October 2012
31 October 2012  ~   Religious Writing

Most of my time this month has gone on a further draft of The Bush Baptist.  I have lost count of the number of rewrites of my first attempt at a novel since I started it in 2007.

One reason for persisting is that I have encountered relatively few novels that focus on religious angst. Many people could provide a long list of authors who deal with angst related to sex, war, unfortunate childhoods, death or injustice. How many novels dealing with faith that are not merely propaganda for a particular religion can you name? 

Some authors write about struggles within a particular church and its teachings. Fewer writers tackle the issue of whether to believe in a god in the abstract. Another related issue I address in The Bush Baptist is how individuals respond to unlikely coincidence. The following  text from the novel, which has now been cut from it, raises some of the issues.

The toleration of freakish events varies greatly. Some readily accept such happenings because they believe in the hand of God or other mysterious manipulations. And rationalists point to probability theory and suggest that remarkable occurrences are a mere drop compared to a humdrum ocean. Between these forms of acquiescence are varying degrees of bewilderment, suspicion and dread.


Another reason I have persisted with The Bush Baptist is wanting to explore what most people call cults and academics call "New Religious Movements". I lived in Perth, Western Australia, for eight months when I was eighteen. One day, I walked past a man outside a shop who invited me inside for a free personality test. I was interested in psychology and learning about myself. I also knew nothing then about Scientology.

It  became clear after the test that the guy was selling something and I left without buying. A better salesperson may well have hooked me at that age. Every time I read an account of escaping from Scientology or some other cultish organisation (which for me includes several Old Religious Movements) I wonder how close I came in Perth to being brainwashed for a second time. Perhaps part of what helped me to walk away from Scientology was not wanting to replace the Catholicism of my parents and schools with another set of dogmas.

20 October 2012  ~   Damned by Despair Damned


Sue and I have only walked from two plays during the interval and one of these was the National Theatre's  Damned by Despair last night. We were not the only people leaving early and already the Olivier had a huge number of empty seats for a Friday night. 

The play was written in Spanish by a priest in the 17th century, by which time Spain had become an extremely repressive Catholic country. Any dramatist writing at this time, cleric or nor, would be thinking hard about what might offend spiritual and temporal powers.

Sometimes an old play is revitalised by a new translation or production. This was not the case with last night’s offering.  The text was by Frank McGuiness, an eminent academic and writer with a record of updating older works. He is also described a Catholic. The term, perhaps especially in Ireland, has a number of meanings. What I would say is that if it means McGuiness accepts Catholic theology, perhaps he wasn’t the best person to breathe new life into a religious tract of a play.

The production was also at fault. To begin with, the roof of the stage suggested a science fiction setting. This construction was striking and in many ways admirable. It simply did not speak to the rest of the play. In the second scene, the stage becomes a Neapolitan pizzeria complete with a scooter dropping off a passenger. However, the standard of acting was unconvincing. It says something when the most memorable player sits in a corner saying nothing. The brooding presence  -  a woman playing the devil enjoying others boasting of and committing sins – was a tour de force.

The scene between hoodlum and  his unwell father was cringe-making, and not redeemed by a Tarantino-style stand-off and mass killing.  When the lights came on Sue and I looked at each other and quickly agreed that we  despaired  of the second half redeeming the first.

19 October 2012  ~   Brushes with Martial Arts

The book circle that I belong to discussed Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain last Saturday. Set in Penang before and after WWII, the book has much to say about three cultures – Chinese, Japanese and Raj – and the way they interacted. There is a wealth of historical detail and insight. Less attractive for me was the mysticism and superstition, some of which, like much of the book, revolved around the martial arts and Aikido in particular. Least appealing was the ritual beheading of one aikidōka by another as a favour and the suggestion that a second similar beheading might have taken place.

The book brought to mind my two closest encounters with the martial arts. I was a primary school teacher when the Kung Fu TV series prompted an outbreak of dangerous kicks and punches in the playground. As I had heard that the martial arts had a spiritual side and placed much emphasis on avoiding fighting, I contacted a karate club and invited a black belt to speak to pupils. I even persuaded two older teachers to bring their classes to hear him. Within minutes, the black belt was describing terrible injuries. I especially remember his description of a hand cracking  a skull like a spoon opening a boiled egg.  The other two teachers gave me withering looks. Needless to say, the talk did nothing to improve behaviour in the playground.

In the early eighties, I went with friends to stay with people they knew in Manchester. One of the Mancunians was a gentle soul. I discovered he was studying aikido and his description of it persuaded me this was a restrained martial art worth pursuing. I looked for a class in London, found one that met early mornings twice a week, bought the outfit and a wooden sword which I left at the centre as I cycled most days. I never warmed to the sensei. As far as I could tell, he knew the techniques and could teach them. But he was  grumpy looking and ill-humoured in his speech. It even crossed my mind that he was going through a painful divorce. Perhaps I dreamed that up maintain my motivation because he was not supplying any.

