Dead Letter Office

A Note On Recent Posts

I wrote recently about living in France in the age of terror and yesterday I fled from the Louvre with a group of tourists and staff because a panic had erupted in the main lobby (under the pyramid). It was a false alarm, apparently caused by a faulty fire alarm and a dodgy escape door but for us who were quietly having a coffee and looking forward to another 4 hours wandering the rooms in awe, none of that was apparent in the moment. There was a kerfuffle slightly louder than what usually bubbles in any public space with thousands of people and lots of really bored kids. Then that kerfuffle grew in intensity. When I looked up from my book I saw people sprinting past the cafe, out towards the exits, while screaming. I looked the other way and saw the pupils dilate on the American couple who had been ahead of me in the queue, and decisively, the cold fear in the stiff postures of the staff manning the coffee bar. We all moved at the same time, calmly but decisively. I packed my phone away, utterly dominated by the idea that I needed to ring my wife when this was over so she wouldn’t worry. I hesitated and then packed my book as well, because it wasn’t my book. My supervisor had lent it to me and it was a signed copy and the last thing I needed on top of being killed by terrorists was to have lost someone’s book.

Anyway, there were no terrorists. There was much more confusion than the press reports present. The staff that we encountered did not know what was happening and were all scared shitless, to use a technical term. But what is true is that everyone I encountered was calm and decent and serious. Our little group of 6 picked up stragglers in the maze of huge corridors under the Louvre. People were apparently panicking up in the main museum but we were apart from that entirely, able to walk at a quick pace, but ensuring that no one was left behind. No one was crying. No one was having a heart attack. Maybe everyone suspected it was a false alarm because the adrenaline had been pumping for 60, 120, 240 seconds and still nothing bad had happened. We exited via a staff entrance. The army and the police hadn’t even arrived yet; we were that efficient in our escape. The waitresses were hanging around wondering if their jobs were under threat if it turned out to have been a hoax or a false alarm (the precarity of labour is, after all, the mundane terror that afflicts the European Union) and the Americans basically gave up and went back to their hotel and I was left with a woman from Central America who had told me along the corridor that she had heard alarms beeping erratically throughout the day but that when she saw the stampede it was such that she assumed something horrendous had happened. People reported on Twitter that they heard folk shouting “They’re shooting!” and I definitely interpreted the cacophonous cries as a response to human agency. Inside the Louvre, people were looking over their shoulders while sprinting, because they running from something. Out on the street, amidst the stylish people smoking cigarettes and beeping horns, it was growing clear that there as nothing to run from. Nothing horrendous had happened. Someone panicked, and some idiot probably thought it was funny to shout about terrorists and instead of his friends laughing, there was the cold sweat of hundreds of human beings erupted into evolutionary flight. The woman and I had an awkward moment where it would have been fitting to go for a drink or a coffee and talk about normal things until our heart-rates stabilised. But I was driven through the whole thing by the deep urge to tell my wife that everything was ok. So we shook hands and parted ways, beseeching the Lord to keep the other safe for the rest of their trip.

Existential fear was a surprise.

In the corridor, I stopped to introduce myself to the two people directly beside me; Sienna and Tom. I guess I figured that if the shit hit the fan, being able to call each other would help. But it was habit, kicking in. You introduce yourself to people. Even in the midst of the terror that this might be terror, basic, everyday normal human interactions go on.

I think that shouldn’t be a surprise.

*

The night before I had written a thing about plagiarism and then I went to sleep and I woke up because of the noise on my noisy street and I realised that the thing that I had written was actually an academic article without the footnotes. After the thesis is finished, I need to publish articles to keep the academic side of things alive, and so I had to take that thing about plagiarism down, ironically for fear of auto-plagiarism.

Auto-plagiarism. It’s a thing, allegedly.

Don’t fear terrorists, fear university administrators with Turnitin privileges.

Anyway, that is just to say that my decision to withdraw the piece had nothing to do with Mrs. Trump hilariously plagiarising Mrs. Obama. The embedding of the rickroll in the midst of it was a touch of genius.

*

This morning a bird pooed on me but it only hit my hand, so that was a small mercy. And this afternoon I mined out some thesis gold before having Korean food for the first time (in a restaurant at least, since a Korean friend in Aberdeen cooked dinner for me once but she included potatoes because she had heard that Irish people only eat spuds), in a lovely little local place with whimsical cartoons and toys on the wall. My classmate, from Seoul, had told me to order beef bibimbap if I ever went for Korean food and so I did. It was delicious. I was the only person in the restaurant and the old guy running the place advised me on how to eat all the different pieces he served me and sent me away with a Korean sweet (the only unappetising aspect of the meal). When I got home, there was new graffiti on the wall of my building that is utterly delightful.

