Saturday, August 24, 2019


It is a fascinating experience to journey with a church that is eighty years old this year. Unlike a church that is one-hundred-and-eighty, or a church that is one-thousand-and-eighty, a church that is eighty years old likely displays the likeness of an eighty-year-old.

This church is unlike others I have known: churches full of young adults, wrestling with who and with whom they are; churches with significant numbers of mature adults, wrestling with how to give away who they have become, to invest in others. But this is a church of seniors, wrestling with senior concerns.

This is not an exhaustive list, but observations in progress. Not the last word, but first words.

[1] The primary concern of an eighty-year-old church is its own impending death. This is in no way a criticism. It is, in fact, a great opportunity. The church itself, of course, has every chance of life beyond this death; but for now, it is facing congregational death for the first time. Dying is not something we do well by accident; and a good death is our last and greatest gift to those around us. It involves learning to be fully present to life, perhaps for the first time since childhood. Simultaneously, it involves a letting-go, that, again, does not come naturally; and a profound (need for) making peace. A church learning to die well is an incredible gift to its neighbourhood, in a society in which death is taboo.

[2] Their relationship with children will be nostalgic. Not, of course, for every individual. There will be many younger, and not so young, members of the congregation who are actively involved in caring for their grandchildren. But, for the church as a collective entity, they are of an age where they have moved beyond having something to give children to needing something from young children. In both directions, this is passive, simply being rather than doing—fully present—and, in both directions, this can be wonderfully beneficial.

[3] It is not for them to take up the battles of our time, let alone the future. From climate change to food and farming to urban living to waste, environmental issues are the greatest concerns of our day. It is unfair to expect eighty-year-olds to engage. When they do—usually prophetic voices who have been seeing and speaking for a longer time—they are a gift to be cherished. Nonetheless, their memory of a time before the great acceleration of consumption in late modernity may help us reimagine a liveable future. Possibly.

As I said, not the last word...

A niggle

I’m conflicted, in relation to supermarkets. It is, perhaps, culturally impossible to be entirely immune to the nostalgia for parades of local high streets, a local economy of family businesses passed down from generation to generation. Mr Bun the Baker. Mr Green the grocer. Happy Families.

And yet, I frequent supermarkets enough to observe the regulars: often elderly citizens for whom being able to shop without needing to worry about uneven pavements, traffic, wind and rain, perhaps a long hill, means that they can continue to get out of the house. In the good old days, they’d be stuck at home. For them, the supermarket enables, empowers, facilitates gentle physical and mental exercise, social interaction; sociable interaction, too, in the cafĂ©.

They’re not monsters, the supermarkets, you know. But they do drive change, for good and ill.

So there has been a niggle in my brain for some weeks now. It began with an increase in self-service tills at the check-out. Then, the impending introduction of hand-held tills you take around the store with you...

...And now, the contraction of the shelves, to make room for a subsidiary company to share the floor-space.

There is a move afoot, to reduce costs and to prepare for less on our shelves. Future-proofing, I believe they call it; though a future still defined primarily in economic units.
For people like me, that will be an inconvenience. Undoubtedly, these changes will change how we shop and cook and eat.

For others, it may well have far deeper consequences.

I’m not sure, as yet, how I might respond. For reasons already given, I’m not convinced that boycotting supermarkets in favour of local shopping is the answer; at least, not the full answer. In any case, that works for those who enjoy the privilege of choice, not everyone has. But the niggle is unlikely to go away any time soon.


We went to buy a cauliflower.

There were none.

The domestic harvest was devastated by flooding back in June; the import option, destroyed by heat waves across continental Europe in June and July.

In the not-too-distant future, we shall eat not only what is local and seasonal, but what survives.

We shall eat like the rest of the world.

It will not be good news for our taste-buds.

It might just be good for our souls.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Listen, and I will tell you a story

There’s an old, old story from the ancient near east, from a world that overshadowed the people of Israel for hundreds of years. In essence, it goes like this: the fresh-water god married the salt-water goddess, and together they had offspring. Their pre-eminent son murdered his father, and, in an epic battle, killed his mother and made the world from her carcass.

