Good Morrow my flock. Many of my congregation have asked if the sin of idolatry is still relevant in our modern age. The scriptures say taking images is akin to the devil’s work, yet photography can be an innocent pastime, a hobby, and even a living (unless you are Billy Piper’s Dad, then it is a sin punishable by castration). In this golden age it seems photography has no moral restrictions, except when taking shots of aircraft in Greece, industrial complexes in Iraq, or direct access to Chuck Berry’s webcam. Then you face state censorship, the full weight of the court system, accusations of improper behaviour, and the need for a lifetime supply of toilet tissue.
On our fair and pleasant isle, we have certain rights. The data protection act 1998 gives exemptions (except to the Church, oddly enough) so we may enjoy the freedom to take photographs in public. However, the lack of any coherent privacy laws has resulted in complicated grey areas. and the courts decide whether ‘Hello’ or the Zeta-Joneses have the right to say what is ripe for public consumption and what is crap. The Almighty doesn’t get a look in.
Anyone can photograph anybody or anything, with certain exceptions relating to national security, public decency, or a weird
interpretation of homespun pornography. Like homemade porn, it’s what you do with the material that gets you into court, rather than the lame poses or bad lighting. Taking pictures and related objections to the process are a civil matter, unless defined by the justice system as criminal, as in matters of national security. So where does God figure in all this I hear you ask? Well, the Lord made it pretty clear where he stood on reproducing images, unlike the Data Protection Act:
Exodus 20:4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness [of any thing] that [is] in heaven above, or that [is] in the earth beneath, or that [is] in the water under the earth.
Leviticus 26:1 Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up [any] image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: For I [am] the LORD your God.
Deuteronomy 4:16 Lest ye corrupt [yourselves], and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female.
Isaiah 42:17 They shall be turned back, they shall be greatly ashamed, that trust in graven images.
Now, I know what you’re about to say, the scriptures are nothing like the 1998 Data Protection Act. They make sense for one thing. But kneel and pray with me my flock, and all will be revealed, for there is a dichotomy here that deserves my ecumenical inspection.
The act of taking photographs of strangers in public expects the observation of certain guidelines (that’s the 1998 Act). If you want to remain within the boundaries of man’s laws, you are advised to follow what is set out in these guidelines. As most photography is digital, and the storage of images transferred by computer, the 1998 Act can be used as a blunt censorship tool to beat everyone, should the authorities so choose. There are exemptions, as stated above, but generally one must follow certain rules:
1.The direct written consent of the subject in a model disclosure form (try that when your videocam is discovered on top of the wardrobe or hidden in a motorcycle helmet). 2.The photographer has to take reasonable steps to advise those in shot he intends to take a picture, giving anyone who does not want to be in frame time to get out of the way (remember this when taking a snap of an altercation outside a night club at 3am). 3.If an individual is recognisable in a crowd shot, model consent must again be sought (difficult to obtain during that 3am punch up). 4.The photographer must identify where the image is going to be used (“Oi mate, smile for chavscum.com!” or “Diana luv, strike a pose for the RAC!” That sort of thing). 5.General crowd shots are okay, until someone decides they weren’t consulted, but even then they’ll have a hard job making it stick. 6.Stock photography will only accept consented images, and the consent has to extend to web as well as video.
Many of my congregation have asked for God’s forgiveness of late. I have heard confessions of woe and troubles,
mainly relating to man’s interpretation of the Scriptures rather than the Data Protection Act, and whilst I applaud this
return to secular fundamentalism, I am deeply concerned.
Late last week the rights of one of my congregation, a journalist photographer who qualifies for exemption under the
act, were challenged, not by the law, but by God. Traffic PC Plod Frazer Chamberpot thought it a good idea to get his Chief Inspector to write an apology to a member of the press, saying sorry for the secular belief that he could bypass the judiciary and make the rules up as he went along, arresting anyone he disagrees with on aesthetic, moral or decency grounds. Whilst I applaud Chamberpot’s dedication to God’s good words, I fail to see his case for idolatry...
Having read the 1998 Data Protection Act twice (the second time with matchsticks wedged between my eyelids), I cannot locate where it is written that this law is to be enforced by the Salvation Army. Similarly, having read the Bible many times over, I do not see where it is written that God’s commandments on idolatry should be enforced by the Milton Keynes Traffic Police. I will pray for the soul of El Commandant Frazer ‘Robocop’ Chamberpot, and ask for Gods forgiveness on his behalf.
“Forgive them father, for they know not that they have sinned.” As if.
You’ve Never Had It So Good!
As I was thinking of a suitable sermon the other day, my mind drifted onto the subject of my personal
space. This space is my line drawn in the sand, as opposed to ‘Myspace’, which is not really mine at all
(a yank called Tom owns it). My space is my own refuge, the place where I take a moral stand against
the world, whereas ‘Myspace’ has its own morality, as a fantasy world within cyber space.
So what happens when my personal space and Myspace collide?
As a respected Reverend I prefer to make new friends the traditional way, the kind of parishoners you are introduced to in social situations, at church, friends of friends within the congregation, colleagues, and similar acquaintances. One can be sure these friends come with some form of recommendation, references of good character. If not, one may make judgements from their actions, or the behaviour of those they’re acquainted with. These are the unwritten rules that govern my personal space.
Myspace, on the other hand, has no rules. Recently I found out, to my amusement, that one must apply the same codes of conduct to the cyber world one would expect in the real world. This revelation was slow in coming, the writing being on-screen and not, biblically, on the wall.
