Navalny

We recently watched the documentary on BBC iPlayer about Alexi Navalny, the Russian opposition leader. So moving and astonishing. At the same time I am listening to an audio book called Putin’s People by Catherine Belton, a book I bought because it was a way of supporting a journalist who was being dragged through the courts by the oligarcocracy. She and Harper Collins fought them off I believe.

So I am on an intensive Putin course at the moment. And Alex Navalny and his wife Yulia and their children are such a breath of fresh air in all the thuggishness. Brave, of course, but witty too and perhaps there is no better way to profoundly disturb an autocrat than to joke about him. The documentary showed how the sinister and powerful FSB, successors to the KGB, tried and failed to poison Navalny’s underpants. Such grim incompentence is a joy to behold. Then, thanks to OSINT (open source intelligence) characters like the people at Bellingcat, he and they were able to find the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the death squad. And ring them up.

In some of the most compelling TV I have watched this year, Alex Navalny then pretended to be a senior FSB type asking for a report from the poisoner. And he got it, to the astonishment of those listening. Possibly that would mar the promotion prospects of the poor FSB man who was tricked. All this stuff was broadcast around the world, to the extreme discomforture of the people in charge in Russia.

And then Navalny went back. To immediate arrest and jail in some bleak corner of Siberia. What courage. What sacrifice. What cost. What a relief that there are still such people in this world, this world of thugs and autocrats. And now, without wishing to be unduly political, Russia has the wrong person in jail and the wrong person in charge.

What will happen next? What will happen next is that someone has taken the slow, brave path, a cheerful smile against the murderers and thieves. Surely it will resonate.

How to use a bookshop

It’s easy once you know how

PrettySleepy/Pixabay

For my birthday, my gifted wife suggested I visited a bookshop every month and bought a book.

Here’s some advice from celebrated economist John Maynard Keynes on how to use a bookshop:

A bookshop is not like a railway booking office which one approaches knowing what one wants. One should enter it vaguely, almost in a dream, and allow what is there freely to attract and influence the eye. To walk the rounds of the bookshops, dipping in as curiosity dictates, should be an afternoon’s entertainment.

John Maynard Keynes quoted here in Tom Fletcher ‘Ten survival skills for a world in flux’ (2022), p 66.

I don’t have a problem entering vaguely, almost in a dream (I apply the same technique to Indian buffets; practice makes perfect) but I failed in my March Waterstones assignment, in that I went to the bookshop but couldn’t decide which book to choose. Today was better. I came back with this:

Can’t wait.

The ruthless elimination of hurry

John Mark Comer’s book of this title has hit a spot with many people–good– though I suspect I am not its target audience. I’m too old, a baby boomer, and I am not often told these days to slow down. Nor did I greatly enjoy the humble-bragging (I’d spoken at six meetings that day), nor Comer’s perhaps slightly insecure need to keep telling jokes through the book. As a reader, I felt sometimes I was a sea-lion to whom he needed to keep throwing fish.

Still though. I really appreciate John Mark Comer’s wider goal (of which this title is a part) of learning and teaching spiritual formation in a digital age. I could use some of that. And there’s lots to learn from this book and the real and helpful experiences of the author. Even though I’m hardly on social media, I still find plenty of ways of wasting time on a smartphone, and he has some useful, if drastic, solutions. And some things you can’t say enough:

  • Rest.
  • Be.
  • Do one thing at a time, stop, think, then do another thing.
  • If you’re too busy, do less. Make a list of the things that are important or life-giving to you and do them. Slice off large parts of the others.
  • Make time for life-affirming things: cooking, conversation, play.
  • Be (and think of yourself as) as marginal player, happy to be a widget in the great machine, even if people can’t quite figure out what you’re actually for.

The network made me do it: belonging as the cause of believing

Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity is unsettling reading, but really worth the time and a few pots of tea.

Why do people join religious movements? His answer goes against what we would like to say, which is that we heard the truth and decided to believe it.

Having researched new religious movements he suggests the reasons people join are things like:

  • (other things being equal) when they have or develop stronger attachments to the group than they have to non-members (p18)
  • When they are people of no religion, the ‘religiously inactive’ (p19)
  • When the networks remain open, so that new people can continue to join (p21)

It would seem that these assumptions work for any new religion or movement; which is why, as we observe, people do join wacky and diverse groups, and then become arch-defenders of their new beliefs. The buzz they get from belonging outweighs the crazy they are obliged to believe.

