December 2012

No merriness here: mosque puts fatwa on Christmas.

It’s worth reading the SMH (actually Sun-Herald) article to get a sense of the tawdriness of the journalism and the mutual insensitivity shown by the Sheikh and by the reporter. Why would anyone be surprised by the content of the fatwa? After all, it is simply a legal ruling that extends the Prophet’s rejection of Christian claims about the divinity of Christ stemming from the incarnation and nativity. Why should Moslems celebrate Christmas? Why should Jews celebrate Christmas? All the reaction reveals is a secular assumption that the Feast of the Birth of Christ is simply an excuse to indulge in rampant consumerism and, from the midst of the Christmas dinner, a feeling of good will towards men (and sometimes women).

It is, of course, nothing of the sort. For Christians, the object of Christmas is something quite different, something more profound. I regret the fatwa, and it shows a lack of Islamic good will, but it is hardly earth-shattering. One can only affirm another community leader:

The Grand Mufti of Australia, Ibrahim Abu Mohammad, said the foundations of Islam were peace, co-operation, respect and holding others in esteem.

“Anyone who says otherwise is speaking irresponsibly,” he said.

“There is difference between showing respect for someone’s belief and sharing those beliefs,” Dr Ibrahim said.

Dr Ibrahim said the views did not represent the majority of Muslims in Australia. “We are required to have good relations with all people, and to congratulate them on their joyous events is very important.”

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This article is from the December 22 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit OPINION

Julia Baird

There are still three good reasons even atheists should think about going to church this Christmas.

When it comes to the choice between church and couch, we all know which Homer Simpson would choose (‘‘ I’m having the best day of my life, and I owe it all to not going to Church!’’ ). ‘‘ Heretic Homer’ ’ was famous for a reason. Each year, the percentage of Australians going to church slides a little lower. Reasons given include relevance, boredom, time, and disillusionment with church leaders.

But December 25 is the one day many of us walk through the doors of remodelled suburban warehouses, city cathedrals and sandstone chapels near our houses, to sing carols, watch sweet children shuffle through straw in fluffy wings or tea-towel head coverings , and listen to the story of the birth of a child in Bethlehem.

Will we still want to go in 2012? This year has not been good for the PR arm of the global church: the Vatican severely disciplined the gentle, intellectual nuns who are sympathetic to homosexuality – and feminism; the Church of England refused to make women bishops; and Sydney Anglicans told wives to submit. Not particularly tolerant or progressive behaviour . Then the allegations that the Catholic Church – among others – had protected an entire generation of paedophiles in Australia were truly shocking. Some parts of the church – high up, especially – have wandered very far from its original mission.

In this context, it might seem blasphemous to discuss religion on December 25, a day about birth, love, giving and family. But there are still three good reasons even atheists should think about going to church this Christmas.

First, boredom is often good for you. While many ministers provide dazzling shows and insightful talks at Yuletide, some can still drone on with ponderous sermons, and plodding hymns. Charles Dickens wrote of one church experience as like being ‘‘ steamed like a potato in the unventilated breath of the powerful Boanerges Boiler and his congregation , until what small mind I had, was quite steamed out of me.’’

But recent research has shown having your mind steamed out of you can be a good thing. The authors of a paper published a few weeks ago in Perspectives on Psychological Science, define boredom as ‘‘ the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.’’ What if a satisfying experience is just sitting and thinking?

In his book Boredom: A Lively History, classics professor from Calgary University Peter Toohey argues boredom can strongly propel creativity: ‘‘ You’ve got to fall into the deep, the absolute misery, and then something comes out of your brain. A lot of people talk about the value of daydreaming, which can also be the product of boring or mildly boring situations, and your best ideas may come from it.’’

This is closely related to the second reason we should go to church on Christmas Day. For many, church is one of the rare times – along with movies or music concerts – that we are able to sit, think, let our minds meander and reflect on who and where we are. You can’t talk, you shouldn’t tweet, and there may be, at certain moments, something resembling silence.

Thirdly, it is important to remember the Christmas story is about everything the wealthy, institutional church is not. It is a tale of two refugees having a baby in a stable. Much like an asylum seeker giving birth in a tent on Manus Island. There is no power, no hierarchy, no sense that God only springs from influence and respectability but, instead, from the margins.

This is religion, as we understand it, turned on its head. It is the story of the sacred and the profane. God, tiny, red, wrinkled and poor, lies in a pile of hay, surrounded by perplexed barn animals. This is why Reverend Giles Fraser, former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, calls Christmas ‘‘ a kind of cosmic satire’’ . It is a story of inclusion, not the exclusion too frequently broadcast by the church hierarchy: news of ‘‘ great joy for all people’’ , as the angel put it.

This is why the Bible Society’s video advent calendar featured a host of different characters reading 25 words from the Bible in the lead up to December 25 this year. NRL star Andrew Johns read the Bethlehem prophecy, entrepreneur Mark Carnegie recited verses on the Wise Men’s gifts, an anonymous murderer spoke of the annunciation, and adman John Singleton read Luke 7:34: ‘‘ because the Son of Man goes around eating and drinking, you say, ‘Jesus eats and drinks too much! He is even a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ ’’ An overstuffed Jesus – sounds just like Christmas.

The idea, says the Bible Society’s chief executive for Australia, Greg Clarke, was: ‘‘ the Christmas story connects with every kind of sinner, such that we are all willing to own it at Christmas time. We all need mercy for our failings or hope for a new start in the year ahead. Most atheists I’ve met want to live a good life, and I still say to them that Jesus is your best model.’’

The story of the birth of Jesus was meant to be shocking and disruptive – and is also a powerful reminder of the poor and the displaced, like Joseph and Mary, (as well as the refugees now languishing in the hot, bare tents we have provided for them on islands far off our coast). Poverty is mentioned a staggering 2100 times in the Bible; over and over we are called to look after the destitute and impoverished.

As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in the letters to his children that he pretended were from Father Christmas: ‘‘ If you find that not many of the things you asked for have come, and not perhaps quite so many as sometimes, remember that this Christmas all over the world there are a terrible number of poor and starving people.’’

You don’t have to go to church to be reminded of this; but if you do go, you should be. If all else fails, you can always have a good kip.

Twitter: @bairdjulia

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald

The Twelve
The Twelve by Justin Cronin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cronin’s trilogy continues to live up to the promise of the first volume. His radical appropriation of the best and worst features of popular teen fiction into a more dramatic and believable framework shows what can be done when a real writer gets hold of this stuff. While not without a satirical edge at times – I wonder what the residence of his home city, Houston, think of the decline of their metropolis into a swamp? – The Twelve encompasses politics, ethics and religion as it explores the consequences of a catastrophe caused by greed, fear and a misuse of biotechnology.

Like many novels that bridge the divide between the YA genre and adult fiction, this exploits the conventions of spec-fiction shamelessly. Journey, mental combat, the incarnate combat between heaven and hell – it is all there. Delightful, Cronin is also allows something of his teaching of literature to intrude, with references to literature inviting the reader, young or old, to dip into the back-story. I was tickled by the origins of April’s name, and her dismissal of Eliot as a one-hit wonder!

I believe this trilogy will become a classic and I look forward to the conclusion.

View all my reviews

I can never decide whether I really like Dickinson or whether I just appreciate her (and you will appreciate the difference). It nags me because so many others are passionate about her poetry and I get the guilts in case it is because she is a woman poet and I don’t like the voice … but I am pretty gender neutral when it comes to that, as you can tell from Picnic Poetry.

This poem appeared on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac yesterday.

This World Is Not Conclusion

by Emily Dickinson

this world is not conclusion
a species stands beyond –
invisible, as music –
but positive as sound –

it beckons, and it baffles
philosophy – don’t know –
and through a riddle, at the last –
sagacity must go –

to guess it, puzzles scholars –
to gain it, men have borne
contempt of generations
and crucifixion, shown –

faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
blushes, if any see –
plucks at a twig of evidence –
and asks a vane, the way –

much gesture, from the pulpit –
strong hallelujahs roll –
narcotics cannot still the tooth
that nibbles at the soul –

How to respond to a young friend who has come under Dawkins’s spell |