CovidDiary Day 4 (Tues 24th March 2020)

Remembering…

I have a hard time remembering the past.

Which is a pretty embarrassing thing to confess for someone who loves history.

And I’m not talking about the voyages of St Paul, or the life of Perpetua and Felicitas or the intrigue of the Elizabethan court.

I mean the things that happened today. And not even the things that happened around the globe on this day…but the events in my own life.

I have a hard time remembering.

Remembering is one of those virtues that could just make a comeback in these times.

The push and pull of the daily grind, or routine as we may call it, seem at one level to work against the practice of remembering. I so easily attend to, long for, have my gaze turned by novel things because, well, my attention is naturally drawn to new and interesting things.

And don’t get me wrong. We’ll need novelty in the days, weeks, months ahead. To keep us going. New friendships forged in the fires of the plague. New talents and skills we never thought we had, exercised for the common good. Even new cultural experiences—new music, poetry, literature, art, opera, TV, film—that will inspire and move us and draw us together as a nation.

But I also hope to remember. And remember to hope.

I hope to remember the gifts in my life: of family, a roof over my head, of friends, of good food and drink, of faith. Some, admittedly not all of us, will become more intimately aware of these ordinary, everyday things. The French use the word quotidian which often has connotations of mundanity, what North American priest Eugene Peterson called the “unglamorous ordinary“.

Yes, the weeks ahead will, for some, be the most stressful and busy on record. I feel a duty to try and contribute to efforts to ease this burden. At the same time, for those of us working from home, we can’t duck the fact that there will simply be more time to reacquaint ourselves with the unglamorous ordinary once more.

Again: novelty is good. But, dare I say it, novelty can quickly turn stale. The novelty of the current situation will wear off (if it hasn’t already). Which I admit is hardly a helpful way to look at a global pandemic, and betrays a good deal of privilege; but it is one I’ve entertained in all honesty. We only have to contemplate being indoors for long periods to realise that this will get tiresome, stuffy and stale.

Novelty has us focus on the next thing. It’s inherently future-oriented in that respect. Technology (and social media in particular) has us positively hooked on the novel. I focus on the next big thing. The new episode. The new game. The new Twitter post. And so on.

Remembering is different. The practice of remembering will root us in the present by helping us call to mind the past. If it isn’t greedily craving the next thing on the horizon, it also isn’t over-sentimentally longing for an ephemeral golden age. Remembrance, I am glad to say, is realistic. It’s tangible. Unlike sentimentality—where the object in view is distorted into something it never was—with remembering we can point to a specific act at a specific time.

At the root of any good practice of remembrance is attentiveness and gratitude; attending to what has happened this day and giving thanks to God for his gifts and, where needed, repenting of my failure to use them or to appreciate them.

And when I attend to these experiences, when I call to mind the beautiful flower bed, the struggles of a friend, the conversations with loved ones, the impatient word I spoke, the forgiveness offered to me by a close one, then I am able to give thanks, say sorry and grow.

A verse from the Psalms in the lectionary has imprinted itself on my memory this week, and fittingly, it has to do with memory. I quote it in the KJV as I find the novelty (that word again) of the old language causes me to read more slowly and attentively; it’s just more memorable:

I will remember the works of the Lord: and call to mind thy wonders of old time. I will think also of all thy works: and my talking shall be of thy doings. Psalm 77:11-12

[EDIT: I have only now seen that Exodus 2 was part of this day’s liturgy; this evocative passage, which tells of Moses’s rescue and ends with God’s concern for his people, adds a new dimension to remembering: we remember God’s acts and give thanks but God also remembers his covenant to us. Ex 2:23-24 reads The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. We remember God because God first graciously remembers us]

God’s wonders of old time are a ballast for the present. The Psalmist talks of them continually. In such a way, I hope to remember.

I also remember to hope.

For remembrance stirs up hope. Because as we remember God’s faithfulness in the past, the way he has delivered us from trouble, death and all manner of circumstances and trials, we are reminded that we have a firm hope for the future. If remembrance is refreshingly realistic, it is also hugely hopeful. Hopeful in the sense of instilling a firm and reasonable confidence that God will continue to be faithful in his love to us, even in the midst of situations that test us to the limit.

