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.

Who is My Neighbour? A Foreign Policy Plea for Post-Brexit Britain

As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, we would do well to consider our alliances, especially as other more malignant Empires loom on the horizon.

We need to talk about empires.

As today we begin the complex process of untangling ourselves from the European Union, this is more important than ever.

Integral to the movement for leaving the EU has been the strong desire for national sovereignty and the rejection of a perceived European empire. Britain’s laws and borders remain, in the final analysis, under the control of the British people.

At the same time, I think we might be losing sight of the foreign-policy implications of Brexit. An important part of striking out on this new path is the relationships we will have with other nations. And I’m not sure we’re talking about this nearly enough as much as we should.

Even in the month of January, as we prepare to leave the EU, we have already seen the importance of Britain’s cultural and military alliances emerge twice.

First of all, there was the US killing of Gen Soleimani in Iran. Amid rumours that the UK wasn’t consulted prior to the attack, serious questions were asked of the state of the Special Relationship.

Then just this week, the government voted to accept the limited use of equipment from Chinese state-backed company Huawei, in the UK’s 5G network. The decision was taken in the face of US warnings and the threat of changes to the existing networks of intelligence sharing. Real cracks are beginning to show in the Anglo-American alliance.

Even as post-Brexit Britain celebrates its freedom, then, it cannot escape the urgency of its global relationships.

Because while the nation-state rises, empires aren’t going anywhere.

Who, in the end, will we call our neighbours? Countries that share our values or countries that do not?

The Rise of the Nation-State

Since the referendum result, there has been a fairly understandable focus in the UK on our relationship to ourselves.

We’ve begun to consider how the different parts of the UK relate to one another. And this is no bad thing.

This internal focus is largely the result of the fact that the nation-state has risen once more to the fore of Western politics.

2016, with the EU Referendum and the election of Donald Trump, was a cataclysmic year for national sovereignty. Of course, there have been a wave of national populist movements both preceding and following Brexit and Trump. But these two moments constitute a watershed which signalled that a profound change in the geopolitical landscape was afoot.

Among other things, the Brexit vote heralded a victory for the Somewheres. The Brexit vote was a revolt of those who benefited the least from globalisation against those who have benefited the most.

Brexit was also, in many cases, a repudiation of a perceived European empire. As Ed West puts it,

Rather than longing for imperial greatness, a majority of English Leave voters don’t even care if the Union breaks up. Leavers are not generally keen on foreign intervention, either; if anything, as Tom Holland put it, they’d just like to go back to the Shire and smoke pipe-weed.

While it is the Brexiteers that are frequently accused of being pro-empire, imperial ambitions are more often to be found among some of the liberal elite in Brussels.

There are legitimate fears that an empire without borders has already overrode national sovereignty and the freedom of nation states to determine their own course. The Brexit project is the rejection of a new world order and the full embrace of the free nation-state.

A World of Empires

At the same time, I’m wary of the fact that we might be ignoring the rise of other empires that are far more dangerous.

For all that the nation-state has been making a come-back, we still live in a world of empires.

The 2010s saw China become a major geopolitical player. Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative has already connected China with parts of Europe and Africa. Judging from the first month of 2020, James Kirkup’s prediction that the Western response to the rise of China will define the 2020s seems entirely reasonable.

With the Huawei case, the UK has already found itself caught in the new Cold War between the US and China. Will we choose the Pax Americana or the Pax Sinica?

Even more worryingly, imperial powers are joining forces. Russia and China frequently vetoed UN Security Council resolutions to deliver aid to Syrian civilians. Around Christmastime, I was shocked to read that China, Russia and Iran were involved in join naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman.

Assuming that we are never going to get rid of empires, shouldn’t we seek to ally with like-minded powers against the rise of such dangerous regimes? My fear here is that in focussing purely on freeing ourselves from the European project (or, as some would see it, empire), we are naively blindfolding ourselves to other empires with extremely malignant and despotic designs.

A Modest Proposal

Very few Leavers are talking about this, however. British parliamentary sovereignty appears to trump any concerns over the rise of the Chinese empire.

