A Christian country? No thanks.

On Monday 14th April, David Cameron made a statement that the UK is a “Christian country”. This, following on the back of his claim to be continuing the work of Jesus, created considerable fuss in the traditional media and, of course, social media. Apart from the fact that we seem to be in a rut of measuring the worth of everything by how much is Tweeted about it the fuss is quite interesting, not least because it’s not the first time our illustrious First Lord of the Treasury has said something like this.

Facts like this are often used to back claims of being a Christian Country but are they worth anything?

“Facts” like this are often used to back claims of being a Christian Country but are they worth anything?

There was first the inevitable cries that Mr Cameron was in danger of creating division and alienation by promoting one faith above others. This was swiftly (and equally inevitably) countered by those saying he was simply speaking about the basis of our country’s structure and constitution. Of course nearly all of the arguments neglected to define what they meant by “Christian” or even “Christian country”. Oh they threw around words like “establishment” and “history” and muddied the waters with “facts” about church attendance but in the large they neatly avoided a definition. This is mostly, I suspect, because there can be no such thing.

No such thing as a Christian Country?

Take “Christian” for example. What is a Christian? A follower of Jesus? A baptised person? A believer in God? A church-goer (which type of church)? Someone who has accepted Christ as their Saviour? All of those? Any of those? None of those? This is the problem, Jesus did not lay down a definite article of what constitutes a Christian. Actually he never used the term so he wouldn’t have. He did, however, talk about how those who followed him should behave and act. In Matthew 7 he spoke about how we can determine a false prophet by their “fruit”. It is who how we act and what we do that show who we are  rather than what we say we are. Given that how can we determine if a nation is Christian? By what it does? Possibly but that’s equally hard to determine. Given that we have such a wide definition of what constitutes Christian behaviour how can we determine if a nation is behaving in a Christian manner? If we say a Christian must one who has accepted Christ as Saviour, how can an entire nation do that? If we say that a Christian nation is one where most of the people are Christians how do we determine that number? The truth is we can’t. We can’t accurately determine how many people are Christians unless we agree on what a Christian is. Using National Census data and surveys may be a start but then you get down to the problem of whether self-identification as a Christian is “enough”. To be clear, I’m not saying people must be discounted as Christian simply because they call themselves that. I am saying that if we allow people to self-identify (and we should) then we cannot accurately use that as a way to count how many Christians we have in the UK or whether that number makes this a Christian nation.

Is a country a Christian one simply because the Prime Minister (or anybody else) says it is?

I think to be honest that labelling any nation as “Christian” is a non-starter. As an example let’s look at our foreign policy. Is it the Christian thing to do to send troops to a troubled nation or is that a bullying tactic because we don’t like how different their ways are to ours? Of course you’ll say it depends upon the nation, the timing and the mission of the troops and you’d be right. So given that one, simple, example how do we determine if the UK is acting in a Christian way. Is a country that gives millions of pounds worth in foreign aid and also sells millions of pounds worth of weapons to the world, a Christian nation? Is a country a Christian one simply because the Prime Minister (or anybody else) says it is? I tell my children regularly that just because somebody says you are “stupid” does not make it true. Can we say the same about calling somebody, or a nation, a Christian?

When we start calling things that are not people "Christian" we end up here.

When we start calling things that are not people “Christian” we end up here.

Those who know me will know that I really dislike stereotypes and labels. Using the word Christian as a label is fraught with problems. I’ve covered the problems with determining how we apply such a label above but beyond that there’s the expectations that come once it is applied. When somebody declares their – for want of a better term – secular business to be a “Christian” one I start to wonder why they are at pains to make that distinction. I honestly can’t see why slapping a fish on your van makes you a better plumber. Sometimes I’ve ask the business owners why and usually get a response that they feel it shows they will treat their customers fairly. Interesting decision, given the bigoted, judgemental reputation the Church is too often associated with. Anecdotally, I have, in the past, asked some Christian and non-Christian friends about what they think when they see a “Christian” business. The non-Christians said they felt it meant that business would treat Christian customers better than others. The Christians pretty much said they’d expect to be either ripped off or that putting a label like that means as much as a preacher removing their watch at the start of a sermon. When you transfer the label “Christian” to a nation it has a bigger effect. So often I hear (as I did in the case of Mr Cameron) the phrase “Christian Country” embedded within an argument for enhanced rights for Christians, a cry that the church is being “persecuted” or – more commonly – a militant we-need-to-stand-up-for-ourselves rant. For the record, the Church is not persecuted here and we should be more worried about our responsibilities than our rights.

