Mister Crankypants, Marriage Counselling Services

So… I’m sitting in a bar having a quiet ale, as one does. Through the door steps an older man and immediately I transform. Goodbye, “Isn’t it great to take a break on a Friday night”; hello, Mister Crankypants.

“Pourqui?” my French readers ask. “What is it about this sweet looking, little old fellow that raises your ire? Is it his short, grey hair and neatly trimmed moustache? His conservative clothes? Or perhaps it’s the cap he’s holding in his hand as he goes begging from table to table?”

Yep, it’s the last one.

Now, those of you who know me even moderately well would affirm I’m not completely without compassion. Surely the man with cap in hand distresses me because it’s a sign of society’s indifference which reduces an older man to such desperate measures?

Not so. You see, the cap is part of this man’s uniform, his Salvation Army uniform.

I wonder what goes through the mind of the average, beer drinking Aussie’s mind when fronted by the man from the Salvos? “Would you like to make a donation, my friend?” (I kid you not: “my friend”.)

Watching this fellow work the room, I am struck by the generosity with which he is received; lots of people fish out coins or notes and drop them in the proffered cap. “Why?” I wonder.

Perhaps people give generously for no other reason than they are generous. Perhaps if a bloke in a gorilla suit came in collecting for Wife Beaters Australia they would just as readily dip their hands in their pockets. Or not.

Perhaps they give because it’s the Salvos and everybody knows the Salvos do good work. Except, of course, the Salvos don’t do any better work than anybody else. Yes, they run charity shops and provide blankets to the homeless but so do the Catholic Church, the Anglicans and the Baptists and innumerable other organisations.

Perhaps people give to the Salvos because they did extraordinary things during the Second World War. How amazing that they turned up on the Kokoda Track during the Australian Army’s retreat, offering food, blankets and fags! No matter this took place seventy years ago; the Sallies have a rep so why not trade on it?

Perhaps – and I really hope this is not the case – they give because the sight of a God-fearing man entering a den of iniquity induces guilt and off-loading a couple of spare bucks eases their consciences.

Whichever of these it may be, or even some other reason I haven’t yet thought of, somehow I find it distasteful, bordering on deceitful that a religious organisation plunders the pubs in this manner. I suspect, however, that it may just be me being Mister Crankypants.

After the poor, confused chap has backed away from my table, something else disconcerting takes place. Crowded establishment; do I mind sharing my table with a young couple? Of course not. Perhaps I’m trying to redeem myself for having bitten the quite-possibly-innocent beggar.

Chit chat ensues. No, I haven’t eaten so I can’t comment on the quality of the food. He heads for the bar with menu in hand, and I begin preparing to make my exit. For benefit of the girl I make one of my typically not-humorous attempts at humour: “Is it safe to leave you on your own?”

Mistaking my meaning, “Oh, yes. He’s my boyfriend. We’ve been together for ages.” Cue a conversation about relationships, which somehow or other descends rapidly to, “He’s changing. He says he’s going somewhere and it turns out he’s gone somewhere else. He’s staying out later and he’s started smoking more and drinking more.”


I’m not a counsellor. I can recognise an accident just waiting to happen, but I’m not the man you want in an emergency. What can I possibly say or do in this situation? I hope and pray my fumbling attempts at guiding her towards communicating with this bloke about her fears don’t make things worse for them.

For crying out loud: it’s a pub on a Friday night! I’m not Jesus. I’m not at ease with people in pain, nor am I gracious with people who make me uncomfortable.

Does this mean I have to come back next Friday night?

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~b and the curse of Matilda

Matilda told such dreadful lies
It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.
Her aunt, who from her earliest youth
Had held a strict regard for truth,
Attempted to believe Matilda.
The effort very nearly killed her!

Is it really more than twelve months since I set metaphorical foot in this space?

Over at The Aspirational Agnostic there have been some fairly serious allegations of Matilda-ing.  To read it as it happened, I suggest you head over to The Aspirational Agnostic – just try not to let your head explode as you take in the comments following TAA’s story.

The bit I’m interested in is how to create space in which dialogue can take place, rather than blind argument.  An allegation of Matilda-ing immediately shuts such a space down: lack of trust has many faces but none of them has open ears.

I’ve recently finished reading Islam and the future of tolerance: a dialogue, a fabulous conversation between the well-known and respected atheist Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim who was but is no longer an extremist.  The book offers many valid and useful criticisms of Islamic fundamentalism which turn out to be just as valid criticisms of certain expressions of Christianity.  However, the thing which strikes me most is the careful consideration of the suffix –ism.*  Nawaz and Harris specifically distinguish between Islam and Islamism.  The –ism is seen as an ideological insistence that all people must accept the dictates of Islam combined with the explicit understanding that the use of force is an acceptable means of achieving that end.

A different example of this kind of religious –ism is the culture which developed in Japan in the period leading up to the Second World War; there, Emperor worship combined with a skewed understanding of their samurai past led the Japanese to believe it was both acceptable and necessary to rule over the other nations of Asia.  Cue Pearl Harbor, the fall of Singapore, the Burma railroad, and the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  Where people insist that all others must conform to their ideology then there can be no discussion and no tolerance.

