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?

Reviewing a book by a friend is a difficult thing, because you are already pre-disposed to like it. Reviewing a book by your PhD supervisor is practically impossible, because even if you don’t like it, you have to pretend you do (for a few years at least). So don’t think of this as a review. Think of it as an introduction to a book I think you should read. Because I really do like it.

Brock - Captive to Christ, Open to the World

In the introduction to Captive to Christ, Open to the World, Kenneth Oakes, the editor, shares one of the questions that Brian introduced him to: Who, exactly, owns the moon? Oakes beginning with the question about who owns the moon is totally appropriate. Conversations with Brian can be dangerous things. He reminded me with glee this week how one time last year, in a class full of undergraduates, a conversation with him ended up with me espousing an especially insane position whereby I advocated the murder of all the deer in Dublin. I never had any problem with deer, but I had serious problems with how I thought of animals. Brian’s conversations revealed that.

So the great strength of this book is that it is a collection of 8 conversations that we get to listen in on. The first two are conversations with Dutch theologians. The final 6 are conversations with Jacqueline Broen, who is now one of Brian’s doctoral students but back then was doing a masters in environmental theology. Like a conversation with Brian, this book is entertaining and illuminating and connections are made that you never realised were there.

The first chapter is a sort of introduction to the Brockian theological project, rotating around questions about his first book Singing the Ethos of God. I very much appreciated these sentences as a sort of summation of the key problem to be addressed by Christian ethics:

the way the theological academy teaches us to conceive our relationship to Scripture makes it difficult, if not impossible, to find our way from Scripture to the ethical questions of our real, lived lives, and conversely, we are taught that the people who are quite obviously doing this (like the Bible-believers I grew up with) were not doing so in an academically respectable manner.

So our job as theologians is to retrieve what we have lost. Earlier Christians could read Scripture and do theology hand in hand, they did their ethics as a form of theological commentary.

In the second chapter the conversation moves on to the topic of Brian’s second book Christian Ethics in a Technological Age. That is a sprawling giant of a text, full of meandering, illuminating conversations with philosophical and theological heavyweights. But in the new book, you get a sort of heavily compressed, verbal account of what is going on in that book. Technology is the repetition of the gesture by which Adam and Eve fashion coverings out of fig-leaves. It is our response to feeling the world is chaotic. Modern technology is a “fig-leaf reflex.” That is some deep theology pressed into a phrase.

This second chapter sees Brian speak about his relationship to Stanley Hauerwas, the technological wonders that mean that his son has survived leukaemia and the sharp end of our technological age. That sharp end is revealed when we consider how it is increasingly difficult to even conceive of the question that Christian ethics is about, namely: “How do we receive God’s sustenance?” My office-mate Taido joked yesterday that all the food in our local Tesco comes in plastic pods. In a world so habitually specialized, it is an imaginative effort to pray “Give us this day, our daily bread” and for those words to have meaning.

Chapters 3 through 8 are more general in nature, often discussing issues local to Aberdeen or St. Andrew’s and mostly hovering near an environmental agenda. But the range of issues touched upon is sort of staggering. What does it mean to do theology in a secular society (“in a public context you don’t have to make theological arguments all the time”), how church should relate to the world (“God does have something to give to us … the world needs the church to know who that God is.”), the utter dependence on cheap energy that gives our life shape, and how the false freedom of the market is revealed by a trip to Burger King are just some of the branches explored.

This book isn’t quite “Brian Brock for Dummies”. As I say, it is like over-hearing a conversation over coffee between him and other academics. As such, Nietzsche and Kant are referenced in answers. But so too are Donald Trump’s scandalous Aberdeenshire mis-adventures in environmental devastation for the sake of golf. It will tax the average Christian reader, but it will be richly rewarding. You’ll get a sense of how theology is done in Aberdeen: in worship, in dialogue with the world, in humility. You’ll better understand why my thesis or subsequent work won’t “solve” the problem of being wealthy westerners. And the reason why it won’t offer solutions isn’t just that I am nowhere near smart enough to do it. Rather, you’ll begin to see that to expect a “solution” falls short of what it means to be Christian. The theological ethicist’s job is “to allow theology to generate a different set of questions.” You’ll begin to see how the quest for Biblical principles that is so rampant in Christian discourse can be a way to evade God. After all, once we have the principles, we can discard the Bible and the living, active God. You’ll come to better understand what Brock means when he says that the core responsibility of the theologian is:

to teach students how to think and speak with one another as Christians.

Theology is no mere study. It is service to our neighbour as an act of worship. The goal is not to discover some ineffable truth and make it merely effable! It is truthful speech in love. It is action. It is service. It is worship.

Captive to Christ, Open to the World is, as such, a strange, different, curious little gem of a book.

Your Correspondent, His parents missed Woodstock, and he’s been making up for it since.

Asking In Your Neighbour, Praying in the Rain

Doing theology without friendship would be like making those little World Wildlife Fund toy pandas in a factory that pollutes rivers with mercury. It would contradict itself. Thankfully, Aberdeen is a place where the practices of making friends is woven into the day-to-day schedules of our lives so that we pray together and study together but also eat together and drink together and play football together.

The teaching staff are in on the act too and it has been a surprise to me that they actively pursue friendship with students – not just graduate students but even the lowly, meager, humble undergrads. My supervisor, Brian Brock, recently recorded an interview with a friend who started out as a student of his called Arni Zachariassen. Arni is Faroese and studied theology at Aberdeen. In the interview he and Brian (primarily) talk about disability theology. It is well worth 52 minutes of your time. You can get it at Arni’s website Theologues.

The conversation notionally begins with an explanation of Brian’s latest book which was intended to be a “critique of academic ethics as a sort of ivory tower discipline.” I’ll get around to writing a proper review of that book here before long, but even better than reading my waffle is listening to Brian and Arni.

