Very much enjoyed a recent podcast from Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable series (Here on spotify but available via all the podcast hosters). It featured writer Paul Kingsnorth and Rowan Williams. Dr Williams’ theological musings have freedom to take wing now that he has been released from being Archbishop of Canterbury. Seeing him in his natural habitat (books, ideas and God) you feel perhaps he was never quite suited to the Archbishopy world of soundbite and confrontation and politics and business plans.
Paul Kingsnorth’s story was of a long reluctant progress to Christian faith via environmental activism, Buddhism and Wicca. He was eloquent in describing his journey to Christ, which despite its unlikely stopping places seemed to him more to do with continuity than discontinuity, though of course it had elements of both. He eventually realized he was searching for God and eventually Christ found him, via the Eastern Orthodox tradition as lived out by religious Romanians in Ireland.
Rowan Williams, meantime, was busy colouring everything in with his own reflections on conversion and Orthodoxy, and was, as ever, capable of giving us plinkety-plonk evangelicals a taste for the symphonic. His Christian faith, he said, expanded his view rather than contracting it. I liked that. He told us how you can’t just ‘put God over there and examine him’, which, frankly, is a bit of an evangelical pastime. And he talked about God creating creation like a pianist creates a sonata, or perhaps like a stream being created by the flowing water within it, a ceaseless creation, enabled moment-by-moment by an unsummarizable God.
Next time you’re on a long car journey, as we were, I’d recommend a listen.
And a shout-out to Justin Brierley whose Unbelievable podcast, a model of how to listen to the other guy, still shines after ten or more yours, and where this appeared. Broadcasting at its best IMHO.
Again I’m writing about healing, partly because I’m living it, partly because what I picked up from many years as a Christian now seems so wrong and there is so much rethinking to do.
I’m still rethinking, and I’m still breathing, both of which I feel are important.
The last few weeks: we bought a disabled buggy, a wonderful little thing, and took it on holiday. (It folds into the car.) We were with our daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren and there was much walking on the prom and the cliff-tops, all of it now painless and easy. Nor was anyone needed to push me around in a wheelchair. And I could give the kids rides. So now in God’s riches I have an electric bike for longer journeys around Cambridge and an electric buggy for when I am with others.
Then yesterday I took the train down to my specialist heart centre in London where they retuned the pacemaker in my chest. A week or so before that, after phone calls from me, I had downloaded the pacemaker data and sent it to the hospital via a piece of kit that lives under our bed. The hospital looked at it and called me in and did the necessary reprogramming. Amazing. It is early days for this treatment but I feel less breathless and my wife tells me I am no longer blue to look at. Those guys at the hospital (both female guys as it happened) don’t just measure your ECG; they modify it and tweak it. They don’t take an ECG lying down. They press buttons and see what happens. Such fun!
This techno-assistance, though, seems a far cry from the New Testament where the Lord Jesus or the apostles did their stuff and immediate physical transformation appears to have happened. My electric buggy and the retuning of the extraordinary electronics that supply my heartbeat seem a different order of a thing to that. Why can’t (as Naaman asked) a prophet just wave his hands over me and make me well? Does this techno-medical intervention really count as ‘healing’ at all? Or is it a second-best solution for those whose lives are so cold and lacking in faith and zeal that the real healing stuff never happens to them? What is healing after all?
The New Testament contains hints that what I have heard doctors call the ‘psycho-social’ parts of healing are important, just as are the physical deliverance parts. Ten lepers were cleansed: only one came back to say thank you. Was there a lingering psycho-social unhealing among the healed lepers? Body fine, head in wrong place. Demons are driven out of the Gaderene demoniac. He is seen sitting clothed and in his right mind. But Jesus tells him to go home to his family, rather than joining the band of disciples. Is that to complete his healing? To address the pyscho-social roots of what got him in such a state in the first place? As it is, Mark records that the former demoniac takes up a speaking ministry in the Ten Towns, and Mark is silent over whether or not that was what Jesus really intended for the man. Interesting.
Then I watch friends, with a cancer diagnosis say, put their lives on hold until the treatment is completed. I observe, I think, I might be wrong (I hope I am), that they are putting all their eggs in the physical healing basket. Zap the cancer, go back to the life we had before. Nothing else matters.
I am so not so sure that this is right. (Of course I have to allow for the fact that I am sitting in my garden, at my ease, contented, writing this, not suffering some medical emergency or hospitalization which would indeed require a lot of effort and focus.)
But still. I am coming to believe more and more that healing is life today, bread today, thriving today and that it is entirely God’s business how he delivers that. All good gifts come down from the Father of lights who does not change as the shifting shadows: buggies, pacemakers, holidays, instant miraculous physical transformations, play, vocation, nice food, people you love and good relationships with God and others.
I am coming to believe more and more that healing is life today, bread today, thriving today and that it is entirely God’s business how he delivers that.
Of course, you have to qualify that idea. There are seasons of emergency actions, long wintry paths of mourning, times of brute endurance of the deeply unpleasant. It’s hard to speak of ‘thriving today’ in the face of those. But still. Healing is thriving. Healing is enjoying our lives, nourished by God’s daily bread, despite everything, in these ramshackle tents of ours, before they are replaced for good with the eternal mansions of glory.
