Sunday, 29 June 2014

Festival of Speed

"But, but, but, " I can hear you saying, "aren't you an environmentalist? Why would you go to the FoS?"

Well, I never promised that I would be consistent, now did I?

The truth is that I like high-end, performance cars. I could pretend that this was not the case, just to fit into other peoples expectation, but I gave up doing that a long time ago. However, I do want people to understand why I can justify this desire. I want to explore or explain why not all petrolheads are like the odious Jeremy Clarkson.

A collection of some of the most prestigious cars in the world
 I do believe that denying an enjoyment of motorsport - or anything else for that matter - is dangerous. Repression of our desires can lead to all sorts of trouble (there are many examples of leaders who repress desires that they consider to be unacceptable, only to them be found out and suffer all sorts of consequences) and is unhealthy. Now I would also accept that letting all of our desires have free reign is also unhealthy to our society and, often, ourselves. I am not advocating this either. I am saying that we should be prepared to admit to them, and work out around this.

However, there is more. Driving is environmentally damaging, but we in the UK at least, are very reliant on our cars. There are many reasons for this, including government policy over the last few decades, but also including out increased independence and desire to have control over our own travel. This also comes down to the increased amount of "stuff" we have to have with us. In truth, I don't think we can change this attitude, this reliance on personal transport, at least not within a comparatively short time.

However, we also like high-performance cars, because they are enjoyable to drive, they make the driving experience much more pleasant. And yes, they can be a whole lot of fun. I don't believe that this is something that we can change either. Some of us have to get our thrills where we can.

The answer, if there is one, has to be in far better, vehicles with more environmentally friendly energy sources - electric being the most likely.

This is why I was fascinated at the FoS this year, because I have been following the progress of electric-powered cars for a while, and this year there has been a very significant change. Let me explain.

The most popular hybrid car is the Prius. Some people see this as the way ahead for electric cars, but the truth is that it has not made enough of a difference, and there have not been other manufacturers building similar vehicles. The problem with the Prius is that it is very boring, very worthy. It is an example of conspicuous sacrifice for the sake of the environment - it might make you feel good, but it will not inspire jealously and so encourage others to want one.

The reason is, it was developed as a family car, as an environmentally friendly, mid-range, boring car. And that is what it is. But very few people want to admit that this is what they are buying. Many people want to buy a sports car, that has been tamed for a normal life. This is why family cars with a sports heritage do well, this is why so many manufacturers are involved in sports cars and racing.

Many people see a top-end car by a particular manufacturer and decide that they like it, but cannot afford it (or the kids wouldn't fit in, or the shopping). So they look at the rest of the range, and may find a car that seems to be the same only cheaper and with more space.

Which is where manufacturers like Tesla come in, because they made an electric car that was unashamedly a sports car - the Tesla roadster. It was a success, because it was a proper sports car, that just happened to be driven by electric motors, rather than petrol. Now they have produced a salon, which is still expensive, but it more of a challenge to the BMW and Mercedes buyers. Bringing the sports car technology to more ordinary cars is good news and real progress.

This year, there were three spectacular, top-end cars, by Porche, Maclaren and Ferrari - all names to interest lovers of performance cars.  And all three were hybrids, and were driven up the hill in respectable times on electric power only. They are proof that it is possible to produce a high-performance sports car that runs on electricity, that is still fun to drive, still satisfying to those who want the ultimate in sports car experience.

A very pretty looking Ferrari
There is also another aspect to this - the delight in beauty. Some of these cars are exceptionally good looking (of course, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, so others might disagree with me), and that is something that I want to celebrate wherever I see it. These cars are exceptional examples of engineering, of styling, of all the achievements of some of the best minds. I can totally acknowledge this, and accept this.

I don't believe that we will resolve our problems with pollution or greenhouse gasses by resisting high-end, performance cars. This is the place that, so often, real engineering innovations are made, important developments some of which filter down to other cars, making them all better. If this move to hybrid - and all-electric - cars continues, and continues to filter down to more reasonably priced vehicles, it will make a big difference to everyone, pulling more people into driving these vehicles, because they get the fun and feel from them.

As long as this electricity is produced in an environmentally healthy way - and the fact that they should charge overnight will help this, although we can hope that solar panels can also assist - that is a way that can make a significant impact on the environment, in the longer term. It is a way that we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. It is a way to save our planet.

Post-hoc justification? Maybe. But I believe that being supporting of the production of environmentally friendly, performance cars will make a difference, and far more than purely demonising them.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The new divide in theology

For many years, there has been an accepted division of theological perspectives into three groups: Evangelical, Liberal and Traditionalist. Irrespective of what your denomination or belief structure consists of, these positions will reflect presentations of belief, and everyone will, by the way they state their beliefs, fit into one or other of these groups.

However, over the last 15-20 years, I have come to realise that this division is actually not that helpful. The reason it has become less than helpful is that the critical aspects of faith are now ones that divide these groups, rather than bind them. What is more, I find that I have a whole lot more in common with some people across these theological divides that within my own group of "evangelical".

