I suppose you can get people presents that are other-than-books.
But why would you?
Justin Brierley: The surprising rebirth of belief in God
Justin Brierley is as good as anyone observing the fickle winds of fashion in thought.
For many years he hosted the podcast Unbelievable which moderated match-ups between atheists and Christians. Moderated is the right word, since Brierley kept the peace and ensured, most times, the conversations were fruitful. You can’t help thinking that if the BBC had the sense to match their reach, they would have headhunted him years ago, a brilliant natural broadcaster with unshowy erudition. Still.
This book takes us through some of what he’s learnt from his ringside seat watching thought-leaders’ wrestle. Mostly it’s a careful account of the disintegration of New Atheist teaching, and some notes on what’s replacing it. He finds a new respect for theism; a renewed respect for the Bible; and some of the people he’s met has, to their surprise, either become committed Christians or thoughtful and sympathetic observers of the Christian faith. It’s a fascinating contemporary summary, leveraging his superpower of finding influential thinkers and inviting them onto his show.
If you, like me, wander into bookshops and have been occasionally surprised by finding sympathy for the Christian faith in unexpected places, this book gives a comprehensive and better researched summary of the shifting weather. It’s super and (for the Christian) heartening.
Justin Brierley offers three exhortations to the church near the end of the book – three things to cling tightly to: 1. Faith and reason 2. The mystery – the Christian faith quickly wanders into a dark woodland of paradox, the beyond-understanding, the ancient, the gnarly, all accompanied by the sound of worship (‘Church bells beyond the stars heard’ George Herbert wrote). Some of those turning to the faith enjoy all this, much more than they do Christian pseudo-rock concerts, or people ‘being discipled’ through a short course of study. 3. A forgiving, accepting community, a powerful force, now that social media has made witch-burning popular again in the outside world.
Super book for anyone wanting to keep up. Grab a copy.
This is proper, hard SF, where the plot is driven by science, deeply thought out, a gripping kind of scientific whodunnit, though the question is not ‘what did the murderer do?’ so much as ‘what did the laws of physics come up with next?’
It’s really good, and free of any lit. fic. overhead or pretensions, just a great story, enthrallingly told, for you to eat through without stopping, like a bag of salted peanuts. Loved it.
This book has very little to do with the theme of this blog, except, perhaps, at a stretch, the quest to make stuff beautiful. Makes a great present though for a certain type of person, and you’ll know someone.
This book is just enormous geeky fun. It’s all about the fonts that surround us every day, their history, their designers, some of the fashions and controversies. It is true that after reading it, you’ll never look at printed words the same way again. I started, for instance, noticing what an unhealthy, disjointed font-nightmare a hospital corridor is. The same goes for the average British high street. But when people curate and corrall and design fonts, and put them together on a page, yummy.
I took ages to finish it, and (if I had a shelf for this purpose) would probably file it as ‘good loo reading.’
All of us know someone who’ll like this — the same people who read Lynne Truss’s ‘Shoots, eats and leaves’ for example.
I gave it four stars instead of five because, I mean, it’s quite a lot about the fiddly bits on the end of letters.
This wonderful book gets under the skin of what happened to the Arab and Muslim world in the past 40 years and gives a voice to the writers, lawyers, media types, thinkers, critics, imams and others who resisted the ‘black wave’ of religion-shrouded revolutionary terror.
Kim Ghattas, a Lebanese, and therefore heir to those who watch (and often trade with) the great tidal forces sweeping around them, sees 1979 as the point the Arab and Muslim worlds collectively departed from their pluralistic senses. That year was the year of the Islamic revolution in Iran; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which led to jihad (sponsored by America and funnelled through Pakistan); and the attempted takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by religious zealots.
Out of this came the breakdown of a sleepy, plural, varied, tolerant Islam and its replacement with state terror (in Iran), the rise of the Wahabhis in Saudi, and these overlapped with the Islamism that Zia ul-Haq was imposing on Pakistan, to that country’s loss. Out of all that came the sprawling Saudi-Iranian rivalry with each outdoing the other in Islamicness; assassinations, war, and Sunnis and Shias killing each other: Muslim shall make war on Muslim. Ripples of it spread through the West: book burnings on English streets and the carnage of the twin towers. But the real churn was elsewhere.
It’s an astonishing story, and an astonishingly sad one. What a strange time we have lived through! Deeply researched, brilliantly told, and in my reading as good and influential (though with a different scope) to classic books like Albert Hourani’s The Arab World. The book’s impact comes from the way the story is told and the links followed, and from the fact (as it lays out) that any number of people resisted and yet were too small and too isolated to stop themselves being drowned or exiled by the Black Wave.
Perhaps the Arab and Muslim world is weary of war and the wave is ebbing. How sad though it all is and was. This book is a trusty guide.
I so loved this book I would save it for when I had an undisturbed half-hour. It’s a lucid, irenic, generous, walking-pace tour of British and Irish church history, stopping off, as it were, at twenty sites, each resonant of a century. Peter Stanford’s writing is longer on church history than on church architecture, which I liked, and like many others, I found it put in order for me the jumble of names –Augustine and Cuthbert and John Knox and Wesley– that had gathered in my head like an untidy sock drawer. Lovely book.
Not that I am personally planning on calling it quits any time soon, but I was wondering recently what ‘healing’ looks like in the context of the end of our lives.
We don’t know if this will be relevant for us, of course. Some friends of mine have been snuffed out without much time to do anything about it. Some apparently didn’t know it was going to happen. But most of my late friends and family had plenty of warning.
One part of healing near the end of life is, of course, that your life doesn’t end, you recover, and go on to see many good days.
But it occurred to me recently there is such thing as a ‘time to die’. However good or bad or complete has been our life, whether its conclusion will be bitterly painful or a blessed relief, our impact on the world is over, our days are winding down, this is it.
I wonder if ‘healing’ in this context isn’t about making peace with that fact; and going on to make peace with as much in your life as you can, and especially with God.
What’s fun about this idea is that it gives you back some agency. You’re in charge again. You have accepted the big fact (you’re mortal) and now you’re free again, to love and conclude things as you see fit, and as best you can.
This is the best time of year to experience ‘Peak Bookshop’. All the titles for Christmas shopping will be in. (Or should be.)
Sort your way past the:
Celebrity puff pieces
Old horses being flogged (regular bestsellers hatching another well-timed Christmas hardback)
… and find the stuff that makes bookshops great. That makes bookshops still great despite being gutted and filleted by Amazon: a curated collection of original, brilliant, beyond-our-experience insight. Storytelling round a global campfire. Human minds on sale, packaged for easy consumption. The best thinking, expressed in the best ways, all ready for us to engage with, dream with, laugh with, lose ourselves in, ponder, be shaped by.
(This is a repeat of a blog I first wrote in November 2016, happily still true).
Yesterday in our church our preacher tried to explain the word ‘providence’, an old-fashioned word that, like the groat or the florin, has or had considerable value, but has passed out of common currency.
And it still has value, perhaps especially when we look at the yoke that Christ has laid upon our lives and ask, is this yoke, as promised by Jesus, truly light, truly easy? (See Matthew 11:30.)
She—our preacher—explained that ‘providence’ referred first to God sustaining the Universe, upholding its natural laws; and then secondly, to God arranging things in life so that they turned out well and for our good. Exactly how the second meaning of providence squares with the first is a paradox, I think, but just because I can’t understand it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Just suppose providence is a thing. It leads to several thoughts.
I’ve seen blogs recently about people writing letters to their ten-year-old selves. Mine would be very simple: life so far has turned out better than ten-year-old me was capable of imagining. Half-formed ten-year-old dreams and desires turned into milestones upon which I can look now back on, half a century later. There was pain along the way, but it was not to be compared with the flowering or fruiting of those desires that accompanied them. Either I got lucky, or there was the hand of providence somewhere.
That which starts by tasting bitter often ends up being sweet. It’s possible that an eye for providence may help us with that thought.
