Quick review: Catch-22

Catch-22Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you like a book that’s listed as a classic, you’re simply following the crowd. But if you dislike the listed classic, you’ve got no taste. Catch-22.

If you enjoy the writing in a novel that narrates awful events, and even looks somewhat amoral, that must make you unfeeling. But if you dismiss a novel that refuses to hide the grizzly nature of life, you’re still unfeeling. Catch-22.

I wanted to read Catch-22 for some time, because it’s a classic. And reading it created my own cases of Catch-22 – the ‘catch’ that is impossible to escape, no matter what you do.

Here are two examples of my catches: the humour is enjoyably off the wall-but I kept wondering if black humour is merely stylish cynicism; there’s great compassion for this world of suffering-but I hated the way women (in particular) were treated in the book.

Catch-22 is so well known that there’s no point me recounting its content or themes, you can find great summaries on the web. So here’s my take on the whole theme of the book: this life is a crazy yet hopeful struggle.

The crazy struggle is everywhere, especially war: horrible deaths, innocent suffering, racketeering, apathy, selfishness, … And Heller captures all this and more.

It’s the hope in Catch-22 that surprised me. The lead character, Yossarian, has most of his friends die. One death in particular is referred to again and again, with increasing detail until we read the whole awful story. I expected a bleak conclusion. Yet Catch-22 ends with the excitement of an unexpected survivor, and a crazy plan for Yossarian to survive. (And in this edition, Heller’s 1994 preface confesses that he could never kill Yossarian.)

How odd that the novel of honest hopelessness cannot give up on hope. Paradox-22, anyone? The persistence of hope even when people don’t know why: people will always need the hope-filled news of Jesus’ victory over sin and death.

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Science causes natural theology

In the mid seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes identified that science does not undermine theology. Rather, science tends towards (problematic) natural theology.

Curiosity, or love of the knowledge of causes, draws a man from consultation of the effect, to seek the cause; and again, the cause of that cause; till of necessity he must come to this thought at last, that there is some cause, whereof there is no former cause, but is eternall; which is it men call God. So that it is impossible to make any profound enquiry into naturall causes, without being enclined thereby to believe there is one God Eternall; though they cannot have any Idea of him in their mind, answerable to his nature.

From Leviathon, Chapter XI.


The plain sermon

And, turning on the TV, he heard this message:

Blessed are you rich, for you are kings.
Blessed are you who are full, for satisfaction lasts.
Blessed are you who laugh now, for everything is good.
Blessed are you when people love you and say good things about you, because a good name is its own reward.

But woe to you poor, for you don’t interest us.
And woe to you hungry, because you deserve it.
And woe to you who weep, for you’re dragging us down.
And woe to you who when people hate you and revile you, because human judgement is always right.

I say to you who hear, niggle your enemies, do havoc to those who hate you, curse those who hate you, and gossip about those who abuse you. From the one who strikes you on the cheek, withdraw, and from the one who takes away your cloak, get recompense. Be wary of everyone who begs from you, and from the one who takes away your goods, get a good interest rate. And as you wish others would do to you, insist on this standard of treatment.

What an appealing instruction! So encouraging, as it agrees completely with my heart. (Unlike this stuff.)




ANT+ commissaire tool

OK, here’s my cycling race idea for anyone interested (Garmin, power-meter manufacturers?): an ANT+ tool to aid the job of running a bike race, or any bike event.

Criterium du Dauphine Libere stage 1 - 2012This photo (from a Cyclingtips page) shows a common way of communicating with riders in a race: blackboard and chalk. The information might be the time gap the leading group has to those following, though any useful information could be jotted down.

My idea is to use the modern fancy cycling computers to communicate important information directly to riders.

Many bike computers (like mine, a Garmin 510) can be programmed to have many different data screens. The rider can program what they want to see (before riding!) and swipe to find the most relevant page (while riding).

Importantly, heaps of these computers use the same radio communication system, ANT+. This connects a range of data devices: speed sensor, cadence sensor, heart rate monitor, power meter, etc.

I reckon there’s a place to design a device to communicate with riders. The devices could travel on the yellow motorbike, in the car of the commissaire (cycling referee), or in team cars. Or it could be fixed to a set point, like the start-finish line of a circuit race. Then, when riders come into range, they get direct updates relevant to the current race situation.

This can help them race – they know the time gap between leaders and main field. It could also help safety – commissaires could notify about dangerous conditions, race neutralisation, distance to feed zone, etc. I guess it could also be useful for non-race rides too: mass participation rides like Amy’s Gran Fondo, or the Great Victorian Bike Ride.