The Bible tells this story, too, but tells it different. Here, instead of an usurping god who fights, defeats and kills his parents, we are presented with the King of the Universe, the Lord of lords, who calms his creatures, the fresh-water god and salt-water goddess, not by wrestling them into submission but by listening to them.

We see this in the speech this Sovereign creator God makes to Job, towards the end of the book that bears Job’s name, where God speaks of the Behemoth and the Leviathan. Our English translations have all but domesticated these into the fresh-water hippopotamus and salt-water crocodile; but, even to the ancients, these are hardly beyond the skill of hunters working together. No, these are great and powerful spirit-beings, gods. And they cannot be tamed by might.

In a world where Yahweh, the God who becomes the god of Israel, made all that is, seen and unseen; and in which we see the consequences of rebellion against God among gods and men; God’s great act is to listen. To listen to the rage, the pain, the shame, that causes various beings to lash out, to act listen, until the fury is spent, and harmony is restored. To listen, even to rebellious gods, to the beings we call demons.

That is stunning.

Moreover, this same God calls on his people to do likewise: “Hear, O Israel...” Listen.

Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength and with all your soul...And you shall love your neighbour as yourself.

To listen to another is the most powerful thing, the most divine thing, it is possible to do, in all the universe.

And the book of Job sets this revelation up through chapters and chapters of exercises in not listening, in piling on layer upon layer of shame; while God, listens, and we are invited to listen-in.

In effect, the book of Job is a re-telling of Genesis chapter 1, in the present continuous.

Sacrifices were made

The other lectionary reading set for Holy Communion today is Judges 11:29-40, the salutary tale of Jephthah.

Jephthah is willing to sacrifice for his family. He resolves that, if God gives him success, he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his home to meet him on his return. Undoubtedly he expects this to be the family cow or a goat, the animals being kept in the home at night and driven out again in the early morning.

Jephthah travels through the night to get home, only to be met by his daughter, delighting to see him.

I am certain that in this moment, God is offering Jephthah an opportunity to humble himself—as a general rule, it is good to be true to our word, but sometimes we need to repent of our folly—but alas, the father sets his resolve to sacrifice his only child.

This is a story that is repeated again and again. Countless men (most often, men) set out prepared to sacrifice for their family, only to end up sacrificing their family. Failing to see their children grow to adulthood. Losing them for ever. Others sacrifice their own inner child, who delights in the world, in exchange for success that brings no joy.

An old, old story that could not be more contemporary to us.

Work is good, and success is a necessary stage in our development; but work makes a poor master, and success a poor goal. The temptation to workaholism presents to us the dream of escape, for our family, before becoming escapism from our personal commitments, and, finally, a prison cell. Or a tomb.

This is the end of the story.

And yet we believe in a God who raises the dead; in a story where the end need not be the end...

The parable of two kingdoms

Gospel reading for Holy Communion today: Matthew 22:1-14.

Jesus told a parable, saying, the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.

Now, if you have grown up in church, you’ll know how to interpret the various characters in this play. The king is God. His son is Jesus. The wedding banquet, the heavenly feast. The servants, the prophets. The invited guests who refuse to come, and who the enraged king has destroyed, their city burned, are those who reject Jesus and so condemn themselves to the fires of hell. The guest who gets in, but is then thrown out, a final underlining comment that you can’t come to God on your own terms, only his.

But what if that isn’t the story Jesus was inviting us into at all?

What if the comparison being made was not ‘see how the kingdom of heaven is like this’ but ‘see how the kingdom of heaven offers a contrast to this’?

What if the king is an earthly king, such as Herod?

What if the purpose of the banquet was to secure the position of a chosen heir?

What if the servants were simply servants?

What if the refusal of the invited guests to come brought shame on the king, and, enraged, he has them eliminated?

