Toxic populism

and its cure

Toxic populism has muscled in on the news since 2016, filling our headlines in the way that radical Islam did for a few years before it. The roll-call of men (mostly men) who feel the need to take control, maintain order, and get on with repressing, is familiar across too many countries– just read the news.

It’s a (by now) familiar playbook

  1. Give out jobs on loyalty, not merit
  2. Erode all the things that stand in the way of an almighty state: laws, judges, newspapers, NGOs,anywhere where independent thought and criticism can thrive.

It isn’t, as we are seeing by now, a recipe for success. Cronies aren’t as good at running things as people who get jobs via merit and they pilfer the national good rather than fostering it. Some things, think Covid-19, can’t be insulted away or imprisoned. The flawed mental model of the autocrat cannot bear much reality, nor, for that matter, much wit.

How do you make societies resilient against this kind of thing? I struggle so much with this but I love the 37th Psalm, an extended meditation on the slow, resilient way:

Do not fret because of those who are evil
    or be envious of those who do wrong;
for like the grass they will soon wither,
    like green plants they will soon die away.

Trust in the Lord and do good;
    dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Be still before the Lord
    and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
    when they carry out their wicked schemes.

10 A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look for them, they will not be found.
11 But the meek will inherit the land
    and enjoy peace and prosperity.

35 I have seen a wicked and ruthless man
    flourishing like a luxuriant native tree,
36 but he soon passed away and was no more;
    though I looked for him, he could not be found.

Peace lily Image by Adriano Gadini from Pixabay

37 Consider the blameless, observe the upright;
    a future awaits those who seek peace.
[d]

Your sandwich is ready

Just a sneaky mid-week post to let you know that The Sandwich was published on February 19th and is available in all its formats. I hope it’s a fun, refreshing read. (My output elsewhere was once described as ‘good loo reading’.)

This means, sadly, the pre-publication free offer is ended. But it also means you can post a review on Amazon or Goodreads or elsewhere, or even, forsooth, buy a copy.

Here’s Amazon:

You can also try The Book Depository (free postage of the paperback anywhere), or the Apple iBookstore . Even more cunningly you could try this Universal Book Link which, if I understand rightly, allows you to download a copy from a convenient shop, wherever you happen to be in the universe.

I covet your reviews, good, bad or indifferent, which are part of the currency of the internet, and the honester the better.

The blog goes back to normal this Saturday.

PS: The before-you-leave subscription form that pops up when you try to leave this site claims we have 399 subscribers. That is, 398 subscribers, plus you. I’m not sure it’s true, actually, or all that meaningful, my work dropping into hundreds of unvisited folders. But somebody could be number 400.

The war between science and faith is exaggerated

Tell ’em it ain’t so.

Fascinating, longish quote. Perhaps this article will help lift a finger or two off the weighing scale and bring things back to balance.

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

Most historians of science [do not] support the idea of an enduring conflict between science and religion. Renowned collisions, such as the Galileo affair, turned on politics and personalities, not just science and religion. Darwin had significant religious supporters and scientific detractors, as well as vice versa. Many other alleged instances of science-religion conflict have now been exposed as pure inventions. In fact, contrary to conflict, the historical norm has more often been one of mutual support between science and religion. In its formative years in the 17th century, modern science relied on religious legitimation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, natural theology helped to popularise science.

The conflict model of science and religion offered a mistaken view of the past and, when combined with expectations of secularisation, led to a flawed vision of the future. Secularisation theory failed at both description and prediction. The real question is why we continue to encounter proponents of science-religion conflict. Many are prominent scientists. It would be superfluous to rehearse Richard Dawkins’s musings on this topic, but he is by no means a solitary voice. Stephen Hawking thinks that ‘science will win because it works’; Sam Harris has declared that ‘science must destroy religion’; Stephen Weinberg thinks that science has weakened religious certitude; Colin Blakemore predicts that science will eventually make religion unnecessary. Historical evidence simply does not support such contentions. Indeed, it suggests that they are misguided.

So why do they persist? The answers are political. Leaving aside any lingering fondness for quaint 19th-century understandings of history, we must look to the fear of Islamic fundamentalism, exasperation with creationism, an aversion to alliances between the religious Right and climate-change denial, and worries about the erosion of scientific authority. While we might be sympathetic to these concerns, there is no disguising the fact that they arise out of an unhelpful intrusion of normative commitments into the discussion. Wishful thinking – hoping that science will vanquish religion – is no substitute for a sober assessment of present realities. Continuing with this advocacy is likely to have an effect opposite to that intended.

Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy. Given this, science needs all the friends it can get. Its advocates would be well advised to stop fabricating an enemy out of religion, or insisting that the only path to a secure future lies in a marriage of science and secularism.

