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This post is mostly to act as a reminder of the golden nuggets I stumble across when I actually spend some time looking for decent stuff…here’s some gooooooooooooood music for 2013. A work in progress….

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Facebook, Twitter and social networking have been at the receiving end of a bit of a backlash recently. Social networking sites have been accused of accentuating feelings of loneliness, encouraging narcissism and discouraging the development of normal social skills.  Former enthusiasts such as Sherry Turkle, have turned against the tide, voicing their caution as can be seen in her talk, Connected but alone?

I’ve been particularly interested in the commentary going on as I very much had a love affair with online social networking over the years – up until recently when I realized that not only was I getting annoyed with myself for spending so much time on Facebook and Twitter, but I was also feeling less happy after a “session” than before.

One of the blogs I have read over the past few weeks has been the “Will you be my Facebook friend ” series by the Christian author, Tim Chester. Chester acknowledges Facebook’s benefits and admits he is focusing on its dangers partly because he is “a grumpy old man” but also because he believes those dangers are very subtle and need to be brought out into the open. Some of the main points that he covers are the fact that Facebook is a massive consumer of our time – apparently 700 billion minutes per month spent on Facebook! If like me, discipline and self control are not your forte – your time can disappear down a social networking black hole! He also points out that Facebook enables us to recreate our image using words and pictures. I personally don’t think this is a subtle danger – I think that it’s a fairly obvious temptation to Facebook users for them to project an image of themselves that they would like to be perceived as truly being – rather than who they are in reality. This isn’t anything new – it’s part and parcel of online dating as well.

One particularly interesting thing that Chester  highlighted though was that Facebook is geared to project positivity – there is no dislike option on Facebook! I have to say I find it fairly depressing to be bombarded with all these positive projections of people when I log into Facebook – one researcher gives the following amusing summation “When I scroll through page after page of my friends’ descriptions of how accidentally eloquent their kids are, and how their husbands are endearingly bumbling, and how they’re all about to eat a home-cooked meal prepared with fresh local organic produce bought at the farmers’ market and then go for a jog and maybe check in at the office because they’re so busy getting ready to hop on a plane for a week of luxury dogsledding in Lapland, I do grow slightly more miserable. A lot of other people doing the same thing feel a little bit worse, too.

Projecting a positive image for most people will also mean posting photos showing themselves with lots of friends, having a good time. It is as if we’re saying – “I have a good life and am popular and here is photographic evidence!” It is not that there is anything wrong with showing photos to other people  – but the way Facebook works, or at least the way it works now, means that every photo you post, whether it be of your wedding or of a dinner party – all your Facebook friends witness this in their “news stream.” Unless you manually go through each of your “friends” and choose those who you wish to “unsubscribe” to you are given a running commentary of other people’s Facebook lives – and they are given a running commentary of yours (note I say Facebook life – because it isn’t real life!). I realised recently that I really don’t want to see every single photo of all my facebook friends’ social lives – weddings, babies – yes these are significant things – but photos of me dancing badly at a gig last Saturday – I don’t think so.  In a life before Facebook, it would be rather strange if every time I met somebody who I knew I took out my phone and showed them photos of my sisters birthday party from last weekend. But now doing the online equivalent has become the norm.

Another danger Chester draws out is that Facebook becomes a place where we find affirmation and approval. As I read the blog it very much resonated with my own experience as I realised the way I had been using Facebook had accentuated the very sides of my character that I had identified as needing work on. I tend to struggle with the need to feel accepted and valued by my friends. Using Facebook was like pouring oil on a fire! For example, if I were to post “I’ve had a really awful day at work and feel miserable” and no one were to comment on it – chances are I would have felt even more miserable – and very alone.

Loneliness is a problem in our supposedly connected Western world (although according to these articles from Forbes and Slate  the problem has been over exaggerated) with many people feeling much more “alone” than perhaps previous generations. (I don’t want to go into an analysis of loneliness – apart from highlighting two definitions that I’ve come across which definitely give food for thought. The first being that loneliness is a lack of confidants – people to share personal things with and the second being that loneliness is being in a situation where you don’t have the level of social connection that you desire/need (a level which tends to differ from person to person).) I would argue though in line with the Atlantic article that Facebook tends to accentuate loneliness rather than causing it. I have had seasons of my life where I have been extremely lonely and where using Facebook has made me miserable! But there have been seasons where I’ve not really experienced loneliness and Facebook has been a much more positive experience. Generally though, I think that lonely people are more vulnerable to feeling more alone if they are using Facebook and Twitter a great deal . The number of comments, re-tweets or “likes” are the things which can make people feel less alone or more secure. That cannot be healthy.

One thing I find interesting about social networking is that people say things that if they were to have to speak them out loud, they would either not say or would find it very difficult to say. This could be both positive and negative things. For example, I once read a Facebook status which contained a stinging criticism of a Christian university society, a criticism which I followed up with some concern to find out if it was merited. Once I realised there was very little justification for it, I challenged the person to speak face-to-face with the person who ran that university society to voice their complaints. They never did. Sadly, we also postings on Facebook such as “I love you“or “I miss you” or “I think you’re amazing” that when we are face-to-face with someone on the phone to someone – we just can’t say! It’s very bizarre – we’re willing to write these kinds of things on people’s Facebook walls, where hundreds of other people can read it – but when we are breathing the same airspace as someone and it’s just them and us in the room – we can’t say these things!

Social networking also means you can delete the record of things that you’ve said, articles that you’ve read and photos that you have uploaded. The author of this article talks about how he was watching Mad Men with a friend who posted a status update about how fat Betty Draper had become, only to rush to delete it when later on in the episode it turned out that she had a thyroid tumour! Most of us can get away with deleting things and not many other people knowing (unless you are a celebrity or prominent organisation – Starbucks had to recently apologise after inviting its Irish Twitter followers to “show us what makes you proud to be British” as part of a Diamond Jubilee promotion!), However this is not how real life works. If you something to somebody – you cannot “unsay it.” Even if you send an e-mail, you can’t recall it (actually this is probably possible although I still haven’t figured out how to make it work!) Words are powerful – the power to speak and communicate means that we also have a certain level of responsibility on how we speak and what we communicate – and we have to live with the consequences of that. If we can delete our Facebook posts or tweets – this removes that responsibility and enables us to avoid the consequences.

Finally, I would argue that one of the most inherent dangers of online social networking is that it can fuel an unhealthy level of self absorption. Over the past week, one of the people who I follow on Twitter posted this tweet “dinner was so nice tonight. Broccoli and meatballs.” How profound. Really essential information for myself and everybody else who follows her. How self absorbed have we become if we feel the need to tell everybody every intricate, inane happening in our lives?! Sharing our lives is important – I am a Christian, and therefore, a passionate believer in the importance of being part of a loving and open community, however, these kinds of trivial overshares really don’t seem to be things which will help either the person sharing all the people hearing. I feel crippled when I think about myself too much – there is a very real danger that social networking can be used in a way which fuels a focus which is always on me, on my activities, on my interactions with other people, on my likes, on my opinions. Me, me, me, me, me…..

After this tirade, I’m sure you’re wondering “why is this woman still using social networking?! (Especially as the likelihood is that you read this through a link on Facebook or Twitter!) You’re probably also thinking “what a hippo!” (A description that has been directed towards me before when I’ve been speaking in a fairly hypocritical way!) You could also argue that blogging is a fairly narcissistic thing to do – perhaps there is some truth in that, although there is always good and bad things about most things – even Facebook and Twitter which I have yet to come to! The thing is – I am guilty as charged of pretty much all of the things I have highlighted today. However, realising this has been the start of breaking free from it – and the joy of breaking free is something I would like to share!

There are healthy and productive ways of using online social networking – Facebook and Twitter have some fantastic tools and facets to them which we can take advantage of. Social networking is a great way of keeping in touch with people who live far away – people who you are unlikely to see in the short – medium-term. I have a friend from Kenya who is now in South Africa whom I haven’t seen since 2009. We have been fairly good at keeping in touch since 2009, however, since we both joined twitter we now have extremely regular contact – and have been able to add to that using other technologies such as whatsapp. This has definitely helped us to preserve our friendship. I also have two nieces and two nephews who I don’t get to see as often as I would like – seeing the photos that their parents post on Facebook brings me genuine joy and helps me to keep track of how they are growing.

Social networking is also useful for sharing articles and videos which you genuinely think the people you know might find interesting or helpful. I have a friend who is studying in the US who often posts articles which make me think – which I really appreciate. I have another friend who regularly blogs about her homeland,Nigeria– her blogs are probably the main reason why I actually have an idea of what is going on with Boko Haram and Nigerian politics, reducing my ignorance for which I am grateful! Social networking gives you a launchpad for ideas, for information – which is an extremely powerful and positive thing as it can bring about behavioural change.

Tim Chester has suggested a couple of guidelines for using Facebook. Personally I have found the following helpful:

  • uninstalling Facebook from my phone (twitter – you may be next, although the antics of @Queen_UK and the quotes coming out of @FinePickUpLines and @FirstWorldPains may cause me to hold back for now!)
  • Limit myself to checking once or twice a week, 15 min maximum at a time and never after 8 PM.
  • Only sharing photos with the people in those photos or people who I know for sure would want to see them.
  • Sharing articles and videos which I think other people might find beneficial or interesting to read without sharing absolutely every news article I read, every song that I listen to! And sharing these things without actually opening my Facebook page.
  • Using Facebook and Twitter to enhance an existing relationship – but only if it is well established, not if it is new or has problems.

All of these things have meant I have been given the gift of time! I’m able to clean my house, phone my sisters more, see friends in the flesh more, go to bed earlier – and research and write pieces like this! The last two friends I have made don’t actually use Facebook so I have been forced to text, e-mail, phone and arrange to meet up – and it’s been great!

So in conclusion – online social networking sites are not necessarily bad things. In fact they can be really great things. But the way they are designed can enable our weaknesses and mean we neglect the business of real relationships if we’re not careful. These are dangers worth recognising – and guarding against.

“Tea is a temporary solution to the cares of the world,  it certainly helped…. Most problems could be diminished by the drinking of tea and the thinking through of things that could be done while tea was being drunk. And even if that did not solve problems, at least it could put them off for a little while, which we sometimes needed to do, we really did.”

Mma Ramotswe – No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency

Do you ever get hold of a song which refuses to leave your brain? I’ve had that with an entire album recently – it’s called Heaven and Earth by Phil Wickham, a Christian worship leader from the US.  I’m not usually a fan of Christian worship music – I’ve even blogged about how the music is often predictable and written in a Westlife stylee (obligatory key change, stuffed full of perfect cadences etc) and has cliche lyrics.

I’m not going to sit here and say this album breaks any boundaries but there are a few songs which have just got under my skin. They have made my spirit soar and call out to God in a way which hasn’t happened for a while. So I figured – maybe it’s worth blogging about them.

The first one is a song called “Hold on”

I have a friend who is extraordinary honest about herself and her struggles in life. She’s a big believer in full disclosure as a means of encouraging others– and her belief in this has actually helped me a lot as when I heard what she had to say, I realised that when it came to some struggles – I wasn’t alone. I’m sure she won’t mind me sharing her blog.  So I’m trying to take the same approach….

Why did this song hit a particular chord?  Over the past few months there has been a “battle flashing across the sky” in my own life. Relationships were torn away from me, I found myself isolated and I was left with the aching heart Phil sings about. Have you ever been in a situation where things have just crumbled around you? Situations where you feel physically shocked by what you are experiencing because you never dreamt this type of thing would happen?

There’s a line which is repeated “Love is going to make it right – just hold on, just hold on.” Over the past few months I have to admit that I didn’t believe things could be made right. I have felt intimidated – when it comes to relationships, the fact is, the love that I have doesn’t make things right in the way that I would want it. There are  some things, some perceptions and beliefs that I just can’t compete with.  There still isn’t real restoration of relationship, or intimacy, or truth…

So I started to wonder – what am I doing wrong here? Are my weaknesses just too much? One of the things that I really struggle with is oversensitivity – I have chronic pain which means I’m consistently tired – and when you are tired it means you’re more likely to take things personally. Have you ever been so tired that if you just stubbed your toe you would burst into tears?! That’s a frequent experience for me – which doesn’t always make me the easiest person to be around. It’s not just the pain and the tiredness though – they are a factor but I cannot blame everything on that. Being oversensitive and overreacting to things is something that has been a struggle for as long as I can remember – before the pain problems started. So when people wound me it takes me much longer to pick myself up than it really should do. Which can be a problem when it comes to relationships…

So my first reaction to hearing that line was “bullshit!” I love – but it doesn’t seem to make any difference and I can’t seem to stop these wounds from hurting…and this really scared me as I began to feel completely powerless.

But then I realised I wasn’t appreciating the lyrics in the way that they were meant to be read. Because the next lines and verse read “There’s mercy in the morning light, When you’re weak love is strong”…”I’m going to carry you through fire, I’m going to hold you in the rain, You don’t have to be afraid, Take my hand, Here I am.”

Then it made sense. It’s not my love that make things right. A verse from Ephesians sums it up – “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” I need to get my head around just how big God’s love is – which apparently is not an easy thing to do as Paul has to pray for the Ephesians to be able to have a proper understanding of what it means. Of course that kind of love can make things right. If I can get just the slightest appreciation of how powerful that love is, then it gives me much more cause for hope. I don’t need to keep beating myself up for my weaknesses because ultimately, it will be God’s love that makes things right – not my strength or lack of weakness or overcoming of sensitivity. I can stop getting upset about not being able to do anything to change situations – as it’s God who will bring about the change, it’s his love that will do the work.

It’s funny. The actual circumstances I am in have not changed. The fire is still there. At times I do get afraid, my heart does ache…but when I come back to the message of this song I take comfort because I’m reminded that actually I’m not alone in it, that I can take his hand – and whether or not I get the resolution I’m hoping for, his love will make things right, will make things be the way they  are supposed to be.

At Christmas time, I, like many people go to my parents and see my grandparents and elderly relatives. The last time I was at home was to say goodbye to a neighbour and dear friend of our family who was sadly succombing to the late stages of cancer. This time I have spent quite a bit of my time with my Grandma who’s Alzheimer’s Disease has advanced very rapidly since I last saw her.

I’ve not had much experience of terminal diseases before. When I was living in Kenya a colleague of mine died of HIV/AIDS…but we weren’t that close and I didn’t see him in the weeks before he died. So when my neighbour passed away in October that was the first time that somebody I’d known and cared for had passed. I remember sitting next to that hospice bed, trying to swallow what felt like an almighty lump in my throat and feeling hot tears spilling down my face. I’ve read the phrase hot tears before but never actually felt them – burning my cheeks.

On Christmas Eve I was sat with my grandma who is now very afflicted by Alzheimer’s and is extremely distressed most of the time. I put on a CD of carols and we sat down and sang them together…her voice cracking on the high notes but her soul somehow peaceful as she sang the familiar words. It was like she had entered an oasis of calm in the midst of a whirling storm. The hot tears came again as we sang…with my voice cracking this time.

I realised these tears are of a different kind to the ones I normally cry. Anyone who knows me well knows I’m a bit of a pro when it comes to weeping. But I’ve realised a lot of my tears are selfish tears – tears of anger, frustration…tears for me. I cry about my health, I cry when work is getting too much for me, I cry when a friend hurts me or when I feel lonely or when things aren’t turning out how I want at home. I’m not saying there’s something wrong with crying about these things…often it helps to let things out rather than bottling them in.

But those tears are not like these hot tears. Because the hot tears are not about me -I mean I do feel pain – but I’m crying for the people I love. For our dear friend and the pain she was suffering, for my Grandma and the anxiety and confusion she is grappling with. I’m moved to tears by another’s pain – not my own.

I’ve always been annoyed at my tendency to cry. I’ve traditionally seen it as a sign of weakness. I mean – other people who cry a lot irritate me…so I irritate myself intensely! In recent years I’ve realised though that it’s more often than not a sign of tiredness…so I’m trying to have more patience with myself. But the past few weeks I’ve also realised tears can be a sign of love – and empathy. I was listening to a sermon the other week about when Jesus went to Lazarus’ tomb and there’s that very short verse which says quite simply “Jesus wept.” The guy who was preaching said the translation from the Greek hadn’t been done justice as a more direct translation would have been “Jesus bellowed and moaned.” So he was basically this sobbing mess outside the tomb of his dead friend.

The preacher asked the question which I’ve always asked myself – why was Jesus crying when he knew things were going to be OK and that Lazarus would shortly be raised? The answer he suggested was that Jesus was demonstrating something very human and something very loving – he was empathising and entering into the human experience of pain and loss. He was standing with people and allowing himself to feel the misery and pain they were experiencing. I’m guessing he cried a lot of hot tears.

So the question I’m wondering is…how would I have responded to that situation and  to Jesus’ hot tears? Would I have been irritated and thought to myself “for goodness sake man hold it together – stop over reacting everything will be alright – you of all people should know that!” Or would I have entered in myself – would I have stood in his shoes, in Mary and Martha’s shoes and willingly shared their pain?

I try to hold back the hot tears around my Gran as I know it doesn’t help her and we need to be strong for her – but at times I have to confess they’re not far off. But I have been challenged – am I willing to “enter in” as Jesus enters in to the pain in other people’s lives and to respond with action to their pain?

When people are going through suffering, loss or ill health we often don’t know what to do. We feel awkward, we’re scared of saying the wrong thing, we don’t know what we can say that will make things better, we quite frankly don’t know where to put ourselves. We take a step back and reassure ourselves that its better that way as they’ll want to be left alone and there’s nothing we can say or do that can change their circumstances so what’s the point. But really this step back is  for ourselves – not for the person – we’re relieving the discomfort we are feeling when what we need to do is follow Jesus and enter in.

I think similarly when it comes to things which effect different members of our society – homelessness, alcoholism, child abuse, domestic violence, poverty, hunger and debt…we take a step back and don’t enter in. Sometimes we think the problems are so big what could we possibly do to make any difference? There are hundreds of thousands of people still living in refugee camps in Northern Kenya but when was the last time they crossed my mind  or when did I last enter into the pain and suffering they are feeling? Have I dug my hands into my pockets recently on their behalf – I’m sad to say I haven’t…in fact I’ve been more concerned with petty work politics and whether I’ll get a good review from my boss than the fact that people are literally starving to death!

I think that also there are many times we know that if we do enter in, the comfort of our lives and the little circles of comfort we have built for ourselves will be severely shaken up. We’ll have to get involved in people’s lives, deal with the messy side of intimacy, know the complexity of people’s emotional baggage and history. So we hold back, we keep a distance, change the TV channel and don’t respond to that call for volunteers that’s coming from the front at church.

I was wondering whether or not to write this blog…whether it would be the right thing to do. I blog for my own catharsis and reflection rather than to make a massive public statement…when I’m blogging I find it helps to bring my thoughts back round to Jesus and encourages my heart to be in tune with and challenged by his life and persona. I want next year to be a year in which I grow in selfless love and prod myself to enter in as Jesus did. He’s entered in with me…his Spirit is constantly interceding for me…he cries hot tears for my pain…this is something I need to remember when I’m crying the “me” tears and thinking nobody really cares.

But I’m wierdly enough now praying for more tears – but ones that provoke a response of action, of service, of love.

Yesterday I went to a debate hosted by the University of Birmingham’s philosophy society. The topic of the debate was the question “Does God Exist” with the two debaters being two renowned professors of philosophy, the atheist Prof Peter Millican and the Christian Prof William Lane Craig.

I have been along to many religious themed events in the course of my student years. If I’m going to be perfectly honest, free food was frequently the biggest attraction! I joined the Hanukkah celebrations and had lots of free donuts with the Jewish society, I ate what I think was daal and chapatis (very delicious) at an event hosted by the Sikh society and stuffed my pockets full of mince pies after the carol service hosted by the Christian Union. The difference with this event was that there was no food on offer and I had to pay – something I have never done for a religious event! However, I’ve had questions of my own that I wanted answering and I thought perhaps this might be a place where they might be answered so I took myself along to the Great Hall and paid for my seat.

The first thing that struck me was that there was a queue…for an event about God. The Great Hall is pretty big – you can pack over 1000 people in there I would imagine. And by the time the debate started (20 minutes late because of trying to get everybody in) the place was pretty much rammed. Evidently the existence of God is something that is on the minds of more than a few people. The chair of the debate made an interesting point that 100 years ago, the presence of two such philosophers at such a debate, and the turnout of 1000 people would have attracted significant media attention. Yet there seemed to be no media presence or interest in this particular event.

The debate was an interesting one – to be honest a good deal of it required translation from my housemate afterwards as it was a remarkably complex and complicated discussion encompassing deep philosophy and astro physics, mathematics! The topics covered were wide and varied – intelligent design, evolution and the beginnings of the universe, objective moral values, personal experience of God/lack of personal experience of God, the resurrection of Jesus Christ….and many more. I wish I had the time and space to go into the arguments -and the understanding to be honest….but I thought it better to highlight a similar debate below – which you can watch for yourself.

From what I did understand I found considerable weight in lots of the arguments – from both sides. Professor Millican was a very eloquent, thoughtful speaker – quite different in his approach from the more aggressive, and often rude approach taken by New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins. His approach was to argue against theism…rather than to propose atheism as the alternative. Prof Craig however didn’t seem to be taking the role of “Christian apologetic” – his argument was a proposal rather than a defence of theism. Being a Christian myself, obviously I’ve heard a few of the arguments that Prof Craig put forth before (I’m pretty sure CS Lewis should take some credit for at least one of them), however, it was interesting to hear a new take on some of them. The arguments put forth did open up my mind to new possibilities and I’ll definitely be exploring some of them further and trying to read up on some of the numerous authors both speakers were quoting throughout the evening!

A few things stayed with me though which weren’t drawn directly from the lines of argument or the contents of the debate. The first thing that hit me was that the question of whether God exists is an important question to ask. If there is a God – and if as Christianity claims – he is interested in me – then it’s important to figure out the implications of that. But if God doesn’t exist – that also has significant implications. From the turnout, it seemed that a significant number of people placed the same value on asking this question last night.

Secondly, Prof Millican made the point that out of all the different “theisms” in the world, it was impossible for them all to be right. I know there are some religions which make exclusive claims in regards to God (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) whilst others don’t have the same exclusivity, however, I’ve never been engaged by somebody from a different religion about the fundamental message and importance of their religion. And as a Christian, I don’t enter into those kinds of conversations with people outside of Christianity very often at all. After listening to some of Prof Millican’s arguments I began to wonder why this was the case? (I’m sure that wasn’t his intention but that was the effect it had on me!) What is holding me back? What is holding other people back?

I will not be offended if someone comes to me and says that they believe that they have discovered something which has massive implications for my life. I would want to listen to the information they presented and then weigh it up – but I wouldn’t be offended if they told me that what they had to say was something I really needed to seriously investigate and if I didn’t there could been very negative consequences.

I think it’s unfortunate that history and even recent events and current figures have made many people cautious to “nail their colours to the mast” when it comes to faith.  Institutional Christianity has a bloody, brutal past– from the Crusades, to some of the more repressive activities of the Catholic Church in Europe before the advent of Protestantism, to colonialism…the tenants of Christianity have been literally forced down the throats of people across the globe. Even in the 21st-century, there are activities which go on and things said in the name of Christ which make me physically cringe – when George Bush and Sarah Palin are the most notable advocates of a faith that cannot be good!

But I don’t think that just because of the shameful acts of the Crusaders and colonialists and the hypocritical rhetoric of figures like Sarah Palin that Christians should be ashamed of the message itself. As a Christian, I believe that the message of Christianity is a vital one, a life changing one and needs to be heard and considered soberly. I want the opportunity to be able to present that information, to be able to have that discussion. I would assume that anybody who believes in something which they know is important for other people to know – would want to be able to engage in discussion about those beliefs. In this way, I can fully understand where people like Richard Dawkins are coming from – the fact that he is evangelical in his atheism is something I can understand (the fact that he’s rude, pushy and intolerant of anybody who disagrees with him is perhaps less understandable).

I’m guessing that people who hold fundamental beliefs are concerned that if they are vocal about those beliefs they will be labelled extremist and intolerant and that it will cause tension. Tension may occur as whenever we’re challenged personally on something we never feel good. That’s just a normal part of being human surely – whenever friends hold me accountable for my behaviour or challenge my way of thinking I always feel uncomfortable, even if its for a little while. But I don’t see that discomfort as a bad thing as I know they’re speaking out of love, it means I grow a bit as a person, and I still respect them and they respect me.

I think similarly, believing something is true and wanting to tell other people about it doesn’t mean I am automatically intolerant of people of other faiths, that I cannot see the good being done by those people in the name of their faith. I know a lady who is working for an interfaith organisation which is doing incredible work in interfaith communities and in places torn apart by conflict – and I have nothing but respect for her, for her religious devotion and for that work.

I think it is really important to be able to find the good things in common between different faiths – the work in fighting poverty and injustice is perhaps the best example of this. But amidst this, I do not want to lose sight of the importance of engaging in discussion about the important questions like the one that was discussed last night. Does God exist? Is seeking him a good idea? I think so…and I want to nail my colours to the mast on that one!

I’m guessing that the debate will go up online at some point but if you want to see a similar debate before than have a look at this one from Biola University a few years ago (I haven’t watched it through myself but its William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens so is sure to cover some of the broad arguments).

When was the last time you were terrified? When the only thing you experienced was pure, unadulterated fear taking over your whole body so you couldn’t even think?

Yesterday I watched a film “The Empire in Africa” which was a documentary account of the civil war which brought untold brutalities to Sierra Leone in the 90s and early 21st century. This film was horrific. It made films like Blood Diamond and Hotel Rwanda look like Toy Story or Peter Pan. You may have seen those films and find it hard to believe but I can honestly say I left that room (early as I couldn’t keep on watching) feeling physically nauseous at the images on screen.

And the images went something like this. A truck load of people being taken to a refugee camp with their limbs hanging off, a young man being loaded into the back of a van…and then his leg being loaded in after him, young children with arms and legs missing, a lady lying dying in the street with literally half her body blown off as a result of bombs dropped by ECOWAS forces, a man with the lower half of his body in shreds as the result of a bomb, a man slowly leaning forward as breathe eked out of him after being shot, a  man begging for his life from a young ECOWAS soldier who shot him at point blank range, a small baby lying in a grave full of people blown to pieces from a bomb…those are just the images that I can remember… There were many more.

I think the image that really abides though is that of a young boy…he couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10…being picked up by a gang of soldiers. He whimpered as they approached and then let out a wail of fear as they grabbed him and shoved him into their truck. Then he screamed with terror as they stripped him naked, tied his hands behind his back and began to kick and beat him…with those big, heavy soldier’s boots.

How do I respond to this? I walked out of the room nearly shaking with rage and shock. What do I do with this? I have some background knowledge of Sierra Leone from my Masters…but these images cut through the politics, through the dryness of academic study. Is it right for me to want to avoid thinking about such things or being exposed to the reality of such brutality? Or am I an idiot for even watching such a film in the first place, giving myself nightmares as a result?

I’ve thought it through a fair bit. The only time I experienced anything close to being terrified was when I was robbed a few years back – I was surrounded by a group of men, one of them held me to the ground whilst going through my pockets. I screamed and screamed and screamed…you lose all sense of rationality, the fear inhabits you and are overwhelmed by feeling of complete helplessness, misery. And afterwards you shake… you’re jumpy, distrustful, nervous, weepy.

I thought about it – I was just robbed one time – but thousands of people in Sierra Leone were subject to a terror drastically worse – and lived in fear of it for years on end. What on earth does that do to people’s emotional stability? To their ability to trust? To build their own futures? Yet again I’ve been shocked at the degree of evil that human beings are capable of. When you think we have reached the limits of our depravity in how we treat each other – you discover a whole new level is being dug.

Evidently politics and governance failures have been a huge part of the problem in Sierra Leone and these issues need to be addressed by its leaders and by its people if peace is to be sustained. The international community needs to hold its hands up and own that it has been part of the problem in the past, not only through multinational corporation’s role in fuelling the corrupt diamond trade, but also in its imposition of solutions and governance structures which were inappropriate for the Sierra Leonean context and history.

But this must go beyond politics. Being desperate and marginalised should not justify the hacking off of the limbs of others and arbitrary execution as an expression that desperation. That can never be justified. Which is why I think the faith communities in Sierra Leone will have just as a crucial role to play as the politicians. Speaking as a Christian, true Christianity results in transformation from within – it means challenging injustice but not through using violence, it means loving Jesus through loving others – even if that person is your enemy, it means forgiving people when they have hurt you in the most terrible of ways. People who have been transformed by God – that transformation can be seen in the way that they relate to others, their ambitions for themselves and their communities, their attitude towards work and money, towards the poor. I think after watching that film, its gives me more of an urge than ever to trust God more than I trust human beings’ ability to end the evil in this world.