When explaining the Christian response to disability in the interview, Brock has a lovely sentence:

The presence of those who can never aspire to be the icons of perfection and beauty for various reasons, actually draws us back to the essence of the Gospel.

This reminds me of my favourite sentence in the new book:

I would be very pleased to see the language of leadership drop entirely out of Christian discourse as well as executive management models, and I hope I’m not the only one who finds the language of ‘executive pastor’ physically nauseating.

– Brock, Captive to Christ, Open to the World, 105.

Very often, church members and even church leaders avoid “serious” theology because they think it is removed from their daily life. The thought processes at work make a sort of sense. They only have a set amount of time and energy and attention which is taxed and tempted and seduced from all sorts of angles. In such a world, simple, targeted books offering a 7 step guide to success or the distillation of Biblical principles seem like wise investments. (Even worse, some people skip books entirely and live off blogs.)

But the danger of such an approach isn’t just that those 7 steps lead you nowhere or that those Biblical principles are inventions, but that by reading things off the shelf we never get around to exploring the questions we need to wrestle with. The kind of “wrestling” we do is just short-circuiting. Too often, if we’re honest, we find ourselves asking the wrong questions, in the wrong way, and getting the wrong answers. The aversion to theology may be understandable from one perspective because so much theology is artlessly and obtusely written. It can be dry. But without theology, we end up swallowing crap.

For example: just trusting the best-selling authors that write for Zondervan (for example (a subsidiary of a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire)) to help you navigate what it means to live as a Christian here and now will leave you blind to the connection between the (bogus) obsession with “leadership” and “management” and the inability to address disability in our midst. In that blindspot, we cannot see the disabled in our midst. In other words, in that blindspot, we are disabled. There is something about admitting that we aren’t able to manage on our own, that we have to be led, that we are not icons of beauty, perfection, or holiness that is a pre-requisite for Gospel transformation. Brock finds language of executive management leadership “nauseating”. It’s a funny exaggeration. Or it is the truth – we are reeling and incoherent as Christians in part because we value things that are value-less and leave our treasures neglected.

So listen to this podcast of two thoughtful Christians talking about disability, technology and the Christian life. Then consider whether it might be really wise to pick up some theology at its source. If you’ve never read Hauerwas, go buy A Peacable Kingdom. If you’re interested but terrified by Barth, check if the library has Dogmatics in Outline. If you really don’t have the energy, pop down to your local Veritas shop and pick up Michael Paul Gallagher’s tiny, explosive “The Disturbing Freshness of Christ“.

None of that theology is dry. And all of it will help you identify the crap.

Your Correspondent, Savours the joys of mortgaging his future

Does The Pope Drink Tap Water?

As part of the terms of 2010 IMF bail-out that Ireland was pressurised into taking, water charges have been introduced. The scandal of how this scandalous decision has been implemented is too depressing to recount but I have been deeply heartened to see that hundreds of thousands of Irish people have taken to the streets in peaceful protest.

Ministry of Thirst

Water, after all, falls from the sky.

There has been a tremendous backlash in the media and from politicians who are now running scared. One government minister said yesterday that the water protests were being orchestrated, in part, by people who intended to establish a Marxist-Leninist Republic. What can we say except that the world is full of stupid people in powerful positions?

Wicked people too.

Marx and Lenin have had influence in times and places, but that place was never really Ireland and that time is not now. Groucho Marx and John Lennon won more adherents here.

What is curious is that the reactionary backlash is driven by people who in many instances, like our Taoiseach Enda Kenny, claim to be Roman Catholics. Now I haven’t been in communion with Rome for quite a while but I always thought that Catholics in the public sphere were meant to seek to implement Catholic Social Teaching. And Pope Benedict XVI in his excellent encyclical Caritas in Veritate lays out a very clear principle of Catholic Social Teaching:

The right to food, like the right to water, has an important place within the pursuit of other rights, beginning with the fundamental right to life. It is therefore necessary to cultivate a public conscience that considers food and access to water as universal rights of all human beings, without distinction or discrimination.

– Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, §27.

If you are an Irish conservative Catholic, you surely must take the Pope as a firmer authority than Timothy Geithner. Furthermore, Benedict is very clear that the access to water is a component of “the fundamental right to life.”

Catholic teaching is very clear: Opposition to abortion or euthanasia means support for freely accessed water.

Your Correspondent, He’s getting the epiphany sweats!

Book Review: The Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin

Greg Grandin, who wrote Fordlandia, a book I devoured earlier in the summer, published a book this year called The Empire of Necessity. It is one of those marvelous books that comes along every now and again that deals with disparate threads of argument in parallel but refuses to compress it all into a neat cross-stitchable message at the end.

It is a book about slave-trading. Specifically, the shipment of slaves. Specifically, the shipment of slaves around the age of Revolutions at the turn of the 19th Century. Specifically one particular slave ship (The Tryal) that revolted.

That’s a lot of threads, all handled impeccably.

But it is also a book about Herman Melville and seal-hunting and the writing of a less renowned Melville novel called Benito Cereno, which re-told the story soon afterwards.

These divergent trajectories are held together and Grandin ranges between these points effortlessly. It is a stunning achievement really. The description of the shift in Presbyterian preaching in New England in the late 1700s towards moral confidence (in term spurred on by Unitarianism) at the beginning comes around at the end to help understand how the economics of slavery operated. The description of the geography of seal hunting grounds resonates as the overland passage of slaves from Argentina to Chile, through the Andes is unpacked.

The captain of the ship that stumbled over the Tryal was initially unaware of the slave revolt. The story how that came to be is utterly central to the entire book so I will leave it untouched. Suffice to say, Amasa Delano didn’t have the happiest life in all of Christendom. When he returned to America after years at sea, the entire society had begun its shift into modern capitalism:

Debt had taken a more central role in the growing nation’s economy, and Delano was trapped in its grip, dragged through court and, it seems, thrown into debtors’ prison.

