Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

If you've stumbled upon here randomly, then I suggest you check out my biography and other pages.

Please Note: This site, and the social networking profile pages connected with it, reflect my personal interests & views which do not necessarily represent those of organisations I am affiliated / associated with.

25/09/2012

Manchester Musings

Tonight, journeying through the pouring rain on a train from Bolton into Manchester, I felt moved to write a poem, 'New Mamucium'. 

The central Manchester landscape is a wonderful, eerie place - particularly on a wet, misty day - with its mix of red-brick leftovers from the industrial age and glassy, slightly-experimental developments from the information age.

23/09/2012

Universal Priesthood

This morning I visited a local Quaker meeting, in Cheadle Hulme, and was warmly welcomed there. I explained I felt like I was responding to their 'invite', as they had very recently sent me a calendar of events in a re-used envelope. I had a strong urge to read Romans 12:2 during the meeting, but didn't find the courage to pick the Bible up from the central table. During tea & coffee afterwards, a Quaker elder approached me to say I was more than welcome to 'give ministry', "be it first time, fiftieth time or endth time." There's something quite radical in this, when you think about it, as in most churches you will have needed years of training or to at least be in with the church hierarchy / dominant clique to be permitted, and encouraged, to take to the pulpit.

Hometown Blues

Yesterday I journeyed back to Sheffield, to cheer on my football team, and found myself going for a wander around one of the city's industrial valleys after the match - not far from where I grew up.

During the walk I wrote a poem, 'Local Boy Done Gone', to give voice to the mixed feelings I have regarding 'home'. I typed it out on my mobile phone, putting it in a text message and sending it myself to save it. I'd like to think that's what Walt Whitman would have done - not that my efforts are as noteworthy, I hasten to add.

17/09/2012

A Reflection on Hillsborough

I have recently spent some time writing an article for Wednesdayite, the Sheffield Wednesday Supporters' Society, on the subject of the Hillsborough Disaster. The article goes as follows:
"It’s been a very unsettling experience to be a Wednesdayite this week, following the release of the Bishop of Liverpool’s report into Hillsborough, as we watched our club take centre stage, alongside South Yorkshire police and Sheffield Council, in grim revelations about that day in April 1989.

The report was followed by an apology from the Prime Minister on behalf of the establishment, matched with an apology from Sheffield Wednesday FC headed by Milan Mandaric, but understandably the repercussions will go much further.
 
