Friday, 14 October 2016

Meaning, selection and narrative: why we don't see the information others see

In our DTMD (Difference That Makes a Difference) research group, which is focused on information as used in a wide range of fields, we've lately been very preoccupied with the role of narrative. It's the theme of our workshop next year in Gothenburg as part of the IS4SI summit on information. My colleague David Chapman has recently written an excellent blog post on the subject, concluding that:
My argument here is that 'more information' does not in general help, because the narrative chooses or creates the information to fit the story.  But still, not all narratives are equal.
Today I've been thinking about narrative in a slightly different way, in conversation with David and other OU colleagues at a research away day. It seems to me that one of the key aspects of narrative comes from what we select to view as information, and then weave together into a narrative. This is an iterative process: when something that might be considered information arises into our consciousness, but doesn't fit the narrative, we often completely fail to notice it. It's not just that we see these items and decide (however explicitly) that the item doesn't fit our narrative and must be rejected; it's that we don't even register these items in the first place.
Image: Wikispaces

Here are two recent political examples, one from progressive thinkers and one from conservative thinkers (keeping it fair and balanced!)

First, the progressive version of selective information. In the EU referendum, those in favour of the UK remaining in the EU frequently reported knowing nobody who was in favour of the Leave campaign, and had little sense of that campaign making traction with their arguments. I happen to have voted in favour of Remain, and had little sympathy with the Leave campaign's arguments (though I'm not sure I had any direct conversations with anyone in favour of Leave), but it was clear that there were those prepared to listen to them. The result came as a nasty shock, but not entirely a surprise. For others in favour of Remain, the result was a surprise because they failed to treat the serious risk of the Leave campaign succeeding as real information.

Second, the conservative version of selective information. This week, US presidential candidate Donald Trump was heard on tape making disgraceful misogynist statements about his treatment of, and attitude to women. Many Republican politicians have condemned the candidate and withdrawn their support. Curiously, however, this has not been seen amongst many prominent evangelical Christians. This is a group which has often been supportive of Republican politicians, but might have been expected to condemn Trump given their conservative sexual attitudes. I don't think it's sufficient to regard this as hypocrisy - rather I think it's a matter of selective information. The narrative of Republican = good, Democrat = bad (and the anti-abortion stance of Trump) is so strong for these evangelicals that they are simply unable to see the unethical nature of Trump's (apparent) behaviour.

This process of selecting information has similarities to other perspectives on information. Our former colleague Sue Holwell refers to those items of the world which we select as important as 'capta':
Data are available to us, and capta are the result of consciously selecting some data for attention, or creating some new category.

Likewise, Gregory Bateson, whose definition of information as 'the difference that makes a difference' forms the foundation of our work, refers to selection as the way in which we make sense of the differences in the world. Quoting Immanuel Kant, he wrote:
Kant, in the Critique of Judgment – if I understand him correctly – asserts that the most elementary aesthetic act is the selection of a fact. He argues that in a piece of chalk there are an infinite number of potential facts. ... The sensory receptors cannot accept it; they filter it out. What they do is to select certain facts out of the piece of chalk.
Information is the process of giving meaning to those selected facts, those capta - of constructing narratives built up from potential facts. But when we construct those narratives, we notice some could-be facts, some potential items of information, and fail to notice others. This is not deceit, or hypocrisy; it is the way we construct narratives, the way we build up information.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Calling the oppressed by their names: Lazarus & the rich man

Sermon preached at Stamford United Reformed Church, 25 Sept 2016. Texts: Luke 16:19-31, 1 Timothy 6:6-19.

It is said that the Conservative politician Sir George Young, when he was minister for housing in 1990, said that “the homeless are what you step over when you come out of the opera”. Quite rightly, there was and still is widespread public condemnation of this phrase. No doubt he regrets it now. But it shows up a certain attitude among the rich, exactly that of the rich man in Jesus’ parable – that poor people have no identity of their own, no sense of agency, no name. Don’t kick them, but do step over them. The parable warns those who are rich of the dangers of doing so.

I’m going to be very plain here. One of the questions with any parable is “where do I see myself in the story, who do I identify with”. For myself, this has to be with the rich man, or perhaps one of his siblings. I wouldn’t say our family are wealthy at all, but I found an online income distribution calculator and discovered that we’re just within the top 20% of households in the country. Moreover, in the world we’re in the top 4% of households. That puts me alongside the rich man not Lazarus. It puts me in the category of the rich who’ll be sent away with empty hands, not the hungry who’ll be filled with good things, in the words of the Magnificat. I don’t know you folks here, but I did check up on the income and deprivation stats for Stamford, and while I’m sure there are people struggling to make ends meet, many people here will be in the same boat as me.

