The Sin of Witchcraft

Along with so many others, I have been thinking about what the consequences will be as thousands upon thousands of people, desperate to reach the West and mostly from impoverished Muslim countries, reshape the societies that my children and grandchildren will inherit. There continues to be speculation and wide variations of opinion in the Western press about the long-term effects on European societies of allowing almost unfettered immigration. It is well understood that incomers who are mostly from Muslim countries and whose members historically have difficulty integrating, often form ghettos in European cities, rapidly morphing into ‘no-go’ areas. Enclaves where the bars are empty and the cafés full of men only while their wives huddle indoors, venturing out only if covered with an abbaya and a hijab represent a threat to many of the indigenous population, particularly if so-called ‘religious police’ are out on to the streets to enforce Shari’a concerning alcohol or female dress.

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 21.49.56Yet, it is not these, disturbing as they are, perhaps, who will swell the ranks of the next incarnation of terror. After Al-Qaeda, which preached a more cerebral Salafism, came the Islamic thugs who in the cultural post-Saddam abyss that was Iraq identified with the nihilism, glory and martyrdom of ISIS. As we witness the slow but inevitable strangulation of the self-styled caliphate we see that it too will pass, at great cost, but another head will grow on the hydra – Boko Haram conflates politics of deprivation and extremism, Hamas majors on antisemitism – every new flowering of terror has at its heart rage and rebellion. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was not perpetrated by Yemeni gunmen flown in expressly for the purpose; instead, Al-Qaeda drew on a reservoir of already disaffected French youth, already freshly radicalised, in search of a label, a cause with a grand narrative to which they could add their own bloody signature. The departure of so many young, impressionable wannabe fighters from the backstreets of Europe to go and fight in a war that has so little to do with them politically provides a fingerprint from which we can deduce why they went and how their radicalisation came about.  As an example, looking at French jihadists, two narratives are dominant at present, which are shaping media debate.

First, the cultural explanation suggests a recurrent “war of civilisations” theory: the revolt of young Muslims demonstrates the extent to which Islam cannot be integrated into the West, at least not so long as theological reform has not struck the call of jihad from the Qu’ran. The second interpretation – a Third World scenario –  evokes post-colonial suffering, the identification of these youth with, for example, the Palestinian cause, their rejection of Western intervention in the Middle East, and their exclusion from a French society that is racist and Islamophobic. In short, they are singing a very old song: as long as we haven’t resolved the Israel-Palestine conflict, there will be a revolt. This may be truer in the streets of East Jerusalem than in Paris but the principle is transferable across a range of post-colonial scenarios.

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 21.52.14But the two explanations run up against the same problem: If the causes of radicalisation are structural, then why do they affect only a tiny fraction who call themselves Muslims? It has been said that jihadism is, if you will, a ‘second generation’ problem Its adherents have grown up without any particularly strong affiliation to a mosque, have chased girls, drunk beer and smoked weed. And yet it is these – “such a nice boy… seemed to get a bit religious, grew a beard and started carrying around a copy of the Qu’ran” – who have become the standard-bearers for the prideful nihilism that is the hallmark of the jihadist. The common ground between the second generation and the converts is primarily a generational revolt: both have ruptured with their parents or, more precisely, with what their parents represent in terms of culture and religion. They have literally, as well as metaphorically thrown the baby out with the bathwater. They want nothing to do with the culture of their parents and by extension the Western culture which has become a symbol of their own self-hatred. It’s interesting to note that jihadists are often blood relatives, as if the blood tie recreated for them an identity which their parents had debased. Death or glory videos simply reinforce the culture of belonging that the super-gang called ISIS insists upon and the threat of death is simply an adrenalin spike added to the toxic mix which began with a charismatic preacher on the Internet. Young converts, similarly, adhere to a “pure” form of religion; cultural compromise is of no interest to them; their allegiance is to an “Islam of rupture” — generational rupture, cultural rupture, and, finally, political rupture. It serves no purpose to offer them a “moderate Islam”; it is the radicalism that attracts them in the first place and they celebrate it actively on social media. Therefore, jihadism is primarily an attack on the family – just as in the Hebrew scriptures, ‘rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft’.