Following the report and apologies, we have seen the media spotlight focus on the previously unknown details of the Hillsborough Disaster. Running parallel to this, there has also been a huge amount of debate raging across football fan websites, some of it rational and some of it driven by raw emotion. Amidst all of this there is a real sense of grief that 96 fellow football fans died needlessly and horrifically that day, just as the grief suddenly hits you when viewing the harrowing footage the Valley Parade fire which killed 56 fellow football fans and injured over 200 more. It’s hard not to think, “There but for the Grace of God, go I.” In many ways this week has seen the same reaction we’d get if we sat this nation’s millions of football fans down and made them watch that footage in unison, and then told them parts of the causes and response were covered up by the establishment. 
But football is also a sport of rival tribes, of competing businesses. So as the week has progressed, Wednesdayites have naturally turned inwards, focusing their discussions on to the implications of the new report into the Hillsborough Disaster and the likelihood that the club as a corporation will face some kind of legal action, and subsequent reputational and financial damage – which in turn will hurt us Wednesdayites as a community. 
And so, it’s no surprise, that for Wednesdayites like me who didn’t make the long, admirable trip down to Brighton on a Friday night, the result from that game – a pretty heavy defeat and a bump back down to earth following our great start to the season – didn’t really hit the radar as it usually would. 
In the short term, Sheffield Wednesday FC no doubt faces troubled times. Potentially more troubling than administration. I hope Milan Mandaric and his team will robustly, but sensitively, try to steer the club through this – I think we can trust in this. But the outcome could be nevertheless severe, and given what we know already about the failings of the club leadership in the run up to that day, perhaps not unjustifiably so. 
The question is how should Wednesdayites react? In our defence of perceived attacks on our club, we have to be careful that we do not become destroyers of the bond that we have with Liverpool fans. Since 1989, we have played Liverpool on 21 occasions, 10 of them at Hillsborough. These have passed with football taking centre stage.
I wasn’t there that day in 1989, I was nine years old and my only standout memory is my father looking grey in the face as he watched the television  telling me, “something really bad has happened at Hillsborough”, which was a 20 minute walk from our house. However, those Sheffielders much nearer to the ground, many of whom would have been Wednesday fans given that historically the city’s two clubs have tended to draw core support from their surrounding areas, are reported to have opened the doors to Liverpudlians, making them a cup of tea, providing the warmth of their home and a chance to ring their families who would be fearing the worst. Nothing special some might now say, unless you were there in the thick of it. 
And whilst they did not suddenly lose their loved ones, many ordinary Sheffield people – including stewards, hospital staff and police working their shifts that day, just as we do – were left with the same deep emotional scars as Liverpool fans who got out physically unscathed were left with. This week Bruce Grobbelaar was quoted as saying he thought about it everyday. But this could have come from any of the people involved because this was a human tragedy, which as with so many, bonds those caught up in it at ground level. All fans - particularly those who weren’t there that day - need to move out of their tribe and recognise this. 
The tragedy, I believe, was also one that raises much bigger political issues. This is what makes it distinct from Valley Parade in 1985, Ibrox in 1971 or Burden Park in 1946. The Hillsborough Disaster raises issues around how football fans, as collections of working class communities (in some ways just like the miners), were treated by the organs of state in the 1970s and 1980s – penned in like animals and viewed with suspicion. And perhaps this question extends to the modern day, with multi-national companies and ogliarchs reducing fans to little more than passive consumers. Issues also surround the cover-up that followed and what this says about the culture of secrecy and collusion within the top echelons of power in Britain, namely the government, the police, the justice system and the media. This is not just about Hillsborough, it’s about Millie Dowler, Ian Tomlinson and David Kelly. Again, this is something universal, something that affects us all. 
In the longer term, I think the club leadership have to show vision and effort in moving Sheffield Wednesday FC on from 1989. It could be argued that the club leadership of the 1990s didn’t do this and let us all down, as they did on so many things. The lack of memorial for a decade after the disaster is another indicator of this. I am not sure how long the memorial at Anfield took to be put in place, but ours was too long. Although, having said that, there is an argument to be made that this was a result of shellshock more than the ignorance implied by some newspaper commentators and bloggers this week. Looking to Juventus, they have yet to build a memorial to the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster, and it took twenty years for some kind of organised gesture from Liverpool FC to recognise their involvement in this other dark chapter of football history. 
Mick Quinn, former Newcastle striker and TalkSport pundit, posed a question this week on his show at to whether Hillsborough Stadium should be bulldozed? Many Wednesday fans who listened to the subsequent ‘debate’ reacted with anger at Hillsborough Stadium being portrayed as the only ‘deathtrap' ground of that era and the thought of losing the ‘Old Lady’, seeing it as a collective punishment. I think what Quinn was doing, aside from the usual TalkSport method of generating listening figures through controversial topic questions, is trigger a discussion about moving on from 1989 in the longer term. 
To bulldoze Hillsborough Stadium would be little more than an attempt to erase history, and in doing so, would bring to the rubble heap every other part of it’s story which goes back over a century. Historic games from the 1966 World Cup and 1996 Euros were held there as well as 27 FA Cup Semi-Finals. Plus there are historic features such as the listed 1960 cantilever stand, the first of its kind, and the traces of Archibald Leitch, the famous football architect, on the South Stand. It’s also our home. 
However, the fact is the Leppings Lane stand, which is pretty much unchanged except for the introduction of seats and removal of fences, does need to be replaced. It’s a stand most Wednesday fans rarely visit, viewed only at a distance on busy matchdays. But the stadium tour – in which you get to walk around it on a quiet day – brings home the sense of tragedy there. There is also the simple fact it is rundown and has poor facilities. Until it is replaced, this is the face of Hillsborough Stadium that visiting away fans see, including fans from Merseyside. Again, this can be interpreted as ignorance or shellshock on the previous club leadership’s part, but it's also a result of the financial difficulties the club has experienced over the past fifteen years – a consequence of mismanagement and wider financial problems within the game. 
The club, in redeveloping the stand, could take the example of Old Trafford’s memorial to the 1972 Munich Disaster, with a space dedicated to the story of the disaster and remembrance of those lost for future generations. Now that the truth about Hillsborough is fully in the public domain, in the longer term there could be something similar in a new Leppings Lane. This could be constructed by a Liverpool-based artist with contributions from the families of the victims. The memorial at the main entrance to the stadium could also be replaced, although arguably its simplicity is its power, with the space provided for the rainbow of scarves from visiting fans becoming the tribute rather than the plaque itself. This would be much more fitting than Mick Quinn’s bulldozing suggestion, which in turn would probably lead to a Tesco or something equally cold and faceless being built on this hallowed place. 
As a tribe, Sheffield Wednesday fans – perhaps through the supporters’ society – should also take the initiative to reach out to Liverpool fans with a gesture of solidarity. Maybe this could also lead to events being held from time to time to further a constructive bond. Sheffield Wednesday fans play Sheffield United fans each year in the ‘Sheffield Fans Derby’ with proceeds going to local charities. Something similar could eventually be organised between Sheffield Wednesday and Liverpool fans - and Nottingham Forest fans, who also suffered that day. A fourth set of fans could also be invited (possibly starting with Everton fans or Sheffield United fans, both of whom will also have been impacted) and a small tournament created. 
There are three aspects in the aftermath of a public disaster of this kind – truth and justice - and then reconciliation. The truth is now out there and as the documents are pored through, more and more about that day will be brought to light. Then there will need to be justice for the families, which our club has to fully participate in and be respectfully subject to. From there, we must all attempt some kind of reconciliation, and all connected to that fateful day – no matter how small - have a part to play in that."
There is also some powerful commentary from The Observer here.