If we consistently tell ourselves that the Church is the people and not the building or the organisation then shouldn’t that apply to the country? We may have been a country where many people attended church regularly but I think we can all safely say that church attendance is by no means a safe measure of what makes one a Christian. We can determine if this is a multi-cultural nation from statistics but I’m not sure we can determine if this is a Christian one.

To be frank I think I’d prefer it if the UK were not described as a Christian country. As Mr Cameron has discovered it is unhelpful, antagonistic and jingoistic. Don’t get me wrong I long for my friends, neighbours, colleagues and the wider populace to discover Christ as Saviour and I rejoice whenever I hear of God’s work being done within the borders of my homeland but even if every single person in the UK described themselves as a Christian, I still wouldn’t want us to call ourselves a Christian Country.

Countries don’t make people Christian and people don’t make countries Christian but a country where people follow Jesus and do his work (by the way that’s not what you think it means, Mr Cameron) sounds like a place I’d like to live.

Jesus and culture

I’m at Spring Harvest this week. One of the challenges we have been given today is to think about Jesus and our culture. Specially by how we would describe Jesus to someone in a sentence.

I’m not sure I can do that but thinking about Jesus and our culture led me to produce this drawing.

image

Crimpertoon – Fasting for Lent

There’s a new Crimpertoon out – usual licence applies and yes I am aware that many on a social media fast for Lent won’t see this yet.

Cartoon depicting problems you may not have anticipated when returning from a lenten social media fast

Book review: Death on the ice – Robert Ryan

Death On The Ice – Robert Ryan

Death On The Ice

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a weighty tome and there are times early on when you begin to wonder why Ryan is including so much back-story. He focuses on Capt. Scott (obviously);, Katherine, his wife and Capt Oates and he weaves a thread between their particular journeys towards the events of the fateful South Polar Expedition of 1910-1912.

Once the expedition narrative begins, however, you soon realise the value of all that back story. The interactions between Scott and Oates become something built upon their own stories. Katherine’s story also comes to life because of what you read earlier. Knowing about their journey towards the expedition leads to greater empathy with their own journey to the pole. You feel every strain, every frustration and every grief as they struggle towards their goal.

This book is one a handful that have moved me to tears – and its been a while since any did. The devastation of the men when they first see Amundsen’s flag is portrayed in such a way that I could sense the heartbreak and grief. In the end you see this a story of brave men, in impossible circumstances which were not all down to chance. There is no pretence here that Scott was a victim of bad luck or that others in the party were solely to blame for the tragic failure. There is also no laziness in simply blaming Scott for everything. The tale is woven such that you are aware of the difficulties caused by poor-decisions, pressure by Amundsen turning south and the fact they faced such freakishly bad weather and what appears to be simple bad luck.

This is a novelisation of course and Ryan admits where he has embellished the tale for artistic reasons but the overall feeling of the book is that you have been part of a story behind the facts. It may be one author’s interpretation but you cannot escape the feeling of empathy and admiration for those brave, stupid, stubborn, flawed but ultimately heroic men.

This is a champion among novelisations. Fantastic read.

View all my reviews

Crimpertoon: A response to the “Put the UK before foreign aid campaign”

A new Crimpertoon as a response to the “Put the UK before foreign aid” campaign announced today by a UK national “newspaper”. As ever you are free to reuse this under the terms of the CC:By-NC-SA licence.

Cartoon: a rich sheep walks past a poor dog feigning poverty. Caption "The Spanish have a saying "Today for you, tomorrow for me" - please do not sign the "put UK before foreign aid campaign" - we can afford both.

However much sympathy we have for the plight of UK flood victims (and I do believe the government should help them), we cannot afford to stop helping those in need wherever they are. We can afford to help both parties. Such “us or them” rhetoric does nothing to help the world we live in but is not really surprising considering the source of the campaign. If we want to redirect funds to help UK flood victims I am sure there are more worthy candidates. How about closing one of those tax loopholes. Also we can start helping the UK flood effort by stopping the destruction of our environment. Trees for houses will lead to flooding.

Finally before you sign that petition you might want to check the facts: Suggesting we spend more on foreign aid than on UK aid is a myth.

Comment spam – where does it all come from?

If you blog or run a website with a comment function I am sure you’ll be familiar with the concept of comment spam. Most people presume these ever-so-personal (not) messages are generated by some kind of script and submitted by robotic means but believe it or not they are mostly posted by people. This is mostly because comment systems are getting better at detecting and tripping over comment spam scripts so that a commenter has to prove they are human before they can comment. I’m sure you’ve gotten frustrated by having to enter those weird combinations of odd words under the title of “CAPTCHA”.