The Smiling Crocodile: Reflections on Hell

Somebody asked me the other day whether I believed in Hell, inviting me to write about it. An unusually direct question; a bear-trap even and an attempt to answer feels a little bit like sticking one’s head voluntarily between the jaws of Lewis Carroll’s smiling crocodile. I know people whom, I imagine, run with the whole lake of fire scenario, where the flesh consumed regenerates spontaneously to be roasted anew, for eternity. I can only surmise this to be the case since they tend to hold fundamentalist views about other contentious issues of faith. On the other hand, my humanist, atheist and non-theist friends presumably all hold to a spectrum of ideas none of which involve the existence of the entity that is “me” surviving the flames of the crematorium, perhaps tittering quietly behind their hands that thinking about such medieval nonsense is even worthy of the time spent in our comfortably postmodern world. As it happens, and those who know me well will be aware that I do spend quite some time reflecting on such things, my belief system extends beyond the brief candle that is consciousness. Fortunately (or not) I am not alone and people have argued unceasingly about these ideas, for example Swedenborg’s Manichean view of Hell was challenged by William Blake who wrote of the marriage of Heaven and Hell in the early 1790s. So, here’s a first thought. Do I believe in Hell – Dante’s Inferno –  including all the fiery unquenchableness of it all? No, I don’t, since to do so is to believe in a god for whom justice trumps mercy and the permanently sadistic vindictiveness of such a state is not consistent with the actions of an all-forgiving deity. Good enough for Islam’s ‘jahannam’, perhaps, but not for me. The doctrine of hell is one that people write undergraduate essays about and has evolved just like every other doctrine, over time. John Calvin was an expert at putting the frighteners on his hearers even more than the Catholics who sold indulgences. He wrote this in 1559. “As language cannot describe the severity of the divine vengeance on the reprobate, their pains and torments are figured to us by corporeal things, such as darkness, wailing and gnashing of teeth, inextinguishable fire, the ever-gnawing worm.” He goes on to describe in blood-curdling detail the consequences of separation from God.  Hearers of Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon preached in Connecticut in 1741 unequivocally entitled ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’ apparently clung to the pews for dear life lest the indignation of God sweep them pell-mell into the abyss. I was once asked to reflect on the competing positions of Aquinas and Augustine whether the corporeal body consigned to the Pit suffers eternal anguish or not, an essay that took me rather a long time to write.

The medievals were encouraged to believe that Gehenna was somehow located deep underground, accessed by fiery pits, but I suggest that rather than a spatial location, a place of divinely-imposed torment, perhaps hell is an existential state – the internal condition of the individual in denial of salvific reality and in rejection of any concept of a redemptive relationship. This implies two things, either the resident of Hell believes that redemption exists but he has declined to accept it, or that he does not believe in the existence of redemptive grace at all.

Furthermore, I think hell is subject to kairos, not chronos. It is not just a future state but one which had a beginning and continues in the here and now and beyond. It is the continuation into the hereafter of a present condition of heart and mind, one whose trajectory is anti-relationship, anti-reality which rejects the assumption that the existential reality which we currently enjoy is a prefiguration of something better. C.S. Lewis makes the point that those in hell will have always been there; that hell reaches back to taint all the steps that have led to it, conversely heaven reaches back to redeem all that has gone before.

So, how should we describe ‘hell’? In C S Lewis’ great metaphysical story, “The Great Divorce”, (all here as a pdf), he suggests that by comparison Heaven is a state of greater, more concrete reality. We leave grey, rainy streets with their legions of grumblers and travel to the heavenly country which we discover to be too solid, too real, for the wisps of smoke, the ephemeral shades of the unredeemed to inhabit – they would be pierced by its grass as if by knives and crushed by its raindrops as if by boulders. To be able to live there permanently and make the long journey to the mountains they need to be transformed, become more solid, more real.

Thus, by contrast, hell is a place or condition where one is less real, one’s personality, ability to choose, any joy and all hope is lost. We almost literally disappear in a puff of smoke.

This of course is completely unsatisfactory since it fails to remember mercy which in order to be genuine, must be visible. Aquinas argues that we will rejoice in the justice of God displayed in the cries of the damned. I respectfully disagree.

Finally, had I wanted to insert images of Hell, there are plenty to choose from. However, the image I have chosen is metaphorical – the moon is at the same time in shadow and in the full light of the sun. Let him that has wisdom…

The Forgetfulness of Hummingbirds

Gustave Doré, illustrations for The Divine Comedy. The Fates drink from the river of forgetfulness.

Retired people are supposed to keep mentally alert. It stops us frittering whatever time we have left away as our brain wanders off unbidden into some kind of intellectual no-man’s-land from which there is no return. Some do Sudoku, others crosswords, and some go for long walks with other like-minded people, identifying flora and fauna. In my case, no, thank you, none of the above. I occasionally attempt to solve calculus problems in my head but I don’t really think that counts.

The Internet is a marvellous thing – organic, growing, addictive. It contains about ninety seven percent absolute rubbish – with a hat tip to ‘The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ – a small portion of quite useful material and a minuscule droplet of pure gold. Cats on skateboards fall into none of these categories, neither do pictures of my grandchildren, for whom special circumstances apply.

When I was a boy, I read, stripping the school library bare. From Hesse to Lawrence to Shakespeare – there was a skeleton left of things even I didn’t want to read, otherwise, the place had been systematically plundered. As an adult, I collected books, filling shelves and more shelves with fiction, biography and whatever else caught my eye.

It’s not just interesting but absolutely frightening to observe that the young do not read. Really read. Sit in a corner or under the piano with a book. Holding information for more than a handspan of time, undistracted. Instead, their eyes rarely lifting from the Orwellian screen, they flit from paragraph to paragraph like hummingbirds, attention wandering from one topic to the next, pond-skating on a surface like licking an ice cream cone, bouncing along from one tiny dopamine high to the next. It may be permanently affecting their brain chemistry.

I’m doing a course online, which is hard enough since I have no background in the material so it’s a bit like trying to learn group theory when you haven’t been taught how to add up.  All of the foregoing arose from thinking about a lecture I’d been watching this morning; the easy bit of my course.  The required reading for it reminded me that if I actually want to learn something well enough to reflect intelligently about it, I can’t just skip the hard bits, the bits I don’t like because I can’t immediately understand them. Instead, I have to spend time engaging all my faculties – for me – in silence, reading and re-reading the text so understanding crystallises long enough to think and form conclusions.

There are no easy answers. Successful people have long realised that the Internet is the opiate of the people, the river of oblivion, the Lethe of forgetfulness and most people retain very little from all the clicking and jumping around, instead doing themselves few psychological favours. I have told myself that I am going to buy a few more real books, paper ones, not downloads, that I can flip the pages on, turn a corner down as a bookmark and remind myself of my youth. I think that might be one small way to help keep the craziness and oblivion at bay.


Unbearably Light Relief

It’s getting stupid and claustrophobic out there. I blame Brexit; more specifically the total dog’s breakfast all those on both sides of the House are making of it, thus follows hereinafter ( is this right?) a little light relief.

It has always been a delight to shuffle through the Sunday papers, nodding benignly at the things I agreed with and gnashing my teeth at the things I didn’t. The Kuwait Times was often a source of endless merriment as bootleggers knelt in supplication before their confiscated wares, mostly still in possession of a functional pair of hands. But, it is the Turkey of Mr Erdogan that is the source of amusement today, much excitement to be had as his Government sends its people straight back to the Middle Ages. No passing ‘Go’ and no collecting 200 lira.
The latest thing to be banned by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s excitingly forward-looking administration is the theory of evolution. Children will no longer be taught it. One Turkish newspaper announced that primary school pupils have been given books depicting Charles Darwin as “a big-nosed Jew who enjoyed the company of monkeys”. A pro-Erdogan columnist gives evolution a twist: Darwin was partly right he explained, but had things the wrong way around. Evolution is true, he says, but monkeys are descended from Jews who were being punished for their sins. It’s all there in the Qu’ran, apparently.