16/09/2012

U+ anyone?

I've just found this post on the blog, Throw yourself like seed, which attempts to recast Unitarianism as a clearly outlined discipline. For me this focus on practice was the draw of past forays into Zen Buddhism and the Quakers (who wrote to me out of the blue this week, interestingly enough, having signed the guest book at Cheadle Hulme Meeting House). I'm nowhere near the north London congregation which is piloting this, but will be watching with interest.

Inbetween Place

I'm currently at an inbetween place, in terms of where to go to worship on a Sunday - and in the week. It's not necessarily a bad thing and I am allowing it to resolve itself with little deliberate thought (these things can be over-analysed) - if anything, it's a productive, liberating place to be.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am taking time to go through the myriad of books I own - charity shopping as many as my possessive self will allow - with a view to moving everything over to Kindle, as much as that is possible in terms of what's published for this format.

I'm keeping a log of the books I hold dear via Amazon Listmania! Tonight I created my third list:


Another thing keeping me busy this week, aside from work, is an article I've been writing on the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster for the Wednesdayite blog - this follows the release of a news report, and thousands of original documents, uncovering failings and corruption across the British state. Should Wednesdayite choose not to publish, I'll post here.

A final mention goes to the blog, Clothe Yourself in Righteousness, a radical Quaker blog that I seem to get regular incoming hits from - here's your link back!

14/09/2012

Time for a go-slow

It's my second week back at work and I already feel exhausted and ridden with tension, a result of 10-hour working days - without breaks - as I try to tick everything off on the to-do lists. Having arrived home this evening, and slumped in muddled state on the sofa, the book 'In Praise of Slow' suddenly came to mind - I saw it a few years ago, read the blurb, but didn't buy it. Anyway, I've just done a quick search and found this quote:

"The only thing for certain is that everything changes. The rate of change increases. If you want to hang on you better speed up. That is the message of today. 

It could however be useful to remind everyone that our basic needs never change. The need to be seen and appreciated! It is the need to belong. The need for nearness and care, and for a little love! This is given only through slowness in human relations. In order to master changes, we have to recover slowness, reflection and togetherness. There we will find real renewal."

Here's to a weekend of slow...

10/09/2012

Is God Still Speaking?

I've been reflecting a great deal about the Quaker belief in 'continuous revelation'. Different to the Islamic and Bahá'í belief in 'progressive revelation', which waits for chosen ones to be periodically sent by God (most Muslims believe this ended with Mohammed), continuous revelation posits that God, also known as Spirit or the Inner Light, is in constant conversation with the whole of humanity. We just have to tap into the stream. At least that's my understanding of these terms anyway.

I have long thought Jesus underwent his own growth in understanding, that he wasn't the finished article when he 'arrived' on the scene in Roman-occupied Judaea. And given he was a man of his time, I also think he was never the finished article in terms of finer details - not by our standards now - just as the finer details of the philsophies and practices of our time are unlikely to be for future generations.

So what, then, makes Jesus unique? Is he just yet another part mystic, part political revolutionary in a long line of mystics and political revolutionaries? Should he be consigned to history?

