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

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.

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.

3 NSFW Words

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

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

    Medieval
    Puritanical
    Enlightenment

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

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

John Gray

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

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

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

Winchester Cathedral

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least a little bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can A Celtic Tiger Fit Through The Eye of a Needle?

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?

Sitting Down At The Typewriter To Bleed

I got my parents fancy tablets over the last year, but I handed them over with trepidation. After all, my parents may be young at heart, but they are certainly old enough to be considered in the risk category for sending “FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: This doG is so cute FW:F” emails three times a day. As it turns out, my parents use their tablets to read novels or look at maps of the night sky and I am spared having the quiet guilty feeling that follows creating an email filter to mute the people whose DNA built you from scratch.

Which made it all the weirder that D.L. Mayfield implicated me in some lame-ass blogging round-robin where writers talk about their (ugh!) writing process. I must conclude with her that I would hate it if it wasn’t so darn interesting. Plus, being compared to Joel Osteen and N.T. Wright is a compliment a sane person could not ignore.

Before I begin, it probably doesn’t need stating but for completeness’ sake, let me state it anyhow: I am not a writer. Sadly, this increasingly describes my method:

My writing secrets

1. What are you working on?

I am always working on an academic project. I am a PhD student in Theological Ethics, so that dominates my writing, and my reading, and it schedules when I eat, how much I sleep, which World Cup games I get to watch, and pretty much everything else in my life.

This week I am writing a short presentation on a part of a book written by the Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan. There is a sort of intense summer-school in Cambridge at the end of the week that I am presenting it at, in the company of Ollie himself. My sense is that whatever about my presentation, Prof. O’Donovan wouldn’t like me to call him Ollie.

That lovely, small, tidy and compact writing task, is a welcome respite because this spring was dominated by me having to construct a fairly comprehensive “uncontentious” history of the Irish economy since 1922. This turned out to be a small book-length project that lays out a chronology of the different eras of economic policy that have prevailed in my homeland, along with a more in-depth engagement with four critical industrial sectors and a brief contextual discussion of how social spheres relate to the economy.

If this sounds boring to you, it is because it is boring. But it is an essential preliminary ground-clearing for my larger project. What I think I have demonstrated is that Irish economic policy is embedded in culture, which is another way of saying we choose to build the world we find ourselves in. I also argue that Irish economic policy is shaped by political decisions. Those political decisions are often not made in Ireland, which is another way of saying we live in a globalized world. Simple.

But the straightforward answer to the question is that I am working on a PhD thesis that will seek to present a theology of wealth. If Jesus wasn’t messing when he said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for rich people to get to heaven, then you and I are screwed. I hope to re-read the parables of Jesus through the eyes of earlier Christians, who lived and worked and traded and sold and prayed and worshipped in an age before capitalism. My suspicion is that we can only re-connect with what Jesus says about material abundance if we get our heads out of the assumptions of capitalism. Our wealth is perverse. Mammon literally bends our ability to see reality clearly.

The PhD thesis is not an end in itself. I am training to be a Presbyterian minister and my goal in all this research is that I would be able to go back to the pulpits of Dublin and help me and my friends make sense of their anxieties and have joy in the real treasure of the Gospel. So always in the back of my mind I am sketching out two popular books about the topic, one for Christians who don’t have the time or energy to read something loaded with 83 pages of endnotes and another, briefer work for people who don’t even agree with me that a Jewish carpenter is the saviour of the world.

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?
I am a pretty successful student for someone who has never specialised in anything. I have a degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Sociology and a degree in Catholic Theology and now I find myself in a very Protestant university department studying Theological Ethics, a sub-section of theology that I couldn’t properly define for you if you demanded a justification for my existence right now.

My comparative advantage within my genre (we call it a “field” in the academy, dontchyaknow!) is that I might be able to draw on all that superfluous fiction reading and watching of movies and playing of computer games to talk slightly more clearly when in the company of the mythical “Average Joe”.

I could talk more about the strangeness of my various motivators within the academic sphere, but that would definitely be “inside baseball” talk and far outside my remit in terms of talking about writing. Suffice to say, whatever about my writing, my thinking consists of a loud shouting match between all these dead intellectual friends of mine, who quite often directly conflict with each other.

3. Why do you write what you do?
I write what I do because I am a religious nutjob. More precisely, I have a vocation to be a preacher. I did not volunteer for this job and I can think of many other jobs I would be more comfortable in. I don’t just mean defensive lynchpin in the Manchester City midfield either. I could be a lawyer and I think I’d be very good at it. I think teaching primary school might be the sweet-spot for me. But those rational and practical concerns have melted away because I have been gripped by the realisation that there is a God and he is astonishingly compelling and I want to introduce people to his upside-down wisdom. I encountered his grace and that is why I write what I do. I study theology because I hope to spend the rest of my life sitting with people studying the Scriptures and experimenting with how to put it all into practice. And I write because I find that the theology I get to study is almost as beautiful as the God it’s all about.

Theology literally means talk about God. I write because I love to talk with people about God.

4. How does your writing process work?
I am literally paid to read books and eventually write something. I have an office, which I share with two other trainee theologians. We usually work Monday to Friday, 9-5, with three breaks through the day for lunch or coffee. One Friday every month we doss off work early and go to the pub and another Friday everyone else in the department is invited to our office to drink whiskey, but for the most part we work like it is a job in a normal office and we egg each other on gently to be productive.

Productive means that I try to read 100 pages a day and write 1000 words. If that sounds simple, you haven’t read much from the last generation of British theologians (if any of them are reading this, of course I don’t mean you!). I do actually sometimes fall asleep at my desk. I rarely get to consider a day productive based on these metrics. If anyone in the office achieves any of these standards, they get the right to a purple Snack bar, which is a delicious piece of chocolate-covered cardboard that I inexplicably love and my colleagues have grown to rely on as rewards. You can only get them in Ireland, and when friends visit they refresh our stocks. We have a fridge crammed with them.

When enough reading and note-taking is done, I go into a batch-writing mode for days on end and the words flow quickly and editing takes place in dialogue with Wife-unit and then later, critically, my supervisor. Hemingway talked about writing as sitting at the typewriter and bleeding. When I graduate to writing fiction, or if I ever dare to try to write for non-academic publication, then that may be true for me. But as it is, my life is so ordered around investigating the narrow little part of reality that is my PhD project that when deadlines approach, I’ve been quietly cogitating on the topic for a very long time. This is one of the reasons I am so rarely here on this blog anymore. Before I was a PhD student I blogged very regularly but now I tend to either blog upon request, when someone asks me to write about something or when I have hit a wall in a day’s productivity.

I realise this isn’t making me look very good. My blog writing process consists of unjamming intellectual constipation and my academic writing process consists of accumulating enough fragments of insight to trick people into thinking I’ve made an argument. But I refer you back to my Calvin and Hobbes cartoon up above. And if that doesn’t work, I’ve got this fancy powerpoint presentation to show you…

***

I am now meant to tag some other people into this Ponzi scheme of navel-gazing. The first person I pick on will have to be Patrick Mitchel, who is my friend, and a theologian who teaches at the Irish Bible Institute. He has been on sabbatical for a semester this year, so I’d love to hear what is up with him.

My other victim is Alison Chino, who is my Arkansan friend in Aberdeen. She is married to my officemate and she probably keeps the most impressive blog of anyone I know. She is a travel-writer, who shares her kitchen genius and aspects of her life, in between persuasively encouraging me to get over my antipathy to this grey city by writing about the beautiful walks she discovers.

Now I will stop writing, and go watch Belgium play USA, while thinking about how to tell D.L. that she spelled my name wrong…

Your Correspondent, Starts as close to the end as possible

A Follow Up On Seanie Fitz and Sectarianism

Yesterday I recounted a story told by David McWilliams about the sectarian outburst that disgraced Anglo Irish chief Sean Fitzpatrick had unfurled on him late one night in November 2008.

Fintan O’Toole in another of the endless books that dance around the issue of why the Irish boom went bust has an interesting couple of paragraphs on inequality during the boom times. Between 1995 and 2006, the top 1 per cent of the Irish population grew their wealth by €75 billion. By the time the Tiger was growing exhausted, in 2007, the Bank of Ireland estimated that the top 1 per cent of the population controlled 20 per cent of the wealth, the top 2 per cent held 30 per cent, the top 5 per cent held 40 per cent. But those figures included the value of residential property, which we know was hyper-inflated.