The last straw came at the end of a class when I overheard the sensei  boasting of how he had shot a blackbird to obtain feathers for a fishing fly. I remember being quite shocked because it was hard to see anything remotely spiritual in such an action. I rode off thinking about it and by the time I got to work I had decided to drop out. I guess I had been going for about five weeks, long enough anyway for a friend to tailored a cloth bag for the wooden sword.  I never went back for to collect my belongings.

It would not surprise me to hear other followers of aikido or other martial arts express revulsion at the shooting of the blackbird. I don’t wish to tar all with the same brush. What I would urge is caution when seeking out a sensei.

13 October 2012  ~   Human Rights Abuses by British Troops

This week reports have again  raised concerns about the propensity of  British troops to abuse human rights. It began with news that seven Marines were being held on suspicion of murdering a member of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The possible murder is being investigated by the Royal Military Police (RMP).

One can't help but wonder if the release of this information had something to do with another story breaking at the same time, a whistle blower expressing her concerns about the manner in which the RMP were involved in the investigation of abuses by British troops in Iraq.  Louise Thomas, a former WREN and police officer, was working for the Iraq Historical Allegations Team (IHAT) set up by the MOD in November 2010 despite calls for a public enquiry.

Louise Thomas claims that after six months she has seen little progress at IHAT and has found a number of RMP personnel either disinterested in available video evidence or sympathetic to the abusers. 

A number of videos showing abusive treatment in Iraq  are available on line. With troops behaving as they do in front of the video camera, what is happening away from the camera?

Video Links: 1    2    3

10 October 2012 -  Religious Freedom and Freedom to be Irreligious

This week The Freethinker
accepted a short story called If Cats Wrote the Bible. It should appear by the end of the year and I will post a link when it does.

While the story is  whimsical, it  makes the point that the Bible is anthro-centric and its view of god anthropomorphic. Jehovah becomes Bastet (the Egyptian cat deity), Eden becomes Catden, cats get the upper deck on the ark, and dogs get a bad press. The style of the King James Bible is used.

I expect many Christians will not like the way the story plays with the first part of Genesis and some will claim to be deeply offended. However, I don't expect to have to go into hiding. Much of Christianity has moved on or at least adherents appreciate that they would harm their cause by seeking to persecute an author.

Is it on to mock religion? The answer for me is yes for as long as religions seek to make decisions that impact on the lives of others who do not share their faith. I would never stoop to being grossly offensive, such as the the recent movie about Islam. But while zealots deter family planing, oppose the use of condoms to counter HIV, stir up homophobia, deny women the chance to choose abortion, and make it impossible for people who wish to end their lives to do so, the debate about religion must take place and that includes fiction as a way of stimulating questions.

Tolerance has to be a two-way street. If people are allowed to practice and promote  their religion, there has to be an equal acceptance of those who dispute the need and justifications for religions.

8 October 2012  ~  Acknowledging Sources

I added an item to this site's Ephemera collection earlier today. The PIG Personality Profile has been a favourite icebreaker since I encountered it about 15 years ago. The person who introduced the Profile then did not know  who had created it. I created a version and added to it "Source unknown. This version by Paul Burns."

Today I did an Internet search  and found many sites featuring the PIG Profile. Two attributed it to a Gordon Cotter, but this might be the case of a site duplicating erroneous information on another, an all too common occurrence.  A few sites implied that the icebreaker stemmed from the person responsible for the site. And another handful acknowledged that they had no idea were the resource came from.  Most sites seemed unconcerned about the origins.

Some may say this is hardly surprising when a large amount of Internet traffic involves the sharing of files regardless of copyright.Yes, but the pirates don't usually pretend to be the creators, which seems to be the case quite often with small items such as the PIG Profile and the lifting of graphics.

3 October 2012 ~ Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
I finished reading Jeanette Winterson's biographical book today. It's a very brave and honest piece of writing that veers from funny to tragic, sometimes zigzagging between the two through much of a page. While it covers some of the same ground as her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, not for one minute did I feel cheated. The ore she mines is too rich and the perspectives of the two books very different.

One of the tragedies revealed is the way JW's  biological mother was forced to give up her daughter soon after the birth in 1960.  Social Service's failed to detect that the adoptive parents had a curious relationship and, as social workers might well do now, interpreted religious beliefs as a plus.

As a result, Mrs W's religious fanaticism, much of it idiosyncratic, was allowed to undermine JW's development and happiness. That Jeanette not only survived the guilt and crazy-making claims but went on to become a major writer is quite amazing.

Among the many prose gems in the recent book is one that deals with Mrs W's obsession with her display case of fine china, despite the poverty that could  mean
 on the day before Mr W got paid basic meals and not being able to feed the meters for power.

We all caught the Royal Albert fever. I saved up. Dad did overtime, and we did it because every presentation of a plate or gravy boat made her as close to happy as she could ever be. Happiness was still on the other side of the glass door, but at least she could see through the glass..."