Personally I think one of the reasons for Jesus being regarded as unique is, through my own reading and reflections, because he was first to challenge the idea of progressive revelation within the Abrahamic context - that only despatched prophets and anointed priests could reveal the good, and bad, news of God. In John 15:15, he called for a 'priesthood of all believers', a 'prophethood of all believers' even. I guess you could put forward a counter argument that he claimed, or at least did not deny the claim, to be despatched and anointed (so what makes him different?), but my answer is he was also then dispatched in a brutally humiliating way, as if to deliberately undermine this traditional Messianic Superman reading.

Of course much of Christianity doesn't necessarily reflect this now. And it seems, as with Islam, those Christian movements that do claim new revelation - such as the Mormons - quickly re-seal the seal that they often went through great pains to unseal! And that's one of the many reasons why 2000 year old Jesus of Nazareth continues to have relevance. It's also something I think the great (though quite wordy) Unitarian thinker James Martineau was trying to avert with his 'Free Christian' project.

This belief in (and practice of) a continuously unsealed communication with God isn't unique to the Quakers who sit in silence to await mystical revelation. My own understanding of the classical Unitarians and their project to reform Christianity was that they embarked on it with firm belief in the power of reason as a means of revealing God's presence and will. I have experienced both, and I think both approaches have value. A further point of comparison to note between these two 'Christian fringe' groups is the tendency for Quakers to view revelation as a collective enterprise, whereas Unitarians tend to be more individually driven.

Moving into more mainstream circles, the United Church of Christ - a US based, fairly liberal denomination - launched their 'God is still speaking' campaign in 2004 using a large comma as a symbol, in reference to a famous Gracie Allen quote, "Never place a period where God has placed a comma." This could also be taken as a belief in continuing revelation.


I'm currently making my way through 'The Great Partnership' by Jonathan Sacks, who carries the title of Chief Rabbi in Britain, and my thoughts matched with his make me believe that the competition between faith (specifically, the Abrahamic variety) and science is an over-exaggerated one. Over-exaggerated by fundamentalists on both sides who either cannot, or simply don't want to, see the other's perspective. They are bound to come into conflict, when one seemingly contradicts the other, but they also compliment one another. They are both means of continuous revelation, right brain and left brain as Jonathan Sacks calls it. There is a programme on BBC television this week about this very topic, involving Jonathan Sacks, and previewed by Andrew Maher on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week - there is also a write-up (with short video) on the BBC website.

I also have a strong interest in Process Theology too, the belief - put very briefly - that we are caught up in a process of continuous change, in mutual relationship with God, as co-creators (perhaps this is what Jesus meant in John 10:30?). Again, this is not necessarily new to the Unitarians with Charles Hartshorne, regarded as one of the founders of Process Theology, regularly attending Unitarian-Universalist churches in America during his lifetime. The 19th centry work, 'The Spark in the Clod' by Unitarian minister Jabez T. Sunderland carries similar themes. I also seem to remember Rufus M. Jones, the great 20th century Quaker thinker, having written something along similar lines (although that prompts me to want to go re-read the book I have of his to double check, a joy to read first time and no doubt on second and third). So we are not just called to sit down and chat with God, but to get up and act with God.

In more evangelical circles, there is a book called 'LifeShapes' by Mike Breen and Walt Kallestad that's been doing the rounds for some years now. I got my hands on a copy but left it on a coach in Bosnia. I didn't get most of it, it was perhaps too heavy for summer reading, but the shape that stood out was the triangle:


I kind of get this now, in my own way:
  • Jesus got up with God; he prayed, in a manner that might now be called 'transcendental meditation', and he encouraged - and coached - others in this practice.
  • Jesus got inside the heads of his disciples; through a reasoned dialogue with his disciples, he sought to uncover truth about human life, and in doing so, reveal God's immanence.
  • Jesus got out there; he acted to make things better, to live revelation by building the realm of God on Earth in the here and now.

09/09/2012

Amazon Debut

I'm currently going through my bookshelf looking for charity shop candidates as I try once again to move over to Kindle. I figure I have to move my favourite reads onto Kindle as a way of encouraging its use, and to do that I need to get rid of the paper copies. It's proving hard to give away well-thumbed books I hold dear (and even harder to give books away I've never read!) but I've resolved to do it this time. To make the process easier, I have started logging my favourite reads on Amazon via their Listmania! facility - as a running record of my reading, and as a guide for others who share a similar outlook.