And this does make sense. After all, Brexit is about focussing on levelling up all of Britain. On reaching out to those left-behind places. In post Brexit-Britain, the national takes prominence. As Danny Kruger put it so well in his maiden speech this week, “our first loyalties are to the people we live among”.

But we can’t forget our global ties, particularly to other long-standing allies who share our values.

Ultimately, I happen to think that these two points are not mutually exclusive—we can uphold national sovereignty by exiting the EU while still actively seeking out partnership with those states who stand for democracy and freedom.

There are two important questions here, though, that must be faced with open-eyed realism:

1) First, will other like-minded nations always want to interact with us?

The Huawei debacle has imperilled our relationship with an important ally. In Global Britain, we must not risk losing friends over the need for short-term, pragmatic, economic and technological gains.

2) In the wake of rancorous debate over our state as a nation, will our government give enough consideration to issues of foreign policy and our alliances with other nations around the world?

I welcome the swift actions taken by the government to level up all parts of the UK. At the same time, if we are to become Small Britannia, with a strong commitment to building a better Britain, we risk overlooking the part we can play in having a positive global influence.

I am not primarily talking here about being an economic powerhouse, as important as that is. Sadly, in those instances when politicians do consider “Global Britain”, it is invariably in economic terms. To only think about our role in global markets is short-sighted. After all, man cannot live on spreadsheets alone.

Nor, when I mention global influence, am I talking about intervening militarily at every possible juncture, as necessary as that is in certain scenarios.

I am speaking rather of the role of persuasion. In reducing our global influence to the military or markets, we lose sight of the various forms of soft-power that we possess. What of the cultural heritage which we can humbly but firmly offer to those willing to engage with us? I believe that when invited, we have a duty to convince others of the virtue of the values we have tried and tested over hundreds of years and which now form the bedrock of our constitutional democracy—the rule of law, the universality of human rights and the accountability of parliament. While we far from perfectly embody these values, we have a lot to offer.

Something good and important will be lost if we do not consider how we support those (for instance, in Hong Kong), who seek similar freedoms under totalitarian imperial regimes.

Roger Scruton, who died last month, was a passionate proponent of national sovereignty. Yet he was also globally-minded, supporting dissidents in areas under the Iron Curtain and setting up an underground university in Prague.

National interest and global influence often represent competing priorities but they need not always be mutually exclusive alternatives. While the balance is rightly shifting towards the national, in post-Brexit Britain we must not lose sight of our role in the world, and those in it that we would call our neighbours.

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 run 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, How to Be A Conservative (Bloomsbury, 2014)

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

A Year of Protest and Trial: The Saeculum Review of 2019

(L-R Clockwise) Trump’s Impeachment; Maya Forstater’s Trial; Hong Kong Protests; An Extinction Rebellion Sticker; UK Government’s Get Ready for Brexit Notice; Polling Station for the 2019 General Election

Here is my review of four of the biggest events that happened in 2019.

1. Climate Activism

2019 saw the issue of the climate rise to the forefront of UK politics in a major way.

Of course, it had been there throughout the decade in election manifestoes and government policy.

But I think it’s fair to say that 2019 brought with it a more vocal, more active set of actors on the environmental scene.

The most vocal of the climate activist protest groups was Extinction Rebellion who called for the UK parliament to accept that the globe is facing a climate emergency. “The Truth”, as ER see it, is that we are on the brink of a mass extinction.

Among their demands are for the government to recognise this emergency, and, in light of it, to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025 (a mere 5 years from now).

Foremost among the climate protest movements was the now-famous, teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. This unlikely hero projected herself to fame by leading and inspiring waves of young protesters across the globe to take to the streets on Fridays. One of the moments of the year was her impassioned speech before the UN Climate Action Summit, in which she levelled her frustration and anger at the inaction of world leaders.

Let me begin with what I take to be the positives from the climate activist movements in the UK.

We need to acknowledge that we are in a significant period when it comes to our future as a planet. Just have a read of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Global Warming and you’ll see what I mean. When it comes to climate activists, more specifically, there is a fearlessness and a desire to tell the truth regardless of how horrific it appears. I find that impulse brave and commendable (even if I disagree with the 2025 target that is being proclaimed).

