27/1/2014

On Academic Publishing

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:33 am

Thanks to my friend Elissa, I enjoyed this article yesterday:

What’s The Point Of Academic Publishing?

I’ve been cogitating since, and thought I’d share a few reactions. Of course, academic publishing is something I’ve written about here before:

Dopamine Junkie 1: Gamification and Academic Publishing

The Robber Barons of Academic Publishing

Pseudojournals

Quality and Quantity, Editors and Bloggers, Knowledge That Counts/Is Counted

…and it only took a decade!

I guess all those show, in a way, that I’ve bought in to the publishing mill… but also always seen it as a game to be played. Of course, I’ve always been fortunate, in that I got a tenure track position in Canada straight out of my postdoc and got tenure there after 4 years, and have been in permanent academic positions ever since. I can’t even imagine how much it sucks to be a young academic seeking tenure in America at the moment.

Professor Higgs definitely has a point, too: in the Century of the Beancounter, what can be counted must be counted, and maximised. And it’s sooo much easier to count quantity than quality. Efforts to measure quality end up being rendered down to numbers again, and missing the point.

At the same time, I think Sarah Kendzior’s article conflates a few different issues in a way that can be unhelpful. The link between an increasingly casualised academic workforce, for example, and academic publishing is not inevitable or direct. While the lack of tenured positions means that ‘publish or perish’ takes on more urgency, it is a phenomenon in itself that needs addressing. It’s both an economic and a political problem, and is related to beliefs about the purposes of universities and the roles of academics.

I had planned to go through and untangle the issues she conflates, but I think those reading this are smart enough to do that, particularly in the light of some of the issues discussed in the posts linked above (and the articles by others that they link).

Certainly ‘publish in order to have a job’ is flawed in itself – if that’s your motivation, it can be tedious, soul-destroying work, not least because so much of it is under the control of others. You have to publish because you think the ideas are exciting and worth sharing with the world.

That also means getting them out from behind the paywalls. While some Open Access publishing, both by the major houses and scammy new startup journals, is a scam for money, there is an increasing number of new Open Access journals, and I’ll choose them if I can. It’s really a win-win: my work is more accessible, seen by more, therefore cited and used by more, so it benefits both me and the readers/profession I want to serve. The only people it doesn’t benefit are the big academic publishing houses and their shareholders – but screw them, they don’t pay me for my work anyway, and they paywall it away from the very people who are most likely to use it.

It might be a bit premature to say too much yet, but we at Griffith are in the process of starting up an Open Access educational journal, which will also use a form of open peer review. I’ll write more about it here once we launch the journal.

I think the other thing is that you have to do it all. I blog about educational ideas (among many other things), write papers for teachers in teacher journals – they don’t ‘count’ for much but it’s worthwhile work – and also write papers in academic journals, including trying for at least one a year in an ‘A*’: the to journals in the field.

If you dislike writing, or are not full of ideas, or are writing strategically to get employed or promoted rather than out of the joy of the ideas and a commitment to serving humanity, doing it all will be a chore. For me, though, I love writing, and think the ideas are exciting enough to share… so getting them out there is worthwhile, and those who have the need to count can do so later.

As it happens, that approach works: on the ‘county numbers’, I’ll be in the top 2-3 ‘producers’ out of the 75 academics in our School this year. I think this blog is heading for 1800 total posts. And so on.

I guess the bottom line is that we need political action and will to make academic work fairer. That might also include thinking about a system that graduates far more PhDs than it can use. That’s an issue separate from, but linked to, publication.

In terms of publication, we need to take ‘accountability’ out of the hands of the accountants – and eschew the very metaphor – and put it back into the hands of the people in the field who can make the judgements. And trust them to make the judgements. There’s a whole other set of issues there about old boys networks and judging merit fairly, but those issues are no less tractable than those of counting… and arguably would be more likely to let Professor Higgs keep his job and expand the frontiers of our knowledge.

Scribblings On The Back Of An Envelope

Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:36 am

Our bathroom scales (claim to) have the ability to measure body fat percentage. They have large flat electrodes on the top, and use body conductivity to do the calculations – the same technology as the more sophisticated ‘body scan’ machines.

So, on the (large) assumption that they are accurate, as of right now my body fat proportion is 32.5%.

I’m 96 kg at the moment, so that would mean my lean body mass with no fat at all is 65 kg.

Now, that’s not a goal weight: body weight below about 2-5% is massively unhealthy, because some of our fat is essential. Healthy body fat percentage for an adult male is 12-15%.

If we assume 12%, that would mean my target weight – assuming I lose only fat and gain no muscle – would be around 74 kg.

Interestingly, that in itself would put me – at a BMI of 25 – at the top of the ‘healthy weight’ category of BMI and into the low end of the ‘overweight’ category: bearing out my long term conviction that the BMI is pretty dodgy for anyone with any muscle at all.

This also means that at 107 kg my body fat percentage was around 39% – so clearly pretty obese. BMI 37. That’s not quite right – because it looks like at least 2 kg of that was water, not fat. Taking that out yields 105 kg and 38%. It also assumes I have gained no muscle – which is possible, but I’m rapidly coming up on 300 km walked so there might be a little more in my legs.

As I might have mentioned before, when we got married I was around 73 kg. I’ve added muscle since then, so I was maybe more like 15-18% body fat at that stage.

This calculation – and I will definitely check it with more sophisticated measurement tools – would mean that 87 kg is a sensible waypoint to check and think, but far from the final goal. Dropping 30 kg total, to 77 kg, would be more than feasible if I don’t gain muscle… but I most likely will, since I’ll need that level of activity to keep losing the weight.

Under 80, though, even with muscle, is quite plausible. And that means I won’t be lugging a 30 kg (66 lb) backpack of … me around all day every day.

25/1/2014

Multifocal 2

Filed under: — Bravus @ 4:51 pm

So, I got the multifocal contacts – and they work!

I’ve done a full day in front of the computer with clear vision and no appreciable eye strain. I’ve also done a reasonable amount of time on the bike, both commuting in traffic and on the freeway.

They’re much better for around the house – I’m not forever putting my reading glasses on to see my book or computer and then taking them off to go get a cup of tea or even talk to someone across the room.

They do take a bit of getting used to on the bike. The effect is that whatever I focus on I can see sharply, but whatever I’m not looking at is a bit blurry. The thing is, on the bike, it’s not a matter of scanning around focusing everywhere every few seconds as much as it’s a matter of letting your attention ‘go wide’ and paying attention to your peripheral vision. If something moves, it’s quick enough to focus in on it… it just feels a bit odd and blurry.

That also makes the world around feel a little unreal – a psychological effect I was getting too when my glasses weren’t quite strong enough. A break now and then to wear glasses helps with this – as does knowing it’s purely an optical thing.

I have these for a week’s trial before I make a decision, and will wear them most days, with a weekend day off to rest my eyes and my mutifocal glasses at home in the evening for the same reason. I’ll try to go for a ‘proper’ ride through the twisties in the mountains as well to get a sense of how the contacts handle that.

But over all, in terms of comfort, looks and convenience, I think it might be multifocal contacts for the win.

22/1/2014

What Shuffle Served Up

Filed under: — Bravus @ 5:54 pm

…for my walk home this afternoon.

Moonspell – Everything Invaded

Faith No More – Last Cup of Sorrow

Massive Attack – One Love

Tool – Viginti Tres

Darkthrone – Canadian Metal

Carcass – A Congealed Clot Of Blood

20/1/2014

On ‘Moral Panics’ and Reality

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:37 pm

The issue of the day is alcohol-fueled violence. Politicians of all stripes at all levels are vowing to address it. Stories are being made up to explain the ‘increase’, from alcohol being to cheap, to pubs and clubs being open to late, to steroids and cultural issues.

Of course, any death or serious injury due to violence is a tragedy, and one is too many.

On the other hand, the ‘increase’ does not exist! The statistics clearly show that this kind of violence is decreasing, and has been for years.

One high profile case and then a media feeding frenzy unconnected to the facts is what is going on here.

Making up stories to explain a phenomenon is so compelling that it’s incredibly tempting to get into doing it even if it turns out the phenomenon is not real.

There might be an argument for better regulation and enforcement of steroid abuse, more uniform alcohol prices, earlier closing hours, better responsible serving laws and so on. But the ‘increase in alcohol-fueled violence’ is not that argument, because it doesn’t exist.

Disappointing in the extreme that we don’t have the kind of political leaders who care. They just all line up to placate the concern trolls.

Milestones: (Less) Round Numbers

Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:33 am

(promise I’ll post about something more interesting than weight soon… ;))

So, today’s weigh-in reveals that I now weigh 97 kg, which is 10 kg lower than when I started. It’s also still 5 kg higher than the first ‘real’ milestone I had in mind when I started.

Obviously the ’round numbers’ are worth marking – below 100, 10 kg lost. Still to come, below 90 and 20 kg lost. I suspect ‘below 80′ and ’30 kg lost’ would be a bridge too far, but see below.

But the real targets I had in mind were two: 92 kg and 87 kg. The first is the lowest I’ve been in recent memory: at least since coming back to Australia. Twice I’ve gone on special, restrictive diets and made it down to 92. That’s also 15 down from the 107 I was at last November, which is the *highest* number in recent memory.

I liked being 92 – more energy and less gut, spare tyre, manboobs. But it was never the final goal – I just ‘fell off the wagon’ at that point the last couple of times.

I think the differences this time are that (a) I’ve added exercise – that makes a massive difference because (b) I haven’t ‘gone on a diet’ of restrictive, unusual, unsatisfying food. Rather, I’ve ‘changed my diet’ for good to healthier choices, but the level of exercise also means that I can eat a healthy amount of a wide range of foods.

The second milestone I have in mind is 87 kg – a further 5 kg down from 92, and 10 kg down from right now. And 20 kg from where I started. That will be the time to really have a good look – and probably a ‘body scan’ that measures my body fat percentage.

I understand that it’s about losing fat, not losing weight. The scale is a proxy for that, but not a perfect one, particularly once I join a gym and start really adding some muscle to the mix.

Healthy body fat for a (non-bodybuilding, non-elite athlete) male is 12-15%. I suspect that at 87 kg I’ll still be above that, and I know that keeping up the walking and adding gym (and some swimming and cycling) will let my body know to lose fat and keep muscle.

So the final milestone, once I’ve had the body scan, will be determined by whatever number on the scales represents say 12% body fat. After that, I suspect (and hope) the scales will creep up again, a little bit, as I add more lean muscle mass.

The first of the ‘real milestones’ – 92 kg – is definitely firmly in my sights now.

16/1/2014

A New Lease On Life (aka Still A Fat Bastard, But…)

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:13 pm

I’m feeling good. Really good. Better than for a long time. More full of energy, keener to do stuff, lighter on my feet, happier.

Objectively, I still measure out as obese on the BMI (which I’ve railed against before and probably will again – even when I get to merely ‘overweight’ on it), and would definitely not yet subject you all to a shirtless pic.

I’ve lost about 9 kg or so, and probably have at least another 11 or so to go before re-evaluation, and potentially as much as 30 kg total to lose, so there’s still a long path ahead.

But adding the exercise and making better food choices really has given me a new lease on life. I feel SO MUCH BETTER that I would find it hard to believe if I wasn’t feeling it.

If you are thinking of making some changes, but aren’t really motivated by the aesthetics, maybe this well help: you will feel great!

My regime has been far from extreme and far from painful – I’ve enjoyed all of it. The walks may well be contributing to my improved allergies, both by breathing more fresh air and by spending more time looking into the distance instead of at a computer monitor. I’ve eaten well and enjoyed it very much.

There really is no downside. And now that it’s not ‘a diet’ but just ‘life’, the fat bastard part will take care of itself.

Multifocal

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:45 am

I used to use contact lenses for years – started in college and never really looked back, all through Melbourne, Sydney, PNG and Perth. Went to Canada and ended up getting allergic conjunctivitis – possibly from the mold under the snow in spring thaws, possibly from dust mites in a sealed-up house. Gooey eyes meant I couldn’t use contacts, so I switched to glasses, and have used them for about the past 10 years or so almost exclusively.

My recent diet and exercise changes seem to have controlled the allergies – which is kind of interesting in itself – and my eyes have been good for a while, so I thought I’d try contacts again. Got some trials of simple soft contacts yesterday, but will be trying out multifocal lenses next week.

See, the thing is, time marches on – I was probably in my late 30s last time I was consistently wearing contacts. And now I’m… not. πŸ˜‰

So I’ve been getting the same age-related short arm (long sightedness) issues as Suzie and most of my friends. My glasses were multifocal, so that took care of it – except that things like the insides of computer cases were just at that awkward distance where nothing quite worked right.

For people in my situation – both shortsighted and longsighted – there are really three options when it comes to contacts:

  • multifocal contacts
  • something called ‘monovision’, which means, say, that the left eye is corrected for one thing and the right for the other, though each is a compromise
  • contacts that just correct the shortsightedness, and reading glasses – like all my peers!

For this week I’m trying that last one: I got some reading glasses and am using them now. They’ll have to become everywhere companions for everything from menus to instructions (wait, I don’t read instructions!) – but I won’t be getting a chain!

I tried the monovision thing a while ago, but didn’t like it on the bike: for good judgement in traffic I need my depth perception, and that means *both* eyes need to be able to see clearly at a distance. The current solution where the contacts just correct the shortsightedness works *much* better for that.

Not sure I fully understand the technology they use in the multifocal lenses, or whether it will really work for me, for my purposes, but I’ll try it out next week and report back. Apparently the lens somehow includes correction for both conditions.

(I have to admit, at least part of the motivation was aesthetic: I’ve been posting all those pics of me in various hats on Facebook, but finding that the one thing I consistently disliked about my looks was my glasses. Of course, on the Coast, in summer, there’ll be sunnies in all outdoor pics anyway, but I think they look less dodgy than the photochromics in my glasses.)

8/1/2014

Medico Sospeso – Pass It On

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:18 pm

(apologies to any Italian readers for what is almost certainly dodgy Italian)

We’ve all heard of the idea of ‘espresso sospeso’, a ‘suspended coffee’. In Italy and, I think, Portugal (and now in many countries) it is possible to order a sospeso when buying a coffee. The money is held at the cafe and a coffee given to someone who can’t afford one and asks if there are any suspended coffees available.

It’s a lovely idea, and a great antidote to an increasingly selfish society. It reminds us to care in simple ways for those less fortunate, and may also remind us to share or buy a meal, or contribute toward shelter and other help. No real research, I don’t think, but it might also dispose us to vote for policies less likely to oppress and more likely to support those in need.

Reading this (excellent) article by Michael Pascoe at the Sydney Morning Herald, I was struck by a simple idea:

http://www.smh.com.au/business/comment-and-analysis/where-abbott-fails-pain-must-be-seen-to-be-shared-20140108-30gij.html

Pascoe talks (in part) about the proposed $6 ‘co-payment’ for GP visits, and notes that he can afford it, and would be happy to pay it to ensure that those who can’t wouldn’t have to.

So can I – in fact, I can afford to pay it twice. So how about it? A suspended doctor visit. If this policy comes in (I very much hope it won’t), find a medical centre that will accept your $6, and another $6 that can cover the cost for someone who’s doing it tough.

It’s not much more than the price of a coffee.

7/1/2014

Unburnt

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:55 am

You may be wondering why the blog, which has been pretty quiet for a while, is buzzing again.

I think part of it is just my process – not quite bipolar, but there are certainly ‘fertile periods’ and ‘just going through the motions’ stages. Sometimes there are too many blog ideas to post – and the same in work and the rest of my life – and sometimes there’s not much inspiration and it’s just a matter of doing the tasks that are there to be done.

I think another piece, though, is that I was pretty fried by the end of last year: too much work, for too long, too much stress, too little exercise, too little daylight… it was piling up. And that led to a vicious cycle of more food, more booze1, even less exercise, even less daylight.

Suzie was also working and studying hard, including most weekends and many evenings. It was unavoidable for last year, and no-one’s fault, but it meant I got less time with her, and also less time out and socialising, more at home alone. She’s quit one job recently and other circumstances have changed that will definitely help, but I have also realised I just have to get better at taking myself out if she’s busy!

Mental health. It’s tricky to talk about. I certainly don’t mean that I was disabled by mental illness, and I don’t mean to minimise the struggles of those who are. But perhaps the best way of saying it is that I was not in rude health, mentally. Perhaps mirroring my physical state – just a little too fat and unfit – my mind was functioning, but not in top form.

I was perhaps a high-functioning burnout… or perhaps burned but not out. The tasks all got done, no time off was taken, and on all external measures I was pretty productive, but there wasn’t a lot of joy or inspiration, more just a dogged determination.

I feel a lot better now. Partly as a result of having taken a real break over Christmas – just two weeks, but I really did shut down work entirely, including work on my physics hobby, and just enjoy time with the family and going to the beach and parties and so on. Partly as a result of talking control of my physical health and fitness by walking and swimming and eating and drinking less and better. There’s a strong correlation between exercise and mental health, and walking (without a treadmill) also involves going outside and looking away from the computer.

Can’t promise the blog will always be busy – I think the cycles are a natural part of me. Can’t always promise to be in rude mental health. But I hope it’s helpful to others to talk about this stuff. It’s certainly helpful for me to share it.

  1. I don’t mean I was getting drunk – always a little careful to qualify when talking about this! Nope, just a couple of drinks a night – but every night, not just once or twice a week. Normal for many people, I know, but too much for my health and energy needs.

Heresy File: I Enjoy (Some) Nu Metal

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:37 am

For those less familiar with the myriad subgenres of metal, nu metal arose in the 90s (though more on that below), and its defining characteristics tend to be elements of hip-hop, down-tuned one-chord riffing and lyrics about relationships and dysfunction. Examples include Korn, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park… and after that I guess it gets a bit murky, but for example I’d include at least early Disturbed. Faith No More could, I guess, also be considered to fit the camp, based on the rapping in their biggest hit, ‘Epic’, but I’ve always loved them, and they don’t really fit the template.

It arose largely from experiments by Anthrax with their hip-hop-inflected song ‘I’m The Man’ and their collaboration with Public Enemy ‘Bring The Noise’, although there are other sources as well. Love Anthrax, love those songs and later experiments, like their recent cover of ‘New Noize’ with Chester Benington from Linkin Park.

Have to admit I have little time for Korn and Limp Bizkit. I know they’re different but can’t really tell them apart, and find their stuff musically uninteresting and lyrically misogynistic and immature. Others’ mileage may vary.

I do enjoy Disturbed, but it wouldn’t be hard to argue that they’re really a hard rock/metal band that flirted with nu metal on their first album because it was fashionable at the time. David Draiman can really sing, and their riffs have always stood out from the other nu metal bands. This is from a more recent album:

And with Linkin Park, I’ve enjoyed their remixed album ‘Reanimation’ more than their ‘straight’ stuff – it tends to dilute the screaming, and the ‘I’m so dysfunctional and so are you’ whiny lyrics they can be guilty of, and set free the songs: which are surprisingly good.

I guess I’m damning with faint praise. The point, I suppose, is just to open our ears and listen to bands, not genres… Purism just limits life.

A Blast From The Past

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:26 am

Randomly ran across this old post from 2008. I have a lot of new friends since then so I thought I’d share it:

http://www.bravus.com/blog/?p=942

6/1/2014

Thinking Out Loud About Students

Filed under: — Bravus @ 5:06 pm

This post started from a conversation with Alex the other day, and I have to admit that I’m still thinking my way through it. Not that my blog posts are ever the epitome of fully-worked-out thinking – because thinking things through is kind of the point of this kind of writing for me – but this one may be even less so than usual.

We were talking about how it would be nice to conduct a conversational, dialectical, interactive class about life, politics, philosophy and ideas with a class of highly motivated and engaged students. I fantasised about the possibility of having a class that is so popular that students have to interview to be able to participate, and make a case for what they will be able to contribute to the discussion.

In my own thinking that then led on to reflecting that progressive approaches to education tend to assume that students are like this – engaged, interested, taking responsibility for their own learning. Some students are – and more students could be, if schooling and structures and tests didn’t beat it out of them.

There are some students who are not, though: who want the teacher to be responsible for their learning, who are happy to be passive participants rather than active.

I don’t think we can just assume that students are ‘naturally’ like that and use it as an excuse not to challenge them to take responsibility for their own learning – after all, they won’t be at school forever, and if they are to be lifelong learners they will have to.

But for those disengaged students, it may be that older, more ‘conservative’ teaching approaches are actually more effective, in the sense of leading to enhanced student learning. There are questions about what counts as ‘learning’, of course, but maybe we make more of those than we need to.

I don’t think it’s necessarily fair or reasonable to require and expect that teachers engage all students, given the wide range of factors that can lead to disengagement, and given the (not inevitable) class sizes and structures of schooling. So it may be that, for some students in some subjects at some stages of their learning, adding, say, rote learning or lecturing or other ‘old school’ teaching strategies might be effective.

Part of what is not well thought through yet is how things like wealth, social class, ethnicity and so on play into this. Of course it would be inequitable if students were much more probable to be identified as ‘disengaged’ if they are poor…

It’s not about creating over- and under-classes, or dividing education, and efforts to engage students are, of course, always essential. It’s simply about thinking through the assumptions underlying our choices… and being willing to consider when and whether they are invalid.

2/1/2014

On Monologue and Dialogue

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:04 am

Let me start a little obliquely: although the ‘mono’ in ‘monologue’ means ‘one’, thanks to QI I know that ‘dialogue’ does not mean a conversation between two. The root word is not ‘di’ (two) but ‘dia’ (across), so a dialogue is a conversation across interpersonal space, and can include two, a few, several or many. πŸ˜‰ The key point is that it involves more than one1 person, and that they are genuinely involved in both speaking and listening2. A broadcast is not a dialogue.

What got me thinking about this was some recent discussions about preaching. There are a number of honorable exceptions, but a hallmark of preachers I tend to encounter in Facebook discussions is that they tend not to ‘do dialogue’. They pronounce or exhort – someone rather nicely referred to it as ‘drive-by savings’ – but then do not participate in discussion. Their mode, even in a much more intimate, conversational space, seems to be the broadcast rather than the network.

It’s something innate in the nature of preaching, at least as usually imagined and implemented – one authority feature speaks, many people listen. Effectively, monologue. Perhaps there is a ‘silent dialogue’, in that the members of the congregation – those who are listening, at least – are voicing their agreement or challenge within their own minds – but there is no real feedback, and no real crosstalk (except perhaps the notes my daughters and I used to sometimes pass…)

When I used to preach on an occasional basis (I’ve never been a pastor, but have been invited to preach maybe a dozen times over the years) I always chafed at the nature of the medium, and have made a few efforts to challenge it. One sermon was more like a school lesson, with some initial comments from me, then a task and some small group discussion, then a report back and summary. Two were dialogues on stage, in one case between me and Sue, my wife, and in another with a friend. Others used songs and media to raise questions and challenge assumptions, others took questions and comments from the congregation.

These overtures were received in various ways, generally positively, but also with some resistance from those who felt I wasn’t ‘doing it properly’. In the end, anyway, I had the microphone and the platform, and others could participate only on my own terms. It was a step in the right direction, but perhaps the only real solution for more dialogue is to move away from the broadcast metaphor entirely, and find better ways to use the network metaphor – in which there is no central node and each node is equal in importance but different in function – to enhance human communication and interaction.

I don’t know – maybe those who continue to go to church go because the broadcast mode is comfortable for them – not too challenging, not putting them on the spot. I get similar resistance in my big university lecture classes, when I make moves to dialogue among the monologue – some people just want to turn up and listen. I think it’s telling, though, that the people the church is having the most trouble attracting and keeping – young people in developed countries – are those most enmeshed in a network world, including in their education. Moving from passive to active in worship style could herald movement from passive to active in ‘lived faith’… but perhaps also vice versa.

I no longer attend church, and I’m not even sure the whole ‘turning up at one building for a few hours once a week’ model is tenable once we move to dialogue. But something that challenged the broadcast metaphor is something I’d find more interesting.

  1. The question of whether it’s genuinely possible to have an internal dialogue, at least for those of us without actual multiple personalities, is an interesting one, perhaps for another day.
  2. The terms ‘speaking’ and ‘listening’ are used in the knowledge that they may be used metaphorically – the dialogue on web discussion forums, Facebook discussions and in the comments threads of these posts still ‘count’ even if what is mechanically being done is ‘writing’ and ‘reading’.

Why ‘Liberal’ Christianity Never Really Seemed Like The Solution For Me

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:07 am

(I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted here – Facebook gets a lot of the short random thoughts that might have been blogged in the past. This site is now used more sporadically for longer, more thought-out pieces that I want to be able to keep.)

I know that a lot of people find that it is ‘conservative’ or ‘fundamentalist’ elements of the way their religious faith is observed that they chafe against. That can be anything from commitment to particular theological tenets, to a more literal interpretation of scripture, including around things like creationism, to dietary restrictions on alcohol and seafood, to worship style – hymns and piano and organ. Some seek to change their local congregation to a more ‘liberal’ style, while others move to a different congregation of the same denomination1 and others switch to a different congregation. To some extent, over the years, I’ve tried all three approaches… but none of them have really stuck.

I do think that initiatives like the ‘Christian left’ are important as antidotes or counterpoints to the excesses of the ‘Christian right’, and I also think that some of the more ‘liberal’ positions are also more humane: there tends to be a much more sensitive approach to LGBTI people, for example.

There are a few reasons, though, why I haven’t been able to find a spiritual ‘home’ in more ‘liberal’ Christian churches:

  1. The first is perhaps the most superficial: it’s the ‘worship style’ thing. I think I’ve talked about that here before, at least obliquely, but the point is simply that the transition from the might and thoughtful (though sometimes disturbing) lyrical content of hymns to (an inbred, regurgitated form of) the most anodyne, repetitive and content-free forms of mainstream 70s pop doesn’t seem to me like progress. I don’t do either commercial radio or commercial TV because I find their products insipid and weak: why do I want to go to church for more of the same? It’s not even about ‘heavy’ music, it’s about quality and innovation and intelligence. Singing weak, boring songs for longer isn’t better – even if there are (gasp) drums and electric guitars. To be truly ‘progressive’, there would need to be surprises and variety, and the aforementioned quality and innovation and intelligence. I want to be challenged…
  2. That theme follows through into the preaching: losing the hard certainties of conservatism could lead to new certainties, or perhaps strongly held beliefs would be a better way to put it, about life, the universe and everything, but instead often ends up in anodyne and tedious dissertations on why it’s good to be nice that conspicuously ignore broader social injustices and the radicalism of Jesus’ teachings. Read the Gospels and see Jesus challenge every tenet of his own society and ours. Take Matthew 5 and Matthew 25 alone and implement them and you radically challenge every Christian in the world to change themselves and their societies. But I never heard those preached in a serious way – too much ‘peace and safety’, too many sermons about how to manage your money2. There’s a role for teaching about relationships3 and all those kinds of things, but if it’s possible to go to church for years without being radically changed, the thing is simply not working.
  3. As I have explored here before, what has ultimately moved me outside Christianity to wherever I am now is claims to exclusivity – the claim that Christianity and specifically belief in Jesus is the only path to salvation and life, and that everyone who does not accept it is damned and doomed. That’s not tenable for me – and, perhaps ironically, ‘liberal’ Christianity tends to insist on it even more strongly. More conservative forms tend to have a component of ‘works’ – you need to do certain things and not do others in order to be saved. Liberal Christianity, at least as I have experienced it, tends to move away from those demands until nothing is left but ‘believe’. There is some lip service to ‘if you believe you will behave in certain ways’, but not a lot of real urgency. In this sense, then, it seems to be worse rather than better.

My own spiritual (for want of a better word) journey is on-going: I think it has to be… in my view, to find a destination is to stop growing and start dying. But, for me at least, just changing the cultural trappings around Christianity – watering it down to a homeopathic dose – is not even a waypoint I can stay with, although I think there was value in passing through it because it helped me to think further about what issues and ideas are most important to me. Others’ mileage may vary.

  1. if they are thoughtful enough to spot the vast cultural differences that can occur from congregation to congregation rather than assume their local church is the world church in that denomination
  2. which seem to be rather too obviously focused on managing your money in such a way as to be able to maximise giving to the church both now and posthumously
  3. although I’m not sure that a ‘broadcast’ medium like a sermon with one person speaking and many listening is the appropriate one for it – see today’s other post on monologue and dialogue