Tonight I have created two Listmania! Lists:


I'll keep adding to them as the big sort-out progresses.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

If my memory serves me right, the second most famous novel from Khaled Hosseini, author of the 'The Kite Runner', first arrived on my radar through my work in schools. 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' was delivered as part of a box of free books from a government-backed initiative to encourage a culture of reading amongst high school students. It's title and cover caught my attention but it was only a good few years later, whilst shopping around for books to read during the summer holidays, that I finally got around to turning its pages.

As a side note, it is heartening that these schemes continue despite the onset of the economic crisis and the reign of Michael Gove as Secretary State for Education, who through a range of antiquated, elitist policies (readily picked apart by practitioners) has earned himself the title of 'Most Hated Ever' from teachers and the threat of large scale industrial action. (He has survived this hostility so far, just as he survived his part in the expenses scandal). But this is not simply a battle within British education, it is representative of broader clash of conflicting views around the development of politics, economics and society - our very culture - within 21st century Britain.

For me it points to a question of whether we want to change our culture from one of hierarchy to one of meritocracy. Over the past 50 years I think we have moved from a strictly hierarchical society, in which those from a particular lineage and upbringing tended to dominate, to an inbetween place where social mobility has increased but remains nonetheless limited. BBC News Magazine published a good commentary on this, by Andrew Neill, not long after the election of David Cameron's government, which had (and still has) an unrepresentative proportion of superwealthy heirs and Etonians. To make the progress made so far, we have first had to critique aspects of our culture, recognise they are wrong, and then embrace change - and arguably the elections of Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have all been manifestations of this national project, albeit with very mixed results.

And for me, journeying through A Thousand Splendid Suns whilst sat on a beach in Cuba, my reading saw me both enraptured by a fast-flowing romantic story, but also, similarly reflecting on issues of culture and its relationship with politics. In this case, Afghanistan and other widely different cultures (such as Pakistan, Iran, Syria etc.) that are currently experiencing crisis and conflict - and have either been subject to Western intervention or likely to be at some point in the near future.

In many ways Khalid Hosseini's novel is an honest bringing to life, and critique, of Afghanistan culture. Through a tense, beguiling tale about the lives of two Afghanistan women, Mariam and Laila - to the background of the major political events that have impacted the country over the past 30 to 40 years, namely foreign invasions and civil war - Khalid Hosseini highlights the patriarchal, repressive nature of the society he grew up in and it's most brutal consequences for women.

This is epitomised in the advice given early on in the story to a young Mariam, “Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman. Always.” These words, delivered by her embittered mother, sound at first like little more than the warnings of a woman who has loved and lost. However, as the fate of Mariam is played out to its shocking end, initially running parallel to and midway colliding with that of Laila, it becomes clear that what Khalid Hosseini is pointing to is something much more endemic than one woman. The author, who was born in Kabul but has spent most of his life in Western countries, focuses the novel particularly on the issue of 'honour' culture within Afghanistan. Specifically, he looks at how this code of living - which seems to transcend the various ethnic groups within the country - systematically favours males and can become an excuse for their subjugating and abuse of females.

This is brought to life primarily in the character of Rasheed (the monstrous husband of Mariam and Laila) but interestingly, also through the early actions of Mariam's female relatives who are both victim and advocates of this domination system. There is also a powerfully indicative moment towards the end where Mariam signs her name for the second time, having previously signed her marriage certificate, putting her signature to her own death warrant - a pointer that the direct manifestation of this aspect of domestic Afghan culture is arguably the emergence of the Taliban government.

Running in the background is the more political story of Afghanistan, charting the invasion of the Soviet Union, civil war, the Taliban and more recently, the occupation of the country by US-led NATO forces. Naturally, reading it through British eyes, the novel encourages reflection on the British military presence in Afghanistan, and more pointedly, the decade-long effort to 'nation build'. And perhaps Khalid Hosseini, whilst casting a overt critical eye on his homeland, is also casting an implicit critical eye on the latest foreign-imposed political project on the country, which was seemingly embarked upon with little knowledge of the country's deep-seated culture.

Furthermore, in his elegant descriptions of Herat's history as a city of Persian poets, Khalid Hosseini also provides an glimmer of an alternative Afghanistan to the 'backwardness' of other aspects of his portrayal - highlighting that Afghanistan continues to have a rich, diverse Islamic heritage to draw upon, not simply the puritanical interpretation of Mullah Omar and his Pashtun comrades. A similar potted history is provided to the reader with regards to Kabul, with attention drawn to the fact the 1960s and 1970s saw an influx of women into universities and professional classes. The very title of the book, taken from Persian poet Saib Tabrizi's musings on Kabul, points to a better time when Afghanistan served as a hub and crossroads for Eastern culture, and as a country capable of making progress.