The buzz they get from belonging outweighs the crazy they are obliged to believe.

But then, having joined, they argue that it was the group’s teaching all along that made them join.

This is interesting in all sorts of ways.

  • It does chime with my experience. Most of the people I know became Christians in the context of a friendly network. Though it isn’t true of all my friends, and it wasn’t true of me. (I much prefer to lurk on the edge of networks than actually to join them.)
  • it will always be easier for a non-religious person to start believing than for a person with a prior religious attachment. The rapid global rise in the non-religious is thus not the end of religion so much as a vast new opportunity for religions both good and bad.
  • For us Christians, we have to ask, did this process happen to us? Is that how we found ourselves in a church? Is that why we believe what we say we believe? Was it just sociology? If not, why not?
  • How do we know what is or isn’t true after all? I suspect that point is something to do with (a) what happens in the long years after we join a group. How do our beliefs change? What does the weathering of life do to them? (b) the personal experience of the life of faith: how does what we claim to believe chime with what we feel and who we are and what we are becoming? and (c)what is the fruit of the movement we are part of?

The secret superpower for uncertain and dangerous times

I’ve been re-reading Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity:

It’s fascinating and refreshing. I found it slightly worrying that most of his references are to his own, or his associates,’ academic work, but then as a Christian among sociologists, as I understand it, his is a lonely furrow to plough.

His main conclusion is that the central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained atttractive, liberating and effective social relations and organizations (p211). Among other examples he suggests:

Christians did plagues better, by being will to nurse and die rather than run away.

Christians did family life better by being better for women in that era and much better for unborn and just-born women, who sometimes blocked Roman drains by being dumped in them. Incidentally, Christians did fertility better in an age when the populations of cities or indeed Roman Empires was not self-sustaining.

Christians did urban life better by offering sustaining networks that built new structures of belonging across a chaotic jumble of tribes and tongues

Christians did mercy better by teaching of a God of mercy who required mercy

In addition, Stark argues that (as with all minority cults which Christianity was at the time), Christianity disproportionately attracted the 1st-century equivalent of college graduates with no particular belief in anything. Once attracted, these people had the talent and the resource to become the kind of able people who were able to sustain and grow a popular movement.

With these and other advantages, the Christian faith then grew at 40% per decade, on his numbers, for three hundred years. Constantine’s conversion, at the end of the period, was more of a bowing to the politically inevitable than a surprising gleam in the dark.

My friend and colleague Jason Mandryk wrote recently about how prayer and church growth are often not instant, even though we wish they were, but more like a canyon being carved over generations by a river just being being a river.

I wonder if in other places where a vigorous Christian faith has taken root and grown (South America, China) it has grown for similar reasons?

In any event, Rodney Stark’s analysis is right, Christianity’s prospects in a confusing, multi-ethnic, in places deeply cruel world, with a large number of people unmoored from any religious attachments — the rise of the religious ‘nones’ which is often given as a sign of decline of Christianity — are actually rather promising.

Relevance in an age of transience

Any excuse for a pic of Ely Cathdral. This was a day or two before the first lockdown when it shut its doors for the first time in approximately forever.

What do you when when you were the young whippersnapper but are being replaced by still younger whippersnappers? I found this brilliant piece from Wired magazine by Megan O’Gyblin (March 2021) in my notebook. It made me want to read a lot more of her stuff. She was answering the question from a 30-year-old that began, ‘I’m only 30 but already I feel myself disengaging from youth trends.’ (This is an excerpt.)

The sense that our lives are part of an ongoing narrative that began before we were born and will continue after we die.’ I have barely dipped my toes in this, even after the all decades my heart has been beating.

I don’t mean to depress you, only to slightly reframe the question. If perpetual relevance is a chimeric virtue, as futile as the quest for eternal life, the question then becomes: What will make your life more enriching and meaningful? On one hand, it might seem that acquiring more knowledge—staying up to date on music, slang, whatever—will lead to more meaning, at least in its most literal sense. To grow old, after all, is to watch the world become ever more crowded with empty signifiers. It is to become like one of those natural language processing models that understands syntax but not semantics, that can use words convincingly in a sentence while remaining ignorant of the real-world concepts they represent. It feels, in other words, as though you’re becoming less human.

