more than my necessary food

It was part of Job’s argument in defence of his claim to a clear conscience that in addition to leading a morally unblemished life, he valued God’s Word ‘more than his necessary food.’

But this bible reading plan made me remember the astonishing accusation made by a reformed pastor at a conference I was at a couple of years ago – that the single biggest thing that reformed people needed to do was read their bibles more, because, apparently, there is this trend for people to read nothing but the gospels and the psalms and a bit of Isaiah!

Obviously, nobody’s ever been guilty of reading their bible too much, but can it really be true that people who supposedly adhere to the ‘sola scriptura’ principle, and part of whose confession states that the Holy Spirit makes ‘the reading of the word an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, to salvation,’ could be so lax as to leave vast tracts of said scriptures untouched and unread on a regular basis?

(Actually, that’s not part of the confession, that’s part of the Shorter Catechism, but the confession states that ‘the grace of faith … is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word,’ and that God calls his people, ‘by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ,’ which comes to the same thing.)

If these are the effects which the Word can have, ie when the Holy Spirit chooses to bless it for those purposes, surely it makes sense to pay close attention to its entire contents in the hope that at least some of it would sink in for the saving and strengthening of our souls. Especially when the scriptures (a) have the property of being perspicuous, clear, and meaningful to the reader, and (b) contain everything that the Father and the Spirit know is necessary for our salvation, there can be no valid reason for neglecting them.

Obviously it would make a world of difference if it was as easy to put these grand suggestions into practice as it is to write them down: but the fact remains, there’s no valid reason not to put them into practice.

‘Thy words were found, and I did eat them, and thy word was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart.’ Jeremiah 15:16

‘The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.’ Psalm 19:7-8


the handover again

A couple of further, fairly unconnected, thoughts on yesterday’s change of occupant in Number 10.

  • It was interesting that in his first speech as PM, Gordon Brown spoke about “the opportunity to serve”. If I was going to take a wildly optimistic perspective on this, could it possibly be that that is really the attitude he takes to holding office? No small part of Tony Blair’s insufferability in the last few years has been his tendency to talk about “leading” the country rather than the traditional talk of elected representatives in terms of serving – as if he’d never realised his role was at the end of the day just to work for us.
  • But on the other hand, I’ve just seen this depressing report from the Laodiceans on Gordon Brown’s record of voting with the pro-abortion lobby. SPUC says Brown’s goverment “may be as anti-life as that of Mr Tony Blair,” a nasty reminder that he may also follow along in Blair’s lines in a variety of other undesirable ways as well (the EU and civil liberties to name just two difficult areas).
  • Tony Blair said in his speech in the Commons that this was it, “the end.” After a while it sunk in through the tear-jerking rhetoric that in fact, this is not the end of anything very much in particular – he himself is gone from his place at the dispatch box, but other than that, life goes on.
  • He also said in his speech that he was “truly sorry” for the deaths in Iraq. But when I was wee, my mum’s challenge for patently insincere apologies was always, Well, you don’t look it. If the deaths of all those service personnel, not to mention Iraqis, was really weighing on his mind and conscience, his grand farewell tour might have been expected to be somewhat more subdued, surely. More on this very point here.

new pm

I have to confess I have high hopes of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister.

At any rate, I’m entertaining some hope, in contrast to the sheer dismay which I still poignantly remember from 1997, when I could not believe the size of the victory that the much younger but even then blatantly superficial Blair had won for New Labour.

Even if Brown has scowled his way through the last several years at Blair’s side, who can really blame him – Blair’s notorious, and shameless, posturing and dissembling is enough to make anyone glower, especially someone who by all accounts is much more intelligent than Blair and seems to have a few more personal qualities to his name than Blair’s, er, single talent of being quite photogenic. For a politician.

At any rate, if the choice was between dour Gordon and dippy David Cameron, I don’t think I’d have much trouble deciding.

words and watercolours

This is the original source of one of the cartoons in referred to in today’s Language Log post, ‘Three taboo cartoons.’ (Warning to the gentle reader: there is a reason why they’re called taboo.)

The point it’s making is that if some colours of paint aren’t taboo for artists to use, and some combinations of notes aren’t taboo for musicians to use, people shouldn’t be so prudish as to find some words too offensive to use either.

There’s a flaw in the analogy though, and it’s not the one that’s been noticed in the update which has appeared in the post since I first saw it. Apart from, possibly, magnolia, there’s no such thing as an offensive colour of paint, but when colours and brushstrokes are combined into finished images, they could easily be offensive and often are – and the same clearly applies for notes and combinations of notes compiled into pieces of music.

But here are the analogies:

colours : images
notes : music
words : ??

It’s back to front, obviously – words themselves are the language counterparts of music and images: it’s not words but their constituent parts which correspond to colours of paint and musical notes. And articulatory gestures aren’t half as offensive as the two-fingered variety – who in their right mind would come over prudish about the occasional labiodental fricative, or uvular trill?