This would not replace other communication, because not all people have the appropriate bike computer, but would supplement what already happens.

Just an idea. Knock down its silliness, or take it and run with it – I just wanted to suggest it!



Magical science

At end of year and Christmas there are the usual articles to show the silliness of Christianity, the imaginary existence of Jesus, and all other predictable targets. They’re always paper thin arguments, but are gobbled down as readily as the 500th chocolate-covered yuletide treat.

(For example, see this puff piece from The Conversation, but don’t miss the riposte.)

Today I want to point out one such article, one that also wonderfully illustrates one of the common modern scientific follies.

What is magical thinking? (and its picture) pretends to be about Santa Claus. Magical thinking is the “tendency to infer causation between seemingly related stimuli”, and may be seen when people “happily accept impossible explanations”. One such impossible explanation: Santa.

Magical thinking is the “tendency to infer causation between seemingly related stimuli”, and may be seen when people “happily accept impossible explanations”

Being familiar with the way of things, I knew this piece would really be about the non-existence of God. Hiding behind a convenient quotation (“It wasn’t me!”), the author needles “mainstream religion” for “hypocrisy” – calling believers in the Bible hypocrites for bagging the silliness of Scientology.

By inference – what a clever way to write, perfect deniability! – Bible belief is associated with a refusal to grow up, denial as a coping mechanism, and seeing the world as we want it to be.

The trouble is, the author herself, in the guise of science, demonstrates one of the most common types of magical thinking. There’s an increase number of people using untestable evolutionary-psychology claims. It’s pseudo-science, because it’s beyond testing. It’s a just so story – like ‘how the kookaburra got its laugh’ – but the author would be offended if you pointed out that she’s just propagating a myth.

Here’s the relevant paragraph:

From an evolutionary point of view you can see how important making these links have been to our survival. Being able to figure out what precedes what, and develop some method of prediction, can allow us to develop some control over our environment.

How does one test this? It’s magical science, an explanation after the facts. It assumes as true both cause (magical thinking) and effect (its evolutionary sense).

There’s nothing wrong with telling myths, when told honestly. There’s something seriously wrong with telling a myth and pretending it is science: that’s just a power-play and a lie.

So beware of scientists, and particularly psychological scientists, offering magical explanations for the world. It’s happening more and more frequently.

If the Jesus of Christmas is to be explained away it must be on the right terms: history and theology. As for me, I’ve well-convinced of the real life and ministry of the real Jesus, and of the real truth that the living Lord Jesus rules all things.



Quick review: Bike!

Bike! A tribute to the world's greatest racing bicyclesBike! A tribute to the world’s greatest racing bicycles by Richard Moore

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This has flashes of being a great book on racing bicycles, but often disappoints.

It consists of many short entries on a series of famous brands. They might be bike manufacturers (Bianchi, Flandria, etc) or component makers (Reynolds, SRAM, etc). There’s also the occasional special two-page spread for more detail: such as Coppi’s 1952 Bianchi after the chapter on Bianchi.

That’s all good, an accompanied by plenty of fine illustrations. But the whole is let down by poor execution.

For a start, the number of contradictions within the text shows sloppy proof reading. Within two or three pages you can read three different start dates for some companies. Are any of them correct?

The editors also made a lazy (non-)decision about units of measurement: everything is listed in both miles and kilometres. This makes for awful reading in sections where four or five racing distances are listed in the one sentence.

Further, for a book about classic cycling brands, I think it was a poor decision to include some ‘up to date’ recent technology – poor because they aren’t classics. The spread on Mark Cavendish’s Specialized Venge just reads like a press announcement from three years ago.

I enjoyed this book, but I don’t trust it as a source of information. Hence, two stars.

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St Marcion’s Modern Church

Are you interested in joining this church?

I have lost their web address – or perhaps the website has been taken down. But I did manage to salvage the church’s own description from the page. Here it is:

Welcome to St Marcion’s

Here at St Marcion’s, we love to keep up to date and new. Why? Because Jesus is so good that he makes everything else old and unhelpful.

So we read the Bible! Well, we read the new part of the Bible. (Obviously the Old Testament is old and so different – nothing good there.) No, actually, we read some of the new part of the Bible (even the New Testament has some ‘Old Testament’ hangovers, they’re easy to spot and to ignore).

Yes, we’re completely people of the Bible.

Hmm. Maybe not for me. I’m glad that Marcion was second century AD, now long gone. No one would be so crazy or arrogant nowadays to assume that new equals good. We’re all reading Old Testament as well as New Testament.

Aren’t we?



2 Thessalonians prayer book

When starting our church sermon series on 2 Thessalonians, I already knew there would be ‘interesting’ material about Jesus’ return, the man of lawlessness, and other apocalyptic content.

I did not know how much prayer and thanksgiving this little letter contains. So here I’ve assembled the relevant verses, as a kind of guide and instruction towards prayer. I hope it helps you as well as me. (Each quotation is from the ESV, followed by chapter and verse.)


We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. 1:3

But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.  2:13


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 1:2

To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfil every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ 1:11-12

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word. 2:16-17

Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honoured, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. 3:1-2

May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ. 3:5

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all.  3:16

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. 3:18




Death of a cricketer



In this week’s news, a woman died in a local car crash and Phillip Hughes died after a cricketing accident.

Both deaths are immeasurably sad, but it’s Hughes who has grabbed attention around the world. His death has captured my emotions – like those of many others – and I think there’s good reason.

Cricket is a game. And like all the best games, cricket is entirely made up. Athletics and target shooting have skills similar to those needed for chasing food in the wild (or running away from danger). But cricket is weird: stumps of three sticks plus two; bowl without throwing; strike a leather ball; run back and forth on a small strip in a huge paddock.

Cricket is an imaginary game to play and watch, and that’s part of its appeal. We don’t want ‘work’ all the time, because we’re not made by God as simple work units. Humans work, that’s part of God’s creation. But we’re made for so much more: we’re made for rest (the goal of Genesis 1); we’re made for joy; we’re made for freedom in Jesus; we’re made to find that purpose is not intrinsic to our own frantic activity.

Cricket, however lightly, touches on these bigger purposes by ignoring practicality and making up rules with no connection to the business of business.

Yet death through cricket crudely slashes at the face of beautiful imagination. It’s all so real now for those who knew or watched Hughes, and for the bowler involved, Sean Abbott.

I do not claim that cricket is escapism. I’m claiming much more: that cricket is reality. Cricket hints at the so-much-more that is embedded in God’s creation. Hughes’ death shows us that the so-much-more remains tantalising, beyond our capacity and beyond our guarantees.

Though Christians know that creation will fulfil its purpose, in Christ (Ephesians 1:10), we share honestly with the on-going pain of our home (Romans 8:18-25).

To paraphrase someone who really could write: Ask not who was struck by the bouncer – it struck us all.




Proverbs and the meaning of words

I admit it, I love dictionaries. These are from my Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary:

Definition: statement of the precise meaning of a term
Proverb: short pithy saying in general use

Good, aren’t they? And true. Compare them with the following couplet:

A definition closes the gates,
but a proverb breaks down the fence

These lines also are about definition and proverbs, but so much more confusing! Who wrote that rubbish? (Oh yes. It was me.)

Although the second box is very different from the first, I think it is just as true. And more like the way we should approach Proverbs.

The wisdom of the proverbs in the Bible book of Proverbs is not a series of definitions. It is not a series of specifications of how to behave and think. More often the proverbs make creative associations. They surprise us and our minds go in unexpected directions – good and helpful directions.

Here’s one example.

Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit
but righteousness delivers from death. (Prov 10:2 esv)

If we treat this as simple prose, we get a mundane tip. ‘For a good outcome, don’t chase money but be righteous.’

Reading slowly, however, we find the unexpected and possibly confusing. Treasure is not profit? Profit defines treasure! OK, perhaps we’re meant to think of a ‘deeper’ meaning, of treasure as a metaphor for what’s really valuable.

But it’s still pretty simple. Isn’t it?

The second line of the verse doesn’t let us settle easily. This is the flip side of line one. We might expect the righteous to gain wealth by righteousness, but no. The righteous here couldn’t be bothered listing any possession at all.

Instead, the contrast with ‘no profit’ is ‘deliver from death.’ Is this meant to be a profit? And what kind of death does it mean? And – going back to acts of wickedness – are we meant to see that the unjust treasure is actually the fear of death? Perhaps the wicked possess gold as a foolish way to ignore their own impending death: how pitiful they are!

After reading this one proverb – just one! – we get a reminder of some straightforward advice. But so much more happens, and God puts so many more questions before us. We are meant to ponder and consider and enjoy the creativity of the saying. We cannot claim that we have exhausted the meaning of the text, not even of a single proverb.