How does this look practically? I am trying to develop some kind of routines to help memory (to function, that is, as aide-mémoires). At the moment, these consist of:

  1. Daily prayer: allowing the routine of the lectionary (of readings, prayers and responses) to form the desires of my heart and the words of my prayers as I remember God’s goodness and call on his mercy.
  2. Attending: going for a walk in the courts of the student village near where I live and enjoying the flowers and old buildings, taking the time to really soak these in.
  3. Working: work is a real source of comfort and satisfaction at this time and I don’t say that lightly as many struggle in the current climate. The structure of having set working hours is something I am also very grateful for.
  4. Sitting still: allowing myself moments (just brief seconds even) of holy distraction away from the news cycle and social media.
  5. Writing: constructing a piece of writing is a good way for me to pour my energies into one thing, one idea and hone it. It’s also satisfying to be putting something out there that hopefully benefits someone, even if that is just me. By doing so, I hope to remember the lessons I might have learned.

So yes, I find remembering hard. But I’m working on it…

CovidDiary Day 2 (Sun 22nd March)

I have begun to record my thoughts each day in a sort of virtual diary. The hope is to encourage and inspire reflection in the midst of the unsettling “time of the virus”.

A sunny walk along the path to Grantchester

Read Day 1’s Entry here.

It was a strange and unsettling feeling to wake up this morning and remember that churches across the nation are shut (in fact, a good number of churches are open for prayer–it is the services that aren’t happening). I honestly can sympathise with the sentiments of some who want these services to continue. Even for someone like me, who for now thinks that the sacrament is highly significant but not the sum total of Christian life and worship, I have to admit that I sorely missed taking communion with my brothers and sisters in person. And I can understand those who say that by cancelling services, the church look “no different” to the world around it.

On the other hand, if all major gatherings have been banned and we imagine a scenario where it was only church-goers that were meeting, we would be forgiven for thinking that this was irresponsible in the extreme. To flout governmental ruling in this way would appear damaging to the public witness of the church. Then there’s the fact that in keeping our distance physically, we are saving lives. As James KA Smith puts it, “How strange: this time in which we love our neighbours by keeping our distance”.

So it was that this morning, with some inner conflict, I followed the Church of England regulations (in turn following public health advice) and tuned in virtually for Sunday morning worship. The service, hosted by the Archbishop at Lambeth Palace, was on the whole uplifting and hopeful.

Today is of course Mothering Sunday. I appreciate deeply the love and care of my mother, the sacrifices she has made and the compassion and quiet inner strength she embodies to me.

For reasons I’ll come on to, I am conflicted, however, by the notion that mothers as a category of people, should be celebrated in church. (I feel the same way about father’s day as well, I hasten to add). Lest I be misunderstood and seem an ingrate, I want to celebrate my mother and father everyday of the year! I’m just not sure about the church being the context for that.

I therefore appreciated +Justin’s focus, in his sermon, on the ancient roots of Mothering Sunday.

Mothering Sunday is about place – about knowing where we are rooted, what gives us life, how we are related to others. It’s a place for starting from and returning to. In ancient tradition we return to the church where we were baptised, where we grew in faith.

This emphasis on the ecclesial mother makes more sense to me in a church context as it reminds us that our core identity is found in Christ. We are called to cherish and value tremendously our earthly families, mothers and fathers. At the same time, women are not somehow incomplete if they do not have children. Their core identity is found in Christ, rather than in biological motherhood. Sometimes this can get lost in the messaging of Mothers’ day even, or sometimes especially, in the Church.

I have just this evening read a brilliant article from an old colleague, Abbie Allison, at Theos who bravely and boldly shares her own concerns with the modern church and its view of the family, and of mothers–the oft-imagined paragon of womanhood in the church is the mother with children in her arms and at her side. But, as Abbie explores, what of those women whose mothers have died? What of those for whom the word mother conjures up memories of motherly failure or even betrayal? Or what of those who are unable to conceive children because of infertility? Abbie writes,

But there’s another side to the Church, which emphasises a different take on identity and family. A core Christian belief is that we are whole in Christ and Christ alone. This means that our fundamental identity is not found in being a biological mother, or in anything else, but in being a beloved child of God.

When churches move beyond preaching this message to modelling it through the way they talk about family, they can be a healing balm for the grief and identity crisis of infertility.

I’ve long wondered if we could remove fathers’ and mothers’ day as individual dates from the church (again, I’m speaking about the church) calendar and replace them with men’s and women’s days. Again, not out of spite for our dads and mums, but because all of us are, after all, men and women. This way, we could choose to celebrate the women and men in our lives in a more rounded and inclusive way. Incidentally, Russia, for instance, does this with Men’s day falling in February (initially for soldiers but now for all men) and Women’s Day falling on what is now our International Woman’s Day, 8th March. The realist in me tells me that we’ll never remove Mothering Sunday or Fathers’ Day completely from our church calendars. And so if we do end up doing fathers’/mothers’ day at church, there’s lots of scope for thinking how this might be done sensitively and creatively. Today’s service at Lambeth was a decent example of this, I thought.

