When my phone went rogue

Last night my phone went rogue. It started spelling everything out on the screen. If I pressed anything, it just told me what I’d pressed, rather than doing anything. Swiping didn’t work. Pulling down the menu from the top didn’t work. Pressing the little buttons at the bottom of the screen didn’t work. Finding Settings didn’t work (I couldn’t navigate there).

AI image created by Dall-E, courtesy of Bing Image Creator

Then I found restarting didn’t work. I turned the jolly thing off, and it restarted, unrepentant, unchanged, malicious, spelling out the buttons on my screen with a crazed leering voice. By now I wanted to throw the accursed object across the room. ‘Turn it off’, suggested my wife. ‘Let it settle down and try again in the morning.’

I began to panic. Turn it off? What was she thinking? What if I woke in the night and needed to read some news sites? Or my interlinear Bible? How can I manage a whole night? Nor would just turning it off resolve anything. Like a cupboard with festering food, it would still be there, haunting my consciousness. If my phone was having a 2001-‘Dave, I can’t do that’ moment (and I am not called Dave by the way, unlike most people I know), then we needed to get a grip on this here and now.

Emotionally, it was almost as bad as if my wife had told me to calm down.

I got a laptop and started googling, which took a while. I was led to a YouTube video which meant I had to watch an advertisment about taking a holiday. Then someone with an incomprehensible accent did complicated things on a phone that didn’t look much like my own. Hopeless and ridiculous.

Finally. I read that if you press both volume buttons down at once, the phone switches into Talkback mode. It’s an ‘accessibility’ feature. Quite.

But pressing both volume buttons down again makes it all alright. The crazed leering voice departs; the nightmare ends; the phone returns to its compliant, usable self; I could go to bed. Dystopia had summoned me with its bony curling finger; fortunately, this time, I pushed back.

But it was close.

The gift of curiosity

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

I have realized that I hide from people who have too much certainty.

This is largely confined to people with a Christian faith, probably because I hang around with them a lot of the time.

But I have learned to dread them. Like Russian battle tanks, they approach, waving their whatsit, ready to turn their turret on anything that departs from the Doctrines of Grace, ‘the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints’. They’re good at it too, and I feel myself shrivel as they gun for my theological loose thinking.

I think I’ve always felt this dread, so it is unlikely to be a virtue. When I was a young Christian I remember the pastor of my then-church say during a sermon, ‘I was reading C S Lewis recently and I’ve found the error in him.’ Given that their relative intellectual attainments were as different from each other as a sideboard is from a lunch-box, I did not feel this was an especially wise thing to say.

Where is the curiosity? Where is the head-in-shower joy in discovering that you are completely wrong? Where is the zest for learning, and growth, and change? Where — we might add– is the humility, the poverty of spirit? It is not that there isn’t certainty in the Christian faith — there is — it is that people can get carried away and have too much of it, in too many areas, and it isn’t pleasant to see; gracelessly and proudly defending grace.

While all the while, shafts of truth can flash from completely outside the Christian space, or from theologically-dubious people within it, and do us the world of good.

I think of Isaac Newton’s famous quote:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

That was Isaac Newton. Meanwhile Russian tanks are proving a bit vulnerable, much better parading around the place than seeing real action.

The light touch(2)

Thinking more about the way we do things in community, and most especially if it’s on you to lead it.

I wrote last week about the subtle, partial, fertile, creative light touch that achieves more than the all-spelt-out, big, heavy, full-throated approach. I think this is because the light touch respects people’s humanity. They can work stuff out for themselves. They don’t need to be infantilized. Dropping seeds into their hearts may at times be more productive – though less predictable – than taking them through the procedure manual.

The more you think about this, though, the more complicated it gets. You need to select the right leadership tool for the job. Here (making it up as I go along) are some.