We keep walking into drippings of God-soakedness, like colliding with spiders’ webs, which in the season I’m writing this, early autumn, are everywhere. I know that coincidences are mathematically inevitable, but that does not stop them also being the hand of providence. Several years ago I quoted the theologian Frederich Buechner, and it’s worth unearthing again:
“I think of a person I haven’t seen or thought of for years, and ten minutes later I see her crossing the street. I turn on the radio to hear a voice reading the biblical story of Jael, which is the story that I have spent the morning writing about. A car passes me on the road, and its license plate consists of my wife’s and my initials side by side. When you tell people stories like that, their usual reaction is to laugh. One wonders why.
I believe that people laugh at coincidence as a way of relegating it to the realm of the absurd and of therefore not having to take seriously the possibility that there is a lot more going on in our lives than we either know or care to know. Who can say what it is that’s going on? But I suspect that part of it, anyway, is that every once and so often we hear a whisper from the wings that goes something like this: “You’ve turned up in the right place at the right time. You’re doing fine. Don’t ever think that you’ve been forgotten.” ― Frederick Buechner
Beware middle age. You become aware the world has changed around you, you are no longer at the cultural centre of things, and you attach moral weight to the change. You haven’t just grown old–blithely ploughing your land into a deep rut while the world stayed fertile and flexible–you think it’s got worse. The country is going to the dogs.
I don’t entirely believe this. I rather prefer Dickens’ formula, that the good old days, like now, were the best of times … the worst of times.
But surely some things get worse, even as other things get better, as the erratic lighthouse-beam of the world’s attention lights stuff up?
One of the things that may have got worse is the fraying of the social fabric. Commentator and cultural critic (or, OK, journalist on a deadline) David Brooks wrote a fascinating article for The Atlantic1 in which he tried to answer a couple of questions:
Why have Americans become so sad? – he points out a few statistics, rising rates of depression and loneliness, increasing lack of friends, and ‘persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.’
Why have Americans become so mean? He cites restauranteurs and medical staff, for example, facing never-before-seen levels of rudeness, cruelty, and abuse from the general public. Himself a recent, adult convert to Christ, he says, ‘we’re enmeshed in some sort of emotional, relational and spiritual crisis.’
Many reasons have been offered (as he points out): the rise of social media; the decline of community organizations; the toppling of the pyramid that had male, white, hetrosexuals at the apex; and the high levels of poverty and insecurity after we baby boomers bought all the houses, snaffled all the good pensions and left the national finances neck-deep in the red.
Brooks doesn’t dispute any of these, but he points to a deeper cause. ‘We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration … We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation.’ His solution, if I’m reading him right, is education.
He may be right. But (even accepting his diagnosis) I’m not so sure. My problem is that I’m not sure that ‘moral education’ actually works. I rather think (and maybe I have the apostle Paul on my side here) that any amount of moral instruction only makes us more creatively sneaky at finding outlets for our evil hearts. Paul himself knew all kinds of law, he had moral instruction from his nose to his toes, but his true nature still leaked out as pride, hypocrisy, cold-heartedness, snobbishness and self-righteousness. My reading of the gospels is that Jesus found the Pharisees, moral crusaders whether you asked them or not, much harder to bear with than the ordinary sinners who drank too much or slept around. The Pharisees’ collective A+ in moral education played to their low cunning and monstrous smugness.
But if it’s not education, what? I think the answer is love. I would argue that loving behaviour, like many other things, travels down human networks. The kind or courteous person in the workplace changes the workplace. The generous act spawns further generous acts. Human goodness spreads. It’s not so much ‘education’ as lived-out loving decency that exerts a soft pressure on those who receive it.
I have heard that one of William Wilberforce’s aims in life was ‘to make goodness fashionable’, and I think it is true the one person’s behaviour can eventually, via a long and winding road, change the culture. There are many examples of this. For example, I have worked with legal professionals and judges for more than 20 years. I have never seen even the faintest suggestion of a bribe. I remember the horror at my son’s school when word got out that a parent (not from a British culture) had offered a teacher money to smooth the path for a child. It was a scandal roughly on a scale of someone exposing themselves in the playground. That is not to claim my own culture is especially good, just that in the matter of bribery in those two instances, it was unthinkable and inconsciable. That’s culture. Integrity (in this narrow area in these isolated cultural examples) has become fashionable.
Or take sport. In Rugby Union, the only person who can question a referee’s decision is the team captain, and they can only make a polite enquiry. In soccer, players surround the referee and harangue them. There are two different cultures. Maybe one day soccer players will be as polite to match officials as rugby players are today; or maybe one day rugby players will be as rude as soccer players are today. I suspect whichever way any of this changes, it will be because some influential people did it first and in some mysterious way their behaviour became fashionable and normalized within the culture.
The Christian church changed the brutal Roman culture; it became unappealing to watch people being eaten by lions. The @metoo movement addressed and changed the laddish culture of the ‘noughties. What was done then is no longer accepted now. I don’t think it was education that did this; somehow it was social pressure tied up with love.
Interesting. Reminds me of Paul’s description of the Philippians, whom he instructed to ‘become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”[c] Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.’ (Philippians 2:15)
The New Atheist movement, headed by its ‘four horseman’ of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennet and Sam Harris, so influential in the early 2000s, has, I read, ‘fractured and lost its spirit’. 1
The author of that quote, Sebastian Milbank, a critic and editor and (I think) Blue Labour sympathizer, notes that part of the reason is that the political left has shifted. Back in the day of Peak New Atheist, the left (in Milbank’s telling) were happy to stand on science and observable facts and what worked rather than the religion-inspired dogmas of the right-wing. So New Atheism with its talk of reason and evidence, was a natural fit (regardless of the politics of the Four Horsemen themselves): a powerful alchemy: the trendy centre-left fused with a newly articulated atheism.
But as well as New Atheism splintering internally, the political left has headed towards (again in Milbank’s telling) ‘an ideology of “care”; ‘the lived experiences of victims’; ‘indigenous ways of knowing.’ Cruelly, it might be said to have headed for the touchy-feely and the subjectively felt instead of the proven, and may indeed have come to view science and rationality as a power-grab rather than a bipartisan quest for common truth and common good. This is bad news for New Atheists, who don’t have anything else to offer, don’t do touchy-feely at all, and who have been left becalmed by the fickle winds of the zeitgeist.
Then look at what the ever-thoughtful Peter Dray writes.2 He works for the Christian student movement UCCF and is a keen observer of changing trends in student life. He quotes the ‘Russian born satirist, author and political commentator Konstantin Kisin’:
The reason new atheism has lost is mojo is that it has no answers to the lack of meaning and purpose that our post-Christian societies are suffering from. What will fill that void? Religious people have their answer. Do the rest of us?
Dray goes on:
It’s this kind of existential questioning that characterises many students today. If there is no God and no purpose, and the universe is wholly indifferent to our lives, then what’s the point? How can we make sense of our apparently innate sense of justice? Where can we turn when we feel overwhelmed by life’s anxieties? Are we really happy to reduce love to an unfortunate side-effect of our evolutionary psychology?
He argues the key challenge (for those seeking to present the Christian gospel to students) is now ‘demonstrating the uniqueness of Jesus in a world of therapies.’ And he says, We should surely celebrate that today’s students are asking deep existential and personal questions that only Jesus can truly answer. To those with eyes to see, Jesus is clearly about to offer a weightier, more substantial hope – one which addresses us not just at an emotional level but which calls us to repentance and faith, and to life with the living God.
All fascinating stuff. A challenge for me personally, because the realm of science, logic, evidence and the common good is home ground for me. I would be quite happy to dialogue there with New Atheists. Jesus, I would argue with them, is the piece of rogue data you can’t ignore. If he rose from the dead, that upsets everything, even the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is everything.
But what is revealed by the new zeitgeist, if accurately observed in today’s students (which of course must only be patchily true), is surely the shortage, and the centrality, of love, and the golden shackles that bind together love and meaning in the human frame. These things are beyond reason and science and therefore beyond New Atheism and its parallel, Christian apologetic.
Jesus is the way and the truth and the life and God is love. All else falls before the grandeur of this.