Nice to see that bigotry is alive and well all over the place, especially in regard to persons whose sexual preference is not the same as either my own or 90% of the rest of the population. Two evangelical preachers won an appeal this week against a conviction for being horrible to homosexuals in Bristol; the judge had decided that their going round the streets reading blood-curdling passages from Leviticus through a megaphone fell within the law’s definition of free expression of their faith.

Finally, there are Westminster whispers that my personal crush kid, Mozza, aka Jacob Rees-Mogg, the only eighteenth century Tory still in existence might be putting himself up for the Party leadership, thus ensuring a woman, his nanny, becomes deputy PM. He’d know when to use ‘hereinafter’.

All God’s Chillun

Just back. As always, fascination, irritation and sheer undiluted joy in almost equal measure when disembarking on the long, long ski run that marks the entrance concourse to Ben Gurion. Even a visit to the dentist (the only Irish Jew I know) failed to dampen enthusiasm. Much as I love Israel, however, sometimes the second of the three is more pronounced.

I got to interact with quite a wide cross-section this trip and it’s noticeable that so many Israelis are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the religious establishment in general and the Haredi political parties in particular. So, electing someone like the controversial Minister Azoulai to the Knesset, as happened in 2015, was like putting a TV evangelist in the White House. More recently – today in fact, two-thirds of Jewish Israelis oppose the recent cabinet decision to shelve a deal for pluralistic worship at the Kotel. Returning to Minister Azoulai, from my own goyische perspective (all Orthodox can stop reading now, since I clearly know nothing) to suggest as he did that only people who follow Jewish law to the letter – italics mine – can be described as Jewish and described non-Orthodox streams as “people who try and falsify” the Jewish religion isn’t just stupid. It’s short-sighted to the point of ridicule, because it suggested that he alone was the lawful custodian of every jot and tittle – and everybody else was wrong. The clear implication is that only the prayers of the ‘righteous’ are heard and the harder you try to keep the Law, the more weight your prayers have. Relentless davening at the Kotel seemed to have something of an air of desperation to me this time around.

I tend to get on best with the ‘secular’ Jews, the ones who wear Levis and have a sense of humour all of whom were universally welcoming and seemed generally glad to see me. It was nice to get back – despite being housed in an hotel without AC and the relentless pulse from the street musicians in Zion Square. Although I have to confess to getting a bit too superannuated to stay in scruffy hotels without room service, international TV and a shower with multiple functions. Note to self. Save up and next time stay at the King David, or, perhaps the American Colony, where the concierge is a friend and might be able to surreptitiously offer a favourable rate.

The diversity of the place did help to focus a few ideas trawling around in my mind. Religious denominations, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim are both inevitable and, indeed, desirable because our faith is like a fingerprint, shaped by the unique contours of our soul and the tension and counterplay of prayer forms part of its inner fabric. Doesn’t matter how much people bang on about separate spaces on the Kotel for men and women, or whether the Jews can pray on the Temple Mount or, as happened very recently, a Haredi man (this time one of those with the big fur hat) had the temerity to dance with his daughter at her wedding, causing no end of a fuss in the Orthodox press, since you’re only supposed to dance with her if both of you are holding a piece of string. Differences are inevitable because if we all thought exactly the same, we’d all be in love with the same woman. They’re desirable because how else are people to be encouraged to think, reason and debate in free societies, thereby making progress? Karl Barth, the great Victorian theologian wrote at length about the ‘otherness’ of G-d, by which he meant that the behaviour and attributes of the Creator could not simply be explained by childish anthropomorphism; instead the Creator reveals His essence through an ongoing work of rescue – a shorthand for redemption or salvation – outside of and sometimes apart from ourselves.

I’d further ask – if G-d declines to hear the prayers of non-Haredi Jews, where does that leave the rest of us, believers, idolaters, triers, failures, sinners all? I’ve never much liked how people try to categorise prayer, thereby adding to or subtracting from it, from the petitionary Janis Joplin ‘Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz’ to the exaltatory poetry of the Psalms. In their different ways, they are representative of the same thing, the unseen bridge, the gap between the hand of G-d and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

I do rather hope that G-d hears the prayers of the goyim along with all the rest of the hangers-on. All G-d’s chillun. People like me. People like this crowd – the real reason for my trip. Thanks, everybody…

…but not quite.

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 17.01.46I must admit, I don’t often post my colours, since I no longer live in the UK. But since I resolutely refuse to sign up to any political tribe, I found myself rather dismayed to notice that my voting intention was consistent with that anticipated from my peers and generation. Ugh. Belonging to the over-sixties’ ‘disgusted from Tunbridge Wells’  isn’t a place that’s particularly comfortable for a professional bystander like me.

So, what happened? Labour did better than expected because they had a better strategy. They ran a far smarter campaign and, even though the youth vote was “bought” (let them howl and rage, it’s true) with undeliverable promises of free tuition,  the cancellation of student debts etc, overall the Reds were coherent, on-message and smart. May, on the other hand, ran a scattered, messily unfocused campaign that failed to leverage any Tory strengths and had no  message which might have resonated. Nothing about the economic differences between free-market conservatives versus Hugo Chavez socialism. Very little detail on Brexit. Sloppy tactics on how to address the Islamist extremist issue.

That said, sometime this evening, perhaps, it will slowly dawn on all the jubilant Labour voters that, well, they lost. Two million more votes were cast for the Blues than last time. Poor Reds. They didn’t get a majority. They didn’t kick the Tories out. They’re not going to be able to raise taxes on the rich. They’re not going to be able to scrap tuition fees. Corbyn’s banging on about more pay for nurses and renationalising the railways wasn’t enough. They’re not going to be redecorating Number 10. And Jeremy Corbyn will still be standing on the opposite side at PMQs in a rumpled suit reading out made-up emails with questions from imaginary people. If the goal was to keep the Tories out, they failed.

As for ‘strong and stable’ a government that will not raise taxes, won’t be able to start any more wars and allows business to get on with preparing for Brexit, seems pretty close to “stable” if not particularly “strong”.  The alternative, having Corbynistas negotiating on our behalf whilst Diane Abbott keeps us safe and secure, would have been a good deal scarier.


Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 11.14.44It’s curious. For a while now, I’ve put together long posts with careful arguments to make some kind of a point, rather losing sight of why I started blogging in the first place. It began as a kind of Swiftian flypast and, as time passed, I found myself editing, polishing, getting waterlogged in and becoming a slave to my own opinion. So, back to today. What a night it’s been for the Government. The gamble didn’t pay off, did it, chaps. That unassailable lead, evaporating. Promethean hubris “…a night (in which) the fog was thick and full of light, and sometimes voices” giving way to a cold, grey, unforgiving dawn.
Now it’s a soft Brexit and Corbyn yapping like a demented terrier at your heels. Boris the Beast will think about throwing his top hat in the ring for sure, as the Lady wobbles on her Manolo Blahniks outside No 10. And, if the DUP have their way, she might have to go  and fawn as a sop to Cerberus in exchange for their support.

The Conservatives can learn two things. They need to adopt the slogan seen so often “for the many, not the few”. Also, they must learn to listen to the young. Their applecart was almost upset by a concerted media savvy campaign that made them look lumbering, ineffectual and old fashioned. The young decided to get stuck in and make a fight of it. The mantra? “We like Jezza. We don’t like that ‘bloody woman’. They almost got away with it.