What I’m Reading—March 2020

What’s on my desk/bedside table, book-wise
  1. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (Translated by Constance Garnett; Heinemann, 1914)
  2. Flannery O’Connor, Complete Stories (Faber and Faber, 2009)
  3. Andrew Byers, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (IVP, 2011)
  4. James Mumford, Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes (Bloomsbury, 2020)
  5. Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown: 2019).

I’m still working my way through most of the books from December’s list (this includes Dominion which I recently had signed by the author at the Cambridge Union, where he was delivering a speech in favour of Sparta over Athens. He apologised for signing the book in red pen, but what could be more appropriate for a book on the cross-shaped mind of the West?). I did manage to finish a couple of books though. Among these was JKA Smith’s On the Road With Augustine which, among many things, serves as a thought-provoking, moving and inspiring primer to the Christian life for the interested, cynical and sceptical.

I’m not yet disciplined enough to only buy and starting reading a book after I’ve finished another. On the plus side, I’m happy with my resolution to adopt more fiction into my literary diet. My selections on this count have, admittedly, been on the darker side. I recently completed Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and have now selected two masterpieces which are highly appropriate for the Lenten season—O’Connor’s collection of short stories and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I was introduced to O’Connor through an episode of the Onscript podcast in Lent last year with Michael Bruner. Immediately attracted by what Bruner describes as O’Connor’s fascination with the piercing beauty and unyielding grotesqueness of human existence, I picked up a copy of the shockingly brilliant A Good Man Is Hard to Find before selecting her volume of short stories.

In the world of non-fiction, I’ve been enjoying the bridge-building nature of Mumford’s Vexed so far which speaks to some of my Red Tory/Blue Labour instincts. On the theological side of things, I can’t wait to make some time for Byers’ Faith Without Illusions, not least because he speaks about hopeful realism in a way that resonates with my desires when starting this blog (more on that here and hopefully more anon). His take on disillusionment in the opening chapter reminds of Jonathan Merrit’s wonderful piece on the Gift of Disillusionment, which directly inspired my Palm Sunday sermon last year. I’m finding Byers’ book a generous, orthodox and thoughtful read so far and a healing balm for the cynicism (read: “contemptuous distrust”) which I find so easy entangles.

Lenten Reflections Through Literature, Music, Art and Film

The season of Lent is the season of the realist.

Lent marks the forty days that lead of up to Easter in which Christians remember the brokenness and mortality of the human condition and the miracle of Christ who knows our weakness and lovingly offered himself for all.

The term Christians use to describe the human brokenness we reflect on with intensity at Lent is “sin”. Now, I realise that sin isn’t a terribly fashionable word. It can seem morbid, introspective and negative. But if sin simply refers to what Francis Spufford calls “our human propensity to f*ck things up“, then what could be more realistic than recognising and owning up to one’s shortcomings?

After all, the season of Lent is the season of the realist.

For it recognises our brokenness but it does not leave us without hope. If confession is where we begin on the Christian journey, it is not where we end up. Like woebegone Isaiah, we are not completely left to the devices and desires of our own hearts. If we commit ourselves to God, we can receive the cleansing we need and that only he can provide.

The confronting realism of Lent can be seen and heard in the following pieces, taken from literature, art, music and film.

Cosmic Winter or Cosmic Summer?

Our first passage comes from CS Lewis’s essay the ‘Grand Miracle’, in which Lewis spiritedly advances his argument for belief in the resurrection. This is, in one way, an odd choice of reading for Lent as it appears to skip over the season entirely and deals squarely with the miracle of Easter. But in some ways, this passage nicely frames the season of Lent by forcing us to confront the subject of repentance and its necessity to the Christian life. To this end, Lewis uses the example of the seasons. The Christian lives in Spring following the resurrection. Yes Winter in some sense remains present. We feel it “baith snell an’ keen”. And yet the signs of spring begin to manifest themselves. The crocus shoots up, a sign that spring is on its way. Above all, Lewis alights upon the theme of choice and powerof decision. At Lent, the choice is ours. Will we stay in dark winter, or move forward into the glorious cosmic summer?