The poet, I put it to you therefore, assembling words from her inventory of fricatives, lax vowels, and plosives has to be just as aware of context and perceived intent in judging the (in)offensiveness of the resulting words as an artist and musician considering the raw materials that they work with. Shame, because if phonological pedantry hadn’t got the better of me, it might have even been funny.

fingers in their ears

The Open Europe group yesterday staged a demonstration at the EU summit – life-size models of the 27 EU leaders with their fingers in their ears, symbolising their stark refusal to listen to what the people want. The summit’s discussions about the revised constitutional treaty are being held in private, so that there’s no transparency whatsoever about the deliberations themselves, and once they reach their decision, the last thing they want to do is make it available for their respective electorates to examine, debate, and judge for themselves.

A splendid rant from Cranmer this morning makes this trenchant point:

Let us be in no doubt: whatever kicking and screaming noises Mr Blair is reported to be making; whatever the BBC is stating is the UK’s reluctance; whatever Commissioner Barroso thinks of the British Parliament or people, there will be an agreement because ‘there is no alternative’, it is ‘destiny’. They might as well say it is the will of God. Former British defence minister Alan Clark observed: ‘The European Commission…is not a programmatically hostile and aggressive force, as was Nazi Germany. But it is not benign.’

Not only is [the EU] an entity that consists of smoke and mirrors; it is a political project into which the UK is being irrevocablt fused, and the people are being deceived. That is the constant. All the opt-outs are temporary; the derogations are ephemeral; and the proposition that we are ‘winning the argument’ an illusion.

A recent briefing from Open Europe, ‘Who’s afraid of a referendum?’ provides several damning quotes from specific EU leaders showing their contempt for democracy in their determination to go ahead with the constitution regardless of what the voters think. Voters in every single EU member state want a referendum on transferring this much power to Brussels, but the strategy of the heads of state has simply been to use different words and names to disguise the fact that they’re persisting with these plans in spite of knowing how unpopular they are among the people who elected them to supposedly represent them.

The briefing (available here in .doc format) concludes:

Fundamentally, this is about democracy. The Government promised a referendum which is long overdue; now they want to take it away again. When MPs permanently give away powers which we have only lent to them in the first place, the voters should have a say. In the UK, no-one under the age of 50 has had a chance to have a vote on the direction of the EU. The fact that they might vote “no” is not an acceptable argument.

a great british imposition

What a stupid thing to say.

The identity card scheme will become a “great British institution” on a par with the railways in the 19th Century, Home Office minister Liam Byrne says.

The only time there were ever ID cards in Britain was during World War 2, and everyone hated them. They were introduced reluctantly and withdrawn at the first sign of public discontent. And then, they weren’t linked to a national identity register which included every conceivable category of information about you.

They won’t stop terrorism, they won’t stop “identity theft,” they won’t stop illegal immigration. The cards themselves will be disgustingly expensive, the national register will be wide open to malfunction and abuse, and the scheme as a whole represents an obnoxious inversion of the relation between citizens and the state.

Railways, my foot.

to which i ever may resort

Here’s a quote from a book I picked up at a second-hand sale the other day. They were advertised for 50p each, but when I went up to the desk with nine, the wifie only asked me for £3. Not bad eh.

This one was written in 1959 by a Church of Scotland minister, Murdo Ewen Macdonald (whose obituary turns out to be available here, upon a brief consultation with Google). The book consists of a series of mini essays on a variety of subjects, and one recurring theme is the perennial question of the relationship between science and religion. In chapter 2 he has just finished discussing a range of old and new scientific discoveries, and goes on to say this:

It is true, of course, that not one of these discoveries affects in the slightest the validity of religion, but they have done something drastic to our human thinking. They have not disproved God, but they have elbowed him out from the centre of human consciousness. Secure in the knowledge that we live in a law-abiding universe where the vast majority of events are predictable and even ascertainable, God is pushed out to the very circumference of things and is only called upon when the clockwork of normal events does not function. That is why for the ordinary man today religion is a last ditch recourse, something he turns to in desperation when nothing else offers him any hope.

Even if I hadn’t told you the date of this publication you could still see from the way it doesn’t put knowledge in scare quotes, speaks unabashedly about things being ascertainable, and uses generic he, that it is less than contemporary.

Yet the main point still holds. As long as a person can maintain the illusion that they’re on top of what’s going on in their life, religious thoughts don’t need to trouble their mind – because we can do so much, and understand so much, and handle so much on our own as we think, there’s no pressing reason in the wider environment to force us to recognise power and wisdom that is so obviously bigger and better than ours that it must be divine.

The reason why this doesn’t ‘affect in the slightest the validity of religion,’ is because there has never been any conflict between human advances in learning and technology and the power and wisdom of God who is almighty, omniscient, and sovereign. But this is the God who people are unwilling to acknowledge in any way in their everyday lives, and the one who people are only too ready to dismiss as ineffectual and imaginary if ever the thought of him does cross their minds.

I’m sure at least part of this reluctance comes from not knowing very much about him. If people were really convinced that he is infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably good, for example, in his power and his wisdom and his sovereignty, we would be so much more ready to listen and obey when we considered both his law and his gospel.

