Dead Letter Office

To Explain My Absence

I have not been around here very much but that is only because I have been furiously furrowing my brow in an effort to figure out how to talk about Jesus and parables, Mammon and Ireland, greed and grace, in a way that passes a PhD viva. I am making progress but it means I might not make anything for this place for a while. I am reminded of these wise words from Karl Barth:

Is it not, perhaps, a weakness of Protestantism that we speak too much, too quickly (without proper punctuation), and without due and proper reflection? Might not a reasonable asceticism in this regard be a valuable asset even in our Christians and theological circles? Is it not indispensable to a true speaking?

– (CD IV.2, 16)

So consider my absence an attempt to shut up long enough to maybe one day speak truly.

Your Correspondent, Gonna make like a tree, and get outta here.

Music

Squaresville Sounds Pretty Cool: A Best Of for 2015

Prolegomena

Inspired by my Japanese apostle, John Mark Mullan, back in the mid-2000s my friends and I started an annual tradition called the Best Ofs. It is not unique but it is special. We reflect on the year through the music we have discovered and we make selections, mix-tapes, and in one very fine contribution, an entire movie. The CD was still dominant when we began and it sets the terms of the project still, a lovely evolving testimony to the fact that we are no longer young. So the rules are as follows:

  • The mix must be less than 80 minutes.
  • It must be more than a minute.
  • Artists can repeat.
  • Songs can be from any era, but just new to you in the last year.
  • Any and all genres are welcome.
  • Crazy ass remixes/mash-ups of familiar songs from long ago count as new
  • You can submit detailed supplementary content or just raw audio or anything in between.
  • You can post us all CDs, make a Spotify playlist, or distribute the files on A4 pages hidden around a local forest – whatever way you think gets the best balance between ease for you (the compiler) and ease for us (the listener). But we have a special dropbox if you want to keep things simple.
  • Anyone invited can feel free to invite others, because the Best of Project is a great way for friends to meet friends’ friends.

When I Think Back On 2015

So when I reflect on the last year I mostly think about books and the battles I wage with them. I have become ever more short-sighted, balding, grey-haired and troubled as I wrestle with my thesis and moving on from the purgatorial grey of Aberdeen. My writing becomes ever more obtuse. My conversation ever more arcane. I was never with it, and they may well have changed what it was, but right now I am definitively square. Marge Simpson is my spirit animal. Hence:

I do not have the skill or courage to write a retrospective of my year that is true or insightful. I do have the songs that resonated with me, which reveal that more than any year in my life thus far, I have been consumed with thoughts about God and life and how thoughts about God are not the same as faith and thoughts about life is not the same as living. The songs are sad or angry and only in one example deliriously triumphant. And that example is a theme tune to a TV show, so that says a lot about the state of my soul, right?

Still, I like to think in my thought and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do, that I am not a morose person. I aspire to be guileless like Marge and so even if life in the TheoLab is very much square, I’m happy there, even if I still look into cameras as if they are about to ask me a question I don’t understand:

TheoLab ahoy!

Squaresville Sounds Pretty Cool

So these are the songs that made it into my best of. In the version I will upload to the project, it comes in at 77 minutes and 44 seconds. So listening to it takes a commute to work and back again, probably.

This is the album cover, which is an image from the artist Ryoji Ikeda:

Squaresville Sounds Pretty Cool

Here’s a YouTube playlist:

Commentary

Here’s the tracklisting:

  1. The Decemberists – A Beginning Song:
    For various reasons, as the end of 2015 collapses on us, I have a growing suspicion while sitting in the Concrete Bunker that 2016 is going to be a decisive year for our little family. So the song that closes the Decemberists album opens mine, because in 2016, whether we like it or not, the next chapter begins.
  2. Dawes – All Your Favorite Bands:
    Wife-unit’s advice for making mix-tapes is complex and nuanced, but I boiled it down to: “Start strong, but follow it up with the home-run.” This is my single favourite song of the year. Its gentle guitar riff runs through my head constantly and the spirit of friendship and hope that it extols is both deeply resonant and comforting to me.
  3. Courtney Barnett – Pedestrian at Best:
    The jury was out for a long time on this Antipodean sensation. Wife-unit instantly warmed to the 1990s production style, and it definitely tickled my nostalgia for an adolescence full of wordy female songstresses. But in the end, the most raucous track on the album lingered in my memory.
  4. Kendrick Lamar – i:
    I did not wait with bated breath for the Kendrick Lamar album but when it arrived, it was overwhelming. Often it is hard to listen to because there is so much for black Americans to be furious about. Lamar, especially here, is a compelling voice in the midst of that injustice. This song is so damn good.
  5. Blackalicious – I Like The Way You Talk:
    I did wait with bated breath for the Blackalicious album. I waited ten freaking years for it. And when it arrived I was positively underwhelmed. I just built it up too much, I suppose. It’s an odd album because when I play it all at once it is almost anonymous and frequently annoying. But taken on their own the songs are great. Maybe I’ll revise my opinion as the months go by. That’s often the case with me; I am so naturally unmusical that the best stuff often takes a long time to settle in my ears.
  6. Sleater Kinney – Price Tag:
    There’s a famous Portlandia sketch where Carrie and Fred inadvertently open a sweatshop in their basement. This could be a soundtrack for that. But it is one of the most rocking of the album’s tracks (they almost all rock) and I love it because studying wealth and capitalism for the last few years, I am convinced that it is impossible to shop ethically. Best to scream about that than just lie down and accept it, right?
  7. Oh Pep! – Tea, Milk & Honey:
    Like other people in the group, I go to NPR Tiny Desk Concert to find new music regularly and that is where I found these great Australian chaps. This is such a lovely love song. The voices are unostentiously soaring and the person speaking to us through the lyrics has such humble adoration for their partner. “She sings like a church with a choir in it.”
  8. Craig Finn – Sarah, Calling From a Hotel:
    Craig Finn is my favourite song writer. Now that The Hold Steady are on indefinite hiatus, I am consoled that he seems dedicated to his solo career (although I’d swap it all for a novel from him!). No one tells a story like him and this song demonstrates that. This song is terrifying. “Oh God, I’ve gotta go.”
  9. Sufjan Stevens – John My Beloved:
    The last two Sufjan albums were not beloved, but they get more playtime from me with every passing year. I was expecting that whatever would happen with Sufjan’s new album, I would have to take a lot of time to get used to it. I was wrong. We all were wrong. Carrie and Lowell is a stone cold masterpiece and I could have just listed all the songs and then drawn this mix to an end. Instead I basically chose the two I chose at random.
  10. The Gregory Brothers – Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Theme Tune:
    Certain things run constantly through my mind. Passages from Isaiah. Old Wesleyan hymns. Thomas Hardy poetry. My brain rarely rests, unless I sleep, in which case, it is busy making crap up but thankfully I rarely remember dreams. Now, new this year, the “Unbreakable! She alive damnit!” of this theme tune intrudes on my consciousness a dozen times a day. Making coffee in the morning. In the middle of a sensitive, pastoral conversation at work. Wrestling invading ninjas. At the most inopportune times this song breaks in with its exultant surprise and I submit to it. So now you’ll have to as well.
  11. Kendrick Lamar – King Kunta:
    The week after the Charleston murders, I was in America with my bumchum Taido. We were in Princeton at a fancy conference that drew hundreds of top scholars and students from around America and around the world. In the evenings, we’d go hang out with our friends Matt and Evie and that was a hands-down highlight of the year. Matt drove us around Trenton, the underworld that makes Princeton possible. He invited us to a prayer walk being held in remembrance of the victims of the attack, starting at the local AME church and winding its way through Princeton until it stopped with prayer and song and speech in the square in the centre of the town. We told the organisers of the conference and suggested they call off their evening schedule. “Think of how awesome it would be for these Christians if hundreds of their brethren from around the world joined with them, pausing their business to do the more important work of prayer?” They didn’t agree. A famous and much revered bishop was due to speak and they were not about to sideline him. “Besides,” we were told, “we shouldn’t miss his speech because it is so funny; it’s basically stand-up!” We skipped the ecclesial comedy (which was most certainly tragedy) and went to pray in the town. Who am I to have an opinion on the cultures I do not inhabit but it seems to me that America’s racism is more deeply embedded than the toolkit of the white Ivy League elites can ever hope to reach. Lamar was again an educator for me. Cutting the legs off the slave is not a thing of the past.
  12. Josh Ritter – Getting Ready To Get Down:
    Ritter is one of those people who I am meant to like. So many of my friends love him but I could never get into him, even though Ian Tracy had a brilliant track from him on one of his Best Ofs years and years ago. But his rockabilly Gospel record was great fun and how could I turn down a song about how, very often, studying the Scriptures distances us from the faithful and that spoke of “Just another damn of the damns not given”?
  13. Torres – Sprinter:
    I read Torres’ music described as arena rock for abandoned arenas and I think that is wonderfully descriptive. The songs are smart and long-arched and loud. This song, like so many in this collection, is haunted by the attraction of Jesus and the impossibility of the church. It is autobiographical, I suspect. It is definitely true.
  14. Will Butler – Son Of God:
    If pressed to explain how much I loved Sufjan’s Carrie & Lowell, I’d say it is my favourite album since Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. The Arcade Fire are among my very favourites and so the first solo album by Will Butler was bound to get a lot of my attention. This song is again about Jesus and ethics. Squaresville central.
  15. Vandaveer – However Many Takes It Takes:
    After that big fancy conference, Taido and I spent a weekend in New York, wearing holes in our shoes as we sprinted around the place. The first night there, after a heavenly dinner on a park bench in Union Square, we went to the Bowery Ballroom to see a band for whom Vadaveer supported. Vandaveer were better and this – yet another Squaresville tune about searching for salvation but not finding it – is my favourite of their songs.
  16. Sufjan Stevens – Drawn to the Blood:
    One of the (many) reasons Christianity is so deeply bloodless in the West is that it is presented as a solution to a problem. Lonely? Find community at church! Guilt-ridden? Find serenity in the liturgy! Nihilistic? Find meaning in the Gospel! These are half-truths and full lies. When the God of Elijah is your lover, life does not suddenly have meaning. Guilt does not suddenly lessen its grip. Loneliness does not magically stop stalking. The lyrics of this song fall away half way through but the story it tells swells on. Sufjan is putting aural shape around the stumbling that faith in the West in this age consists of.
  17. Alessia Cara – Here:
    An introvert’s anthem.
  18. John Moreland – Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars:
    I discovered this guy in early November and I basically haven’t stopped listening to his album since then. This is basically a thesis-statement-song for Squaresville: “Life will make you homesick for a home you’ve never had.”
  19. Jason Isbell – 24 Frames:
    I suspect Isbell was the most commonly occurring artist in the whole batch of last year’s Best Ofs and his new album is likely to also feature heavily in various playlists. “You thought God was an architect; now you know he’s something like a pipe-bomb ready to blow”? Squaresville: Yet another song about being unable to reconcile the deep mysteries of life’s hardness with the ever-present promises of God.
  20. Glen Hansard – Winning Streak:
    I remember a friend telling me a story about how, as a young musician, he encountered Glen Hansard and the Oscar-winner (who was then not yet a famous Oscar-winner) was a right dick to him. I probably mis-remembered it, knowing me. But the point is that for years I resisted liking Hansard’s music because he had been mean to my friend. In retrospect, that was both petty and self-defeating because Hansard is consistently astonishing. The latest album is his best yet, richly influenced from all over the place and resounding with a realistic hope that at times appears hymnal. This benediction, this good word of a song, is a fitting way to start landing the best-of.
  21. Glen Hansard – Grace Beneath the Pines:
    And this quiet song of resilience is the perfect way to draw the year to a close. Jason Isbell is a man of deep faith, as are many of the songwriters who feature on my list. But the most uplifting songs come from this Dubliner, who lives a few miles from my family home and from what I can gather, has no religion to speak of. However, to whatever extent the word spirituality means anything, Hansard’s songs are immersed in it.

If you want to download the album, this link should work.

Your Correspondent, He could go on talking, or he could stop

Ethics For Everyday

The Lord’s Prayer Advertised in Cinemas

This weekend, we saw yet again the depressingly common sight of Christians a-flutter in the British media over mis-treatment. In this instance, it wasn’t red cups, gay cakes, or cross necklaces that were drawing attention but an advert. For prayer.

Admittedly, it’s a fairly brilliant ad.

The Church of England intended to air it in cinemas across the land before Star Wars. But the advertising agency that distributes advertisements has a policy that says they turn down political and religious ads in all instances.

Since this is a prayer in which those who say it pledge allegiance to the world’s true King, it is both religious and political and Digital Cinema Media said no thanks.

They may regret that decision now as David Cameron, the humanoid in charge of England said that the move was ridiculous. I doubt he’d think it ridiculous if UKIP had an ad blocked under the same policy. A body called the Equality and Human Rights Commission weighed in and said freedom to hold a religion and express ideas were “essential British values.” When Britons find that Jesus despises self righteous pomposity, those who advocate for “British values” will be much slower to speak. Even the moderator of my own church, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, has decided to weigh in on the dreadful ban. He said “undoubtedly many Christians will be dismayed by this decision.”

I am dismayed by many things, petty, tiny silly things. About 5 months ago I got an email from a university administrator informing me that air heaters were not permitted in our offices. I never owned an air heater and never wanted to but I was dismayed by this silly little email. I still regularly bring it up with my wife, to remind her of the suffering I bear.

I am not making this up.

But still, I am not dismayed that a company has policies that occasionally get revealed as a touch narrow and impolitic. That’s the problem with policies and principles and guidelines. They keep being confronted with complex reality and they fall to pieces. Like that ban on air heaters after I spent £1500 buying a truckload of them and distributing them willy nilly around the campus. I am not dismayed that a corporation run for profit in the entertainment industry wants to avoid getting into conversations about politics and religion. They have sexy ice-cream and efficiency wristwatches to sell. No one wants to be troubled by thoughts of forgiveness right before they go to see the latest revenge-fascism hit starring Denzel Washington. In England today, people go hungry because of austerity politics. Britain is currently engaged in at least four wars, none of which can be justified by any stretching of the Christian tradition. The Church of England is an established church, operating under the auspices of the theocrat Elizabeth II. There are many things for British Christians to be doing. Threatening to sue because us nerds dressed up as Ewoks don’t get to see an ad for prayer before being utterly devastated by the crapness of the new Star Wars is not one of them. If the Christian God is so loving, how could he have allowed Jar Jar Binks into the world? That’s a question the Church of England might as well be debating.