The miracles that have already happened are, of course, as Scripture so often says, the first fruits of that cosmic summer which is presently coming on. Christ has risen, and so we shall rise. St Peter for a few seconds walked on the water; and the day will come when there will be a re-made universe, infinitely obedient to the will of glorified and obedient men, when we can do all things, when we shall be those gods that we are described as being in Scripture. To be sure, it feels wintry enough still: but often in the very early spring it feels like that. Two thousand years are only a day or two by this scale. A man really ought to say, ‘The Resurrection happened two thousand years ago’ in the same spirit in which he says, ‘I saw a crocus yesterday.’ Because we know what is coming behind the crocus. The spring comes slowly down this way; but the great thing is that the corner has been turned. There is, of course, this difference, that in the natural spring the crocus cannot choose whether it will respond or not. We can. We have the power either of withstanding the spring, and sinking back into the cosmic winter, or of going on into those ‘high mid-summer pomps’ in which our Leader, the Son of man, already dwells, and to which He is calling us. It remains with us to follow or not, to die in this winter, or to go on into that spring and that summer.

‘The Grand Miracle’, in God in the Dock (Eerdmans: 1970) 87-88.

Miserere Mei Deus

Lent wouldn’t be Lent without Allegri’s Miserere. Along with Psalm 22, Psalm 51 forms one of the great Lenten psalms. Whereas in Psalm 22, the Psalmist plumbs the depths of despair and lament, in Psalm 51 he bares his soul in confession to God.

The setting of the Psalm couldn’t be any darker. Israel’s hero-king lustfully claims as his wife Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, whom he has killed by placing him in the front lines of battle. The child he then has with Bathsheba dies at a young age. The stark realism captures the universal human experience of despair over personal human failings. For I know my iniquities And my sins are always before me. The Psalmist is desperate for rescue and re-creation. Create in me a pure heart, oh, God. The Miserere sets this achingly warts-and-all confession in the searing beauty of a nine-part choral piece. It is a masterpiece of art and devotion.

Finding Life In the Desert

Jesus’s 40 day testing in the desert is the centre-piece of the Lenten Season. Driven by the spirit into the wilderness, Jesus triumphantly endures three tests set by the Adversary.

In the painting above, Briton Riviere‘s Christ in the Wilderness (1898), the artist strikingly, but perhaps misleadingly, presents Jesus alone, bereft of all comfort or company. As Ian Paul remarks,

The temptations might not have been a bag of laughs, but Jesus is not depicted as ‘lone and dreary’; in Mark he is ministered to by angels and the wild beasts, and Luke is clear that he goes ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ and with the words of his Father’s blessing ringing in his ears, and returns for ministry ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (Luke 4.14)

Yes, there is the weariness and hunger of Jesus—captured in one of scripture’s greatest understatements, “he was hungry”.

Yes it was hard. And that’s precisely the point of Lent.

But there is a strange fullness, a mysterious blessing in the desert. By this I do not mean to trivialise or over-spiritualise hardship. I simply mean that such hardships can bring into focus our deep need for God.

Sometimes it is in the desert that we find life. Or more to the point, sometimes it is in the desert that we find Christ. It is in the desert that we are confronted with the emptiness and thirst we can pretend is not there in the oasis. Sometimes it is in the dryness of the desert, where there seems no breath left in our lungs, sometimes it is here “where the breath begins”.

Dry
and dry
and dry
in each direction.

Dust dry.
Desert dry.
Bone dry.

And here
in your own heart:
dry,
the center of your chest
a bare valley
stretching out
every way you turn.

Did you think
this was where
you had come to die?

It’s true that
you may need
to do some crumbling,
yes.
That some things
you have protected
may want to be
laid bare,
yes.
That you will be asked
to let go
and let go,
yes.

But listen.
This is what
a desert is for.

If you have come here
desolate,
if you have come here
deflated,
then thank your lucky stars
the desert is where
you have landed—
here where it is hard
to hide,
here where it is unwise
to rely on your own devices,
here where you will
have to look
and look again
and look close
to find what refreshment waits
to reveal itself to you.

I tell you,
though it may be hard
to see it now,
this is where
your greatest blessing
will find you.

I tell you,
this is where
you will receive
your life again.

I tell you,
this is where
the breath begins.

Jan Richardson from Circle of Grace

A Lenten Film Triptych

  1. Realisation: Growing Suspicious

Realization refers to the point at which we recognise that something is wrong or amiss. We might call this the moment when we realize we are ‘on to something’. The clip from the Truman Show captures something of this ‘dawning realization’—when it ‘dawns’ upon us that the reality we are living in or out is somehow not what it should be. This relates well to the idea of repentance as a change of heart and mind—the Greek for repentance is ‘metanoia’, referring to the mind or driving seat of the person which requires change. The premise of the film, of course, is that from the moment of Truman’s birth, his entire life has been make-belief. He lives in a constructed town in an all too real ‘reality’ TV programme watched by viewers outside of the city. Everyone is in on the act…everyone, that is, except for Truman. This clip (a deleted scene) humorously shows his realization that something is afoot. 

