The Patron Saint of Restless Hearts

St Augustine, Fitzwilliam Museum (author’s photo)

Today is the feast day of St Augustine, the patron saint of restless hearts.

I have come to a greater appreciation of Augustine more recently through reading and re-reading Jamie Smith’s On the Road With St Augustine: A RealWorld Spirituality for Restless Hearts.

I’ve come back to many passages of the book. But there’s one I come back to the most:

I won’t pretend there isn’t something scandalous about his advice. Augustine will unapologetically suggest that you were made for God—that home is found beyond yourself, that Jesus is the way, the the cross is a raft in the storm-tossed sea we call “the world”. But what I hope you’ll hear in this is not a solution or an answer, not merely a dogmatic claim or demand. For Augustine, this was a hard-fought epiphany that emerged after trying everything else, after a long time on the road, at the end of his rope. The Christian gospel, for Augustine, wasn’t just the answer to an intellectual question (though it was that); it was more like a shelter in a storm, a port for a wayward soul, nourishment for a prodigal who was famished, whose own heart had become, he said, ‘a famished land’. It was, he would later testify, like someone had finally shown him his home country, even though he’d never been there before. It was the Father he’d spent a lifetime looking for, saying to him, ‘Welcome home’.

Friends’ Obsession with Negative Freedom and Porn

Perhaps against my better judgment, I’ve been making my way through the 90s-early 2000s cult show, Friends.

Like any TV programme or film that is over a couple years old (and sometimes even younger—see the 2019 Aladdin film!), Friends has been coming in for cancellation over its outdated views on sexuality, gender and body image. Much of the critique seems fair, though I would much prefer discussion of the issues rather than introducing either a blanket ban or some other kind of warning.

Yet from briefly scouring the internet, what very few seem to have been talking about are the copious references to pornography in the show. As a very rough guesstimate, I’d wager that every other episode contains some mention of porn (it usually takes the form of one or more the guys referencing that they have viewed porn). The references to porn are always positive and the consumption of pornographic content is accepted without the blink of an eye. I’d venture that Friends essentially normalised pornography for a generation of men and women growing up at this time.

Raising this issue might seem prudish to readers, but the effects of the scourge of pornography—what is essentially an endemic war on all of our minds, and particularly the minds of the young —are now clear for all to see. A recent British Board of Film Classification survey of 16-17 olds reported that almost half of young people of these ages had recently viewed pornographic content (almost certainly a conservative estimate). Violent pornographic content has probably never been more easy to access or produced in such a high volume, resulting in the normalisation of violent sexual acts and rape among young people.

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Why Conservatives Need to Be Constructionists

One of the important lessons of 2020 is that it is relatively easy to dismantle and deconstruct history, culture and institutions. Conversely, it is far more difficult to build-bridges, construct things and move forward with solutions. We desperately need the latter kind of person in Western society.

Now, we need such people across the political and cultural spectrum, of course. But we particularly need them among small c-conservatives, which is, broadly speaking, how I would describe myself.

As recent articles by Mary Harrington and Niall Gooch have shown, those on the right have, in recent years, become sucked into the culture wars of the day, often mirroring and mimicking the style and tone of cultural warriors on the left. While there are some notable exceptions, conservative public intellectuals of the last decade or so have been more characterised by their polemical prowess than their philosophical powers, as Ben Sixsmith has recently highlighted. In the wake of the death of Sir Roger Scruton (who, it must be said, wielded the pen of the pugilist and philosopher in equal measure), the question of who will take up the mantle of conservative philosophy, casting a vision of the good and beautiful for society at large, remains largely unanswered. Where are the constructionists?

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The Decline of the West and the Decline of Western Christianity

In a recent Saeculum Short, I wrote about how the future of the West politically might not be in the West but in places fighting for democracy and the foundational values of Western civilisation. Minsk and Hong Kong are major exhibits of this phenomenon and, I suggested, call forth the good in Westerners by reminding us of what we have stood and should stand for and what we could be. 

I have since recalled that similar arguments have been made regarding the Church.

Just as the future of the West politically lies elsewhere, so too does its Christian identity rely on the growth and vitality of the Church in other parts of the world.

The state of the Church in the West is complex, but it’s fair to say that it is broadly in decline, and has been for quite a while. At the same time, the numbers of those committing to being followers of Christ has grown exponentially in corners of Asia and Africa, often under intense persecution. Fascinatingly, where growth is occurring in parts of the West, it is often among diaspora communities. Take, for instance, the movement of African pentecostal churches in urban centres in the UK (a phenomenon often referred to as “reverse mission”). Of course, the West and Christianity are not one and the same thing. Indeed, Christianity is not even a western religion. And yet, Christianity has been foundational to Western identity and the West has for a long time been a key centre of the Christian faith.

In this post, I want to suggest that the loss of Christian identity in the West is partly linked to the decline of Western consciousness. The reverse, I think, is also true: the decline of the West is partly the result of the decline of a vital Christian faith, though in this post I will focus on the former.

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The Psalter in Song: An Anthology of Sung Versions of the Psalms

I recall reading somewhere (it might have been in Spurgeon, or perhaps someone else) that the Psalms are not merely to be read but sung. The Lord, Mark’s Gospel tells us, sang a song with his disciples before he went to the Garden of Gethsemane. Church traditions (and Jewish traditions to this day) throughout the ages have sung versions of the Psalms in their liturgies.

The sung version of the Psalms I grew up with were from Church of Scotland Minister Ian White. My parents took Ian White LPs and tapes with them when they worked overseas in Nigeria and played them often at home when my brother and I were growing up. When I read certain Psalms now, I hear Ian White’s renditions of them. Singing the Psalms has meant that the words have become embedded in my memory.

I have since expanded my list of sung versions of the Psalms, though I come back to Ian White’s version frequently. I compile and share this list of some of the Psalms which are dear to me and which, when I read I them, immediately recall sung versions. Some of the versions are choral, some are contemporary, some are old hymns. Some, like CH Lloyd’s Psalm 137 I only heard this year around the time of the remembrance of the Shoah. I hope to add to the list over time. Please feel free to add your favourites in the comments.

Without further ado…

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Is The Future of the West in East Asia and Eastern Europe?

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One of my new year’s resolutions was to keep up with international news.

As part of that, I have been trying to follow events in Belarus where, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that Belarussians have come out in large numbers against long-term dictator Alexander Lukashenko who was coronated president in a sham election just over a week ago.

One thing that has struck me is the juxtaposition of those in the streets of Minsk for whom the West is an important ideal and symbol of freedom and democracy, with the widespread embarrassment, and even hatred, among certain gatekeepers in the US and UK, for all that the West stands for. (By the West, I mean the coherent cultural entity that is comprised of nations that hold to values of the rule of law, self-determination, democratic elections, individual freedom, and I would add, the presence of an active1 Christian faith).

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Has the Conservative Party Forgotten about Equality of Opportunity?

While I welcome the Education Minister’s U-turn on A level results, it’s fair to say that this debacle has shown up vast incompetencies at the heart of government.

I was initially sympathetic to the government’s plight. It’s banal to say it, but the best approach would have been to actually sit final year students down to take exams (with some measures of leniency in place), as has been done at universities across the country. But without that as an option, what do you do? The government was left in a bit of a bind. If you don’t hold exams, then using mock exams/predicted grades on their own can be seen as unjust on previous cohorts or currents ones (it’s not standardised and you get teachers who grade cautiously etc). Equally, you can’t just cancel exams. So what do you do?

I’m not entirely sure, but you definitely don’t oversee the production of an algorithm that actively works against students’ efforts, and particularly against those already facing massive obstacles to attaining a university place. Teacher predictions weren’t the only factor in the algorithm and in many cases weren’t even the starting point. As Timandra Harkness has pointed out, underlying Ofqual’s standardising algorithm was a whole set of troubling assumptions, including the presupposition that “you are homogenous with your older schoolmates” or that “the future will look like the past and the present, in significant ways”.

It’s simply foolish to have not seen this coming and to have not stopped it, or at least warned students of the problems. In fact, the government probably shouldn’t even have involved itself in the process at all.

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Civilisation States…and the West

Over at Unherd, Aris Roussinos has written a provocative piece that strikes at the heart of the new world order. The future of global politics, he argues, is the civilisation-state, that nation state (like China, Russia, Turkey, India) which consciously describes itself as a distinctive civilisation and which is prepared to enter the international stage and strongly assert its cultural values and political institutions.

It isn’t central to his article, but I think Roussinos offers a good and necessary counter-balance to some of the exclusively parochial and national focus of post-liberalism (emphases which I think are much-needed, I should add, but which should not be asserted to the exclusion of robust international activity). The implication of Roussinos’s piece is that Western nations should take more seriously the need to act on the world stage. He points to Macron as an example of a Western leader who understands the future battle of civilisation-states, and the need for Western states to offer a strong cultural and political alternative.

For Britain’s part, we shouldn’t have to choose between national and international interests. Yet, in a post-Brexit Britain where the national will naturally come to greater prominence (as it should), we might be in danger of losing our sense of perspective on global affairs. 

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Lars and the Real Girl

I watched Lars and the Real Girl again tonight. It’s a beautifully theological film, rich and layered with meaning. It’s particularly perfect, I think, for students training for ministry, as it touches on mental illness, family relationships, grief, death, community, purpose and patience. And it does so through the most bizarre of plot devices—a sex doll. It’s truly genre-defying stuff.

It was my third watch (and my wife’s first) but I still saw new things I hadn’t seen before.

There’s the obvious references to Easter, Bianca’s Christian faith and missionary career (“Bianca said that’s why God made her, to help people”) the church services (with the pastor’s reference to Paul’s words, “when I was a child I spake as a child” just before the point of Lars’ epiphany). But I also noticed the dynamic of the Two Sons/Brothers and Bianca’s “baptism” in the lake.

I was struck most of all, though, by the care and compassion of the little community that gather around Lars as Bianca gets sick. When Lars’ brother Gus and sister-in-law Karin go out to get some rest, three older ladies from the community come over to keep Lars company with their knitting. “We came over to sit”, they explain. “That’s what people do when tragedy strikes”. “They come over to sit”.

This scene was such an apt illustration of what I had been thinking today about the benefits of the tribe. Here is a community that stood in solidarity and grief, allowing Lars the space to come to terms with the death of his own mother and so make peace with the past and move on to a healthier future.