The power of the small

I wrote some years ago about fractals, objects that are similar whether viewed on large scale or a small scale. For example, the way trees branch is the same whether you look at a whole tree or just a small portion of the branch. They are ‘self-similar across scales’, which is to say, fractal.

photo of bare tree under clear blue sky
Mathematically and theologically significant. Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

Everything is infinitely small compared to God so (to God) the pattern presumably matters more than the size.

So it isn’t surprising that fractal behaviour crops up whenever we consider God at work. Parables–picturing God at work–are self-similar across scales. Is the parable of the sower about the history of nations? Or of a single small tribe? Or of a single human heart? It’s self-similar across scales, so it applies equally to all of them.

The pattern matters more than the size

Faithfulness is fractal. If you are faithful in a little thing, you will be entrusted with much. One who is faithful in small things will be understood to be faithful in big things too. The pattern is the thing; the size doesn’t much matter in the eyes of God.

This is a stunning fact when you hold it up against our desires for prestige or respect or generally just to be associated with big stuff. Two things stand out to me, one of them relevant to this advent season.

  1. The young woman caring for the infant Jesus, wiping his bum, burping him, rocking him to sleep, was supplying exactly the faithfulness needed at that moment; enough faithfulness to save a whole Universe.
  2. Our smallest faithful actions shine out in God’s eyes like stars– a secret of a life of patient revolution.

Book reviews for Christmas

I suppose you can get people presents that are other-than-books.

But why would you?

Justin Brierley: The surprising rebirth of belief in God

Justin Brierley is as good as anyone observing the fickle winds of fashion in thought.

For many years he hosted the podcast Unbelievable which moderated match-ups between atheists and Christians. Moderated is the right word, since Brierley kept the peace and ensured, most times, the conversations were fruitful. You can’t help thinking that if the BBC had the sense to match their reach, they would have headhunted him years ago, a brilliant natural broadcaster with unshowy erudition. Still.

This book takes us through some of what he’s learnt from his ringside seat watching thought-leaders’ wrestle. Mostly it’s a careful account of the disintegration of New Atheist teaching, and some notes on what’s replacing it. He finds a new respect for theism; a renewed respect for the Bible; and some of the people he’s met has, to their surprise, either become committed Christians or thoughtful and sympathetic observers of the Christian faith. It’s a fascinating contemporary summary, leveraging his superpower of finding influential thinkers and inviting them onto his show.

If you, like me, wander into bookshops and have been occasionally surprised by finding sympathy for the Christian faith in unexpected places, this book gives a comprehensive and better researched summary of the shifting weather. It’s super and (for the Christian) heartening.

Justin Brierley offers three exhortations to the church near the end of the book – three things to cling tightly to:
1. Faith and reason
2. The mystery – the Christian faith quickly wanders into a dark woodland of paradox, the beyond-understanding, the ancient, the gnarly, all accompanied by the sound of worship (‘Church bells beyond the stars heard’ George Herbert wrote). Some of those turning to the faith enjoy all this, much more than they do Christian pseudo-rock concerts, or people ‘being discipled’ through a short course of study.
3. A forgiving, accepting community, a powerful force, now that social media has made witch-burning popular again in the outside world.

Super book for anyone wanting to keep up. Grab a copy.

Book reviews for Christmas

This book has very little to do with the theme of this blog, except, perhaps, at a stretch, the quest to make stuff beautiful. Makes a great present though for a certain type of person, and you’ll know someone.

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This book is just enormous geeky fun. It’s all about the fonts that surround us every day, their history, their designers, some of the fashions and controversies. It is true that after reading it, you’ll never look at printed words the same way again. I started, for instance, noticing what an unhealthy, disjointed font-nightmare a hospital corridor is. The same goes for the average British high street. But when people curate and corrall and design fonts, and put them together on a page, yummy.

I took ages to finish it, and (if I had a shelf for this purpose) would probably file it as ‘good loo reading.’

All of us know someone who’ll like this — the same people who read Lynne Truss’s ‘Shoots, eats and leaves’ for example.

I gave it four stars instead of five because, I mean, it’s quite a lot about the fiddly bits on the end of letters.



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Book reviews for Christmas

Here’s another one, though frankly a bit grim to find under your tree.

Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East by Kim Ghattas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This wonderful book gets under the skin of what happened to the Arab and Muslim world in the past 40 years and gives a voice to the writers, lawyers, media types, thinkers, critics, imams and others who resisted the ‘black wave’ of religion-shrouded revolutionary terror.

