Saturday, 21 May 2016

Archiving The Internet

This post is mostly a shout-out to Dark0ne over on Nexus for some rescue work he is doing, but underlying that is a serious concern about social history.

As regular readers will be aware I am currently working through sermon notes, amongst other things, for a preaching series taking a fresh look at St. Paul's New Testament letter to the Galatian churches. Our understanding of 1st-Century writings, especially the New Testament, has been transformed by discoveries over the past half-century or so of ancient documents showing what life was like in those times. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a well-known example, of course, but there have been many more documents found, less well-known but still giving important insights.

Meanwhile archivists are struggling to read records saved - 'permanently' - to various forms of tape and optical disk archive just a few decades ago.

An important part of late-twentieth and, especially, early twenty-first century social interraction on the Internet has been various forms of modding communities. Modding is where users of computer games create their own additional material: sometimes just fixes for problems that the original game creators considered too minor (or hard) to fix; sometimes minor changes to the appearance of in-game entities; occasionally even significant amounts of extra content, such as new areas or new quests. A lot of this modding was done (is still done, if it comes to that) for free, as a way of sharing enjoyment and as a way of gaining appreciation and reputation. Around these game changes grew discussion groups for commenting on them, seeking guidance about how to solve technical problems, and just general chit-chat.

From a social history point of view this sort of thing is invaluable as a record of how the Internet, including its various forms of 'social media', developed. But's it's also important material for economists and others as there is often no money involved, yet modders spend ludicrous amounts of time and effort creating their work, which they then share openly. I've shared a couple of short quest/story mods myself, for Dragon Age - the work involved for even small mods was stunning; I can't even begin to imagine what some of the largest mods would have taken. Inevitably there will be other reasons in future for wanting a record of such things that we can't even imagine at present.

So I consider it wonderful that Nexus, and Dark0ne in particular, are transferring mods, including their attached information, from the once-massive but now closed modding site FileFront across to the Nexus network itself.
"Back in the middle of 2015, quietly shut the doors to its various gaming hub sites (which were much like Nexus sites for game mods back in their hayday in the early to mid 2000s). Over the past few years File Front was extremely out-dated, slow or outright broken in many areas, lacking some TLC that it needed despite still having an active contingent of core users who still frequented their forums. ... 
As a result, we’ve been working to save as many files from the File Front sites as possible and finding the best method to port them into our Nexus system. As File Front sites were largely like Nexus sites are now in terms of structure, we felt that focusing on the File Front files side of things would be in everyone’s best interest. The focus wasn’t just on not losing the files, but on saving the category structure, screenshots, file descriptions and author information that is actually what made the original File Front sites usable and easier to navigate for the games they supported. ... 
We don’t expect these sites to be popular or demanding on our servers, but I couldn’t sit and idly watch tens of thousands of mods for games I grew up with be lost to the internet forever."
Nice one, Dark0ne!

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Is There A Biblical Definition Of Marriage?

The short answer is, no there's not. And anyone who tells you there is probably hasn't bothered to read and think about the Bible for themselves.

There is, of course, a longer answer which is rather more nuanced, but first let's dispose of the commonly quoted reference to Genesis chapters 1 and 2, right at the beginning of the Bible, mentioned by Jesus in chapter 19 of Matthew's account of the Gospel.
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. ... Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
The '...' in the middle of that quote covers a lot of ground, including: "The Lord God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.' So the point of the story in Genesis is that a man and his wife are partners, working together, to the extent that they can be called 'one flesh'. No direct mention of 'marriage' let alone a definition thereof.

Another point before I move onto the New Testament: the passage itself doesn't say whether the relationship it describes is exclusive, normative or illustrative. In other words: is one man plus one wife the only possible relationship which can be described as one flesh; is it the usual relationship which can be so described, with other options available as well; or is it just one example out of many possibilities.

If the relationship described corresponds to marriage then it is clear that in the Bible the 'one flesh' description does not just apply to one man plus one woman.

Consider the case of Jacob, Leah and Rachel in Genesis chapter 29. Jacob is conned into marrying Laban's eldest daughter Leah, when he loves (and was promised) Rachel. So he works for Laban for another seven years, then marries Rachel too. One man plus one woman ... plus another woman. The Bible still describes it as marriage. Hence 'one man plus one woman' may be a common pattern for marriage but it is not the only configuration in the Bible.

Jesus does apply the 'one flesh' idea to marriage and divorce, concluding: "So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." But, importantly, he says nothing to indicate that 'one man plus one woman' is in any way a Scriptural definition of marriage. Just that 'one flesh' is intended to be for life (although even that might be broken due to 'hardness of heart', according to Jewish Law).