My life does not evolve around cyber interaction. I dip into the www from time to time, but it is not my only outlet for personal communication. Like many others I have a page on Myspace, and, like most people, receive friend requests and send them myself from time to time. Occasionally one gets to meet exotic and lively people. Like Brenda from Manchester who, at the ripe old age of 42, has decided to become an internet porn queen, flashing her shaved privates to an unsuspecting public from the privacy of her council estate in Sale. Then there is Brad from Bournemouth along with his ‘squeeze’ Chantelle, who seriously believe they are the chav Ron Jeremy and Jenna James, ‘coming’ live from a badly decorated Barratt hovel in a quaint seaside town.
“Personal presentation is all”, as my dear old Mum would have said, but she would be rotating at maximum speed graveside if she saw what passes for entertainment on the net. Harold Macmillan said “you’ve never had it so good” when he spoke of the “wind of change”. Dear old Harold would be spinning with my mother if he could see where that wind has taken us. Personal presentation is no longer about clean shoes and fresh pants (should you get hit by a bus and need to be undressed by a stranger in hospital), but how you want to seem to be. In the cyberworld everyone can be whoever or whatever they wish. Which can be entertaining when the subjects are playing identity games, but alarming when oddballs and nuts pretend to be normal or sane.
The first Myspacer who raised my suspicions was an actress from Bolton. We met in the usual cyber way, a chance meeting, and after a couple of weeks exchanged photos and numbers so that we could hear each other’s voices, confirming our friendship in a more conventional way. At first it was interesting to see a bus stop in Bolton (fuck me, it really is grim up North!), but after a few conversations both of us realised we had nothing in common, other than a mild addiction to instant messaging. The friendship ended, we never spoke again, and I was content with this. I realised we had no shared social ground, so to speak, and I learned a valuable lesson; cyber friends are not real. They exist only as long as you want them to.
The next few online friendships started the same way. By now I was collecting friends like fairground goldfish, enjoying them for a day or so, then throwing them back. The speed, frequency and turnover of my new ‘friends’ outpaced my dumping them at the slightest provocation. I had so many I could cull them as I wished, keeping the pets that best suited my emotional needs. I was addicted, sucked in.
My ease in moving from messaging to online telephone conversations went unnoticed. Moving up a gear and investing in Skype, talk soon surpassed messaging, and I was resorting to a poor man’s 0898 call, occasionally tinged with an interesting dialogue on the marvel of new technology and “how big are your tits then?”
So when the offer to meet in the real world rears its ugly head you don’t think twice. At first this particular person looked normal, but after one meeting I discovered she had been rather ‘economical’ with the truth. Rather than being single, as she claimed, this girl not only lived with someone – much larger, wealthier and more obviously psychotic than most - she had a restraining order on another basketcase. I only discovered this when we met up and both (previously unmentioned) parties called her mobile continuously during our brief meeting, threatening to kill her, themselves, or a fluffy kitten. I bid her farewell, and resolved to avoid any further
The next exchange was my own fault. I used to have a mobile number at the end of my emails and I replied to an – apparently genuine - enquiry from a Myspacer wanting ecumenical advice. Within an hour I was being harassed on the phone. Advice became maniacal threats, and not only did he continuously call me, but we argued the whole time. It only stopped when I had my calls intercepted.
Then there was the stalker who turned sour when I refused to answer her mail, and started sending abusive messages instead. I blocked her, and ended it there, but was somewhat concerned for her sanity and what effect my actions might have had upon her emotional stability (a brief glance at her online poetry seemed to confirm she needed counselling).
These days I am very cautious about who I message and what I say, wary of the information I give out online. I also keep a mental note not to let Myspace fool me into thinking everyone on it is okay. Most Myspacers are normal, but unlike in the real world, you can’t always see the nutcases coming.
Two weeks ago I started an online conversation with another Myspace stranger. It turned out we only lived a short distance apart, even going to some of the same places. At first I was wary of meeting another oddball or sociopath, but she seemed sweet, even normal, and it took a while for me to realise her email address and real name were different. But not everyone uses their given name, so I didn’t think to ask why this was. We met one Sunday afternoon in a public space, more out of curiosity than anything else. There was no agenda, other than two strangers with a mutual hobby. At first she was good company, and as the afternoon progressed we discussed our backgrounds and associates.
Yet during that afternoon I learned a valuable lesson. Never, and I mean never ever, meet anyone in the real world
you only know through cyber space. I’ve read stories of middle-aged men in Alabama luring teenage girls to
offline carnal encounters, or sexual predators tricking young boys into white slave bondage, but I am a grown man
of the cloth and can look after myself. This meeting changed my view. It made me afraid, like a 13 year old boy
being groomed by a grocer.
My short-lived cyber pal turned out to have a history of mental illness. She told me she suffered from a multiple
personality disorder, and how there were two of her. I jokingly asked which one I was talking to, at which point she gave me a thousand-yard stare that froze my very soul. Suddenly I was very glad we were in a public space, for a few moments I actually feared for my well being. At that point I knew this woman was officially nuts, and had a history of nuttiness. Soon enough she was openly admitting she had recently ditched her psychiatrist and stopped taking the medication. I quickly made my excuses and said goodbye. Fortunately we hadn’t exchanged addresses, our brief meeting was all I had to forget.
The moral of this cautionary sermon from your virtual pastor? Online messaging is addictive, and there’s no twelve-step recovery programme. Sure, you might make friends, or become open to interestingly bizarre personalities, but be very careful who you invite into ‘your space’ from Myspace. You never know who you might meet, and often it’s not good. There is another, more fearsome side to the contemporary joke: “You looked better on Myspace”. In my experience it’s: “You looked safer on Myspace”. As for Brenda, Brad and Chantelle - keep doing what you do best folks, and indulge your fantasy lives. Because sometimes the virtual world can almost be like real life. Oh dear, it is.