On the Twitter machine I commented that this little distraction would be an opportunity for British Christians to “finally see how talk of ‘secular agendas’ & ‘rights’ is an avoidance of engaging capitalism.” My friend Richie asked me to unpack that a little bit, so that’s why I am writing now, as Wife-unit plays old Oasis tunes and I dream of my leaba.

Whenever you see Christians crying about the difficulty of being Christian – whether it is bakers in Belfast or bishops in Canterbury – notice that the common thread that links these public outrages is the market. Asher’s were selling cakes. The British Airways woman was at work. The red Starbucks cup is nothing but a spasm of market worship crudely camouflaged as a Christian conversation. Here too, we do not have a pure question of free speech but a pure example of purchased speech. That’s what advertising is. Google might let you have an AdWord campaign gratis when you sign up, but that’s true of all drug pushers. The first one is always free.

The Church of England was attempting to purchase space in a cinema broadcast, alongside Hagen Dazs and the iWatch, to peddle its wares. Since you are watching your waistline, try Coke Zero and since you are the kind of person who feels a spiritual lack, try praying. That was the previous slogan of this ongoing advertising campaign. Try praying.

What we see in each of these little media-framed controversies is the capitalist captivity of the church. We cannot understand a way of being without consumption. We cannot conceive of practices that aren’t utterly overwhelmed by marketing. We position our cakes as Biblical and our air hostesses as pious and our coffee cups as festive and now in the worst mistake of all, we present prayer as product. It is the worst mistake because the other controversies were half-baked (so to speak) by fringe groups – parachurches and solitary, devoted evangelicals. This one is the freaking Church of England.

Even more critical, no one thinks opposition to gay marriage or the ability to wear crosses on the job or the design of our coffee cups to be central to the Christian faith. But that’s exactly what the Lord’s Prayer is. It is absolutely central. It is the crux of the faith, so to speak. We can define Christians as people who pray the Our Father. We can define Christians as people who call out to the Lord. If we think it is missional to suggest Try praying we are fooling ourselves about how hard it is to make disciples. It is literally so hard, only God can do it.

Prayer is not a product. It should not be advertised. Christianity is not a brand. It should not be commodified. Our practices shape what we believe. If we continue to confuse being effective salespeople and ethical consumers with faithfulness we will soon no longer remember what it is we believe.

Your Correspondent, Hopes Spock kills Frodo in this new Star Wars

Ethics For Everyday

Insufficiently Christian Coffee Cups

It is over a week since I read an article on a dreadful website about how Starbucks’ Christmas-themed coffee cups had, this year, offended Christian groups. When I was last back home someone asked me why I didn’t blog anymore and the honest answer is that usually I am too busy working on a PhD. A subsidiary answer, that’s also true, is that I have become really good at not clicking links. So I rarely get caught up in the discussions that prompt blogging. This time I am in though. I kept meaning to go over to Starbucks and buy a coffee so I could take it back to my office and scrawl something unChristian on the side.

It’s a sunny Saturday morning and I am drinking coffee from a mug my dear friend Gillian bought us. It is turquoise and in block capitals stretching around its walls one reads the letters “OMG”. It’s a little private joke that means a lot to us in the way that tokens of friendship represent much more than the token itself. I never asked myself if my “ohmygod” mug was sufficiently Christian. No Christian who has ever visited my house have been served tea in and mused about whether it was God-honouring or God-mocking. It seems that no one really cares.

OMG Mug

And the mock outrage that I read on that dreadful website has been widely mocked by Christians since it was published. So many tweets and facebook posts and blogs were published about how the Starbucks coffee cups aren’t offensive that they together constituted an expression of internet outrage. We are outraged that someone thinks we could be outraged about something like a coffee cup.

Of course, on one level, the silly little kerfuffle allows us to reflect on a critical aspect of Christian discipleship. 1 Corinthians 13, that famous love-chapter that you have heard read a million times at weddings, says that love takes no offence. Jesus did not get offended easily. He got righteously furious. He burned with a sense of injustice at the oppression of the downtrodden and the sacrilege of holy space. But he took a fair vicious few insults with a shrug of the shoulder and an honest response. In an age of internet mobs and tabloid newspapers and tv dedicated to making you feel fear and offence, the Starbucks nonsense reminds us that we are called to exhibit winsome patience with those who insult us.

And then on a devotional level, the silly little kerfuffle does remind us that Christmas is not the primary Christian festival. Christians are Easter people. Christmas is an annunciation about the coming reconciliation of all things. And in that, a red cup is visually symbolic in a way that something covered with snowmen and Santa can never be.

And on an ethical level, the silly little kerfuffle brings to mind the fact that we are almost all addicted to this bean-drink, which depending on the week is the most traded commodity in the world. And the trade in that commodity is full of deeply disturbing excesses; excess profits and excess agriculture and excess hardship for those who actually cultivate the plants. Why does a copy-and-paste cafe from Seattle end up having such a global cultural weight? These are old questions, but we should keep asking them.

And then on a historical level, this silly little kerfuffle might prompt thoughts about how if Easter is the festival Christians look towards, Christmas is the festival that capitalists shape their year around. For long centuries, Christmas wasn’t even celebrated in the country I live in. The Scottish Presbyterian impulse towards ascetic austerity finds a partner in the much-maligned American puritans, who in a complicated way made capitalist Christmas possible by tolerating it on the grounds that it need not be imbued with religious significance. Christians sometimes fret about Hallowe’en, but it is Christmas that can actually be spiritually toxic.

I am sure there are other angles that other people, who like me are foolish enough to write about this, have spotted. But here is the real place where our thoughts should turn: politics.

If you go back to the original article, the reason I clicked on the link initially was because I wondered, “What Christian group has the time to offer an opinion on such nonsense?” It couldn’t have been the Church of England or the Catholic church and I doubt that the website would consult with any of the massive but basically invisible Pentecostal churches that are changing the face of urban Christianity in Britain. Then I read through the article and found the answer: The Christian Institute.

The Christian Institute is a lobbying group that:

exists for “the furtherance and promotion of the Christian religion in the United Kingdom” and “the advancement of education”.

I love how the scare quotes around furtherance of Christian religion and the advancement of education make it seem as if they are being sarcastic. This is a political charity that has no authority structure connected to actual churches, that seeks to insert itself into the political conversation at every opportunity. My first encounter with them was about 7 years ago, when I received an uninvited group email from them while I worked for a church in Dublin asking for my support in their efforts to oppose the Irish government’s civil union legislation. I sent an email back asking them why, in the light of centuries of imperialism, would a British political group think it can start lobbying over Irish legislation. I got no response.

In fairness, I also got no further emails.