Photograph of a can of SPAM

Image by MarcusQ on Flickr – CC:By-SA

So the people who want to comments placed (usually because they contain links to theirs or their clients sites) pay others to leave comments. Care to take a guess where in the world these people live? Yep in the same places we in the west have always exploited, the same places we have work in seat shops to make our trainers, the same places we outsource our call centres to, the same ones we have always exploited (yes I know I said that twice). In the countries where there are poor people who are driven to such tasks by their desperation to survive. Unlike the call centres the workers here don’t even have to speak the language they are commenting in. They will often use a script designed to create comments for them. Originally they were just provided text to copy and paste but because the comment systems began to detect the same text and block it, scripts were developed to create seemingly random but slightly coherent text to paste. It’s a fairly trivial task for a developer. I did one (very rushed and not particularly good) to create the platitudes for my platitude generator.

I had a comment posted today which made me smile and also shows up what I am talking about exactly. What the person posting the comment has done is pasted the wrong text. Instead of posting the output of the script they’ve somehow got the text the output is generated from. It gives and good insight into this kind of spam and I thought I’d share it.  I’ve truncated this by the way as the full comments was over 10 times as long.

So we start with

{I have|I’ve} been {surfing|browsing} online more than {three|3|2|4} hours today, yet I never found any inter­esting article like yours.

So in the first line you can see {I have | I’ve}. The { } indicates an option for the script and the choices within thatoption are separated by |. In this case it means the script will randomly choose “I have” or “I’ve” for the comment text. You can also see how comments will vary between “more than 2 hours” and “more than three hours” etc. Again this makes it harder for the spam-detecting filters. Where as you and I can read a sentence like “I have been surfing online more than three hours today” and know it is very similar to “I’ve been browsing online more than 4 hours today”, a filter system will find it harder. Let’s look at the rest. See if you can spot the options and the choices.

{It’s|It is} pretty worth enough for me. {In my opinion|Personally|In my view}, if all {webmasters|site owners|website owners|web owners} and bloggers made good content as you did, the {internet|net|web} will be {much more|a lot more} useful than ever before.| I {couldn’t|could not} {resist|refrain from} com­menting. {Very well|Perfectly|Well|Exceptionally well} written!| {I will|I’ll} {right away|immediately} {take hold of|grab|clutch|grasp|seize|snatch} your {rss|rss feed} as I {can not|can’t} {in finding|find|to find} your {email|e-mail} sub­scrip­tion {link|hyperlink} or {newsletter|e-newsletter} service. Do {you have|you’ve} any? {Please|Kindly} {allow|permit|let} me {realize|recognize|understand|recognise|know} {so that|in order that} I {may just|may|could} subscribe. {Thanks|Blessings|Thank you}.

This kind of randomness might seem quite easy to detect to us but to a comment checking system it means the patterns are harder to stop and – more importantly – harder to distinguish from a real comment. To make it even harder for the filter the spam-script source text is harvested from real comments or other text written by humans. Hopefully this will give you and insight into why sometimes even the best spam-filter will let comments through which seem blatantly obvious to us.

Doctor, doctor jokes

Every now and then I do a post of jokes. Some of them are good, some corny, some terrible but I think they’re funny. I’ve not done one for a while and I’ve not done one with the old staple of the playground – Doctor, doctor jokes. A recent joke telling session with my children reminded me of this so here you go. I don’t claim to own these jokes and as far as I am aware neither does anyone else. if you think you own one let me know and I’ll either take it down (if you insist) or provide an attribution (preferred).

Stethoscope

  • Doctor, Doctor, I keep thinking I’m a pair of curtains! Pull yourself together.
  • Doctor, Doctor, I’ve swallowed a bone! Are you choking? No, really I did!
  • Doctor, Doctor, there’s a spinning fly following me! Don’t worry it’s just a bug that’s going around.
  • Doctor, Doctor, I feel like a pack of cards. I’ll deal with you later.
  • Doctor, Doctor, will this ointment clear up my spots? I don’t like to make rash promises.
  • Doctor, Doctor, everyone thinks I’m a liar. I find that hard to believe.
  • Doctor, Doctor, how can I cure my sleep walking? Sprinkle these on your bedroom floor. What are they? Drawing pins.
  • Doctor, Doctor, can you give me something for strong wind? How about a kite?
  • Doctor, Doctor, everyone keeps ignoring me! Next please.
  • Doctor, Doctor, I’m stuck in two wig-wams.  That’s intense
  • Doctor, Doctor, I keep thinking I’m a jeweller! Take this pill and then give me a ring.
  • Doctor, Doctor, I think I’m an electric eel! That’s shocking.
  • Doctor, Doctor, my eyes need testing! They certainly do, this is a chip shop!
  • Doctor, Doctor, how do I stop my nose from running? Stick your foot out and trip it up!
  • Doctor, Doctor, my hands keep shaking! Do you drink a lot? Not really, I keep spilling it!
  • Doctor, Doctor, every time I drink tea my eye hurts. Try taking the teaspoon out of the cup first.

