Thursday, November 30, 2006


Explains ever-inspired cartoonist Dave Walker: "Th[is] drawing illustrates the fact that people cannot often be subdivided into those who talk continual sense and those who talk continual rubbish. Life is more like B) than A), although I would be unwise to generalise." [Pic (c) the artist]

Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

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[06.40 GMT] Christian Unions warned against legal action (Guardian).

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


United We Stand? [*.PDF file] is a new report from Ekklesia on the recently escalating conflict between Christian Unions (which, despite their broad name, are evangelical societies) and Student Unions and Guilds on university college campuses across Britain. The purpose is to promote more constructive avenues of approach to the litigation which is being darkly mooted in some quarters. Issues of freedom of speech, fair and access and equal opportunities are all involved. But matters have not been assisted by some less-than-reliable reporting and comment in the media. See also: Legal action not inevitable for university Christian Unions, says report; NUS backs report on university Christian Union conflicts. The full National Union of Students statement is here.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006


The history of a dangerous idea was explored on Radio 4's Start The Week (available to listen to online for a week) by the American writer Mark Kurlansky yesterday. Non-violence, he argues, is one of the rare truly revolutionary ideas, a threat to the established order. A clue to its subversive nature lies in the fact that there is not even a 'proper' word for it, except as an expression of what it is not. Kurlansky explores political and religious views towards non-violence in the context of wars throughout the centuries and asks why religions, which reject violence in their teachings, are so often the cause of war. Appropriately, his book has a foreword by the Dalai Lama. The work, Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, is published by Jonathan Cape. Mark Kurlansky is also appearing in a debate with A. C. Grayling at the Purcell Room (London's South Bank Centre) on 28 November at 7.45pm: Fighting Talk: Pacifism, War and International Relations.

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[11.20 GMT] Good comment from Tom Allen, who I used to work with years ago, on the BA cross issue.
[10.24 GMT] US Christians oppose violent fundamentalist video game (Ekklesia).
"[R]ather than seeking to close the gap between neighbours, as Jesus did in his ministry, the game's purpose is to drive a wedge between people, teaching teenagers that what God intends is for them to slaughter those who do not share their beliefs. Because of the predominance of Christian fundamentalists on television and radio in the past generation, the American people have been left with the false impression that this strange way of interpreting the Bible is what Christians have always believed and taught. We are here today to challenge that view and to name it for the error that it is.” On a related issue, see this by Jonathan Bartley - What are the chances of a holy war? Nov 4, 2006, and a very helpful piece on 'hard line' responses to violent Islamism by Robert P. Baird from Chicago.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


Rowan Williams in his recent lecture on St Benedict and the Future of Europe: "Borrowing a Hegelian insight refined by the late Gillian Rose in her political philosophy, we must say that every initial self-description of a person’s or a community’s interest is necessarily involved in error to the extent that it has not yet fully engaged with what is other to it, with the stranger whose presence may first be felt as a threat or a problem. Good governance and government is always about an engagement with the other, a developing relation that is neither static confrontation nor competition, but an interaction producing some sort of common language and vision, a common vision that could not have been defined in advance of the encounter."

About the last days of Gillian Rose, one of our finest philosophers. "[Two] years before her death, she was told she had cancer. It spread swiftly throughout her body, but her indomitable mind refused to accept the finality of life. She carried on thinking and one day, to everyones surprise, asked Simon Barrington-Ward [a close friend, and then Bishop of Coventry] if he would baptise and confirm her [into the Anglican Church] and give her her first communion. Characteristically she wanted to make a party of it. She invited some professional philosopher friends to her baptism - Jews, Christians and atheists alike, who were all coming to Warwick University for a conference she had long planned. But it was too happy an ending to conclude in that way. Just a few hours before the agreed time, the hospital 'phoned to tell the Bishop that Gillian was slipping into a last sleep. He rushed to her bedside and was just in time to baptise and confirm her. She could only make her responses with a squeeze of the hand ... But Gillian's party went ahead. The Bishop told of Gillian's baptism and her friends, believers and atheists alike, wept and rejoiced for a friend whose journey was over." [ACNS]

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Saturday, November 25, 2006


The word "philosophy "means "love of wisdom," but the absence of love from philosophical discourse is curiously glaring. So where did the love go? In The Erotic Phenomenon, leading postmetaphysical philosopher and Catholic thinker Jean-Luc Marion asks this fundamental question about his own discipline, while reviving inquiry into the concept of love itself. Marion begins with a critique of Descartes' equation of the ego's ability to doubt with the certainty that one exists -"I think therefore I am" - arguing that this is worse than vain. We encounter love, he says, when we first step forward as a lover: I love therefore I am, and my love (regard for the other) is the reason I care whether I exist or not. Marion then probes several manifestations of love and its variations, including carnal excitement, self-hate, lying and perversion, fidelity, the generation of children, and the love of God. Throughout, he stresses that all erotic phenomena, including sentimentality, pornography, and even boasts about one's sexual conquests, stem not from the ego as popularly understood but instead from love in its various guises. {edited description}

Jean Luc Marion is currently the John Nuveen Professor of the Philosophy of Religion and Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is also in the Department of Philosophy and the Committee on Social Thought at the same university. His other books include the ground-breaking God Without Being (University of Chicago Press, 1991). Also Reduction and Givenness: Investigations of Husserl, Heidegger and Phenomenology (Northwestern University Press, 1998); Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness (Stanford University Press, 2002); In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena (Fordham University Press, 2002) and Descartes' Grey Ontology: Cartesian Science and Aristotelian Thought in the Regulae (St Augustine's Press, 2006). See also on this blog.

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Friday, November 24, 2006


The row over whether British Airways (BA) staff can wear religious costume jewellery trivialises the real issues highlighted by the Cross – turning it into a club badge rather than a symbol of liberation, claims a leading Christian commentator today. Giles Fraser – who is vicar of Putney, an Oxford philosophy lecturer and founder of Inclusive Church – said on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day slot this morning that “many Christians like me remain deeply uneasy that the way the cross is being defended by some is transforming it into a symbol of cultural identity.” Continued.

And this from a media statement: "It would be good if we could accept a diversity of symbolism in a plural society, but using political power to enforce the display of the Cross spectacularly misses what it is really about", says Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow, who with Jonathan Bartley has co-edited a book about the subject called Consuming Passion.

Consuming Passion says that the Cross is an expression of non-coercive sacrifice confronting imperial religion – and that its misinterpretation in popular Christian thought is very relevant to issues of violence, oppression and social justice.

"Questions of free expression should not be discounted in this area either", says Ekklesia – which recently landed in hot water for suggesting that churches should make white poppies available as well as red ones to symbolise peaceful resemblance. But the think tank adds that "tactics which look too much like bullying for comfort" are no way for Christians to behave in such matters.

"In a culture which is now plural, Christians perhaps need to learn to get less cross", commented Jonathan Bartley."

"At the same time, we all have to learn that there are cultural anxieties in a changing society – and find ways of talking about them," adds Simon Barrow.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

[12.39 GMT] It's the narrative, stupid. Nov 23, 2006 (Ekklesia). Simon Barrow explores what gives meaning to modern, story-shaped politics.

Jim Wallis: Religion Must Be Disciplined by Democracy. This week, The Washington Post and Newsweek launched a new feature – "On Faith" – an online discussion of religion and its impact. Wallis has joined more than 50 other religious leaders, scholars and activists from different faiths and different places on the political spectrum on a panel that includes Desmond Tutu, Karen Armstrong, Elie Wiesel, and many more. In the succeeding features, a question on a topic connected to religion or spirituality in the public sphere will be posed and panel members as well as readers will respond.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

[06.47 GMT] Dawkins anti-religion school crusade is met with scepticism (Ekklesia). With a comment from me.

Not to put it too delicately, I've often wondered why so many Christians get knicker-wettingly uptight about comedy -- especially satire. It's as if some of us were born with a massive irony defecit. What prompts this thought is the lastest rehearsed outrage at the film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Borat is, of course, deliberately intended to make us uncomfortable about how we and those around us see things and each other. Its main target is prejudice itself. Well, apart from making us belly laugh and feel a bit guilty for doing so at the same time. No bad thing. Comedy can be a good way of disarming both ourselves and the powers-that-be, refusing to take either too seriously, though it is rarely morally unambiguous (if it's any good).

But as with Jerry Springer The Opera, many apparently worried and defensive Christians just don't see the point, and seem to take an almost vicarious delight in "being offended". We urgently need to learn to be more mature readers of texts, whether films or our own founding documents. I do feel a bit sorry sorry for the Kazahks, though. For some this kind of thing is culturally alien (the style of comedy, not gratuitously racist insults). When the Borat character was created, it probably wasn't anticipated that it would go quite as global. Having said that, their president has now sensibly decided to laugh it off. Moreover, it's difficult not to see that the real joke is on Westerners who believe in, or play along to, these crass stereotypes. And that is why Borat is an important challenge, albeit one which evidently lacks a bit of potty training. I wouldn't justify all of it (and nor would Sacha Baron-Cohen if pushed, I suspect), but it is far from devoid of redemption. So go on, smile! Jesus won't hate you for it, and you might just learn to be a better person when you've looked into the comedic abyss a bit less fearfully.

(Incidentally there are some interesting comments by Baron-Cohen in The Times. And a good review by Stephen Tompkins in Third Way. I have written more on this general theme in 'The cross, salvation and the politics of satire', a chapter in Consuming Passion - DLT, 2005. And here is a piece on censorship and cultural freedom).

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Difference based on friendship - Simon Barrow (Nov 20 06, 05:28pm): The antagonism between organised religion and militant secularists is unproductive and excluding.

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Monday, November 20, 2006


New Generation Network is the name of a new think tank and discussion initiative which is being launched later today by the admirable Sunny Hundal [pictured] of Pickled Politics, an acclaimed webzine which focuses on British and international politics, media and society from a broad, mainly South Asian perspective. NGN's initial 'manifesto' is calling for an improved debate on race and faith - which at the moment is dominated by extreme sectional interests, the government's demonising of minority communities, and a self-selecting "great and good" approach to public consultation. The NGN founding statement raises important issues from an independent perspective, and I was pleased to sign it myself - Ekklesia is certainly supportive of this venture, but it is one forged by individuals rather than organisations and 'representatives'. Indeed the question of who really 'represents' whom in the fields of religion and race is one of the necessarily awkward questions it is raising. The 'manifesto' will be published on The Guardian’s Comment is Free pages today and is noted in a short news story. That will also serve as a starting point for a week of debates on CIF around the future of race and faith in the UK. The NGN will be on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme at 7:20am, Five Live at 8:35am (they are doing a big programme on Islam), and Asian Network at 11:15am. Possibly also Channel 4 TV. Ekklesia will be issuing a supporting press release, which will also be on our news brief and in the Daily Email Bulletin. Sunny Hundal's hard-hitting Guardian article is entitled: This system of self-appointed leaders can hurt those it should be protecting. "It is in all our interests to challenge those who wrongly claim to be speaking for Britain's minority communities."

Update: The full NGN statement on race and faith can now be read here. See also on Ekklesia, We need a better race and faith debate, says New Generation Network 20/11/06.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006


Martin E. Marty on the recent US elections and religion: 'The Christian Right took shape in the 1980s with the motives of the "politics of resentment," its members having long felt, and been, disdained. In the years of the Reagan charm, they found it easy to gain power, so they moved to the "politics of will-to-power," still voicing resentment. Many sounded as if they should and maybe could "win it all" and "run the show." They have now begun to learn what mainline Protestants and mainline evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, and humanists know: No one is simply going to "run the show" in the American pluralist mix, as we watch shifting powers face off against other shifting powers, which is what happened again in the mid-term elections.'

See also the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Justification and Truth, Relativism and Pragmatism" by Daniel A. Arnold.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006


So much churchgoing is just religious practices and not godly living and godly exploring. Something seems to have gone very wrong. I believe that [through pluralism and secularity] God is bringing pressures to bear on us which could and should reawaken us to the immense God-possibilities which are around in the world and in people and in the church. We ought to be reawakened to the powerful resources and insights which are available in and through the biblical records and in and through the various Christian traditions—if only we will not shut them up in the practices of religion.

From David E. Jenkins, God, Jesus and Life in the Spirit (SCM Press, 1988).

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Friday, November 17, 2006

[12.01GMT] Time for fear to come out of the closet. Simon Barrow reflects on the fall of a US religious hero. A slightly revised (and, in a couple of places, expanded) version of my Ekklesia article on Ted Haggard and the politicized theology/ideology of sexuality among right-wing evangelicals.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

[13.37 GMT] Threat to future of vital global Christian study centre in Edinburgh Ekklesia. This is a matter of great concern.

Contemporary classics revisited. In The God Who May Be: The Hermeneutics of Religion (Indiana University Press series in the philosophy of religion, 2001), Richard Kearney proposes that instead of thinking of God as "actual," circumscribed by human notions of "being" and realised temporality, God might best be thought of as something like "the coming possibility of the impossible." Through refiguring narrative-biblical perceptions of God, and breaking with dominant metaphysical-speculative traditions of religious speech, Kearney draws on the work of Paul Ricoeur, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, Husserl, Lyotard, Caputo and many others. He evokes views of God as unforeseeable, unprogrammeable, and resistant to our 'rational' or 'religious' desires for certainty. Important themes such as the phenomenology of the persona, the meaning of the unity of God, performative truth, the divine and desire, notions of existence towards differance (Derrida), and fiduciary commitments in philosophy are taken up in a perceptive and stimulating book. It is part of a trilogy entitled 'Philosophy at the Limit' comprising three volumes. The others are On Stories (Routledge, 2002) and Strangers, Gods, and Monsters (Routledge, 2003). His other books include the extraordinary The Wake of Imagination: Ideas of Creativity in Western Culture (Hutchinson, Routledge, 1988). As a public intellectual in Ireland, Kearney was involved in drafting a number of proposals towards a Northern Irish peace agreement (in 1983, 1993 and 1995) and in speechwriting for the former Irish President, Mary Robinson, who went on to become the UN human rights commissioner.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006


I have had occasion before to praise CrossCurrents, the journal of the Association for Religion & Intellectual Life. The latest issue (Fall 2006) is on the theme of Religious Language: Its Uses and Misuses [pictured]. Charles Henderson kindly gave permission for Ekklesia to reproduce a fine and challenging editorial by Catherine Madsen - which we've titled Learning to converse like grown-ups. This is where she ends up, but it is worth reading the whole piece - especially for those of us involved in contestations about theology and politics, faith and reason:

One of the few legitimate uses of religious language, surely, is to bring everyone along beyond the emotional age of fifteen. In the end, there are things you don't do even if you have been insulted; you don't do them because nothing is worth the kind of instability it would cause to your own equilibrium and to the world's. One of the marks of adult thinking is the recognition that things can get very much worse.

To grow up politically is to understand that there are other points of view, and that you cannot erase them; that there are no shortcuts to respect, and that one must earn one's dignity; that our obligation to our fellow humans is to make our own point of view not unassailable but intelligible. What do you want so badly that you have to develop an impenetrable and threatening rhetoric to talk about it, or blow yourself and the bystanders to bloody shreds rather than ask for it sanely?

[P]ainstaking thinkers of all cultures know each other intuitively across the boundaries of opposition. Totalitarians do not like them; indeed they are always at risk from the totalitarians in their own culture as well as those in the enemy's. In spite of this—or because of it—they are determined to construct a trustworthy language, a language dense and durable enough to resist the corruptions of politics. That language, if any, is religious. We will be lucky if it ever finds its way into prayer.

Subscription details for CrossCurrents are here, by the way. ARIL is a not-for-profit organization located at 475 Riverside Drive in New York City, USA.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

[19.48 GMT] Other ways of remembering. From The Ottawa Citizen. Jonathan Bartley responds to angry criticisms of Ekklesia's comments about Remembrance symbolism - and reality.

There's a good review on In These Times of maverick philosopher Slavoj Zizek's latest offering, The Parallax View (Short Circuits). It's by Adam Kotsko of the University of Chicago, whose weblog is always worth a visit. Last Christmas, my friend Kevin Scully, rector of St Matthew's in Bethnal Green, gave me Zizek's The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge / MIT, 2003). "This is the kind of weird stuff Simon likes", he thought. Dead right. It's great stuff, leaving aside Zizek's odd determination to hang on to what is actually a rather outmoded philosophical materialism and give it a new kind of (much more interesting) dialectical twist. But, as with many atheist thinkers who don't just spit when it comes to anything to do with the bete noire of 'religion', Zizek has much more interesting and useful things to say about Christianity than most pedestrian theologians or apologists. He recognises that the Jesus-movement is about turning the world and its ruling assumptions upside-down, not instituting a different kind of command economy. When it's any good, anyway.

For Zizek, part of Christianity’s “subversive core” is the idea of Christian love: “the excessive care for the beloved, a ‘biased’ commitment which disturbs the balance” of normal reality. The space for this love is opened up by the believer’s act of “unplugging” from all social ties in order to be completely faithful to Christ. For Zizek, St Paul’s relativization of all social roles, indicating that the believer does not “belong” to the present order, is a subversive action of refusal. It explains Zizek’s interest in Christianity in the first place: This refusal to identify with the present order is a vital precursor to any attempt at revolutionary change.

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Monday, November 13, 2006


Despite a daft headline (presumably it was meant as ironic), there's an interesting review by John Carlin of the new Archbishop Desmond Tutu biography, published in The Observer. The key point is, Tutu communicates an interest in others and a vibrancy for life not centred on himself, a 'religious in-group' or the church as institution. Rather, he invites us to experience the possibility of the Gospel as a generous, capacious, inviting and domination-free adventure which treats others with dignity and respect. This, not defensive whingeing about "loss of profile" at Christmas (Archbishop Sentamu, sadly) is what the churches badly need to re-focus on. Integrity rather than self-assertion is what they have to demonstrate, in deeds as well as words. Carlin writes:

I have talked to a number of friends who have spent time, as I have, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and they feel the same way. There's no one we know who rattles our non-belief as he does... Whether you are in private with him or part of a large crowd, whether the occasion is joyous or tragic, whether the issue is complex or straightforward, Tutu strikes the right chord. He is so unfailingly lucid, penetrating and inspired... John Allen's wonderfully humanising biography offers plenty of cheerful anecdote and serious insight. None more so, perhaps, than in Tutu's silent response to the news that he had been awarded the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize. Overjoyed as he was, he paused for a moment to read to himself Psalm 139. Two lines from it read: 'There is not a word on my tongue/But you Lord know it altogether.' Just so.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

[15.11 GMT] REFLECTING ON A WEEK-LONG MEDIA ARGUMENT... Giving peace a chance proves highly controversial - Simon Barrow asks what is really at stake once we stop simply 'reacting' to one another, as if everything has to be based on confrontation. Then again, there are real disagreements to negotiate.

The explanatory comment below is slightly adapted from the end-notes to my recent article responding to Richard Dawkins' challenges (and starting with some recent natural and human tragedies). I have revised this piece again in the light of some interesting exchanges with correspondents who have either been seeking clarification or offering constructive criticism in response to my reflections. This at least demonstrates, I hope, that reflexive conversation about what is reasonably involved in 'God-talk' is both both possible and necessary, in spite of (and, indeed, because of) the way this kind of thing gets translated into acrimony in a hyped media environment. [Picture: Talk with God, from All rights reserved by the photographer. ]