Peter Harrison is an Australian Laureate Fellow and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. He is the author of The Territories of Science and Religion (2015), and the editor of Narratives of Secularization (2017). His latest book is Science without God: Rethinking the History of Scientific Naturalism (2019), co-edited with Jon Roberts. This article first appeared in aeon the free online magazine of ideas, and was published September 7,2017

Covid and the rawness of life

The skin gets scraped off

Interesting to see how Covid is scratching the surface off us and revealing the rawness underneath. I read a lovely article in the Grauniad which I wanted to share in case you hadn’t seen it.

Rachel Clarke (journalist turned physician, apparently, and drafted into intensive care) wrote eloquently and superbly about the stress, the exhaustion, the despair, the abuse on Twitter and elsewhere. She incidentally writes about how ‘Sometimes, in the darkness, a patient pleads to die. They cannot take the claustrophobic roar of their CPAP mask any longer.’ (I recognize that emotion, though I didn’t want to die, just not fight any more, when I was attached to a CPAP in 2013.)

But then this:

All across the hospital, you see it. In the tiny crocheted crimson hearts, made by locals for patients and delivered in their scores so that no one feels alone. In the piles of donated pizzas, devoured at night by ravenous staff. In the homemade scrubs, whipped up by an unstoppable army of self-isolating grandmothers whose choice in fabrics is fearlessly floral. In the nurses and carers and porters and cleaners who keep on, despite everything, smiling. I may be tired and angry and sometimes mad with grief, but every single day at work, I see more kindness, more sweetness, more compassion, more courage, more resilience, more steel, more diamond-plated love than you could ever, ever imagine. And this means more and lasts more than anything else, and it cannot be stolen by Covid.

Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic by Dr Rachel Clarke is published by Little, Brown

Why scary stories are good for you

We live in a world of wounds and partial wins

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

I enjoyed a recent blog on Hallowe’en from the Bible society, which quoted C S Lewis as follows:

In a famous essay, C S Lewis spoke about how ‘fairy stories’ could educate children: we mustn’t keep out of a boy’s mind, he said, ‘the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, and adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil’. He goes on, ‘I think it is possible that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable. For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones …’ In other words, he says, it’s not that we shouldn’t think about terrible enemies at all: we should know they can be beaten. 1

My piece of the rainbow flag

Image by Carabo Spain from Pixabay

Yes, when you’re white, hetero, middle-aged, English-speaking, Anglican and look like a slab of gammon, as I do, the rainbow flag might be perceived as a challenge or even a threat.

I’ve decided it isn’t.

If we’re going to embrace diversity, and we should, because mongrels are healthier than pedigree pups and ecosystems are more resilient than single species, then I want my piece of it.

We Christians, like Jews, Muslims,vegans, carnivores and Liberal Democrats, each have our funny ways of doing things, each our odd beliefs, we’re each equally a part of a diverse society and we’re at liberty to work for the common good. So we can each celebrate the rainbow flag.

In praise of administrators

This is what they are really like. Image by alan9187 from Pixabay

It’s a bit uphill, admitting it at parties. Pulses probably don’t thrill when you whisper shyly, ‘I’m an administrator.’ Once I had to park at a small airport and my designated spot was next to the spot marked, ‘Chief Test Pilot’. I didn’t notice a parking space for ‘Chief Administrator’ and I probably wouldn’t have mentioned it anyway.

My project for 2021, and I’ve started early, is to read the Book of Acts in Greek, looking up all the interesting words as I go along. It’s a slow job (I don’t know Greek), which is good, because normally words fall on us like ticker tape in a parade, blizzards every day, and we are not good at processing them slowly.

The early Church was a kind of Ponzi scheme, it seems to me. New entrants were selling property and the proceeds were feeding a bunch of widows. I don’t wish to criticize, but it looks a bit unsustainable. Elsewhere in the New Testament we see Paul trying to regularize the Church benefits system, so perhaps he would agree.

Yet we Christians rave over the early church. Thousands were flocking in. Signs and wonders are done at the hand of the apostles. Even Peter’s shadow falling on people did the business. Many of the priests were becoming believers.

But because there were arguments over allocating funds between Hebrew-speaking (local?) widows and Greek-speaking (?diaspora) widows, the Twelve appointed seven (Greek-sounding to me) administrators. Middle-managers. In the midst of all the miracles and crowds. It was so cool for all these reasons:

  1. They let the people choose the administrators. The apostles picked the best for the job, rather than cronies.
  2. They didn’t say, ‘Bring the hard cases to us’ (like Moses did in a similar situation). They delegated completely to the administrators (or managers or in church usage, ‘deacons’). This is fascinating. Any accountant will tell you to follow the money if you want to see where the power is. And the apostles let someone else do the money.
  3. The apostles were gutsy enough to stick to teaching and prayer. Remember they served a Jesus who had said, ‘You should wash each other’s feet.’ But they quit serving at tables. Did they ignore what Jesus had said? I think not. They rather figured things out about roles and giftings and went with where that led.
  4. Admin was necessary even in the middle of miracles and rapid growth. There were so many miracles going on you would have thought that a couple of waves of Peter’s hand and you could’ve fed the lot, no admin problems and no Ponzi scheme. But that the wrong tree to be barking up, as they presumably quickly discovered. This new Kingdom, this thing to supplant the old arrangement, this taste of a new world, needed sound administration and proper management very soon after its start. The new church needed the power of the Holy Spirit and a pragmatic look at cashflow.

A free copy of my new book

Get it while you can

The regular readers of this blog, both of you, will know I’ve been exerpting chapters from my new book over the past weeks. Well, it’s finally finished and I’m really pleased with it. Here is the cover art:

It is, I hope, a fun refresher on some of the big themes of discipleship. A refreshing refresher, perhaps. If you click on this link here you can help yourself to a free copy that you can read on your phone, laptop, tablet, or Kindle.

(This is what publishers call an Advance Review Copy and it’s intended to generate reviews and whatnot, which are very welcome, but mostly it’s nice to have something to give away after what has been a stressful 12 months for many of us.)

It will be available for sale in all formats after publication day on Feb 19th 2021. Do share this free link in the meantime with anyone if you think they’d like it; it stops working on publication day. After that the title will be available in its various formats at Amazon, Eden and the like and orderable from any other bookshop worthy of the name.

{Smiles}

The secret, sneaky power of kindness

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Consuming two outstanding bits of media got me thinking about kindness. The first was the film Marvellous, a true story about a man with learning difficulties who served as a kit-man for a professional soccer team and was eventually awarded an honorary degree. The other was the first series of the terrifying and brilliant Line of Duty, once on the BBC, then on Netflix, then, suddenly, just on the BBC again. Both lingered in the mind long after we disconnected our video projector. (If we watch TV, we like to take up a whole wall.)

Without giving too many spoilers, Line of Duty, a police procedural, had some scenes where a person with learning difficulties was horribly abused by a drug gang. In the trade this is called ‘cuckooing’, using a vulnerable person’s flat as a drug-distribution centre.

The big difference between the uplifting Marvellous and the horrifying Line of Duty was not the vulnerability of the people with learning difficulties. It was that one encountered kindness, and the other didn’t.

Which did get me thinking.

Kindness is such a potent, invisible power. I find it helpful to think about people whom I disagree with and remember when they were kind. It helps me defuse personal animosity. Kindness, if you’ve ever shown any, is what people will speak about at your funeral. It will moderate you and moderate what people think of you. Kindness is remembered and treasured. Such a small thing–weightless, odourless, like God–but secretly infiltrating our minds, and changing us.

A slow manifesto

Take up your pack for another year’s walk

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

This appears as the introduction to my blog and is about fruitfulness: personal, social, in every season, and tracing a pattern established before we were born and which will still apply after we are dust.

‘Slow mission’ is about huge ambition–all things united under Christ–and tiny steps.

I contrast it with much talk and planning about ‘goals’ and ‘strategies’ which happens in the parts of church I inhabit, and which have an appearance of spirituality, but make me sometimes feel like I am in the Christian meat-processing industry.

Here’s a summary of slow mission values, as currently figured out by me:

Devoted. Centred on Christ as Saviour and Lord. Do we say to Christ, ‘Everything I do, I do it for you.’ Do we hear Christ saying the same thing back to us?

Belonging. We sign up, take part, dive in, identify, work with others, live with the compromises. Not for us a proud independence.

Respecting vocation. Where do ‘your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger’ meet?1. Vocation is where God’s strokes of genius happen. That’s where we should focus our energies.

To do with goodness. Goodness in the world is like a tolling bell that can’t be silenced and that itself silences all arguments.

Observing seasons. ‘There’s a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.’2.The world will be OK even if we check out for a while. (Note: our families, however, won’t be.)

Into everything. We are multi-ethnic and interdependent. We like the handcrafted. We are interested in all humanity and in all that humanity is interested in. Wherever there’s truth, beauty, creativity, compassion, integrity, service, we want to be there too, investing and inventing. We don’t take to being shut out. Faith and everything mix.

Quite keen on common sense. We like to follow the evidence and stick to the facts. We like to critique opinions and prejudices. We don’t, however, argue with maths. Against our human nature, we try to listen to those we disagree with us. We’re not afraid of truth regardless of who brings it. We want to be learners rather than debaters.

Happy to write an unfinished symphony. Nothing gets completed this side of death and eternity.  What we do gets undone. That’s OK. Completeness is coming in God’s sweet time. ‘Now we only see a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.’3.

Comfortable with the broken and the provisional. Happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for right, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the laughed-at. This also implies a discomfort with the pat, the glib, the primped, the simplistic, the triumphalistic and the schlocky.

Refusing to be miserable. The Universe continues because of God’s zest for life, despite everything, and his insouciance that it will all probably work out somehow. In sorrows, wounds and in the inexplicable, we join God in his childlike faith.