I say these things not as a matter of breast-beating, but as a help in looking at the parable. A scholar of the parables, Amy-Jill Levine, observes that “Religion has been defined as designed to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. We do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting.” So let’s get afflicted, sisters and brothers!

Image: Illuminated manuscript, Germanisches Nationalmuseum,
N├╝rnberg (via Wikimedia Commons)
It’s a really interesting parable, that of Lazarus and the rich man, on so many different levels. To start with, Lazarus is the only character, in any of Jesus’ parables, to be given a name. Think of all the best-known parables – the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Sower, the Lost Sheep and the rest of them. They all contain little portraits of people, sometimes vividly drawn – Jesus was an excellent storyteller. But the people mostly appear as Mr and Ms Anybody – any old farmer, or traveller, or woman tending a house. More literal translations often have phrases like “some person was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho”. This is important, because it’s the universality of the parables that make them work so well. Absolutely the wrong question to ask is “what town did the prodigal son go to?” or “what was the name of the sower’s dad who worked the land before him?” Irrelevant details. The people in the parables could be anybody. They could be the listeners to the stories. They work so well that if you can translate the 1st century Middle Eastern context to today and here, they could be us.

But we know that names matter. Naming someone in ancient times had real power, as it continues to in many ways. So often in the Bible, we’re told not just someone’s name but the meaning of that name. It continues today. We often close our prayers “we ask it in the name of Jesus”.

So for Jesus to give Lazarus a name in this parable is to make a very clear statement. This is not just some everyman. This is not just a poor man. This is a story about a real human being. Like Job, who he resembles in many ways, he was poor, he was sick, he was suffering, but he had a name. His name was Lazarus. That means ‘God has helped’, by the way. Giving Lazarus a name was part of Jesus’ way of giving him back his dignity, which must have been lost in all that suffering. In his life, he might well just have been known as ‘that poor soul who sits by the gate’. Perhaps his name was unknown to those nearby. Perhaps he was like the character in one of the Beatles’ saddest songs, Eleanor Rigby, who “died in the church and was buried along with her name. Nobody came.” But Lazarus got his name back. Jesus gave it to him.

The rich man, by contrast, doesn’t get a name. There are medieval traditions which call him Dives, that call this whole parable Dives and Lazarus, and that name appears in the folk song on which Ralph Vaughan Williams created his beautiful variations. But there’s no biblical basis for that name, it’s simply the Latin for ‘rich’. And to give the rich man a name is to miss the point, that Jesus is telling this story as part of the upside-down kingdom. In life, the poor man had no name, no power, no identity; while the rich man had a well-known name, with power in society, and a familiar identity. In death, just as their material circumstances are reversed, so are their identities. Lazarus is the one who has a name and a secure place resting against the chest of Abraham (the traditional word ‘bosom’ is a much better translation than ‘sitting at Abraham’s side’), while the rich man is stripped of his identity and become simply a suffering soul in Hades. Lazarus was held and cared for - cuddled even - in death as he wasn't in life.

And it was the rich man’s failure to do this, to recognise Lazarus as a real individual, a human being with a name, which is one of the worst things that the rich man did. He wasn’t cruel to Lazarus, he didn’t refuse him things, but to him Lazarus was a non-person. Even in his torment in Hell, he sees Lazarus as inferior, as somebody he can order around, first to bring him water, then to travel to earth to warn his siblings.

It’s that failure to recognise Lazarus as an individual which was the real sin of the rich man. And it goes on today in so many places. Some people may have heard the shocking words this week of Donald Trump Junior, comparing human beings seeking asylum to being like a bowl of Skittles, a few of which are poisonous. That’s precisely the rich man’s attitude, it is to condemn millions to death in Syria, and they have names and identities (like the little boy Alan Kurdi whose dead body on the shores of the Aegean Sea moved so many last year). Or the people of Aleppo, who are bombed by those who think of them not as human beings but as targets, faceless parts of the enemy. Or, nearer to home, those who are sanctioned and lose their benefits for minor or non-existent misbehaviours. This is all a failure to look upon the people as individuals.

