In praise of squishiness

Nuff said. Photo by Rebecca Campbell on Unsplash

Much better than the rigid

Squishiness is little regarded as a value. This is wrong. Consider a stiff, rigid society. Usually it will be poisonous for women. So, one slip, girl, one wrong path, for you, or, forsooth, for your sister, hah, and you are ‘ruined’. Jane Austen’s novels would themselves be ruined in a squishy world; so would Thomas Hardy’s. Nor are things overly squishy in the north-western tribal parts of Pakistan, nor rural Iraq, for example. I’ve heard it said that the old Northern Ireland was similarly lacking in flex, squishiness enrigidised by too much ‘community’ nosing into everything and policing everyone.

We are a society who equates ‘squishiness’ with progress and I think that is good.

Think about it. Crime and punishment should be squishy: don’t execute people, you might just find you’ve electrocuted the wrong person, or for the wrong reason. Education should be squishy: eventually, O difficult child, perhaps the penny will drop in your life. Public life should be squishy, with latitude for lapses because we all lapse.

And yet non-squishiness keeps rearing its foul head. Social media is 21st century censoriousness re-introduced. Liberal thinkers seem to step on other liberal thinkers (who think differently liberal thoughts) with what seems to me something like a jackboot. Vigilante climate protesters hold out no prospect of forgiveness for those who emit too much methane after a fine curry.

Squishiness, on the other hand, gives space for us to make lots of wrong choices, lots of verbal slips, lots of frankly entirely wrong and harmful thinking, and yet crash through the woodlands and find the path home relatively unscathed. Oh for a squishy society! Oh for squishiness everywhere, where it is understood, ‘blessed are the merciful, because they will receive mercy.’

My books of the year

Yet again it’s been an utterly absorbing and fascinating year for reading books. So enjoyable to climb into people’s heads and the book – long, processed, considered, skippable, re-readable, sumarizable and quotable – is still the best format I know for deep and prolonged happiness. So here’s a few of the most enjoyable.

BTW – I never read books because they are ‘important’ or ‘significant’ but only because they give joy. Most of them were found by wandering randomly in our branch of Waterstones, still the best way to find a book that no algorithm would send you. I read plenty of other books too, but these stick out.

They aren’t in any order.

Powers and thrones – a new history of the Middle Ages by Dan Jones, rollicking, thousand-year European centred history.

Just my type, a book about fonts by Simon Garfield. Geekish, obsessive and very enjoyable book about fonts and font choices. A book I’ve wanted to give to the literary obsessives in my life, and a book that makes you look at every street sign, shopfront, advert, book and newspaper differently. Now I know, for example, why hospital corridors are such unsettling places: they are font chaos.

When the dust settles: stories of love, loss and hope from an expert in disaster, by Lucy Easthope. The story of people who prepare for, and mop up after, disasters. A very moving account of how people do, don’t, can, and can’t help when catastrophe strikes, and how much better things would be if we prepared for them (as we could’ve) rather than paring away the budgets of the planners. An unusual paeon to local councils who often have to clear up the messes. A really fine read that tugs suprisingly hard at the heart.

Are we having fun yet by Lucy Mangan, a book about family life, her husband, child-rearing, friendship, haircuts, pink-on-pink warfare and playdate power struggles by a person who is these days the most consistently, riotously funny and joyful columnist on the Guardian newspaper. Also the second book by someone called ‘Lucy’ that I have read this year. Perhaps I should devote a whole year to reading books written by people called Lucy; the two I landed on this year were in different ways, objects of wonder.

If these stones could talk: the history of Christianity in Britain and Ireland through twenty buildings by Peter Stanford. Does what it says on the tin, but is beautifully but unobtrusively researched and written. Lovely, gorgeous, thoughtful book.

I’ve also, courtesy of my subscription to Audible, been listening to lecture courses from the Great Courses series which those all-engulfing types at Amazon have brought into the Audible list. Here are three that had me gripped while I did my cardio physio.

Classics of British Literature by John Sutherland. A mind-expanding summary of the long history of great books and poems written by British authors, starting way back with Beowolf and ending in the 21st century, and nicely meshed with summaries of the cultural history that surrounded them and gave them birth. Failed to mention Anthony Trollope except perhaps in passing, but nobody’s perfect.

Augustine: Philosopher and saint by Philip Cary, an introduction to the thought of St Augustine, who is this great unavoidable massif in the Western theological tradition, standing, alone, between us and the apostles and prophets. Sufficiently simple for me to understand and enjoy.

London: A short history of the greatest city in the Western World by Robert Buchloz. 24 or so lectures from someone based, I think, at Loyola university in Chicago, but which in my listening did not skip a beat in its accuracy, presentation or overall fascination.