The Englightenment hopes of the democratic revolutions in France and America are still taught in Irish primary schools as a humane achievement. In many ways they are. But Grandin’s book is breathtaking in how it reveals the ways in which the possibility of democracy rested on the economic boost of slavery and how the political rhetoric of Republics was revealed as deficient (if not a sham) by the utter refusal to grant full humanity to slaves. Liberty was secured by slaves. Melville pinned this hypocrisy down in an epigraph he used for one of his books:

Seeking to conquer a larger liberty, man but extends the empire of necessity.

We need more of books like this – by which I mean not just sumptuously creative history but books about this darkness at the heart of our present self-understanding. The West is built on slavery. The quays of Dublin were built with interest paid on loans by Liverpool slave-ship owners. The research and design that makes the Intel factory in Leixlip so astounding is conducted in Arizona and California, on land that was robbed from civilizations that were destroyed. There is no Eden for us, only Fall.

Until we tell that story right, we can’t get to grips with capitalism or globalisation or Christian mission. We can’t understand where we are if we never knew where we came from.

Your Correspondent, Got accepted to college after he sent a refusal letter to them without ever applying

By coincidence, I spent November 11th in London. I had the pleasure of addressing a group of Christian business people over dinner about a new initiative created by other Christian business people that would fix capitalism without having to change too much about capitalism.

I got the impression that my theological perspective was underwhelming.

The meal was lovely, in a private dining room of one of the finest restaurants in London. I had worn a suit and shoes all day. By dinner I longed for the comfort of an old pair of New Balances. Instead, I sat and watched my words and small-talked like the king of extroverts, a polished imitation of myself.

On the long commute back to the business hotel on the edge of town, across the river from the airport I was escaping from the next morning, I thought about the conversation I got to listen in on but I also thought about the display of 800,000+ handmade ceramic poppies representing all the British soldiers that died during the Great War (or less contentiously, the First War for Iraq). For a few weeks, ending that day, this exhibition served as a moat to the Tower of London. This is what they looked like on that grey, exhausting, London afternoon:

Tower of London poppies

War made us who we are
Three things struck me from my visit to the exhibition. The first is that there is truth to the claim that the fighting in World War I made modern Britain possible. Admitting that does not justify anything like the sort of pornographic delusion that passes for remembrance (see: Sainsburys) at the moment.

You can still pay heed to the truth of history (that World War I was actually a murderous slaughter that no one can explain, never mind justify) and grant that the trajectory of 20th Century Britain was forged on the fields of Flanders. Britain let go of its Empire but held itself together and it entered the 21st Century playing a disproportionately central role in the affairs of the world.

As you turned around in a circle from the poppies you saw the signs of London’s spectacular golden age. The profits made by the legal and financial firms in the city of London has sparked a generation of remarkable prosperity. As people tried to recall the past, they were surrounded by the super-abundance of the present. Within sight of where I took that photo, I had a good view of the new London City Hall, the Shard, the Gherkin, and the Walkie Talkie – all acclaimed masterpieces of contemporary architecture.

London contemporary architecture

Each and every one of those buildings and the thousands of others that have sprung up – glass and steel and towering, or trapezoidal and sleek – is paid for by the kind of economic reorganisation that happened because a million young men died in trenches in Belgium.

Tourists and Pilgrims
I also thought about my friend Eoin O’Mahony, who has done such excellent thinking on pilgrimage and secularisation. There were thousands of people at the Tower of London – many tourists who probably would have visited regardless but also hundreds of locals, wandering by after business lunches. From a simple reading of the poppy art display, this was a huge success as an act of remembrance. But the words we used to justify that verdict are the words that call it into question.

It was a successful act of remembrance because so many tourists came to visit it. But as the theologian William Cavanaugh reminds us, “tourism is the aesthetic of globalisation in both its economic and political forms.” To be a tourist is to be privileged and uprooted. Only the wealthy tours. The poor are not tourists, but migrants. The only tourism globalisation allows them is “welfare tourism” bullshit. The tourist is away from home and away from allegiances. Everyday they decide their itinerary and are bound only by what they want to do.

Tourists cannot remember.

This is why tourists spend so much time taking photos of themselves, because the event must be recalled since it can’t be remembered. I don’t know the context and history and human real-ness of the Buddhist temples I visited in Thailand. What I do not know, I cannot remember. I take photos to recall the thoughts I had while there, which were thoughts foreign to the places.

The tourist is not illegitimate in any way, but the tourist is not the rememberer.

In among the thousands of selfie-shooters (including me grabbing that panorama), were a much smaller of much older men, usually with walking sticks, sometimes in wheelchairs and often accompanied by women – wives, daughters, carers? They were all dressed in suits. They were all wearing poppies. Many of them had tears in their eyes. They were pilgrims. They are not veterans of the 1914-1918 war, since they have all died. But they were men who knew the horror of combat and they came to see this beautiful and elaborate testimony to the fact that whatever the ethics or the politics or the damned stupidity of it all, people – the taxpayers like my wife who funded the art and the tourists like me who photographed it – people acknowledge that soldiers have done a job that no one should reasonably be asked to do. The losses incurred, the pain and agony and trauma and death are not honoured by our efforts but the effort is made nonetheless.

I realised standing there that the difference between tourist and pilgrim is the difference between Remembrance as it is done in the UK and how it should be done. The problem with how the church jumps in to Poppy activity could be described as the problem of the church pretending to be a pilgrim, when it is a tourist.

Modern art for Dummies Nations
Finally, I thought about the power of the stories of war and nation to subvert everything. Modern art can do things that no other medium can do. By any understanding of it, this was installation art. It was the kind of art that the Daily Mail despises. Except this particular work can be read off straightforwardly to mean one thing about sacrifice and nation. It means that a lot of blood swept the fields of Europe and it had something to do with war. Hence there was a sea of red flowing out of the Tower of London.

It was entitled Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red, from a poem that was written anonymously and is curiously free from the specific voice that marks so much of the great poetry of that age. It speaks in soft, diffuse, sentimental terms about about how God’s tears fall in anguish and how the time approaches “To sleep and cry no more.”

Grand. But in World War I, people didn’t go to sleep when shells hit their trenches.

They died.

The stories of war and nation subvert even the most stubborn modes of expression we have at our disposal (maybe modern dance is even more resistant to simplification), turning everything into feeling. The contradictory, incoherent, hard and bloody truth of our lives gets boiled down to an essence that you can wear on your lapel. The exhibition is beautiful. It is elegant. The craftsmanship is astonishing and the visual is arresting. Still it is neutered.

If war and nation sterilizes modern art, it will have no difficulty co-opting your 75 minute long worship service, however carefully planned, whatever contemporary praise songs you decide to sing.

I took the train back to my hotel. It raced out of the city, leaving the spires of finance behind, past the Olympic village, out into the first round of suburbs where people struggle to make ends meet. There were no Porsches here. No lunch at Harrods. No private dining rooms in fancy restaurants. But I can know for sure that there were flats where I would find the empty beds of men and women gone for a long time. They are away at war. I bounced from airport to hotel to restaurant to hotel to airport. I was a tourist. They are not pilgrims but servants.

The Tower of London poppies should have been mowed down by tanks. They should have been shattered by drone strikes. Instead they were sold off to charity. The funds will go to care for veterans, since the UK government doesn’t cover the full cost of rehabilitation. People bought them thinking that was a good deed, thinking those poppies are beautiful, displaying them on the mantelpiece or in a cabinet in their living rooms. The soldiers beds might never be occupied again. The soldiers will ensure other beds of other people in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria are never occupied again. Those wars too will be remembered with public art.

Meanwhile, we’ll keep trying to fix capitalism from inside.

Your Correspondent, A veteran only of the Cola wars

My Plans For Sunday

My church meets in a beautiful, modern building, nestled into a housing estate on the northside of Scotland’s greyest city. It is an ordinary suburban congregation, which will not give rise to a missionary movement, or a hit worship music cd or a preaching philosophy anytime soon. We gather, with quite a few empty seats, every Sunday; a strange multi-cultural, ageing group of people struggling to be human. We sing about the presence of an invisible God and we read ancient texts written by desert nomads in a language that is no longer spoken and we eat bread and drink juice and say that is the centre-point of all of creation, even though none of us know what that means.

In other words, I am part of great little church.

On Sunday however, Wife-unit and I are going to get up and make some coffee and eat toast down by the sea and then we’re going to make Christmas cake. We’re not going to church because Sunday is “Remembrance Sunday” in the UK. There is a special notification in the seasonal church magazine that says that the scouts will be joining us in worship, so too will a brass band, and various civic figures too, I expect. Everyone will wear a poppy. At 11am there will be silence around the country. Soldiers killed in battle fighting for Queen and Country will be remembered.

What, especially on the centenary year of World War I, could be wrong with that?

Let me try, once again, to explain why we should be sceptical of remembrance campaigns, whether organised around poppies in Britian, lillies in Ireland, or… I don’t know, fireworks and little American flags in the US.

Remembering is a very difficult thing for human beings to do. Even defining what memory is is something that we struggle with. To put it recursively, we have forgotten how our ancestors remembered. We are alarmed by neuro-scientific experiments that indicate that our memories are full of holes, but we have forgotten that earlier ages didn’t imagine remembering with the metaphor of recording devices (as one example).

In Act I of Macbeth, after he is told by the witches that he will one day become king, he begins to muse about having to commit regicide. He hopes that he might avoid this act: “If Chance will have me King, why, Chance may crown me / Without my stir.” Yet he is aware that his victory will probably come with his spilling blood. Calling his imaginings to a halt he apologises and says:

Give me your favour: my dull brain was wrought
With things forgotten. Kind gentlemen, your pains
Are register’d where every day I turn
The leaf to read them.

Shakespeare didn’t need neuro-science to know that memory is deceptive. Macbeth’s brain is wrought with things forgotten and at the same time he promises to daily recall the virtues of the very men he intends to kill.

Memory is a difficult thing. That is why the story of Exodus must be told at Passover. That is why Jesus says that we are to break bread in memory of him. For Plato, the whole of human life is a wrestling match with anamnesis, the mystical task of remembering rightly.

Einstein said that “Memory is deceptive because it is coloured by today’s events.” But on Sunday our memories are deceptive because they are not coloured by today’s events. Since Britain’s declaration of war against Germany in August 1914, not a year has passed without its forces being involved in conflict. Since the foundation of the British army in 1707, a year has not passed without Britain sending men with guns to kill and to die for something called “the nation” (earlier, the even scarier “Empire”).

Britain does not just need to remember past wars. It is currently involved in two live wars, that have each dragged on for over ten years. They presumably have soldiers on active duty in operations that we are not allowed know about. The legacy of Britain as a nation is one of constant war. That reality persists today. Britian has invaded 90% of the nations on planet Earth:

Countries not yet invaded by the UK

I am not trying to be anti-British here. If I lived in America, I would have written something like this back at Memorial Day. When Ireland begins its centenary recollections in 2016, I will be trying to publish things like this in newspapers and academic journals. The task of remembering rightly is the task of the Christian church and we are tempted into unfaithfulness when we let our allegiance to the nation state, even relatively “peaceful” nation states like Ireland, recall human murder and call it fate.