2. Confession: I’m Drunk Right Now

Although knowing the truth of a situation, it is all to possible for us to stubbornly resist it. The ‘dawning realization’ discussed above almost always reveals some ugly truth about our inner selves which we inevitably wish to fight tooth and nail against. In the film Flight, William Whittaker (played by Denzel Washington) skilfully lands a plane caught in a terrible storm. Although several people on the flight die, the feat is widely acclaimed as an act of miraculous bravery by Whittaker. But then the horrible truth eventually comes out that Whittaker was drunk while flying the plane. In the final scene (spoilers!)Denzel Washington’s character has the choice to live a lie about his alcoholism or to ‘fess up to his dreadful secret. It is one of the most moving and satisfying resolutions to a film I have ever seen. 

3. Action: Is This Not the Fast I Choose?

It is one thing to admit you are ‘driving in the wrong direction’, another to begin to turn the car around and begin going in the right way. This can be a deeply humbling process. Another word for this is repentance, which refers to the changing of mind and heart in light of our own wrong-doing. We are reminded of repentance at Lent but also at the beginning of the Church calendar in the season of Advent. In one Advent reading, John the Baptist admonishes the crowds to ‘bear fruits in keeping with your repentance’. This ‘bearing of fruits’ takes on a highly practical nature. Among other things, it looks like giving to those in need, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, turning away from bribery and extortion, living justly.

In The Pianist, Nazi Officer Wilm Hosenfield is racked with guilt and vows to house Jewish pianist Władysław Szpilman. In the scene above, he is shown feeding Szpilman and, eventually, giving him his coat. I am reminded of the words of Isaiah: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” True repentance looks like giving your coat to the one who has none. Not as a way of earning anything, but as the fruits of a life restored by God’s mercy.

Three Podcasts to Listen to in 2020

My previous job involved a long commute. I didn’t always have the energy to read books or the newspaper. Inevitably, podcasts became a way to explore fresh ideas. Here are 3 of my favourite podcasts from 2019. Consider it a list of recommended sources for all things Christianity and/or politics in the year ahead. (You can read my list of the ten best podcast episodes of 2019 here).

John Dickson’s Undeceptions winsomely and honestly presents episodes in the history of Christianity with a view to exposing some hidden or under-appreciated contribution of the Christian faith to contemporary society.

2019 saw respected public Christian John Dickson launch the Undeceptions podcast. I have been a fan of Dickson ever since a good friend introduced me to his book on mission at a point where I was rather jaded about the subject. Dickson managed to salvage the activity of promoting Christ in a winsome and non-cringeworthy way, and I am deeply grateful to him for that.

I then came across the Australian based Centre for Public Christianity (or CPX) which Dickson helped to establish. I have valued greatly their clarity of conviction and generosity of spirit. If you haven’t seen their documentary, For the Love of God: How the Church is Better and Worse Than You Ever Imagined, stop what you are doing and check it out now.

John Dickson left CPX this year to take up a position at Ridley College, Melbourne and, among other things, has started the Undeceptions podcast. The goal of the podcast is to “explore some aspect of life, faith, history, culture, or ethics that is either much misunderstood or mostly forgotten. With the help of people who know what they’re talking about, we’ll be trying to ‘undeceive ourselves’, and let the truth ‘out’”.

You’ll be exposed to a variety of views from leading Christians in the academy, the church, politics, sport and the public sector. One of my favourite parts of each episode is the “5 minute Jesus” (I honestly wished these were longer!). This section of the podcast is like a mini-presentation of the Christian faith as it relates to the topic under discussion. John’s explanation of the Creed in Dominus Illuminatio is one I will frequently return to.

John Dickson’s is a voice of reason in a sceptical age. He has a way of getting to the heart of things by asking the difficult questions–is Christianity opposed to science? How did Christian morality compare to. the ethical systems of the day? Can we trust the Gospels? Is Jesus history? And what good is Christianity to politics, anyway? Have a listen and be prepared to be amazed at what you learn.

2. Confessions

Confessions, presented by Christian intellectual-priest Giles Fraser, explores the fascinating lives of the movers and shakers of Western cultural life, with a frequent dose of post-liberal insight.

Giles Fraser is one of the most provocative voices out there in contemporary British political commentary at the moment. Now part of the Unherd team which is taking the political commentary world by storm, Fraser is of course a household name due to his frequent and radical interventions on the issues of the day.

On paper, he and I should have very little in common (though much more than I once thought…more on that another time). His Twitter handle reads: “Post-liberal, Hard left Tory, Zionist. Leaving is the Plan”. I think it’s fair to say that Giles Fraser is not one for half measures.