At the same time, the ER movement has not taken enough care both in terms of the claims it has made and the means by which it seeks to achieve its ends. This is a movement that has, frankly, overstretched itself.

Let’s start with its methods.

This is a movement that has frequently employed questionable means to meet its ends.

I found this out personally over the Summer. Bus routes were not operational due to the protests resulting in tube stations filling to the brim. Faced with no other choice, I taxi’d across town.

I also object to the endangering of people’s lives through trespassing onto airport run ways or using drones to prevent aircraft from flying. And the disruption of public transport, as we saw in Canning Town, was just nonsensical to say the least.

Disruption to major producers of fossil fuels, I can at least understand, even be sympathetic towards. But to obstruct the lives of ordinary citizens (sometimes with tragic results) doesn’t induce my sympathy. To be quite honest, and I know others that I have read and spoken with with feel similarly, it can induce the opposite.

All of this might be excusable if we were facing imminent death. In fact, one would have to applaud ER for its consistency—faced with global mass extinction, the least we could do is endure a bit of mild discomfort to our daily consumption, a scaling-back to our ordinary travel habits, right?

Except, we aren’t.

Which takes us back to to that crucial IPCC Report. Full disclosure: I am not a climate scientist. But I trust this report. It represents an international consensus of expert climate scientists. Importantly, it advises that governments seek to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050.

The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.

IPCC, Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments (Oct 2018)

So, we are in a crucial period. But we aren’t facing the apocalyptic doom promised by ER and others. As David Aaronovitch has put it,

Some people, of course, get off on hellfire. But it can frighten or alienate more than it energises. So when we look at what Thunberg claims and compare it with what we know of the science of climate change, we have to conclude that she exaggerates.

Most importantly, and as Peter Franklin has argued, we need to begin discussing solutions. More to the point, we need to start discussing realistic, economically sustainable ways of reducing our carbon emissions. William Hague has compiled a list which will be required reading for policy-makers

We also need to acknowledge that progress is being made. 2019 was the year the UK started producing more renewable energy than fossil fuels.

We’re still far off our 2050 target, though. And so we can’t get complacent. And when it comes to the environment, let that be the lesson we take into the 2020s.

Key Articles

  1. IPCC, Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments
  2. Ed West, Why Conservatives Should Capture the Green Movement, Unherd
  3. David Aaronovitch, The disturbing spectacle of Greta the Great, The Times
  4. Peter Franklin, Greens Need to Start Talking Solutions, Unherd
  5. William Hague, The time for denial is over. Conservatives have to take the climate crisis seriously, The Telegraph
  6. Simon Evans, Analysis: UK renewables generate more electricity than fossil fuels for first time, Carbon Brief

2. The Brexit Election and The Re-Alignment of British Politics

On the Brexit front, 2019 seemed to drag on and on without much resolution.

We had a serious of Meaningful Votes on May’s deal. In the first, May faced the largest ever defeat inflicted on a government. Two further defeats followed along with two votes of confidence. May held on both times. Steely resilience characterised her premiership (and, as Matthew Goodwin has argued, her contribution to Johnson’s win in 2019 should not be downplayed).

Fast-forward to the end of October (a lot happened in between of course–May finally stood down, Boris Johnson won the leadership race, faced a series of parliamentary defeats, moved for parliament to be suspended, successfully got a new deal) and we faced a Christmas (or Advent?) Election.

The results were persuasive (at least as far as England was concerned). Johnson got his “stonking majority” and with it the largest Conservative majority since 1987. Labour crumbled, and nowhere more so than in the northern heartlands. You can read more about that important election night, here.

What I want to dwell on, though, is the fact that this election represents a re-alignment of British politics. As Matthew Goodwin, David Goodhart and others have argued, the Conservatives skilfully read the public mood which, in general, leans slightly left on economics and slightly right on issues of culture.

What it means to lean left on economics is fairly transparent; a commitment to public spending on NHS and the various components that make up the safety net of the welfare state.

The meaning of “leaning right” on culture is less apparent. Cultural conservatism doesn’t equate to Victorian social mores, or an illiberal backlash in terms of civil liberties and freedom of choice.