  1. The routine procedure. Some things are just best approached as procedures to be learnt. They become routine, mechanical memory. For example, the crash team electrocuting the stopped heart, the pilot working through a preflight checklist. Mechanical memory (and its first cousin, tradition) embeds and even automates the proven learning of the past. It saves us having to think, which is exhausting and can be error-strewn or just not as good.
  2. The precision task. Related to the routine procedure, the precision task differs from it because it requires a deep understanding. A checklist won’t do. Somewhere in your head you have to carry a precise working model of the system. Chernobyl exploded when they powered-up a powering-down reactor, without knowing the detail. They thought it probably would be OK, these reactors are safe anyway, leadership was on their back and it was nearly goodbye to Europe. Apollo 13 came home safe because the main actors mastered the detail., and had room to contribute more than just obedience to orders.
  3. The judgement. Sometimes a situation just needs someone to decide even if they have incomplete information. As recipients we may bridle, we may chafe, it will be the wrong decision in small or large ways, but it will have been decided and we can all move on. That is why we elect politicians. They aren’t super-people but we pay them to make the call. Court judgements are like that, elections are like that, Brexit was like that: a poor decision but least a decision. We are spared the agony of not resolving anything. Now we can reset and go again.
  4. The light touch and now here it is again, part of the tool box, ready to be applied, creative, open-ended, unexpected, hated by the control-type, slow, requiring humility and an open hand, but a way to reach unexpected solutions to complex problems. The gospel is like that. Forget the religious clutter, says Paul, it boils down to faith working through love. Work things out from there. May it never be missing from the toolkit.

The beautiful light touch

Photo by Andraz Lazic on Unsplash

I wonder if the light touch is what makes genius. So many areas: the penalty taker in soccer: does he (or she) just thump into the top corner, English centre-forward style? Or do they send the keeper the wrong with a little shimmy–a light touch–then side-foot the ball into the net? Does the music, or the writing, or the engineering, tend towards the sound and thunder, the power, or the elegant, effective, quiet, light touch?

I see it in my own field. When faced with a scandal, it’s easy to over-write, loading up the text with adjectives. But as good journalists everywhere appear to know, it’s more forceful to focus on one human story, telling it simply, letting it gnaw at the reader’s psyche. Sure, you can follow your story with your substantial evidence and research, but it’s the light touch that gets under the skin.

At the heart of ‘light touch’ is a virtue that I do not hear routinely praised in my neighbourhood: creativity, originality, looking at things in a fresh way.

We who claim to be Christians are of all people those with the least excuse for not seeking creative solutions. We are not chained to a rule book or a procedure manual, we serve a living and creative Christ. We herald and anticipate a new heavens and new earth that is preparing to burst out of this maggoty old one like a butterfly from its sleeping bag. If we resort to old, traditional, heavy-duty, heavy-weather approaches we are of all people most to be pitied or perhaps even despised.

Was Jesus ‘light touch’? Not when denouncing pharisees, one feels, calling them out as snakes. Nor when ordering demons around. But in his stories, in his dealings with the vulnerable, in his meek suffering, there was such a gentle hand and such an open hand. There was also such creative genius and novel approaches. He taught, then walked, rather than making the sale. The light touch and the creativity did much of the rest.

I like that.

Radar charts and the management of complexity

Radar charts are a way of putting lots of different scales in one picture. (If you speak Excel – I don’t – you can probably either build them already or find an internet reference about building them that you understand.)

Here’s an example of what you could depict, the textbook Romantic Hero.

The Romantic Hero

Capacity for brooding/smouldering5
Position in British Aristocracy5
Vulnerability despite all the above3

That gives you five axes.

Then, give a score to each axis. On a scale of 1-5, your proper Romantic Hero would score fives on each axis (five is high and 1 is low), with the exception of Vulnerability, where he gets a 3… enough for some tenderness but he’s not looking for another mother.

The current option on the table, however, is Ed from Accounts, let us say. Here’s his score:

Ed from accounts

Capacity for brooding/smouldering1
Position in British Aristocracy1
Vulnerability despite all the above4

He’s OK with solvency, intriguing with vulnerability, hopeless at brooding because he’s a chirpy, upbeat sort of chap, has no links with the aristocracy and is fun-sized, rather than premium, when it comes to stature.

Spider (or radar) diagrams save you much tedious working and turn all this data into useful pictures. The picture broadly summarizes all you know and helps you make a decision. (Do you invest in Ed, who is conveniently at hand, or do you keep singing ‘One day my prince will come’? Tricky, but a radar chart may help.)


You can do the same for countries. Some countries claim to be ‘democratic’ because they are ruled by a benign father figure who, in a lifetime of public service, always acts for the good of the nation. And anyone expressing an alternate view finds large people bursting into their house and bundling them into the back of a van.

Other countries also claim to be democratic and they also possess a free press, a robust and plausible opposition and the kind of independent courts that enable an individual to prove the goverment is acting unlawfully. All these can be put on a scale and in fact probably are put on a scale somewhere conveniently for us by hard-working NGOs.