An interpretation could also be drawn that Khalid Hosseini is making some commentary on the interplay between Pashtun culture, which tends to dominate the country, and the Tajik minority culture which descends directly from Persia (now known a Iran).

The ending, in which the Taliban are vanquished from Kabul - and our knowledge of the events since then - can't help lead to a sense that Afghanistan has become a lost cause. Certainly, this is the view of Mariam and Laila as they compare the Titanic movie to Afghanistan's fate,“Everybody wants Jack to rescue them from disaster. But there is no Jack, Jack is not coming. Jack is dead.” But there is also a sense, through this deeply human story, that there remains a great source of strength within the Afghan people - particularly Afghan women - that will at some point rise up collectively. And maybe this is the crux of the matter, there are no Hollywood heroes who can rescue Afghanistan, Afghanistan can only save itself.

07/09/2012

Walk with me...

I have now returned to work, naturally full of trepidation about the year ahead, and the opening services have tellingly included the hymn 'Walk With Me, Oh My Lord'. It is a touching hymn.


06/09/2012

Unitarian Hope, part 2

I've found another great Unitarian blog today, Able to Choose by Anthony Howe.

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

Unlike the two previous book reviews which also drew on notes and observations from my travels, this one is written straight on the rocks. During the process of selecting summer reading I somehow stumbled across the 'The Testament of Gideon Mack', having never heard of it before, and became very quickly fascinated with it after reading the Amazon blurb:
If the devil didn’t exist, would man have to invent him? For Gideon Mack, faithless minister, unfaithful husband and troubled soul, the existence of God, let alone the Devil, is no more credible than that of ghosts or fairies. Until the day he falls into a gorge and is rescued by someone who might just be Satan himself. Mack’s testament – a compelling blend of memoir, legend, history and, quite probably, madness – recounts one man’s emotional crisis, disappearance, resurrection and death. It also transports you into an utterly mesmerising exploration of the very nature of belief.
I found myself, during a bout of indecisiveness in which I had a variety of other books in mind I'd been wanting to read for sometime, keeping coming back to the novel. I had promised myself (and my significant other who worries I never allow my brain to rest) a summer of light fiction, instead of the usual haul of theological and historical books, but decided this was a compromise I could get away with.

And so I bought it.

And it didn't fail to live up to my expectations. It exceeded them. 

Kind of.

Gideon Mack is the son of a Scottish minister in the Church of Scotland, or Kirk as it is known colloquially in Scotland. Growing up in Ochtermill, described as a small village in Stirlingshire, in a household brought to life by the author in all its authoritarian and loveless glory. Gideon describes himself as being a natural chameleon - a boy who survives in a tough environment by 'acting' out roles according to what he perceives people want him to be. This sees him living a dual life as dutiful, studious, middle-class son of the Manse at home, in front of his domineering Calvinist father and mouse-ish Gaelic mother, whilst simultaneously being the Jack the Lad with the gangs of working class laddies at school - all the while self-conscious that he is naturally neither.

This feeling of being a fringe character, of somehow being different, and of somehow not feeling the same emotions others feel, incessantly stays with Gideon Mack as he enters university life and meets close friends, including his future wife. We, the readers, are left wondering whether Gideon Mack is an emotionless manipulator, an unfulfilled charismatic, or simply someone overly critical of himself having never experienced affection and positive regard. Meanwhile the people around him, not being privy to his inner thoughts at this point, are seemingly 'fooled' into thinking he is a genuine, kind-hearted, game for a laugh, ordinary kinda guy.

This dual life continues as Gideon Mack seemingly lives with a seething, repressed resentment towards his father - a vow to not become him - yet walks the same path towards the ministry (albeit dragging his heels along a convoluted route). Despite being open to his friends about his lack of belief in God and a Jesus who walks with you in the here and now, he dilutes these sentiments when he speaks to his father, talking only in euphemisms of 'having doubts' - to which his father, portrayed as a man in decline in terms of his authority, responds without his usual criticism (perhaps significantly so) instead casting them as a natural state of being before convincement. He later passes away following a stroke, a milestone not without symbolism.