The last few are not strictly Doctor, doctor jokes but they are along the same lines (and I think funny):

A man goes to the Doctor and says “Doctor, I can’t stop breaking wind all the time. It’s not too bad because they’re silent and they don’t smell but I wonder if you could do anything about it?” The Doctor shouts at him “I think we best fit you for a hearing aid.” “Really? Will that help?” says the man. “It will help with your hearing. We can deal with your sense of smell later.” says the Doctor.

An lady storms out of a GP surgery shouting that the young Doctor she saw had just told her she was pregnant. The senior Doctor visits her Junior colleague and says “Mrs Miller is 84 years old and has been unable to have children for decades. She has seven children and 15 grand-children. Why did you tell her she was pregnant?” “Does she still have hiccups?” asked the younger Doctor.

and finally…

A man with a burger in his ear goes to see his Doctor. The Doctor takes one look at him and says “Well, clearly the problem is that you’re not eating properly.”

Extra points are awarded if you noticed that this was posted on 14 January 2014 at 1 minute past two in the afternoon – 14/01/14 14:01 (I’m afraid I could define a post time to the second or I’d have done it at 14/01/14 14:01:14

Crimpertoon: Platitudes

There’s a new Crimpertoon out. This one is for all you platitude lovers out there.

Cartoon: a sheep is locked out of a tower block. Another sheep is leaning out of the top window saying "When God closes a door he opens a window". Caption says "Platitudes: sometimes you need to do more than tell somebody to build their hopes on a quote from The Sound of Music"

Crimpertoon – Christmas

There’s a new Crimpertoon out – don’t get too caght up in other stuff this Christmas. Try not to miss the point.

 

Cartoon-with-a-donkey-and-a-cow-leaning-over-a-stable-door-moaning-about-the-way-they-have-been-treated-by-Mary-Joseph.-Caption-Christmas-try-not-to-miss-the-point

Being an online Christian (Book review: Before I close my eyes)

For some time the subject of “being an online Christian” has been attracting me. This might be because I have started writing regular digi-disciple posts for the Big Bible project or it may be that I just find it interesting. Even though I’ve used the phrase to open this post I’m not sure I agree with the ideas that online and offline are different worlds. Yes we interact differently when online but I do that when I am the bus from when I am at home. I see no difference and certainly do not want to further any idea that “online” differs from what some people refer to as “real life”.

a mobile phone

What are “connected Christians” supposed to be?

Further I think there are lessons to be learned from how we interact online, where we are restricted by the medium because we are restricted from using all our senses during a conversation. Online interactions can – if we let – them – remind us of the need to pause before responding, not jump to conclusions and consider how our reponses may be received (even if that is not what we intended).

By sheer coincidence  I recently finished a book I first picked up about five years ago but had managed to not read until now. The book is called “Before I close my eyes” and lists a genuine eMail conversation which took place in Denmark in 2002/2003.  The conversation stemmed from when Stine asked her (Christian) friend Mikael the following question at the end of an eMail:

“If you could explain to me the meaning of life before I close my eyes tonight, I would be content.”

How would you respond to that in the wee hours? Here’s an extract from a review I recently added on Goodreads:

The book is primarily a perfect example of how Christians should communicate with enquiring non-Christians. It’s easy to read and well presented but it is a real problem trying to put it down! I’ve read books presented in eMail conversation format before but this one is different because you get a real affinity with both the contributors and you start to read into what they are saying and the journey they are both taking.

What you end up with is feeling privileged to have accompanied them on those journeys. If you are interested in the topic of “being a Christian online” (define those terms how you will) or just in “living your faith” then I highly recommend reading this book.

You can read the full review here. I’ve not seen many new copies for sale but there are some used ones available. Of course if you know me you can always ask to borrow it (one at a time of course).