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?

Pulling the future into the present

… but it’s slippery

A wheatfield near our home

A lot of people can see the bits of the future, and quite a lot of us have the extra talent of somehow taking hold of a bit of the future and wrestling it down into the present.

‘I can imagine a day when cars are electric,’ someone might say. Or maybe an executive in a car company might say, ‘I predict one day there’ll be a lot of electric cars on the road.’ Both are seeing the future but not necessarily doing anything about it.

Someone else might say, ‘I’m going to build and mass-produce electic cars.’ Such people don’t just see the future. They drag it into the present.

Lovers, farmers, teachers and entrepreneurs do this all the time. Perhaps nearly all of us do it sometime, when we look at some future target or goal and move from ‘that would be nice’ to ‘I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen.’

The world of the prophet

True in everyday life, this is also true in Christian discipleship. The Christian faith adds quite a bit to our innate human ability to drag the future the into present. We add God and prayer to the equation, and also the theological sense that there is a good future held in God’s hands. It can be sampled, if not fully fulfilled, in our ordinary lives here. Even more controversially, perhaps, God can promise us things.

This leads us to the world of the prophet, or intercessor, that lonely place where someone has taken hold of God, or God has taken hold of someone, who will pray and work and agitate and cry and pray again until the future is born on earth, because God has led them into that lonely place. They feel he has promised them something and they have altered their life around that promise.

This is a subtle and difficult place. Because we can be completely wrong. Think of the pastor counselling a series of young men in a church, all of whom think God has promised them the same girl will be his wife. We can also be incompletely wrong, in that God has genuinely promised something, but we have embellished it over the months, and our embellishments don’t happen, even if the promise does. Or we can be wrong in that God was promising and we were wearing tin ears, so the fulfilment of the promise comes as a total surprise (think of the disciples’ response to the resurrection).

But for all the misuse, there is good use. Think of the two characters, Simeon and Anna, around Jesus’ first presentation at the temple. They had waited decades, into great old age, and possibly the temple authorities thought they were a bit mad, but Simeon was finally able to say, ‘you may now dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen…’ 1. Note that in Simeon’s and Anna’s cases, the temple authorities’ robust common sense may not have been a good guide. This unlikely pair each saw something and held onto it, improbable as it was.

That quiet, burdened person in your church may be bearing the future in a womb of lonely prayer somewhere. Or it may be a false pregnancy. Or even (to mangle the metaphor) a bit of both. Be kind to them.

Wherever you ripe fields behold,
Waving to God their sheaves of gold,
Be sure some com of wheat has died,
Some saintly soul been crucified;
Someone has suffered, wept and prayed,
And fought hell’s legions undismayed.

Arthur S Booth-Clibborn, ‘There is no gain but by a loss’.

The love of the brand new, and how it is a hint of eternity

Photo by Michal Bar Haim on Unsplash

Entropy always gets us in the end. This is the idea that, however well you are holding things together at the moment, it won’t last, it will fall apart, you will fall apart, your carefully tended life will be decomposed down again to the basic atoms. We’re all going to rot and die. This much we all know.

Life is the temporary holding back of the forces of disarray. And we celebrate it. A new baby, a new leaf, they stake out a defensive position against the chaos that must come, and we are encouraged to see this act of entropy-defiance.

This is also why shopping is such fun, and unboxing a new purchase. We’re sampling, however momentarily, the unblemished.

I am still slowly reading my New Testament in Greek, looking up the words I don’t know, greatly helped by the fact there are apps for that. The first letter of Peter (1 Peter 1:4), talks about our ‘inheritance’, which is where we who cast in our lot with God through Christ are actually heading. It uses three words, all beginning with ‘a-‘ (or actually alpha of course), meaning ‘not-‘:

aphtartos: not decaying

amiontos: not stained

amarantos: not fading

You could add ‘not porcelain.’ It’s not static. Just earlier in the same passage this hope is called a ‘living hope’. That’s the future: not decaying, not stained, not fading, not static.

Beautiful.

A quantum physicist does arithmetic

This is why they shouldn’t.

duckling on black soil during daytime
Now look what you’ve gone and done. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So, one plus one equals two.

Let’s count ducklings. You have one duckling over here, and another duckling over there and so there are two ducklings in a subregion of total time and space that includes both the ducklings and you, the observer.

But there are serious problems with this.

  1. How do you know the two ducklings are separate entities? One apparent duckling could be simply a reflection of a real duckling. Given the link between ducklings and ponds, this is not unlikely.
  2. Or of course perhaps only one duckling exists in the whole universe, and all the the other ducklings are themselves resonances or echoes of this Single Universal Duckling.
  3. Such a posited Single Universal Duckling would have to encompass all the possible ages of ducklings as observed throughout the Universe in order to match observation. This would be an extraordinary entity: smeared across time but confined in space, an Eternal Single Universal Duckling or ESUD. Hatching from an egg would also be difficult: the ESUD would have to be hatched, hatching and not hatched all at once, all in some realm of reality that is simultanously beyond human grasp but not beyond a duck’s rear end. This is possible but perhaps unlikely.
  4. So to reiterate, for 1 +1 to equal 2, you not only have to actually have two entities, but there has to exist the means to confirm that the two entities are indeed two entities and not reflections or projections of a single entity and you, and the ducklings, have to be in on the secret.

The conclusion? (This, by the way, is the conclusion of all scientific papers everywhere and at all times) More research is needed.

A Christmas present for you. Well, sort of.

I finally got my book Bread up on the main internet bookshops for pre-order, before its publication on February 19 2022. That’s so I can c0llect orders and reviews.

I can also offer both of you faithful and patient blog readers a free copy. Let me say that again in upper case with two exclamation marks:

A FREE COPY!!

Publishers call these things ARCs or Advanced Review Copies. I’d love you to have one and then if at all possible leave an honest review somewhere (like on the sites where it is offered for pre-publication). Reviews, as you know, are a currency of the Internet.

Even if you don’t feel up to reviewing it, please help yourself anyway. I’m very fond of this book and would love you to see more than the brief extracts I’ve already shared.

I will also very much welcome any comments and criticisms you may have. My wife was the first reader of the ARC and has already pointed out one or two risqué jokes that I will take out of the edition that finally appears on Feb 19, as well as other mistakes and inappropriateness. So if you want the version with risqué jokes and inappropriateness included, now’s your only chance.

Do share this with anyone you think would like it. I’ve set a download limit of 500 on the number of ARCs that can be issued and the offer all ends on Feb 18.

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.

Time, our missed perspective

This is at the heart of slow. I have been in a conference this week where one of the speakers reminded us about God answering prayers ‘immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine’1.

There’s a scale here and an extent that stretches out beyond the limits of our imagination and does so because of the compounding effects of time.

It is impossible that the Apostle Paul, writing those words to a group of Turkish and Greek churches in the first century could believe what was going to happen. Twenty centuries later, the world is more complex than Paul could have guessed, but as earth turns, the sun never lights up a moment there when thousands, probably millions, are not reading Paul.

Would John Milton know that five centuries after his passing, someone, me, would be listening to Paradise Lost on a thing called a phone via a thing called a podcast while travelling at speed in a car?

What will Time and God do with the little things we offer him?

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