Kim Ghattas, a Lebanese, and therefore heir to those who watch (and often trade with) the great tidal forces sweeping around them, sees 1979 as the point the Arab and Muslim worlds collectively departed from their pluralistic senses. That year was the year of the Islamic revolution in Iran; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which led to jihad (sponsored by America and funnelled through Pakistan); and the attempted takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by religious zealots.

Out of this came the breakdown of a sleepy, plural, varied, tolerant Islam and its replacement with state terror (in Iran), the rise of the Wahabhis in Saudi, and these overlapped with the Islamism that Zia ul-Haq was imposing on Pakistan, to that country’s loss. Out of all that came the sprawling Saudi-Iranian rivalry with each outdoing the other in Islamicness; assassinations, war, and Sunnis and Shias killing each other: Muslim shall make war on Muslim. Ripples of it spread through the West: book burnings on English streets and the carnage of the twin towers. But the real churn was elsewhere.

It’s an astonishing story, and an astonishingly sad one. What a strange time we have lived through! Deeply researched, brilliantly told, and in my reading as good and influential (though with a different scope) to classic books like Albert Hourani’s The Arab World. The book’s impact comes from the way the story is told and the links followed, and from the fact (as it lays out) that any number of people resisted and yet were too small and too isolated to stop themselves being drowned or exiled by the Black Wave.

Perhaps the Arab and Muslim world is weary of war and the wave is ebbing. How sad though it all is and was. This book is a trusty guide.




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Peak bookshop (repeated)

Photo by Tomáš Malík on Unsplash

This is the best time of year to experience ‘Peak Bookshop’. All the titles for Christmas shopping will be in. (Or should be.)

Sort your way past the:

  • Celebrity puff pieces
  • Recipe books
  • Old horses being flogged (regular bestsellers hatching another well-timed Christmas hardback)

… and find the stuff that makes bookshops great. That makes bookshops still great despite being gutted and filleted by Amazon: a curated collection of original, brilliant, beyond-our-experience insight. Storytelling round a global campfire. Human minds on sale, packaged for easy consumption. The best thinking, expressed in the best ways, all ready for us to engage with, dream with, laugh with, lose ourselves in, ponder, be shaped by.

Glory be.

(This is a repeat of a blog I first wrote in November 2016, happily still true).

The (alleged) fraying of the social fabric, and the way back

(Generated with AI)

Beware middle age. You become aware the world has changed around you, you are no longer at the cultural centre of things, and you attach moral weight to the change. You haven’t just grown old–blithely ploughing your land into a deep rut while the world stayed fertile and flexible–you think it’s got worse. The country is going to the dogs.

I don’t entirely believe this. I rather prefer Dickens’ formula, that the good old days, like now, were the best of times … the worst of times.

But surely some things get worse, even as other things get better, as the erratic lighthouse-beam of the world’s attention lights stuff up?

One of the things that may have got worse is the fraying of the social fabric. Commentator and cultural critic (or, OK, journalist on a deadline) David Brooks wrote a fascinating article for The Atlantic 1 in which he tried to answer a couple of questions:

  1. Why have Americans become so sad? – he points out a few statistics, rising rates of depression and loneliness, increasing lack of friends, and ‘persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.’
  2. Why have Americans become so mean? He cites restauranteurs and medical staff, for example, facing never-before-seen levels of rudeness, cruelty, and abuse from the general public. Himself a recent, adult convert to Christ, he says, ‘we’re enmeshed in some sort of emotional, relational and spiritual crisis.’

Many reasons have been offered (as he points out): the rise of social media; the decline of community organizations; the toppling of the pyramid that had male, white, hetrosexuals at the apex; and the high levels of poverty and insecurity after we baby boomers bought all the houses, snaffled all the good pensions and left the national finances neck-deep in the red.

Brooks doesn’t dispute any of these, but he points to a deeper cause. ‘We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration … We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation.’ His solution, if I’m reading him right, is education.

He may be right. But (even accepting his diagnosis) I’m not so sure. My problem is that I’m not sure that ‘moral education’ actually works. I rather think (and maybe I have the apostle Paul on my side here) that any amount of moral instruction only makes us more creatively sneaky at finding outlets for our evil hearts. Paul himself knew all kinds of law, he had moral instruction from his nose to his toes, but his true nature still leaked out as pride, hypocrisy, cold-heartedness, snobbishness and self-righteousness. My reading of the gospels is that Jesus found the Pharisees, moral crusaders whether you asked them or not, much harder to bear with than the ordinary sinners who drank too much or slept around. The Pharisees’ collective A+ in moral education played to their low cunning and monstrous smugness.