It's worth highlighting that Jesus explicitly said that he did not come to change anything in the Jewish Law (Genesis through Deuteronomy in our Bibles), but rather to fulfil it. So you cannot claim that Genesis 1 and 2 are okay but chapter 29 is somehow nullified by Jesus. Either all apply or none.

Paul also references the 'one flesh' passage from Genesis, in chapter 6 of his first letter to the church at Corinth:
Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.”
So Paul takes the Genesis reading as also covering prostitution, not just marriage. Is prostitution only ever one man and one woman? Hardly! In Paul's day, as now, there were prostitutes available for any permutation of men and women that could be imagined. All would appear to be covered by Paul's horror at uniting Jesus' body (ie members of the local church) with prostitutes (quite likely temple prostitutes, in Corinth) as 'one flesh'.

So a definition of 'Biblical marriage' as exclusively one man and one woman simply does not exist in the Bible. There are other patterns described as marriage in the Bible and there are other applications of the 'one flesh' description which are definitely not marriage.

However, there are Biblical patterns for how marriage is meant to be if you look for them, focussing on the type and quality of relationship.

The first is mentioned above: that marriage corresponds to a strong partnership of two people working together in God's world. The 'two' in that statement has all the weaknesses mentioned above, but probably works well enough if it is treated as normative: the usual pattern. Sticking with normative it is reasonable to add that marriage generally involves some form of sexual relationship, based on the way Paul applies the 'one flesh' image.

The second part of the pattern is given by Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ." Marriage is about serving one another, not being self-centred but other-centred. Paul uses the 'one flesh' reference in this passage too, applying it to Jesus and the church.

So the Biblical pattern for marriage is about partnership and service: serving God together and serving one another. Simples!

Saturday, 7 May 2016

The Story Of Jesus' Body

 Church as people
When they had come together, the disciples asked Jesus, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’  When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. (Acts 1:6-9)

I have a fairly visual imagination and I have to say that I find that final image in the Ascension story really unhelpful. It brings to my mind Flash Gordon, or maybe James Bond in Thunderball with his jetpack: Whooooosh!

That's not an picture I find helpful or relevant to what is going on at Jesus' ascension. So maybe another way to look at it is to tell the story - briefly - of Jesus' body from beginning to end.

“In the beginning was the Word,” we are told, “and the Word was with God and the Word was God … all things were made through him.” We start the story with Jesus not having a body at all – indeed with there not even being a universe to put a body in! God made everything with Jesus, including space and time. Where was God when he did this, if there was no space? When did he do it, if time didn't yet exist? Welcome to the head-exploding world of General Relativity – invented by God, described by Albert Einstein!

If that’s not head exploding enough, how about that Word – the one who helped create the whole space-time universe – suddenly appearing inside that universe, localised to a tiny helpless baby! Jesus now had a body, albeit one that was small and terribly fragile in the grand scheme of things. Somehow this whole impossible mystery gets glossed over every Christmas, but it's a reminder that we really shouldn't expect to be able to get our heads around everything God does -he's just too big and too wonder-full.

The baby Jesus grows up, teaches, makes friends, gets to know people, then he’s killed, on a cross. So, how can you kill God? How come the universe kept going that weekend when Jesus wasn't around? And so on; I hope you're getting the idea that if it doesn't make your brain hurt you're not really understanding the story.

Jesus’ dead body is laid in a tomb, and a rock rolled across the front. But that first Easter Sunday Jesus’ friends came to his tomb and found the rock rolled away and the tomb empty. Later they met him, on a number of different occasions, in various different places. Jesus was alive; he had risen! His body is transformed but living; death is overcome, wrongdoing forgiven, the way to life is open to all.

The risen Jesus spent some time with his friends, but then he had to go away, to be lifted up and to disappear from sight in a cloud. Where did his body go? Presumably back to where he started – somewhere outside space and time … my head’s starting to hurt again.

Maybe a better question is why did Jesus have to go? Actually, Jesus had already told his friends this before he died (John 16:7) – he told them that he had to go so that the Holy Spirit could come. And we are told later in the Bible that the Holy Spirit is what unites Jesus’ followers into Jesus’ new body – one body: Jesus’ hands and heart, feet and voice.

We're having a baptism at St John's tomorrow, and when we baptise the child we will welcome her into the body of Christ, which is the church. Sometimes people say that the church is people, not a building; strictly speaking I think it is more accurate to describe the church as a building made up of people.

Finally, the story of Jesus’ body ends – or maybe comes to a new beginning – when Jesus returns, when we are all raised to a renewed world of justice and peace, and when there will be, we are told, the most amazing party, at the Wedding of the Lamb!