Those who appreciate what I am saying in noting that God is inherently 'beyond description' may wonder how the obviously human ('anthropomorphic') Gospel story can thereby be allowable. The brief answer is that narrative is not a pinning-down of what it refers to, but a signpost – one whose never-quite-finished character is (unlike totalizing theory) consistent with the unconditioned giving-ness God is necessarily held to be. Rightly understood for what it is, figurative language (biblical imagery, for instance) does not claim to 'grasp' its subject, but to recognise the ineluctable 'otherness' of God, even as it seeks to speak of the impact of that otherness on the pattern of our living, in relational (and therefore personalist) terms. Incidentally, abstract categories are just as anthropomorphic as figurative ones - albeit with a different kind of function - because they are produced within the nexus of human language. There is no 'other place' to speak from this side of eternity, even when we speak of what is other. If we do not appreciate the practical significance of this, our attempts at God-talk become hopelessly disordered, as in the case of Richard Dawkins' old-fashioned positivism, or the different - but parallel - kind of imprisoning objectification practiced by religious fundamentalism.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

[14.21 GMT] Think tank rejects misleading claims about its poppy stance (Ekklesia, 11/11/06)... pointing out that reflecting on alternatives to war might not dishonour those who died thinking they were ending it, and that asking Christians to try to consider matters more Christianly may have something going for it - as a couple of my humanist friends have agreed.

Giles Fraser wrote recently in The Church Times (in an article entitled Why do Evangelicals like purity?): "They want to build up the barriers between the sacred and the secular — contemporary equivalents of the holy and profane." What the purists, who come in many shapes and sizes, miss in this separating of the holy from the secular (gliding, as it is, on the word “profane”) is that from the beginning, the im-pure, the un-touchable was the Holy. The un-touchable was untouchable precisely because it was Holy, not because it wasn't pure. And yes, the great breach with tradition was [losing touch with the notion that] that the righteousness, the holiness of God is life, overflowing and transcending any categories of pure, sacred or profane. (Hat tip: Göran Koch-Swahne)

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Friday, November 10, 2006

[20.55 GMT] Father of dead Canadian soldier supports white poppy (Ekklesia). And kudos to CathNews Australia, who corrected the first paragraph of their story on the 'poppy saga' and have added a response from me at the end. By contrast, The Times have categorically declined to change their misleading account (which others followed, including some BBC reports), and have also refused to publish a letter about it. They used to be a 'paper of record'. But that was pre-Murdoch, it would appear.

One of the things that struck me with renewed force from appearing on Vatican Radio and a couple of other 'Christian radio stations' about the 'poppy affair' [see below] yesterday is that it simply never occurs to many people of faith that the "Jesus justice and peacemaking stuff" (as someone put it to me) should ever impinge upon their understanding of religion, let alone the way they think and act generally. It's all about holding an abstract doctrine and/or upholding an institution that provides comfort or dogma, apparently. Plus God-and-national remembrance elide naturally together. So they quite literally had no clue what Ekklesia was "banging on about" (as someone else expressed it, in another media context).

This is a good reason for many people not to not bother with church, for reasons unconnected with either apathy or hostility. Indeed, an interesting sociological phenomenon in Western countries at the moment is the number of people - especially younger people - who consider themselves followers of Christ (rather than just nominally Christian) but don't go to church at all. Because they see the two things as having little to do with each other. It's not hard to see why. This is an interesting feature of what we are calling post-Christendom.

The other day someone wrote to me saying, "Ekklesia seems to want to bring the official church to its knees." I wrote back and said, inter alia, "er, yes, isn't that the point". Prayer being about how we might view the world as gift, rather than an occasion for control.

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Well, not quite - but the idea that we might think about peacemaking and nonviolent symbols alongside war remembrance has been variously described to me (in a string of media interviews yesterday, from BBC to TalkSport to Vatican Radio) as 'unacceptable', 'barmy' and 'despicable'. But the notion that this means the assumptions of the existing set-up must therefore be at least implicitly pro-war does not really register. It is a huge blind-spot. But not unexpected.

Ekklesia's proposal (I quote from our news release) was that "Whether you are from a 'Just War', or a pacifist tradition, Christians believe that there is no redemption in war. Churches, who host so many services of remembrance, should at least give people the choice, and make white poppies more widely available, alongside red ones." Both The Times and the Express 'interpreted' that as a call to "dump" or displace the red poppy with a pacifist white one. And these are the people who read and write English for a living... Ah, well.

At least The Sun got it right! Ye, of little faith... The Google News feed on the coverage (a lot of it) is here. And yes, we have raised questions about whether the red poppy is really 'neutral'. The violence of the reaction would, ironically, undermine the case that it isn't. And the official Poppy Appeal site quotes Admiral Lord Nelson: "England expects every man will do his duty." That, in case you didn't know, was about forming conflict resolution teams. Ahem.

The material which will tell you what we are really saying is here, by the way: Proper debate about war 'honours those who have died' 9/11/06; Violent solutions not 'normal' but mythic, says theologian 09/11/06; Challenge to political correctness of the poppy 09/11/06; Canadian war veterans attack peace activists over white poppies 08/11/06; Controversy over sale of white poppies. More on the roots of the "myth of redemptive violence" here. Walter Wink is Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, USA. His books may be purchased at Metanoia Books. To buy white poppies:; British Legion appeal:

Meanwhile, here's a newspaper letter I was invited to send back to a correspondent who had got very much the wrong end of the stick, but also wanted to accuse us of being Hitler-appeasers.

