This Sunday’s lectionary features the tribute passage, which appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels and ends with Jesus’s famous words “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. I wrote a piece a few years back for Currents in Biblical Research which summarised the four main ways that contemporary commentators have read this saying. You can read the article for free, here.
Image: Jacek Malczewski, The Tribute Money (part of triptych) 1908, (Wikiart)
The observant reader will notice that the strapline of this blog contains the phrase, “refreshingly realistic”. As I explain here, this is my attempt to pay homage to realism, which I describe as a way of sailing between the extremes of utopianism and cynicism. I argue that for realism to work, it must be thoroughly Christian in nature. That is, it must be shaped by the church’s teaching on who we are and the times we are living in.
Another way of saying this is that realism must be shaped by the Christian conceptions of lament and hope.
The British public has perhaps been never more politically engaged, and yet never more politically disillusioned.
As the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement for 2018 and 2019 show, opinions of the governing systems are are their lowest point in 15 years, even as the appetite for political change and engagement has grown.
On the one hand, the number of elections post-2014, including of the most significance of these, the Referendum on EU Membership, has generated an unprecedented level of active political activism among the British population. The Hansard Society refers to the increase in electoral events as an “‘electric shock therapy’ for political engagement”.
On the other hand, there is a general weariness and dissatisfaction just now with political parties and candidates. In particular, there’s a suspicion that the options on offer appear to propagate the interests of the financial and cultural establishment. In the US, this is largely made up of different types of big business, as American academic and commentator Bret Weinstein explains. Disillusioned with the candidates on the ticket, various individuals have formed the Unity 2020 campaign, a movement for a third party candidate, and alternative form of politics. Closer to home, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has sought to transcend the traditional divides between capital and labour, nation and world and even private and public sector (see their New Declaration from 2018, one of the more powerful pieces of political writing in recent years).
Hazony’s piece offers a description of Neo-marxism, its power and pitfalls and its take-over of institutions in the English-speaking world. He is careful to note that he is not using the term Marxist as an ad hominem smear, but instead to describe a genuine attempt to rewrite the history and re-shape the culture of the West. The fatal flaws of Marxism he describes include:
the simplistic assumption “that wherever one discovers a relationship between a more powerful group and a weaker one, that relation will be one of oppressor and oppressed”. This ignores the real state of affairs in which mixed relationships more often are the norm with powerful and weaker groups mutually benefiting one another in civil life. It is possible for the more powerful interest groups to seek to “balance the benefits and the burdens of the existing order so as to avoid actual oppression”.
the assumption “that every society is so exploitative that it must be heading toward the overthrow of the dominant class or group”. But if Hazony is right, and weaker groups favour the general preservation of the current order (surely with some reform), then there would be a preference not for the overthrow of current institutions but for an order that seeks to address the challenges of inevitable inequalities, with the help of custom and all with a view to improving, rather than tearing up, the social fabric.
the lack of consideration given to what the revolting class would construct once the revolution has been completed. Hazony goes on to suggest that the overthrow of an oppressive class by the revolters can, and indeed will, breed more oppression (assuming that Marx was right about relationships of power being the norm for human existence).
To his credit, Hazony also notes aspects missing in Enlightenment liberalism that Marxism helpfully fills in: it’s awareness of class and the formation of cohesive groups within society (which liberalism ignores because of its obsessive focus on the individual) and its aliveness to abuses of power in liberal Western societies (which liberals erroneously tend to think exist only in totalitarian societies “over there”).
However, on the question of the relationship between the three political philosophies, the article contains two points that stand out for me:
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’.
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.
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?
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.
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.