In the centre of Aberdeen there is a statue of a lion that reminds us to remember “Our Glorious Dead”. If Remembrance was Christian, we wouldn’t call the men who died on the fields of Flanders “glorious”. Human life has rarely been less glorious. If Remembrance was Christian, we wouldn’t dare use the word “our”, because “their” dead matter as much to God.

Aberdeen lion

In the theological journal Theology this month, Paul Oestreicher writes about Remembrance Sunday last year:

On Remembrance Sunday last year I took a German Lutheran pastor to the Cenotaph in Whitehall to see the parade of old veterans. I was moved. He was shocked. No such military ceremony is acceptable in Germany after two lost world wars, lost in disgrace.

The German Christian was shocked. You agree with that. Germans shouldn’t have a Gedenktag because they were the baddies! (As it turns out, Germany does have a number of remembrance events in their calendar including: January 27: Holocaust Memorial Day and 8 May: Liberation Day – but they are utterly different in tone, intention, and liturgy). Yet if we agree that soldiers are not responsible for the fights begun by their politicians and their generals and their captains of industry (no one can disagree with that!), then why are German soldiers not remembered like the British recall theirs?

Is it a lack of gratitude for the “ultimate sacrifice”?

Is it a disturbing lack of patriotic fervour?

Or is it a chastened and disciplined collective intention to talk about war and the past in a way that minimises the chance of war in the future?

On Sunday, Wife-unit and I will read from the Gospels and pray for peace. We will look for the day that the Prophet Micah told us to anticipate: “They will beat their swords into plough shares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.”

May that day come. Till then, let no Christian kill.

Your Correspondent, His major malfunction is that he cares too much

Old habits die hard and so I sometimes still visit Christian blogs and I have noticed that people respond well to 1) numbered lists and arbitrarily putting some sentences in bold. I am disinclined to follow those patterns and I am effectively allergic to the kind of blog posts that hide the argument behind a “just throwing this out for y’all to consider” tone.

In the 30+ years I have been on this planet, I have accumulated a very tiny amount of self-knowledge. It could easily fit on a floppy disk. Actually, it could fit on an ice-pop stick, written in Sharpie. But one of the things I have learned is that I lack guile. My creativity evacuates me when it comes to phrasing things as if they don’t really matter to me (even here I can’t find a tactful way to describe the “I am not het up about anything” tone it seems one must adapt!). I have no rhetorical poker-face. I don’t think it is strategically wise to be strategic about conversations you have. “Play it as it lays” is the only thing I have ever learned from golf, and to be honest, I learned it from a Joan Didion book. Nobody can learn anything from golf, except that humans like to be part of elite groups and don’t care about destroying the environment.

There I go again. I’m losing you with my inflammatory anti-golf position. Guileless.

Yet I am going to attempt to keep up with fashions and instead of just telling you what I think about the protests against Irish water charges, I am going to offer five considerations that Christians should weigh before they decide to commit to the same position I have, which is of course, naturally, the right one. There’ll be numbered lists, there will be emboldened phrases, and there won’t be any swearwords, so you can share it on Facebook too. Mostly though, it will help map out some of the key issues about Irish Water, so you don’t miss it entirely.

1. The Economics of Shared Resources
Economists of a certain ilk talk about a phenomenon they call “the tragedy of the commons”. The world is full of resources that we share, in that no specific person owns them all (such as the fish in the sea or the water that falls from the sky) and the tragedy is that individual self-interest encourages people to recklessly tap into those resources without consideration for how to sustain or develop the resource.

So the classic example of this is fish-stock in the seas. If you could catch the fish, you could keep the fish. Nobody owns the sea, not even Elizabeth Windsor (actually she does own some of the sea bed around Britain but that is a fight for another day). Hence, everybody took as many fish as they could carry back to market. And the fish-stocks started to deplete. That accelerated the need for those who made their living out of fishing to catch more fish, because they couldn’t be sure they could still fish these waters in a generation.

The common resource was utterly depleted. This is the tragedy. This happened with seals and whales and it is happening with fish off the western coast of Europe right now, even though the common resource is now regulated by common quotas.

Water in Ireland is a shared resource. Nobody owns it, so nobody has the rights to ration it or re-distribute it. There is no motive for you to turn the tap off, or to fix the leaky pipe, or to leave the shower after 45 minutes (most people take that long, right?). If you wanted to cultivate the habits that maintained and developed water supply in Ireland, then economists would recommend putting a unit price on the water. This is the great creative leap of economics: it gives us a means by which to abstract our concrete world and represent it as a number. When it is thus represented, it gains a certain shared value that it didn’t have before. Economics is one of the myriad ways we have of creating value. If we don’t value water, then we should put a price on it and that will approximate value.

So far, my argument is right on track to encourage the Irish Times to give me a weekly column or for RTE to invite me on to Prime Time. But there are three questions that Christians need to ask before they accept the common argument that charging for water creates responsibility.

a) How was water free up till now?
b) How is water depleted now?
c) Is water like fish?

Simple questions. Here are the answers:

a1) Water charges are being introduced but up till now, they were paid for by various taxations. I don’t pay water charges in Aberdeen. I pay rates (actually, Wife-unit pays rates since I am absolved of them because I’m a full-time student) that go towards water, streetlights, garbage collection, parks, lawn-cutting, tree planting and various other services I take for granted that make my life lovely. So before 2014, Irish water services were already being paid for. The people who manned the waste treatment plants weren’t volunteers. They were paid by an arrangement of central revenue generation through taxation. This is not a small point. The old funding mechanism successfully funded water provision. So why the change?

b1) Water literally falls from the sky. In Ireland, it falls from the sky over 300 days a year. In climate change predictions, it will continue to fall. Water, unlike other hypothetical tragic-commons-resources is not being depleted.

c1) Water is not like fish. This is a deep philosophical point. Water’s difference from fish is one of the reasons why fish like to live in it! Water is the fundamental necessity for human life. Without, we die. So describing it as a common resource like fish or pasture is a profound ethical mistake. I am ambivalent about Christians using the language of rights, but if ever there was a fundamental human right, it was the right to water. This is why the foremost Irish Christian NGO dedicated its major annual appeal to that topic this year. Economics is very good at some things, but it is not efficient (its own favourite category) at demarcating foundational, universal needs.