Last week we saw the dismal news, courtesy of Reporters without Borders that ‘the press freedom situation in 180 countries and territories … is totally blocked or seriously impeded in 73 countries and constrained in 59 others, which together represent 73% of the countries evaluated. These countries are classified as having “very bad,” “bad” or “problematic” environments for press freedom.
The internet, in terms of print newspapers, has not helped, gutting newspapers worldwide of revenue and readers.
Is there another side to the story? I hope so. Among the forces fighting back are:
OSINT: Open Source intelligence, made famous in the UK by Bellingcat, and now replicated in other groups, has whizzed together brilliant minds, dogged investigation and habits of integrity, just like the best of the old. Connected by the internet, people comb publicly available information to establish the kinds of facts that journalists used to have to uncover with shoe-leather alone. For example when Russia was secretly, and they thought deniably, invading parts of Ukraine years ago, Bellingcat found Facebook entries of Russian soldiers smiling in conquered parts of Ukraine. Bellingcat’s founder Eliot Higgins’ book is a wonderful read, unless you’re a fact-supressing dictator.
News organizations who have found a way to thrive in the new world. Step forward the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Economist, the BBC, even Al-Jazeera, whose Palestinian-American reporter, Shireen Abu Akleh, a Christian, was recently gunned down even though she was wearing a rather large sign saying ‘Press’. The press isn’t as big or as widely committed to separating news from opinion as it used to be, but like a Yorkshire terrier, diminutive size just makes it easier to bite ankles.
Books. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the long form of a non-fiction book has done much to trouble the repressive.I’m just finishing Catherine Belton’s wonderful book Putin’s People and recently I read Tom Burgess’ title Kleptopia. Each journo, and their publishers, have had to fight angry oligarchs through the courts. I bought the books to support them. And everyone survived, except the reputations of the oligarchs. Wonderful books of dogged journalists.
Social media itself. Yes, it still has a power for good. Alexei Navalny completely wrong-footed the Kremlin when he produced a YouTube video about Vladimir Putin’s (alleged) palace. In Russian, it has just garnered a mere 123 million views, which can’t all be his mum showing them to her friends. Vladimir (perhaps Vladimire is better) had to go on TV himself to deny everything.
Better than all these wisps of hope in the turmoil (73% of countries with strangled media!) is the sense of hope that those of us with a Christian faith can muster. The world is in somebody’s hands. The rule of the repressive is not the last word. It’s slow, but skill, wit and integrity will find a way. Keep biting the ankles, don’t let go.
Recently it was Press Freedom Day, or given the way things are going, Press Unfreedom Day. The group Reporters Without Borders (confusingly they are called RSF, like Medecins Sans Frontiers presumably) publish a ranking of press freedoms in different countries each year. They base it on counting actual incidents of repression, plus responses to a detailed questionnaire. It makes uncomfortable reading, which is perhaps the point.
At the top with the freest presses come the usual suspects of high-standard-of-living, happy countries, like the Nordic lands. A shout-out to Portugal (7th) and Costa Rica (8th). The UK is in its usual position of believing itself to be the best in the world but actually coming in at number 24. The US, armed with its First Amendment, crawls in at a distinctly saddo 42nd. Burkina Faso and Moldova, I’m sorry to say, both do better than the Land of the Free.
The nations that have tumbled down the list are the real horrors. China is 175th (out of 178). India, land of 100,000 newspapers is much freer but still a lowly 150th. Though there’s a bit of shooting of journalists (one this year) in that country and jailing of them (13 in prison), the main government strategy is getting its rich friends to buy news outlets:
Originally a product of the anti-colonial movement, the Indian press used to be seen as fairly progressive but things changed radically in the mid-2010s, when Narendra Modi became prime minister and engineered a spectacular rapprochement between his party, the BJP, and the big families dominating the media. (RSF India briefing)
Or its social media acolytes to bully them:
Rana Ayyub, an Indian commentator who loudly admonishes Prime Minister Narendra Modi for stoking anti-Muslim violence, has endured a campaign of intimidation by his supporters. Hindu nationalist trolls have superimposed her face onto pornographic videos, called for her murder, and shared her home address online. Fear of attack has confined Ms Ayyub to her home for long spells. Unable to eat from the anxiety, she has spent days on end in bed and been fed through an intravenous drip. “It’s a living, breathing nightmare for me and my family,” she says. (The Economist, 2022 May 7, ‘Where the Truth Lies’)
Or set the police dogs on them:
Indian law is protective in theory but charges of defamation, sedition, contempt of court and endangering national security are increasingly used against journalists critical of the government, who are branded as “anti-national.“
Lots of countries sing from the same songsheet. Mexico directs government advertising revenue to friendly newspapers. Hungary’s president, proudly pursuing his illiberal state with a Christian sugar-coating, just like Vladimir Putin, has nudged his oligarch friends to buy, then muzzle, the media. Hong Kong, once so free, is now bound and gagged and I’m sure its people are delighted to be so mothered by the Chinese Communist Party. Britain and the US both suffer from the concentration of the media in very few hands and the decline of regional and local dailies.
Is there good news anywhere? That’s for next week.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.