He is also someone who reviews his positions with rigour and honesty. He isn’t afraid to say that he got it wrong before. And for that, I have tremendous respect. Take his stance on Jeremy Corbyn in the light of the anti-Semitism crisis in the Labour Party. Or his views on liberalism in the wake of a conversation with Larry Siedentop.

Fraser also represents a fascinating and compelling “bridge figure” in the great political re-alignment that is happening at the moment in Britain: a re-alignment that can broadly be described as left-wing economically and leaning right on certain issues of culture (notably Britain’s relationship to the European).

Back to the podcast. Confessions features Giles Fraser as the “Confessor” who explores the lives and ideas of leading cultural and political figures. In each episode, he “drills down into” a guest’s “core beliefs” and finds out “what makes them tick”.

Confessions bears a distinctively post-liberal outlook (think Blue Labour). Most of Fraser’s guests share a common disillusionment with either (or both) the divisive identity politics of the left (for instance, Melanie Philips) or/and the free-market, Thatcherite capitalism of the right (Jesse Norman and perhaps Roger Scruton are notable exceptions on this latter point, and it is a tribute to Fraser’s generosity that he manages to dig down to the some of the source of their respective differences of opinion).

While Fraser is the self-avowed Confessor, we frequently get a fascinating set of honest and insightful confessions from Fraser himself, and I think our lives are all the richer for them.

3. Triggernometry

Image result for triggernometry podcast
If you’re even remotely suspicious that the liberal left has lost its way, then Triggernometry is the podcast for you.

Comedy duo Francis Foster and Konstantin Kisin started the Trigger Pod out of the conviction that people are “bored of people arguing on the internet about subjects they know nothing about”. Resolved to meet this problem head on, Foster and Kisin opt not to “pretend be the experts”, but to ask the experts.

As you’d expect from a podcast that features “trigger” in its title, there is a strong flavour of critiquing the liberal left (particularly for its relentless focus on issues that divide human beings into various categories). The overly cynical attitude towards those on the left can honestly get a little wearing at times. But if you’re prepared to endure that, you’re sure to be frequently rewarded.

The strength of the podcast is its unflinching discussion of various sacred cows that exist at the moment. For example, their interview with Posie Parker, in which she asserted that trans women are not women, was rather infamously removed by Youtube on the grounds of inciting hate speech. Youtube subsequently reposted the video without providing any reason.

Credit also goes to the co-hosts for interviewing figures who act as bridges between the left and right (Matthew Goodwin, David Goodhart and others). These interviews lend the pod a constructive edge that those from across the political spectrum can learn from.

Kisin recently tweeted, “diversity of opinion is our strength”. The Trigger pod certainly lives up to this tagline. And for that reason, I think it deserves a place in your podcast library for 2020.

The Ten Best Podcast Episodes of 2019

Here is my list of the ten best podcast episodes from 2019. You can also read my list of the three podcasts you should listen to in 2020 here.

1. Triggernometry- Matthew Goodwin: Why Labour Lost the Election

This remains simply the best analysis of the General Election (as well as the last 15 years of British politics). Goodwin lectures on political science at the University of Kent and has made a career out of understanding populist movements in Europe. He pretty much predicted the re-alignment that we saw in this month’s election result back in 2014.

Goodwin is another of these bridge voices I mentioned above who understand that most Britons lean a little bit left on economics and a little bit right on issues of culture. His a voice that those on the liberal left ignore at their peril.

2. Confessions – Roger Scruton: Faith, Family and Finding Conservatism

Roger Scruton discusses his turn to conservatism after the riots in France in 1968, his views on family, Islam and faith. Ever found yourself asking, how the conservative impulse to…well, conserve, reconciles itself to capitalism, the greatest agent of change the modern world has seen? Thankfully Giles Fraser poses this question and the conversation that ensues is fascinating.

3. The Holy Political Pod- Jamie Smith’s lecture to Christians in Parliament

The Holy Political Pod posted infrequently in 2019, but their interviews were impactful and always peppered with good humour. I am cheating slightly here as this episode was actually from December 2018. But it was so good that I want to flag it up here.

In his lecture to CiP, James KA Smith provides his quintessentially compelling and realistic framework for the political life as Christians. Christians are called to avoid “living ahead of time”, steering clear of the utopias of the left and the right. He also speaks of the local church as the imagination station where we have our hearts shaped by the liturgical rhythms of the church calendar. Powerful stuff.

Smith has in many ways provided the underpinning for how I think about politics, as you’ll see from my introductory post here.

Incidentally, the Holy Political pod also featured insightful conversations with a panel of experts on religious persecution as well as a variety of interviews with public Christians in the UK. They appear to have taken a hiatus, but I hope they make a return in 2020.

