What does revolution look like?

Nice try, but hélas! Photo by Pierre Herman on Unsplash

What does a revolution look like? Most of them involve armed thugs, which is hardly a good start.

That kind of revolution –which is most so-called revolutions — is only a revolution in the sense once defined by Terry Prachett: they call them revolutions because everything goes round and round.

What does a real revolution look like, one that actually changes things? The Kingdom of God, heralded and inaugurated in the New Testament, is supposed to be such a thing. What would it look like?

  1. A culture where leaders are accountable, to law, to being sacked by the people they rule.
  2. A culture grown kinder so that people are more patient, more honest, more generous, more likely to share your load.
  3. A culture where personal integrity is valued. Personal integrity forms, drip by drip, over a lifetime, like a stalagmite. Once formed, and if genuine, it reaches deep and extends far into the networks of people around us. When it connects with the integrity of others it provides a scaffold upon which decent human cultures can grow and thrive.
  4. A healing culture. That would be nice: people restored to joy and usefulness as part of a community, love flowing, even as lives bloom and decay.
  5. A worshipping culture. Perhaps all cultures are worshipping cultures; but this would be worshipping the maker rather than the made.
  6. A culture committed to living at peace: in harmony with creation; with forgiveness and forbearance to others at its heart; aiming to restore the broken.
  7. A learning culture, so that we are curious about the world around us; able to experiment; able to fail; willing to change.
  8. A culture committed to changing. I think much of what is loosely called ‘progress’ fits here. We can learn stuff and discover how to do things better. I personally prefer, for example, hi-tech, unnatural births over having all these dead babies or mothers taking up needless space in graveyards. Free markets distribute the good things of the earth around with great efficiency. Property rights and the rule of law ensure that the whole of society rises together, like boats on a rising tide. Unjust leaders get moved on. The Old Testament appears to regulate rather than abhor all these things.
  9. A remembering culture that knows other generations walked this way too and knew and did stuff and are owed respect at times.
  10. A respectful culture, sensing the preciousness and autonomy of every human, and letting that inform our corporate life.
  11. A creative culture, valuing playfulness, and invention, and engineering, and hypothesising, and art, and music, and literature.
  12. An ambitious culture, ambitious for human thriving, dreaming of still more goodness piled on the goodness of earlier years, like bank upon bank of clouds in the sky, all reflecting the sun from different angles.
  13. A culture committed to the long term. I’ve walked round a reservoir in the Peak District that was built in the 1930s, built to solve permanently the need of nearby cities for water. Ninety years on, our generation and culture doesn’t have to worry so much. Then in the 1940s Clement Attlee, that modest man ‘with much to be modest about’ in Churchill’s phrase, implemented across the nation the ideal of free healthcare for everyone. Eighty years on, for all the problems, we still stand in the good of that. What will we add? Imagine, for example, if we solved the problem of generating electricity sustainably; imagine if future generations hardly had to worry about flicking a power switch. Imagine if we found better ways of keeping warm, or feeding ourselves, or doing construction, or living alongside a thriving Earth. What gifts all that would be to generation after generation, to the grandchildren of our grandchildren, leaving them free to work on other stuff.
  14. A hopeful culture – when all the above is ripped apart, or becomes a monstrous idol of its own self, when everything is back to square 1 or square minus 10: still straining for ‘church bells beyond the stars heard’ (as George Herbert wrote) that make us stand and go again.

A little pause

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.

Navalny

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.

How to use a bookshop

It’s easy once you know how

PrettySleepy/Pixabay

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:

Can’t wait.

The network made me do it: belonging as the cause of believing

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.

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?

Relevance in an age of transience

Any excuse for a pic of Ely Cathdral. This was a day or two before the first lockdown when it shut its doors for the first time in approximately forever.

What do you when when you were the young whippersnapper but are being replaced by still younger whippersnappers? I found this brilliant piece from Wired magazine by Megan O’Gyblin (March 2021) in my notebook. It made me want to read a lot more of her stuff. She was answering the question from a 30-year-old that began, ‘I’m only 30 but already I feel myself disengaging from youth trends.’ (This is an excerpt.)

The sense that our lives are part of an ongoing narrative that began before we were born and will continue after we die.’ I have barely dipped my toes in this, even after the all decades my heart has been beating.

I don’t mean to depress you, only to slightly reframe the question. If perpetual relevance is a chimeric virtue, as futile as the quest for eternal life, the question then becomes: What will make your life more enriching and meaningful? On one hand, it might seem that acquiring more knowledge—staying up to date on music, slang, whatever—will lead to more meaning, at least in its most literal sense. To grow old, after all, is to watch the world become ever more crowded with empty signifiers. It is to become like one of those natural language processing models that understands syntax but not semantics, that can use words convincingly in a sentence while remaining ignorant of the real-world concepts they represent. It feels, in other words, as though you’re becoming less human.

But knowledge is not the only source of meaning. In fact, at a moment when information is ubiquitous, cheap, and appended with expiration dates, what most of us long for, whether we realize it or not, is continuity—the sense that our lives are part of an ongoing narrative that began before we were born and will continue after we die. For centuries, the fear of growing old was assuaged by the knowledge that the wisdom, skills, and experience one acquired would be passed down, a phenomenon the historian Christopher Lasch called “a vicarious immortality in posterity.” When major technological innovations arrived every few hundred years rather than every decade it was reasonable to assume your children and grandchildren would live a life much like your own. This sense of permanence made it possible to construct medieval cathedrals over the course of several centuries, with artisanal techniques bequeathed like family heirlooms.

This relationship to the future has become all but impossible in our accelerated digital age. What of our lives today will remain in 10 years, or 20, or into the next century? When the only guarantee is that the future will be radically unlike the past, it’s difficult to believe that the generations have anything to offer one another. How do you prepare someone for a future whose only certainty is that it will be unprecedented? What can you hope to learn from someone whose experience is already obsolete? To grow old in the 21st century is to become superfluous, which might explain why the notion of aging gracefully has become an alien concept. (As one Gen Z-er complained of millennials in Vice: “It all feels like they’re trying to prolong their youth.”) Meanwhile, the young become, for the old, not beneficiaries of wisdom and knowledge but aides in navigating the bewildering world of perpetual disruption—in other words, tech support.

Someone of your age, of course, has a foot in both worlds: still young enough to count yourself as part of the rising culture, yet mature enough to perceive that you are not exempt from the pull of gradual irrelevance. One difficulty of this phase of life is feeling like you don’t have a clear role; another is the constant anxiety over when you will finally tip into fustiness yourself. But to take a brighter outlook, you also inhabit a unique vantage with a clear-eyed view of both the past and the future, and if there’s one thing we could all benefit from right now, it’s a sense of perspective. Rather than merely serving as IT for your older friends and relatives, you might ask them about their lives, if only to remind them—and yourself—that there remain aspects of human nature that are not subject to the tireless engine of planned obsolescence.

As for those younger than you, I suspect your life would seem more meaningful if you focused less on keeping up with transient fads and considered instead whether you have acquired any lasting knowledge that might be useful to the next generation

How the Japanese live long and prosper

‘Keep busy and see friends, even over a drink or two’

The view from Yamanashi is pretty good too (credit: Pixabay)

Fascinating Economist article about Japanese efforts not just to live long but to live well, long.

(As a subtext the Economist in recent months has come to see Japan as a harbinger of all our futures and rather than being an economy to fix, they are an economy to watch as they tackle problems that many developed nations will face in coming days.)

They mention some novel ideas: a step counter on your phone that gives you discounts in shops related to how many steps you do. But then they focus on a district called Yamanashi, ‘a bucolic prefecture at the foot of Mt Fuji’ that is one of the top two prefectures for healthy life expectancy. They say this about it:

Helping people stay healthy, rather than simply alive, involves looking at broader social and environmental considerations. Jobs are essential. Working longer keeps people physically and mentally active, but also keeps them connected to others. Yamanashi has the second-highest elderly-employment rate in the country.

Social networks—the real-world kind—play a big role, too. Strong ties with friends, family and neighbours make for better mental health, more active lifestyles and better support. Investments such as upgrading cultural facilities or creating mobile libraries to serve remote communities may not appear to be health-related, but can benefit public health, says Kondo Naoki of the University of Tokyo.

In Yamanashi, many public-health specialists point to mujin, traditional local microcredit associations which have evolved into something more like social clubs. Members chip in funds for regular gatherings, often over noodles and sake (some prefer tea or mah-jong). Mr Kondo’s longterm studies have found that those who participate actively in mujin stay healthier for longer, even when controlling for wealth and other variables. The group activity offers a sense of purpose, and also acts as an informal safety mechanism, with other members noticing when someone is absent or looking worse than the previous month. “Being lonely is most detrimental to health,” says Nagasaki Kotaro, Yamanashi’s governor, who recently started offering subsidies for mujin. The secret to a healthy life, then, is similar to a happy one: keeping busy and regularly seeing friends, even over a drink or two

Economist, February 4 2022

It’s lovely they get to the same conclusions as I did in Bread: networking and vocation being the very stuff of life. Makes me think there might be something in them.

Not quite so good for the autocrats

In the latest annual report from the charity Human Rights Watch, director Kenneth Roth, in his usual thoughtful mood, sounds a nuanced note of hope for the world:

The conventional wisdom these days is that autocracy is ascendent, democracy on the decline. That view gains currency from the intensifying crackdown on opposition voices in China, Russia, Belarus, Myanmar, Turkey, Thailand, Egypt, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. It finds support in military takeovers in Myanmar, Sudan, Mali, and Guinea, and undemocratic transfers of power in Tunisia and Chad. And it gains sustenance from the emergence of leaders with autocratic tendencies in once- or still-established democracies such as Hungary, Poland, Brazil, El Salvador, India, the Philippines, and, until a year ago, the United States.

But the superficial appeal of the rise-of-autocracy thesis belies a more complex reality—and a bleaker future for autocrats. As people see that unaccountable rulers inevitably prioritize their own interests over the public’s, the popular demand for rights-respecting democracy often remains strong. In country after country, large numbers of people have recently taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot.

So, many an autocracy may be more fragile than it appears. And autocrats, he implies, have a shrinking menu of options to choose from in the face of public discontent. You can shut down media sites, jail opposition leaders, neuter the courts but if that fails, you have to start shooting people. Or run away.

What can democracies learn from this? Do better, says Roth. Thought-provoking stuff, and well worth reading the whole thing.

In praise of the fairy story

It might come and bite you

It isn’t hard to find stuff to read or watch that rates the Bible as a fairy story, and assumes this is a bad thing.

We need atheist critics so much. They are a blessing to us Christians, hunting down our sneaky thoughts, loose morals and slippery work. But with a grateful nod to atheist critics, let’s move on. Fairy stories. Proper fairy stories. What do they tell us?

We have to define our terms a bit. Which fairy stories are being referred to here? The Three Little Pigs with its instructions on building with proper materials? The Elves and the Shoemaker, about globalized workforces and profit-led debt-free exponential growth? Cinderella, with its important lessons on the right shoes?

And then what do we mean by the Bible? The Bible is a book-room, not a book, and treating the Bronze Age literature section as if it was the sharpest modern non-fiction, or indeed something with the conventions of the fairy story, is sloppy thinking. There’s a world of assumptions and background we need before we get on board with say, Noah. But even if we knew what a fairy story was, and even if the Bible was one, it’s not so bad:

Proper fairy stories are an antidote to the atheist delusion of a clean-shaven, 1950s, rational Universe.

  1. The world isn’t a buttoned down, uptight, Star Trekky, hygienic, modernist paradise. Given the story of science so far, how can we not think that out there are paradoxes, non-intuitive answers, total surprises, and perspectives that most of today’s scientists will never accept. Einstein disliked quantum mechanics. Florence Nightingale was a germ theory sceptic. At times, science has had to progress a funeral at a time. Only when you bury a senior and respected professor, only when you let the young ones have the tenure, do scientific paradigms really shift. Sadly. Proper fairy stories are an antidote to the atheist delusion of a clean-shaven, 1950s, rational Universe. A story about a goose laying golden eggs properly prepares the youthful mind for a world where the Fed creates billions of dollars out of thin air or quantum physicists add infinity here and there to ‘re-normalize’ their theories. It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it. Fairy stories darken and ruffle the placid lake of the textbook. Good.
  2. Fairy stories inspire intellectual humility. Which is surely a never a bad thing.
  3. Fairy stories convey truth. Beware of the wolf, for example. Don’t look a gift-granny in the mouth. Gingerbread houses are a gateway to abuse.
  4. Fairy stories remind us there is such a thing as evil.
  5. Fairy stories leave room for wonder. Wonder is not the start of teflon slide towards gullability. It is the right human response to the astonishing. And it is as appropriate to someone looking at the Hubble deep-field view of the most distant galaxies as it is to someone reflecting on the resurrection of Christ. Wonder is what happens when you accidentally peek round a door and catch God at work. A capacity for wonder is useful bit of human kit to carry around with us. Fairy stories help.
Any excuse to show the Hubble Deep Field, in its day (1995) the most expensive and the most astonishing photograph ever taken. Point the most capable telescope at an empty patch of sky in the Big Dipper, come back after Christmas, and see the results – galaxy upon galaxy, maybe three thousand in this one shot, layered back to the beginning of time. (ESA/Hubble creative commons)

But I still resent it, a bit, when the Bible is accused of being a fairy story – a vaguely moral Eurocentric fable with fantastic elements. Here’s what ‘fairy stories’ don’t do:

  1. Inspire architecture, art and jurisprudence down through the centuries
  2. Grip people so much that, defending them they will be burnt alive, crucified upside down or sawn in two (though obviously not all at once).
  3. Cause millions of people around the world to rise early to read and then resolve to be decent, kind, to do justice, to bring peace, to serve others, and to make the world beautiful and whole.
  4. Help you die
  5. Comfort the lonely, bring peace to the old, raise tears, dry tears, get people to forgive the unforgiveable, or (in the case of Martin Luther for example) enable them to overthrow a continent-wide instance of religious totalitarianism.

Just saying.

The healing in your head

It’s here that it matters

Sorry to be writing about healing again. But I keep learning new things. For the longest time I had two ideas about healing, which were complementary if incomplete:

  1. See a doctor, and the result will be somewhere on the spectrum between no cure at all and a complete cure. Quite a lot of conditions can be eased, slowed, ameliarated, sometimes with pills, sometimes with pills and side effects and it’s great. Or at least it’s better than the alternative and it’s pretty good.
  2. Visit the New Testament where there is a quite a lot of instanteous healing, and some instances of progressive healing. This observation influences a lot of Christian practice, both in high-octane mass healing meetings and also sometimes when people are prayed for ad hoc by their Christian peers.

I generally have come to prefer the medical route to (this particular) Christian-inspired paradigm. Each route, doctors or hoped-for miracles, leads to highs and some lows; the Christian route, as described, in my experience, tends to result in more lows than highs. One big reason for this is that doctors are better at managing expectations and describing likely outcomes than Christian pray-ers are. Plus, doctors are less likely to blame people for their sickness (even when they deserve it). Christians in my experience don’t usually blame the patient overtly but do say things like ‘God we don’t understand why you haven’t healed this person,’ while fixing a troubled eye on you. Doctors are professional and Christians are amateur and it rather shows.

Doctors are better at managing expectations and describing likely outcomes than Christian pray-ers are.

I think God is active in both realms. In the week I write this, the much anticipated £1bn Astra-Zeneca headquarters has just opened, a short bus-ride from my home, further cementing Cambridge’s position as a biomedical centre, employing thousands of people, some of whom are friends of mine, busy researching and pioneering further medical cures.

Because of their work, all over the world, mothers will not be parted early from their children, granddads will get to play with their grandchildren, life will be extended and tragedy deferred or defused. God cannot not be in this great project for the common good.

What’s going on inside the head

I feel both these routes towards wellness are incomplete as they stand. And I know that doctors know this too and also talk about the ‘pyscho-social’ aspects of wellness. What is this? Two people can have identical MRI scans, say of their spines. One will say, ‘it’s terrible, my spine is crumbling’ and their disability, and bitterness, will cast a long shadow into their family. They will be a pain as much as their spine is. The other will say, ‘basically I’m fine’ and carry on much as before. Same crumbly spine: different head and heart.

A few weeks ago we visited a National Trust property with my family. I get breathless very easily. For the first time ever (I think) I borrowed one of their electric buggies. This all-terrain craft let me join everyone as we rambled round the gardens. It was wonderful: no pain, no breathlessness, no pretending to be interested in a leaf while my breathing caught up, no struggling to talk, no watching everyone get cold as they kindly adjusted to my slower-than-toddler pace. It felt like healing. It was healing. Of course, physically I was just as before; but in my head, where I live, I was thriving. Healing is thriving, being at peace, content, happy. It happens through Christ. My National Trust buggy was a healing. Really. Miss that and you miss quite a lot.

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