That surprising Mr Warnock

Just read a fascinating article about Raphael Warnock, Georgia’s freshly elected Democratic Senator.1

Mr Warnock is still a pastor, of Martin Luther King’s old church in Atlanta. He has, it seems, a fresh take on the tired left/right, liberal/conservative tropes that like leaden wordclouds, rain down on our politics both in the UK and the US. There’s just a sniff of Advent hope about him. Here are a few quotes:

‘Democracy is the political enactment ofa spiritual idea, the sacred worth of all human beings.’

‘A vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire.’

Martin Luther King, he says, ‘Used his faith not as a weapon to crush other people, but as a bridge to bring us together.’ Now there’s an idea.

He is a kinder sort than is typical among democrats, seeing the Jan 6th sackers of the Capitol as people who had suffered the ‘violence’ of poverty, ‘a kind of violence that crushes all the humanity of poor people,’ but who retaliated badly and mistakenly. I’m not myself a massive fan of stretching the word ‘violence’ to mean ‘any bad stuff that happens to people’, but still, this reaching out in sympathy to the illiberal is notable if only because it doesn’t represent a default setting for Democrats in my observation. It’s something a little new, loving his enemies. He reiterates:

‘There’s a kind of violence of poverty, a failure to recognise that there is enough in God’s world for all God’s children. There’s no poverty of possibility. There is a poverty of moral imagination.’

Interesting.

The end of the Jubilee centre

As a Cambridge icon closes, Nick Spencer of the ever-interesting Theos think-tank, muses on what it gave us – the idea that good relationships are what mark a good society. I enjoyed this article and thought you might too.

https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/comment/2022/09/22/conservative-radical-christian-political

Book review: Wonders of the living world

This book’s author, my friend Dr Ruth Bancewitz, confesses that as a teenager she rather geekily enjoyed those books that showed giant cutaway models of things and explained how they work.

This book, though for adults, would be perfect fodder for teenagers who think the same way. Taking the work of six scientists, helped by some elegant writing and classy illustrations, it surveys some lovely science, slowly cranking up the view from the molecular all the way to the large trends and patterns that appear across species in evolutionary theory.

Then it does something that’s relatively rare in popular science: it turns the camera back onto the scientists themselves, what their discoveries mean to them, and how they integrate what they’re finding in the microscope with what they believe about God and the universe.

So as well as being popular science itself, the book offers correctives to two perhaps lazy assumptions that pervade quite a lot of popular science writing — that atheism is the only basis to do science from (it isn’t); and that the scientific process is somehow divorced from the humanity of the scientists themselves. (It isn’t: science is social construct, a tribal religion, just better than most tribal religions–we hope–at coping with the width and depth of reality).

I particularly like this book because it’s slow (in my terms): not strident, not argumentative, challenging popular assumptions just by being elegant, rigorous, beautifully illustrated and out there, inconvenient, like an unexpected piece of rogue data.

Back after a little while

Unintentionally or not, I took the summer off, and hope you had as good a one as we did.

At the moment I am spending a lot of my time adding to the database of articles which is one of the sources of the prayer handbook Operation World. If you mine this database horizontally, you can dig any number of fascinating seams.

  • The rise and perhaps the teetering, of the autocrat.
  • The way autocracy vs. liberal democracy has turned rural areas against urban ones, with the rural ones in the ascendancy over the past few years, to the consternation of city-dwellers, who like to set the trends. You can see this in the UK, the US, India, Russia, Turkey, Japan and almost wherever you care to look.
  • The decline of radical Islam, or at least its popular decline as a fashion-statement and rallying point for the underwhelmed-with-life.
  • The non-impact of the church in India (Christians in 1950, 2.3%, Christians in 2020, 2.3%)

This is all good stuff and enjoyable in its way. It also happens to be a big piece of what I do for a career. But it’s also like walking around a housing estate rather than striding out across the fields. Where in all that is play? Texture? Subtlety? Creativity? Ambiguity? Beauty? Carefreeness? Where does the soul get fed? Where’s the joy of walking with a creator who is extraordinarily big, extraordinarily beautiful, extraordinarily tolerant of me, and extraordinarily, and unsettingly, original?

Much of this blog over the years has been about how my Christian faith animates these latter things, rather than the workaday business of machining truth – vulnerable, lovely, lively, teasing, elusive truth – into tidy journalistic widgits.

The quiet power

Drop by beautiful drop. Photo by Rudrendu Sharma on Unsplash

Someone kindly sent me a book about the church that first discipled me after I committed my life to Jesus in my teens. It isn’t that big a church even now, but people will publish books about anything these days and it was a good read, partly because I knew many of the people and partly because, a generation later, you can look back with a bit of perspective.

The church was founded by four then-young people, refugees from the rather liberal Methodist tradition that was embodied in dozens of churches around West Yorkshire. They started, in true late ’60s Christian style, with a coffee bar in a church basement. Then they rented some premises of their own and ran their own services, listening to sermons on reel-to-reel tapes. They employed a 24-year-old pastor and his wife, church members numbers 5 and 6. (Pastors are always male in this tradition.)

When I arrived at the church about nine years later, it already felt like a proper church, with a membership of perhaps 50 or 70. In the few years I attended, before leaving West Yorkshire for university in London, it was busy acquiring and fitting out a new building. Since then it’s seen two or three churches come into being in other little Northern market towns, all in the FIEC, reformed evangelical fold. It’s moved again, into a still bigger building. People have retired.

They welcomed me, befriended me, taught me, loved me and gave me a grounding in faith I’ve drawn on ever since, and I’m still in occasional touch with two of the early leaders. Add up those who stayed and those (like me) who moved on, the churches must have played a part in the lives of hundreds of us.

There was a level of ambition, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Much of its most successful work was among young people, a so-called ‘social event’ one Friday, a Bible study the next. And camps and things. And church teas. And hospitality. And of course the regular work of maintaining a church community and preaching the Bible.

It was the quiet power of faithfulness that struck me. Baking flapjacks. Buying self-raising flour to make cakes for church teas. Hosting unruly teenagers year after year. Vaccuuming the house before, and probably after the meetings. All the work of running camps. Prayer. On and on, over forty years. There really was nothing spectacular, no radical innovation (except the gospel itself) no ‘quick wins’, just the awesome inertia of faithfulness, everybody doing their bit, again and again and again.

What’s missing in the talks I’ve heard on the ‘Great Commission’

The wisdom of crowds. Thanks to Keren Fedida on Unsplash for this lovely pic of the SXSW festival.

A recent talk that got me thinking about what’s missing from the teaching about missions that typically happen in (evangelical) circles such as I move in.

Such talks – and I’ve given a few myself – note how a page in history turns at the end of the gospels and the beginning of Acts. Here’s the new page: Christ is now reigning as Saviour and King: that good news is to be embodied and universalized. Starting with the few hundred Jesus followers, forgiveness and new ways of living through Christ are to be offered and implemented to everywhere and everyone on earth. This five-fold repeated instruction (in the four gospels and Acts) to Christ’s followers is called the ‘Great Commission’.

Usually, and in the case of the talk I heard, that means individual Christians doing evangelistic stuff, and/or supporting other Christians doing evangelistic stuff, and it reminds us of the need to cross cultures, to go places we are uncomfortable, in order for the message to go everywhere.

So far so fine. Many of us evangelicals, and especially me, however, can go into full cognitive dissonance at this point. It’s a mission meeting. We’re in church. We can all agree evangelism is good, cross cultural evangelism is good, I’m all in favour of it, but no, I’m not really doing it, please, God, send somebody else.

Sorry.

The problem may not be me, I am hoping. The problem is the atomistic nature of what is being taught. It denies the way the world works, denies the way the church grows, and denies the wider teaching of the New Testament itself. Are all evangelists? No. What does everyone else do then? Support the evangelists? Is that it?

Jesus taught, make disciples of all the nations. I think we too readily forget the communal, non-atomistic, nature of these commands. I think we too easily forget the importance of families and networks and cultures.

In Europe, arguably, sort of, there is a local church in every settlement from the West of Ireland to the Ural mountains, from the North Norwegian coast to the Greek Islands. In principle, there are all these little communities based around the Kingdom of God interacting and engaging in a thousand ways with the dominant cultures all around them. You will be my witnesses. Everyone who is part of Christian communities can have a part in that, doing what they do, with all their devotion.

Then look at the order of what Jesus taught in Matthew’s gospel: make disciples by (arguably first) baptising and (then, arguably second) teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. In Europe this happened when a king decided to become a Christian and all his people were roped in. In many contexts, like with a friend I interviewed with experience of people in the Indonesian rainforest, the group decides for everyone. (Or sometimes the group splits into two groups.) Everyone included in the decision to follow Christ is baptised, and then the teaching starts. When the great Catholic missionaries like Francis Xavier did their stuff, they baptised whole communities. (Xavier allegedly got repetitive strain injury from all the baptising he did.) Communities that he mass-baptized, like on the Coromandel coast of India (part of Tamil Nadu) have retained a Christian identity until this day. Indeed some have kept such an identity since the time of the Apostle Thomas, a millenium and a half before Xavier. Even if none of these options are true in your culture, the good news about Jesus’ forgiving power and current reign always tends to travel better down natural networks of family and community.

What are the takeaways from that?

  1. If you are part of a Christian community, doing what you do with devotion, you are part of the great commission, bearing witness -part of a community bearing witness– to the cultures around you.
  2. There surely is a need, and Jesus gave a command, for individuals to cross cultures to spread the gospel.
  3. Such missionary individuals, who go to new cultures, need to prioritize starting and building communities, or repurposing existing networks.
  4. Mass baptism of the whole group of humans involved (like a household, a social group, or even whole tribe or nation) may help retain a Christian identity for generations, and provide a platform for teaching.
  5. In this way, the nations are taught about Jesus and how to follow him.

Why electricity is just as good as miracles

Feels better already. (This is a photo of Singapore by lee junda on Unsplash)

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.

A Free press (part 2)

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.

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