4. The Sacred- Teresa Bejan

How can we improve the tone of our public conversations surrounding the controversial issues of our day? Listen to Elizabeth Oldfield’s The Sacred to find out.

In The Sacred, Elizabeth Oldfield models a way for us to improve the state of our public conversations through examining the sacred values that drive our lives.

As with the one above, this episode actually comes from 2018, though I have listened and re-listened to it in 2019. Moreover, because it so nicely overlaps with the aims of the Saeculum—where I seek to draw critically on the past as a rich resource for thinking through our common life in the present—I want to share it here.

In the episode, Teresa Bejan, historian at Oriel College, Oxford, provides us with a fascinating and extremely useful case-study (in the form of seventeenth century Puritan Roger Williams) for approaching contemporary debates around civility, religious freedom and dissent.

5. Triggernometry- Melissa Chen : US vs. China is the New Cold War

Melissa Chen explores the New Cold War that increasingly appears to be defining our age—the conflict between the Pax Americana and the Pax Sinaitica. Hong Kong and the NBA make an appearance in this enlightening interview. A clearer orientation to China and its relationship to the West you will struggle to find.

6. Onscript- John Behr on Origen and the Early Church (Part 1 and Part 2)

“My wife used to ask me, where would I put the different church fathers on a football team? Irenaeus would be in defence, Dionysius out on left field somewhere. But Origen was the schoolboy who picked up the ball and ran with it. He invented the game of rugby. He got kicked off the team but everybody played rugby thereafter”. Join John Behr on a journey to third century Alexandria where Origen re-defined the way we think about the Christian scriptures.

7. Undeceptions- Teresa Morgan: Moral Classics

How did Christian ethics compare with the ethics of Roman-era Greeks and Romans? Teresa Morgan, one of the world’s leading classicists, leads you on a fascinating tour of moral literature and charts Christianity’s place in the ethical universe of the ancient world. In doing so, we come to see Christianity’s contribution to the world as we now know it.

8. Uncommon Knowledge- Jimmy Lai and the Fight for Freedom in Hong Kong.

Jimmy Lai’s impassioned 3 minute speech at the beginning of his conversation with Peter Robinson is a bombshell (honestly, if you don’t listen to the rest of it, just listen to this, or read it here). China isn’t apologising off for asserting its values, Lai rightly contends. Nor should the West. This is a speech I’ll be pondering for a while yet.

9. GodpodEpisode 135

One of the podcasts I hope to listen to more of in 2020 is the GodPod. Cohosts Jane Williams, Graham Tomlin and Michael Lloyd entertain you with profound and frequently humorous discussions concerning the big topics facing the church and society. This episode provided me with some of the vocabulary I had been looking for to describe the problematic attitudes I had come across towards theology in the charismatic traditions of the Church of England (traditions I have been a part of and of which I am fond). The aim of their critique is not to accuse but to inform and equip.

10. Big Boy TV- Big Boy’s interview with Kanye West

I also want to mention, in closing, the Kanye West phenomenon which took off in 2019 (Katherine Ajibade’s take helps to orient us in our thinking about religion and pop culture). West launched Sunday Services and then released his new album, Jesus is King. In his interview with Big Boy, Kanye was in turns inspiring, frustrating and bizarre. The conversation covered his new album, in which he is as demonstrative has he has ever been about his Christian faith, as well as his relationship to African-American culture, wealth and Donald Trump.

West’s interview with Big Boy had me both nodding in agreement and not infrequently raising an eyebrow in bemusement.

For my money, the best discussion of Kanye’s new album still remains Nathan Mladin’s which is honest in its bewilderment whilst still remaining hopeful about the good that already has and might still yet come about through Kanye’s story.

Reading List—December 2019

Here’s a select sample of books I’m reading at the moment.

  1. James KA Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (Brazos, 2019)
  2. Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown, 2019)
  3. Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (Bloomsbury, 2019)
  4. Graham Tomlin, Looking Beyond Brexit: Bringing the Country Back Together (SPCK, 2019)
  5. Roger Scruton, Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously about the Planet (Atlantic, 2012)
  6. Roger Scruton, Conservatism: An Introduction to the Great Tradition (All Points, 2018)

No. 6 (Scruton’s Conservatism) appears because Conservatism is the first Western political philosophy I will be reviewing in my Western Political Philosophy 101 series.

On that note, I’m currently looking for recommendations for the other political philosophies I will be reviewing (Socialism, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Post-Liberalism). If you have any recommendations, please leave them below in a comment. Thank you.