Having being ordained and married to Jenny, Gideon Mack seems to excel in his role returning the declining church in Monimaskit to the centre of community life by channelling its collective energies towards coordinating fundraising - acting as a figurehead and exemplar through charity running, whilst insisting privately that his lack of belief has not changed. He has his critics, with whom he seems to spend substantial time preoccupied with (as he does with his father), but is otherwise admired by his congregation and the surrounding community. To stave off his doubts, now extended to his relationship with Jenny, Gideon Mack focuses on busying himself with ever increasing fundraising targets.

Then - with the story of Job springing to mind as I reflect on it - the sudden death of his wife occurs, which Gideon Mack notably fails to articulate his feelings about (via the manuscript) in a way you would perhaps expect. Not in terms of explanation but in terms of emotion. This marks the transition of what was an enjoyable, well-placed yet pretty mild novel about Scottish small town life into a more surreal, haunting tale.

Not long after his wife's death, Gideon Mack reports in much more detail (via his manuscript) a sexual encounter with one of his best friends, Elsie (his wife's best friend, and his best friend's wife) who he has quietly lusted for, and longed for, since their time together at university. Again, the scene is rich in symbolism.
Following this event, he continues to busy himself - particularly with running - until he makes a strange discovery in the nearby woodland, with a standing stone (an interesting feature of Scottish ancient history and mythology) suddenly appearing on one of his familiar routes. Over the coming months Gideon Mack becomes increasingly fixated on the stone and its meaning, in a similar way he has previously found his attention directed towards perceived detractors. The ongoing mental decline of his mother, from Alzheimer's, which leaves her shell-like, also contribute to his restlessness - particularly as he muses that this state of ill health is not far removed from her character when in full health.

And then comes the really weird bit.

In an effort to rescue a friend's (and fellow minister's) dog from a ravine known as the Black Jaws, Gideon Mack is swept under the raging waters and into a cavern. This is perhaps not unexpected, blurb aside, given the emblematic power the ravine has already been invested with through an art exhibition in which Gideon Mack has previously been involved (you'll have to read the book for more, otherwise I'll spoil every part of the story). But rather than drowning, he is 'rescued' by a strange figure he refers to as The Devil and spends a darkly bizarre three days with him, having his broken leg healed in the process. Again recounted through his manuscript.

As an aside, it is worth noting this is not a completely random scenario, given British mythology around fairies, some of which is based on Iron Age era Pictish peoples and remains of their underground dwellings in Scotland. The character of Chae Middleton possibly has implicit connections with this.

Given up for dead, Gideon Mack reappears to his community - and following a tense build up - reveals to his experiences within the Black Jaws to his church, at a service already declared heretical by some (a Mexican Day of the Dead inspired funeral ceremony for an infamous local worthy). He then goes further to spell out his 'real' thoughts on God and admits to his apparent misdemeanours (namely, the affair with Elsie). He is instantly ostracised - declared mad, bad and dangerous, and sad - but appears to gain a sense of release, and purpose, from this new status.

Quite significantly, shortly before his revelations, his friend and fellow minister attempts to recast the story Gideon Mack had confided in her  (whilst taking a service at his church during his prescribed rest and recovery period) as one in which he had a near-death experience and touched heaven. But on hearing this, he rebukes and condemns her, resolving to tell his own truth - as though the author is giving a deliberate rebuttal to any safe Christian-mystical interpretation of the narrative.

From there the story ends quite abruptly with Gideon Mack finishing his manuscript, the prologue having already informed us it was found after his final disappearance, and subsequent demise on Ben Alder (a mountain with real-life mystery). The epilogue, which feels a little like an unnecessary add-on, clouds the water further by seemingly confirming some of the strange events documented in his manuscript, and contradicting the more ordinary, as the residents of Monimaskit are each interviewed. Again, this feels like a deliberate rebuke from the author to any safe rationalist interpretation of the story, that Gideon Mack simply experienced a psychological collapse (a casting of the story into the same mould as Martin Scorcese's 'Shutter Island' perhaps).

James Robertson's novel is as engrossing as it is unsatisfying. 

What really happened to Gideon Mack, this ordinary guy with the qualities and flaws of the next person?

Are we reading a story about the damage caused by a pious yet unloving childhood - a nod to attachment theory even?

Or is it some kind of sociological commentary on a changing Scotland, specifically the decline of traditional religion - and perhaps a hint towards a national identity crisis?

Maybe.

Yet none of it fits either box that well. Instead it all just disturbingly sits there, prompting you to turn it over and over, a bit like Gideon Mack's standing stone.