That's a brief whistlestop tour of the story of Jesus' body. I've thrown in various brain-bending questions as I go - if you are of a scientific bent I hope you found them entertaining. However there are a couple of more important questions which I believe arise from that story:-

Firstly, where do we fit into this story of Jesus body? Obviously if we're there at all (and I suspect we all are, somewhere) then we’re something to do with the part of the story where his body is his church, but where are we within that? Some of us are regular churchgoers – what is our place in Jesus’ body, what does it mean in our lives, day to day? But the same question is for those who do not go to church regularly, or even at all, where do you fit into Jesus’ body, and what does it mean in your life?

Tomorrow this will have special relevance in the context of the baptism of a child at St John's – everyone will be making various promises about the child and her place in that body: churchpeople, family, friends and wellwishers, parents and godparents. What is and will be the child's place within Jesus’ body, today, throughout her childhood, and beyond? And how can those present play their part in that? It’s something to ponder.

My second question is about what sort of God this is? What sort of God loves us all so much that he’ll do anything for us, even going through all this faffing about? The Word through whom the universe was made suddenly shrinking down to become a baby within that universe. The man walking the roads of Galilee and Judea, who dies on a cross for us, and is raised. But most of all perhaps, what sort of God would let the likes of us be His body? Flawed, messed up, dreadfully human people like you and me being Jesus’ body in the world? What sort of people would you trust to look after your body (Red Dwarf example springs to mind - bonus geek points if you give the episode in the comments below)? Who is this God and why does he care so much for us?

Not questions with simple answers, perhaps, and my answers are unlikely to be the same as yours. But I do hope that you find them questions worth pondering.

I also pray that everyone attending tomorrow's baptism, on this First Sunday After Ascension, may come to know deeply the love of God who will do anything for them (and you), and that through that love they (and you) will find their/your place in Jesus’ body, here in Caversham. there in your home town, and beyond.

Finally, a cake version of the picture at the beginning, what better way to finish could there be?

The Reason for Jesus' Ascension

Thursday, 21 April 2016

A Life With God

I went to a BRF quiet day on Tuesday, run by Daniel Wolpert, entitled Creating a Life With God, looking at contemplative practice. Being a BRF quiet day it was, of course, in beautiful surroundings, in this case the Carmelite Priory at Boars Hill near Oxford.

The day was divided into three sections. Each section began with a bit of theory from Daniel Wolpert, then a suggested exercise to put theory into practice, followed by time to go into the grounds and/or the small chapel to spend time in quiet.

The first section was an overview where he suggested that an important part of a young child's development is separating off their own identity by filtering out most of the sensory information which comes in and by strictly evaluating everything which does come in into good/bad, harmful/helpful.

There's a famous example of filtering in the following video, although it doesn't work so well when you know what it's about. Play the video in full-screen (if you can) and follow the instructions:

The trouble with all this filtering and evaluation is that it means that as adults we miss the vast majority of what goes on around us, including, often, what God is doing in and near our lives. So it can be helpful to practice opening up our 'awareness muscles'. The more we practice being aware of our surroundings, in a non-evaluating, non-judgemental way, the better we get; in particular the more control we get.

Our first exercise was simply to go out and be aware of what is around us, at the same time as pondering a question. He gave us three options for the question: "Whatever you want" is always his first option, "What has brought you here?" was his second, uncovering the many layers behind that seemingly simple question, and "What parable are you hearing in your life?"

That last one came with a clarification of the difference between a fable and a parable. A fable, such as "how the leopard got its spots", is a story which gives an answer to a question, closing it down, whilst a parable, such as the good Samaritan, opens up more questions (maybe this is one reason why so few retellings of Jesus' parables seem to work well).

So the "What parable are you hearing in your life" option was about opening up the questions we are living.

The idea was to set off with our chosen question in mind, whilst being open to all that is around us, and to all the thoughts which drift into our heads. Without judging or evaluating these we simply note them and gently bring our thoughts back to the chosen question.

Having arrived fairly frazzled I didn't achieve great wisdom in this, but that was fine. I did rather wonder why I am so much against stinging nettles. For me the whole day was very much about each session building on what had gone on before.

The second session was about silence and listening. Wolpert made a distinction between 'awareness' practices, which are open and expansive, and 'concentrated' practices, which have an object of focus.

He suggested we try focussing on a variation of the 'Jesus Prayer': "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me," which he linked to the story of blind Bartimeus, who called out to Jesus and kept on calling even when they told him to be quiet. When Jesus heard him he called Bartimeus over and said "What do you want me to do for you?"

Apparently the Jesus prayer is really good if you are lying awake at night unable to sleep, and when you are walking. I certainly found it worked well with walking at a slow pace through the grounds, saying the prayer with a nice steady rhythm. I found that the rhythm of the words gave space for awareness and thoughts, but chopped up any 'blocking' trains of thought to bring the focus back to Bartimeus' words ... and Jesus' question.

