Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Medieval Misconceptions: Did Pope John XXI Really Ban Gravity?

Plato debates Aristotle (right) in Raphael's
The School of Athens (1509-1510) Source: Photopin

When people learn that the Medieval period is my favourite period in history I can usually tell what they’re thinking without them even saying it. Why would anybody want to study a period that was so intellectually and culturally stagnant? Unfortunately the popular image of the Middle Ages is often filled with misconceptions (which is actually what makes it so interesting to study). This post is the first in an irregular series in which I will examine popular misconceptions about the Middle Ages and try to shed light on reality. 
The Myth: Pope John XXI (1215-1277) condemned the laws of physics as heresy.

Popularised by: Stephen Hawking in his documentary, Curiosity: Did God Create the Universe?
The Story Goes: “Back in 1277, Pope John XXI felt so threatened by the idea of [unbreakable] laws of nature that he decreed them a heresy. Unfortunately that did nothing to change the law governing gravity. A few months later the palace roof collapsed and fell on the Pope’s head.”[1]

The Reality
Much of the documentary’s first half goes to great pains to emphasise the superiority of science over religion and superstition. This story serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when you allow “superstition” to govern your life instead of embracing science. That silly pope!

It’s also largely a distortion of the actual story.  

Monday, 21 July 2014

God's Forgotten Ones

Source: Photopin

I recently finished reading Blood Brothers, the biography of Elias Chacour, a Palestinian priest. It’s a roller-coaster ride that takes you from his childhood as a refugee, to his time studying abroad, to his challenges in parish ministry and political activism. When I finished it I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness as he pleaded with Western Christians not to judge his people. After all, it’s what we do right? I’ve seen many churches that have Israel’s flag next to a cross or their national flag, but I’ve never seen a church with a Palestinian flag in it. I’ve heard many Christians proclaim a deep love for the people of Israel, but I can’t remember the last time I heard Christians proclaim a deep love for the Palestinian people. Are not Palestinians made in the Image of God too? Did Jesus not die for them just as he died for “Jew and Gentile”? Does God not love them? I doubt any reasonable Christian would deny that God loves the Palestinians so why do we not show it? Why do we let them become God’s forgotten ones?

In my last post I urged people to not get fooled by simplistic narratives of the conflict. One of the most famous of these is that the conflict is an unavoidable conflict when Jews and Arabs/Muslims, East and West. But this narrative is challenged by the fact that in the early 1900s, Jews and Arabs had a fairly peaceful coexistence in Palestine. The narrative also ignores the 200,000 strong Christian community in the Holy Land.[1]

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Why Discussions Over the Israel-Palestine Conflict Go Wrong

"From the Pulpit" by Danny Hammontree

Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” – Joshua 5:13-14[1]

The world has looked on over the past week as Israeli military forces and Gazan militants have exchanged fire across the border. At the time of writing, at least 133 Palestinians have been killed and 950 injured, many of them civilians. It seems like another episode in the ongoing conflict in which neither side are willing to make concessions to ensure peace.

But there’s another battle going on a different front: social media. My newsfeed has been ablaze with impassioned posts of people who have chosen their side and are willing to fight to the virtual death to defend it.

The problem is that the cyberwar produces what I call the “highlights reel” of the conflict. Instead of getting a nuanced understanding of the conflict we end with a virtual one-upping of each other as both sides try to show that other side is worse. Pro-Palestine posters post pictures of children who have been injured by bombs, pro-Israel posters claim that the pictures are from other conflicts and that these posts are the work of “Pallywood” (all the while ignoring that whether these are photos are of actual Gazan children is irrelevant when children are actually dying in the conflict). It ends up being a case of whoever can argue the loudest “wins”.

Of course the Israel-Palestine conflict is not the only episode in history to fall victim to oversimplification. The ethno-nationalist conflict in Ireland is due to “Protestants and Catholics naturally hating each other”. Science and religion “have always been opposed”.[2] The Japanese tokkĊtai (kamikaze) pilots in World War 2 were “fanatical suicide bombers”. The problem with these oversimplifications is that they do a great disservice to the parties involved by ignoring the complex geopolitical and socioeconomic factors that lead to conflict and in doing so leave us with a wholly inaccurate picture of the nature of the conflict.