Religion, War, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood

CoverOver breakfast this morning, today’s session titled Religion: What is it good for? led inevitably to impassioned discussion regarding Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Bruce Springsteen, and the (mis-)appropriation of pop music for literary purposes.  Sadly, our lot failed to reach consensus, unlike the panelists in the real Festival session.  Adrian Wooldridge, Michael Otterman and Antony Loewenstein were remarkably united on several fronts, not the least being their disdain for Richard Dawkins.  I’ve already outlined some of the main points about these three guys here, and for Michael Otterman’s session, here, and told you it’s impossible to cover their topics in a short blog post, so won’t revisit, but I will attempt to provide a bit of the flavour of this combined session, before you rush off to find the books.

Chair Sean Plunket led off with a request for each speaker to make his own personal declaration of their beliefs.  In their own words – Antony Loewenstein identifies himself as a Jewish atheist who is agnostic about whether religion is good or bad; Michael Otterman is an agnostic cultural Jew from New York, which means he loves Seinfeld and eats bagels on Sundays; and Adrian Wooldridge, having been born C of E, is therefore an atheist who is relatively sympathetic to religion, and who also enjoys Seinfeld.

Whether or not you believe in God, Wooldridge says, current research shows that religion itself is Continue reading

India Iraq Israel Terrorism War Religion

I am a little afraid.  Usually when attending festivals or writing blog posts, the things I cover have tags like: zombies, young adult, cake, fluffy bunnies, Iron Man.  Next week, however, despite all my careful planning and plotting, I have ended up as the only representative on the Festival team going to any event related to important, contentious, and actually serious international issues, with tags like the ones listed above.

Actually, that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but it does serve to illustrate my fear at being asked to write lucidly about some (or any) of the issues to be discussed in sessions by Antony Loewenstein, Adrian Wooldridge and Michael Otterman.  I am truly fascinated by all of the subject matter that these guys specialise in, but I did think I could hang around on the fringes and watch in awe, rather than being relied on to produce something intelligent and thought-provoking.

Adrian Wooldridge writes for the Economist, and has co-authored five books on globalisation and business, with his most recent being the (so far fascinating – I’m up to chapter 4) God Is Back: how the global rise of faith is changing the world.

Antony Loewenstein discusses Israeli-Palestinian problems, with My Israel Question (I’m almost ready to begin this one; it’s on my desk, I promise!).

And Michael Otterman also looks to be a fascinating speaker, although alas the library doesn’t seem to have a copy of his new release Erasing Iraq, and I have yet to source any kind of extract from the book on the web.

I have, however, been able to watch all of these guys in snippets of interviews on the web, and am so impressed by both their ability to take a wide and reasoned view of undeniably complex and convoluted issues, and their obvious passion for their chosen area of interest/expertise.   And I am truly looking forward to hearing them in person, at which point I will try my hardest to convey some sense of their message to you all!

In the meantime, however, perhaps you’d like to reassure me by sharing YOUR ideal tag-cloud, or even share your most challenging/terrifying/awe-inspiring festival or booktalk session memories …

Between the monster and the saint

Book signing
Book signing

76 years old and on his 27th book, Richard Holloway nicknamed the “Barmy Bish” has been for me a minor revelation. I can’t say I had massively high hopes, at The Auckland Writer and Readers Festival, of super enjoying an hour listening to an ex-Bishop burble on but hey, as always I was wrong. No burbling, not much religion, tears, laughter and a full-house.

Holloway resigned from the postitons of Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus Of the Scottish Episcopal Church in 2oo0 and now terms himself  an “after-religionist”, a label he prefers over the more loaded title agnostic. He still values the role of religion but is if anything even keener now without his mitre, he threw it in a river, to ponder the big existential questions and explore the nature of humanity both good and bad.

Holloway’s latest title Between the Monster and the Saint: Reflections on the human condition looks to explain and rate the differing responses to the “big questions” and he sees four major categories: those with strong religious conviction, those with a weak religious conviction, after-religionists like Holloway himself and those that just don’t get religion at all or are even hostile towards it. Of course Mr Richard Dawkins does in Holloway’s view fall into the latter category adding that “Dawkins needs to go back on the prozac and chill out a bit”. Holloway does see a role for atheism in combatting false idolatry; likewise he strongly emphasised the importance of writers, artists and general creativity in ridiculing authority figures to expose and temper corruption.

On forgiveness
On forgiveness

He talked briefly about his  energetic little dog Daisy and his sadness that the Christian church denies animals souls. He suggested that heaven might in fact be full of  homicidal turkeys, chickens, cows and pigs all looking for revenge, having suffered to make us fat.  Equally unappealing to him is the stereotype heaven with endless masses and choirs of angels.

The overriding message Holloway seeks to share, and he became quite emotional at this point, is the need for pity and the role of imagination in engendering empathy. Encounter with others is an essential part of understanding and with understanding comes a true humanity. At the end of the session  Aotea Centre volunteers had to almost forcibily eject several members of the audience, myself included, who had started impromtu conversations with complete strangers raving about the barmy bish, his courage and kindness.

I see dead people

Recently I saw Dead Time an exhibition by New Zealand photographer Ben Cauchi at the Christchurch Art Gallery.  Cauchi uses 19th century photographic techniques to create spooky and evocative images.   Most of the photos are ambrotypes and tintypes, so they exist as one offs.  The end result is kind of creepy  and reminds me a lot of spirit photography.

The Spiritualist movement began in the 1850s and was founded on the belief that the human spirit exists outside the body and that the living can communicate with the spirits of the dead.  The most famous spiritualists were the Fox sisters, who were able to produce rapping noises from the furniture in their house.  These rappings were said to come from spirits, in answer to questions put to them. As the Fox sisters fame spread, they inspired a host of imitators. However, Margaret Fox later admitted that she had produced the noises through manipulation of her joints.  Continue reading