But if it’s not education, what? I think the answer is love. I would argue that loving behaviour, like many other things, travels down human networks. The kind or courteous person in the workplace changes the workplace. The generous act spawns further generous acts. Human goodness spreads. It’s not so much ‘education’ as lived-out loving decency that exerts a soft pressure on those who receive it.

I have heard that one of William Wilberforce’s aims in life was ‘to make goodness fashionable’, and I think it is true the one person’s behaviour can eventually, via a long and winding road, change the culture. There are many examples of this. For example, I have worked with legal professionals and judges for more than 20 years. I have never seen even the faintest suggestion of a bribe. I remember the horror at my son’s school when word got out that a parent (not from a British culture) had offered a teacher money to smooth the path for a child. It was a scandal roughly on a scale of someone exposing themselves in the playground. That is not to claim my own culture is especially good, just that in the matter of bribery in those two instances, it was unthinkable and inconsciable. That’s culture. Integrity (in this narrow area in these isolated cultural examples) has become fashionable.

Or take sport. In Rugby Union, the only person who can question a referee’s decision is the team captain, and they can only make a polite enquiry. In soccer, players surround the referee and harangue them. There are two different cultures. Maybe one day soccer players will be as polite to match officials as rugby players are today; or maybe one day rugby players will be as rude as soccer players are today. I suspect whichever way any of this changes, it will be because some influential people did it first and in some mysterious way their behaviour became fashionable and normalized within the culture.

The Christian church changed the brutal Roman culture; it became unappealing to watch people being eaten by lions. The @metoo movement addressed and changed the laddish culture of the ‘noughties. What was done then is no longer accepted now. I don’t think it was education that did this; somehow it was social pressure tied up with love.

Interesting. Reminds me of Paul’s description of the Philippians, whom he instructed to ‘become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”[c] Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.’ (Philippians 2:15)

An update on the New Atheists

Times move on

The New Atheist movement, headed by its ‘four horseman’ of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennet and Sam Harris, so influential in the early 2000s, has, I read, ‘fractured and lost its spirit’. 1

The author of that quote, Sebastian Milbank, a critic and editor and (I think) Blue Labour sympathizer, notes that part of the reason is that the political left has shifted. Back in the day of Peak New Atheist, the left (in Milbank’s telling) were happy to stand on science and observable facts and what worked rather than the religion-inspired dogmas of the right-wing. So New Atheism with its talk of reason and evidence, was a natural fit (regardless of the politics of the Four Horsemen themselves): a powerful alchemy: the trendy centre-left fused with a newly articulated atheism.

But as well as New Atheism splintering internally, the political left has headed towards (again in Milbank’s telling) ‘an ideology of “care”; ‘the lived experiences of victims’; ‘indigenous ways of knowing.’ Cruelly, it might be said to have headed for the touchy-feely and the subjectively felt instead of the proven, and may indeed have come to view science and rationality as a power-grab rather than a bipartisan quest for common truth and common good. This is bad news for New Atheists, who don’t have anything else to offer, don’t do touchy-feely at all, and who have been left becalmed by the fickle winds of the zeitgeist.

Then look at what the ever-thoughtful Peter Dray writes.2 He works for the Christian student movement UCCF and is a keen observer of changing trends in student life. He quotes the ‘Russian born satirist, author and political commentator Konstantin Kisin’:

The reason new atheism has lost is mojo is that it has no answers to the lack of meaning and purpose that our post-Christian societies are suffering from. What will fill that void? Religious people have their answer. Do the rest of us?

Dray goes on:

It’s this kind of existential questioning that characterises many students today. If there is no God and no purpose, and the universe is wholly indifferent to our lives, then what’s the point? How can we make sense of our apparently innate sense of justice? Where can we turn when we feel overwhelmed by life’s anxieties? Are we really happy to reduce love to an unfortunate side-effect of our evolutionary psychology?