And perhaps that's precisely the author's aim.

02/09/2012

Unitarian Hope

Yesterday I stumbled upon Bill Darlison's blog, a retired minister who served at Dublin Unitarian Church and currently serves as Vice President of the General Assembly of Unitarians and Free Christians.

I read his two most recent posts ('Impossible Things' and 'Are Unitarians Really Radical Thinkers?') with interest and, although I of course recommend they are read in full, I have included some standout snippets below:

“...it seems to me increasingly strange that we can hold up to scrutiny the theological assumptions of our culture, while blithely and unquestioningly accepting its scientific dogmas.  The atheistic and humanistic mind-set of our time is predicated upon the tacit acceptance of scientific theories which are staggeringly improbable as they are generally presented to us, but which we never question because we have unconsciously invested their proponents with an authority which the popes and priests of old could only dream about.  We may be like Alice in matters of religion, but we are very much like the Queen when it comes to science.

… I think that we Unitarians have a duty to examine every dogma, no matter what its source.  We have no excuse for lazy thinking.”

And:

“We have simply ceased to be radical thinkers. Centuries ago our forebears stood up against the tyranny of the majority and, in many cases, risked penury and even death in order to be true to their principles. They wanted the freedom to think and to worship as their conscience dictated. We claim the same freedom, but, alas, we’ve started to think just like everyone else. In fact, we’ve taken on the prevailing intellectual dogmas of our age with hardly a whimper of protest. Richard Dawkins would probably be more welcome in many of our churches than the Archbishop of Canterbury.

…And God forbid that we should ever feel uncomfortable! Let’s not do anything in services which might cause someone even the slightest twinge of intellectual disquiet. Let’s not do anything new in case we offend the traditionalists. Let’s not sing a hymn which mentions God in case we offend the atheists. Let’s not say the Lord’s Prayer in case we offend the feminists. Let’s not even say the word ‘prayer’ without numerous caveats explaining that this is not a prescriptive term and is to be interpreted according to one’s own preferred definition. Is it any wonder that the only people we seem to be attracting are ‘difficult’, inflexible people who are only too ready to find something to be offended by?

…If we persist with our current decaffeinated, bland inoffensiveness we are doomed.”

Personally speaking, I think he is insightful about the intellectual / theological state of Unitarianism (and by connection, Free Christianity) in Britain & Ireland and, as much as I can say from this side of the water, Unitarian-Universalism across the Atlantic. I think he touches on important questions about the nature - and authenticity - of Unitarianism's claim to be a voice of religious radicalism and the voice of religious liberalism (by this I mean rational inquiry matched with an interest in the mystical, the encouraging of debate, a pledge not to try impose uniformity of thinking, placing primacy on equality and democracy, a passion for social justice). I happen to think the dual torch of religious radicalism and religious liberalism (in many ways a delicate balancing act) has been taken up in parts of many of the churches traditionally viewed as irrevocably conservative, most noticeably via the Progressive Christian and Emerging Church movements.

With regards to the specific issue of the 'Leather and Grace' article controversy (which Bill Darlison touches upon in his 'Are Unitarians Really Radical Thinkers?' post) from the August 2012 issue of The Unitarian (which I have not been able to readily get a copy of, having been withdrawn by the local congregation) and discussed further in the September 2012 issue (which I have read), I share the same view (as much as I can, having not been able to read the original article) expressed by one of the commenters on Bill Darlison's blog - that it resembles a Monty Python sketch. For me it's not a question of whether the links between sex and spirituality should be discussed - of course they should - but it is a case of how it is being handled, and the commentary in the September 2012 issue had a comedy rather than philosophical value (I say this as graciously as possible, acknowledging I may just not 'get' its seriousness).

And the sad fact is other churches such as one I know of affiliated with the Church of England and Baptist Union - which I guess many Unitarians would probably instinctively regard as regressive - were positively discussing sex and spirituality some years ago. Discussion prompted by Rob Bell's 'Sex God' book, a weighty yet highly-readable theological work, not the badly written spiced-up Mills and Boon that '50 Shades of Grey' ultimately is. But therein lies part of the problem - many Unitarians seem to have tuned out of this growing radical current within Christianity, either simply not knowing it exists or, I suspect, actively not wanting to know because it challenges their post-Christian agenda.

Certainly Bill Darlison speaks to my condition, to pinch a Quaker phrase, when it comes to Unitarianism. And it's heartening to read he is due to become President of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christians in 2013.