Why I Am a Christian

Monday, 30 October 2017

The Hallowe'en Which Changed the World

     Hallowe'en, as everyone ought to know, is All Hallows Eve, the day before All Saints' Day, "hallow" being simply an alternative to the word, "holy", which is what the French word "saint" means. The fun and games now celebrated on that day refer back to the Celtic festival of the dead, which the holy day supplanted.
     Five hundred years ago All Saints' Day was a very special day in the German university city of Wittenberg. Its pious ruler, Frederick the Wise had amassed a huge collection of holy relics, including a twig from Moses' burning bush, a piece of bread served at the Last Supper, four hairs of the Virgin Mary, and 19,000 other items of equal undoubted authenticity, each bearing its own indulgence. Indeed, in 1520, three years after the events to be described, when the Pope, in order to gain Frederick's co-operation, increased the indulgences on the collection, anybody who viewed them and made the proper contribution, could gain a reduction from purgatory, for himself or others, of 1,902,202 years and 270 days, assuming the world lasted that long. And the logical day for them to be placed on display would be All Saints' Day.
     But 1517 was different. The day before the display, the University's Master of Sacred Theology, a priest and monk called Martin Luther, sent a letter to his superiors and some friends, which included an invitation to a debate on 95 theses concerning indulgences. (He probably did not nail them to the church door.) All he wanted was a polite debate, but something unexpected happened. Anonymous persons translated the theses into German and started distributing them. Within a month they were all over Germany. The author suddenly found himself thrust to the head of a great movement of spiritual reform which divided Europe and the Church, and for which men would be prepared to die.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

A Licence to Steal

     Confession is good for the soul, and the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox requirement of frequent confession, in the right hands, would certainly allow the priest scope to teach moral principals to his congregation. One of these, of course, is restitution. As well as seeking God's forgiveness, it is necessary, as far as possible, to seek pardon from the one you have wronged. At least, you should do your best to make amends. In particular, stolen property must be returned. But what if the rightful owner cannot be found, or identified, or the ill-gotten gains are acquired by devious means - short changing, adulterating the product, etc - such that a large number of victims have been cheated of small, and not easily quantifiable sums? Obviously, there are good ways and bad ways to go about it, but in the past some of the practices of the church have been very dubious, to say the least.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Pook-A-Noo: a Forgotten Childhood Classic

     I was only a few months older than three at the time, so I don't remember a single thing about my Uncle Charles except my aunt standing at the top of the stairs, shouting: "He's dead!" (My parents didn't know I knew. According to my mother, they tried to keep the truth from me by telling me he had gone away. It must have been confusing for a little boy.) By he did leave me one memento, because the previous Christmas he had given me a large format, 106-page book with a hard green cover, and called Pook-A-Noo. Of course, I was far too young to even have it read to me, but within a few years it had become my favourite.

Friday, 8 September 2017

The Book Was Right: Breasts Are Meant to be Sexy.

     If you want to get your books sold, you have to be careful not to raise the ire of the social media mafia. Take poor old Alex Frith, the author of Growing Up for Boys, a guide to puberty. His publisher has just decided to pulp all the remaining copies because a wowser named Simon Ragoonanan raised a Facebook storm over three sentences: "Girls have breasts for two reasons. One is to make milk for babies. The other is to make the girl look grown up and attractive." Shock! Horror! How could he say such a thing? It makes it sound like women are wired for sex appeal. It's a pity they don't show the same outrage towards those sex education books which encourage unchastity.
    Well, as a trained behavioural scientist, I've got news for Mr Ragoonanan. The book is right!

Friday, 11 August 2017

On the Scaffold or Battlefield

[T]here is not one of our simple uncounted rights today for which better men than we are have not died on the scaffold or battlefield. [Winston Churchill]
     I have just returned from a brief trip to England, so I would like to share a couple of memorials I saw there.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

German and English

     Was ist das? (What is that?)    Salz und Pfeffer. (Salt and pepper.)
     I had finally managed to persuade my wife to go to Europe so, with only a month to spare, I dug out my old textbooks and swatted up on the German language, which I hadn't used for more than twenty years. Many of you will be aware that Anglo-Saxon, the language from which modern English evolved, was a Germanic tongue. In other words, German and English are related, having separated more than sixteen centuries ago. While the Norman invasion brought French words into English - indeed, the majority of our vocabulary consists of loan words - the bedrock of the language, the words most commonly used every day - is Anglo-Saxon. Therefore, a strong resemblance exists between German words and English.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Robinson Crusoe's Anonymous Friends

     They didn't go in for dramatic book titles in the old days. For example, if I had written a novel about a man who spent twenty-eight years alone on a desert island, I would probably have given it a title which would leap out at you from the book stand, like "Castaway!", or "The Island of Despair", or even "28 Years Alone on a Desert Island". Instead, in 1719 Daniel Defoe attached to his novel the title, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of  Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner. Admittedly, the title was then followed by what can only be called a blurb, detailing what it was all about. Then, at a time before mass communication and mass marketing, based solely on word of mouth advertising, it became a runaway best seller, and has never been out of print. Not only that, within three months he had produced a sequel, which is little read today because, basically, it reads like a sequel which has been run up in just three months in order to make money.
    Personally, I have read the original novel three times, and the sequel once, and I have noticed something peculiar about them. Defoe does not provide names for the other key characters. What's that you say? There are no other key characters except Man Friday. If that's what you think, then you haven't read the book.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Muslims in Australia

     It's not always pleasant to be proved right. I joined Toastmasters in 1990 to learn the art of public speaking, and my third speech was about Muslims in Australia. This, you might note, was 27 years ago, and 11 years before the start of the War on Terror but, as mentioned before, I had done my studies on Islam a decade and a half before. Below is the speech I gave at the time. Read it, and decide whether or not it was prescient.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Myths About Muhammad 1. Moon God

     I am always pleased that I did my readings on Islam in the 1970s. That meant that when the War on Terror began a quarter of a century later, I did not need to do a rapid catch-up investigation, worrying all the time that I was reading biased polemics. However, I have noticed a number of popular misconceptions which have become current, so I would like to take the opportunity to dispel them.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Myths About Muhammad 2. Demon Possessed

     Having read the biography of Muḥammad, I have to admit to a grudging respect. But how you assess him depends on your terms of reference. Are you looking at Muḥammad the Arab, or Muḥammad the prophet? In the case of Muḥammad the Arab, I will not speak a harsh word against him. He was a moral giant striding across his environment. His faults were those of his society, but his virtues were his own - and that is the best which can be said about any of us.
     However, if you look at Muḥammad the prophet, the ideal man, the model to which all men should aspire, then it is hard not to agree with what H.G. Wells said in An Outline of History (1920):
Because he, too, funded a great religion, there are those who write of this evidently lustful and rather shifty leader as though he were a man to put beside Jesus of Nazareth, or Gautama, or Mani. But it is surely manifest that he was a being of a commoner clay; he was vain, egotistical, tyrannous, and a self-deceiver; and it would throw all our history out of proportion if, out of a sincere deference to the possible Moslem reader, we were to present him in any other light.
     So now let us look at a few criticisms of Muḥammad. The Rev. Jerry Vine caused a ruckus when he called Muḥammad a demon possessed pedophile, and an inspirer of terrorism. Let us examine each of them in turn.