So in effect, the top 1 per cent of Irish people controlled 34 per cent of the wealth.

How’s that for a social revolution, a wealth transformation, the glory days of economic growth, cultural liberalisation and social equality?

Yet through this obscene bloating of wealth in the hands of a few people (about 450 people formed the elite, uppermost layer) who would have almost all known Sean Fitzpatrick personally, O’Toole comments that “Irish people went on believing that they lived in a relatively classless society.”

Why is that?

It’s because of what Fitzpatrick was ranting about: “fucking Protestants”. The cultural memory of the 18th Century ascendancy, the absentee landlords who drove the common folk of Ireland to ruination with their tyrannical landlordism lingers and echoes into the present day. Since the super-wealthy are not Protestant landlords, it follows that we have to be classless. There are other factors at work here of course, but as O’Toole puts it, “chief among them [is] the old Irish association of ‘upper class’ with Protestant Ascendancy, meaning that a Catholic aristocracy was a contradiction in terms.”

Of course, our Celtic Tiger gentry-class were not Catholic. But one of things that mattered most for us is that they were not Protestant.

Sectarianism extends beyond Christians being rude to each other.

Your Correspondent, Has done a lot of great things, but is a very old man now, and old people are useless

When Ignorant Bullies On Twitter Lead You To Great Articles

Apologies for my third post in a day, but I must share this blog written by a young woman in Belfast, Aisling Gallagher. I found it because someone re-tweeted it into my feed via the obnoxious twittering of a “famous” Northern Irish right-wing journalist who called it “hysterical”. That Gallagher is the NUS-USI Women’s Officer is of course relevant here. Journalists ply their trade in words, and when they deploy the word hysteria to demean a young female writer, they know exactly what they are doing. I don’t think the piece is hysterical, or moping or any of the other insults thrown at it. It is helpful for my own thinking. It might be for yours too.

She begins by recounting how as a child she dreamt of being something other than Irish. I can empathise with this. Five-year-old-me wanted to live in a land where people spoke like they did on the TV. Five-year-old-me wasn’t even able to talk properly yet, but what words I could construct came out in a strange Irish accent. I took it as a secret source of pride when travelling as a teenager to find people mistake me as German (!).

She got involved with student politics and that’s where this happened to her:

At one of my first conferences, we all had name badges, and a lot of people didn’t know how to pronounce my name. When they asked, I told them. And that was usually the end of it. But then a woman told me that that wasn’t how my name was pronounced. She laughed, like it was obvious to everyone but me. I told her that it was Irish, it was a different language. The language didn’t operate by the same rules that English did. That was the reason it was pronounced the way it was. But she refused to accept it, and kept telling me I was wrong. That has stuck with me for a year, and it is something I often think about. I have never told the woman involved how hurtful it was. I was too scared to. But I suddenly became aware of how much I stuck out, the minute I opened my mouth. The Irish jokes came thick and fast throughout the conference. I smiled, but inside I wanted to cry.

At the end of her first year in college my sister went to America to work for the summer on a J1 visa. She got a job as a chambermaid in a fancy guesthouse owned by the family of a very famous pop singer. Her progressive employers couldn’t crack her name and instead settled on calling her “Ass-ling”. She still tells this story with a laugh. What else can you do? Around the world, hundreds of millions of people can empathize with the difficulty of having a name that is exotic. That is why the east Asian working in the McDonalds drive-through in Bridge of Don has a name badge that says Paul.

Better to obscure the difference, even though the attempt clearly underlines the difference.

Gallagher continues:

I got further involved with NUS, and was flying out to meetings or conferences every few weeks. I became so much more aware, again, of how different I was. I felt like I was six years old again. People constantly told me to slow down. People made jokes about Irish stereotypes and the food that we ate and how much alcohol we drank and thought it was the most original, hilarious thing ever. I smiled weakly, rarely having the courage to tell them to fuck off.