The thing is, the real divide in theological position today is not between evangelicals, liberals and traditionalists, it is between the fundamentalist aspects of these grouping, and the more open or tolerant aspects.This impacts me, because I could feel that divider arriving. I was nearly on the other side of it.

I used to be a far more conservative evangelical. I changed for all sorts of reasons, but not least because I insisted on thinking through what I believed. I did a theology degree, through which I became more convinced about my evangelicalism, about what and how I believed. I still believed that I was merely on a continuum with where I had started - but that is being severed.

What strikes me as interesting is that the evangelical belief in the Bible as paramount should mean that more study, more exploration, more critique of ideas is welcomed. Within the part of evangelicalism I am now in, it most certainly is - without losing the authority that it has. But in truth, in the more conservative forms, the principle seems to be "the Bible is the authority, and this is what it says", which is (of course) a denigration of the authority of the Bible, and using it to support the leaders own views.

That sucks. That is why I can no longer support that form of my faith. But it is not limited to the evangelical wing - there are those in the radical liberal wing who seem to argue that their position is the only valid and tenable one. There are those who argue that their own interpretation of the traditional teachings of the church are the only valid and reasonable ones.

That also sucks.

So here's the thing - I am an evangelical, but I share a whole lot more in common with the open liberals and open traditionalists than I do with some who claim to be evangelical. That is not selling out, it is an acknowledgement that I have part of the truth, an interpretation of the truth, and that if I don't allow that to be challenged, I am not being honest to my faith.

One other aspect that I have been made aware of about this divide is that the more conservative end of the spectrum tend to have a stronger need for the church system and structures. The divide may be being driven by the collapse of the church system, and the conservative ends of the spectra are circling the wagons. If that is the case, then maybe I should just be glad that I am in a different place.

The problem is that there are many good people who are trapped on one side of a divide, and they are told that to leave the fold is a sin, is a rejecting of true faith.

Let me say this clearly. It isn't. Exploring your faith is what it is about.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Call yourself a feminist?

Actually, yes I do.

But there is more to me than that. The point is I am a feminist, but I am also all sorts of other things.

Some people might say "You can't call yourself a feminist, you make jokes at their expense!" Which is true - if you work with me, I will probably make jokes and comments to you and about you. I may even use your gender as part of that. Whether you are male or female. I will joke with you, not behind your back.

You see, I don't treat women as someone special. You will get treated exactly as anyone else. That is, I believe, the core aspect of feminism - it is not about treating women better as special, it is about treating them as people, irrespective of their gender.

Others might also say "You can't be a feminist, you are male." This is also true, and I am not ashamed of my gender, or of what it means. Let me be clear, I would prefer to look at pretty women, I find them attractive. That is reasonable and natural.

The point is that I don't judge women - or anyone - based on their looks. It is one aspect of a person - some are attractive, others aren't, some are intelligent, others aren't. I try to interact with people based on all sorts of factors, that combine to be a question of how much I respect them.

Feminism is - I believe - about treating women as people. I try to treat people with respect, although I would accept that do not tolerate fools. If you have a problem with the way I treat people, that is one thing. But the important thing is that I treat women as people. I do not "pretend" that they are men, or that they are not actually different.

Women are different. But they are still people. Anything else is mistaken.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Machine

So this is my machine. As you can see. It produces chocolate - at its peak, it produces the best chocolate you have ever tasted. Wonderful, rich, sweet chocolate - the best.

Of course, other machines do other things. Some of them produce cups of tea. Others flowers, grass, all sorts of stuff. They are great machines, which do wonderful jobs.

But they are broken. All of them.

I mean, not totally. The chocolate mine produces is still superb, but not quite as good as it should be. The tea should be always that hot cup of tea when you are dehydrated, that you down in one go. Occasionally, it produces that perfect cup of tea. Most of the time, the tea is not quite that good. Just occasionally, it is horrible.

We all know that the machines are broken. That is the way things are, but there are different ways of dealing with this.

Why don't we buy new machines? Well, that is the plan. We have asked for new machines, and there are plans for new ones to come at some point. The problem is, they take a long time, or something. We will have new machines, one day. But not now.

There are those who react to this by ignoring their existing machines. They stop producing, sit by their machines, and tell everyone that the new machines will be wonderful. Actually, they would be better if they did just that, but some of them do like to tell other people that they are wasting their time. One of them was even shouting at a chap that he would never get a new machine, because he had painted his old one in rainbow colours.

I thought it looked fabulous.

There are some who do seem to argue that the machines have had it, and there are probably no new ones coming, so we should just get everything we can out of them. They don't mend them, just work them until they finish. Their products are not that good, but they don't seem to care. Oddly, these two groups share a disregard for the current machines, and just differ on the possibility of new machines. And yet they seem to be completely at loggerheads with each other permanently.

I don't fully understand.

I should point out that we all work on each others machines - they are far too big to handle on our own. I have a number of those who help me with mine, and I help other with theirs. We all enjoy the fruits of the machines, which seems to work OK.

There are some who don't seem to want to mend their machines. When steam pipes break, they get someone to hold it closed. When levers snap, they get people to hold them. It is bad - people get hurt. That is how I lost my two fingers, but I don't work with that machine any more.