Other spheres too

I wonder if plotting things on multiple axes might help us see, and manage complexity, in other spheres too? For example, perhaps in medicine, Western practice can often be a bit one-dimensional: you count the infection markers in the blood, you apply antibiotic, you watch the infection markers go down again over time. (I think.) It’s possible to attempt a more rounded picture (are you sad, lonely, overweight, under-exercised, an adult victim of childhood trauma, or surrounded and nurtured by people like that, and is that really why you are so often off sick?)

There was a trendy theory of church growth that could work the same way. A church will usually grow, the theory says, until it reaches a limit caused by the one thing the church is least good at. Fix that, and it will grow again until it reaches a limit caused by the next-least-good quality of the church. And so on. All this could be conveniently mapped on a radar diagram.

Finally, the total witness of all the people of God could be summarized on a radar chart, though I suspect this can only be viewed in heaven. It would be nice if we (the church) scored a five on all the axes, doing social justice, witnessing to the truth, exercising hospitality, treating people with respect, sharing our goods with the poor, lifting the fallen, committed to creatively, worshipping Christ and introducing people to him…)

Where does this lead us?

Er- wish I knew.

Conservation v the common good

Looking beyonder

I think we can do better than Conservation. Conservation, as perhaps exemplified by the conservation movement, looks backwards, restoring things (habitats, rainforest, species). It wants to wind back our atmospheric carbon dioxide to the level at, or ultimately before, the level at the start of the Industrial Revolution. (This latter idea, is, of course, hard to disagree with given that wreckage that a sudden increase is causing. )

But on that perspective Conservation starts to look like other programmes that thrive on grievance and nostalgia. There’s even an undercurrent that Planet Earth would be a lot better better without nature-munching humans. Greens, on this view (and I mean political greens rather than the members of the brassica family), could start to look regressive and repressive, just like the populist right.

This is sub-optimal and sub-Christian. I really like and definitely prefer the alternate messages that spill out of the gospel.

  1. Seek the common good. This is tons better than ‘preserve the environment’. Because it (a) embraces both humans and the rest of creation together, (b) gives a coherent framework for reponsible decision-making (c) is open-ended, creative and replete with possibility, and (d) is centred around love. It’s a million times better than just winding back the clock, and it enables us to consider all our actions (flying across the Atlantic for example) in the light of the best loving options, rather than simply the tedious and ill-defined business of minimising our feelings of guilt or indulging in self-justification.
  2. The future is brighter than the past. This is a deep Christian assumption. Creation–according to the apostles– groans, waiting for God’s people to be unveiled. In the meantime, we humans are to foreshadow and pre-echo and anticipate that future by how we live and what we do now. This also makes us look at Conservation in a different light. The nature that Conservationists are wanting to return to is in large part cruel and bloody. A lot of animals (if you watch the BBC nature programmes anyway) seem to spend their days fearing for or fleeing for their lives, while chasing down and eating other animals along the way. Consider a puffin with a mouthful of sand-eels, trying to stop a gull from stealing the eels out of its beak. Which animal is doing well here? The gull? The puffin? The sand-eels? Creation appears to be subject to frustration, which idea crops up now and then in the Bible. What’s the better way? Humans and nature thriving together. What’s the future? The trees clap their hands, the mountains sing together, the sea-monsters praise God, the lion lies down with the lamb and eats hay like the ox. The whole creation thrives and flourishes, people and nature singing along together. Obviously, as with all things eschatological, we can neither foreknow the details nor make them happen, but we can witness to them by the way we live now. And it opens up a world.

Tom Holland on Marx

I may have mentioned how much I enjoyed Tom Holland’s book Dominion, which explains the Western mindset as something that emerged, like lentils, made edible after a good soaking – in this case a soaking in two milliennia of Christian thought. Here’s his take on Karl Marx.

[Marx claimed] All his evaluations, all his predictions, derived from observable laws, ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’ Here was a slogan with the clarity of a scientific formula.

Except, of course, that was no such thing. Its line of descent was evident to anyone familiar with the Acts of the Apostles. ‘Selling their possessions and goods , they gave to everyone as he had need.’ Repeatedly, throughout Christian history, the communism practised by the earliest Church had served radicals as their inspiration … [ p441]Marx’s interpretion of the world appeared fuelled by certainties that had no obvious source is his model of economics. They rose instead from profounder depths. Again and again, the magma flow of his indignation would force itself through the crust of his scientific-sounding prose. For a self-professed materialist, he was oddly prone to seeing the world as the Church Fathers had once done: as a battleground between cosmic forces of good and evil … The very words used by Marx to construct his model of class struggle – ‘exploitation’, ‘enslavement’,’avarice’ – owed less to the chill formulations of economists than to something far older: the claims to divine inspiration of the biblical prophets. If, as he insisted, he offered his followers a liberation from Christianity, then it was one that seemed eerily like a recalibration of it. (pp440-441)

The pre-soaked Western mind

See the world differently

I’ve just finished a remarkable book. I know I spend a lot of time (and have lots of my adventures) within the pages of a good book, but this one was special, making me see the world a different way.

