Saturday, 15 March 2014

The First World War

'However the war began - by German design, by the negligence of statesmen, by the purblindness of generals- there was nothing inevitable about its course'. So says Allan Mallinson, in 1914 - Fight the Good Fight - Britain, the Army and the Coming of the First World War.

German military ambition; unprepared and complacent politicians; inadequate, not to say incompetent generals: the tangled threefold cord that led eventually to war.

It is interesting what one can learn from books about WW1; for example, Germans were called Huns because of a speech of the Kaiser in 1900 when he boasted that China during the Boxer rebellion should be made to fear the Germans in the way Europe had once feared Attila the Hun; artesian wells are named after the region of Artois; 'tanks' are so called because when first transported during the First World War, in communications between England and France they were referred to as 'water tanks' to fool the Germans who might have intercepted any messages.

The fascinating issue however is: what caused the war? The three part BBC series '37 Days' did a good job of dramatising the historical events of the summer of 1914, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, in Sarajevo on 28th June to the declaration by England of war on Germany on 4th August.

What is amazing with the wisdom of hindsight is the feeling that war could have been avoided. Why should a spot of bother in the Balkans really lead to war between the super-powers of Europe and beyond? That seems to have been the outlook of at least the British leaders. There was complacency and naivety, a kind of living in the halcyon days of Edwardian summers, not really believing anyone could actually want war in the Europe of the early 20th century.

But they reckoned without the martial mindset of Prussian dominated Germany - the one factor that did make war inevitable. To go to war to honour a commitment to Belgium and an understanding with France was after all not dishonourable or unreasonable. It was not an unnecessary war for Britain to fight. Just a tragic one ever to have been started.

Having said that, of all wars this is the most difficult for which to pin down a merely human reason, or chain of causation. An age had to come to an end, a new one begin, and it would take two wars, not one, to exhaust the world.

The result was a change of eras. It was a war taking place during an age of transition; weapons of destruction outstripped means of defence and strategies to counter them. A war of cavalry charges and gas masks, poison gas and zeppelins, tanks, aeroplanes and footslogging.

Above all, one sees men, often good men, in political leadership at the mercy of events. One cannot study the causes of this war in particular without being aware of events being carried by their own momentum. There was a sense of inevitability even while one wonders why it could not have been avoided.

Which brings one to the idea of God. Ultimately the First World War happened because he willed it, though no evil is in him. There was a divine purpose in it all, though one does not presume to know what it was other than that in the end he will be glorified. An expression of the judgement of God, certainly, an outworking of the curse, a tragic testimony to human sinfulness. Every consideration of this and other wars should profoundly humble us.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

12 Years a Slave

Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black American who was kidnapped in New York in 1841 and spent 12 years in slavery, this is a hard film to watch. It has been much publicised and is hotly tipped for Baftas and Oscars.

Director Steve McQueen (I can never see that name without thinking of a motorbike leaping over barbed wire fences in 1940s Germany) pulls no punches in portraying the brutality of slavery, and it is not for the squeamish. One man next to me kept covering his eyes; a woman next to my wife squeaked and gasped from time to time.

The peculiar thing is, it leaves one very little to talk about. It raises no new moral issues, just emphasises how bad a bad institution really was; it does not add anything to 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', and is actually less subtle and nuanced than that peerless book.

It is however a good and powerful film, and the acting is of high quality. One is faced with the conundrum of human wickedness, in people who should have known so much better. But when human beings are regarded as possessions, almost anything is possible.

I think Hilary and I have had our ration of films for the year!

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Butler

Forrest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines (real name apparently Eugene Allen)a black American who came from the cotton fields of the deep south to serve as butler to seven American Presidents from 1957 to the 1980s (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan). His father was brutally shot by a cotton farmer (not true, apparently, of the real Eugene Allen). The issues of racial injustice, integration and the civil rights movement provide the real plot-line of the film, the biopic of Gaines being not much more than the vehicle to examine how America struggled with these issues over the eighty or so years covered by the film, from his father's death in 1926 to his presentation to President Obama in 2009.

The closing credits begin with a dedication to those who died in the cause of civil rights in America.

The irony of this of course, as the film emphasises, is that Gaines was an anti-hero from this perspective - a man who lived up to white stereotypes of the 'house-nigger', wearing two faces, the compliant servant in his white masters' presence, a real man when he went back home.

Home however is not always a happy place - his wife Gloria, disillusioned by Gaines' absorption with his job and what went on at the White House which he could not share with her, it is implied has an affair or at least gets close to it; more central to the plot, there is a painful split with his son who joined the Black Panthers and despised his father's lifestyle.

In the end all are reconciled but Gloria dies just too soon to see Obama elected.

So one gets the impression that this is a bit of a propaganda effort by the civil rights lobby, Hollywood congratulating itself and its version of America on getting from racial stereotypes in the 1950s to a black President in 2008. Critics have panned much of its historical accuracy, including a portrayal of Ronald Reagan (brilliantly acted by the wonderful Alan Rickman) as being anti-civil rights. I also found it a little difficult to take entirely seriously a film with Oprah Winfrey in a lead role (Gloria). It is ponderous in parts and predictable in its message, and the video montage of Great Moments in American History from 1960 - 1990 (Kennedy, Vietnam, Luther King, Nixon etc.) is a bit like Forrest Gump without the laughs.

Nonetheless - it is an enjoyable film, the glimpses into White House life evocative of an American 'Downton Abbey'. I am glad to have seen it.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Westminster Fellowship encouragement

From 1942 the regular home of the Westminster Fellowship of ministers was at Westminster Chapel. Until last Monday that is. We have moved to Westminster Baptist Church in Horseferry Road, for economic reasons.

We were given a very warm welcome and about 40 men turned up - about twice as many as usual - to hear Garry Williams, director of the John Owen Centre. His subject was 'Contemporary Roman Catholicism'. His thesis was, simply, that Roman Catholicism has changed in the last fifty years, but not for the better. What one has now is both an insistence on the traditional (and in the same crucial areas false) doctrines, and a reaching out to embrace not only the separated brethren and 'anonymous Christians' of other Christian denominations and other religions, but of no religion at all. Nature has been 'graced' and Rome is the proper goal of all grace on earth, so Rome will draw in all recipients of grace. Her tentacles have never been so extended nor so strong; we are but iron filings irresistibly drawn towards the voracious magnet that is Rome. The beast looks like a lamb but speaks like a dragon...

That this is a postmodern mix of contradictions does not of course worry Rome as in the end (the eschatological end, the synthesis of all things), everything will be hers. All roads, as never before, lead to Rome, even if they seem at present to be leading in totally opposite directions.

The source Garry relies on is Leonardo di Chirico and it is a lucid, compelling and good summary of the present post Vatican II scene. I could not help but see the same framework in embryo in lectures given in the 1960s by Francis Schaeffer after he visited, as an observer, some sessions of the Vatican II council.

We had useful discussion and questions afterwards.

It seemed a bit of a rebirth for the Fellowship, in terms of a new venue and numbers present. May it long continue.

Our next meeting is a 'fellowship' meeting with no speaker but discussion on subjects raised by the members, on 3rd March.

The Railway Man

This is one of those films whose content could never be guessed from the title.

Eric Lomax was a railway enthusiast. He was also a solder at the fall of Singapore during the Second World War, and suffered terribly at the hands of the Japanese as a POW. In particular he suffered at the hands of one officer who was responsible for torturing him.

Later in life, perhaps 20 or so years [actually over 50 years later and in very different circumstances from those portrayed in the film - I have now read the book!], he is given the opportunity to meet this man again, having been urged by a fellow ex-POW to kill the man. He discovers him acting as a tour guide around the former POW camp.

The film follows how not revenge but forgiveness takes place.

It is a powerful film, aided by a strong performance by Colin Firth as Lomax (who died in 2012, his Japanese former enemy, but by then close friend, in 2011). Nicole Kidman plays his patient and loving wife.

It makes one think - 'how could one ever forgive someone who did that...?' No Christian motives are expressed in the film. I have not read the book and have no idea what religious beliefs Lomax had if any. The healing power of forgiveness however is movingly portrayed.

A film worth seeing.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Justice or the p.c. lynch mob?

There has been a perplexing and depressing trend in public life in recent years.

It became prominent when the government was getting all uppity about big corporations not paying their taxes. Not that the corporations were doing anything illegal of course. They had simply been doing what corporations and businessmen, and plenty of ordinary folk, have been doing from time immemorial - simply not paying more tax than the law said they had to pay. Clever lawyers and accountants helped them to avoid tax, but nothing illegal was being done.

So what do the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister do? They winge. They complain. They take the moral high ground, and start saying how utterly unfair it is that these companies should not play the game and pay taxes.

Now it used to be a plank of civil liberties that the government had no right to take money off a citizen without legislation agreed by those citizens' representatives, authorising that acquisition. Theft is theft whoever does it. How glad we have been to live in a country that respects the rights of the individual in this way. What the government of today resorts to however is not exactly theft, but moral blackmail, executive pressure, relying on the weight of public opinion supporting it. Which mostly, as people do not have much sympathy for multinationals, it does.

So Starbucks for example dutifully coughs up as if the State were a charity to which we should voluntarily give funds when it rattles the can under our nose.

I am no great supporter of Starbucks (awful coffee) but I would defend their right to the last not to pay tax if there is a way out of it.

The onus in these matters is on the government to get its legislation right, not to rely on public hand-ringing and moral pressure. Law and the justice system, not public opinion, should determine rights and duties in these matters.

Other examples of the same tendency come to mind. Recently Lord Rennard has been hounded by his party, the once (going back decades) marginally noble but now sickeningly politically correct Lib-Dems, not because he was found guilty of anything that the party's complaints system could prove to be an offence, but because he had done some things which apparently merited an apology. It was strange for a Q.C in a report to suggest that. But he was a Lib Dem Q.C.

I am not defending Lord Rennard in any way, but who is the judge in his case? The pressure of opinion and Nick Clegg's desire to do what he thought his party should be seen to be doing.

Not a very good example but it rings some of the same bells: Nicholas Anelka seems to be a rather immature individual, and his 'quennelle' gesture could well have been racist, but it might just have been anti-establishment, as he claims. It was certainly silly. Yet many were all for his being sacked by his club before his case had even been heard.

Whatever happened to innocent till proven guilty? Death by public opinion again. Public opinion has always been a hair's breadth from the lynch-mob, but now the commitment to justice seems to be weaker, the readiness of institutions and authorities to capitulate seems to be greater.

So it is not surprising that, on the other side, when a judicial decision by a jury is arrived at, the family of Mark Duggan complain bitterly and at least some want to overturn that decision. But if justice is not upheld by those in authority, we can hardly expect those of us lower down the social pile to respect its institutions.

Most worrying of all for the majority of us, the government is proposing to outlaw behaviour that is deemed to be a nuisance or annoying. Who is going to judge that? Another plank in the rule of law has been that a citizen should be able to know in advance when he may be committing a crime. How can anyone know if what he may do in a public place will be adjudged to be anything so vague as annoying?

The decision is again in the hands of one form or another of the executive.

Which is not far removed from public opinion, or political correctness. And that is not in principle any different from the lynch mob - only the level of violence differs. But in a society that seems to be slipping from the rule of law and the adjudication of wrongs by due judicial process, who knows how long that difference will be sustained?

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Augustine at the John Owen Reading Group

Well, not in person, but we enjoyed a lively and informative discussion at our Reading Group, led by Jeremy Walker, who had evidently actually read the book, which is not always the case with every leader. Most of us used the translation by Garry Wills (Penguin Classics, 2008) though I also had the older Oxford common-room style Penguin edition (1961) by R.S. Pine-Coffin (yes really) which I had read a few years ago.

Wills is a refreshing read once you get over his strange choice of words - umbrageous, foisoned, fractuosity, punks; his Augustine is a rumbustious fellow, who would never been at home at Oxbridge.

We wondered if Wills' choice of translating Augustine's most famous phrase 'you made us for yourself...' as 'we are unstable until you have stabilized us' adds anything to it, and indeed whether it detracts altogether from the link with the very last chapter of the book which is 'Sabbath Rest'. Could there not be an intended connection between the first paragraph and the last chapter which is lost by changing 'restless' to 'unstable'?

Again, does Wills' choice of phrase in the same sentence describing us as having been made 'tilted' towards God reflect a Roman Catholic view of the creation of man, with inherent instability (that concept again)? Wills we discovered was Jesuit trained and is a Roman Catholic at least by sympathy. But there I go - trying to claim Augustine as a proto-Protestant.

The book can be described as an 'act of therapy' and 'a masterpiece of strictly intellectual autobiography', 'quite succinctly the story of Augustine's heart, or of his feelings' and 'a manifesto of the inner world' (all Peter Brown), a spiritual autobiography, an apologia pro vita sua. One author says its theme is that 'human life is the product of free decisions guided by God's grace to its proper conclusion'. 'Confession' meant for Augustine 'accusation of oneself and praise of God'.

It is a wonderful work, no doubt over-hyped by some but it is difficult to deny the breathtaking brilliance of the mind from which it came, the depth of self-knowledge, the delight in God, the penetration of analysis and the painful (as we would understand it and as the Puritans would understand that word too) examination of his heart in response to temptation. God is always there for Augustine. The whole work is of course addressed to God. Life becomes prayer. Reality is sacramental, 'charged with the grandeur of God', and Christ is his beloved only Mediator.

We concluded that this man took sin with utmost seriousness, and understood grace with lavish abandon. We could do worse than follow him at least in these.