What if the king seeks to restore honour by a pretence, a rent-a-crowd to show how very well-regarded he is?

What if one man is brought before the king, but refuses to play the game? What if this man is put in a royal robe that is not his own, and then has it taken off again? What if this man remains silent when questioned? What if this man is bound hand and foot and led outside the city to the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth?

What if the man is hung up, naked, on an execution scaffold, while women stand at the foot of the cross weeping, and men stand at a distance mocking?

What if, in total contrast to the king bound by an honour-shame worldview, this man is the heavenly king—whose kingdom is not of this world—who scorns shame and is honoured by those who see a different world beginning at the margins?

Monday, August 19, 2019

Not ready

We’re continuing through the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tonight, Dr Strange. It is certainly a strange insertion, but it contains this great exchange:

Dr Stephen Strange: “I’m not ready.”
The Ancient One: “No one ever is. We don’t get to choose our time.”

That’s the truth of it.

In the Gospel According to John, the first of Jesus’ signs takes place at a wedding in Cana. To the lasting shame of a family, the wine has run out. Jesus’ mother Mary brings this to his attention, believing that he can do something about this, but he responds, “my time has not yet come.”

I’m not ready.

No one ever is. We don’t get to choose our time.

Mary ignores him, and, essentially, forces his hand. Because his time has come, but it isn’t his choice. Because he isn’t ready, but ready isn’t the qualifying criterion.

The question is not, are we ready, but, will we step forward and make our lives count, for something bigger than ourselves?

Sunday, August 18, 2019

God at work

When you meet someone for the first time after the service,
and they tell you that they had just happened to be walking past
and felt compelled to come inside
and had discovered that a service was just starting
and decided on the spur of the moment to stay
and that your sermon had been exactly what they needed to hear
given the week they had had, and the things they’d been wrestling with recently
and they want to know more
and would like to come again
and get involved.


That, my friend, is God at work in Sunderland today.

Friday, August 16, 2019


At Elijah’s request, we’re currently watching our way through several films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Captain America is the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, right?).
Last night, we watched Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Tony Stark builds a system to protect the earth, but when the system becomes new-born sentient, it concludes that it is the Avengers from whom the earth needs protecting, and so they must be destroyed. Further destruction follows.

It got me thinking about mass shootings, suicide bombings, and white supremacy; none of which I think we understand correctly.

When a brown-skinned young man commits an atrocity, we say they have been radicalised. When a white-skinned young man commits an atrocity, we say that they were very mentally ill; and then we might point to how rare it is for mentally ill people to kill others to emphasise how they were so very ill, there was nothing anyone could have done to prevent it: we are not at fault. But these political moves are an exercise in missing the point.

Like those who embrace white supremacy, or indeed misogyny (think The Handmaid’s Tale), those who seek to destroy others are not immoral. Indeed, quite the opposite.

We, humans, are moral beings, with moral desire, along with a longing for order and a place to call home. You have, in fact, to work very hard to kill that desire, to be a true psychopath.

This (almost) universal moral desire is, I think, what people have in mind when they tell me that most people are, fundamentally, good. But we are not fundamentally good; we fundamentally possess moral desire: a desire that can be turned towards good or evil.

Our moral desire is undifferentiated in its form, and in need of a framework. In the absence not only of a robust framework but also of patterns of initiation—in a highly individualistic society where we are largely left to fashion our own morality—the vacuum is unsurprisingly filled by those who will offer a moral certainty and the promise of a world in which we might experience order and a place to call home. Certain groups—women, non-whites, those of a particular religion, those who reject religion—are presented as a threat to moral behaviour, that needs controlling, or removing. This is reinforced by honour-shame structures, in which the accommodation of such ‘shameful’ people shames our own honour.

What is lacking is not a moralistic pattern. Indeed, moralism, which works on the basis that others are immoral, is the oxygen of evil. Instead, we need to recognise that people are naturally possessing of moral desire, that needs to be robustly ordered. (Politically, the Right fails to recognise that all people possess moral desire; while the Left fails to recognise the difference between moral desire and essential goodness.)