He argues the key challenge (for those seeking to present the Christian gospel to students) is now ‘demonstrating the uniqueness of Jesus in a world of therapies.’ And he says, We should surely celebrate that today’s students are asking deep existential and personal questions that only Jesus can truly answer. To those with eyes to see, Jesus is clearly about to offer a weightier, more substantial hope – one which addresses us not just at an emotional level but which calls us to repentance and faith, and to life with the living God.

All fascinating stuff. A challenge for me personally, because the realm of science, logic, evidence and the common good is home ground for me. I would be quite happy to dialogue there with New Atheists. Jesus, I would argue with them, is the piece of rogue data you can’t ignore. If he rose from the dead, that upsets everything, even the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is everything.

But what is revealed by the new zeitgeist, if accurately observed in today’s students (which of course must only be patchily true), is surely the shortage, and the centrality, of love, and the golden shackles that bind together love and meaning in the human frame. These things are beyond reason and science and therefore beyond New Atheism and its parallel, Christian apologetic.

Jesus is the way and the truth and the life and God is love. All else falls before the grandeur of this.

Mental health, then and now

Photo by the blowup on Unsplash

Mental health demonstrates a wide bifurcation between Western and other worldviews.

The ancient Greeks, lending their day-to-day language to the writers of the New Testament, had simple terms that undergirded simple ideas. There were such things as ‘unclean spirits.’ People could be bothered by these unclean spirits and could thus be ‘demonized’.

When Jesus came along, he was able to wear this worldview effortlessly. He spoke on occasion to evil spirits within a person; they spoke to him, usually calling out curses; he cast them out; the patient recovered. It’s worth remembering that Jesus also ‘rebuked’ fevers and indeed ‘rebuked’ the wind and the waves. But as regards ‘unclean spirits’ he didn’t feel a need to update the ancient worldview; he operated successfully within it.

Western medicine has, I think, turfed out this worldview entirely, even though plenty of people still hear voices, voices that tell them to do evil things, and even though some people would self-diagnose as ‘demonized.’

Once I was on a conference call with a sick and very damaged person (he had been tortured). The leader of the call asked if anyone was in the room with him. The answer? No-one, he said, except the demon who watched him all the time and never left him.

Essentially, I think (and this is not my subject) quite a few Western-trained mental health workers would think the person self-diagnosing as ‘demonized’ was actually deluded and deceived and essentially, misdiagnosed. (I don’t want to downplay, though, the tenderness and skill with which some people within Western diagnostic traditions will nevertheless work with such a patient.)

There are plenty of fine reasons for this Western stance. Unfortunately (and I am very hestitant here because it really isn’t my subject), Western mental health is still in my view rather primitive. I wonder if it isn’t, in fact, roughly where Western physical medicine was about 300 years ago–dogmatic, authoritative, ineffective, its practice centred around humours, bleeding, and leeches.

How often are the mentally ill cured? I do not know. To what extent is mental illness itself a metaphor– in the sense that we sort-of know what physical illness is and (by way of metaphor), describe other things wrong with humans as ‘mental illness’? Are we medicalising something that isn’t an illness? For example the widely-cited Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) has a new entry called ‘Prolonged Grief Disorder’. This in effect medicalizes people who suffer bereavement for longer than might be considered normal. I don’t know enough to critique this properly, but at least on the face of it it seems odd to give a medical label to someone who’s taking a long time to move on. If you can’t pull your socks up in a decent amount of time, DSM-V seems to say, there must be something medically wrong with you and you need a psychiatrist. I am not entirely sure that I am happy with this, nor that it is right to use phrases like ‘mental health epidemic’ when more and more stuff like this is unearthed. ‘Mental health terminology epidemic’ might be equally fair. The wave of sadness and depression that is passing through the country, is, of course, not doubted, just (arguably) not properly diagnosed and even if the diagnosis is right, isn’t being ‘cured’. Or isn’t being cured all that much. People are still suffering and sad, which is the real scandal. People are still plagued with voices and terrors.

This circles back to the bifurcated worldview. It would be fine to disparage and move on from the ancient worldview if the modern worldview wasn’t, in itself, so frequently ineffective and disappointing.

Wouldn’t it?

History is slow, tidal, and made by unlikely people

Photo by Igor Rodrigues on Unsplash

I was enjoying spending time in Matthew’s gospel the other morning, the first chapter about the lineage of Christ. But keep reading. It’s subtle and clever, I think, even subversive.

