Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Author, the Arguments and the Overpriced Sandwich: My day at the Unbelievable? 2013 Conference

Surprised by Clive?

One of the few things perhaps more comic than watching a group of people politely, strategically edging past each other in one queue is watching a group of Christians politely, strategically edging past each other in another. 

This fact, while amusing, was easily the most useless bit of information gleaned at this year’s Unbelievable? The Conference, held last weekend in London. The conference - based on the radio programme of the same name - was a one-day event dealing with various strands of apologetics (a clever sounding term defined as a rational defense of Christianity. Some apologists, of course, are more rational than others, but that’s probably a different point).

While keeping the annual focus on apologetics, this year’s conference was also bit different from the previous two - it had been given a rather sizeable C.S Lewis-edged theme. Actually, three of the nine seminars on offer in some way linked to the late, great and very clever writer. 

Incidentally, did you know C.S stands for Clive Staples? I’d probably have abbreviated that too. As it stands with the middle name Munster I'm more likely to sympathise.

Although I’d missed the past two years of conferencing due to my own various failings, 2013, I decided, would be different, and so on the Friday my friend Claire and I shouldered our rucksacks; found them rather heavy; dropped them; rubbed our shoulders a bit; picked them back up and hopped on on to a nine-hour bus ride to London.

In some ways, traveling so far to hear arguments for theism a little pointless - the bus journey made the existence of hell, at least, pretty darn clear. Repent and believe, for Megabus desires to sift you as wheat.

Somehow, we survived. Claire and I wandered into the The Brewery, the locale of the event (very posh - bowler hats and all) the next day, still smuggling in some of the residue from our Tesco breakfast. We took our seats at the front of the auditorium and began to sweep the room with our eyes, looking for some of the speakers with largely the same subtlety as Lazenby’s Bond. We watched the conference room began to pack out.

Keynotes and Queues

A little after ten, Justin Brierley, the presenter of the whole thing, took to the stage and  thanked us all for coming. The powerpoint above his head wincingly proclaimed that it was ‘unbelievably good to see us’. 

(Justin hosts the aforementioned Unbelievable? radio programme  - a weekly show on iTunes that generally takes the form of a ninety-minute dialogue on some aspect of the God debate. There. Recommended.)

After giving us his words of welcome, our beaming anchor invited the keynote speaker Alister McGrath to switch places with him and give his opening address: “Joy, Meaning, and Purpose: What our culture needs to hear from Christians”. 

Alister has debated  Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett (to differing degrees of success, in my un-learned opinion); he’s written books both theological and apologetical, most recently, the biography the weekend's best friend: C.S Lewis: A Life.  
Here, he was on form. after telling the crowd it was ‘unbelievably’ good to see us - this time the wincing was mostly mine - he then began to work through his material cogently and thoroughly.  

I did have one criticism, it has to be said: I found myself continually distracted by the fact Alister seemed to be addressing a patch of air several feet above our collective heads.

Such a minor foible of his address was, however, exactly that. After Alister was finished and then applauded, he switched places with Justin again who started to tell the crowd where the seminars we could choose from were located in the building. His choosing of words were at his peril: the final syllable of ‘limited spacing’ had barely escaped his face before the assembled Christians began to rise from their chairs and, very civilly, started to storm to the room of their preferred speaker. 

It was only to be expected, in a way. One of the perks of being interested in a fairly niche area is that it’s easy to meet your heroes and only slightly more difficult to make a fool of yourself in front of them.

“How rude!”, I noted to Claire, as we half-stormed up a ramp to the far left of the hall, therefore strategically avoiding the throng advancing up the stairs. “He hadn’t even finished speaking!” I vented, morally indignant, as we squeezed into an already crammed lift that cut a few paces off our journey and boosted us ahead of most of the crowd.

I may, as in previous blogs, be exaggerating a little. Despite all my valiant hypocrisy, we were still some of the very last few to throng into the Queen Charlotte room and land in a couple of chairs facing Peter S. Williams and his booted-up slides.

The title of Peter’s seminar, "If C.S Lewis met Dawkins", was really an offshoot from the second Lewis-orientated publication of the day, "C.S Lewis vs the New Atheists", an evaluation of the recent critiques of Christianity based from the writings of Clive (or, if you were his friend, Jack. I don't know why) himself. While admittedly I haven’t even gotten as far as opening a copy of William's book, his talk stood on its own, giving a rebuttal of Dawkins’ self-contradictory - from Peter's perspective - positions on ethics, free will and so forth. Regardless of what you think of Peter’s conclusions, it’d be hard to deny he has done his homework and then a little more recommended reading over supper. His quotes cited within the hour, for example, ranged from Dawkins’ most impressively-sized texts to a recent interview done with Playboy magazine. 

Stories and Studies

After some question and answer, seminar one closed and a coffee break began. After some tea and biscuits (I like to stick it to the schedule) the coffee break closed and seminar two began. 