But knowledge is not the only source of meaning. In fact, at a moment when information is ubiquitous, cheap, and appended with expiration dates, what most of us long for, whether we realize it or not, is continuity—the sense that our lives are part of an ongoing narrative that began before we were born and will continue after we die. For centuries, the fear of growing old was assuaged by the knowledge that the wisdom, skills, and experience one acquired would be passed down, a phenomenon the historian Christopher Lasch called “a vicarious immortality in posterity.” When major technological innovations arrived every few hundred years rather than every decade it was reasonable to assume your children and grandchildren would live a life much like your own. This sense of permanence made it possible to construct medieval cathedrals over the course of several centuries, with artisanal techniques bequeathed like family heirlooms.

This relationship to the future has become all but impossible in our accelerated digital age. What of our lives today will remain in 10 years, or 20, or into the next century? When the only guarantee is that the future will be radically unlike the past, it’s difficult to believe that the generations have anything to offer one another. How do you prepare someone for a future whose only certainty is that it will be unprecedented? What can you hope to learn from someone whose experience is already obsolete? To grow old in the 21st century is to become superfluous, which might explain why the notion of aging gracefully has become an alien concept. (As one Gen Z-er complained of millennials in Vice: “It all feels like they’re trying to prolong their youth.”) Meanwhile, the young become, for the old, not beneficiaries of wisdom and knowledge but aides in navigating the bewildering world of perpetual disruption—in other words, tech support.

Someone of your age, of course, has a foot in both worlds: still young enough to count yourself as part of the rising culture, yet mature enough to perceive that you are not exempt from the pull of gradual irrelevance. One difficulty of this phase of life is feeling like you don’t have a clear role; another is the constant anxiety over when you will finally tip into fustiness yourself. But to take a brighter outlook, you also inhabit a unique vantage with a clear-eyed view of both the past and the future, and if there’s one thing we could all benefit from right now, it’s a sense of perspective. Rather than merely serving as IT for your older friends and relatives, you might ask them about their lives, if only to remind them—and yourself—that there remain aspects of human nature that are not subject to the tireless engine of planned obsolescence.

As for those younger than you, I suspect your life would seem more meaningful if you focused less on keeping up with transient fads and considered instead whether you have acquired any lasting knowledge that might be useful to the next generation

Pulling the future into the present

… but it’s slippery

A wheatfield near our home

A lot of people can see the bits of the future, and quite a lot of us have the extra talent of somehow taking hold of a bit of the future and wrestling it down into the present.

‘I can imagine a day when cars are electric,’ someone might say. Or maybe an executive in a car company might say, ‘I predict one day there’ll be a lot of electric cars on the road.’ Both are seeing the future but not necessarily doing anything about it.

Someone else might say, ‘I’m going to build and mass-produce electic cars.’ Such people don’t just see the future. They drag it into the present.

Lovers, farmers, teachers and entrepreneurs do this all the time. Perhaps nearly all of us do it sometime, when we look at some future target or goal and move from ‘that would be nice’ to ‘I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen.’

The world of the prophet

True in everyday life, this is also true in Christian discipleship. The Christian faith adds quite a bit to our innate human ability to drag the future the into present. We add God and prayer to the equation, and also the theological sense that there is a good future held in God’s hands. It can be sampled, if not fully fulfilled, in our ordinary lives here. Even more controversially, perhaps, God can promise us things.

This leads us to the world of the prophet, or intercessor, that lonely place where someone has taken hold of God, or God has taken hold of someone, who will pray and work and agitate and cry and pray again until the future is born on earth, because God has led them into that lonely place. They feel he has promised them something and they have altered their life around that promise.

This is a subtle and difficult place. Because we can be completely wrong. Think of the pastor counselling a series of young men in a church, all of whom think God has promised them the same girl will be his wife. We can also be incompletely wrong, in that God has genuinely promised something, but we have embellished it over the months, and our embellishments don’t happen, even if the promise does. Or we can be wrong in that God was promising and we were wearing tin ears, so the fulfilment of the promise comes as a total surprise (think of the disciples’ response to the resurrection).

But for all the misuse, there is good use. Think of the two characters, Simeon and Anna, around Jesus’ first presentation at the temple. They had waited decades, into great old age, and possibly the temple authorities thought they were a bit mad, but Simeon was finally able to say, ‘you may now dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen…’ 1. Note that in Simeon’s and Anna’s cases, the temple authorities’ robust common sense may not have been a good guide. This unlikely pair each saw something and held onto it, improbable as it was.