In small ways, I’ve done this myself. I catch the train to Milton Keynes three days a week, and cycle to my office. My cycle route takes me through one of the town’s many underpasses, just near the train station, and recently a homeless person has started pitching a tent there. I’ve not stopped to do anything to help that person, I’ve never seen them. I know that they’re in suffering, but I’ve passed them by. Perhaps others here have done things like this too, out of fear or busyness or belief it wouldn’t help, but it’s not treating people in need as individuals.

There are alternatives to this behaviour. There are plenty of churches and church groups working with those in need, and seeing them as individuals, and loving them as individuals. To pick two examples. In a project in Northampton called Street Church, homeless people are provided with food and basic help such as haircuts and with a sense of community on a weekly basis – but just as importantly they’re known by name, and referred to not as ‘clients’ or ‘service users’ but simply as ‘friends’. Christian Aid do this really well – whenever they have campaigns, they take the stories of real people, and tell them vividly and powerfully, complete with names and a real sense of recognising them as individuals. At the Greenbelt Festival last month, Christian Aid had three rather lovely giant puppets, much bigger than life-size, walking around the site – each was based on a real person, with a name and a history, who Christian Aid had been able to help through their work. And their stories were told.

We’re not told that the rich man was condemned because of his wealth, but rather because of what he did with his wealth. I worked at Durham University for three years. It’s a beautiful city, but I lived in a former mining village and took driving lessons round a whole set of even poorer ex-mining villages. And the disparity of the wealth between the university and the cathedral, on the one hand, and the surrounding area on the other, really got to me. I’m sure the cathedral did its best, but it felt like an island of privilege simply ignoring the sea of poverty around it. More recently, visiting the United Arab Emirates and seeing the disparity between the wealth of the local people and Western workers on the one hand, and the slave-like conditions of the immigrant workers from Asia on the other, was really sickening to me.

There’s a link here to our second reading. Evil doesn’t come from money. It comes from the love of money, from its elevation to something disproportionately important. Paul is clear: “Command [the rich] to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share with others. In this way they will store up for themselves a treasure which will be a solid foundation for the future. And then they will be able to win the life which is true life.” Of course the rich man didn’t have that message, but it’s present in the words of the Torah and the Prophets in abundance, as Jesus has Abraham say towards the end of the parable.

This is not just an individual story. The parable condemns not just a lack of generosity, but implicitly condemns income inequality, that someone could be so much richer than another. This is a real problem in many Western countries, and it’s getting worse and worse. Supposedly in our society we’re ok with that. We should not be.

So let’s talk about heaven and hell. I think it’s a mistake to take this passage as a literal portrait of hell from Jesus’ mouth. As I said earlier, parables are seldom intended to be taken literally. And the images of hell in this passage are those from Greek culture rather than Jewish culture. Moreover the later parts of the parable have a close resemblance to the kind of writing, like the books of Daniel and Revelation, known as apocalyptic, and this kind of literature is always to be read symbolically and not literally.

To quote the American preacher Rob Bell: “What we see in Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are many kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next. … There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.”

The closest passage in the gospels to this one is perhaps the judgement of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, when the Son of Man separates out those who helped ‘the least of these, my brothers and sisters’ from those who didn’t help them. And of course the message of Matthew 25 and this parable are similar. They speak mostly to our actions in this world, and say very clearly that your actions in this world, the way you treat others, matters right now. To be a Christian, to follow Christ, is to be one who is on the side of justice rather injustice, in everyday ways and in big ways. And whatever you think about the life to come, and whatever you think about justification through faith, this might matter to your chances in heaven. Because, like Abraham said of the five siblings of the rich man, we have this message in abundance from the Law of Moses, from the witnesses of the prophets, and from the teachings of Jesus himself.

Those of us who are rich, in national or global terms, are confronted in this parable with a very strong question. Can we see the needs of others? Can we respond when they are sitting at our gates, under our noses? Or will we hide away from them? Jesus shows us clearly that there is only one answer to that question. May he give us the grace and the courage to respond to those in need, to treat them as individuals, and help them in the ways that we can.


Sunday, 14 August 2016

Hearing the cry of the oppressed - the son of man and the four beasts

Sermon preached on 14 August 2016 at Abington Avenue United Reformed Church - recording available. Main text: Daniel 7.