The final session was 'Sacred Reading: praying with Scripture'. In this case we did what is (apparently) a variation on the ancient practice of Lectio Divina:
  • Read the passage (or hear it read) and listen for words and phrases which catch your attention (Wolpert used the analogy of hyperlinks on a web page which are typically picked out by being blue and underlined).
  • Read the passage again and listen for an image: an idea, a thought, a memory, or a picture.
  • Read the passage again and rest in contemplation (or, in my case, walk in contemplation).
We did this on Jesus' parable of the sower, which ends with the disciples asking Jesus why he speaks in parables.

I spent time walking, open to the surroundings, saying the Jesus prayer and pondering the parable, especially that final question. Jesus frequently taught in parables; as an occasional preacher I usually work at unpacking Scripture: opening up context and connections, establishing its meaning then and application now. Why don't I teach in parables?

After we had shared our experiences Wolpert left us with a final thought: Scripture can be compared to a stained glass window. In the dark that window is nothing special, but shine sunlight through it and it wakes to life and beauty. Similarly the Bible on its own is not that special, but shine the light of God's Spirit through it and it transforms to a lifegiving gift from God.

I ended the day far less frazzled than I arrived, and with several ideas to ponder. It was well worth taking time out from work to go.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Windows 10 Missing Start Menu

Windows 10 has been around since July last year and is being heavily - not to mention heavy-handedly - pushed by Microsoft. Windows 10 is also decidedly flakey.

It's biggest problem at present is a tendency to fall over just after the monthly Windows update.

The commonest symptom I see is that clicking on the Start button (the Windows symbol bottom-left of the screen) does nothing. Then you realise that the search box next to it does nothing either. Then you find a variety of other symptoms which either stop or heavily interfere with your use of the computer. Then you curse Microsoft.

The trouble is that it looks as though that Start button is just a general weak link - a symptom which doesn't tell you much about its cause. Kind of like a headache can be anything from lack of sleep to an alien invader about to burst out of your brain (at least in theory).

So I thought I'd try to keep a record of a few fixes which have worked for me. Usual disclaimers: just because something worked for me doesn't mean it'll work for you; don't try doing technical stuff to your computer unless you know what you are doing; if it all goes wrong it is your responsibility - even if an alien chews it way out.
  1. The best place to start, IMHO, is with a check disk. Windows 10 doesn't like you doing these, for some reason, so you have to persuade it (at your own risk - see above). Open an Administrator level command window (if right-clicking the Start button still works the option is in there, otherwise right-click the taskbar and choose Task Manager; from there choose File/Run new task, type in CMD, tick the 'administrative privileges' box, and click OK). Once the black command window is open type into it (after making sure all your other programs are closed, as it will reboot):
    chkdsk /f C:
    shutdown -r -t 5
    As the computer restarts it should check drive C: for dodgy indexes and file links. When it returns to Windows see if the Start button is fixed.

  2. If that doesn't work, try getting Windows 10 to fix itself. Open that administrator command prompt again and this time type in:
    sfc /scannow
    This will take a while to run. At the end it will either tell you it has succeeded or failed; either way it might be lying, so reboot and see if anything has changed.

  3. If there is still no improvement, try this more comprehensive version. Open that administrator command prompt again and this time type in:
    dism /online /cleanup-image /scanhealth
    dism /online /cleanup-image /checkhealth
    dism /online /cleanup-image /restorehealth
    sfc /scannow
    One of those first two lines is probably unnecessary, but the second is very quick, so you might just as well do both. These will take ages to run. At the end it will still either tell you it has succeeded or failed; either way it still might be lying, so reboot and see if anything has changed.

  4. Finally, for now, a combination of Dropbox and a Windows update can horribly break the Registry. When I came across this it had the additional symptom of popping up a box when you click on the Start button telling you there is a critical error which it will try to fix next time you log in. Of course it fails.

    I did two things to fix this: a system restore back to before the latest Windows Update, then I uninstalled Dropbox, rebooted, and it all worked again. I have no idea whether the system restore was necessary, but that's what I tried first.

    For those interested in technical details, it seems that somehow the Dropbox had corrupted the user classes segment of the registry, such that it failed to load in the general classes when you log in (so in Regedit, under HKCU/SOFTWARE/Classes you just end up with a few Dropbox classes and very little else). It seems that Windows 10 assumes everything is present in this part of the registry when it runs, so if the general system-level classes are missing it fails in weird ways. When you uninstall Dropbox it undoes the damage to the user classes so Windows 10 can load in the system classes again.
Somehow I get the feeling this problem is going to run and run, so I'll add extra fixes as I find them. If you have found a different fix for this which worked for you, please add it as a comment so that others can learn from your experience.