In fact, both assumptions unhelpfully conflate social conservatism and cultural conservatism. Peter Franklin helpfully distinguishes between them in this way:

social conservatism concerns matters of personal responsibility, while cultural conservatism concerns matters of collective identity — i.e. the former is about behaviour and the latter about belonging.

On social matters, most would agree that each individual is deserving of fair and equal treatment, irrespective of their race, sex or sexual orientation. As Matt Singh points out,

on the specifics, there are points where reasonable, non-bigoted people disagree. Besides the prioritisation there’s the question of what equality means in practice (is that formulation racist, is that advert sexist, and so on), to what extent equality has or hasn’t been achieved, what (more) should be done to achieve it, what happens when the interests of different protected groups conflict, and so on.

Leaning right on culture is similarly nuanced. It often constitutes not a resistance to change but a desire for a slower pace of change. On immigration, to take one issue of culture, this is not a drawing up of the drawbridges, but a plea for a system that takes greater care as to who enters one’s borders with a view to limiting the number of people that do.

The 2019 General Election resulted in an emphatic victory for those who lean right on culture.

One of things this means moving forward is the need for bridge figures on the (cultural) left and the (cultural) right. From personal conversations with those on the cultural and social left, I sense that it is important for those who are culturally right to assure the socially left that we will not be witnessing a backlash against hard-fought civil liberties for minorities. How one acts when in power is absolutely key, here. And the burden lies with those in the political ascendancy to offer important assurances in this regard.

With the cultural and social left, on the other hand, what is required is a greater attentiveness to the trends that have got us to where we are as a nation, and careful consideration of the nuances of the positions of those who have voted differently.

What 2019 (and the three or four years previous to it) have shown us is that issues of culture and belonging urgently require discussion. So far, we have as a nation collectively flunked this test. But there is still the distinct possibility of rapprochement. Conversations across difference are difficult, but the alternative—bitter division—is far worse.

Key Articles

  1. Matthew Goodwin, Nine lessons from the election: Boris was lucky – but he also played his hand right, The Spectator
  2. Matthew Goodwin, Why Labour Lost, Triggernometry Podcast
  3. Peter Franklin, Three Myths About Social Conservatives, Unherd
  4. Matt Singh, What does shifting right on culture actually mean? , CapX (the matters Singh considers to be ones of “culture” are better read as “social” issues, under Franklin’s definition).

3. The Maya Forstater Trial

2019 was, as far as I can remember, the year that the transgender debate came to my attention.

I first became aware of the issue when noticing trans women’s presence in women sports (I suspect that sports is the entry point into the issue for many men). I was and am persuaded by the evidence (see, for a start, here and here) showing that even with hormonal treatment, men who transition to become women possess a variety of advantages that come from the skeleton as shaped at puberty. I fully expect this issue will be one that is discussed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Beyond sports, however, the issue has recently risen to prominence with the case of tax expert Maya Forstater, who lost her job for tweeting that a man cannot change his biological sex and for expressing her concern over self-ID law. Forstater subsequently lost her employment tribunal, after the judge ruled that her “approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society”.

JK Rowling tweeted her support resulting in a major Twitter Storm. She also guaranteed that this is an issue that people can, and will be talking about. And for that she is to be applauded.

At this point, I won’t comment any further, except to say this: the problem isn’t in Forstater’s assertion of biological reality (which seems so obvious as to be banal). Rather the problem, as I see it, lies in arbitrary, erroneous and harmful gender stereotypes promulgated and perpetuated by those on the Petersonian right and the trans-activist left. 

Or, as former Olympic athlete Sharron Davies, more positively puts it:

“Whereas gender today is a social construct, an ideology, a feeling, totally changeable, I believe we cannot change sex but can live happily expressing ourselves outside of any stereotypes.”

Key Articles

  1. Sarah Hilton, A Woman’s Place is on the Podium, A Woman’s Place UK
  2. Tom Chivers, Of Course Biological Reality Exists, Unherd.
  3. Ross Tucker, On Transgender athletes and performance advantages, SportsScientists
  4. Is it fair to allow transwomen to compete in female sport?, Fair Play for Women
  5. David Brown, Maya Forstater: I’ve been abused for my beliefs about trans people, The Times
  6. Maya Forstater, I Lost My Job For Speaking Up About Women’s Rights, Medium.
  7. James Kirkup, In just a few words, JK Rowling has changed the transgender debate, The Spectator.

4. The Impeachment Trial

Objective reality not only took a hit on the issue of biological sex. Donald Trump, a man who has endowed us with phrases like “fake news”, is on trial for requesting a probe into Democratic Presidential nominee, Joe Biden from Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky (in return offering him a state visit to Washington).

My take on the whole issue is that Trump appears to have well overstepped the boundaries of his office. Whether that constitutes an impeachable offence will obviously be a matter for the Congress. So far, the House has ruled in favour of impeachment. An overall positive impeachment verdict looks extremely unlikely, however, as the Republican controlled Senate looks set to vote against it sometime in early 2020. With this is mind, the Democrats would do best to reflect on how they might go about winning the hearts and minds of Trump voters ahead of November 5th.

More significant for the Saeculum, is the response of Christian leaders to the Trump impeachment trial. Mark Galli, editor of the evangelical periodical Christianity Today boldly and measuredly called for Trump to be removed from office, either by impeachment or electorally.

To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?

Mark Galli

The response from Trump was swift and revealing. Christianity Today was branded a “far left” periodical. “They would rather a radical left non-believer who wants to take away your religion and your guns”. The President’s reference to “your religion” was, I thought, chilling.

The response from Trump-supporting evangelicals was yet more revealing. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham (a founder of the journal) and hardline Trump supporter, revealed that his father had, in fact, voted for Trump. The very thing Galli had warned evangelical leaders of—the uncritical hitching of the evangelical wagon to that of the Trump administration—was playing out before us.

As Tim Costello of the Australian-based, Centre for Public Christianity notes, “the burning question is, does faith shape one’s politics or does politics capture and determine one’s faith?”

None of this is to deny that Trump has achieved important domestic and foreign policy objectives—his tough stance on China, to take just one example, is admirable and has proven effective so far. To fail to grant that Trump has scored some important victories for, among other things, the US economy and religious freedom is to be severely unbalanced in judgment.

What I find most disconcerting, however, is the uncritical support “rendered” to Trump by the leaders of the evangelical churches in the States. To fail to even feel even a twinge of inner conflict about the character of President Trump is to be equally unbalanced in judgment.

As Mike Bird puts it, such an ideology—such a Trumpology—is lamentable indeed

because it presents a God with partisan mercy, who expects men and women to ignore their moral compasses, to call the wicked good and the good wicked, in order to keep themselves positioned in the court of earthly power.

Key Articles

  1. Andrew Buncombe, Trump ‘asked former Ukraine president to announce Biden investigation in exchange for state visit’, The Independent.
  2. Tim Costello, Can Christian faith be independent of politics? , The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia).
  3. Mark Galli, Trump Should be Removed From Office, Christianity Today.
  4. Mike Bird, Trump, Grudem and Hermeneutics, Patheos.

Ten Resolutions for 2020

  1. Resolved to support my wife as she completes her doctorate and starts a new job in the first half of this year.
  2. Resolved to develop habits of prayer, worship and scriptural reflection through Common Worship (MP/EP) and the Lectionary (using Bruner’s Commentary on Matthew for Year A). Resolved to encounter the beauty and strangeness of scripture through reading in Greek and Hebrew as much as possible, and reading and singing Psalms in metre (resources like those from John Bell, Ian White, the Free Church Psalter and the KJV translation in the Book of Common Prayer). In terms of prayer, resolved to remember the nations of the world and the church universal (I’ll probably use resources from OpenDoors and Operation World). Resolved to continue to invest in the local church through attending services in which corporate confession, Word and Sacrament feature as well as participating in prayer and discussion groups.
  3. When it comes to current affairs, resolved to spend more time reading substantial news and comment pieces from major sources (Unherd and The Times) and to support these organisations in their endeavours. Conversely, resolved to spend less time on click bait and Twitter by using the latter for uploading blog posts and answering queries.
  4. Resolved to keep up my use of foreign languages through the use of a mobile application (Russian so as to communicate with family and Hebrew, Latin and Greek for study). I’ll probably use AnkiMobile.
  5. Resolved to read a good mix of fiction and non-fiction. On the former, prioritising British and Russian and for the latter, works relevant to this blog (particularly focussing this year on empire and national identity). I’ll be using GoodReads to track my reading habits.
  6. Resolved to blog at least every other week as far as is possible.
  7. Resolved to volunteer with a local organisation and so invest in local community.
  8. Resolved to endeavour to develop and grow friendships near and afar.
  9. Resolved to make every effort to publish my thesis.
  10. Resolved to support free debate and inquiry in society by attending events like those put on by the Cambridge Union.

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.

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. 

2019 General Election Results Review: The Big Picture and Four Take Aways

The party leaders for the 2019 General Election (Image Credit: Bloomberg)

The 2019 General Election has come and gone and my oh my was it a seismic one!

In the months leading up to the vote, most polls were steadily forecasting a Conservative Majority. But then a day or so before the vote, YouGov published its MPR poll showing that while a Conservative majority was likely, a hung parliament was within the margin of error.

The exit poll swiftly put paid to that. As the clock struck 10, an 80 seat majority was forecasted with Conservatives taking 364 seats.

Then the results came in, thick and fast, with traditional Labour seats one by one turning blue. It was staggering to watch. Labour heartlands in the north east England yielded Conservative seats, many for the first time in 50, 60 even 70 years…and some for the first time ever. An emotional Ian Levy, the new Conservative MP for the former mining community of Blythe Valley, scarcely seemed to believe that he had won as he delivered his victory speech.

By dawn the results were there for all to see: Conservatives with 365 seats, Labour with 203.

The scale of the victory is breath-taking. The largest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987. The worst Labour performance in terms of haul of seats since the Second World War (oustripping Michael Foot’s 209 seats in 1983). Lewis Baston has rightly referred to it as a landslide.

But what are we to make of all this?

Here are my four big take-aways from the 2019 UK General Election.

1. An End to the Parliamentary Gridlock

First of all, with a Conservative majority in the House of Commons we have an end to the deadlock that has plagued Brexit negotiations the past three and a half years.

Throughout the campaign, three words dominated the Conservative airwaves: “Get Brexit done”. A poll by Unherd suggests that these were the three words that won the election.

We asked a representative sample of 2,000 voters on the day of the election how they had voted and why. Of those who said they voted Conservative, 85% put ‘to get Brexit done’ in their top three reasons. That was also the choice of almost nine in 10 of the people who voted Conservative for the first time yesterday.

James Johnson, Unherd

To be sure, there remains a heck of a lot of work to be done for Boris Johnson and his MPs “to get Brexit done”.

But there is now light at the end of the tunnel after months, years even, of uncertainty. And Johnson appears to be wasting no time, holding a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement next week which will secure the UK’s exit on 31st January. That of course is only the beginning. We then have the transition period during which parliament will thrash out (or square the circle of?) a variety of complex post-Brexit issues, including most prominently, the Irish border and a trade agreement.

Crucially, though, with the mandate this election has brought, there is finally some much needed clarity about our fate vis-a-vis the EU.

2. Corbyn Defeated and the Hope of a Credible Leader of the Opposition

Perhaps the biggest story of the night was the Conservative gain of stronghold Labour seats, particularly in the Northeast of the country (as this graphic makes clear). Commentators spoke of a “red wall” falling in Bishop Auckland, Durham North West, Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s old seat) Darlington, Stockton South, and Redcar (which Johnson quipped had now become “Bluecar”).

As much as the promise of “getting Brexit done” seems to have worked to great effect for the Conservatives, the spectre of Jeremy Corbyn greatly aided for the Tory cause.

There was the ever-present scourge of deep anti-Semitism. Then the betrayal of Labour Leave voters with the promise of a Second Referendum.

The most revealing moment of the night came as Alan Johnson berated Jon Lansman, the head of Momentum (the Corbyn pressure group within Labour), for turning his back on the working class voters who voted Leave. It is a must watch.

The results in the Northeast raise the question: was this election more of a victory for the Conservatives or a loss Labour? A YouGov poll suggests that the general population perceives the result as more of a Labour loss (51%) than a Conservative victory (37%). It is a question that will continue to be asked and pondered in the months and years to come.

For my part, I hope that Labour think long and hard about who their next leader will be. Corbyn was simply toxic for vast swathes of the population and it is a wonder Labour stuck by him for so long. Moving forward, Britain will need a credible opposition to hold the government to account. This election has hastened that process.

3. The Union Looks in Doubt

While the reality of Brexit is now a certainty, big questions have been raised about the state of the Union. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted in nationalist parties in large numbers.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) swept Scotland, taking 48 of a possible 59 seats and claiming 45% of the share of the vote. In line with her party’s manifesto, Nicola Sturgeon has already called for an IndyRef2, severely testing the unionist credentials of the PM.

Across the Irish Sea, there were changes in Northern Ireland as nationalists made gains and unionists lost seats. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (moderate nationalists) earned two seats while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) lost two of their own including, most notably, that of Nigel Dodds, their deputy leader. Talk of an Irish independence referendum looms, even as the status of Northern Ireland’s relationship to the UK in Brexit negotiations remains uncertain.

I will admit to the state of the Union being my greatest source of anxiety stemming from this election. A crucial year or two lies ahead.

4. The Great Realignment of British Politics

Perhaps most significantly of all, though, the results of this election signal a seismic shift in the way we map British politics. The Blue Dawn in the northeast shows this realignment in particularly clear terms. Kent-based political scientist Matthew Goodwin has neatly summed up this shift as being “left-wing economically” and “broadly conservative socially”.

Goodwin puts it this way:

This realignment-of-sorts will, in itself, raise important questions. How will Johnson, an instinctive social and economic liberal, appease and retain voters who instinctively lean a little Left on the economy and a little Right on culture? Reflected in our changing political geography is a new Conservative electorate that will be looking not only for a meaningful break from the European Union, a tougher stance on crime, reform of immigration and a general slowing of the pace of change but also a more interventionist or even protectionist economic regime. Boris Johnson might be about to inherit a Conservative electorate of whom 86% want to see immigration reduced and 40% rail renationalised.

Matthew Goodwin

In the eyes of many, Johnson appears to have squared this circle. His victory speech (bar the odd reference to anti-socialism) appeared conciliatory, magnanimous, even at points humble. He recognised that many would have voted for him for the first time. That many of them were Labour voters. Then, in his speech outside Downing Street, he spoke of the need to heal as a nation and his willingness to listen to those who felt an affinity to the EU.

So Johnson seems to tapping into something here. Here’s Goodwin again:

Johnson and his team are clearly aware of the dilemma. They already stand a little to the Left of where David Cameron and George Osborne were, revealing how it is the centre-right, and not the centre-left, that has a stronger grasp of where most voters instinctively are. Those who have spent recent months shrieking about Johnson’s desire to build a ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ — a libertarian settlement fixated with deregulation and financial services — are today struggling to make sense of a Conservative manifesto that advocates higher public spending, a higher minimum wage, more money for the National Health Service, more money for infrastructure, more redistribution, more action on regional inequality, state aid for failing businesses and a buy-British procurement policy.

If Goodwin is right, and we are seeing a shift that is “left-wing economically” and “right-wing socially”, then this has some significant implications. Perhaps most importantly of all, this election suggests that those that live in places that are (or would describe themselves as) “liberal left”—socially liberal and economically liberal, or free-market—need to wake up to the fact that they are at odds with the pervading ethos of the country.

Whether or not we agree with this trajectory, we first of all need to acknowledge its explanatory power and seek to understand it. Judging by my social media feed, and the number of conversations I have had today with people in Cambridge, I’m not sure that many people have woken up. In the anger and hurt, the results are hastily blamed on racism and xenophobia. The urgency of stepping back, asking questions, getting out of our bubbles has never been more pressing.

In the wake of the EU referendum, many of us have had to “wake up” to the prevailing sense of public opinion. I know I’ve had to wake up.

This doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with the public opinion; what it does mean is trying to understand it so as to better engage with it.

My own story is that this process has been one of transformation and richness.

As the dust settles, I am cautiously optimistic. There are big opportunities and dangers ahead. We will need all the critical powers, all the grace at our disposal to meet these head-on, together.

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?