That quiet, burdened person in your church may be bearing the future in a womb of lonely prayer somewhere. Or it may be a false pregnancy. Or even (to mangle the metaphor) a bit of both. Be kind to them.

Wherever you ripe fields behold,
Waving to God their sheaves of gold,
Be sure some com of wheat has died,
Some saintly soul been crucified;
Someone has suffered, wept and prayed,
And fought hell’s legions undismayed.

Arthur S Booth-Clibborn, ‘There is no gain but by a loss’.

Ukraine, Russia and Orthodox Christianity

I enjoyed this fascinating article that is doing the rounds where I work, and thought it was worth sharing. It’s a criticism of Russian Orthodoxy’s support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, signed by representatives of other Orthodox groups.

It’s also a critique of Christian religious nationalism in general. Worth brewing a coffee and reading.

If nothing else, after you’ve read it, you might have a new phrase to accuse people of, ‘ethno-phyletism’. It might also send you scurrying, as it did me, to look up the Epistle to Diognetus.

A declaration on the “Russian World” teaching.

The love of the brand new, and how it is a hint of eternity

Photo by Michal Bar Haim on Unsplash

Entropy always gets us in the end. This is the idea that, however well you are holding things together at the moment, it won’t last, it will fall apart, you will fall apart, your carefully tended life will be decomposed down again to the basic atoms. We’re all going to rot and die. This much we all know.

Life is the temporary holding back of the forces of disarray. And we celebrate it. A new baby, a new leaf, they stake out a defensive position against the chaos that must come, and we are encouraged to see this act of entropy-defiance.

This is also why shopping is such fun, and unboxing a new purchase. We’re sampling, however momentarily, the unblemished.

I am still slowly reading my New Testament in Greek, looking up the words I don’t know, greatly helped by the fact there are apps for that. The first letter of Peter (1 Peter 1:4), talks about our ‘inheritance’, which is where we who cast in our lot with God through Christ are actually heading. It uses three words, all beginning with ‘a-‘ (or actually alpha of course), meaning ‘not-‘:

aphtartos: not decaying

amiontos: not stained

amarantos: not fading

You could add ‘not porcelain.’ It’s not static. Just earlier in the same passage this hope is called a ‘living hope’. That’s the future: not decaying, not stained, not fading, not static.

Beautiful.

How the Japanese live long and prosper

‘Keep busy and see friends, even over a drink or two’

The view from Yamanashi is pretty good too (credit: Pixabay)

Fascinating Economist article about Japanese efforts not just to live long but to live well, long.

(As a subtext the Economist in recent months has come to see Japan as a harbinger of all our futures and rather than being an economy to fix, they are an economy to watch as they tackle problems that many developed nations will face in coming days.)

They mention some novel ideas: a step counter on your phone that gives you discounts in shops related to how many steps you do. But then they focus on a district called Yamanashi, ‘a bucolic prefecture at the foot of Mt Fuji’ that is one of the top two prefectures for healthy life expectancy. They say this about it:

Helping people stay healthy, rather than simply alive, involves looking at broader social and environmental considerations. Jobs are essential. Working longer keeps people physically and mentally active, but also keeps them connected to others. Yamanashi has the second-highest elderly-employment rate in the country.

Social networks—the real-world kind—play a big role, too. Strong ties with friends, family and neighbours make for better mental health, more active lifestyles and better support. Investments such as upgrading cultural facilities or creating mobile libraries to serve remote communities may not appear to be health-related, but can benefit public health, says Kondo Naoki of the University of Tokyo.

In Yamanashi, many public-health specialists point to mujin, traditional local microcredit associations which have evolved into something more like social clubs. Members chip in funds for regular gatherings, often over noodles and sake (some prefer tea or mah-jong). Mr Kondo’s longterm studies have found that those who participate actively in mujin stay healthier for longer, even when controlling for wealth and other variables. The group activity offers a sense of purpose, and also acts as an informal safety mechanism, with other members noticing when someone is absent or looking worse than the previous month. “Being lonely is most detrimental to health,” says Nagasaki Kotaro, Yamanashi’s governor, who recently started offering subsidies for mujin. The secret to a healthy life, then, is similar to a happy one: keeping busy and regularly seeing friends, even over a drink or two

Economist, February 4 2022

It’s lovely they get to the same conclusions as I did in Bread: networking and vocation being the very stuff of life. Makes me think there might be something in them.

%d bloggers like this: