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.

Knowing your doctor well keeps you well as well

Look at this from Private Eye‘s wonderful ‘MD’ (aka Dr Phil Hammond) (15-28 October 2021 p 8)

The model of general practice – trying to manage multiple complex risks and needs in very brief encounters – has long been unsafe and unsustainable. You have 10 minutes to help an 80-year-old woman who is arthritic, breathless, recently bereaved and on 12 tablets. It takes three of those minutes to walk her from waiting room to consulting room.She wants to talk about her late husband; you want to ensure her breathlessness was not a red flag for a life-threatening condition or a side effect of the pills you have prescribed.

It takes another three minutes to undress her and get her up on the couch to be examined. And yet her main reason for coming was loneliness.

….

A study of Norwegian health records, published in the British Journal of General Practice, found that — compared with a one-year patient-GP relationship — those who had had the same doctor for between two and three years were about 13 percent less likely to need out-of-hours care, 12 percent less likely to be admitted to hospital, and 8 percent less likely to die that year. After 15 years, the figures were 30 percent, 28 percent and 25 percent.

Healthcare depends crucially on relationships, and staff knowing and understanding you.

Imagine a GP being resourced enough to combine a vocation as a doctor with the time and stability to develop relationships with patients. Vocation and relationships … just like in a book I recently wrote, which I may have occasionally mentioned in this blog. And which is still ‘forthcoming’…

Slices of bread – 9 – The missing something

Can you smell bread being baked somewhere? Go find the loaf.

You deserve some sort of medal for sticking with these extracts over the past few weeks.Thank you. Suffering refocuses us (I have argued); ‘belonging’ and ‘making something beautiful’ show where we should refocus. The final part of the book tries to fit these ideas into a wider, and Christian, framework.

Bread

My search for what really matters – 9

The missing something

A lot of us know we are missing something. Are you missing something? Even in all the good things about you that your loved ones will mention at your funeral, are you missing something?

My testimony is that there are loose threads in our lives that if we trace them to their source, lead to God. This is unsurprising to the Christian, since we are inheritors of a shared story that humanity’s biggest problem is a ruptured relationship with our Creator. No wonder, then, there are loose threads; no wonder there are missing somethings.

I have met people who find one end of a thread of transcendence in their lives but haven’t found the other end. They seek it in music or in nature, for example. Some just get misty-eyed and sentimental. The writer Terry Pratchett had a transcendent encounter with an orang utan once[1]—I am not joking, they stood, unblinking looking at each other—and when dying of Alzheimer’s, he went all the way back to East Asia in a doomed attempt to find the orang again. Terry Pratchett is a hero of mine, a writer’s writer. But you can do better than locking eyes with an orang utan across a crowded jungle. I hope he did.

Others tug at loose threads in their lives by seeking harmony, or peace, or mathematical elegance, or love. Science, I have often thought, is driven by a love of beauty as much as by curiosity or by a desire to serve the common good. The Cavendish Laboratory in my hometown of Cambridge, whose toiling inmates have earned thirty Nobel Prizes as of 2019, has a text written on the old front door, put there by James Clerk Maxwell: ‘The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all of them that have pleasure therein.’ Open the doors to the Cavendish, he was saying, and through physics, seek pleasure, and seek God.

In the previous century, the philosopher Bertrand Russell was a famous atheist, even writing a book entitled Why I am not a Christian. But there are other sides to his story. Russell’s daughter, Katherine Tait, said of him: ‘Somewhere at the back of my father’s mind, at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul, there was an empty space that had once been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put in it.’ Russell was now haunted by a ‘ghost-like feeling of not belonging in this world.’

Russell himself wrote in a private letter, ‘The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain . . . a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite – the beatific vision, God – I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found – but the love of it is my life . . . it is the actual spring of life within me.’[2] Look again at the main theme of the book, how suffering turns to rubble much of what we thought was good and reveals the main themes of life as networking and vocation, belonging and making. I have come to believe that these can only be fully worked out in relationship with God and his purposes. Their appearance in our lives without God is more like us hearing a melody on the wind, rather than getting the full symphony. They are the smell of baking bread, and they should put us on the hunt for the full loaf.


[1] The orang’s name was Kusasi, and diligent searching on the Internet might reveal more of this story. Pratchett’s Discworld character of the Unseen University’s Librarian is the greatest orang utan in fiction (in my opinion, but it’s a thin field).

[2] Both these Russell quotes were dug out by Prof. Alister McGrath and referenced in his Gresham College lecture Why God Won’t Go Away. Gresham College lectures can be accessed from their website. ‘Three brains’ McGrath has doctorates in biophysics, divinity, and intellectual history.

Quiet revolutionaries in the workplace

It could be us

Here’s some aspirational stuff on what the Christian faith can do for those of us who work with others. This is from Katherine Alsdorf who herself used to work with Tim Keller’s Redeemer Church in New York, and co-authored a book with him.

If we as the people of faith can work with purpose, partnering with God in his love and care for the world, if we can admit our mistakes more readily because we experience God’s grace, if we can love others and serve them because we’ve been loved and served, if we can find hope that helps us persevere because we believe in his kingdom that will end all brokenness and wipe away every tear, then, I think the faith and work movement will be the forefront of evangelism.

Are you jealous of your coworker? The gospel can change that. Do you fear that you’ll fail at what you’re doing? How does the gospel calm your fear? Are you having trouble getting up in the morning to face work? Or trouble stopping work in order to rest. As a matter of fact, work is a bit of an idol factory. It leads us to overvalue success or money or security or recognition or comfort. And the gospel helps us to root out those idols and turn to Jesus for our salvation. And when we do that, we change. Our hearts change. I love it. I love it when it happens to me and when I see it in others. I see people change from hating to loving their colleagues, from fearing failure to stepping out in faith. This gives a good start in applying the gospel to work and our work lives.

Rediscovering relevance

Surprisingly, the gospel is about everything.

Am so enjoying Paul Williams’ Exiles on Mission, as I may have mentioned before on this blog. I try to set aside some time each day to read a chapter. This is good practice, except that I’m reading it in our conservatory and the April sun is high and I keep get the overwhelming urge to lean back, close my eyes, and think about what he’s just written.

But I have been snapping out of myself. The chapter I read today was all about translating the gospel into our post-Christian culture. Another way of saying this is rediscovering the relevance of the gospel in this time and in this place.

This is so important because the Good News can seem irrelevant– not only to people who don’t know what it is, but also, perhaps, we Christians secretly admit, to ourselves. How can this message of grace be of interest to decent people with prosperous lives and a decided disinterest in suddenly taking up church attendance? Why would they want to do that?

Of course seasons come around for us all when the bottom falls out of our world and we perhaps realize that we’ve needed a rock to lean on for a long time. And with anyone, anywhere, who knows what God can set off in someone’s head and heart, a hunger that only Christ can answer. (That’s part of my own story of coming to faith incidentally.)

But with all that, still, the gospel can feel like a thing for the rougher edges or special seasons of the average life, not the whole. And for the private lives of individuals, rather than the whole world. And so many metaphors of salvation that are reissued forth from your standard church don’t reliably work in the outside world. (‘Don’t you feel you’re in a courtroom, and you’ve done loads wrong? Well, suddenly the judge’s son steps up and says, “I’ll pay your fine and”… sounds familiar, huh? Oh, you seem to have gone.)

Relevance rediscovered

I’m oversimplifying a detailed chapter, but you can imagine two steps:

  1. Fit your chosen story within the Bible’s grand narrative of life, the universe and everything.
  2. Carefully figure out some action resulting from this new perspective — do something.

What is the Bible’s ‘grand narrative’? As has been observed, it can be seen as a drama in several acts:

  1. Creation. God made the Universe, for us to thrive in along with him, and even though God says so himself, it’s very good.
  2. Fall. And we rebel, and alienate ourselves from God and each other and generally mess things up.
  3. Israel. God gets to work redeeming the story, at first with broad brushstrokes, like the Law.
  4. Between the Testaments… it isn’t quick. Things have to brew. But finally we get to:
  5. Jesus. God’s translation of himself into human form demonstrates, then inaugurates, then welcomes us to join, a Kingdom where God is ruling.
  6. Church And this message is embodied and carried everywhere
  7. New Creation. Until God calls time and establishes a new creation, filled with the scarred and remade people out of all humanity, stocked with all the good and beautiful from the old, and they live with him in this new day, thriving together, forever.

So: rethink your chosen story in this light, then act on what you’ve discovered. This was an exercise that Paul Williams got his students to do, but here are a couple of examples that I made up. (When I was sitting in the sunshine in the conservatory with my eyes closed, you might have thought I was asleep, but I was thinking.)

  • Foreign debt
  • Youth justice

Foreign debt

Foreign debt. Remember the years up to the millennium when many poorer nations had borrowed money, then spent it or seized it, and were now spending more on interest payments than they were on things like education? What’s the unredeemed story here? How about: These people entered into loans quite transparently. If they spent it on yachts rather than clinics, that’s their problem. Why punish the taxpayers of donor nations for the corruption of recipients?

What would it look like if you infected this unredeemed story with God’s story? Christ is lord of all and intends people to thrive. There is greed and sin and people stealing the money rather than spending it on the poor. There is also, under God, redemption and a further chance to thrive. And Christ is Lord of all. And it isn’t all that expensive for donor nations who anyway could have been more careful the first time round. That can then lead to action: why not drop the debt, on condition that the interest payments saved are spent on the poor, on things like health and education? A campaign around the millennium started with this kind of thinking (in, I think, Tear Fund). It led to a clear call to action, that was taken up enthusiastically by trades unions, campaigners of various kinds, and eventually governments. Debts were indeed forgiven and thousands of children got an education who otherwise wouldn’t. This was, among many other things, the gospel, properly thought-through and applied to our culture, causing a wildfire.

Youth justice

Youth justice. Here’s the unredeemed story. Frequent or serious offenders cause massive amounts of misery and should be locked up.

Now let’s infect it with the God story: What damaged these children? What damage have they done? What evil has been done to them and what evil have they done? All can be put right under a God who made them in his own image, made them for better than this, who provides forgiveness and the power of a new start through Christ, and who intends them to thrive and do well in a beautiful creation. A huge change has happened in youth justice in recent years in cases where young people are found dealing drugs far from where they usually live. After suitable enquiries, it’s quite normal now to treat these children not as young criminals but as vulnerable kids who’ve been groomed by drug gangs and are being exploited. Today they are treated under modern slavery law, as victims, rather than drug law, as dealers. Law enforcement goes for the gangs instead. I have no idea if Christian reflection was behind this change. But it was reflection in a Christian direction. And it has been deployed across every youth court in the nation.

The conclusion

Suddenly, everything we touch and everything we do becomes relevant, even urgent. We can ask of it, ‘How can express the Kingdom of God through this?’ Or we could pray, as someone taught: ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as in heaven.’

Me and Katie Mack and the end of everything

With a side order of the meaning of existence

Am very much enjoying ‘The End of Everything’ by astrophysicist Katie Mack, which is, so far, a really fun and informed romp through apocalypsical possibilities. Well done to my enlightened kids for buying me this for my birthday (by strange coincidence, it also was on my Amazon wishlist).

I’m writing this in hospital (in March 2021) having just had one of my six-monthly assessments for the heart transplant list, and I took Katie Mack to cheer me up, and she has. (I passed the assessment, officially sick enough to need a transplant and well enough to tolerate one.)

I wasn’t entirely convinced, however, if I may say so, by what seemed to me a wobbly attempt to put a foot in two boats that seem to be far apart and drifting further.

Acknowledging an ultimate end gives us context, meaning, even hope, and allows us, paradoxically, to step back from our petty day to day concerns and simultaneously live more fully in the moment. Maybe this can be the meaning we seek.

Katie Mack, The End of Everything 2020, p 7.

The two boats are meaning and science. She’s already dismissed finding meaning outside of science:

  1. She’s read widely but no-one agrees with each other so there is no human consensus of opinion.
  2. She’s not sure she would believe anything anyway about the meaning of life if it was ‘written down for me once and for all in a book’ (p4) and couldn’t be derived mathematically or worked out through scientific scrutiny. Obviously, that statement doesn’t include stuff she herself writes, like that statement, even though that statement can’t be derived mathematically or worked out through scientific scrutiny.
  3. Nor does that statement allow any possibly of the transcendent. Er … if you only allow yourself to look at the material world, you’ll only ever see the material world. Odd to pre-filter reality like that.
  4. Plus, if you have to reach for cliches like ‘petty day to day concerns’ and ‘living more fully in the moment’, I am on the verge of concluding that you haven’t found meaning at all but are cramming the hole with words that are commonly available and quite funky but sadly a bit empty.

Here’s the thing. We get meaning from love. And actually, if you wanted consensus about that, ask anybody. Meaning and love are the two foci of the ellipse within which we live our lives. Science can describe, beautifully, the journey I am about to go on if I am ever let out of this hospital – first to my parents, 2 hours and 11 minutes from here, and then to my wife, daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, wierdly, 2 hours and 11 minutes from my parents’ home. Science can describe everything about the journey except what it means to me and perhaps to them. Love says what it means. And in one sense, love says everything.

Eight hard truths about the contemporary church

The current book that I am reading, scrambling to understand, trying to assimilate, and also trying to argue with is this:

It is excellent (so far). I hope I am giving tasters rather than spoilers if I quote what comes at the end of his first chapter. The italicised bits are my commentary

Eight hard truths about the contemporary church

1. A great deal of Protestant Christian culture and practice is still perpetuating a sacred- secular dualism. Among the symptoms of this I notice can be a sense that ordinary work’s real value is generating resources to use on Christian stuff, paying the bills, and offering opportunities to share the gospel with workmates. Work done well, for its own sake, taking part in the re-creation of the world, perhaps, is underplayed as a Christian imperative.

2. Faithful biblical and relational whole life discipleship is a rare experience, but a strong desire, for most young people.

3. The ministry and mission of the whole people of God continue to be marginalized by many church leaders and by theological training programs. The church is still mostly training clergy.

4. With few exceptions, the church has lost a clear, gracious, and intelligent public voice and tends to sound either shrill or unsure of itself.

5. Much of the energy of Christian public engagement is focused on changing or preventing changes to legislation that would affect Christians. It is a lobbying exercise, not a missional exercise.

6. Church leaders spend most of their time on matters of internal organization and practise rather than on the church’s communal public works and witness.

7. Despite the lesson of World War II, much of the church is still vulnerable to ideological capture by the major narratives of western culture. Middle class values must be maintained at all costs.

8. Investment to ensure Bible confidence among Christians and church leaders is low.

Stuck in the middle with you

Let’s not say what’s on the left of me and the right of me

I am really enjoying one of my birthday presents, which was this book:

I’ve read the prologue and the first chapter several times, still trying to digest it. Here the author, Paul Williams, is in diagnosis mode. He notes that the modern world — ‘Characterized by confidence in reason, science, and technological progress to usher in ever-increasing wealth and happiness’–and the last vestiges of the mediaeval Christian settlement are being rejected together and being replaced by ‘nonreligion, amorphous spirituality, moral relativity and authoritian secularism’1

So leading popular atheists and the Archbishop of Canterbury share the same leaky ship and the waves that are pounding them are questioning, for example, the universality of their assumptions, or whether ‘expertise’ is basically about a power-grab rather than a careful exercise of finding truth. ‘We’ve had enough of experts’ is the unsettling cry not just of Brexiteers but of anti-vaxxers, campaigners against mobile phones and people who believe newspapers are about power rather than truth.

Williams then points out that the climate the church faces is internally contradictory but unitedly hostile– Christians are blamed by environmentalsts for the industrialized, science-allied exploitation of the planet and simultaneously blamed by atheists for being anti-science and anti-reason. ‘Western culture is fragmenting into incoherent and incommensurable discourses, but each fragment has a different grudge against the church’ (p xv). This is fine stuff, even if it is at a certain level special pleading. (Lots of groups, perhaps, think that everyone is against them; and it actually isn’t true for the Church: there is more to society and to human individuals than broad intellectual currents. Many people are still finding life within Christian walls, just like bees find nectar even in weedy railway sidings.)

Looking forward to the rest, though it’s going to be slow work if the rest of the book has as much good stuff to digest.