The so-called Golden Rule—do to others as you would want them to do to you; or, treat others in the same way that you treat yourself—is, arguably, foundational. But even this is inadequate, in a context where we are left to work out for ourselves how we ought to be treated. If, for example, we believe ourselves to be in need of ‘tough love’ we will treat others harshly. Often the Golden Rule is adapted to, ‘Do what you like, with consent, so long as no-one else gets hurt.’ But this raises complex questions as to the nature of consent, and of hurt, and of who gets to decide.

What is missing is not a global monitoring system, but communities of intentional discipleship, where we might wrestle with our moral desire and longing for order and a place to call home, together, honouring and refusing to shame one another, so that we might learn from our mistakes and failures. Where we might come to discover difference not as threat but as a source of wonder, and, indeed, strength. Where we might come to know self-giving, for others, as glory.

The Avengers are as dysfunctional a family as you could hope for. But, we are all heroes, in search of home.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Paul and women in Corinth

Did I mention how much Jo and I are appreciating Lucy Peppiatt’s teaching this week?

Today, 1 Corinthians 11, a troubling passage that on the surface appears to be frankly contradictory, and damaging towards women—and has certainly been taught in a way that is damaging to women. Lucy argues cogently, persuasively, and graciously that what we see here is a conversation between the people who were causing trouble in Corinth, and Paul, with Paul quoting their arguments (written in a letter to him, since lost to us) and then refuting their claims. The original Greek has no quotation marks, but translators supply them in just this manner in many other places in Paul’s letter. Lucy brings to bear the bigger context, of Paul’s values as well as of Scripture taken as a whole, to demonstrate that Paul is consistently smashing the hierarchies that patrol and police an honour-shame culture. Here is a man who was (doubly) at the top of the social pile, as both a Roman citizen and a Jewish male, who, having had an utterly transforming encounter with Jesus, chose to side with those society placed at the bottom of the pile, slaves, women, women slaves...

[What follows is not a summary of what Lucy said, but my own personal response.]

It grieves me deeply when I hear church leaders present a false Paul to maintain the very hierarchies he felt the Jesus-event profoundly dismantled. I will challenge it again and again and again, until my dying breath if necessary.

But it also grieves me deeply when, in response, I hear church leaders speak of Paul as a misogynist, or, at best, as enlightened for his times but bound by his culture. This is also, and just as much, a false Paul.

Paul is the first to really work through what it looks like in practice for a community to be shaped by Jesus. Like Jesus, Paul smashes those aspects of his culture that are bound by honour-shame, embracing shame, embracing and honouring those who are wounded by shame—shame being such a pernicious thing. The letters of Paul are as much a gift to us from Jesus as are the Gospels. When we create another hierarchy, one that says “Jesus is good, Paul is bad,” we are still to experienced the this-changes-everything transformation Paul experienced in encountering Jesus.

I am not suggesting that Paul had already attained perfection, but that the transformation Jesus brings is intended to be, can be, life-changing, and not just a little bit better than where we were before we met him. This was good news for Paul, for others through Paul; and can be for, and through, us.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Spiritual parenting

Wonderful teaching from Lucy Peppiatt on spiritual parenting. In the Bible, parenting is not primarily for discipline (disciplinarian) and training, but to hand on to you your identity, to give you your identity in God; to give love and security; to teach you about the faith, the nature of God; to fan your gifts into flame; and to heal the inner child in you, so that you can be whole and not damage those around you.

(This is not about having earthly children, biological or adopted. The early church venerated those who did not have earthly children. Everyone needs parenting, and, indeed, more than one spiritual mother and father.)

God does not control—violating personhood, agency (paternalism, and maternalism, infantilises)—but empowers us by convicting of error and convincing of the right way. This leads to maturity.

The goal of parenting is to prepare people to leave you, to go off and have their own lives, their own homes, where they will do things their way...