The Ancient of Days (William Blake), image: Wikipedia

We live in turbulent and unsettled times. Terrorist attacks across Europe – Nice, Brussels, Paris, Munich. Police violence and guns out of control in the US. The shootings at the gay nightclub in Orlando. Brexit. Violence in Pakistan and in Thailand. The rise of Donald Trump. The attempted coup and severe government response in Turkey. These disasters have been coming thick and fast this year. We scarcely mourn one when the next comes. And these are just the recent things. There’s climate change. War in Syria and Iraq. Economic hardships in so many places coupled with obscene levels of wealth in others. The refugee crisis. Food poverty in our rich country. And on and on. I’m sure most of us can think of others. This is a time where wild visions of the future, like Daniel’s dream, seem appropriate.

But it could be worse. We’re not living in an oppressed society. We’re not in a society which has been occupied for centuries by a series of increasingly nasty empires, with the current ruler trying to suppress our religion, to cut out the things which make us who we are as a people, to deny us our identity.

That was the situation of the Jewish people roughly 160 years before the birth of Christ. The pass-the-parcel of conquests of their fertile and strategically-location region had landed up with a Greek empire known as the Seleucid Empire, one of the successors to Alexander the Great. The king was increasingly repressive, denying them their religion, abolishing the Sabbath and even sacrificing a pig in the Temple, a thing of horror to Jews.

What could they do as a people to keep their identity? How could they think about God in this terrible situation? Some of them turned to prophetic voices and they constructed the book of Daniel, probably shaped from older legends of the time of the exiles in Babylon, but brought together in the tumultuous time of the Seleucid persecutions. Daniel was the last book to be written in what we call the Old Testament. And it contained all kinds of coded political messages. Oppressed peoples do that, especially in the heat of religious persecutions. When our nonconformist forebears were being persecuted by the English state in the 17th century, they produced all sorts of bizarre visions. And when in turn English Catholics were persecuted, they produced many hidden messages in books and songs – some say that the Twelve Days of Christmas is one such song.

This chapter of Daniel that we’ve heard today, as with the later chapters of the book, took the form that would later be called apocalyptic, the best-known example in the Bible being the book of Revelation. It was fiery. It was violent. It had bizarre imagery. It was deeply symbolic. And it was about the present day.

Because apocalyptic literature is always about the present day. It appears to be talking about the future, but for the most part it’s a symbolic commentary on the time when the book was written. The language of the vision & the four beasts is mysterious and has been interpreted in many ways, but probably refers to the four empires which controlled Israel for centuries – the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek empires – with the present king, Antiochus IV, as the little horn who spoke arrogantly. (Apocalyptic interpretation is not an exact science - other commentators, from the historian Josephus to some modern millenarians, read the list differently and take Rome as the fourth beast.)

But it’s clear that Daniel’s vision of the four beasts is not to be taken literally – it’s a deeply symbolic vision. Apocalyptic literature never is. To me it’s a bit like science fiction, which is more often about the present than the future, and a bit like surrealist art, like Salvador Dali with his strange melting figures. It’s about the world, but in a strange coded way. If you stare at it too hard, for too long, you begin to go cross-eyed, but if you look from the side there’s wisdom in it.

The fact that Daniel 7 is well-loved as a passage by Christians isn’t so much to do with the beasts as the verses which follows them – the coming of the Ancient of Days, or the Ancient One, in splendour upon a flaming throne, followed by the one who is like a son of man. These verses are quoted in several places in the New Testament, and they form one of the standard readings on the day of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the church year, before Advent. From a Christian standpoint, and especially given the New Testament references, we read this in a very particular way – it’s about God and Jesus in their might and power.

And that’s not a bad interpretation. But like the rest of this chapter, it needs to be read with care. Now, the figure called the Ancient of Days is a pretty standard portrait of God the Father, with his long beard, flaming throne and surrounded by angels. Prophets such as Isaiah and Ezekiel had similar visions of God, and it’s close to the kind of image of God the Father that many of us carry at the back of our heads. We’ll end the service by singing to God who is immortal and invisible, calling him the Ancient of Days. But it’s an image, a metaphor – it’s not a reliable picture of God, who is beyond pictures. Indeed, in some branches of the church, especially among the Eastern Orthodox, the point is made that in the Old Testament, God is seen as too holy and too powerful to be observed by human beings, and that we only see him at a distance or through Jesus as God made human.

Our other character in the story, one who is like a Son of Man, comes with the clouds of heaven, is presented to the Ancient One, and is given eternal kingship. This figure is usually equated with Jesus, and Jesus quotes these verses more than once in the gospels, probably to refer to himself. Indeed, the phrase ‘son of man’ appears more than 80 times in the gospels – I counted them, or at least Bible Gateway did.

However, the phrase in Daniel, while it literally means son of man, is an Aramaic colloquialism which probably just means a human being. Much of the book of Daniel, including this chapter, was written in Aramaic, and this was also the language Jesus spoke with his disciples. Some commentators [notably Geza Vermes] have argued that Jesus calling himself the son of man is often just a somewhat elaborate way of saying “me”, a human being, a person.

That said, the term had huge resonance because of its appearance in Daniel 7, and the importance of the passage as a story of the deliverance of God’s people. But it wouldn’t have been read by Jews of the time the book was written, or of the time of Jesus, as referring to a single figure [as argued by NT Wright]. Rather, it refers to the vindication of the whole people of Israel. Because once the son of man appears and is granted his power, we don’t hear him mentioned again. But what we hear about are the “holy people of the most high”, generally reckoned to refer to the people of Israel, and in the vision it’s those holy ones who actually fight with the fourth beast. The passage ends with the Ancient of Days coming back to judge the beast in a kind of heavenly courtroom, find him at fault and put him down, and then he grants power to those holy ones.

No more mention of the son of man, but many mentions of these holy ones, and they end up being enthroned and given an everlasting kingdom. God’s righteous people, redeemed out of their oppression and brought to a position of victory.

Looked at it this way, Daniel 7 stops being a weird bit of mystery and becomes a deeply political statement. God will look at his people’s oppression, and he will act to prevent that oppression, to put down their oppressors, and to bring them justice. This is the call of the psalmist, who again and again calls to God from the place of oppression and asks for freedom. It is the call of Mary, who praised God when she heard she would give birth to the Messiah, proclaiming that God humbled the rich and lifted up the powerless. And it has been the cry of oppressed peoples throughout history – of the black slaves in the United States, looking to God as liberator; of the South Africans under apartheid who sang that freedom is coming; of the South Americans faced with repressive dictatorships who looked to God’s preferential option for the poor. In many cases these people looked more to the book of Exodus, with its cry of “let my people go” than to Daniel, but they would have found a similar message here.

Preachers are often taught to ask the question about a piece of scripture, even a complex one like this – what is the good news in this passage? Well, I can tell you plainly – for those in oppressed places, suffering under the yoke of hardship, suffering from discrimination for their gender or their sexuality or their racial origin, suffering from violence in its many forms, suffering from all the many ways that societies fail to see the love in God in those around them – for those people there is good news in this passage in abundance. God sees the beast, with its horn that speaks with such arrogance, and God says – no! I will not tolerate this! I will not tolerate injustice, or violence, or discrimination. I am the Lord your God, and I have spoken. I will pull down those evil-doers from their thrones, and instead raise up the holy ones of God to be rulers of the kingdom for ever.

But I’ve said already that apocalyptic literature is written by and for the oppressed. Yes we live in unsettled times, but what if we’re not ourselves oppressed? What if we are part of the problem? What of the times when we have colluded with violence, with discrimination, with injustice? What if we’re part of a system which enables these things to happen? Well it’s not such good news for us. Because God’s favour is with those who are oppressed, not with those who enable oppression to happen. And many of us, if we search our hearts, do enable oppression to happen.

I was fortunate enough to spend the day listening to the American preacher Rob Bell yesterday, and he was very clear on this matter. Churches, he said, need to ask themselves: who is oppressed in our area? Whose cry do we need to hear? Who in this area needs to hear the good news that God is on the side of the oppressed?

I don’t think this is a matter for equivocation. If God is on the side of the oppressed, so too must be the church, the body of Christ. St Teresa of Avila said that Christ has no hands but ours, no feet but ours. The church has no business in colluding with economic injustice, or racial violence, or gender discrimination, or homophobia. These are the things of the fourth beast. They are not the things of the holy ones of the most high. It is to the shame of the church when it has allowed these things to happen, or actively encouraged them. It is to the shame of the church when it still encourages them or allows them today.

Because we are not called upon as Christians to follow the authorities of this world. We are called to confess that Jesus is Lord. We are not called upon to have a king who has an earthly body and wears a crown and lives in a palace. We are called upon to give our allegiance to the king who was born in a stable and died on a rubbish heap, who gave his all so that we could experience the kingdom of God on this earth. So that we too could become among the holy ones of the most high, and could bring about the kingdom of God, where justice is experienced by all, and violence ceases, here on this earth of ours.

We worship a God who is beyond words and images, but we follow a king who came to earth as one like a son of man, and who will enable us to put aside our oppressors and to stop being oppressors ourselves, and to build the kingdom here and now. Praise be to God! Amen.