Economic rationale might be mis-applied if it is straightforwardly applied to the provision of water.

2) The Importance of Conservation
The 20th Century saw the Christian church develop in a number of very significant ways. Christians don’t recognise that enough but we did some good work. To cite just three:

1) We started hospices and that helped us think through what it means to be old and to die in a whole new way, because a lot more people are old when they die now.

2) We grappled with what it means that humans are disabled and how that shows us what it means to be Christians.

3) With the help of a pipe-smoking Swiss man we rediscovered the strange, new world of the Bible

We also remembered that “creation” means that God thinks the Cosmos is very fine. It is our job as his stewards to tend the gardens he has created. In the last few decades we have remembered that our calling as human beings is to steward the world. So water conservation is something we are actively interested in.

The Irish water infrastructure is inherited from the colonial days and is in widespread decay. It leaks at a million tiny points. It fails to deliver cleanliness in large parts of the island. It is a shambles. Christians are invested in seeing this improve. We should be buying water butts for our gardens and making sure we turn off our taps and take shorter showers, if only as a practice of solidarity with the shockingly large number of people on planet earth who still don’t get access to tap water.

But if the Irish Water scheme only talked about conservation and never actually moved towards conservation, then Christians would be well placed to protest. This is not selfish self-concern. As a small island nation, Ireland needs to prepare for the changes in climate coming over the horizon. We might have reason to think that conservation is not near the top of Irish Water’s priorities.

3. Politics, not Economics
One of the things I have realised in my study is how similar economists are today to priests 100 years ago. In Ireland in 1914, public opinion was swayed by anyone who could claim to represent Catholicism. This was very bad news for actual, serious priests. It gave them the wrong kind of power. Instead of poverty, prayer, and service, they got social capital, political capital, and actual capital. As a minister-in-training, I hope Irish clergy never again make the mistake of allowing political discourse to adopt our modes of speech. They bankrupted us.

Today, economics is a valuable component in the modern university that offers ongoing excellent research into a stunningly wide and diverse range of human activity. Then that credible and meaningful intellectual activity gets boiled down into a PR exercise for a real estate agent who uses that to lever pressure up against a politician to achieve some benefit in their industry. Sometimes there is no middle-man, and the politician just takes the research and perverts it for their own ends, applying it in a slapdash fashion to make sure a high-rise apartment complex is blocked here and a multi-storey car-park gets built there.

The arguments about Irish Water are not economics. They may be economical. They may use the thought structures of economics (with greater or lesser fidelity) and they will certainly use the brand of economics, with graphs and acronyms, numbers represented with decimals. But the decision to develop Irish Water was forced on Irish politicians as a result of the 2010 bailout. That was a political decision that our politicians didn’t make but ceded to.

It might seem like a small point, but Christians need to be alert to the ways in which the wolf of political argument dresses like the sheep of economics to encourage our passivity. Economics, like all the academic disciplines (from astrophysics to theology) is essential for informed practice but it doesn’t compel application. The physics of gravity give rise to the engineering of bridges, but we can build bridges in a million different ways. The theology of Scripture gives rise to preaching but we can preach a passage a million different ways. In the same way, the economics of state liquidity might give rise to a bailout, but the shape of that decision is political.

Ethics is about description as much as decision. Don’t let politicians, journalists or talking heads tell you that something is inevitable from an economic perspective. To collapse things that way is to give up because things are hard.

4. How Just Is The Implementation?
If we do have to have unit-price water charges, then we need to recognise that this might be the harshest kind of taxation. If everyone pays the same, we are automatically creating an injustice because “the same” means different things based on how much you have. If I earn €165,000 then the water charges are a negligible blip on my annual budget. If I earn €16,500, the water charges have just made a serious dent in what is possible for me.

And that just considers the outgoing aspect of the water charges. Let us consider the incoming aspect – the need to consume water. It is an agreed upon reality that the people who are in the most need need the most water. I have a friend who is autistic and has Down syndrome. One of his great pleasures in life is to take a bath, which he does every day without fail and sometimes twice. Luckily, he doesn’t live in Ireland. The idea that households have quotas for water consumption assumes that our bureaucracy can keep up with the changes of life and health and well-being that shape our water needs.

5. Trajectory of Society
During the Celtic Tiger, there were plenty of preachers I knew who addressed the topic of consumerism and consumption. I know of no preacher in Ireland today who is offering people Biblically-informed support to cope with austerity. I would love to subscribe to the sermons of the people who are addressing full on the kind of society Ireland is becoming.

Ten years ago, people were losing themselves in Mammon. The same is happening today but we aren’t preaching about it. Whatever way you count it, Ireland has been subject to the most tremendous theft of common goods. Things that are needed are now gone entirely. Things that are needed that we still have are deeply diminished. Ironically, the funding for water infrastructure has been cut by 70% since 2008! The museums are close to shutting down. The teaching assistants have been let go. We no longer have accessible third level education. We no longer support young people who are unemployed. We have done nothing to stop emigration. We keep asylum seekers in a strange and hellish captivity. But all the while, the figures for wealth accumulation among those at the top of our society continue to rise. Our Minister for Justice owned 14 properties! Square that with Isaiah 5!