Of course, they keep people there by withholding their products from those who don't support them. For some, the risk is worth it.

So they think.

I don't take that position. Maybe I miss out, but maybe I will keep the rest of my fingers.

They argue that the people were made to serve the machines, that the important thing is the machines producing, so that everyone benefits.

Some of us take a different perspective. We argue that the machines were made for the people, to make good things for us. So when my machine breaks, I try to fix it. I have to scrape around for the pieces to mend mine, although those whose machines are broken are sometimes willing to let me have their cast-offs. The machine is, I suspect, mainly held together with chewing gum and string.

But we all work together on it, happily. And we still produce very good chocolate, for everyone. And nobody gets hurt. OK, well sometimes people do, naturally, but then, everything is broken, isn't it?


I don't have to explain this do I? I could have called it "Heaven and hell".

Friday, 6 June 2014


This is a book by Francis Spufford, that has received some positive responses, and I have finally got around to reading it.

The book is a superb exploration of what Christianity means, but written in a very down-to-earth way, with language and tone that is very rare to find in theological writing. More importantly, it does not accept any of the traditional responses to the real and difficult problems that any form of religious faith involves. Rather, Spufford argues the problems through himself. He is as quick to dismiss the "accepted" solutions as he is to dismiss the straw men that people like Dawkins and Hitchins raise.

There are a few particular issues that I would like to draw out - maybe not the most significant, but things that struck me.

Firstly, he draws an interesting distinction between Christianity and the other major monotheistic religions. Judaism and Islam are both faiths that are built on a set of rules. In essence, if you follow the rules for that particular faith, you have you best chance to achieve salvation/nirvana/whatever you want to call it. In many ways, this is a real positive, because however difficult the rules are to follow, you have a system and a structure to manage your life around.

What is more, anything outside the rules is not covered by the rules of the faith, and so is up to you. If The Faith wishes to cover this area, they will produce more rules to cover the situation.

And yet, Christianity is different. Of course, it is not always seem to be different, because some people prefer a rule-based religion. But the truth is that Christianity is not about rules, it is about attitude; not behaviour, but thoughts, emotions, lifestyle. It is all-encompassing. In truth, there is no area outside the remit of the faith, there is no part of life that it does not cover. Which is very much harder to deliver, what is more, it is harder to manage, so The System finds it a problem.

It is this aspect that makes me think that I would have been drawn to Christianity even if it had not been culturally appropriate. There is something about the all-encompassing nature that appeals to me, something about the uncontrollable nature of the faith that works for me. There is something that makes sense to me that, if there is a God, and we are made in Gods image, this seems like more of the relationship I would expect. It is far more who we are at our best, and so (for me) reflects a divine/human interaction that takes the most extraordinary aspects of people, and enhances this.

The second aspect is Spuffords redefinition of sin as HPtFtU - the Human Propensity to F*** things Up. Oh yes, the language he uses is far more related to the language that most people use and understand. That is refreshing for a book on spirituality, because he does not use posh and refined language. He talks in normal language, expressive language.

The thing about the HPtFtU is that, as he explains, this is something common to everyone. There is a tendency to identify "sin" as a whole lost of things that are bad. There are also "bigger sins" and "lesser sins" - which tend to reflect social cultural norms. The point of the HPtFtU is that this idea of "acceptable" issues is gone, as is any chance of criticism or condemnation.

Which is crucial. The HPtFtU means that everybody is as guilty, as much a failure. The delight that groups such as Westboro take in condemning others is misplaced, because they are also as bad. They are also reflecting the HPtFtU. The condemned and the condemners are equally bad, equally good, equal, because both reflect this propensity.


The third aspect is Spuffords description of Jesus life, which is refreshing and honest. It sets his time and work in a different light. Is he accurate? Well, no, because we don't know the accurate details, but this is a way of understanding Jesus life. But it is insightful.

What is more, he draws out an important aspect. The thing about the HPtFtU is that everyone is guilty of it. The thing about this story of Jesus is that everyone is also able to be saved. That means everyone. More to the point, this means those people we don't like, we cannot get on with, we condemn.

What this means is that Westboro are right. Woefully limited and restricted, but right - homosexuals are sinners. However they are not sinful because of their sexuality - they are sinful because of their humanity, because they share in the HPtFtU. And the members of Westboro are also subject to the HPtFtU just as much. Equally.

And the story of Jesus is that about the DPtFtU - the Divine Propensity to Fix things Up. This includes everyone, including the people at Westboro. That is the important part of the story, and that is the one that Westboro - and everyone in fact, to an extent - tends to miss out. We like the idea that God will fix us up, but the truth is, he will fix everyone up. 

Double ouch.

The final part of the story for me is that Spufford makes a very good argument for having faith. What he argues is that proof of the reality of God is not possible. If you want proof, look very carefully at what you are asking for, that you know what "proof" means. But faith is really about truth that is best - or only - explicable in terms of story, metaphor.

That doesn't mean it is any less important. It may mean that it is more so.