The day I had

It is no exaggeration to say that the world seems dark and it appears to be getting darker still. But that is not the end of the story. It was very, very hot yesterday morning in Paris. Or at least it felt that way to me; I have lived on the edge of the North Sea for three years now, after all. I was walking to school through the Luxembourg Gardens, taking a new route, as is my wont. I came in through an unfamiliar gate and stumbled into an area where they were growing these magnificent plants. Hoses arched over the green stalks and automatic sprinklers were arcing water into the air, about 7 feet high. Mini rainbows sprung up across my field of vision. The morning joggers made a beeline to run through the vapour falling from on high, as did I. My shirt was drenched in short order and it was more refreshing than watermelon in the afternoon. I was reminded of this from Gilead:

That mention of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago, as I was walking up to the church. There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl weeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash.

Ames goes on to add, “I wish I had paid more attention to it.”

When times are dark, that’s when you really have to pay attention. Let’s make sure we pay it for the things that matter.

Your Correspondent, He was right about the stars; each one is a setting sun

Ethics For Everyday, theology

Nice Frames

I am currently a scholarship student at Institut Catholique de Paris, which sounds very impressive, but it actually means that courtesy of the Scottish Catholic Church, I spend the morning failing to learn how to count in French and I spend my afternoons reading Karl Barth in the shade at the Luxembourg Gardens.

Life can be very hard.

I eat an inordinate amount of bread and cheese and am regularly scandalized by how expensive everything is, how hot it gets, and by how friendly the locals are. I stay in a tiny little one room flat so that it feels like I go to sleep on the footpath every night. I am in class with nuns from Iraq and priests from Korea and undergraduates from America and for some reason I set the alarms off in the library simply by walking through the front door.

I wasn’t in France when the tragic attack occurred in Nice on Bastille Day. And Aberdeen is only a few hundred kilometres further from Paris than Paris is from Nice, but everyone I have had small talk with from cab drivers to airplane companions to colleagues in Aberdeen have gently raised the topic of terrorism’s threat with me. No one is actually frightened for my safety but most people now seem to equate France with threat.

*

I live here on a little lane-way between two main avenues, close to the metro and bustling bistros and a parish church that cultivates its gardens so that it becomes a little ad-hoc park for the locals. There is splendid street art adorning the walls and directly across from my front door is an entrance to an art college where, for centuries, the weaving and printing of fabrics has been slowly perfected. The staff in the boulangerie already recognise me and get in the way of my learning by using me to practice their broken English, much closer to being all-together than my fragmentary French. Paris is a lovely place to live.

You could live here a long time and never realise that France was approaching its 15th year occupying Afghanistan. You could probably be a tourist here every year of your life and no one would ever mention to you that French military forces are currently engaged in Mali and the Central African Republic. You probably know that France is one of several Western powers who regularly bomb targets in Syria and Iraq from supersonic jets that can fire missiles into houses from 800 miles away. France is a dangerous enemy to have.

It would knock me off balance if a cab driver framed “France” and “threat” in these terms.

*

When my niece heard about the Nice attack her instinctive reaction was to lament the fact that the police shot the driver instead of arresting him. We shake our heads and with a tone of quiet gratitude for her naive innocence we feel a need to interpret those words away. “She doesn’t understand yet.”

She knows more about the attacks than I do because I don’t listen to radio and I don’t buy newspapers and I don’t watch the television and I curate Twitter so that it is mostly about weird jokes and I only have a Facebook account so that I can see what’s happening on the Aberdeen Divinity page and when the dust settles on horrible things, I go back and read about the things that seem important. I patched this approach to media together after reading how the great 20th Century Catholic mystic Thomas Merton only ever read newspapers that were weeks and weeks old. The news is mostly noise. The staleness of old news allows whatever truth remains to rise to the surface.

When I told one dear friend who was expressing concern that I only vaguely knew what had happened in Nice, she was slightly appalled. Did I not think that to follow the news was a moral responsibility? I told her I found the news confused me and when it doesn’t confuse me, it either enrages me or terrifies me. Increasingly, it does all three at the same time.

My niece knows very little really. She can tinkle away at a piano and she can do some Irish dancing and she is learning how to play camogie but she would be lost with a calculus problem and she doesn’t know how to navigate a job search and she’s never been dumped and she can’t cook and her understanding of the philosophical roots of parliamentary democracy is rudimentary at best. She doesn’t subscribe to the Economist and she listens to no podcasts. She understands, however, that every human life that is brought to an end is a tragedy. She hasn’t learned enough to discard that. Sure, she doesn’t even understand what she knows, but who does. Who knows the weight of such tragedy?

*

Tomorrow, after school, I’m going to the Louvre. I’ll pay particular attention, as I always do, to the frames. The frame determines the piece. The edge of the canvas is the limit that gives meaning to what is inside the painting. When we frame things in certain ways, it makes certain creations possible and rules others out. You can’t establish a triptych in the same setup as a landscape.

How we frame the world limits what we think is possible. In a very concrete sense (far from Richard Dawkins asshattery) if you believe in God there are horizons available to you that are impossible to the most sincere atheist. If you insist that the world is plenteous, and not scarce, opportunities present themselves that otherwise cannot be conceived. If you make space to lament the death of the terrorist and his victims, your frame has allowed you to grasp something about reality that is too often excluded. If you make the space away from the data and the noise of news you can very quickly begin to imagine the families in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and the Sahel who were killed by stray French bombs or assaulted by exhausted, dehydrated French soldiers.

You can even begin to imagine the plight of the soldier who finds himself afraid and tired and stressed and somehow bashing a door in and punching a young mother in the face. You’ve never flown a jet, but you can empathise with the pilot who sweats at night considering whether that missile did in fact go astray.

And once you have stood in those shoes, it will be a short and inevitable walk to consider the people who decide to kill families celebrating Bastille Day or murder music fans while they listen to rock music. Remember, to imagine those reasons and inhabit them temporarily is not the same thing as condoning them or licensing them or validating them. It just means that ISIS are indeed your neighbours, in ways that will both terrify and console you.

You can see yourself in them and still love Paris and still mourn with France and still cry when you see the footage of the grieving families but you will remember all the grieving families that never get shown on your television and never get prayed for in your church and never get photographed for the front pages of your newspapers and like a little child you will stand baffled at how things could go so far that they couldn’t somehow talk it out.

If you practice this strange habit of framing things wide, you’ll soon fear more how Rupert Murdoch can make you scared than you will fear for friends living in France. This won’t stop terrorism or even stop the war on terrorism. It may not even dent the profits of Rupert Murdoch. But this patient business of holding complicated truths in tension will generate communities where bakers welcome Irishmen and landlords leave up beautiful graffiti and people from all over the world can live on the same street and be neighbours.

Your Correspondent, Puts anti-freeze in the wine

Dead Letter Office

Change of Time for Sunday Event

I need to announce an update on my upcoming event about the theology of wealth.

As many of you know, on Wednesday evening in Lille, a city in northern France, a Wicklow man known as Wessi placed the most delicious pass in the history of football on to the rushing head of St. Robert Brady. The redirected ball flew past the highly regarded Italian goalkeeper Sirigu and into the net. By the end of the game, the Italians had not been able to respond and the Boys in Green were victorious.

Following the maze-like logic of soccer competitions, as the worst of all the best of the losers, Ireland thus qualified for the next round of the European Championships. We play the hosts, France, on Sunday, with battle commencing at 2pm GMT.

That would have been around the time I had hoped to have y’all in stitches as I answered your probing and smart questions about my theology of wealth with aplomb. Instead, the wise people in the church that are hosting the event had decided to move the event forward to 12.15pm and that means if you want to come, you can both hear my half-baked ideas about praying as a form of revolution and watch footage of Roy Keane sitting angrily on the sidelines as Irish players act as if the ball is a time-bomb that they don’t want to touch.

I am keenly aware that the god known sometimes as Juno but in this case Britannia – the power of ethnic identity – has this morning gone into battle with the god known as Mammon. The newspapers call this reality #brexit. It will have dramatic short and long term ramifications for the economies of the island of Ireland. I hope you will join me in praying for Britain this morning. That nation has made a catastrophically dangerous decision and the pain will be felt most keenly by the young and the unemployed, the disabled and the alien. I never thought I would be sorry to see David Cameron go. The world is an odd and baffling place. But it seems to me that a deep theological interrogation of how wealth can blind us to the reality of things is as important as ever.

Come and help me find a way to have that conversation.

Your Correspondent, Busy like a currency trader

Dead Letter Office

Announcement: Public event based around my research

In Maynooth on Sunday June 26 at 1pm I will be doing something I’ve never done before: trying to explain the last three years of reading and thinking and writing in a way that doesn’t require footnotes.

Basically, I have been invited by the church I used to work for, the Presbyterian Church in Maynooth, to give an introduction to the theology of wealth. I will be road-testing a theory I have about how to explain my academic research in ways that are accessible and meaningful and helpful. Invariably, it will be a horrendous mess and the people who take the time to attend will remember it only for comedic value.

Without giving the game away, I think that the only hope that wealthy western Christians have is prayer.

Please feel free to come along; I’d love to see you and I would really appreciate your feedback. The location details are here.

Now, I am going to go meet Ben Folds.

Your Correspondent, Actually is going to meet Ben Folds right now.

Dead Letter Office

To Explain My Absence

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

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

– (CD IV.2, 16)

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

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

Music

Squaresville Sounds Pretty Cool: A Best Of for 2015

Prolegomena

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

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

When I Think Back On 2015

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

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

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

TheoLab ahoy!

Squaresville Sounds Pretty Cool

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

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

Squaresville Sounds Pretty Cool

Here’s a YouTube playlist:

Commentary

Here’s the tracklisting:

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

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

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

Ethics For Everyday

The Lord’s Prayer Advertised in Cinemas

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

Admittedly, it’s a fairly brilliant ad.

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

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

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

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

I am not making this up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics For Everyday

Insufficiently Christian Coffee Cups

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

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

OMG Mug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Christian Institute is a lobbying group that:

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

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

In fairness, I also got no further emails.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link-dump

Five Good Things for the Fifth of October

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

1.

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

Kun on five

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics For Everyday

The Meat of David Cameron’s Porcine Problem

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

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

Rubberbandits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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