If you can manage to cope with some very graphic images in what I think is a very important film – you can watch the full version here.

These organisations are where I’m turning to in my response…

http://www.tearfund.org/

http://www.tonyblairfaithfoundation.org/

Last year I read a book called “The Irresistible Revolution” by a guy called Shaine Claiborne.  Claiborne’s book is a clarion call for revolution amongst Christians in the West. The call is for them to look at Jesus’ teachings and the lives of the early Christian church and to respond by living lives of radical love and community, pursing a lifestyle that is markedly different to the individualistic, materialistic, secular society they live in. What does that mean exactly? Well Claiborne has purposively moved into a deprived area of Philadelphia and has started a community there – Christians who live together and share everything they have with each other – and who seek to positively impact the community around them.

I must confess I found it hard to put the book down. Although it could be fairly easy to argue that Claiborne comes across as a bit of a tree hugging hippy, amongst the hippy trip he does have some really good points that it’s difficult to hide from. Being a Christian involves allowing yourself to be transformed by God, to be re-wired so that you live your life orientated towards worshipping him.  It also means being part of his family, the Church, which as Claiborne succinctly points out, is so much more than a group of people you sing songs with on a Sunday and possibly study the Bible with mid-week if you go to house-group. Claiborne believes that the church as Jesus envisioned it and as the early Christians showed was actually a radical movement which made ripples in the places they lived, with the starting point being the way they cared for each other and those around them.

I was listening to a talk recently where the speaker said that in this world we all worship something. We’re all converts to something – knowingly or unknowingly. Maybe to a religion, or some form of philosophy, or maybe just the predominant cultural worldview that we’ve grown up with. In the West that worldview tends to be secular and as he put it “expressively individual.” In some ways, the kind of radical Christianity that Claiborne is espousing is very countercultural as although the Bible says that we’ve all been given personal choice and created as unique individuals…if someone is consumed by love for Jesus it starts to seep out of them in the way that they love his body, the Church, and the way that they love people around them. Hence the birth of true Christian community.

Given all this and the excitement I got about the possibilities surrounding the Irresistible Revolution…I got pretty excited when a friend of mine told me he was starting a meals  co-operative and wondered whether I’d like to join.

 The Co-operative meals (we still need to find a decent name – suggestions please!) is a group of Christians from across South Birmingham who share meals together. Simple premise really – we put £24 each into the Co-Operative once a month and use the money to cook meals for each other. The contributions cover the cost of ingredients (we paid £30 in the first month and bought utensils and saucepans etc) and we share cooking responsibilities between us throughout the month. Meals are cooked on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at a host house. Members can either eat in, pick up a box of cooked food to eat later, or have their box stored in the freezer for collection another day. We all chip in with the washing up and cleaning and have people who are responsible for shopping and book keeping.

Of course there have been teething problems. Some of us have never eaten as many vegetables in our lives…others of us are feeling like they’re turned into a raging carnivore overnight! Not everybody has the same taste…and not everybody can eat in all of the time or stay to wash up every night. It will take time to get to a happy medium…but so far we’re trying to live co-operatively – to serve each other when we’re under pressure at work and just need to come in, collapse on the sofa and have a good meal. It’s a simple idea – having a meal with a group of friends a few times a week. But it when you look below the surface it goes deeper than that. It means learning to accommodate other people’s tastes, quirks and differences. It means being vigilant about having an attitude of love and service and being careful not to take for granted the love and service that is given to you. It means being able to share your day – the challenges and the happy moments – with somebody when you get home. And it means being challenged to share your life a little bit more – to learn to compromise…and (cue major cheese ball/cliché moment) ..co-operate.

And most importantly it’s a step in the right direction. Right now we are one small group sharing our meals. But it doesn’t have to stop there. We hope we will be the first group of many. And that co-operatives such as this won’t just be about sharing meals…we can take the love and service beyond sharing meals with each other and extend it to the community around us in the places where we live.

There’s a passage in the Bible in the book of Isaiah where Isaiah is in the temple and God appears to him – Isaiah’s world is shaken and he isn’t the same after that experience of God’s glory.  I’ve been challenged recently – am I willing for my world to be shaken? I have a nice idea of what I would like for myself and my life – but it doesn’t involve having my world turned upside down or being involved in trying to turn the world upside down for God. But if I’m really serious about letting God take the reins and having Jesus as the object of my affection then I need to be prepared for that. I need to allow God to break down my ivory towers and shake things up. This co-operative is a small, simple gesture…but maybe it’s the start of something irresistible.

I started this blog back in January as part of an assignment for my Development Politics module. Although I had my own personal blog, it had been rather sporadic and hadn’t involved me applying my brain so much so it took me weeks to get used to blogging and working my brain so hard… But I think it did me good so I would like to continue in a similar vein.

So – the other blog is going to go as writing two blogs would be quite frankly, ridiculous, and this one is going to expand in its breadth instead. Development Politics is always going to be something that interests me. But there is more to development than just politics. And there is more to life than development.

There is a blogger called Owen Barder who is a development economist and blogs about development – but he has opened it up to his other interests…running, cycling, philosophy computers and current affairs amongst others.  So I’m going to be similarly self-indulgent and continue blogging – but extend it to my own interests! I find blogging quite cathartic so I’m going to indulge myself and have a ponder, doodling, some enthusing and maybe even the occasional rant about new and live music, issues relating to God and faith (or more particularly Christianity because I’m a Christian), gardening or current affairs. Whilst of course keeping an eye on the development world. If anything it will keep my parents up to date on what is going on in my life!

N.B If you ever have trouble sleeping, please feel free to use this blog as an insomnia aid.

Modernisation and Westernisation. The terms have become somewhat interchangeable over the years as the Western perception of what it means to be “modern” or “developed” has become very much the dominant paradigm in the study and application of politics, economics and development. Francis Fukuyama proclaimed that “the end of history” had come – according to Krauthammer (2004) we were now living in a “unipolar” world.

But the reality is that this world is far from unipolar – Europe and the US may be growing, but the BRICs are growing much faster. The world in reality is very much multipolar. In 2006, Newsweek called China’s progress “the most successful case of economic development in human history,” with growth rates of 9% over the past 30 years outclassing any progress made by the West throughout history. BRIC economies and their influence on the world stage are getting bigger and bigger, with them posing a formidable challenge to the concept of modernisation as westernisation.

A clear illustration of how flawed the conceptualisation of modernisation as westernisation is, and a stark example of the shortsightedness and arrogance of Fukuyama’s statement can be seen in China. According to Jacques (2009, When China Rules the World: The rise of the middle kingdom and the end of the western world), China has not had to abandon its confucian values, its language, its traditions or its distinctive “civilisation state” in order to develop, in order to “modernise”. Clearly an alternative form of modernisation is possible. According to Schmitz (2007, The Rise of the East: What Does it Mean for Development Studies?) the economic development strategy of China and East Asia can be marked out by their pragmatism and experimental nature – it did not follow external models but rather embraced a diversity of institutional arrangements and development policies (Haggard 2004) as part of the process of “transition.” Yingyi Quian (2003) points out that the institutions adopted by China depended on the conditions at each stage of the reform process – conditions which changed, provoking the reformers to change their tact.

Perhaps the phenomenal progress of the China and the BRICs with its accompanying economic pragmatism suggests the flaws within the tendency of the West, international financial institutions and donors to stipulate to poor countries what an appropriate economic development strategy is, with universe (and generally neo liberal, free market) models being part and of parcel of aid conditionality. As Schmitz says “each country needs to find its own way forward, based on understanding its own strengths and weaknesses and based on understanding the new external context which has been influenced in such a major way by the Asian Tigers and China.” The progress of the BRICs has largely been because of decisions they made about their own approach to economic management and development, not because of decisions forced on them by the West. It’s easy to become angry and frustrated with the way the West’s sense of superiority, reflected both through foreign policy and bilateral donors has not even entertained the possibility that countries should be allowed let alone be capable of working out their own path to development. The world has been changed by the growth of China and East Asian Tigers – the UK cannot continue blindly without acknowledging this fact and reflecting this understanding in its foreign  and aid policies.

The BRIC’s ascendancy also has implications for global governance, something which the US and Western Europe again, cannot continue to ignore. Unfortunately, this is exactly what the US,  the UK and France have done in the recent intervention into Libya. When such a selective approach to intervention is taken (commentators from Nigeria have pointed out the lack of action in places like Bahrain which also suffers from an oppressive government brutally crushing protest as well as the humanitarian crisis in the Ivory Coast where it is estimated 1 million people have fled the crisis created by Pres Gbagbo’s refusal to leave office), cries of hypocrisy and a lack of legitimacy start to emanate from sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and East Asia. One could argue that many of these countries are simply running scared because their leaders are guilty of similar crimes to that of Gaddafi (Pres Museveni from Uganda being a good example), however, the West’s decision to take such strident action in Libya when none of the BRICs were openly in favour of such a militarised form of intervention suggests that they still haven’t taken on board the fact that Western countries global dominance and any previous claim to legitimacy are now fast declining.

Many economic commentators have predicted that within the next 20 years, we will be experiencing a new world order, with China overtaking the US as the dominant world power. It’s important not to get carried away with the BRICs success – where there is massive progression in economic growth and development, there are also huge problems with increased economic inequality, massive levels of pollution and an insatiable demand for natural resources which could create increased conflict in the future (Schmitz 2007). Although there are many winners within the BRICs, there are also losers. However, it cannot be denied that the BRICs are experiencing a meteoric rise, and this is something that the West will ignore at its peril.