*******

Throughout the whole day, I’ve been reflecting on a sentence I wrote in yesterday’s post: “In abnormal times, we find ourselves behaving differently”.

I began asking myself:

  1. Why do we behave differently in abnormal times? What specifically about this time and circumstance causes me to make conversation with the cashier I would normally ignore…even go so far as to ask her how her and her team were dealing with the stress of the moment? Or what about the present moment makes me think of an old friend or colleague who might be lonely or isolated when normally I would expend my efforts and energies elsewhere (usually, let’s be honest, on myself)?

Then I began to define my terms a bit more.

2. What do I mean by abnormal times? A moment of doubt followed: Are these, in fact, abnormal times? What specifically about these times makes them different from “ordinary”, “pre-Covid” life?

These are certainly unusual (if not unique) times. There’s social distancing and self-isolation, just to name two of the obvious changes (for those used to it, Mother’s Day without a family meal is very strange indeed). As I mentioned yesterday, this moment will be a (and perhaps it’s too early to say but perhaps the) defining moment of our generation.

But in my moment of doubt, the penny dropped.

3. What if our Covid-19 moment is, in some way, the “normal” time?

Of course these are unusual times. But when it comes to what really matters, is this time really different from any other?

Not to be too morbid, but think about death, for instance. CS Lewis, in reflecting upon the effect of the Second World War on death had the following to say:

What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us. Does it increase our chance of a painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering; and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all. Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstance would? Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy- five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past.

They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.

All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realise it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. 

Learning in War-Time (A Sermon preached at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, Autumn, 1939)

War, or plague or any kind of straitened circumstance does not in absolute terms increase our likelihood of death. That will always stand at 100%. Rather, these scenarios make death more real to us. They remind us more sharply of our mortality. War, or any “abnormal” circumstance “disillusions” us, in the sense that it removes the illusion of invulnerability that we might have held to in “peace time”. Lewis again: “The war [read Covid-19] creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it”. This it seems to me, is an uncomfortable truth of which to be reminded. And, as with all uncomfortable truths, it is a gift and mercy to us.

Above all else, it might aid us, as the Psalmist puts it, to re-consider our days aright that we might gain a heart of wisdom. If the virus does not in absolute terms increase our likelihood of death, then what will we occupy our hours and days with? The question should not be, “how should I live differently in these strange times?” but “as in all times, how should I live before God so as to glorify him and love my neighbour?”

When asked by an imaginary interlocutor, “how are we to live in an atomic age?”, Lewis gave the following response:

I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Will the habits we develop in the time of the virus stay with us in peace time? If they are habits, practices, liturgies, attitudes and inclinations of the heart worth forming, then they are for all times.

[EDIT 28/3/20: The lockdown now makes the kinds of activities Lewis mentioned impossible. But we can still learn to have our fears perfected, as Matt Lee Anderson argues here]

****************

In a lighter moment today, I read the following family’s rule, which I took to be pretty sound advice for keeping sanity.

The entire above post notwithstanding (!), I have tried to take this to heart and have had a pretty productive day walking to Grantchester, cleaning, doing laundry, shopping for food and seeing my Mum for Mothers’ day (from across the garden hedge for obvious reasons!) which was very special. I also tried out our new hoover which was a lot of fun.

Me and the Dyson V7 (it came with the house!)

…the final bit of laundry beckons.

CovidDiary Day 1 (Sat 21st March)

I wanted to begin to record some of my thoughts on the fly in the hope of offering some encouragement and reflection at this unsettling time. I don’t know how long it will last for or how consistent I will be but here goes…

Morning prayer an encouragement this am: Ps 31:27—be strong, take courage in your heart, all of you whose hope is in the Lord. Immediately I was taken back to the version of Church of Scotland minister/musician Ian White which my parents used to blast out of the tape player of the family’s Ford Mondeo. As kids, my brother and I used to chuckle at how repetitive the lyrics were. Funny how they are now lodged deep in my memory.

A friend told me today that this is the defining moment of our generation. Years from now people will ask us what it was like to have lived during the Coronavirus. Hopefully part of our answer will be that we lived well and formed good habits…much like my parents did in playing Ian White to my brother and I those many years ago. Be strong, take courage in your heart.

Enjoyed a sunny walk with Olga to Waterbeach in the afternoon which was a mercy. Savoured the sunshine rays, all the more given I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be able to do this.

Fen Ditton from the riverside

Seeing the chapel where CH Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, started his ministry was also a treat. I wonder what he would have made of Covid-19 and how we should respond.

In the afternoon I ventured to the nearby Sainsbury’s on Sidney St and spoke with an employee there at the self-check out. I was struck by how normally I would have completely ignored this lady but here I was, in these extraordinary times, asking her how she was doing and how the store was coping with the stress and strains of panic buying.

This got me thinking. Make no mistake about it: Covid-19 has revealed to us the fragility of our human existence. It is unsettling, devastating and tragic.

It is also an opportunity. In abnormal times, we find ourselves behaving differently. A conversation with a good friend an hour or so ago reminded me of this, as he spoke about reaching out to friends on their own with a phone call or visiting elderly colleagues who had no one to look after them with a container of soup. In his Times column today, Graham Tomlin wrote about how this period is an opportunity for us as a nation:

Self-isolation, with no sport to watch, no colleagues to chat to, nothing to fill the long hours, can mean we start phoning or writing to friends we haven’t spoken to for ages, learn to play an instrument, try out longer and deeper conversations with family or flatmates. It can give us urgency to find new ways to reach out to friends and neighbours. It could teach us habits of quiet prayer or mindfulness, gratitude for what we do have but temporarily miss, reflection on our lives and what really matters, appreciation for the simple things of life. After a few months it could even teach us a whole new way of life…

For many this will seem indulgent. What new habits are there to cultivate when my job is at risk? When I have to teach my three children following school closures on top of my day job and being a parent and spouse? When there is the stress of obtaining medication or arranging an appointment when the health service is already so stretched? When my elderly parent is ill with the virus?

I don’t presume to hold any answers here, except to say that in these circumstances, sometimes it is enough just to get through the day. And I feel keenly the need to help those in such circumstances. I still haven’t quite figured out how beyond offerings to food banks and looking out for my parents. I still wonder what I might do for my neighbour—the one I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out?

While it might seem indulgent, there is still an opportunity for deeper reflection in this “fallow period” (and yes, I realise fallow can seem privileged for those with the responsibilities I listed above—so how about a period with different rhythms and routines?). It’s a chance to think about our habits, our values, an opportunity to spend time with loved ones, have deeper conversations, grow closer to those from whom we might have grown distant. “We have gifts to give one another in this time”, as theologian James KA Smith reminds us.

We must be realistic. Of course this is and will be difficult. It will stretch us to the limit. But in uncertain times, there is an opportunity for growth and for new, life-giving habits and sacrificial ways of life to emerge.

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.

The Church: Where Somewheres and Anywheres Find a Home

Epiphany, the great Universalist feast of the church, is as good a point as any to to re-consider the defining cultural issue of our day: the relationship between national and international identity.

Late January finds us racing through the season of Epiphany, the great “universalist” feast of the church.

For those unfamiliar with it, Epiphany is the point in the liturgical calendar at which the Western Church celebrates the coming of the magi to the baby Jesus. Those unacquainted with the ins and outs of the story will know the moment immortalised as it is in the carol, We Three Kings Of Orient Are.

At Epiphany, learned astrologers “from the east” enter the Christmas story, breaking into what has up until now been a parochial and particular narrative, taking place in backwater Bethlehem of Roman Judea. The magi have come to represent the brightest and best minds of their day. These great scholars of the Gentile world make the long trek before offering the fruits of their learning at the feet of the King of Israel. At Epiphany, the universal and the particular collide.

Epiphany is therefore an appropriate juncture at which to re-consider the local and international scope of the Christian faith.

At the first Epiphany, the relationship between national identity and global identity loomed large.

Plus ça change. As then, so also now the relationship between the national and the international remains the key issue of our time. As David Goodhart has put it, in Britain the split between those who were brought up in and committed to a particular place (the Somewheres) and those whose ties stretch beyond the limits of a specific geographical locale to encompass the globe (the Anywheres) is the defining cultural divide of our age.

For these British Isles, the 2016 EU referendum forced us to come face-to-face with the Somewhere v Anywhere question in important and sometimes uncomfortable ways. 

To whom do we belong? The question is as blunt as this. 

Epiphany seems a natural point at which to consider this stark question head-on.

What might the Christian say in response? 

A False Choice

Discussions surrounding national and global identity have been uncomfortable because of the terms in which the EU Referendum was presented to us. As Graham Tomlin has noted, the choice in the Referendum was, broadly speaking, between an exclusive love of the local (one’s fellow countrymen and women) and an exclusive love of the universal.

In many ways, this is a false choice.

For Christians, the great love command of Christ in Matthew’s Gospel consists of the injunction to “love your neighbour as yourself” as well as the demanding and challenging directive to “love your enemies”.

We can imagine the love to which Christ calls his followers as a set of water ripples that move outwards from the point of impact.

Our love moves outwards like a set of ripples in water

At the immediate centre of the ripple effect are those we have a duty of care towards—our own selves, our family and friends. This is the love of the local, the love of those close knit ties of family and loved ones. It is beautifully expressed by the conservative intellectual Sir Roger Scruton, who died this month, as oikaphilia, the love of home, the love of this particular place and the people within it. This is a love for our streets, neighbourhoods and nation.

A beautiful autumnal day in West Cambridge, the place I currently call home.

Yet if we love only those “like us”, our love is defective. As Jesus puts it, “if you love those who are like you, what credit do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do that?” In other words, in only loving your own, how are you different from those around you?

For Jesus’s command “to love our neighbours” is also the call to love those who are not like us, those we involuntarily bump into each day.

It is also a command to love our enemies, those who intentionally make life difficult for us. This is an ethic that flies in the face of its day, where goodness was derived through comparing one’s actions to “ordinary decent folk”.

Jesus calls out such an attitude by radically rooting his moral directive in the very character of God himself— “be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect”.

Jesus’s love command shows up the exclusive choice between national and transnational identities for what it is—a false choice.

Nationalist and Globalist Idolatry and Disdain

A love for the local and a love for the universal are, in themselves, natural, good and beautiful impulses.

They can also spill over in some unhealthy and damaging ways, however.

As I see it, those of us who love the nation and those of us who favour a more global identity have both committed the sins of idolatry and prideful disdain.

What do I mean by this?

Put crudely, nationalist idolatry and globalist idolatry can be defined as attributing all sense of worth, identity and meaning in the nation-state or some transnational alliance. The disdain that follows on from this is the scornful attitude that hardens our hearts to the views of those we disagree with. Expressions of idolatry and disdain in recent years, and there have been quite a few, have been committed by those on both sides of this divide.

We need reminding, to return to my point above, that Christ doesn’t call us to exclusively choose between the love of those like us and those not like us (or the love of near and the love of far, if you will). The love of the “one from afar” does not lessen the need, the duty even, to care for the one who lives near. And the reverse is equally true.

Those who voted for Brexit rightly feel a sense of disappointment, when some of those who voted to Remain treat them as objects of scorn, derision and disdain for loving these British Isles.

Love for home, after all, can be the basis for loving the other. Giles Fraser uses the example of the love he has for his children to make this point:

There is no inconsistency here if we start to think about our rootedness in, and love for, a specific community — our community — as being the basis for our love of others; its grounding, rather than its contradiction. I may love my children more than yours. But it is precisely because I love my children as I do that I understand and value the love that you have for yours.

Likewise, my patriotism, my pride and commitment to the historical and cultural specificity of my own community, is not a denunciation of other people’s. It is the reason I appreciate why others will want to do the same. This too is love. Perhaps it is too much eros and not enough agape for some. But it is love, nonetheless.

Fraser is essentially saying that love expresses itself as the universal through the particular.

Love, if it is to maintain any semblance of coherence, sense or meaning, must always be particular. This is where the “citizen of the world” identity can fall into utopian idealism (utopia, of course, literally meaning “not a place”). A universal love of man easily becomes abstract and void of meaning if it loses the particularity of place. As Doestoevsky put it so well, “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular”.

At the same time, those who voted to remain in the EU can rightly feel a sense of sadness when some of those on the side of Leave ridicule them for valuing their connectedness with those from outside these British Isles.

So, if we agree that our love either for the nation or for a transnational entity sometimes require keeping in check, then how can this be achieved? 

A Way Forward: Finding a Home in the Church

Readers of this blog won’t be surprised to find me offering the Christian tradition as a possible way through this complex problem. The Christian faith offers a resource or map for re-orientation, allowing us to see where we are and how, with the help of past thinkers, we might get back on track.

As I see it, the Christian faith has the tools to avoid the twin excesses of nationalist and globalist idolatry while also acknowledging that our desire for a universal and national sense of belonging can find meaningful expression. 

The Christian tradition avoids these excesses by sublimating (not erasing!) all identities to Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek”, as Paul would have it. Geographical identity, while of great significance, is no longer of ultimate significance.

The Christian faith, when done right, can transcend and re-orient our nationalist and globalist impulses with the challenge of an ultimate identity marker— “in Christ”. When we come to see our identity “in Christ” as all-important, national or international identity take their rightful place.

As followers of Christ, each of us will feel different levels of affinity to the local, the national and the international. Our ultimate sense of belonging, though, is in Christ. All other identities are ultimately penultimate.

At the same time, the Christian tradition also acknowledges our need to be rooted to a place or, as the case may be, our difficulty with finding roots in a particular community (on this latter point, I’d recommend the honest blog-reflections of my friend Aneurin, here). In fact, it is precisely because it acknowledges our desire for a community that is local and universal that the Christian faith can offer a cogent and compelling way forward.

On the one hand, we belong to the church universal (or the “church catholic” as the creeds put it). As one Old Testament scholar has put it, we worship a global God, not a minor local deity. On the other hand, we also worship in a particular church congregation that belongs to a particular place. In the church, then, the universal and the local can meet in a beautiful exchange.

As Giles Fraser has suggested, particularity and universalism have been hardwired into the Christian faith from the very get-go. Jesus was a stalwart Somewhere, preaching to the particular people of Israel a gospel of renewal and repentance. In a startling revelation, Jesus declares, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Paul, for his part, was an Anywhere, preaching that to be a follower of Christ, one need not be ethnically Jewish. The magi are a clear reminder of this as well.

That particularity and universalism are, so to speak, written into the DNA of Christianity should be both a comfort and a challenge to both sides of the debate.

The universality of the church comforts Anywheres and challenges Somewheres with the reminder that we belong to a universal body that spans across space and time.

The particularity of the church congregation is a comfort to Somewheres and a challenge to Anywheres because it reminds us that while the Church is indifferent to geography as an identity marker, the place of the local still matters greatly.

Ultimately, the Christian identity has the potential to re-orient our loves, defanging any overweening sense of national pride while also avoiding an abstract universalism by rooting us in a particular locale. We find ourselves in communities “both diverse and yet together, indifferent to ethnicity yet also rooted in the specifics of place”.

 At Epiphany, then, let us heed the reminder that in the church, somewheres and anywheres can together find a home.

Reading Material

1. David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics (Penguin, 2017)

2. Graham Tomlin, Looking Beyond Brexit: Bringing The Country Back Together (SPCK, 2019)

3. Roger Scruton, “Conservativism and the Environment” (Conservative Home, March 2013)

4. Giles Fraser, Was John Lennon right about love? Unherd, October 10 2019

5. Giles Fraser, Jesus was a ‘somewhere’. Paul was an ‘anywhere’. Unherd, August 24 2018.

Images

Image of signpost from Shutterstock

Image of water ripples from Vector Stock

Photo of Cambridge by the author

Gifts, Then and Now

Reciprocal gift-giving, for all of its potential pitfalls, can build stronger relationships.  

Image from Stock Adobe

In his 2018 Ecumenical Christmas Letter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, appropriately chose to address a practice that is virtually ubiquitous at Christmas time—gift-giving. Describing the celebration of Christmas, Welby writes that “a gift given with the expectation of something in return is not a gift”. In other words, the divine gift of Christ is non-reciprocal, or offered without the intention of the receiver giving something back. While Welby’s statement about non-reciprocal gift-giving might well describe the divine gift to humans, it is worth pausing to ask—does non-reciprocity set the tone for human gift-giving?

In his recent book on gift-giving in the ancient world, the Durham-based historian John Barclay makes the following provocative argument: “it is only in modern times and in Western culture that we have idealized the notion of the ‘pure gift’ without strings attached”. By contrast, the offering of gifts in antiquity was rarely separated from the set of human relationships in which giving took place. The giver offered “strings-attached” gifts in the firm hope of receiving something in return from the recipient. Yet the “strings” attached to the gift were not intended to manipulate the receiver; rather, they were the means of strengthening the relationship shared between the two parties. This important insight raises a significant and often-ignored question: if mutual gift-giving can strengthen relationships, then why would we not want to give reciprocally?

The answer, at one level, is fairly obvious. The abuses of reciprocity are well-documented, and Barclay is quick to point them out—these range from self-interested, manipulative gift-giving to bribery. Yet the failings of reciprocal gift-giving do not mean that we need to discard of the practice altogether. 

One of the most promising aspects of reciprocity is the fact that it has the potential to contribute to the common good. As both parties give of what they are and have, they are brought into closer relationship. Mutual giving, in contrast to the altruistic or one-way gift, affords the recipient honour and dignity through the opportunity to offer something in return. And this brings us to the heart of the reciprocal model of gift-giving, as described by Barclay: reciprocity assumes that both sides have something to offer. It therefore implicitly challenges modern, Western conceptions of “deprivation” that have defined “needs” almost exclusively in monetary terms. While money should, of course, contribute to the assessment of a person or community’s “wealth” or lack thereof, there are a range of ways in which one can be “rich” or “poor”—relational poverty, for instance, now affects 1 in 3 adults in Britain across the socio-economic spectrum. Barclay therefore encourages Westerners to consider an individual or community less from the perspective of the needs they have and more from the standpoint of the gifts they might offer. Viewed in this way, mutual gift-giving allows plenty to fill lack in both directions

None of this is to deny the large and important place that rightly belongs to non-reciprocal gift-giving—one thinks of humanitarian disasters or famine aid, for example. Yet it is also worth reflecting on why Western cultures have so often moved away from reciprocal models of giving. For all of its pitfalls, reciprocal gift-offering has the potential to enrich relationships for the common good. 

Book Review—Graham Tomlin, Looking Beyond Brexit: Bringing The Country Back Together (SPCK, 2019)

To move forward with Brexit as a nation, we need to recognise that both sides of the debate are right in what they affirm, Graham Tomlin suggests.

Graham Tomlin, Looking Beyond Brexit: Bringing The Country Back Together (SPCK, 2019).

In this 30 page treatise, Graham Tomlin (Bishop of Kensington) somehow manages to breathe fresh life into how I think about Brexit. He does so not by focussing on the Brexit debate itself as a set of complex political or economic issues. Rather, he looks at how we might begin to heal and move forward as a nation post-Brexit. For my money, three things make his short book worth reading.

  1. The Historical Parallels to the English Reformation

“‘Britain goes it alone’. It’s a headline that could have been written nearly 500 years ago”. Tomlin is speaking, of course, about the English Reformation.

English Christians in the sixteenth century vigorously and often violently debated whether the Church should break away from a different pan-European project—not the EU in Brussels, but the Catholic Church headquartered in Rome.

At the heart of the debate was the tussle between the local and the universal, the decision to create a national church or continue to identify with its centre in Rome.

The English Church, Tomlin explains, took the decision to exist independently of Rome. The Church of England was the result (though the journey to the Elizabethan settlement was by no means a smooth one). Crucially, this national church sought to balance the local and the universal. It did so through the parish system. Here, churches were both local and universal. They were local since they existed as relatively independent congregations tied to a geographical location. And they were universal (or at least national) by dint of sharing creeds and a common form of worship as well as allegiance to bishops and the Monarch. Tomlin emphasises that because congregations existed with relative autonomy, each parish was free to embrace either Protestant or Catholic styles of worship.

It is important to place this mixed form within the context of the Reformation, more generally. On the one hand, the radical reformers sought to establish completely independent parishes with no ties to other structures. These existed almost like independent communes. At the other extreme, the Catholic church existed as a universal project with power centred in Rome and decisions taken and dictated from that centre.

Enter the Church of England. In Tomlin’s words,

The emerging Church of England, tried to hold together the local and the national, the Protestant and the Catholic. There was no attempt to blend them, to make a composite of the two that would blur their identities, but rather a search for unity that would embrace both, allow space for each perspective and expression, and yet hold to a set of common values, hard though it might be…

I found the historical parallel between the English Reformation and Brexit extremely illuminating and helpful. So have others. Giles Fraser has commented lucidly on the English Reformation as a positive case for Brexit, here and here. Diarmaid MacCulloch takes the opposite view to Fraser, here, arguing that the Church of England was a part of the great internationalist religious movement of its day. Both authors are worth reading. They represent exemplary cases that engage critically with the past which they use as a resource for thinking about the present and future.

Tomlin belongs firmly within this group as well. What he offers is something slightly different to Fraser and McCullough, however. He’s not using history to argue for Leave or Remain (which I have no problem with, by the way, so long as it’s done well).

For Tomlin, the English Reformation, and the Elizabethan Settlement in particular, offers a way to think about how we might begin to heal, how we might come together to form a common life after the great decision has been made.

How convincing is Tomlin’s use of this historical example? I agree that the the Church of England was both a movement with strong continental ties (and so universal), while at the same time possessing a strong national identity*. The ties between Cranmer and Calvin (and indeed Edward VI and Calvin, who were pen pals) are well documented. What these links show is an independently functioning national church with an international flavour.

What does this mean for Brexit? For what it’s worth, I think it means that it is very possible for us to be independent of the structures of the EU whilst still sharing links (whether that be trade or security) with nations on the European continent. Just as with the English Reformation, so also with Brexit, it is possible to be independent of a large super-structure whilst at the same time being connected to other like-minded entities existing within that super-structure.

More important is Tomlin’s insightful point about pursuing a common life at a time of great national division. I think he is right in suggesting that the English Reformation offers one example of compromise in a messy world. It’s a realistic model, even if (or perhaps precisely because) it can be extremely difficult to achieve.

*On the point about national identity, and as a slight side note, I would have loved to hear more about English vernacular translations of the bible (Wyclif, Tyndale, Coverdale, Geneva Bible and so on) and how this reflected the desire to render the scriptures in the language of the man and woman in the field.

2. The Local and the Universal: What Both Sides Rightly Affirm

I’ve already touched on the local v universal issue but it’s worth a discussion in its own right. Tomlin incisively draws on David Goodhart’s useful heuristic of “somewheres” and “anywheres” (*Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics remains one of the most useful and convincing analyses of the Brexit referendum and the rise of Trump).

As Goodhart explains, anywheres live portable lives and possess “achieved” identities. They tend to pass school exams, attend residential universities before moving on to jobs in London or even overseas. Somewheres, meanwhile, belong to particular places and tend to have lived there most of their lives. They possess “ascribed” identities (identities given to them by the place and family in which they grow up). In very general terms, somewheres tended to vote Leave, with anywheres casting their ballots for Remain.

Here’s the crucial point: Tomlin argues that both anywheres and somewheres are right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny.

Somewheres stress rootedness in a place with distinct customs, sense of humour, culture, norms, commitments and stories that give that place meaning. As Tomlin explains,

Every society needs to value what makes it distinct. We are born to particular parents, into a specific family and neighbourhood at a certain time in history…we need a common sense of our underlying common bonds.

If a society loses its particular cultural memory, people begin to feel rootless and life can appear shallow.

At the same time, the emphasis on the local or the national can turn poisonous if this is all there is. A lack of cultural or political diversity can lead to the fossilisation of a particular nation or an overweening sense of national pride.

Meanwhile, we find the universal impulse channelling itself into the celebration of other cultures and their achievements and customs. This typically expresses itself in university education, connections with other parts of the world through foreign travel and networks of colleagues and friends. As with the local, so also can the universal impulse turn poisonous and erode a unified sense of identity as it crowds out the distinctive customs of a given place.

Where does this leave us? Tomlin reasons that,

Both are necessary. Every healthy society needs a careful balance of these two impulses. A loss of identity and rootedness leads to a fading of cultural memory, a lack of belonging and a diminishing sense of who we are as a nation…Yet what if we close ourselves off from other cultures, shut the door to neighbours (especially when they are in trouble), fail to play our part in wider conversations about the global future, and show reluctance to change? Such behaviour is dangerous…

Whether or not we like to admit it, and hard as it may to acknowledge due to the heat generated by the arguments of the last few years, both sides of the debate have a point.

And yet, as Tomlin goes on to note, in the referendum we were forced to make a choice between these two impulses. While one impulse might be dominant at any given time, Tomlin is right to note that this choice, insofar as it was permanent and irrevocable, was in many ways a false one.

3. Practicing Love…Even for Our Enemies

The Brexit referendum, Tomlin concludes, also involved “competing loves”. We can either love our nearest and dearest—those “like us”. Or, we can love and treat with dignity those unlike us.

The Christian tradition meets these competing loves head on. For Christians, to present these as competing loves is to offer yet another false choice. At the heart of the Christian tradition which infuses much of Western culture is Jesus’s command to “love your neighbour as yourself”:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-47

Tomlin categorises the loves in this passage into four types:

1. Loving yourself: we are to assume responsibility for ourselves by making sure we obtain adequate food, sleep and maintain good health. But if this is all we aspire to, we are narcissists.

2. Loving the one like you: We are also called to lavish the same benefits we have enjoyed on those immediately around us (family and friends). But this comes naturally to us since we surround ourselves with those “like us”. Even the tax collectors do that, Jesus says.

3. Loving your neighbour: the neighbour is the one you come into contact with whom you do not necessarily choose and whom you do not necessarily love or have any reason to love.

4. Loving your enemy: Jesus goes beyond neighbourly love to include our enemies.

This is being capable of loving those who make life hard for you…Loving your enemy feels a stretch. It demands much of us to love the person who is after our job, or changing our neighbourhood or nation into something unrecognisable, or taking the opposite view from us on everything—including Brexit.

This is a hard saying! I think I would want to add (and I’m sure Tomlin would affirm this as well) that we can resist those seeking to change our neighbourhood into something we don’t recognise whilst still doing so lovingly and respectfully.

Indeed, Tomlin notes that these are not necessarily competing loves. That we do not need to choose between them. We can love those around us, those like us and that this ‘natural’ love should not be taken for selfishness (or racism), “but as the first stage in learning to love the stranger”. And yet, if we love only those like us, our love is deficient. At the same time, there are times when love for the immigrant or stranger can lead us to ignore the needs of those closest to home. This too, is a failure to love.

Tomlin’s short book ends with a plea for the future in the form of 5 things the nation needs to heal. I won’t end with these (buy the book!). Instead, I want to leave you with his important reminder that the Brexit divide is not simply a political or legal or economic challenge. Of course it is no less than these things. But at heart, it is a spiritual challenge which leaves us with lingering spiritual questions. How can we love our neighbour? How can we love even our enemy?

One final question which is perhaps the most important of all: Will we rise to this spiritual challenge?