Whenever you look for a Won’t somebody think of the children! response from Christians in the media, you find the Christian Institute. When Christians allegedly boycotted Tesco because one of their staff members called Christians evil on their personal Flickr profile page, it was the Christian Institute. The Christian Institute got nationwide coverage in the UK when it told the shocking story of a British Airways staff member who lost her job because she wore a necklace with a cross on it. When the Employment Tribunal published its report, the story was rather different. In their brave confrontation of the secularist agenda, the Christian Institute claimed that a long-running British soap-opera had covered up a cross while filming a wedding scene in a church. This got widespread attention. When the producers explained that they had not intended to cover up the cross, that prior scripts had the characters discussing how important a religious wedding was to them, that shooting in a 14th Century church is not a cost-effective means of screening Christianity out of a new secular Britain and that the scenes in question did actually feature crosses, it did not get extensive coverage. The Christian Institute did not even graciously acknowledge it.

Coffee cup and supermarkets, airlines and soap-operas: the architects of this secular agenda sure do pick the strangest places to attack Christianity.

Starbucks are tax avoiders, but a search for the Christian Institute’s comment on tax avoidance shows up nothing. Tesco pay unlivable wages, but a search for the Christian Institute’s comment on people being able to live based on the work they do shows up nothing. British Airways are part of an industry that accelerates climate change. A search of the Christian Institute’s comment on climate change is a passing reference to the need to protect the right of teachers making jokes about “man made climate change as a concept.” Soap-operas represent a fascinating form of shared cultural enjoyment but a search of the Christian Institute’s comment on the theology of culture yields no results. If you tinker with the searches however, you find many references to Christian heritage and our culture close together. “Christian”. “Heritage”. “Our”. “Culture”. Each of those four words need to be carefully considered by thoughtful Christians.

I could go on. The Christian Institute was heavily involved in the Ashers’ Bakery case in Belfast. They have links to Creationist groups. They have a history of opposing sex education in schools. But the triviality and paranoia that is combined in this approach to public life has hopefully been demonstrated. This red Christmas cup nonsense is not an emission of the American religious right. It is not a parody perpetrated by the Onion. It is a pernicious form of politics advanced by an “Institute” from the north east of England that declares itself “Christian”. Even on their own terms, if this is the threat that the Christian Institute is guarding us against, we have nothing to fear. The Gospel of Jesus primes us to see the threat facing Christians in this modern age to be Christians. Christians who are selfish and self-deluded, violent and petty.

Much more forcefully, the Gospel of Jesus primes us to face the world in all our complexity and confusion, our sinfulness and our selfishness, our red coffee cups and our gay-agenda promoting soap-operas without fear.

Buy your coffee from Starbucks or buy your coffee from a kiosk at the petrol station. Celebrate Christmas in all it’s tinsel tackiness or stand apart in reflective quiet. But please stop letting the boring and tedious politics of outrage mark Christian witness on this side of the globe. There never was a war on Christmas. But even if there was, Christians don’t fight wars. We break bread. We welcome the outcast. We sing because Creation is beautiful. When we follow the path of these lobby groups, it is not the coffee cups that are insufficiently Christians, it’s the Christians.

Your Correspondent, Building a Noah’s Ark for flat-earth advocates

Link-dump

Five Good Things for the Fifth of October

In my effort to get back into a blogging groove, let me return to one of the most basic ways of using a website. Before we had Twitter, blogs rose to prominence primarily as a place where people curated links that were fascinating. So here are five worthy things I have seen online recently, that you may or may not have missed:

1.

      I have supported Manchester City since I was a little boy. Yesterday I saw perhaps the most remarkable performance of any City player ever when their star striker, Sergio Aguero, touched the ball nine times in twenty-two minutes, scoring five goals. It is tradition that when a player scores three, they get to keep the game ball. Here is “Kun’s” claim:

Kun on five

2.
Jason Goroncy on the calling that creates Protestantism; an excellent essay that audaciously positions Mary as the Biblical figure who represents Protestantism:

It is a community that, as another great Australian theologian put it, is ‘prepared to live without guarantees, without the guarantee of an infallible book, or infallible creeds, or an infallible church’ (Davis McCaughey). It is a community that continually risks the judgement of God’s Word, and that lives in such a way that it is entirely uninterested and uninvested in its own self-preservation. It is a community that lives faithfully with the receding horizon of postponed dreams and made free thereby to throw itself entirely into the embarrassing service of Jesus, and that not for God’s sake but solely for the sake of the world. It is a community, therefore, that is always learning how to fail, always rediscovering its uneven record. It is a community that risks even its life with God so that it might become contemporary with Christ.

3.
As someone who is studying the problem of wealth for Christians, I found this article by Mallory Ortberg where she replaces the word “tithe” in the Biblical text with “Ass, Grass, Or Cash – Nobody Rides For Free” absolutely brilliant. It’s actually not merely hilarious but wonderfully apt theology.

4.
A searingly vicious book review is among the hardest things to pull off. The great Terry Eagleton does just that in this hilarious, unflinching take-down of a recent biography of the British theocrat Elizabeth Windsor.

5.
Finally, wife-unit and I harvested some blackberries over the weekend and that reminded me of one of the great Séamus Heaney poems.

Your Correspondent, Lives perpetually in the site of his spiritual dispanting

Ethics For Everyday

The Meat of David Cameron’s Porcine Problem

Sufficient time should now have passed from #piggate for me to write about it without being caught up in the hysteria that naturally flowed from finding an episode of Black Mirror (the crappiest episode of all, to be honest) break out into reality.

The claims may well not be true. In the august pages of the London Review of Books, a former president of the society in question certainly suggested that by the time he took the reins, the parties were more about lsd and old fashioned sex with other humans. But then again, it may just as well be true. The Rubberbandits seem to have been sharper than all other commentary in their brief description of why the story matters:

Rubberbandits

That’s pretty much all that needs to be said.

But Wife-unit and I were talking about this (again!) on the way to church on Sunday and I think there is one angle that needs to be more deeply considered. Surprise surprise, considering that I am writing: It is the religious aspect.

The nations of Western Europe are at the moment embroiled in an interminable conversation about their “values” because brown human beings from south of here are fleeing war, climate change and grinding poverty and would very much like to get a little flat in Greece or Germany or Wales and a chance to raise their kids without fear of chemical weapons. As we deliberate about whether or not this “migrant swarm” has a right to such lofty claims, a subtext in the conversation about multiculturalism is our ability to tolerate their religion. See, many of these brown people are Muslim.

So #piggate arrives at a time when Europe’s Islamophobia is unusually on display. The powers of Europe have spent the last 14 years either actively bombing, shooting and spying on massive Muslim populations in their own countries or have been supporting those so engaged. The rhetoric in newspapers and the protests on the streets are just a new layer on this deep conflict. If there is a clash of civilizations, Europe is firmly on the side that is starting the fight.

Now, let me ask you to imagine a version of yourself that lives in the Middle East. There is a person just like you in Aden or Amman or some other regionally significant city. They are thoughtful like you are. They are as empathetic as you. They appreciate poetry and love to unwind at the weekend by slowly and carefully preparing a delicious and intricate meal and they probably know more about coffee than you do. The only reason you beat them in the hipster stakes is that your purchasing power is higher than theirs. Even so, their outfit is on fleek in ways you can appreciate.

Now this Arab version of you opens up Twitter on a Sunday evening and reads about this strange story that David Cameron had intimate contact with a pig carcass. What does this Jordanian version of you conclude?