Most people quote lineages to show the nobility of their birth. (Actually our pedigree Labrador did the same). Matthew does some of that, of course, but the subversive bit is that he only mentions four women – – five if you include the Virgin Mary – – and none of the four are what you’d call conventional, good Jewish girls. They span the range of scandal and tragedy, all females in a man-centred, sexually-objectifying world. Tamar, a sex worker, was impregnated by her father-in-law. Rahab, another sex-worker was a foreigner and an enemy. Ruth was a returning refugee. Bathsheba was seduced by King David when she was married to another man, and, stripping naked on her roof in sight of the palace, may have not been totally blameless in her conduct.

So the four women who were none of them conventional good Jewish girls (Ruth perhaps excepted) were highlighted by Matthew as blood relatives of the Messiah, part of his noble pedigree. Was Matthew gently reminding his Jewish readers that nobody’s excluded from having a part in Christ? That nobody’s history or reputation excludes them?

A second thing about Matthew’s genealogy was that surely he was making theological points rather than strictly historic ones. It reads to me like a stylized re-telling. Matthew was dealing in ‘who we are’ (truly) rather than ‘who we are’ (precisely). (There’s a lot of this in the Bible as everywhere. News reports, for example, are always stylized; they simplify to amplify.) In Matthew’s telling, then, there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David; fourteen generations from David to Babylon; fourteen generations from Babylon to Christ. Put this way it becomes a vignette of salvation history.

Fourteen generations from Abraham: the pioneers become a power. That is not just Israel’s story. It is the Muslim empire’s story, America’s story, the British Empire’s story, and on a wider canvas, the story of every world-dominating thing.

Then, over fourteen generations, the empire, corpulent and corrupt, is swept away, to Babylon. And it seems like the end; the bones scattered at the mouth of the grave.

But then fourteen generations from Babylon to Christ. Babylon to Christ! Matthew’s genealogy says, don’t be bogged down in the noise: learn to see the signal. History’s going somewhere, but it takes its time and has its seasons.

Postscript: A kind critic pointed out that it was not fair to call Tamar a sex worker. My friendly critic is completely right. Sorry for the careless writing. I find it impossible to entangle the rights and wrongs in Tamar’s actions, given her very limited choices and the distance of her culture from mine. But I suppose the general point still stands: Matthew seemed to alight on some unlikely women to name explicitly in his genealogy, and it’s a decent assumption that he was reminding us all of Jesus’ love and inclusion for those of who might doubt our insider credentials.

How to set up a social ministry that lasts

Mike Kenneally, Unsplash

If you are a church group wanting to start some social ministry in your community, three principles stand out, I think:

  1. Set well-recognized, high standards. Aim to be widely respected.
  2. Don’t charge people for your services but trust that the money will come in somehow.
  3. Go to where the Kingdom of God will have the most impact; start at the bottom of the barrel.

These are derived from Jesus’ instructions to his itinerant-healing-and-preaching disciples in Matthew 10:

  1. Find the home of a local, well-respected worthy and lodge there. (This gives social accreditation of decent standards)
  2. ‘Freely you have have received, freely give’ but ‘workers deserve their wages’. The disciples’ stance was to serve for free, but to trust that they would be recompensed; God’s work, done God’s way, won’t lack God’s supply.
  3. ‘Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. There are two ways to read this verse: assume that all the house of Israel are lost sheep; or perhaps the more straightforward one: the house of Israel has some sheep happily grazing, but others who are lost. Go to the lost.

This made me think of two charities that I know about or have recently learnt about. Romsey Mill in Cambridge works with families and youth, and has various specialities, such as groups for young fathers, or for young people with ASD. St Luke’s Advice Service in Brighton offers help to people with debt or disability, often navigating government bureaucracy on behalf of their clients. (I didn’t contact either charity before writing this, which is off my own bat.)

Each:

  • is widely respected in the community (St Luke’s has commendations from each of the area’s three Members of Parliament)
  • Offers services for free or for a notional contribution. The real funds come from fundraising; leveraging available Government funds; and calling on a volunteer workforce and local goodwill. Local churches and maybe other groups like businesses or charitable groups see each charity as a legitimate outlet for community service. The goodwill of churches was behind their founding and helps to sustain them without compromising their specific focus or standards. So their money mostly doesn’t come from their clients and their work is not for profit. There are no strings attached.
  • Is set up for the people who most need help.

What a vision: the churches of our country patching the holes in our social support networks, in that way finding a ready audience, and living out and demonstrating the Kingdom of God in the sight of all.