This time, there wasn’t nearly as much of a rush for us. We’d decided to stay in the comfortably large main hall and listen to Alister McGrath take on round two with his talk CS Lewis, The Storyteller

I appreciated this one in an entirely different way I had Peter’s: as an English/Journalism/Creative Writing/Procrastination/Hot-drinks-consuming student, apologetics has always seemed cursorily at best linked to my studies. Alister’s point that Lewis would employ narrative and argument to drive his points home to different audiences was a good one, and one that had never really crossed my mind. 

"Using our imaginations", Alister said, if Claire's notes tell me true, "is not inventing faith, but faith has the ability to captivate imaginations"

Maybe not all that obvious when you peruse the fiction section of your nearby Christian bookstore but in theory still a valid point. 

 I’m not claiming McGrath's talk 'changed my life', 'blew my mind', ' 'turned my world upside down' or so forth, but in what he'd discussed lay some points I’d never really picked up on before - a feeling kind of like when someone gently points out the solution to a puzzle that seems horribly easy only ten seconds after it's been solved.

While my writing, not to mention this blog, dips and ascends in quality from a week-to-week basis depending on amount of time spent and caffeine in my system, it was nice to see something that linked to what I study and know I can do. Words, after all, is things I'm more good at than some stuff.

Seating and Sandwiches

After seminar two came lunch, which I won’t dwell on longer than to say that if an establishment charging so much for a sandwich that I can buy another ticket on the Bus of Doom after two and a half purchases, you should probably rethink a thing or two. 

There was another quick welcome back  from Justin in the main auditorium before the third and final set of seminars were set to start. As we walked back in, I had a stroke of what seemed, maybe not genius but at least genius' estranged cousin. I turned to Claire.

“Let's sit at the very back. When people start to rush we can stand and stroll to the door and still beat the crowd.” 

And so we sat squinting at the stage which had gone from being this close:

To this close:

Welcoming and announcements being again made, for the second time Justin got as far as something along the lines of ‘final set of seminars’ before the mass of justified saints began to stand and civilly bound for the door. Before I even realised what was happening, actually, there were a good a hundred people past us and out to our prime choices of seats. Darn it.

Still, we did manage to get to where we wanted to go. Since we attended all the seminars on Lewis thus far, we thought it would’ve been amiss not to complete our strange trilogy and listen to Amy Orr-Ewing broach her topic - C.S Lewis and suffering

Really, however, save from a couple quotations, Amy mainly stuck to the problem of suffering and left Clive out the picture. Both understandable and wise, perhaps, seeing as she hasn’t recently written several hundred pages on the man. Besides, the problem of suffering is such a huge discussion without him being mentioned and is seen by many as the strongest argument against theism. Instead, Amy walked through various responses of other world-views to the problem of suffering before giving a response from a Christian perspective. 

Personally, I found it the most difficult of the seminars to follow and could've done with a few slides, but this talk was, by far, the most well received by the audience. The murder in Woolwich earlier this week had already been brought up one or two points during the day already and both times the effect on the audience was obvious - smiles falling from faces, downcast eyes, collective sighs a hundred people. What was to some people primarily ‘news’ was, to them, hurt. Here was a talk that while to me perhaps raised less points than the other two, yet the points raised were the ones most needed to be heard for many. To those same people this seminar undoubtedly the most important part of the day.

Panels and Presuppositions

For a final time, we were back in the main auditorium for a panel discussion, in which I would’ve perhaps liked to see more interaction between the speakers. From what I remember, questions from the audience were responded to in standalone answers, and made the thing feel as though if you had put each speaker in an isolated booth you would’ve been given the same answers which to me defeats the purpose of a roundtable conversation in the first place. 

That aside, the questions asked were varied, challenging and of a surprisingly high quality - to the annoyance of the woman to my right I kept murmuring 'ah, course' and 'good point' as the microphone was swept around the hall like the weapon of a serial approver.

Then the final question was asked, answered and the whole thing was over. We were for a final time thanked (no Punbelievables were made), then the crowd started to gradually stream out the exits. 

Claire and I wandered out of The Brewery and back to the hotel, chatting between ourselves about how we'd thought the day had gone. We’d both, like the majority of the crowd, had seemed to have gotten a lot out of the conference as a whole with a few personal quibbles that we'd have liked to bring up had we had more time. 

The fact that these quibbles were all so slight did raise for me a larger critique of the day. I am, as a rule, terribly biased and horribly aware of it, and it would have been nice if alongside speakers who I knew shared the majority of my views, there had been a track of seminars devoted to two speakers debating an issue, even if such an topic was an inter-Christian debate. 

While perhaps less straightforward to organise, it would have been more in the spirit of the Unbelievable show which bases itself upon the idea that truth can be seen in views being respectfully batted back and forth in dialogue. 

Also, it might have been be a good idea attach seat-belts to the chairs only to be unclipped once the presenter has finished with everything he wants to say. At least by idiots like me.

                     For more of my bus-angst, go here.
                                    To read about my journey as a coffee-wielding insulting maniac, go here.
                                                    Or, if you're still not out the studying woods, here are some entirely unhelpful personal tips.

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