David Cameron has used robots in the sky to kill people who look like you, even when they have British passports. David Cameron has military force deployed openly and secretly in practically every country in your region. David Cameron has his government sell weapons to the tyrants who terrorize people who live near you. David Cameron is the leader of a country that has claimed land where you live as colony and outpost and oil production zone for centuries and has never thought it ever needed to say sorry.

How can this parallel version of you, this person who would be your friend if they lived in your city instead of their city, think anything except that David Cameron has defiled himself in a way that is fitting with the desolation he brings to everything he touches? Whether the story is factually true or not is almost irrelevant. The optics of it render it as a myth. This is a leader whose government screws everything it encounters. Why wouldn’t it screw a dead pig?

I apologise if my language strays outside the typical boundaries of Christian speech, but I am doing my best to talk around this point. It is critical because it is so profane. To many subjects of the British crown who are Jewish and Muslim, this story is not merely a regrettable case of college high-jinks. It is a profoundly revealing illustration of the hellish death that flows from the nihilism of Empire.

And this is where Wife-unit’s reflections, shared with me as I walked into our sun-filled sanctuary to hear John Swinton preach on the love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13 hit the ground. If this story is true, it was absolutely certain that there was no point before the dreadful act when Cameron weighed the possible actions that lay before him and decided that, on reflection, he should defile himself by profaning this creature’s corpse in this way. Cameron’s presence in that room means that he had no choice but to act in that way.

At some point, early in his life or late in the day, Cameron resolved to be a winner in the big game of life. He determined to do whatever it took to get ahead. And with that decision made, the rest flowed as surely as ginger ale placed in front of me disappears. He decided he would be someone and to achieve that he went to these parties and joined these clubs and found himself in these situations. He decided he wanted power and so he ended up doing vacuous public relations work in the City of London and palling around with an intellectually bankrupt Conservative party and running for office and then talking more commonly in front of cameras and eventually winning at the game so well that he had the power to drop waves of fire from the sky on wedding parties and force disabled people to work themselves to death.

Whether the story is true or not, the meat of Cameron’s problem is that at some point along the way he decided what success was and has been happy to defile himself ever since then.

So as we arrived at the door of the church, my wife confessed she pitied him. And I have reflected on that in the days since. I wonder if the Amman or Aden version of me can bring themselves to pity this sad man.

Your Correspondent, He’s got franks and pork and beans, always bust the new routines

Ethics For Everyday

What Can Be Bought?

I have become a master of asserting my consumer rights. Every time the courier delivers something late they get an angry email. Every time I buy an apple that is crumbly I take it back to the shop and throw it in the manager’s face. Every time I get called a thief at the cinema, I drop whatever life-sized cut-out I’m carrying and give them a piece of my mind.

People often ask me, in reverential awe, “How are you so laid back all the time?” And I answer them, sagely and with appropriate humility, “I am not laid back all the time. I complain whenever my choices aren’t respected.”

*

I have written elsewhere about the problem with rights language. Human rights as a concept has many benefits. For one thing, as the Sri Lankan theologian Vinoth Ramachandra reminds us, human rights is one of the few tools by which the developing world can hold the west to account. But the fundamental problem with rights go deeper than our tendency to demand them in trivial settings like when we want a train ticket exchanged or some identification document stamped. Human rights, as things we possess, are almost bound to get hijacked by the logic of capitalism.

*

Is it not significant that the rights that you most commonly defend are your consumer rights? My email-flinging, apple-pitching, tantrum-throwing ways may be the sign of a life that is too comfortable. I don’t have real problems to get upset about so instead I complain for hours to my bank about changes to their website’s login procedures. But that analysis is too thin. Consumer rights are not just the rights to which we most commonly attend. They are also the form to which all other rights get reduced. In America, your right to bear arms involves possessing weaponry. You have to buy them first. The rights are rights about the ability to own. In Ireland, your right to religion involves tax-back on donations. The law doesn’t care if you are Trinitarian or Unitarian, Shia or Sunni. It cares if you give your money to the priest though. Even the A-grade rights – the right to life for example – are inextricably tied up with commerce. Many death sentences are commuted because the legal defence team was found to be incompetent. That is a high stakes form of consumer law. Your refund is considerably larger than the compensation I get from Lidl if my usb powered heated coaster malfunctions.

Only rights can stop the wrongs

*

This summer, Amnesty International has been in fierce debate and have decided that sex workers’ rights are human rights. They are calling for the decriminalisation of prostitution. They have arrived at this position after 2 years of consultation, which was not some desk-bound academic exercise but involved widespread consultation, primarily listening to the people most directly affected – sex workers. Proponents of this view argue that decriminalisation is not the same as legalisation. And indeed, most of life as we live it exists in that grey zone between decriminalised and legalized. Selling computers was never decriminalised and it is legalised (hence you get asked by Dell to tick a box promising you won’t use your PC for terrorism), but when I empty out the contents of my computer, fill the box with soil, and plant daffodils the law has very little to say about it one way or another. It might step in when I process those flowers into a powder and sell is as “digital medicine” that cures autism, cancer and dampness. Then it will be criminalised. If, after a time, it turns out my cure works, it might then be decriminalised and legalised. But Amnesty’s call, on the face of it, is to liberate the oldest profession, one way or another, from the oversight of law. The police won’t hassle the working girls. But the working girls won’t be paying social insurance tax any time soon.

Decriminalise

*

The real beneficiaries of this proposal, critics argue, will be the pimps. That the police won’t hassle the working girls means the managers of the prostitution rings will suddenly benefit from a productivity efficiency. You don’t need to be an economist to know that this will increase profits. Amnesty’s position is proposed in direct defiance of what has come to be known as the “Swedish model”, whereby being a prostitute is decriminalised but being a buyer is punished severely. Amnesty argues that this has left prostitutes exposed to police violence. Their approach removes police entirely and so makes the sex worker safer.

Critics argue that the structure of prostitution is inherently violent and that this policy basically calls evil good, freeing pimps to have unmitigated control over the lives of the (overwhelmingly female, immigrant, and disadvantaged) employees that would be created by these proposals.

*

This might be an admirable attempt to develop policies that reduce harm, if it wasn’t such an incoherent mess. After all, the claim that the choice to engage in sex work is a right means that you are already claiming something far more than decriminalisation. Rights are, by definition, legal entities. They require laws to enshrine them, to protect them, to enforce them. Without the oversight of law, your rights are just rhetoric. To claim rights involves admitting that you are claiming laws need to be passed. You can’t merely decriminalise. You have to thoroughly normalise it. And in that making-rights-normal you end up implicating all the other rights-holders. Rights are bound up in responsibilities. If you have a right, that makes me responsible for it. They stretch with universal effect. They are, necessarily, communal.

What looks like an audacious libertarian move to radically reform a market so that the active players can determine their own futures folds in on itself by simultaneously demanding a massive legislative agenda that would integrate that market into the regulated world of other products and services. Farm labourers aren’t set free when the EU regulates agri-business. The guys who run the agriculture industry benefit. Why would we assume that the pimps who become the executives of the newly legitimised adult companionship industry wouldn’t similarly benefit at the expense of the sex workers?

*

But the problem runs so much more deeply than that. My facetious opening about consumer rights takes on a dark and sombre tone when we consider what is actually proposed when we imagine sex work as a way of life as likely to flourish as working on a farm. This is not a liberating move by Amnesty. It is the surrender of Amnesty to neo-liberalism. This is not emancipation for sex workers. It is a new chapter in our collective captivity to our obsession with ownership.

The sex work advocates (who are often the pimps) declare that it is their bodies, their choice, their rights. Implicit in that argument is the admission that the very flesh of the human is the machine for profit. The sweat of the prostitute is different from the sweat of the farm hand, because the product being purchased is quite literally the body of the prostitute. The rhetoric of capitalism has been inexorably grasping at more and more of our lives, ever-reducing the space and time that is not commodified. Our love letters are surveilled and harvested for tips on how best to advertise at us. Our steps are counted and tabulated in the name of cheaper health insurance premiums. Our entire national economies are painfully re-orientated to win the confidence of markets. In countless visible and invisible ways, you are massaged towards being a more productive consumer. The emancipated prostitute is a logical triumph of this savage capitalism. The consumer consumes the fellow consumer, the person is the product, all of history’s antagonism against women of the street evaporating under the late-modern miracle of tax credits, labour law, and individualism.

James Park of FitBit, making Wall Street and the world more efficient

James Park of FitBit, making Wall Street and the world more efficient

*

I can choose crummy crumbly apples, and often do. I can choose to pilfer my way around the local cinema and send verbose missives to the postman when my book comes crinkled. I can choose to buy a train ticket and choose to insist on my right to change the ticket, loudly, even though there is a stressed queue behind me waiting for their turn to shout at the poor person behind the bulletproof glass.

These are simple, mundane choices.

It is utterly incoherent to suggest that the choice to engage in sex work is equivalent to my choice to buy a gadget at Lidl. Choice is an insufficient, redundant, trivial category for so serious a conversation. Consent is barely better. No one chooses to do sex work like they choose to spend a few weeks temping in an office. Sealing envelopes and selling sex are not equivalences. My body is rendered as a possible product by the fact that your body has been so rendered. The pimp harms me when he harms you in a way that the recruitment firm never does. I am my body. I am not a product. The substance of what it means to live, all of us, together, starts to crumble when we move from acknowledging that tragically bodies are sometimes sold to forgetting to name the tragedy.

That prostitutes tend to be women, tend to be immigrants, tend to come from the majority world, tend to already be poor, tend to be under-educated, under-nourished, and under-loved is not a consequence of absent law or insufficient policy. It goes so much deeper. It cannot be disconnected from the fact that the users of prostitutes tend to be men, tend to be citizens, tend to come from the western world, tend to be well off and well educated and well fed and well respected. They use prostitutes. They pretend that sex is a right, a need, a biological imperative and they use this pretence to turn the human being in front of them into a tool.

Harm reduction matters. With that we forcefully agree with Amnesty. Making life better for sex workers matters. That’s why the sex worker should not be subject to punishment. The pimps and the johns are the problem. Amnesty avoids that. But even better again would be a world where there wasn’t a market for bodies. Human flesh, living or dead, in part or in whole should not be sold.

*

If “the Left” exists for anything, it exists to politically represent the view that the best things in life are not to be bought. They are too valuable. The Amnesty policy is liberal in the purest sense, in that it is anti-humanist. It imagines a world of isolated, alienated, atomised human beings all out to carve whatever they can from a hostile universe. I know my Christian readers – many of whom have an in-depth knowledge of sex work far finer than mine because of how common serious ministry to prostitutes is in urban churches – will have heard this news and instinctively sensed there was something wrong with it. I hope I have helped to put flesh on that suspicion. Christian humanism declares that the truth of this world is that we are all in the boat together, bound by DNA and language and culture and space and there is more than enough for all our needs if we make sure to give when we hear the call. The Christian humanist and the hard Marxist agree: alienation is illusion. But I plead with my readers on the Left to consider how futile this Amnesty policy is, how sold out to the markets it is, how brutally calculated it is for the sake of profit.

Your Correspondent, Remembers that the place everyone wants to be in the brothel is not in the bed, but at the till

Ethics For Everyday

The Word That Best Describes Me Is Migrant

This is a list, three years old, of the 17306 human beings seeking refuge who up to that point had died as a result of Europe’s border militarisation, asylum laws, accommodation, detention policy and deportations. This is a form of the file made before the Lampedusa disaster, before the civilized powers stopped running rescue missions, before the human lives were transformed by doublespeak into “migrants”.

17306 names

***

The immigrants into the Roman Empire did not have histories written in their honour. Rome had some virtues, but they had no Howard Zinns. No statues were cast of a blacksmith who arrived from what we now arbitrarily call Spain. No poet penned songs to immortalise the repeated labours of a woman who raised a gaggle of children before dying early of a disease we now would call cancer. The poor in Rome are mostly anonymous to us.

And yet these nameless dead speak nonetheless. Anthropologists and archaeologists can now study the grave sites that sometimes get turned up when a developer wants to build apartments in the suburbs of Rome or some other Italian city and from these skeletons (especially their teeth) we can gather that the immigrants to the Imperial City typically achieved a standard of living comparable to their more established neighbours. On average they died slightly younger, but they ate largely the same food and were buried in the same way and lived side by side with the people who were born in what was then the centre of the world.

The savage Roman Empire might have something to teach the civilised European Union.

***

Citizen. Student. Migrant.

Three seven-letter words accurately describe me.

I renewed my driving licence yesterday. My old Irish one is on a pink piece of paper, so easily counterfeited that it alone speaks to the profound complacency that comes with being part of the elite. The process of getting a British licence was simple. I filled in a form that was a front-and-back piece of A4 paper, attached one photo and dispatched them with my outgoing licence and my passport. My passport is maroon. It is the best passport to have because I can go anywhere with it. People smile when they see the harp on the front. Because I got born where I got born, I get credit where I was not born. Queuing to see a border guard, the most pressing thing on my mind is a range of small talk topics. I am a citizen of the Irish Republic, and for no good reason at all, that makes life easy.

I am more than that. I am a citizen who is a student. So I get a special council tax rate and discounts at the barbers and when I do have to talk to someone in officialdom here in the UK I never have to worry about small talk topics. My thesis will be their small talk. They will feign interest, or be interested, but no one ever asks me to account for myself. Why should I be here, in a foreign country, taking up a place that a Scot could have, with 44 books out on loan from one library and three from another and a GP and a dermatology consultant and tax-free allowance for the little job I got because I sent an email to a stranger and they thought, “Yeah he seems cool”.

***

Daily Express doesn't get it

But in this summer when Britain is all a flutter with a “migrant crisis” and the European sea is filled with human beings seeking refuge, the best word to describe me is certainly migrant.

There are Theology departments on my island. I could have studied at home. There is a real job waiting for me as a minister. I didn’t need to do a PhD. I am in Scotland because Scotland has something to offer me. Two bearded Texans, to be precise, who have agreed to be my supervisors. When I am done, I will leave. Wham, bam, thank you hen. I am going back to Ireland. Like a particularly unfortunate flightless swallow, I have come over here for a season before going back to sunnier climes.

That’s what a migrant is – someone who chooses to go to a place for a period of time without ever intending to put down roots there. A migrant is not someone whose psychopathic President uses chemical weapons against his people in the hope that he might knock out a few ISIS fighters in the process. Syrians aren’t migrants. A migrant is not someone who has trekked across half of Asia, boarded ship and boat and dinghy from Turkey to Cyprus and across Greece to try to find a place to live and work and earn enough to send some money home. Afghans aren’t migrants.

My American friends who come to Aberdeen and make friends and chat with the police when they want directions and have babies for free on the NHS – they are migrants. The Japanese guys in our programme who preach in local churches and buy cars without credit checks and get offered jobs when they go to visit sushi restaurants – they are migrants. The people who sit out in the sun (on the rare days it shines) on the lawn outside the King’s College and get photographed by a passing journalist and have their picture in the paper the next day – they are migrants. We are swarming all over the place. The government welcomes us in and we steal college places and medical attention and resources.

We get away with it because we are citizens and we are students.

***

The dead immigrants of Rome still tell their story. The truth unremembered by the powerful lay dormant in their gums. Our Dead will tell the story of our Empire. Those thousands upon thousands who need refuge and instead meet barbarity will have their voice heard. Future generations will find ingenious ways to expose our crimes in the Mediterranean and Calais and Irish “Direct Provision” centres. And God, who counts the hair on their head will not need to carbon test their teeth. He will turn to us and mimic our question back to us: “Who then is your neighbour?” And in our silence, the glory of our European Union Empire will be deafening.

Your Correspondent, He thought the highway loved him, but she beat him like a drum

Barth, Society, theology

On Visiting Princeton

In what is surely the largest gathering of verbose dudes in gingham shirts happening anywhere in the Western hemisphere this year, the annual Karl Barth Conference finished up today at Princeton Theological Seminary. The theme of the conference was Barth and the Gospels. Since my PhD thesis is in a large part made up of discussions about Barth’s reading of the Gospel parables, I thought I would fly over and sit in.

It began on Sunday night. After 20 hours of exhausting travelling, myself and my buddy Taido made it on time to barge in on Jurgen Moltmann’s opening address. It might have been worth the journey alone to see the 89 year old saint present the legendarily complex teaching that Barth expounded on predestination and election. The key, he reckons, is to remember that freedom is not unencumbered choice, but relationality. Everything straightens out then, allegedly.

The next morning, Eric Gregory, a Princetonian giant laid out all the ways people read the parable of the Good Samaritan, which was a great way to show just how fascinating Karl’s reading was. Right after him came the Duke Divinity lecturer Willie Jennings, who considered Barth’s interpretation of the Rich Young Ruler and challenged us to unmask the power of Mammon in our life. It was such a great presentation that I enjoyed it, even though it trod right across the very fulcrum of my thesis.

The papers came thick and fast. Like everything that Americans organise, the conference seemed to assume that you can’t be using your time right unless you are busy. We got to listen in on great talks about Barth’s reflections on Jesus in Gethsemane, on the disciples on the road to Emmaus, on the Greek make-up of the first 18 verses of the Gospel of John and the parable of the Prodigal Sons. And that’s not even mentioning the myriad of fine papers delivered in break-out sessions or the conversations had over the fearfully bad coffee, or the talk by Bruce McCormack that may become the matter of myth in the coming years as he began with an extended discussion of a Jose Saramago novel as a set-up to present a mind-bending, intricate argument which says more but not less than that God’s love is generative of death.

I am sure there are people who would like to read a more detailed account of the conference, but I am not the person to write it. I never feel fully at home at an academic conference, because I am at heart not an academic. An exhaustion quickly settles when I have to navigate the strange terrain of conversation among graduate students and early career academics and established veterans. There is little small talk. There is just big ideas. There is little listening, but lots of nodding and hmming and uhhuh-ing. It is work, I suppose. We’re all at work, but for these three days our office is this strange space and we go to work with people who aren’t our colleagues.

Princeton Theological Seminary Library

What I did want to talk about though is America.

I promise to be brief.

Princeton is perhaps the most sumptuous place I have ever been. It is luxurious in a way I can’t communicate. It feels like a 5 star resort but for research. The theological library is the second biggest in the world. Their new books section is about the size of the theology library in its entirety in my home university. Everywhere is air conditioned. The shops all sell very stylish clothes, even if they aren’t fashionable. The houses are run down in the way that requires careful maintenance, invariably done by people with darker skin than me. I have seen more police cars in the 3 days I have been here than I would see in three months in Ireland. There are flags constantly in view, whenever you are out in public.

It is a wonderful place. But its greatness rests on such shaky foundations.

Palmer Square, Princeton

This all became very clear for me when I went to buy stamps for postcards (they have Karl Barth postcards here!!). Inside the beautiful little post office on the beautiful Palmer Square I found a mural. It was painted in 1939, as part of the New Deal, by Karl Free. It reminded me of the public murals you still find lingering from the Soviet era in eastern Ukraine. Whereas that public art was invariably modern and decisive, this is romantic and idyllic. Three white men stand on the left of the piece, dressed in the uniform of Englightenment-era philosophers. They are surrounded by symbols of learning – an antomical skeleton and a globe and Hellenistic sculpture. Their faces are impassively, stoically set towards the right hand side, where the future is found in all graphs. Above them, from the heavens, are angels bearing trumpets. The artist has caught them in the moment of annunciation. There is no Christian imagery anywhere in this painting and the angels are neither the cherubim of popular imagination or the more closely Biblical fear-inducing messengers. They are mature. Directly below them sits Columbia, with her shield of liberty at her feet, a bald eagle perched beside her and behind her the famous Naussau Hall of Princeton University.

The last element of the artwork are two “natives”. They are largely naked, coming out of a jungle of palms, and cowering under the glory of the trumpet ring that heralds the arrival of the book-carrying white men. The native woman is on her knees and might be pulling her man away, out of the scene, frightened to even engage with these civilised characters. Lest this visual feast does not satisfy you, the artist has explained it all in verse beneath:

America! With Peace and Freedom blest,
Pant for true Fame and scorn inglorious rest,
Science invites, urged by the Voice divine,
Exert thyself ’til every Art be thine.

Consider these words. There is no peace even in the image thus depicted. The America that looks upon this art when posting birthday cards to nephews back home and buying packing tape before moving to a bigger house is an America that today pants after fame, and so utterly despises rest – that basic commandment of YHWH – that they do not even assure maternity leave for pregnant women. The science whose invitation they have pursued has created bombs strong enough to kill us all and has been co-opted by an economic system that only staves off killing us because there would be no one left to buy things. The voice divine that animates this artwork is the Unmoved Mover of the Deists, not the God that took on flesh much darker than that of Columbia.

Columbia under the palms

Tonight there is a vigil in Princeton, starting at the local AME church, where the city will walk and stand in solidarity with the victims of racial violence. Then tomorrow they’ll go back to work and back to school and back to the post office and their lives might be exciting and ascetically dedicated to learning or back-breaking and devoted to mowing lawns but they will be so awash in the lies of histories never told that even prayer doesn’t seem to bring relief.

On the globe in the painting, America is literally the only country in the world. Imagine how sad living in that world must be.

I like visiting America. But I think I am very glad that I don’t have to call it home.

Your Correspondent, If you don’t believe him, believe in America!

Church, Society

The Only Position To Hold Is None At All

7 thoughts and a conclusion about the hot topic of the week, that will actually continue to be a critically important topic even after magazines stop talking about it next week.

1.
Christianity can be sorted into all sorts of different buckets. You can parse it by era (apostolic – early – medieval – and so on), place (east and west and the east beyond Russia and the south and the Mediterranean versus northern Europe and Celtic versus Roman and on and on), institutions (a denominational approach), or theologically, liturgically, doctrinally, or how much the priests like getting dressed up in silly clothes.

Having done this, the one thing you can’t do is go out on to the street or down to the church building and actually find the taxonomy you have described. In the Presbyterian church where I discovered that God had indeed charged my baptism with more than water and a chance for a knees-up, devout Roman Catholics would take a seat, eager to hear the Word preached, having come from mass. My pentecostal buddy here in Aberdeen has the deepest sense of creedal liturgy. I could go on.

The point is: there are theological reasons to reject theological abstractions.

***

2.
There is a certain strand of theological ethics that is enamoured with order. You can find thinking of this sort through the eras and in all the places and institutions, as well as all over the theological and liturgical and doctrinal spectra. With such a theology you can sort things in ways that can be very useful. You can sort political power out from ecclesiastical power. You can sort nature from supernature. You can sort man from woman. And the ability to make these distinctions from what is called “created order” can give a structure to the apparent anarchy of our shared lives.

This strand of theological ethics is often very well liked by people with status.

***

3.
In many places in the West today, Christians are commonly scared. Their churches continue to empty. Their balance sheets are thinning. Their connections to power are weakening. All this encourages them to get caught up in a sorry story of the decline of their civilization, with important symbolic losses in courts and legislatures where abortion is decriminalised and gay marriage is legalised and the onward march of euthanasia is unstoppable. The order doesn’t seem to hold anymore, their arguments never seem to land, they sincerely worry about the human life being wasted in an increasingly atomised, consumptive society.

The instinctive reaction of people who find their hold is slipping is to try and grab it even tighter.

***

4.
Transgender issues have been discussed for decades but it seems that they are becoming more pressing in our public discourse. Undoubtedly this is because of the glossy media coverage of celebrities who are struggling with gender identity issues but it may also owe something to the way in which it is pitched as “the next big thing” for us to fight about after gay civil rights. You can leave such analysis aside, because the reality is that our conversation about transgender issues – whatever prompts for-profit media corporations to give it attention – is deeply significant for the many people afflicted with them who aren’t going to be on the front cover of Vanity Fair and don’t have the energy or resources to launch activist campaigns.

We have known for decades that this phenomenon existed and perhaps now we can pay it sustained attention.

***

5.
The default mode of the early 21st century person who lives in the Western world, when confronted by transgenderism, is to applaud the existential self-actualisation involved in coming out. As Hauerwas never tires of saying, we are the people whose story is that we have no story apart from the story we choose for ourselves. The problem with this, in the realm of gender dysphoria and in so many other realms, is that we are not our own. We come to discover our “I”, straightforwardly cis-gendered or in ways that are more complicated and fraught, in the midst of a “We”. The people we discover ourselves in the midst of have some real purchase on who we are.

Alongside the deep trauma of gender dysphoria for the one who suffers, there is trauma for those all around.

***

6.
The default mode of the early 21st century Christian who lives in the Western world, when confronted by transgenderism, is to lament how this condition destroys order. The categories are all messed up. The structures that we take for granted disintegrate and we are confronted with the troubling reality of the way everything we make falls. We construct these ways of being human; male and blue, and female and pink, one side taciturn and stoic and the other emotional and sensitive. And then they slide out of place and what can we do except groan in deep human empathy for those trapped inside this pincer movement of social construct and internal identity.

If the doctrine of the Fall cannot anticipate gender dysphoria, we are devastatingly under-estimating how far things fall.

***

7.
Then the smart, order-loving Christians reflect on all this and they notice that gender dysphoria expresses itself in the modes that are dominant in the culture. So the man who comes to identify as a woman buys into the tropes of femininity that are propogated by late-capitalism. This is how you end up with transgender celebrities in lingerie on the front of magazines. The stark order created by the binary of male and female has been challenged for so very long that when it gets challenged not as intellectual game but as the deepest form of existential angst, these Christian thinkers think they see a flaw. Equipped by a theological system that can find a place for everything, they describe those who are transgendered as sadly futile, a hollow parody of what our society mistakes for masculinity or femininity. This thinking holds that because their identity is so wafer-thin, the phenomenon can be disregarded. This is a grave mistake. It is disdain posturing as theology. There are internal incoherencies present in the accounts of those who are transgendered, in the same way that there are internal incoherencies in all our accounts of self.

In other words, of course gender dysphoria expresses itself in gender-normative terms, because the people suffering from gender dysphoria live in a gender-normed society!

***

Conclusion
The question raised by people who are transgendered is not a question about gender. It is a question about humanity. “Masculine” and “feminine” may be ideas that can be useful in some conversations. But like the taxonomies of Christianity, you’ll never encounter the taxonomies of gender out on the street, or down at the church building. You won’t even be sure to meet “man” or “woman”. You’ll meet people. With names they were given by their parents, and names that they took from their spouses, and names that they changed by deed poll to avoid abusive partners, or for a prank, or because of gender reassignment therapy. And the Scriptures tell us that none of these actual people even know their names. Jesus will reveal that to them when the time comes.

Christians are tempted by accounts of the world that promise order because in times of change, order promises stability. But Christians cannot be seduced by accounts of the world that do not begin with Jesus. The natural orders we locate in tradition, or culture, or science do not win our allegiance. The fully human one – who was biologically male but who took form in the womb of a biological female – is the one to whom we owe our allegiance. The fully human one is the one we turn to when we seek wisdom about what it is to be human.

People with gender dysphoria suffer immense trauma and stress. Their families do too. The weight of being this uncategorizable type in world obssessed with categories and in a species addicted to types is too much to bear. Suicide rates are so high as to constitute a crisis, with or without the incentive of celebrity interviews to drive the narrative.

Christians are tempted to take positions, aided by reasoning that seems solid because it is built off of orders that appear to be natural. If we find a firm place to stand, then we can start moving again. On this, as on so many issues, I plead with my friends to resist calcifying. We’re not really talking about the transgendered issue. We’re talking about people, people bearing an incredible weight.

Jesus is not a theological abstraction. He is not a container full of propositions that allow us to advance our piety or politics. Jesus is a man who lived a life paid for by women and who preached sermons about eunuchs. Gender identity (and indeed, for a conversation on a different day, sexual identity) is as native to Jesus as it is to you or I or Chelsea Manning. We don’t abstract Jesus’ humanity and break it into components that can be placed in little boxes. We don’t do that to ourselves. We should oppose doing it to others.

I realise I have written 1500 words to say “we don’t need to have a position”. So obviously that is my position. But that is not an evasion. It is theological stance that would train us to shut up long enough to learn how to listen. In shutting up, we might see there is reason to hope where we thought there was reason to fear. In listening we might hear the word of God break in and strip away our flimsy self-made personae as ordered people. Regardless, we will at least be close enough to make friends with people just as confused as we are about how to go on being human.

Your Correspondent, Broker than an old VCR