No Christian is advocating for a return to the Tiger Economy. But the challenge of Austerity Ireland is far greater and far more pressing than prosperity ever was. The prosperity is still there. It’s just joined now by collapsing poverty.

6. Jesus and Water
How cliche is it for an evangelical Christian ethicist to end his diatribe with a reflection on the Bible? But in this case, it isn’t forced or artificial. The well is a recurring location for the action of the Old Testament. The judgment of YHWH often involves promises of drought. The promises of YHWH often involves surplus hydration. Throughout the Bible, the well is a communal resource. It is shared. We use it together. In the New Testament, it is by a well that Jesus meets the Samaritan woman and tells her of the springs of eternal life. And it is in the act of handing a cup of water to the one who thirsts that Jesus promises we will encounter him.

The Scriptures can’t be read off for a “principle” or a set path to “Biblical approaches to water”. They are far too interesting to be turned to raw material for our casuistry. But what we can say is that the people of God are depicted throughout the Scriptures as people who recognise the centrality of water for life. That we have to write out such banal truisms speaks to how desperate our political situation is.

Jesus literally tells us to give water to the thirsty.

Your Correspondent, Will not belch the national anthem

Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything

My supervisor recently lent me a formidable coffee table book just published about Douglas Coupland’s art. As a suburban boy, there is something positively Coupland-esque about the fact that I have never managed to see any of his work up close and in person. The world goes on elsewhere, in Berlin and New York and Santiago and Dalian, but in Maynooth I could track it all through a browser window – which is something for which we should be grateful. The title reminds us after all, that everything is now anywhere.

I knew of some of Coupland’s artwork before, like his Digital Orca installation and his security blanket covered with the world’s most trusted corporate brands, but so much of it was new to me:

Coupland art

In Coupland’s introductory essay he tells us that growing up in North Vancouver – a logging centre turned into the suburb of a dynamic, utoptian city – taught him that enlightenment invariably comes at the expense of nature. Coupland’s work, in his art and in his writing at its best is testimony to this. The world where everywhere is anywhere and where anything is everything is a plastic world; creation has been superseded in our minds and replaced in our space with invention.

With essays from some of my favourite artists like Chuck Klostermann and William Gibson and Michael Stipe, this was a treat of a book to peruse. But it is Coupland’s art that rightfully lingers. For the Biennial of the Americas, held in Denver, Colorado in 2013, Coupland erected this sign on a vacant lot in the city.

Detroit everywhere

A week later the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy. Today, it’s drinking water supply is undergirded by help from the United Nations. Everywhere is anywhere is tinkering on the edge of oblivion.

I am intellectually inclined towards the aphorism. Surely this is why Hauerwas is my theological mentor and Vonnegut is the saint I would pray to, if I prayed to saints. It is why the parables exert such a mighty influence over my mind. It is even why Lincoln Harvey is my favourite Christian on twitter. In 2012 in Berlin, Coupland exhibited his “Slogans for the early 21st Century”, stark zen koans, daubed in black capitals on bright backgrounds.

Slogans by Coupland


The piece of art that struck me most forcefully is his collection of “hornet’s nests”.

Hornet's nest

Writing a book is an audacious thing to do. To capture a story you made up in ink pressed on to paper is to make a statement that lingers long after you may have repudiated the tale you told. These delicate nests, that mimic the homes created by fierce, angry and painful tormenting insects, are constructed by tearing out pages of his own books, chewing them up in his mouth and then gently drying and peeling them into these hives.

But the works that will probably resound into the future are the works that Michael Stipe writes about. One, called The Poet, looks like just another piece of dotted art, the kind of thing that you see in every final year exhibit in every art college. But this is 2014. Even with art that doesn’t instantly resonate with us, we feel a need to take out our iPhones and Galaxies and Nexuses and snap a photo to stick on Facebook later. When you take a photo of The Poet, the cellular phone machine you carry in your pocket interprets it for you.

You see the Falling Man from September 11th.

You carry the ability to see and hear and learn everything you would ever want to see and hear and learn in your pocket and your handbag but you use it to read puns sent out by an Anglican priest in London. Or at least I do. The total availability of data forces us to choose where we will register what the data represents. As Stipe puts it, Coupland “offers us the choice to either see or not see these deeply internalized images.”

The Poet

The most affecting essay in the collection is by Sophia Al Maria, “A Millennial Moment”. She is an artist based in Qatar who was born around the time I was born. Her essay charts how her life has changed along with the period Coupland’s work has been prominent. The descent into the madness of the never-ending war on terror is captured powerfully. She has an anecdote about recognising a voice behind her on an escalator in Doha and realising it was the boy from high school she had a crush on. Now he was a US Marine and as she is “swathed head-to-toe in the black polyester of my Qatari national dress: the abaya,” she is not recognised. Her old friend walks by without seeing her. We choose what we see. Al Maria becomes “Anonymous. Obscured. Out-of-focus.” Now she is “like some tacky shadow of death, a target in whatever pre-combat simulator he probably trained on, not a girl he went to high school with.”

Coupland grew up in that generation after the post war economic boom. He grew up in a military family in the midst of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation. He grew up in a time where people still felt utterly convinced that optimism was the right way to respond to the world. When I first read his early works I found a man preaching my Gospel – humans are advancing. As I aged, I have come to see I am right about that and very wrong too. Coupland’s art is about progress – but the progress that actually did happen. Tyler Johnson, the protagonist of Shampoo Planet, progresses from his parents failed hippie commune to yuppie certitude. The prefab dreams of North Vancouver gave rise to a world where we try to forget the falling man of Manhattan. The digital logic of clean, straight-edged LEGO may have cognitively conditioned us to imagine a future where things fit together, but we have broken them up.

We are creators who are creatures. We are creatures who unmake as fast as we create. That Coupland continues to unveil the vulnerability entailed in that means he is a friend you should make. He isn’t always a happy friend, and his books are sometimes very badly off course. But as Chuck Klostermann quotes it in his essay, “Bad taste is real taste.” Coupland, even when is off-course, is somehow headed in the right direction.

Coupland's slogan before his YouTube event

Your Correspondent, Shopping at face value

Wife-unit watched Good Will Hunting again recently. It is a masterpiece of a film, full of glorious moments and superb performances. My favourite scene in the film is where Ben Affleck’s character stands in for Will at a job interview.

“Until that day comes, keep your ear to the grindstone.”

Of course, as the years have gone on, Affleck emerged as an outstanding scriptwriter, actor and director. Argo is as rollicking and enjoyable a film as I can remember winning an Oscar and his performance in To The Wonder is utterly iconic.

One of the things that I liked about Affleck’s appearance on the Bill Maher show this week was how easily dumbstruck he was. He is obviously a deeply intelligent and compassionate man. By his fruits we can assume as such. But faced with the smug smarminess of the unfunny Maher (lionized recently by Dawkins as “brave”) and the comedically evil Sam Harris, all Affleck could come up with was a resigned “Jesus Christ”.

He did manage to point out that Maher and Harris’ liberalism was gross, racist and blind to the decades of slaughter that America has inflicted in majority Muslim lands. For that he deserves our gratitude.

But let us take the Maher and Harris logic and try the simple task of turning it back on itself. Presumably, for two men who believe themselves to be intellectuals, coherence is an essential aspect of any argument that they wish to back. How does the claim that Islam is “the mother lode of bad ideas” stand up if we examine American liberalism and American progressives with the kind of suspicion that Maher, Harris, or many in the Obama administration hold for the entirety of the global ummah?

If Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, what is American liberalism? It insists that all humans are intrinsically good, invested with inalienable rights. And yet in a world populated with good men, it has been at ceaseless war since 1939. American liberalism is such a bad idea that it cannot even account for the causes of wars that it endlessly fights. Oh you American progressives, answer us this: “All the evil people, where do they come from?”

Islam is oppressive of its women and homosexuals. But American liberalism has just recently decided that homosexuals were people too. And the argument used to support this change of heart is that gay people are born this way. But at the same time, every single person’s sexual identity and practice is an expression of who they want to be, a free and autonomous act of self-creation. A nation that forgets that its psychological association only declassified homosexuality as a condition in 1973 affirms gay people by simultaneously saying “You are made this way” and “you make yourself”. Liberalism forgets its own sins, while it convicts Muslims on terms that Islam does not accept and even contradicts itself in the action.

And let us not forget the great liberation that women in the liberal west now enjoy. They can do the same jobs that men can do, for less money, while doing all the work they historically had to do in normative patriarchies as well. “But,” says the western woman who is expected to dress to a higher standard than her male colleagues, is afflicted by drastic body-image issues and who has often heard bosses make comments about how her “refusal” to get pregnant is one of the reasons they can “really trust her to do the job”, this woman says, “but the hijab is oppressive.

Sam Harris loves to tell us that Islam is violent. But Sam Harris is a citizen of a country that has been at war without end for longer than my dad, who is not a young man, has been alive. America kills with secret agents, and with robotic drones, and with trade sanctions, and with intellectual property clauses over essential medicines, and with soldiers carrying guns, jet fighters flying faster than the speed of sound, submarines powered by nuclear reactors and through the slow, determined, dedicated acts of torture they unfurl without any accountability and justice. America kills its own citizens, in botched capital punishment and in alarming numbers at the hands of police officers who aren’t racist but they just happen to only shoot at black people. Liberals say Islam is violent, but they ignore the fact that Affleck tried to make. More Muslims, innocent children and elderly ladies as well as young Jihadis, have been killed by western Liberals than westerners killed by Muslims. Putting a murder on YouTube isn’t what makes murder wrong. Putting murder in the hands of soldiers doesn’t make murder right.

Islam, it is said, hinders culture. It drapes social life under a theocratic strait-jacket. It slows economic development. All this may be true. It may be false. But let us consider again on what shaky ground the liberals stand when they make this claim. The western progressive laments the state of societies they have never visited, while living in cities segregated so thoroughly by internal poverty that there are neighbourhoods they have never visited and would feel unsafe to do so. Somehow, this is exclusively the fault of the people who live in those council estates or projects. Such social utopia we enjoy in the EU and the US! We are segregated by race and by creed and by capital. But the people up on top who get invited onto hilarious talk shows with Bill Maher don’t need to worry because they never need to see what happens to families when no one can get a job and kids go to schools where the teachers have 38 students in a class and where libraries get shut down, sports centres never get built and the only place where you can congregate with friends is the pub. Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, but our increasingly unjust distribution of wealth, decaying social fabric and paranoia represents the pinnacle of human culture.

Finally, the sophisticated liberal distances himself from the crude, gross, racism of Maher and Harris but they do quietly suggest, in tones informed by tomes you have heard of but never read, that Islam has a problem with its status as religion. “You see,” says this mansplaining progressive, “Islam can’t have a separation of church and state.” Somehow this is meant to be a killer argument. We in the west have entertained a blind faith in the dogma that religion is a private endeavour that shouldn’t intrude on the public square. That the Muslim world refuses to embrace this doctrine doesn’t just make them heretics. In the eyes of the contemporary liberalism, it makes them savage. Until they progress beyond their primitive refusal to compartmentalize religion from politics, economics from ethics, liturgy from community and faith from reason, they will always be suspect. Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, but in the face of all evidence, we liberals will continue to irrationally insist that religion is something like Marmite, a taste acquired by some, offering marginal flavour to lives of those in the margin.

Let me close with a word from an American Muslim prophet:

Your Correspondent, Once visited the United States, Land of the thief home of the slave


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