This dialogue between atheist Harris and Muslim Naawaz beautifully serves to illustrate tolerance at the same time providing a useful definition of in-tolerance. Neither the atheist nor the Muslim insists that the other has to relinquish their underlying beliefs before they can engage in discussion; neither assumes the right to impose on the other.  Neither of them is guilty of –ism.

Which drags me – albeit unwillingly – back to the vexed question of whether or not it’s possible to be a fundamentalist atheist.  (A topic argued heatedly elsewhere in this blog as well as over at The Aspirational Agnostic.)

Fundamentalist Christians insist that others must conform to their worldview; fundamentalist Muslims ditto.  What then do we call atheists who do the same?  How are people of faith – however misguided or unhelpful that faith might be – to interpret the actions of people without faith who absolutely insist that everyone else must agree one hundred percent with them?

If a Christian or a Muslim posted “this is what will happen when you choose to stop allowing me to comment truthfully on your site: I will introduce your deceit and dishonesty to a wider audience…” we would  dismiss it as an illustration of religious intolerance, of fundamental-ism.  However, these are the words of an atheist, a person who claims the voice of rationality but who is just as prone to irrationality as the rest of us.  And that’s because none of us is perfect, none of us escapes the human desire to beat our “enemies”, none of us is immune to faulty logic and prejudiced reasoning.  Regardless of our high ideals or the intellectual rigour we think we exercise, we’re all susceptible to –ism.

The funny/tragic part about the comments on TAA’s blog is that they embody the very quality they seek to criticise: blind prejudice.  The funny aspect is that her harshest critic, the one who most vehemently accuses her of telling porkies, ~b simply can’t allow space for TAA’s story to vary from his own; his atheist arguments simply must be accepted by all parties.  The voice of intellectual tolerance is in-tolerant.  The tragic part is that ~b has a useful contribution to make but his –ism means others turn him off (much as we turn off the shouting ads on TV) and miss his valid criticisms.

The tragic story of Matilda “who told such dreadful lies” takes an unexpected twist.  In Hillaire Belloc’s tale, Matilda is ignored with fatal consequences:
For every time she shouted “Fire!”
They only answered “Little Liar!”

However, in TAA’S tale,
Every time ~b shouts “big, fat liar!”
They only answer “I see no fire.”


*  Not that I condone fascism, or any -ism for that matter.  -Ism’s in my opinion are not good.  A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.   I quote John Lennon, ‘I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.’. Good point there.   After all, he was the walrus. 

Ferris Bueller

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Now this is worth a read!

Somebody read it, so they shared it with someone else who passed it on, until in the mysterious way of things, an email appeared in my inbox, and I read it.

Now I want you to read it!

Stop saying the Church is dying

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Who would Jesus drink coffee with?

Scene: a busy Melbourne coffee shop

A man wearing a tag for the International Conference of Jehovah’s Witnesses sits down next to me.

Me:    Excuse me. I don’t mean to be rude but I thought Jehovah’s Witnesses weren’t allowed to drink coffee?

Well, it turns out some do and some don’t. Some drink beer and some don’t. Some support Tottenham Hotspur and some are going to hell. Actually it was the last one that was the clincher.

My newfound JW friend and I embarked on a rapid-fire journey of discovery covering everything from the Peace of Westphalia and the Anabaptists to the place of Jurgen Klinsmann as a Spurs icon. We touched on comparative religion, the significance of good coffee, the Great Ocean Road, my grandfather, his parents, Etihad Stadium, history, the Watchtower, the distance from Munster to White Hart Lane by plane, and the clearing up of misconceptions.

And all because I was rude enough to ask if he was allowed to drink coffee! I must try this more often.

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Welcoming the stranger: just how welcome?

I came across this article Welcoming the stranger

And I immediately thought of the comments Heather and I passed backwards and forwards on refugees/aliens/illegal immigrants in the Fundamentalisms thread.

Shane Claiborne’s position is pretty close to mine, which is not surprising given that he references Matthew 25 (“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”): for me, that pretty much encapsulates everything we need to understand about the life of faith.  How will history judge us when it comes to how we welcome those who are strangers in our midst?

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A few years ago I was associated with a group of “progressive christians” – the labelling was entirely theirs. They were an intelligent, passionate mob, keen on Jack Spong, Karen Armstrong, Gretta Vosper, and other thinkers of like mind. But here’s the thing: these folk were not only “progressive christians”; they were actually “fundamentalist progressive christians”. That is, they sincerely believed that if everyone else believed what they believed Continue reading

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Which came first? (A reflection on Acts 9:1-20)

I’ve just returned from a few days in Sydney. Strange place, Sydney. Amongst a whole variety of interesting experiences, two stand out. The first? Apparently a young woman travelled all the way from Israel just to bail me up in Hornsby shopping centre in order to sell me nail care products. (And if you would like to know more about my new nail care regimen, please form an orderly queue after the service.) The second interesting experience. Same shopping centre. My phone beeps with a message. The message says:  Image  Now the first thing that came to mind is that I’m not Pete. The second thing was, “How do I respond to this message?” How do I respond? “Easy,” you reply. “Just send something like this – Continue reading

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