Even so, as the theologians say, it isn’t God considered absolutely who we’re meant to deal with in the matter of salvation – there has to be a mediator, to stand between God who is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being and all his other attributes, and sinful human beings. When this person calls and says, ‘Come to me, look to me, return to me: I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ surely it is far better to turn to him straight away, not wait till some sort of desperation drives us to him as a last resort. Better for us, and more honouring to his invitation: there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, and this is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, even the chief of sinners. I Timothy 2:5

Murdo Ewen Macdonald (1959), The Need to Believe. Fontana Books. Quote from p17.

Title of the post comes from the metrical version of Psalm 71:3, ‘Be thou my dwelling-rock, to which / I ever may resort,’ cp the prose version, ‘Be thou my strong habitation, whereunto I may continually resort: thou hast given commandment to save me, for thou art my rock and my fortress.’

portuguese courage

Whatever else might make it into Blair’s legacy, his regard for the democratic process is not what one might be inclined to think of as one of his strengths.

And with friends like José Manuel Barroso, you can possibly see why.

In his role as President of the European Commission, he’s reported to have made a speech in which he said he “hoped the Prime Minister ‘will have the courage’ to scrap more national vetoes and to sign up to an EU bill of rights despite public hostility.”

The key phrase there, if you care about the small matter of what the electorate would like you, as their representative, to do, is despite public hostility. “You know about the UK, and the respect I have for your country,” says Mr Barroso. “We have to stand up in front of our national public opinions, not give up to some of the populisms we have in our member states!”

What’s called there the Bill of Rights has also been known in the past as the Constitutional Treaty, all part of a sneaky plan from Brussels, in which the governments of individual member states would all ratify it without needing to hold any referendums. The outcome would have been to give legal personality to the EU, appoint a single Europe-wide president, army, and foreign minister, and so transfer all remaining sovereignty from the member states to this new legal and political entity.

Only two countries held a referendum on signing up to this treaty, and the answer in both places was No. That was nee in the Netherlands and non in France. After the Poles (I think, if I remember right) put their foot down, the last hope for that one was torpedoed, and at the time people said it was in fact dead.

Not that it stopped people trying to revive it. It’s currently being presented as a much smaller document, a simplified, mini treaty, and with much ado about calling it an “amending” treaty, rather than a constitutional treaty (nobody cares about holding referendums on amending treaties, so if it’s going by this label, and if it is so teensy weensy small and inoffensive in this incarnation, there’s really no need for the poor public to have to worry their heads about it. They wouldn’t understand it anyway, so the referendum would just have to be held again and again until they finally understand and vote yes. Best to skip all that and just get parliament to ratify it straight off.)

A nice quote from William Hague to round off with:

“Tony Blair shouldn’t be standing up to British public opinion; he should be standing up for it: the Prime Minister’s job is to stand up for Britain in Europe, not stand up for Europe in Britain.”

spelling was phonemic, says english professor

Uh-oh. On Saturday I read a review of Will Self’s The Book of Dave which discussed his use of non-standard spellings to represent what his characters say. For example:

“We dunno nuffing abaht í . . . Iss gawn.”

Non-standard spellings are discomfiting at best, but horrifically, the comment which the reviewer made was this:

“Self’s phonemic spellings are a droll barrier between us and his speakers. Only when you have sounded it out do you realise it is something you might hear on a London street … And this is just the condition of his satirical dystopia: a weird world whose elements are, you must see, familiar.”

Well, maybe so, but: phonemic?! Since when has a geminate n been phonemic in English? or a geminate f, or s, for that matter? When did the phoneme h reappear in southern English? And when has a glottal stop ever been attempted to be represented with a diacritic on the preceding vowel, as we must assume the monstrosity of “í” is intending to convey?

Without having read the book I can’t really comment on the drollness of the spellings, but I’m sure they are, indeed a barrier. Non-standard spelling does usually have the effect of distancing the reader from characters whose speech is non-standardly represented. As my first year tutorial group could tell you, ‘eye dialect’ is usually reserved for the productions of uneducated, ‘regional’ speakers – or even if it’s done “affectionately” that’s the effect it typically has. Eye dialect works best if the reader shares the dialect of the writer and knows in advance which dialect the non-standard spellings are supposed to represent, so that they share some awareness of the stereotyped features which will be exploited in the non-standard spellings.

Of course, when non-standard spellings are being used as a literary device they never have either the accuracy or the consistency which would allow for the supposed pronunciations to be adequately recovered by a reader who didn’t share all that background with the writer. So, just in the tiny fragment quoted above, it would be surprising if there wasn’t a word-final glottal stop in ‘about,’ and what I imagine is the same vowel in ‘thousand’ and ‘how’ is represented as both fouzand and ow elsewhere. There doesn’t seem to be any indication of schwa at all, but that’s perhaps forgiveable.

Without phonetic accuracy, internal consistency, and of course, perhaps above all, a few minimal pairs, there is no way that Self’s cleverness can be characterised as phonemic. This might be a professor of English speaking, but he’s only betraying how much his department (in a university where the great Daniel Jones was professor of phonetics for nearly thirty years) needs to revise their basic linguistics terminology.

(And if you did happen to be a first year linguistics student who arrived here by googling for eye dialect: please practice your conventions for citing web resources, and then refer to Meyerhoff (2006).)