The argument of Tom Holland’s bestseller Dominion is that the Western mind has been so deeply tinted by the Christian faith that we can’t wash it off, and everything we touch carries the stain. Some examples:

  • Atheism is a child of Christendom. The battle against superstition, against gods being everywhere, and gods for everything, goes back to the book of Genesis, was refuelled by the book of Isaiah, was clear in Paul, and emerged again in the Reformation, with the frightening statue-smashing of the reformers. (I visit my nearby Ely Cathedral and still am shocked by the damage, and this rowdy lot are evidently my spiritual ancestors.) What was the French Revolution? Christian-inspired iconoclasm clad in the garments of rationalism. It’s not that ‘pure reason’ had existed forever, bubbling under the surface somewhere, waiting to be let out. What did for the idols, what did for superstition was Christianity, and the revolutionaries just grabbed its clothes.
  • Humanism is a child of Christendom. As Tom Holland points out, ‘The wellspring of humanist values lay not in reason, not in evidence-based thinking, but in history’ (p522). And in this case, the history of Christendom. The World Humanist Congress (an almost entirely Western affair) affirming in 2002, ‘the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual’ is itself a statement of pure dogma, proven neither by science nor reason, but grounded in a Christian perspective on the world. The peoples of antiquity didn’t believe it. The idea that the weak are just as valuable as the strong is a Christian idea and ideal.
  • The American Constitution, for those who are interested, is a child of Christendom. Listen to this fun quote: ‘That all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, were not remotely self-evident truths … The truest and ultimate seedbed of the American republic – no matter what some of those who had composed its founding documents might have cared to think – was the book of Genesis’ and ‘The genius of the authors of the United States constitution was to garb in the robes of the Enlightenment the radical Protestantism that as the prime religious inheritance of their fledging nation.’ (p384).

I could go on. In future blogs, I probably will.

Overcome evil with good (and slow)

Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash

In Erzin county in Turkey, despite the two earthquakes, not a single building collapsed. The Economist reported that ‘the local mayor and his predecessor told local media that they did not allow any illegal construction. Both used the same phrase: “My conscience is clear.”‘1. Another theory is that the geology of that area is different from more damaged places. Perhaps the answer is a complex mix of factors; or perhaps integrity was enough.

Lots of press commentary implies that, though Turkey has strict building codes, a little informal negotiation with local officials usually meant you could reinforce your steel with less iron or add another floor or two. These were the buildings that fell like concrete Jenga blocks on their sleeping tenants.

Was that evil? And is ‘evil’ (if it exists) the reason lots of hopeful optimism about the benefits of reason and technology are overstated or misplaced? If people were reasonable, and if we got the tech right, perhaps we could build buildings on earthquake zones that didn’t fall down. But as soon as developers suck their teeth, and bend a bit, and hand over some cash, and ease down on what are very restrictive and expensive rules, which shut out ordinary people from buying homes at reasonable prices…

We are all of us suspects in these crimes. What do any of us do when (as we think) an overfussy law stands inconveniently in our way? When does a little flexing and bending, or even a little transgressing, become ‘evil’? Food for thought.

The perils of music

Especially if you’re trying to avoid invisible beings

It can bite. Photo by Raúl Cacho Oses on Unsplash

I had to write an article recently about what happens to people who leave God and God-stuff alone 1.

I wrote about my suspicion that God doesn’t leave them alone.

One culprit was music:

Perhaps this is a stretch for some of us. But theology teaches us that music is a shared feature of heaven and earth. Both realms ring with song, heaven more so than earth, and for a reason. Think of an orchestral or choral performance: unity, diversity, individual gifts, some performers with a great range and others just bashing triangles at appropriate moments, all blended into a completeness that is not static or boring, but fluid and dynamic; at its best, an ever-flowing perfection of fulfilled performers harmonizing together. Isn’t it, can’t it be, a heavy hint of what God and his people are destined finally to be? When you hear or perform music, are you distantly echoing what the divine is and does? Are your expressing a desire for something greater than what you have now? Are you reaching for transcendence? If I may say so, I think you may be. Even some of the most hard-boiled atheists I know seek transcendence in music.  

Food for thought.

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