Friday, April 27, 2007


One of the trials of writing commentary for a wide audience is that you are always having to ask yourself, "how could this be misunderstood?" Then you try to be clearer. Then you have to face up to the fact that you still get it wrong. The onus of communication is on the communicator, but it's a two-way street... more than that, it's a multi-channel zone with loads of interference. Getting heard is a human privilege. Getting through is a grace.

All of which is a prelude to saying that, after some useful feedback, I changed the title of my latest Ekklesia column from Why we need to rid ourselves of 'God slots' to this one: Why we need to rid ourselves of the 'god of the slots'. The reason is this: given that there is a question in the air about 'Thought for the Day' on BBC Radio 4 (some of us want it open to people of different life stances, the churches and its producers only to "the religious"), it could have been construed as somehow anti-TFTD. This is far from the truth. Ekklesia - which has a stake in the programme, since Jonathan Bartley is a contributor - wants to see it as a slot for a wide range of takes on life, not a narrow "God slot" (as people like to call it). This article is, in a sense, a contribution to that debate, but its main concern is to show wht "the god of the slots" in culture is the equivalent of "the god of the gaps" in science -- a related, but distinct, issue.

As I've also added: "TFTD is an important space for looking at how beliefs-in-practice view the task of living, but it does not have to exclude those who do not fit a questionable definition of "religious". See some more detailed comments on: Losing our (radio) religion?

Why we need to rid ourselves of 'the god of the slots' The church looking for ‘God slots’ in relation to culture is like religion seeking a ‘God of the gaps’ in relation to science: a huge mistake. The Gospel points us elsewhere.

In a post-Christendom era, Christians cannot expect the education system, government or the media to do their job for them or make other people Christians. If they do that they will be constantly disillusioned, they will be despised, and they will lose the capacity for independent thought and subversive action.

There are two sides to this: exercising freedom, and recognising limits. Rowan Williams put it well in his BBC Newsnight interview on Tuesday 24 April 2007. First, in response to the question about whether Bush and Blair had prayed over the Iraq war, he turned the issue on its head. Politicians are not there to pray. But if, by chance, these powerful individuals had prayed, maybe they would have opened themselves to a decision that went against their instincts and interests – maybe the Prince of Peace, whom they both name, would have convinced them not to put their trust in armies. Who knows?

Then Dr Williams said this: “I don't expect government to be talking religion. I do expect government to be giving space and opportunity for the kind of moral discussion informed by religion, as by many other strands of humanistic thought.”

That is both pluralistically defensible and theologically appropriate. Taking “religion” to mean, in this case, the life and testimony of a group of people (rather than the institutional abstraction I have criticized), the Archbishop seemed to be suggesting that both those of faith and those whose commitment to human flourishing is otherwise defined should be part of a conversation sustained by public space, but without expecting government to talk their language or do their work. (He then spoiled it all by defending bishops in the House of Lords, but no-one is perfect).

All of which makes me wonder… if Christians were to stop bleating on about protecting their preferential “slots”, and were instead to focus on what they had to offer in terms of peacemaking, hospitality, community-building, forgiveness, and many other gifts of the Gospel, people might just be interested in broadcasting them – not because of a “religious label”, but because they had something worthwhile (and a bit quirky) to say. More here.

Monday, April 23, 2007


I am splitting my endeavours between FinS and my Ekklesia weblog, which is here:

Waiving the flag? Simon Barrow, Guardian Comment-is-Free, April 23, 2007 5:55 PM Printable version Despite the jingoism surrounding St George, his story has another side that goes well beyond narrow nationalism.

I never could resist a good lightbulb joke: on which note, see C of E lightens up. For followers of the UK political scene, the Gordon Brown and David Cameron ones came straight off the top of my head. Though that isn't saying someone else hasn't thought of them too. The 'freemarket' one I started as an anti-monetarist quip in 1981, and a year later it came back to me. Dozens of others probably had the same idea. Duff 'memes' theory is not needed for this kind of thing to happen. Btw, for real aficionados, how about: Q. How many David Milibands does it take to change a lightbulb? A.Gordon is the man for that job, without a shadow of a doubt. Footnote from Matt Foot. (Btw, Jonathan Bartley tells me the counsellors one is too old. But I still like it. Sorry, Jon. Shine on, you crazy diamond...)

Sunday, April 22, 2007


"Because we have not sought the safety of familiar, wide-buoyed waters, but claim a wide universe for our domain, we shall always find ourselves sailing towards continents of spice and treasure. We will be asking questions of import, for which there are no certain answers." --Anthropologist Frederica de Laguna (1906-2004).

Of course there was a bit of looting to complicate things in practice, but as a metaphor it works very well indeed.

Hat tip to Michael Marten... who tells me to thank Laurie King.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


"...The culture of thinly disguised nastiness [which we see in some religious communities] is also a more general feature of public life. We say we want politicians to admit errors and apologize (Des Browne being a recent example). But when they do so, we say they are weak and unfit for office – and we do so with little sense of irony or self-knowing. In the process any possibility of achieving common truthfulness is lost. Disagreement is an unavoidable part of human development. Argument is a good thing. Suspicion towards power is vital. But without a sense that we are held in love these things lose a sense of proportion and can spill over into contempt or even hatred."

See further: How these Christians hate one another.

(While I'm talking about apologies - please accept mine if you are annoyed by the intrusive 'pop ups' - iLead in particular - which seem to occur when visiting this site. They are planted by my stat counter, I think. I'll see if I can find another at some point)

Sunday, April 15, 2007


I have substantially redrafted and added to an earlier review article about Kenneth Cragg, including two of his more recent books, in the culture and review section of Ekklesia: Muslims, Christians and the global human challenge.

In addition to developing a fascinating Christian interpretation of Islam which he then offers back in friendship to Muslims, recognising both points of contact and significant differences, so Cragg has also tried to forge a new kind of relationship betwen 'the religious' and 'the secular' (to use two masively overgeneralised current categories).

"Just as he illustrates so tellingly how ideological secularism is (quite literally) incomprehensible from the perspective of Islam, so many secularists will want simply to reverse [the] sub-title [of one of his books] so as to render it ‘divine meaning in human question’, and thus dispose of God. The author is well aware of this challenge. What we do with the divine Name is crucial for him. His response, however, is not some unfeasible pan-religious apologetic. Nor is it over-accommodation to populist critiques of religion which have failed to take it seriously. Instead he concentrates on exposition of 'the good' (starting from particular traditions) on the one hand, and the allocation of different (but shared) ethical responsibilities, on the other. In the same way that Cragg has humbly walked with other religions and cultures in order to discover both common hope and divergence among them, so he courteously invites those to whom faith is anathema to reconsider how human beings and the world might be positively reconstrued by what they reject."

Being stuck with a God who raises the dead (Ekklesia). Easter is awkward for the church, because its revolutionary message leaves it nowhere to hide religiously, politically or intellectually, argues Simon Barrow.

Friday, April 13, 2007


Brian McLaren: Which Holy War? (SojoNet). "We've probably heard many people here in the US ask, 'Why aren't there more moderate Muslims speaking out against the violent extremists and calling for reform in Islam?' As I reflected on Roland Martin's editorial on Good Friday, 2007, I couldn't help but think, 'Maybe around the world, "behind our back," so to speak, people are asking a similar question about Christians in the US.' These reflections stayed with me over the weekend and were with me still on Easter Sunday. In Romans 8, St Paul says that the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead lives in us. Those words challenged me to believe that the impossibility of resurrection is indeed possible ... not just in our individual lives, but also in our religious communities, if we are truly open to the life-giving, death-defying Spirit of God."

Sunday, April 08, 2007


This from an excellent article in the Observer by Richard Harries on the dilemmas faced by Rowan Williams - and, inter alia, on the difficult business of being a Christian in a culture (and that includes a church culture, sadly) marked by virulence and easy self-regard.

"[H]is style is hardly made for our simplistic, untruthful, soundbite culture. A good example is contained in his book, Christ on Trial. Rowan reflects on the silence of Christ, as recorded by Mark's Gospel. Jesus simply refused to answer the questions put to him about who he was and Rowan writes: 'What is said will take on the colour of the world's insanity; it will be another bid for the world's power, another identification with the unaccountable tyrannies that decide how things shall be. Jesus described in the words of this world, would be a competitor for space in it, part of its untruth.' Rowan will know, better than most of us, that anything he says will be part of the world's untruth and the more he conforms to the expectations of a headline culture, the more untruth there will be in it.

"One of the threads running through his writing is the idea that true religion always leads one to question oneself, rather than make claims over others. Jesus is not a possession or a badge of superiority, but the one before whom you stand, in gentle self-questioning."

Incidentally, the headline writer has, I fear, missed the point of this piece. It isn't a plea for the church to "ease the pain of Rowan's Passion" (except in the rather prosaic, though not unimportant, sense of "stopping being so nasty") -- rather, it's a plea to understand the issues he is wrestling with, and the way he is trying to wrestle with them, as part of a passion which isn't finally about "them and us", but concerns a new creation wrought from pain, difficulty and failure. In other words it is a call to stop casting stones and start listening to the Gospel. Something all-too-easily bypassed by institutional 'christianism' - a term I think we should use for the painful distortions of Christianity wrought in its name.

I can't recommend Christ on Trial highly enough, by the way. A superb book which, as the blurb says, "draws not only from the Bible, but also from contemporary fiction, film and theatre... [to] explore the ways society continues to put Christ on trial today. In fact, all Christians stand with him before a watching world. How we respond to this challenge is the focus of Christ on Trial. It increases our confidence in the faith we have received, and invites us to discover 'what we are and what we might be in God's sight'."

See also: Why Rowan Williams helps stem the drift to idiocracy.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


See here for details of the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation.