The cover story for The Atlantic this month is a 10,000 word piece by Graeme Wood about the religious motivations behind ISIS. What they really want, Wood asserts, is the end of the world. And this is an Islamic desire. So when people like Islamic leaders or Muslim intellectuals or the first Muslim President of America Barack HUSSEIN Obama say that ISIS is not Islamic, they are all talking out of the side of their mouth. Wood knows, because he talked to lots of people before writing his article. Some people were in ISIS. Another chap is an expert in Islam at Princeton.

It is important that we learn about the inherently Islamic nature of ISIS’ beliefs because having that knowledge will “help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.”

Wood has lived an interesting life, it seems. He is Canadian, and a graduate of Harvard, having first attended the prestigious, elitist anti-school Deep Springs College. He has lived and worked in the Middle East and Cambodia. He lectures now at Yale. He is a clear, cogent writer. And yet he blithely assures us that “Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes.” The validity of that sentence depends on where you think theology ends. If you grant that theology is involved in idolatry, then World War II starts looking like a pretty arcane theological dispute very quickly, as does the homelessness epidemic in Athens and Thessaloniki right now. The German finance gurus explicitly talk in religious terms; sacrifice and redemption.

My point here is not just that NAZI-ism might profitably be understood as a pagan religion. My point is that you need to be pretty sure of yourself to situate yourself as part of a society that used to kill over arcane theological issues but has seen the error of their ways, while talking about a society you claim still does that. You are necessarily setting yourself up as superior. You are offering an understanding of theology that is paper thin, almost as if you want to pretend theology isn’t alive and kicking in the cultures descended from a peace treaty signed in Westphalia in 1648 (the notional end of the religious wars).

Wood thinks that the West is beyond such religiosity and that we then export our assumptions to the Arab world, under the mistaken belief “that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.”

This is a critical sentence. Wood’s argument is:

    ISIS is religious.
    The West mis-reads ISIS by downplaying its religiosity.
    This mis-reading is dangerous.
    This mis-reading is caused by the fact that religion isn’t a big deal in the West.

Does this seem credible to you? Is religion not a big deal in the West? If that is true, then why have “tens of thousands of foreign Muslims” left “France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Australia, Indonesia, the United States, and many other places” to go fight for ISIS? It seems that if ISIS is religious, then large numbers of people in the West share that characteristic.

So a critical question we need to ask is: why are they not included in Wood’s understanding of the West?

Recall that list that summarised Wood’s argument up above. We have to flesh it out because the kind of religiosity that he claims ISIS represents is “apocalyptic.” Wood’s claim is that ISIS’ apocalyptic Islam leads them to hope for an “epic good-versus-evil battle” that will bring an end to the world. This might be true, but it is unfortunate that he doesn’t dwell more on this category of apocalyptic. Apocalypse literally means unveiling. It is a tradition present in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. When Jesus tells you to turn the other cheek, it can be read as an apocalyptic teaching; he is revealing the true nature of reality. Much of the apparently palatable teaching of Jesus relies on a claim about the secret nature of reality: the guys with the biggest sticks won’t win in the end, instead the grain of the universe goes with those who carry crosses.

The world teems with variety. And just as there are a bunch of different ways you can draw the globe, and there are South Korean versions of popular American sitcoms, your apocalypse might be different from mine.

And that is really my killer point. Woods can talk casually about people killed by America as “drone-splats” and he can carelessly throw it out there that Mohammed, “whom all Muslims consider exemplary,” also owned slaves. Did not the prophets of America own slaves? Jefferson, Washington, Ulysses S. Grant who was president as recently as 1877 – they all at one time or another “owned” people. Wood’s piece reflects practically everything I have ever read about ISIS. It dwells on their frightening and depraved violence, while sliding over our frightening and depraved violence. It stands aghast at their setting fire to people, while forgetting (or never learning) that America dropped 388,000 tonnes of napalm – a chemical weapon in the form of a gel that sticks to human skin and then incinerates – during the Vietnam war. I do not mean to make ISIS and America seem like equivalents. Such moral calculus is beside the point. Instead, what I want to suggest is that Jesus has many hard things to say to people who judge out of their self-delusion.

Ms. Entropy

Everyone who holds the Bible as their scripture is apocalyptic in some way because the Bible claims to tell you that the meaning of history will be revealed with the return of Jesus. My Christian faith is apocalyptic. If ISIS’ belief system is apocalyptic, that neither proves it is Islamic, nor demonstrates why that question matters. America is undoubtedly apocalyptic. It believes the meaning of history was prophesied in their Declaration of Independence and came to fruition with the collapse of the Soviet Union. History has ended. The perpetual present is our future; a world of neo-liberal capitalism, rhetoric about freedom, and increasingly rampant self-determination as our heavenly vision. The apocalyticism of Jesus tells you to forgive 70 times 7, to love your enemies, and to pray for them. That bears as little resemblance to America’s unveiling of the meaning of history as your local Mosque has to ISIS.

But when that fancy American magazine tells you that ISIS is religious, that ISIS is Islamic, that ISIS is apocalyptic, you should believe them?

Theology is not something that happens only in university departments and old-fashioned pulpits. It happens on battle-fronts and in war propaganda. That holds for ISIS and for NATO. If Christians do not learn how to read the ways in which their nation states are parasitically robbing and perverting their vocabulary, then they will never be able to see the world accurately. That blindness will be lethal.

Your Correspondent, Slow down sir! You’re going to give yourself skin failure!

One night last week, I battled for an hour and a half over a blog post. That is about 15 times longer than I usually spend on writing something here and the time wasn’t taken up (just) fixing innumerable typos. I was trying to address or re-dress or just fully recant my recent foray into apologetics. My little screed about the Stephen Fry interview was the most visited piece I have published on this blog since I stopped updating regularly. But I had all sorts of anxiety after writing it. I published it at the encouragement of Wife-unit and then when it went live I had even more ambivalence about it.

I realise I am inventing a peculiar kind of obscurity when I navel gaze about a post written for a Theological Ethics blog read by 11 people.

So to work out my tension, I wrote this thing about why we can never declare people “spiritually blind” and why the objections that Fry raised were not brave and were not serious. By extension, what I was trying to write was that my apologetic endeavour was a waste of my time.

It went live for 5 minutes and then Wife-unit said I should really take it down and re-write. In trying to say that it is a waste of my time, I ended up saying it was a waste of everyone’s time. Which ultimately could come across as saying “you are a waste of time” to anyone who wasn’t as effortlessly sophisticated as I am.

Whatever good was in that tortured and confused writing was based on a reflection about how important Francis Spufford’s last book, Unapologetic, is for Christian leaders. I had quibbles with that book when I first read it but as the years have gone by, I am more and more convinced that it is a book that every pastor needs to read and study carefully.

Francis Spufford

Spufford’s book re-orientates apologetics so that it is carefully and intentionally disciplined in the face of “proof” questions – the kind of arguments that present themselves as philosophically robust but have no strong connection to lived human existence. Refusing to grant legitimacy to the “gotchya!” dilemmas that internet atheists are so fond of, Spufford’s Christianity still “doesn’t exist in blatant defiance of some obvious demonstration of its groundlessness.” (68)

So Spufford engages the problem of evil that Fry raises, but he does it in a way that gives credit not to the outlying horrifying instances of child-hunting parasites, but the sort of things people normally suffer:

From meteor strikes to car crashes, falling masonry to early-onset Alzheimer’s, anything can happen to us and to the people we love. At any moment you can have it sharply demonstrated to you that where we live, events are not governed by what people deserve. (89)

The responses available to the believer, Spufford suggests, are self-deception, argument, or the other option that is the lived reality for most mature, serious Christians. This is a long quote, but it is important:

We take the cruelties of the world as a given, as the known and familiar data of experience, and instead of anguishing about why the world is as it is, we look for comfort in coping with it as it is. We don’t ask for a creator who can explain Himself. We ask for a friend in time of grief, a true judge in time of perplexity, a
wider hope than we can manage in time of despair. If your child is dying, there is no reason that can ease your sorrow. (105)

The horrendous secret of atheism is that it has no better explanation for the lived experience of suffering than Hindus or Scientologists, Raelians or Presbyterians. No reason can soothe the grief of the death of your loved one, whether it comes calmly in a bed surrounded by people who adore them or suddenly and painfully on a spring morning. To expect reason to account for this is a tragic category error.

When Spufford writes about suffering, or about repentance, or in the book’s glorious high-point, about Jesus, he bypasses these dead-ends. He does it because he has done the hard work of listening to his culture, his church, and himself. He has ears to hear, and as a result he has words to speak that make surprising sense.

Spufford is wiser than me and he didn’t comment on the Fry interview. He did offer an explanation of why he didn’t weigh in, however. Quoting the New Zealander Elizabeth Knox, Spufford shares:

Go back into the quiet room, the room empty of everyone but yourself. Go for a walk. Stand still and stare at something inhuman and alive, or inanimate and kinetic, like a river. Be with yourself and think, ‘Who am I apart from all this? What is the world to me? What is my life to me?’ Put out your hand and touch the top of the skull and think about life, what a short time there is in which to be yourself – your good self – and do good.

We get distracted so easily. We have a short time here. The only true apologetic is love, and love looks like Jesus. Let Fry rail about gods that don’t exist. Let Dawkins tweet about freeing the Muslim world with porn. The work of the people of God is quiet prayer and gentle hospitality and patient listening. Seeing, and hearing, and welcoming without wanting to win is the work we should be doing.

Your Correspondent, Frequently checks credit at Moral Bank hole-in-wall

Bitter Lake

It has always been a sign of his trustworthiness, to me, that Adam Curtis tends to begin his documentaries by saying, “This is the story of…”

The great danger of the documentary is that as children we are taught that there are movies – which are about dinosaurs, transforming robots, noble historical figures and BDSM loving billionaires – and there are documentaries which are “true”. As adults we rarely think about this distinction and how unclear it might be in reality. Curtis forces us to confront it.

In his most recent documentary, released on the BBC iPlayer at the end of January, Curtis tells the story of Afghanistan. The film is 136 minutes long, and largely consists of long sections of untouched “rushes” – the raw material of the news. These stretches of footage, without explanation or elaboration, are the heart of the documentary. The narrative that is wrapped around them, which tells how a meeting between Roosevelt and the Saudi King nearly a century ago set in motion a series of actions, reactions, counteractions and distractions that results in contemporary Afghanistan.

In short, this is the narrative. America needed oil. Saudi Arabia had it. They struck a deal. America got oil. Saudi Arabia got money, arms and an agreement that the West would leave their religious culture alone. The King used this money to grow unimaginably wealthy and to modernize his nation. The religious conservatives didn’t like this so he posed the Communists as a threat that Islam had to defeat. In effect, he exported Saudi Arabian Islam to the rest of the Arab world, and in so doing secured the Saudi throne.

But once released, that set of ideas we call Wahhabism refused to behave like a docile belief system. It gained traction among people long exhausted by Western Imperialism. One of the places it took a footing was Afghanistan, which was a subject of Allied nation-building as part of an effort to keep out the Soviet threat. When the Soviets invaded, the Allies, especially America, took to arming the Islamic militants who had been discipled by expat Saudi teachers to fight the Russian tanks.

Two great men of history make a deal on a boat to buy and sell oil and 30 years later in the middle of Asia, a grand battle of ideologies is unleashed.

We know how the story goes from there. There is a digression about how the oil crisis created the global financial hegemony that today ravages Ireland and Greece, Cyprus and Portugal. But the main story is the story of the Afghans. The great mujahideen, armed and trained by America, who received such praise at the end of Rambo III turned into the Taliban. Saddam invaded Kuwait. Bush invaded Iraq. The Saudis realised that their arms were not enough to keep them safe. Osama realised that his enemy was not just moderate Islam but the far country of America. Planes crashed into buildings. Blair and Bush II invaded Afghanistan. Then Iraq. Then tortured people, bombed villages, raped, pillaged and tore to pieces the very narrative they had been telling their people about war against terror and a battle against an axis of evil and the inevitable march of democracy and technology and liberation.

Rambo III, glorifying Jihadists

If you are still reading, then you should go watch this film.

But if you are just scanning now to see if I have any jokes about Zooey Deschanel in here, let me tell you why you, also, should go watch this film. It’s the rushes. The long tracts of unedited, untampered, untouched footage that Curtis pastes together. In one shocking scene we see an assassination attempt on the Afghan president that sees bystanders killed. In the West, we didn’t hear about this. The footage is live and clear and direct – the kind of thing that news networks drool over. We have the world at our fingertips, but only the parts of the world that the people who pay the cameramen choose to show you.

In another distressing scene, we have a long camera gaze at a small girl. She is missing her right hand. Her right eye also. She wears a dress. She is still in the hospital. Her arms and head are bandaged. There are casts on her shins. She is sitting in a chair, her father kneeling beside her. His eyes are wide with desperation. Her eyes are slow, from shock or drugs or weariness. The cameraman talks to the father. He tries to give her a red flower. He wants to see this child healed and made whole. She will not be.

The next scene is an Allied soldier, hunkered in a trench. A wild bird comes and rests on his hand. The bird lets him stroke her. Then the bird flies away, only to land on his helmet. Terence Malick couldn’t make the point better. The real world goes on, even as the lords of war unfurl their armaments.

Soon after, British soldiers are seen on a cliff above Helmand, partying by firelight to honour Elizabeth Windsor’s birthday. A soldier explains to camera how important it is that they mark this festive occasion, especially when they are so far from home. When asked why they chose such a visible point above the city, with fire, he laughs and admits he has no idea. The soldiers aren’t the problem. They are clueless.

The scene that lingers with me is not one of the many shockingly violent pieces of footage. Instead it is an Afghan man, sitting cross-legged and docile as an American soldier, wearing his uniform engineered at unimaginable cost, swabs the inside of his mouth to collect DNA. The Afghan man is 20 years older than the solider, who is little more than a boy. Democracy and technology and liberation do not look like this. The Allies see everyone as an enemy, and so they make everyone into an enemy.

If you cannot understand the attraction of ISIS, you haven’t been paying attention.

Your Correspondent, Living in a glasshouse

For those of you not from the British Isles, Stephen Fry is an English comedian and gameshow host who is very erudite and much loved. Gay Byrne is an Irish talkshow host and road safety authority who is very skilled and considered a sort of historic cultural figure in Ireland.

They feature together in an episode of a series Byrne hosts for the Irish state broadcaster called “The Meaning of Life”. I don’t think they ever invited Terry Eagleton on, which is unfortunate because he is funnier and smarter than Fry and more skilled than Byrne, and he literally wrote the book on the topic.

Anyway, if you missed the controversial bit, here it is:

Many people believe that Fry hit the nail on the head. He spoke the truth. How can the delusions of faith stand in the face of such articulate and elegant reasoning? I watched it and thought, “He’d never say that if he was around for dinner with me and my friends.” Well, of course he wouldn’t. It would be rude. Wife-unit and I would have made him a lovely aubergine parmigiana and some brownies. How churlish it would be. But it would also be laughable. Maybe he would still think it, but such pomposity doesn’t play well when you are dining with atheists who became Christians.

That is all Fry’s comments are: pompous bluster. There is no god that he is referencing, except that vague god that atheists sometimes think Christians and Jews worship. (Have you ever noticed that for all their talk about how heinous Islam is, atheists still seem to think that Muslims worship a different (worse) god (that doesn’t exist) than Christians?) There are many philosophical problems with what Fry lays out and I am sure there are hundreds of pieces already written that enumerate them. One such problem is that putting God in the dock requires an expectation of God that seems to demand a metaphysical explanation for goodness. In other words: if we fail God for not being good, where does the standard of good come from?

Just as a side-point: that is not the same thing as saying that we need a god to generate good. The knotty problem I have alluded to doesn’t get resolved quite so simply. It is a variety of Augustine’s contention that the problem that the human is faced with isn’t why is there suffering, but why is there joy? The grand puzzle of reality is not so much the horror of the burrowing insect as the satisfaction of a cold glass of water on a hot July day. That and why did I not enjoy that film “500 Days of Summer” because looking at Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt for an hour and a half sounds like something only the blind could find boring.

My interest isn’t (any longer) in such philosophical tinkering. It has its place, but that place isn’t at my dinner table. In our gaff, we’re very, very interested in Jesus.

When Christians talk about God, they are talking about Jesus. Jesus reveals who God is. God reveals Himself in Jesus. The God that Christians expect to meet when that time comes is a God who comes to us as, in one particularly disturbing image in the New Testament, as a slaughtered lamb. He comes to us as a Palestinian tradesman with a gash caused by a Roman sword down his side, and nail holes in his arms and ankles, his forehead scarred by a cruel joke and his back lacerated by a whip. That God, that Christians worship, is not a God who will be impressed by rich white Englishmen saying “How dare you?!” The 1st century equivalent of rich white Englishmen hung him from the tree. That bunch of men encountered this Godman and decided that if they banished him, their life would become “simpler, purer, cleaner, and more worth living.” It didn’t. They didn’t know what they were doing. That pattern continues. Always expect the powerful to prefer their gods like the Greek deities. Those titans supported power instead of subverting it.

There are many problematic things about Christianity, perplexing and troubling things. Early on, the church developed or adopted big words to cope with all of them. Election. Trinity. Incarnation. Personhood. Kerygma. Parousia. Eschaton.

It is very significant that it was well into the Englightenment before we had to come up with the word theodicy, that Fry references at the beginning. Still, most of us prefer the simpler word suffering. Contrary to the widely propagated myth, Christian people are not running from suffering. The torture device they use as their visual calling card should remind you of that.

There are many problematic things about Christianity. There are weak points where opponents can score points. Suffering isn’t one of them. The God that the Christians declare is one who revealed his divinity in momentous suffering.

There is a basic rule of argumentation that holds that you cannot be making a good point if your opponent cannot recognise her viewpoint when you describe it. Fry makes the mistake of the new-atheists. He does not respect his opponent enough to hear them. Ironically, this is the mistake Christians made when they were in the cultural ascendancy in an earlier age. The kind of “gotcha!” argument that Fry deploys is the kind of argument that swallows itself. It works when you are up against Gay Byrne on a tv camera. It falls to pieces when you are sitting across from the people in my congregation who can testify from their suffering to their conviction that no human has ever been more human than when the Godman suffocated under his own weight.

The new-atheists never try to kill that God. He’s already died. He sides with the suffering and the broken, the oppressed and the downtrodden. He is most welcomed by the people oppressed by men bearing Union flags, Stars and Stripes, and the 12 golden stars of Europe. He is many things, and in many ways confounding, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about him being defeated by suffering. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Your Correspondent, Young, rich, and full of sugar

Last week I wrote about Irish churches and primary schools. A tremendously exciting topic, I grant you. I am surprised the internet didn’t break, like a textual equivalent of a photoshopped picture of Kim Kardashian.

Somewhere around 95% of Irish schools are under the patronage of one church or another. I think that Irish Christians should support moves to radically alter this arrangement, but in my blog post I argued that our reasons for divesting control of primary education would be different from the ones that were commonly trotted out in the opinion pages of the newspapers.

In short: Christianity and education both suffer when Christian education is put in a position of such overwhelming power.

Forcing people to pretend to be Christians to get a place in school is the worst discipleship model imaginable. Placing the task of teaching children about the God who raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel out of slavery in Egypt in the hands of people who don’t believe it and only go through the motions because it is the only way to get a pay packet is the second worst discipleship model imaginable.

Christians choose well when they choose to let go of power. So let it go.

But in a great comment on my post, a fellow called “Hmmmmself” asked what is “the ideal relationship between religion and public schools in Ireland?”

Obviously I am the man to ask. I don’t have kids. I am not a teacher. I don’t even live in Ireland at the moment!

But it does give me an opportunity to raise three questions that I think Christians should consider when it comes time to finding schools for their kids.

The Far Side

1. What does it mean to pass on the faith?
One of the reasons why the Catholic church says it is a good thing to have lots of Catholic primary schools is to pass on their “ethos”. Christianity is a strange, mysterious movement and there are many things that can be said about it. One thing it definitely isn’t is an “ethos”. Christianity is not an attitudinal stance towards the world. It isn’t simply a life philosophy. An ethos is made up of values and principles. Show me a Christian value and I will show you a domesticated Christianity. Show me some Christian principles and I will show you a Christ who has been cut down to size.

Christianity doesn’t yield principles. It inculcates practices. As far as I can see, the distinctive way of being that following Jesus entails is ill-suited to being taught as part of a curriculum, as the commenter put it, “sandwiched between a history lesson and a science experiment.” For one thing, it spills out and takes over the history lesson and casts light on the science experiment.

So passing on the faith is something that is primarily, overwhelmingly, done in the community called “church”. Let the school be a place of mission, having been formed in the church. Pass on the faith in song and prayer and sacrament. Don’t think you can out-source it to a harried, under-paid teacher whose own understanding of the parables adds up to “be nice to people.”

Christian schools in Ireland have produced generations of people inoculated with just enough religion to be immune to the Gospel. Stop thinking you can “pass” Christianity on like you pass on your love of GAA or Irish dancing.

2. What does it mean to run schools?
My friend Richard Carson (a graduate of Protestant schools) alerted me to this lobbying website set up by the Irish Protestant schools this year. It presents funding cuts to the sector as a sort of religious rights issue. Notice the “ethos” on display: talk of “Investing in our children,” not a word about austerity, many words relying on rational choice theory, and not even a single mention of Jesus.

Fee paying schools, which Protestant schools often are, are implicitly machines of inequality and bias in society. The staff are paid for by the state and the fees paid go towards add-on benefits. The rich get one (higher) level of education and everyone else makes do with a default. That the rich are also often Protestant is a serious theological problem.

Catholic schools have an untenable and unjust monopoly on the provision of education. Protestant schools have an untenable and unjust economic advantage in the provision of education. Why are churches so eager to do something that the state could arguably do better?

When we run schools, we can point to that as proof of our continued relevance and as a reason for why the powers that be should take us seriously and invite us to their policy formation meetings. We would raise better Christians if we got to do it on our own, outside of school. And the state would certainly create a better educational system, less skewed against the growing number of people without religious attachment and the large Islamic population. We wouldn’t get invited to as many state functions, which is ok because we need the extra time now that we are increasingly forced to create ad-hoc welfare programs to cover the gaps left by state-sanctioned austerity!

3. What does it mean to support the system?
One of the reactions that Christians often make to the under-funding and intellectual stagnation of state education systems is to pull their kids out and go down the home-schooling option. I am going to run the risk of offending friends when I say this, but home-schooling is a poor choice for Christians.

Here’s my reasoning: the people who choose to home-school are almost invariably brilliantly qualified for the task. They are smart and hard-working and committed parents who show patience and ingenuity on a daily basis. But that means they are the exact type of person that you want to have involved in your local, under-funded, intellectually stagnant primary and secondary school! You don’t resist the home-schooling temptation because the alternative is better for your kids. You resist it because you and your kids are better for your neighbours when you are in the local school!

People who choose to home-school might not always be rich, but they are rarely poor. They can afford the time to teach at home, which means they could afford the time to be active in supporting the most put upon people in the Irish education system: teachers. When they pull out and teach their kids at home, it is almost certain that their child benefits. But their neighbour’s child suffers. Irish schools need the families that could home-school but choose instead to stick it out in a crappy, rough school, confident that their own participation in parent councils and management boards and the presence of their kids in classrooms will be a net-gain.

So you are a Christian who wants to see their kids mature into Christians who exhibit a gracious, sacrificial faith that loves God and loves their neighbour? Then form them in the gracious practices of the church. Teach them that the school yard is the perfect place to learn how to sacrifice for their neighbour, by befriending the friendless and standing up for the defenceless. The rest of their life they will be immersed in places where people challenge the very basis of their faith. When they are taught to handle school, they’ll flourish at college and have a spine in the workplace. If you think of these decisions about “investing” in your children, consider how vulgar it is to expect a dividend from your kids! If you think that “only the best” education can “fulfill your child’s potential,” consider what Jesus thinks of human potential. In the end, kindness to our neighbours is what he is interested in. Placing your children into a new, state-directed, diverse, slightly antagonistic school environment might just be the perfect educational environment.

Your Correspondent, His education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten

Irish Churches and Primary Schools

I was home in Ireland over the weekend. I was struck by the political anxiety of the people I talked with. Dyed in the wool captains of industry were out marching against the commercialisation of water provision. Retired grandmothers were cheering on the new Greek government. A Beckett play in a small Marxist theatre was practically sold out, the diverse crowd greedily buying books beforehand by Marx and Connolly and Klein.

In the midst of this popular agitation, the Irish media continues to have conversations that miss the point. This morning, the Irish Times offered a critique of religious schools by the Cork-based philosopher Desmond Clarke. The basic contention is:

Children have a right not to be taught in an uncritical way about values and convictions.

From that premise, we are to understand that the school system in Ireland should be secular – meaning disconnected from churches – because that is how to ensure critical reasoning about values and convictions.

The article does not offer a definition of critical thinking, assuming instead that we all understand what it means. Furthermore, it does not interrogate what is meant by “values” or “convictions”. How are they similar? How are they different? These basic reading comprehension questions leave the, dare I say it, critical reader, confused as to how the argument is constructed.

But the very interesting thing for a Christian reader, who is trying to be self-critical, is how the philosopher has understood the experience of being religious. Again and again, the state of having Christian convictions is presented as a state of being uncritical. At one point, Clarke says “The Catholic Church, through canon law, requires parents to send their children to a ‘Catholic’ school.”

The relevant canon is 793 which reads as considerably less demanding than Clarke suggests:

Parents, and those who take their place, have both the obligation and the right to educate their children. Catholic parents have also the duty and the right to choose those means and institutes which, in their local circumstances, can best promote the catholic education of their children.

Irish political discourse in the press and on the TV is obsessed with following the liner notes provided by the status quo, even in the face of a popular conversation existing which is much more suspicious. Irish social discourse is similarly in thrall to the cues and stage-directions set by a certain kind of powerful account of ethics – the one which is uncomplicatedly certain that a thing exists called “Western, liberal values”.

That example from Canon law demonstrates there is a vast amount of wriggle room for the devout Catholic between what their church actually teaches about education and the version of that which gets published in the Irish Times. This limp attachment to the lived reality of religion in Ireland is a defining point in conversations about “secularity”. We do not need to investigate or listen. We do not need to be critical of our own assumptions. There is something about the logic of Irish discourse about religion that assumes that everyone gets born with a familiarity with what the whole thing entails and we can just write it off without knowing our Radical Reformation from our Orthodox.

The Presbyterian churches with which I am most familiar might leave me with a biased perspective, but the one thing that doesn’t hold in Christian communities is “uncritical” belief. Sermons are too often dominated by apologetic concerns. Home Bible studies are sites of existential exchange over the difficulties of being human. The dreadful worship music that the Protestants love often sings of doubts and trials and the boring spiritual disciplines that the Catholics love often obsess over the authenticity of the individual in their values and convictions.

If these churches are running schools, then it is highly unlikely that they are teaching, in formal curricula or more importantly, in the actual classroom, some unreflexive claptrap.

An example of how complex lived religious identity in Ireland actually is, can be grasped by paying attention to one interesting sentence from Clarke’s piece. He says:

If one insisted that publicly funded schools should always reflect the beliefs of the majority, then the results would be obvious in a state where a voting majority is Marxist, Muslim, Mennonite or Calvinist.

If you drew a Venn diagram with those four belief systems, I would have one foot squarely in Calvinism and the other foot overlapping with the other three. Between Islam and Calvinism, I share a firm monotheism. Between Calvinism and the Mennonites, I insist that Jesus is what that deity looks like. Between the Mennonites and the Marxists, I insist that we should always have a profound suspicion of the powers-that-be. And between the Marxists and the Muslims, I too agree that justice based on equity is the only viable way to establish societies.

I am a typical Irish evangelical Christian. I do not fit inside the boxes that get uncritically deployed by proponents of a thing called “secularism”.

More worryingly, the philosopher does not seem to know that Mennonites are a separatist sect and do not easily do business with the state. The results would be anything but obvious if the majority living in an area were Mennonites, because a majority of Mennonites wouldn’t even bother to vote, nevermind send their kids to schools where they have to sit still for hours on end and learn about nutrition from drawings of pyramids instead of in kitchens, chopping celery.

Irish Christians need to recognise the profound mess they have made of the educational system through their involvement in it. I long for the day that the last few notionally “Presbyterian” schools get disconnected from our General Assembly. They can go off and become the pure and perfect factories for social advancement that they yearn to be. I wish the Catholic bishops would recognise that Old Nick himself couldn’t come up with a more destructive discipleship programme than forcing people to baptise their children to secure places in schools where they will be taught the parables of Jesus as anemic morality tales as part of an assembly line process where they receive the sacraments not as apocalyptic events of divine revelation, but milestones towards puberty.

Calvin, Hobbes, school

Christianity is about action. It is insufficient to think that we are educating our children by exerting control over schools so that we can compel a vague notion of some of our ideas along with teaching them long division. But because Christianity is about action, the account of Irish political secularism fails catastrophically to even engage with the lived reality. When the churches are kicked out of the system and schools are liberated to finally be hothouses of critical reasoning and incubators of entrepreneurship and microwave ovens of active and concerned citizenry, the very same malaise will set in. Turning vibrant ideas into standardised curricula advocated by teachers who don’t believe it and enforced by parents who can’t care less about it… the noble march of neo-liberal secularism will find itself caught in the same bogland the Catholic church is in now.

Christians can let go of schools. Not because the arguments from political secularism are any good, but because our ideas lead to action, that spill out of the classroom, into the schoolyard, across the street into the housing estates and over every square inch of the good world we get to inhabit.

Your Correspondent, May be a little chemically imbalanced but he’s been right about a lot of things

3 NSFW Words

We all speak differently in different contexts. At a PhD seminar, I am less likely to refer to someone as a cotton-headed ninny muggins as I am when leading a children’s address at church. We also write differently. Thus, when my dad sends me a text message it alwys lks like dis, but when he writes an angry letter to a local politician, you can be damn sure it fits every single criteria of the most formal style guide.

When you want to be your most articulate and clear, there are some words you should avoid, or at least use only with the utmost precision. I want to propose that the following words should be added to this not safe for work list. They are:

    Medieval
    Puritanical
    Enlightenment

Medieval
I most recently heard the word medieval bandied around when everyone decided that ISIS was a thing we had to have an opinion about. ISIS were “barbaric”, and it followed quickly in most cases, “medieval”. Here’s a recent example from the most mainstream of mainstream media, the British Daily Mirror.

This is wrong from both ends. The first problem is that the aggressive “Islamic Jihadist” groups that so obsess the Western imagination in this generation are the definition of modern movements. This fact has not been hidden from us. There is even a book which gives it away in the title:

John Gray

The organisation of these groups, their means of propaganda, their ideology – they are all inconceivable in an age before the one we live in now. They are not medieval.

If it is true that Islamic State (or whatever group we are told to hate next – Boko Haram?) are not medieval, it also holds that the medieval is not Islamic State. The Medieval era, a phrase filtered more through Game of Thrones than any knowledge of history, was not some dark era of barbarity. Even the dark ages cannot be characterised as without light. Even without reminding you that we all live in glass houses (the medievals, after all, never dropped atomic bombs, built nuclear power stations on tectonic fault lines, systematically starved entire nations to suit a political vision, or conceived of Celebrity Big Brother), there is much in the medieval era that is to be celebrated.

We cannot manage to agree to stop shopping even one day in the year, but the medievals tried to stop war a couple of days a week, every week, every year. The medievals made advancements in maths and philosophy and theology and statecraft, governance and art and cuisine that we take for granted today and they didn’t have those HAZMAT suits when there was an outbreak of the plague. We build shite public art on motorway verges. They built something like this in practically every market town around Europe:

Winchester Cathedral

Unless you are writing about epochs, don’t use the word medieval.

Puritan
I most recently saw the word “puritan” being mis-used over the #nomorepage3 campaign. This reasonable effort to convince a bestselling British tabloid newspaper to stop putting topless women on the third page of their daily publication has met with plenty of bile online. Here’s a representative sample.

While I want to live in a world where everyone has already read Marilynne Robinson’s essays, that is not where I live. I can understand that the religious and cultural flowering that occurred in Geneva in the generation after Luther, centering in part on Calvin, and then spreading to Scotland and Holland and America and South Africa, and all sorts of other places would be poorly understood. Like everything, there is much to be critiqued, repudiated, even reviled in what followed in Reformed Christianity and the puritans play a chief role in that.

But to equate the puritans with a set of anti-carnal antipathies, such that the word becomes a token for body-hating joylessness is a tremendous adventure in, well, the sort of hard-of-hearing interpretations of other people’s actions that might carelessly and erroneously be called… puritanical.

Of course the puritans were not libertines. They were not bohemians. They were not hippies. But they also were not joyless. They did not repudiate the body, but celebrated it as God’s good creation. A recent post by Jason Goroncy features the grand-daddy of Puritanism, Jonathan Edwards, waxing poetic about spiders as wonderful and intricate things.

If puritanical means that which resembles or arises out of the complex and fertile web of Christianities that get categorised as Reformed, then you are using the word right. If you mean it to just be a place holder for “these things I don’t like”, then you might be better off saying “these are things I don’t like.” Because if you got to know the puritans, you’d start liking them.

At least a little bit.

Enlightenment
The final word is different from the other two. Medieval and puritan are not safe for work because popular culture tricks you into using them to be synonymous with all things negative. There is much about the medieval era and the puritans that leaves us shaking our heads, but it is nothing but chronological snobbery to let that elide into pure and unfiltered dismissal.

The word enlightenment is not safe for work because popular culture can trick you into using the term to be synonymous with all things positive. There is unfiltered embrace of anything “enlightened”. The problem with this is obvious. The Enlightenment – that philosophical movement of the 18th Century that sets the mood music for modernity with its challenge to us: “Dare to know!” – is an inheritance we need to critically embrace. As with everything that is wholeheartedly embraced, it is politically dangerous. If something is good, across the board, then anything that can be cast as a threat is bad, across the board.

Speaking of which, here’s Britain’s most respected closet racist, Richard Dawkins.

If the Enlightenment becomes synonymous with “our way of life”, then when Richard Dawkins decides that something is threatening it, that thing becomes a threat to our way of life. In our day, Islam is the thing that is anti-Enlightenment. In the 20th Century it was often Judaism. In the 18th Century, it was often Catholicism. Whatever is against it, needs to be destroyed.

That’s one of the problems with the Enlightenment. It universalises everything. Since “reason” is the grand foundation of all advance, and reason is shared by everyone, then whoever doesn’t share the reason of the Powers That Be is not a person. The Englightenment has been genocidal. We can grant that it has had a significant role to play in the forming of “our way of life”, but that means it has a hand in drones and their deployment, in “enhanced interrogation” and its use, in colonialism, imperialism, and the insane (were they “rational”?) civil wars that the West fought in the early 20th Century and which we call, with Enlightenment hubris, “World” wars.

Pay attention and you will hear lots of wise pundits worry that we the Enlightenment is under threat. This is meant to be a very bad thing. Previous eras didn’t feel quite so confident compressing human existence down into eras, but if they did, I imagine there were wise pundits stroking their beards when “feudalism” was under threat. Times change, we change, ideologies change. At least hold them at enough of a distance that when they go stale, they aren’t the only thing left to sustain you.

In other words: don’t build your house on Enlightenment foundations. Dawkins might actually be right. They are crumbling. And that is not such a bad thing.

Your Correspondent, As hard and as ruthless as a rose petal

Music Favorites of 2014

For the last few years, my friends and I have had an annual tradition where we compile a “Best of” playlist from the music we discovered that year. This tradition has been going on long enough that they used to be burned on CDs and were accompanied with differing levels of complicated liner notes. Nowadays, they are mostly folders uploaded to Dropbox. Some lazy sods even just roll out a YouTube playlist, or more scandalously again, a Spotify playlist. HOW AM I MEANT TO LISTEN TO YOUR FRENCH POP MUSIC IN MY CAR IF YOU ONLY GAVE IT TO ME VIA GOOGLE?!?

It’s been a great, simple way to mark the passing of time and I often listen back to my favourite entries. You can tell when that one friend was spending the year DJ-ing in Tokyo and remember how that company the other friend was working for famously collapsed in on themselves while he discovered the glories of Blackalicious. The mixes are evocative, not just of the music of that year, but of the great moments with friends in that time.

KEVINDECENCY 2014

Taido Chino, a recent but treasured addition to our group, stuck his up on his blog, so as with everything, I am going to copy him. You can download the album here: KEVINDECENCY 2014 and this is the tracklisting.

Track listing

The terrain of the year is apparent in this track listing. A vast amount of time was spent sitting at a desk in the TheoLab, reading popular histories of the Irish economic crash of 2008, early Patristic writing about wealth, and Karl Barth on the parables of Jesus. I found that three kinds of music suited the sort of in-depth reading I was doing: jazz (socially acceptable), movie soundtracks (slightly below the threshold for social acceptability), and (overwhelmingly) video-game soundtracks (full on musical pariah status guaranteed).

But think about it: video game soundtracks are composed with the intention of encouraging focus. The art of the Halo soundtrack is that it helps you focus on nothing but Halo. I soon sent my ears wandering from games I knew (Command and Conquer’s “Hell March” was an old favourite) to new soundtracks for games I’ve never played. The only computer game I play is Football Manager, so this meant I was fairly voracious in sucking up old classics. The PS3 game Journey has a great soundtrack but the best of all time has to be the 1998 game Katamari Damacy. I didn’t want to be dishonest about how very uncool my music selection is this year so I kicked it off with a track from that soundtrack.

Later I chose “Go Big or Go Exctinct” from the Pacific Rim soundtrack because that record was so often an early morning selection to get my concentration-on. The loud announcement noise of the guitar that features so prominently throughout that album is part of my brain’s furniture at this point.

One other thing I notice from this album is how predictable my middle-aged tastes are. Jenny Lewis and The New Pornographers and Janelle Monae have all featured on earlier Best-of mixes. And throughout it, the recurring aural arrangement is a combination of male and female voices with a strong piano line. Amazon’s algorithm could just write music for me for the next 20 years and save me from becoming a fan of Ed Sheeran.

The final thing that I notice is just how sad the songs that stick in my ear are. 2014 has been widely hailed as a miserable year and personally it has been a bastard to me at times, even in the midst of my larger contentedness with my studies. The music that resonates with me this year is music about struggle with ourselves and others and death.

Even the song about dancing is a satire about amusing ourselves to death.

Cheery.

The best album of the year for me was The Both, the project that brought America’s wittiest lyricist Aimee Mann into collaboration with America’ wittiest punk Ted Leo. It doesn’t feature in any of the prominent Best-of lists because Best-of lists are inherently stupid.

Anyway, go download my Best-of playlist. Adding the word “play” always turns stupid things into wisdom.

Your Correspondent, Like Danish pastry, he’s looking tasty

Some Christmas Music That Doesn’t Suck

Christmas music usually stinks. I know this with certainty because I live with someone who turns on the Irish charity radio station Christmas FM on December 1st and as much as is possible, keeps it on through Advent until it finishes broadcasting about 7pm on St. Stephen’s Day. There is only so much “Christmas Shoes” and Justin Bieber promising “I’mma be under the Christmas tree” can be played before a man considers divorce. Christmas music stinks so much that Bruce Springsteen’s effort is horrendous. I am glad for your sake that you haven’t even heard the unreleased R.E.M. Christmas songs.

This year, more than any year, I have relished Advent and anticipated Christmas. Life is harder than I thought it was. And one of the undersides of the struggle is that I no longer have the energy to maintain the sour opposition to Wham’s “Last Christmas” and its musical fraternity. Who cares if it was originally “Last Summer” and they changed it because they spied a chance to make a mint? It’s a great pop song. The Band Aid song still pisses me off for the same reasons it pisses all sane people off. But to an extent I never thought possible, I enjoyed the Christmas build up, the secular Advent this year. It is no coincidence that my enjoyment of street lights and public Christmas trees and jingles played incessantly in H&M has increased in proportion to my engagement with the Christian practice of Advent. The Gospel shapes you to welcome light wherever it is found. The pseudo-piety of the Christian Christmas naysayer is revealed for a waste of time when you realise just how much fun it is to shout “IT’S CHRISTMAAAAS!” along with Slade.

Don’t get me wrong. Christmas music usually stinks. But there might be some albums that you can download and play for the next 9 days that don’t drive you demented. Here are three:

1) Moya Brennan – An Irish Christmas
Moya Brennan is a member of the legendary Irish traditional group Clannad. Think of her as Enya’s cooler, Christian cousin. That’s how lame Enya is. A Pentecostal Irish-speaking Christian is still cooler than her. This album has that Celtic, echoey feel that you’d expect from a musician from the Donegal Gaelteacht but it is not gratingly artificial like that stuff often is.

2) Annie Lennox – A Christmas Cornucopia
Lennox is not (to my scant knowledge) a Christian, but this album has the kind of muscle that comes from someone who gets the earthy, fleshy core of the Christmas message. If GK Chesterton was a Scottish pop legend, he’d record an album like this. At Christmas we rejoice in the light breaking into the darkness. But the darkness can’t be sentimentalised away. Lennox’s album keeps the menace of Christmas alive, if that makes sense. Listening to this you cannot mistake Christmas for the celebration of a baby meek and mild, no crying he makes. An invasion of occupied territory has begun. We are holding our breath in anticipation.

3) Blind Boys of Alabama – Go Tell It On The Mountain
This was the first Christmas album I ever fell in love with. Tom Waits joining with them as they command us “to go tell it on the mountain” is probably all the advertisement that you need to track this gem down. The first two albums definitely fit into the stereotypical musical tone of a north European Christmas. They are cosy albums for days that get dark early and that freeze. The Blind Boys record doesn’t have that scarf-and-hat feel. What it does have is sincerity. This is the closest to a worship album as you need to go for Christmas.

I will continue to quest for better Christmas albums. Someday I might have the patience to filter through Sufjan’s 100 Christmas songs to make an album of 10 viable tracks. But in the meantime, these are trustworthy choices.

My Favourite Christmas Song?
One Christmas I had to preach in the lovely little Presbyterian churches in Howth and Malahide in north Co. Dublin. Wife-unit was sick. I drove out there on my own and took too long and didn’t come close to saying something worthy of the setting but as ever, the congregations were warm and responsive and encouraging and joyful and when I got back into my car to go back home, I was full of gratitude for the job I had been given. On the radio, passing that crossroad at Portmarnock, a song called “Rebel Jesus” by Jackson Browne came on. I had never heard it before. But it moved me to tears. I had to pull in because it was a better sermon than I could ever preach.

I realise I love the songs the church sings at Christmas. But this awkward track might be my favourite, doubly so because it is a gift to Christians from “a heathen and a pagan.” Kate and Anna McGarrigle have a cover version that tops the original. On this, the third day of Christmas, it might be a blessing to you:

Your Correspondent, Celebrates the true spirit of Christmas; people being helped by people other than him.

camel needle

If you are around Dublin next Thursday, November 27th, I am giving a sort of research update at Lucan Presbyterian Church from 8pm.

So, if you like the idea of seeing me flail as I attempt to compress the last 14 months of research into 40 entertaining minutes, come along. There’ll probably be church-quality tea and coffee as well. I might confuse you or bore you, but you will be hugely beneficial to me because only by running my ideas past real people (as against having conversations with myself in the shower or imagining I’m walking to the office with Karl Barth or Amartya Sen) can I calibrate how I conduct my research to avoid it escaping up to the top of the Ivory Tower.

Your Correspondent, Can he supply it on demand?




Subscribe

Subscribe to my RSS Feeds


Back-End Business