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

from whom, for whom, through whom

At the Arena this morning: 5,000 people worshipping together; and, later, hundreds of people praying for one another in response to the gentle, deep, rich teaching Lucy Peppiatt brought.

Yesterday, Lucy encouraged us to read through 1 Corinthians this week, and doing so over breakfast earlier on, I was struck afresh by these words:

“there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”

(1 Corinthians 8:5, 6)

Thursday, August 01, 2019


Yesterday we went for a walk along a forest trail on the side of a loch where, in 1307, Robert the Bruce’s men ambushed and defeated English troops. It was more a skirmish than a battle, but it was a strategic turning point, introducing guerrilla tactics to Bruce’s campaign, and credited with leading, seven years later, to the (more conventional) decisive victory for Bruce’s army at Bannockburn.

Robert the Bruce believed himself to be entitled to rule Scotland, and fought fiercely with other men who believed themselves to be as entitled or more-so—getting what he wanted, only to die of a wasting disease—with the population-at-large caught up in their games. Seven hundred years on, some things haven’t changed on this island.

Growing up the son of English parents in Scotland, I was regularly reminded of Bannockburn. Put in my place as an unwanted symbol/representative of the old enemy. Never mind that Bruce’s family name, like mine, is from Normandy. Or that my mother’s family traces itself back to James Douglas, who fought alongside Bruce at Bannockburn. We choose which bits of information to discard.

I abhor nationalism. It always requires a scapegoat. And has always more to do with the personal glory of a few than the interests of the population as a whole. Scottish nationalism. English nationalism. A plague on both your houses.

Moreover, independence is an adolescent state for a state to be in. It may be a necessary one, and better than colonial rule, but it is not a state to remain in. Maturity lies in voluntarily giving yourself, as a nation, to something bigger than yourself. That is what the EU was (is) and that is why the campaign to leave was led by entitled middle-aged men who, emotionally, had never moved on from being public schoolboys. It is also why many people in Scotland want both independence from Westminster, and to remain part of the EU.

Jesus told a parable—a guerrilla story that slips under your defences—about a man who had more than anyone could want but wanted more, yet could not mock God or cheat death. What was the point, Jesus was known to ask, of gaining the riches and status and power the world has to offer, only to lose one’s soul—one’s self, a person defined by knowing and being known by others—in the process? To object?

Jesus also told many parables about the kingdom of heaven. Like lost treasure buried and forgotten in a field, or an impossibly perfect pearl, or a net bursting with fish, this kingdom is not so much one we can possess as one that possesses us, that captures our imagination, as subjects of a higher King.

It is a bigger vision than either nationalism or the EU.

But the stories I tell are also selective, perspective-d, have also been used against people simply for who they are. Stories are dangerous. They always have been. They call for both courage and humility. And a desire to know and be known by others.

Here’s to the story-tellers.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Feast of St James

Today our new Prime Minister has declared that his government will “make the UK the greatest country on earth” and that we are about to enter “a new Golden Age”. Why the childish need of populist leaders to be greater than everyone else? It’s embarrassing...

Today is the Feast of St James. James and his brother John were two of Jesus’ first disciples. On one occasion, James and John asked Jesus a favour. Well, they weren’t actually brave enough to ask, so they co-opted their mother to ask for them. They wanted, once Jesus was ‘in power’ to be the ones sat at his right and his left. To hold the senior posts in his cabinet.

Jesus asked them if they thought they were up to the job, a role they clearly didn’t grasp. When they confidently declared that they were up to the job, Jesus admitted that such posts weren’t his to offer; but that, yes, they would fulfil the responsibility...which, it turned out, was to lay down their life, their ambitions; in James’ case, to literally be executed not many years after Jesus.

When the other disciples heard of the brothers’ request, they were indignant. But Jesus was having none of that, either. Gathering them close, he spelled it out: the rulers of the nations proclaim their greatness, and dole out their patronage; but it is not to be so with you. Whoever would seek to be truly great must make themselves least of all.

And in the vandalism we are currently inflicting upon ourselves, we might just inadvertently end up least among the nations and, thus, ready to be greater than we ever knew possible...

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

When leaders fall

There’s a story in the Bible about an evil queen, whose actions make life a misery for the population for several years, before her minions, hiding in the shadows behind her, defenestrate her and her corpse is eaten by dogs.

Like watching the architect of the hostile environment being thrown off a glass cliff.

When leaders rise

The Gospel proclaimed by Jesus’ first followers was this: that God had appointed the man Jesus as the one through whom God would judge the surrounding nations;

and had demonstrated this to be so, in the face of this Jesus having been rejected by the leaders of his own people, by raising him from death-by-Roman-execution

—Rome embodying the surrounding, oppressing, nations at that moment in history.

To proclaim “Jesus is Lord!” was a direct, political refutation of the claim of the Roman Empire that Caesar is Lord—a claim demonstrated by the Pax Romana, the peace that the whole world enjoyed under Caesar’s benevolence, a peace Rome was prepared to crush all revolt to uphold.

Given the impossibility of effecting change by might or power (Rome would crush the Jewish nation in AD70, making it clear in the process that God was playing a longer game than anticipated)


the inevitability that, through Jesus, God would judge Rome (and, however complex a judgement, this would be fulfilled through the conversion of the Roman Empire, the bowing of Caesar before Jesus’ throne)

the consistent advice of the authors of the letters of the New Testament was, don’t rise up against authority: they are only there by God’s appointing.

It is a stretch too far to extrapolate from this that every world leader, tyrant or hero, whether dictator or with democratic mandate, is in power as a manifestation of the will of God. Or, indeed, that the fall of every world leader, by General Election or bloody coup, is also the will of God. Here lies madness.

The point was that Rome had not yet been judged, because God had not yet enacted the judgement. This was, initially, thought to be immanent; both the timing and nature of that judgement being reinterpreted after the fall of Jerusalem.

Rulers are judged, throughout scripture, according to their posture before God, and the impact of their governance on the welfare—physical and spiritual, for scripture knows no division—of the peoples.

World leaders are not brought to power by God; nor are they the anti-Christ, except in as much as they position themselves as a Great White (often) Saviour, or Caesar.

Boris Johnson is not God’s man for this moment, and neither is Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin. He is just a man. As people of faith, we are free to evaluate him, to affirm here and oppose or resist there.

As for Jesus, his own role has also changed. The judgement of the nations surrounding and oppressing the ancient Jewish nation is long-since complete. This is not the primary Gospel for our times. That may, in fact, be better expressed in terms of judgement on humanity for oppressing the wider creation, for crushing our shared home. But that is content for another post.

Pressing issues

There’s a story in the Bible of how God brought the Israelites out of the bread-basket of Egypt, after their clamour against the intolerable burden it placed upon them rose to him. But almost immediately the people raised a new complaint, that here in the wilderness they would starve; and were they not better returning to Egypt, where, in exchange for sovereignty, they had ready access to a supply of meat and bread, fresh fruit and salad vegetables.

And so, God sent them the bread of heaven—along with instruction on how to eat. They were to gather only as much as they needed for each day, and, on the eve of the weekly day of rest, enough for that day also.

But some of the people attempted to hoard more than they needed, only to complain that it did not keep. While others failed to gather enough for the Sabbath, and complained at the lack of provision (as if God was now their slave).

We, in the United Kingdom, have voted to leave the European Union. There may be a promised land over the horizon. There will undoubtedly be skirmishes with communities already living among us who hold to a different vision of the future; and exaggerated claims of momentous victories against them. But for now, we are in the in-between. The wilderness of working out, who are we now, freed from the constraints and the advantages of our recent past?

My point is not that Brexit is the will of God, or that Brexit defies the will of God. My point is that addressing the presenting, external issue never deals with the pressing, internal issue. We are never yet satisfied.

Neither Brexit nor overturning Brexit will resolve English woes.

Neither Scottish independence from Westminster nor upholding the Union will address Scotland’s problems.

If there is any hope, it is this: that the God who heard the complaint of the slaves of Egypt, heard the complaint of the former-slaves. That the God who responded, responded again. That this God is the same from everlasting to everlasting, taking advantage of every changing circumstance and change in fortune to be known by us and to instruct us in how to live our freedom, with all its challenges.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Who can understand the human heart?

“...of course nobody, no one party, no one person has a monopoly of wisdom. But if you look at the history of the last 200 years of this party’s existence, you will see that it is we Conservatives who have had the best insights, I think, into human nature and in the best insights in how to manage the jostling sets of instincts in the human heart.”

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister elect.

This is a bold claim, and, whether one agrees with it or not—and, personally, I am of the view that the best insights into human nature pre-date all modern political parties by millennia—it is salient that the Conservatives, at least under the last Prime Minister, who famously did not take counsel from anyone, have precisely not exercised insight into how to manage the jostling sets of instincts in the human heart.

The chances of Boris Johnson doing so are precisely zero. The chances of him even having any intention of trying are, debatable. But this does not mean that he, or his speech writer, is not at least part right. Parliament must always seek to find a way, drawing on the wisdom of each member and every party, to manage those jostling sets of instincts. Indeed, society as a whole must seek to do so.

For those who are dismayed by where we find ourselves as a nation, and union of nations, today, our first response must be to acknowledge that we, collectively, have failed in this task. The biblical words for this are confession, and lament.

Our best insights have blind-spots, and unintended negative impact on others, and, if we are honest, we often ignore our best insights in favour of self-interest. And, from time to time, the consequences bear down not only on those others, but on us all.

Confession and lament bring us back to something greater than ourselves, greater than our tribe. They bring us back to our senses, to our true selves, in both the most personal and most universal sense, as children of God, by bringing us back to the One who both made the human heart and instructs it in wisdom.

Thus would I advise our Prime Minister elect, and thus would I counsel my own jostling heart.

Monday, July 22, 2019


There are two great legendary heroes in English folklore: king Arthur, and Robin Hood. Both corpuses rise in times of national identity-crisis, and both look back to an earlier time of identity-crisis we might identify with.

The tales of king Arthur are set in the fifth century, in a time when Roman rule had given way to a weakened Romano-British culture (when the official machinery of empire drew back to defend Rome itself, what was left was Roman colonialists who had intermarried with the Celtic tribes the had earlier conquered) which was itself facing the threat of a new wave of invaders, the Saxons. But the tales of king Arthur establish themselves in the twelfth century, when the recently arrived Normans were trying to establish their cultural conquest of the (by now) Anglo-Saxons. (Can you see a pattern?)

The tales of Robin Hood are set in the twelfth century, in the historical period when the tales of king Arthur were gaining currency. But these tales of Robin Hood take captive the collective imagination in the fifteenth century, towards the end of the Hundred Years’ War with France, in which England had taken control of most of France, and lost it again; and had established a booming economy based on control of the international wool trade, only to fall to impending military defeat and, in the uncertainty, plunging into recession.

Later still, in a time of political and religious upheaval, William Shakespeare would turn to one of the high-points of the Hundred Years’ War—the English-Welsh defeat of the French at the Battle of Agincourt—to give us another folk hero, Henry V.

This is how folklore works. It tells a story from the past that addresses the crisis of the present in such a way that we can identify the hero-protagonists as ‘us’—even though they are many steps removed from ‘us.’ It tells us, if we have overcome crisis before, we can do so again. But it does not give us tactics. Rather, folklore gives us a story by which we can take hold of a thread—an unbroken thread—that runs from the past to the present and on into the future. Something of continuity of identity will survive, folklore tells us, even if much inevitably evolves. The genius of story—as opposed to tactics—is how adaptable story is, how capable it is of being brought to bear in any number of contexts.

Thus, the stories of king Arthur and of Robin Hood gain renewed currency in a later age when the English, shaken by total war, are losing their own modern Empire. Thus, they find new retellings in film and television. Thus, they have an appeal to English nationalists, who believe themselves to be under threat from invading waves of immigrants speaking unintelligible tongues, bringing foreign religions and alien values...

Folklore gives us truth that is greater than the sum of its bare facts, not least by revealing to us our deepest selves. What is it that we fear, in the crisis we face? And what inspires the faith that gives us hope? What we do with those stories takes in the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Not dissimilar to the English, a community displaced from Jerusalem (and later returning, in part, and in three waves) in the sixth century BC and fifth century BC wove folklore of patriarchs and liberators, of local tribal military leaders writ large, of the coalescing and fragmenting of a kingdom, of a Golden Age lost but perhaps not gone forever. Like Arthur and Robin and King Henry the Fifth, there is history at the core, but embellished in the telling for a particular purpose, in the tales of Abraham and Moses, Samson and Deborah, David and Elijah. Of Esther and Daniel, stories set even in the jaws of exile. And more, so many more, a cast of thousands.

A network of little communities scattered across the Roman Empire and against the backdrop of the siege and fall of Jerusalem (yet again) retold those stories, this time bringing in a new hero, one not lost in the mists of time but who lived among them in the actual lifetime of the story-tellers. Jesus of Nazareth, and his band of followers, the mercurial Peter, the crazy Paul; Mary, whom he had liberated from seven demons, and to whom he appeared first when he was raised from the dead, a thing verifiable by many witnesses prepared to die for its truth. Moses, David, Elijah, all point now to Jesus. And the telling of his story, too, takes on the form of folklore, of memorable episodes we might tell over and over again and identify with in a wide range of crises.

Two thousand years on, these are stories that shape not national imagination and identity but, rather, that of a global kingdom; one that has taken local expression across time and space, down through centuries and criss-crossing continents. They are far greater and untameable than Arthur or Robin, both of whom, some say, will come back one day, in our hour of greatest need...

God so loved the world that he gave us a folk-story. Or, rather, a library full of them. And then breathed life into it, and stepped out of the pages.

For Christians, it is to these stories that we are invited to return, in the crises of our times, not for escapism but to discover, in how we retell them afresh, the truth of the matter: who on earth are we, now, we citizens of the kingdom of heaven?


Most of the Old Testament, in the form we know today, was written during the Babylonian exile, compiled from oral tradition and written texts since lost to us; some books, after the return from exile. The kinds of questions they wrestle with are, how did we find ourselves here? (and, how did we not see this coming?) and, how do we rebuild community, society? what values matter to us? These questions are, largely, explored through story and folklore, with a good measure of epic poetry and song thrown in for good measure.

The New Testament is written in the context of the Pax Romana—the bloated, hyperbolic, mercurial Roman Empire. The four Gospels tell the story of Jesus, the one appointed by God to establish (re-establish?) the rule and reign of God (the ‘kingdom of God’ or ‘kingdom of heaven’) on earth, and to judge the nations. The Revelation to John depicts the triumph of the kingdom of heaven over the Roman Empire (this Apocalypse is grounded in history, the new Jerusalem representing the Church—which will, eventually, fall into the trap of becoming the new Rome). Between this opening and closing, the various letters of Paul and others to churches and individuals wrestle with how to live as counter-cultural communities that do not directly take on the power of the Empire but will ultimately overturn it. These communities, these lived experiences, are slow and painful, composed of men and women shaped by competing claims.

A question I am being asked more and more often is, what are we supposed to do about the state and direction of the society in which we find ourselves? [In nations led by men (mostly men) who are so emboldened as to not even bother themselves with deceitful half-truths any longer, but proudly declare lies of staggering magnitude, and dismiss all evidence to the contrary as fake.]

It seems to me that what we might do—or at least, what I might be able to help people do—is wrestle with a library of ancient books that ask the very same questions we are asking today.