling that nothing is new or fresh; all my thoughts feel vague and fleeting. It’s a condition very simply cured by spending a week or so standing in rivers, but that is difficult to arrange right now. In the meantime, sustaining thought for even 800 words seems a gigantic feat. (Another version of this state is described in Koestler’s Age of Longing, where he calls it fatigue of the synapses, and treats, if not cures, it with brandy and benzedrine).So here follow some quickies. (more…)

Sisters, not parent and child

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

An interesting and important point from John Barton’s essay on conceptions of the afterlife in the current TLS (not online):

Jews and Christians do not of course believe the same things, but the structures of the two faiths are much more similar than people think. This is not surprising, since they are siblings (rather than parent and child), both deriving from the religious culture of Israel in the last few centuries BC (the so-called Second Temple period) with influences from the surrounding Greco-Roman world and its philosophies. The impression that the two religions are so vastly different derives partly from the tendency among Christians to think that Judaism is the same as the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament, as they call it) – whereas in fact the religion of the Second Temple period had changed markedly from that of the ancient Israelites who are the source of the Hebrew Bible; and among Jews, to think of Christianity as a Greek religion only marginally related to Hebrew culture.

Wiley Interscience

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

… may sodomise themselves with spiky reindeer antlers. I am paying their exorbitant charges for article reprints: $34.44 with VAT; and each one comes with the following boilerplate: IMPORTANT: You now have 24-hour access to this content. Access to this article will expire 24 hours after receipt of this confirmation screen. You may only view this content during this 24 hour period.

Is there really anywhere a lawyer who believes that this kind of licence is enforceable – is there anyone anywhere who thinks it is morally defensible? Glyn Moody twitters “roll on open access” but I don’t want to abolish the market here entirely. Someone has to pay for the work that scholarly journals do. But I do want to regulate it and when I am dictator of the universe the directors of Wiley will find themselves breaking rocks next to the directors of HBOS.

In the meantime, I save the PDFs onto my hard disk and soon I will make copies on the laptop too. Of course, if I were better organised, I could have simply asked the authors to email me the things. What would the legal position be then, I wonder?

Random resumption

Friday, February 6th, 2009

I know I have written nothing here for the last month. I don’t think that’s good. It started off as a consequence of Guardian blogging, where I felt that I had to turn everything that occurred to me into a daily Guardian blog; then there was a lot of other work in the last fortnight, when I have been making a radio programme and writing a longish magazine story, both on science subjects. But I need something light-hearted and longer than twitter to write silly notes in.

So here are some, mainly Scandinavian, observations, for the last week:

  • The suburbs of Gothenburg, where I used to live, have a horrible problem with the drug known in England as “GBH” and there as “gobbe”. Six people have died of overdoses in the last year; the ambulances won’t go out without police help because the overdosers go from coma to extreme violence without warning; a 14-year-old girl was gang-raped on the drug in Nödinge, where I used to live. No one was convicted because she couldn’t remember what exactly had happened. (from a copy of DN, read on the plane to Copenhagen)

  • The metro in Copenhagen is absolute bliss. Clean, quick, quiet and you can sit at the front and watch the brown concrete dragon intestine writhe slowly as you rush through it. Then, when it emerges, the rain obscures everything, since there are no winsdscreen wipers, and suddenly it is borne in on you what being driverless actually means.

  • The FT is full of thoughtful pieces suggesting that we are turning into an emerging market crisis: except of course that the UK is not so much emerging as disappearing

  • The only redeeming or even remotely human things in Heathrow terminal 3 are the Chez Gerard in the furthest corner from the entrance and the Borders where the assistant knew who Paul Auster’s wife was, when asked by another customer. Everything else is broken, smelly, or both.

  • London City airport would be a very nice place if planes actually took off and landed there but if it has been snowing they don’t.

  • My column in the Guardian about why public libraries should subscribe to jstor, pubmed, and so on, drew a number of really thoughtful letters, one of which says that UCL is being charged £6m a year for its electronic journal subscriptions.

  • Can it really be true that Richard Dawkins charges £4,000 a pop to talk to schools? I was told this with absolute confidence by an Oxford academic who, admittedly, dislikes him.

  • The first hardback printing of Fishing in Utopia is entirely sold out.