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).
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.
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.
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.
“As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognised them”—Genesis 42:7
“One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his people were and watched them at their hard labour. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people”—Exodus 2:11
My aim in this series on Christianity and tribalism is twofold:
to rehabilitate the concept of the tribe as a site of meaning and belonging which each of us inhabits
2. I move against tribalism—the inclinations, practices and habits we adopt through which we seek salvation in something bigger than ourselves and erect walls of hostility that barricade us from those different from ourselves.
This first post unfolds the first of these two goals—the rehabilitation of the tribe in our collective imaginations.
We Cannot and Should Not Get Rid of Tribes
My main point is that we cannot get rid of tribes and, even if we could, we shouldn’t. Let me explain each of these points.
There’s a humorous meme that’s been making the rounds recently that goes something like this: “there any many things in life that you and I do not choose: parents, nationality, appearance…and the Queen of England”.
Chuckles aside, this meme gets at something rather profound about life and our response as late-moderns to it. I’m talking about the givenness of much of human experience. As this joke expresses, we do not choose how we look or who our parents might be. Rather, they are given to us.
Bound up with this givenness is particularity. Each of us is given, which is to say born into, a particular place and a particular family. The particular aspects that make me “me” and you “you” are very often things that you and I do not choose.
I have a hunch that in the West, we are slowly but surely turning our backs on the givenness and particularity of certain aspects of life. We are increasingly suspicious of “particular” attachments to place and kin, which we view as parochial, burdensome, even oppressive. Conversely, we increasingly seek attachments to groups with universal causes and values.
We’re over half way through the year and it was my birthday recently, so, I’ve been in a slightly reflective mood. I thought it would be useful to review my new year’s resolutions (see here). The coronavirus was an interesting time for testing these habits and developing new ones along the way.
“By faith Abraham dwelt in the promised land as a stranger in a foreign country. He lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob” – The Epistle to the Hebrews 11:9
This post introduces a four-part series on Christianity and tribalism.
Confessions of a Tribalist
I want to start this blog post with a confession. In recent weeks, I have to admit that I have been left reeling as our news cycle in the UK has moved from one major societal upheaval after another.
I remember the distinct sense of national unity that followed the news of lockdown. Culture wars seemed for a brief moment to pause as we took stock of an enemy that, at least at face value, cared little about differences. In its face, we were all human beings.
As we all know, that sense of unity didn’t last long. (And, to be fair, some of that unquestioned “unity” needed to be challenged, as I wrote about here).
There was Cummings-gate, the Black Lives Matter protests and counter-protests. As many remarked, the world seemed to be on fire in June 2020.
In all of this, what struck me the most was not the time and effort I was spending in forming opinions on the big topics of the day. Rather, it was that these events came to be invested with rich meaning. As I read and had conversations with others, the positions I took, and didn’t take, came to define me. Whereas I thought I was informing myself on complex and hot-button issues, what was actually happening was that I was being formed by them—or more accurately, I was being formed by the positions I took on those issues.
And I’ve been wondering why that is…
At one level, I’m sure that part of it is down to being confined to home with (seemingly) little to do. Boredom, in other words. But I think there’s a deeper explanation for the profound and formational impact that these stances were having on me, than sheer ennui.
Over on his Youtube page, Nathan Hood has posted an extremely erudite discussion about reformed Protestantism and the origins of the modern left.
Nathan confronts the argument that it is Calvin and the Puritans that lie behind contemporary left wing politics, and particularly the form of progressive left-wing identity politics that exists in the West today. Nathan is careful to define his terms, making clear from the outset that he is dealing primarily, though not exclusively, with the “progressive left” (think Jeremy Corbyn), which focusses on certain dogmas around gender, sexuality and race and promotes an identity that is “multicultural, inclusive, politically correct, social justice-oriented, eco-friendly, and so on”. Nathan dialogues carefully with one proponent of “the Left as heir to Calvinism” view—the blogger Mencius Moldbug—though one need not look far to find the Crypto-Calvinist argument (“the left is puritanical”) in a wide variety of sources.
It’s been over a month since I’ve kept my Covid diary. The long weekend has afforded me a bit more time to write and reflect. Part of my thinking has revolved once again around the whole “location” controversy in the Church of England.
In my piece on worship location as adiaphoron (where I argued that the matter is ultimately non-essential), there were a couple of points that I didn’t get to discuss that I’d like to touch on briefly now.