This is my experience too. I worked for a Christian organisation renowned around the evangelical world for being a sane and wonderful place that nurtured leaders who lived with grace. At a training program run in conjunction with the British branch I was greeted every morning with leprechaun jokes. I went for a pint with a guy I struck up a conversation with and came back to the conference centre to jokes about alcoholism.

At my current university, as a travelling scholar dispatched by my national university, I regularly field hilarious jokes about spuds and Guinness. One postgrad student sitting in my living room insisted Elizabeth Windsor was “Ireland’s queen too!” Someone else was fascinated that Irish people had their own language, aside from, you know, English. Just last week I had a conversation with an English person who was surprised that Ireland didn’t use the sterling pound.

Gallagher continues:

I carry with me every single privilege that comes with having white skin. I am not stopped and searched because I am white. Shop attendants do not follow me around thinking I might steal something. There are a magnitude of hair and beauty products in shops that are tailored to my skin tone and my hair. 107 of the 108 politicians sitting in Stormont reflect my skin colour. Northern Ireland is full of white people being represented on every possible platform, I see people who look like me on television and in plays and when I walk down the street. I have white privilege.

This is absolutely true for me as well. I have a friend here, a brilliant student, a graduate of an Ivy League school with the social skills of a diplomat and the character of a saint. They have to choose their clothes very carefully when flying, even to the extent of dressing as if for a wedding. Even though they are as American as apple pie, they lack my pigmentation. Life is more complex for them in complex ways.

I wrote all about this a few weeks ago, but Gallagher puts her finger on an aspect I haven’t yet managed to address:

I am angry at what has happened to my ancestors at the hands of the British state. I am sick of having to defend this anger to people who think that because they were not directly involved, I should be polite and respectful to them while they disrespect and desecrate the memory of my family and the people who fought in defence of my country, labelling them as scumbag terrorists who deserve everything they got. I am Irish and I am working on trying to stop letting the rest of the world make me ashamed to be so.

This paragraph might annoy people like Newton Emerson, but his Twitter tantrum is proof of its relevance. I would nuance the crap out of this paragraph before I could appropriate it for myself but it seems as if this angle of Irish/Northern Irish/British discourse needs to protected. To shut down the ways that in which the junction of cultural memory, political aspiration, Irish identity, republicanism and paramilitary violence can be expressed is just another way to de-norm Irish people on the island of Ireland. This paragraph does not speak for me, a pacifist who disavows nationalism and entirely suspects nation states. But the way that paragraphs like this provoke a censoring mentality speaks to the ways in which Irishness is still less than full on these islands, and around the English speaking world.

Anyway, enough cant from me. Go read the piece.

Your Correspondent, He’s got an enchanted jock strap!

A Philosophy of Data

Two days ago I wrote about ten blogs I think everyone could enjoy. Yesterday I whinged about the role of blogs in contemporary Christian discourse. Today, I briefly want to describe my attitude towards the bigger picture of how to handle all the things you could be reading and watching and listening to, but aren’t.

First things first, books are better than blogs, movies are better than tv and albums are better than YouTube videos. But everything is good.

Except, of course, everything isn’t good.

We are drowning in data. The internet has accelerated a process that already went rabid with 24 hour news. Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe has offered us a most excellent insight into how “news” is a packaged product. In Scroobius Pip’s great song Death of the Journalist he cites a historic event from the relatively recent past that seems mythic to us:

Good Friday, April 18th, 1930
BBC radio news showed rare maturity
The news reporter said something that these days they wouldn’t say
‘Good evening, There is no news today’

So here is my philosophy of data: like everything else in this material world, more is not better. I guard my attention so that it is directed towards things that are enjoyable. My twitter feed is loaded with comedians. My RSS feeds are loaded with cartoons and animated gifs. I try not to read national newspapers. I avoid headlines. I never watch the news on telly. I do not know what is happening in American politics. I have only a vague awareness of this week’s newspaper front pages in Ireland. I don’t even read Broadsheet anymore, since it was annoying me. If you did a test on the current conversations happening, I would flounder.

The reason I have embraced intentional ignorance is that engaging with data at its source is an invitation to permanent ignorance. When we track news, we track data at its most manipulated. My intentional ignorance is just an ignorance of news as it happens. If the news matters, it will persist so that I can pick it up off the shelf in six weeks, more stable and mature, richer in data, all the crud of click-bait burned off. By waiting 2 months, I can often find a 10,000 long-read piece with serious context and detail and nuance. It not only avoids the blood pressure-raising nonsense of the news cycle, but it encourages the kind of journalism that at least nods towards discernment. So if I can dare to use such preposterously pretentious language, my philosophy of data is that fresher is mankier. Old news is better. My most visited webpage is football.guardian.co.uk because I find that as I get older, the things that don’t matter are the things I care about.

Your Correspondent, Humbling computational arrogance since 2012

On the Role of Blogs in the Life of the Christian

Yesterday I shared ten blogs I think are brilliant. Tomorrow I will explain why I spend so much time spending little time tracking the news. Today I want to more generally write about the way Christian discourse sometimes seems to be dominated by conversations that happen in the realm of blogs.

I have a friend who keeps a private blog. They notify their readership by email when they write something and we use passwords to access it. The reason for doing things this way is that what they write about is incredibly sensitive. It is almost always gruelling to read what they write. Gruelling, but enriching.

They wrote in a recent piece about reading things online that were so insensitive and horrible that they broke out in tears. They weren’t down a rabbit hole of links that ended up with pro-Ana tumblrs or white-supremacist bulletin boards. They were moved to tears by the casual, off-hand and widely read ramblings of one of the most famous bloggers in Western Christianity. When I read the link, I remembered why I have such a byzantine system of tracking stories that interest me. There is so much shit out there that you have to wear HAZMAT suits if you are just going exploring. Blogs make sharing your opinions incredibly easy. The polite way to describe the value of those opinions is to share some economics: things that aren’t scarce aren’t valuable.

English speaking evangelicalism was blessed in the late Twentieth Century with a series of leaders of unusual learning, sophistication and humanity. F.F. Bruce and Carl Henry, Billy Graham and Martin Lloyd Jones, J.I. Packer and most especially John Stott were men (not without fault) who were trustworthy leaders. They wrote out of down-to-earth devotion and what that means is that they led out of prayer. Stott lived a life of ascetic single-mindedness to show people the love of Christ. I never got a chance to meet him, but by all accounts, he couldn’t care less that he was JOHN STOTT.

This is no longer the case. Friends of mine who are gifted writers find that not having a “personal brand” is a barrier to getting books published. Christian leaders get trained in social media management but cannot explain what the filioque clause is and why it matters. Strategic personal promotion is a necessary step on the path to influence, election by actual parishes to speak as Teacher for them is not.

The problem with this isn’t that some people have a lot of influence. After all, John Stott had almost Papal authority in Anglo-evangelicalism. The problem is that the influence accrues through the personal manipulation of techniques of promotion. The church is having its opinions formed, not by the local leaders that embodied communities of Christians call “pastor” but by the folk who have managed by luck or providence or skill to have the biggest loudspeaker. As a Christian who believes in the church, I should care more what Rev. Elsie Fortune of St. Mary’s Church of Scotland on King Street in Aberdeen has to say on a topic than what Al Mohler has to say. And I do. After all, I can go worship with Elsie on Sunday. As much as I love and respect Tim Keller, he isn’t on hand to go for a walk with me the next time I really fuck things up.

So while blogs are brilliant and wonderful and Scot McKnight is a gift to the church etcetera, etcetera… let me tentatively propose that we shouldn’t let the untethered words of distant teachers be the primary shaping influence on the conversations we have. Let me make this more pointed: people like Trevin Wax and Rachel Held Evans that consistently court controversy for the sake of attracting clicks to a website that sells advertising space for profit… these are not voices that we should pay vast heed to. Or at least, the way they transmit their voices (both in terms of medium and tone) is something we should be tentative about. The church is global only because it is first local. The conversation that bubbles up in Tennessee shouldn’t be the conversation that is continued in Tyrone or Teeside. The role of “talking head” might be well established in society, but it is super-dubious in the church.

Your Correspondent, Writes this for his friends