Ekklesia has not called for red poppies to be"dumped". We have suggested that churches can make white ones available alongside them, to remind us that the dead are honoured when we commit ourselves to alternative ways of resolving conflict.

We cannot remake history, but we can learn from it. The Second World War defeated Hitler, but the First and its aftermath produced him. Latterly, largely nonviolent means overcame entrenched tyranny in Eastern Europe and South Africa. But war in Iraq, while removing Saddam, has resulted in worse bloodshed, not a 'solution'. Meanwhile the 'war on terror' is reinforcing what it fights.

TV culture constantly conveys the dominant assumption that killing solves problems. But it is might that wins wars, not right. Our point is that the the poppy and the Cross are symbols of death, but while the former implies that violence can deliver us, the latter declares the power of love to be non-violent sacrifice.

Ekklesia supports the difficult work of conflict transformation in war zones. We think this is where the priority should be right now (especially for the churches, who often seem more interested in-infighting). That is a fine way to honour those who died in the hope of an end to war, but whose dreams are not being answered by its perpetuation across the globe.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006


It is hard for those of us who witnessed first-hand the attempt to build a new kind of society in Nicaragua in the 1980s not to feel deeply moved by the election of Daniel Ortega, even acknowledging the difficulties and failures of the FSLN. The Sandinistas, for all their faults, ended brutal dictatorship and brought literacy, democracy, the abolition of the death penalty, land reform and ground-up energy for development to a people trapped in despair. The US-backed insurgency helped destroy many of these gains, and ensured the state over-militarised in both attitude and economic terms. The 1990 post-defeat descent to corruption disillusioned radical Christian participants in the experiment, especially, and with the growth of conservative religious forces inside the country and continued US pressure from without, it will be interesting to see what Ortega can achieve. Activists say that grassroots initiatives and international solidarity campaigns to back better aid, fair trade and just debt and finance polices will play a not insignificant role in helping to moving a social justice agenda. The US Nicaragua Network has already pledged its support. The Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign in Britain and equivalents in other parts of Europe will be doing likewise.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006


My colleague Jonathan Bartley will be on BBC Radio 4's Today programme tomorrow (around 06.50 a.m.), arguing the case for white as well as red poppies in remembering the war dead and victims of conflict. He is also being syndicated on IRN. In an article in tomorrow's Church Times, he writes: "The Christian tradition, and specifically the crucifix, have a great deal in common with the poppy. Both are linked to sacrifice. Both take a location of bloodshed and violence and make a statement about it. And both attempt to give us hope in the face of death. They imply that those who died did not do so in vain.

"But whilst apparently banned from wearing one symbol of hope (the cross), public figures in Britain are simultaneously urged, indeed in many cases, required, to wear another (the red poppy) – almost as an article of faith. There is a 'political correctness' about the red poppy, which often goes unnoticed.

"But there is a crucial difference between the red poppy and the crucifix. Whilst the red poppy implies redemption can come through war, the Christian story implies that redemption comes through nonviolent sacrifice. The white poppy is much more Christian, in that respect, than the red variety.

"The historical alignment of churches with Governments and the national interest has meant that churches have often giving their blessing to war. However as was seen over their widespread opposition to the invasion of Iraq, churches are increasingly willing to oppose military action, as churches become less aligned with both the state and British culture.

"Whether you are from a 'Just War', or a pacifist tradition, Christians believe that there is no redemption in war. Churches, who host so many services of remembrance, should at least give people the choice, and make white poppies more widely available, alongside red ones.

"The crucial question is not whether we should remember. The question is how we should remember. And how we answer this question affects not just the memory of those who died, but those who are still dying in wars around the world."
[06.06 AM] Haggard revelation exposes evangelical confusion about sexuality (a report and opinion piece).

Would Jesus demand privileged treatment? Colin M. Morris questions some current religious special pleading... Before moving on to work with the BBC, Morris was President of the Methodist Conference, and before that a "turbulent priest" involved as a missionary involved in Zambia's struggle for independence, justice and dignity. Out of that crucible came some radical and highly contextual theological reflections: provocations which certainly inspired me in my youth, trying to make the connection between faith and politics. I'm glad he hasn't lost his dissenting edge, unlike so many church figures who move from the margins to the corridors of power (or at least, the corridors that pass the offices of power).

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006


These days I'm constantly finding myself pointing out that as a generic descriptor, 'religion' is an ethnographic trope for a certain kind of anthropological instrumentalism - one that rapidly becomes meaningless to the point of disinformation when you stretch it to include both Theravāda Buddhism and Jerry Falwell, say. (Richard Dawkins, please take note). But as a word denoting a set of impulses towards the world, it begins to acquire meaning. As Dutch missiologist Bert Hoedemaker has suggested - 'religion' can be thought of, in these terms, as our primal response to the contigency and waywardness of life, while its partner 'rationality' is about how we order the world in workable ways. 'Faiths' are thus organised attempts to build bridges between these two, to construct - on the basis of observation and intuition - inhabitable negotiations between our simultaneous senses of displacement and placement. (We have these congruent and contradictory experiences of life whether we care to define ourselves as 'religious' or not, by the way.)

Of course religious impulses, as primal expressions of this kind, can be fearful or hopeful, life-giving or life-substitututing. They are not neutral. Nor are they all 'one type of thing'. Religiosity is plural and complex. Writing out of a radical Christian tradition, here is a positive construal of what it can mean from the late Dorothee Soelle, one of the important theological voices of the second half of the twentieth century. When I read it, it reminds me why I and others feel so 'unaccounted for' in a book as sadly simplistic as The God Delusion:

The religious need is the need for experienced meaning, the yearning for a truth that has been promised and that is becoming increasingly visible. Religion is the attempt to regard nothing in this world as alien, hostile to human beings, a matter of fate, without meaning. Religion is the attempt to change everything that is experienced and encountered in all of life and to integrate it totally into a humane world. Everything should be interpreted in such a way that it becomes something ‘for us’. Everything that is rigid should become flexible; everything that is change, necessary; everything that appears to be meaningless should be regarded and believed to be true and good. Religion is the attempt to tolerate no nihilism and to live an unending and unrefutable affirmation of life.

From Dorothee Soelle, The Inward Road and the Way Back, translated by David L. Scheidt (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1979).

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"To live securely is to know no enemy can endanger our deepest values, but for physical safety there are no guarantees. For us to live in fear and anger might suit the agendas of some politicians, but it's hard to imagine that kind of life being labeled 'secure.' " (Johan Maurer)

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Monday, November 06, 2006


There's no problem, according to the PM. Which is one way of letting it burrow away until it becomes more of one. Gee, thanks Tony! My response on behalf of Ekklesia indicates why the issue of teaching deformed Bible study in science lessons is one we shouldn't ignore - better to get it sorted out, and move on. The parliamentary statement from the Schools Minister Jim Knight on 1 November 2006 was a step in the right direction, and we are in conversation with DfES too. There will be more in the Times Educational Supplement on Friday. Meanwhile, some background on recent developments can be found here. See also Rob Blackhurst's piece in the Financial Times Magazine (Who are you calling old?), tracking a creationist on his UK 'educational tour'. I'm quoted in it, and I also contributed some wider research.

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Back in July 2006, my colleague Jonathan Bartley's book Faith and Politics After Christendom included an observation-cum-prediction that some extreme and reactive Christians, frustrated with the pace of Christendom's demise and their consequent disenfranchisement in the corridors of power, might end up considering or using violence to assert themselves, as elsewhere in the world (the bombing of abortion clinics, for instance). On Friday we published What are the chances of a holy war?, partly in response to the row about the BBC TV drama 'Spooks'. Then yesterday, The Sunday Telegraph included this piece by John Wynne-Jones: Christians ask if force is needed to protect their religious values.

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Over on Shiny Shelf, where a couple of my friends are regular contributors, pleasure-surfing the pop culture zeitgeist, Eddie Robson has a good piece on two decent 'n' recent TV comedies, 'Extras' (BBC2) and 'Lead Balloon' (BBC4). Among other things, he notes: The argument over whether the comedy of humiliation has run its course still goes on, but it features in both of these sitcoms and whereas recent episodes of ‘Extras’ have far overstepped the cringe mark, I’ve found the style to be deftly handled in ‘Lead Balloon’. The pettiness of Jack Dee’s character, Rick Spleen, and his propensity to become obsessed with minor inconveniences, owes a substantial debt to ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’. Eddie also contends that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Marchant's traducing of BBC1 lowest-common-denominator sit coms in 'Extras' series 2 is too easy and, frankly, slickly uninformative - quite apart from being a dubious example of literati mean-spiritedness. I agree on that, though personally I've found E2 much funnier than series one. I like to think that the excesses of comedic cruelty (as with cartoon-style portrayals of violence) serve to highlight the absurdity of the real thing, rather than to endorse it. But perhaps that's wishful thinking. The fatuousness of a lot of celeb-axiomised life is certainly enough to make many of us want to pick up the cultural equivalent of a blunderbuss (Charlie Brooker or 'whitened sepulchres', anyone?). But it doesn't make it right... though in skilful hands it is likely to prove cathartically satisfying for one's noir side. The review also welcomes the BBC's policy of nurturing offbeat comedy material on their new channels, allowing the material to find the audience, rather than always requiring writers and performers to pitch big and brassy. Amen to that. Rage against the machine. Nicely, though. [Pic: Jack Dee]

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Sunday, November 05, 2006


I have made a number of modifications to my own response on Ekklesia, especially in the footnotes, which seek to illuminate some of the many methodological confusions in his 'anti-God talk'. There is a thoughtful review from Bishop David Atkinson of Thetford on Fulcrum (I worked with him both in Southwark and during my CTBI days, lovely man - a scientist by background. I am less disposed towards onto-theological definitions, however). See also Jim Holt writing in the magazine of the New York Times; The Fear of Religion by philosopher Thomas Nagel in The New Republic; Dawkins the Dogmatist by Andrew Brown in Prospect magazine; 'Is God a Delusion? Atheism and the meaning of life' [download MP3] by Alister McGrath, author of Dawkins' God (Blackwell, 2004) - reviewed with generosity by the secularist Dan O'Hara here. Have a look also at McGrath's St Edmund's (Cambridge) public lecture, Has science disproved God?, which includes a detailed critique of arguments Dawkins has subsequently repeated in TGD. His comments on Dawkins' failures of reasoning, grounded in the history and philosophy of science, are well argued and astute. On 'religious language' and its discontents, incidentally, see this fine thought-piece by Catharine Madsen. It is the editorial from the latest issue of CrossCurrents, the journal of the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life. There's a Dawkins discussion on their board, which has an unusually high proportion of light to heat (based on what I've been reading elsewhere, which is frankly rather depressing). Also a thread on rationality in relation to belief. Meanwhile, Howard Jacobsen has a pastiche of Dawkins' on the Decalogue in the Independent (06.11.06, subscription), and Mary Riddell, herself an avowed non-believer, avers intelligently that Dogmatic atheism will never trump religion, while equally sensibly calling for a separation of church and state (Observer).

Saturday, November 04, 2006


Having read and re-read Terry Eagleton's response to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion several times, I still think that it's one of the better reviews that I've seen. But it doesn't really get beyond the (supposedly righteous) anger Dawkins' book flows from, and is evidently designed to illicit. Yes, it's hard for those of us with a lifetime's familiarity with theology not to feel annoyed and frustrated at the crude caricatures that the holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair parades - not quite in the spirit of the 'public understanding' that his Oxford post is otherwise meant to uphold in the realm of science, but as part of an (over?) personal anti-religious crusade.

I came across a response to Eagleton via the rationalist site, Butterflies and Wheels, which takes its name from an injudicious attack on Dawkins by the philosopher Mary Midgely. She 'dismissed him back', and though she has valid things to say about his speculative shortcomings, she managed to get him rather wrong in terms of what he says about natural selection - thus opening herself up to a volley of return fire. Not much mutual listening or comprehension there. A similar pattern reproduces itself on the website, though. B&W has some interesting stuff on it, but much of it is the kind of overconfident dissing that seems to me to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Plus it can be utterly self-assured (and impatient) in what it is willing to bracket as 'nonsense'. (I speak as someone who has, of course, committed these sins myself, and therefore in a repentant mode.)

Recognising that, I still thought it might be worth trying to point out (see comments at the end) that when Terry Eagleton uses narrative to refer to God, he isn't necessarily violating the idea that God is beyond description - since (as a life-long literary and cultural critic) he certainly understands the metaphoricity of language, and the distinction between reference and description. The bridge between these two is phenomenology, though it is a bridge which we can never actually cross, except (it could be argued) in moments of ego-displacing prayer or self-giving.

Needless to say, I didn't get anywhere. Within a certain sphere of the rationalist mindscape there is an utter determination to reduce God to a 'provable proposition', and to believe that the 'technical' language used to do this can somehow escape the anthropomorphism that is a characteristic of all language (in different ways), because it is , well, er, a human activity. This is a point Nicholas Lash keeps coming back to in suggesting that a consciously metaphoric use of language about God (biblical imsages, say) might end up being less self-deceptive, in recognising its obvious limitations, than much apparently sophisticated 'speculative' talk which claims 'truly' to demarcate what it refers to. That is especially true for those of us who think traditional metaphysics is a dead end, incidentally, but who do not thereby abandon logic.

Anyway, although I clearly didn't get this thought recognised within the discussion (much of which remains solidly dismissive) a useful lesson was (re)learned by me in the process. Don't respond in kind, if you can help it. Unless the 'kind' involved is both illuminative and, hopefully, kind. It's a hard lesson to take, of course; rather like acknowledging that you aren't (and shouldn't be) in charge of discourse. So, in congruence with a couple of other agendas I'm pursuing at the moment, I decided to see how I might 'take Dawkins on board' in a different sort of way - with this: Turning God into a disaster area Nov 4, 2006; Simon Barrow says Dawkins is right to attack facile God-talk. See what you think. I probably only half-'succeeded', at best. But there I go again ;-)

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[12.01 GMT] "Jesus does not refuse to assert power and authority; rather, he refuses to be powerful according to the world’s greed for control and domination. The power of Jesus is love that will suffer on behalf of others." (Caroline Westerhoff)

Friday, November 03, 2006


Like the words ecumenical and ecology , economics is rooted in the Greek [New Testament] word oikos , meaning household , and signifies the management of the household—arranging what is necessary for well-being. Good economic practice—positive ways of exchanging goods and services—is about the well-being, the livelihood, of the whole household. . . . While the notion of “home” in American culture has shrunk from meaning one's town or region to meaning only one's own house or apartment, at the same time, paradoxically, it has become less possible to isolate our individual households from the world around them. As we try to defend the security of our private home, we are simultaneously rediscovering the economic-ecological truth of our profound interdependence within the small planet home we share.

Sharon Daloz Parks (1997), quoted in Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity, by Catherine Whitmire (Notre Dame, Indiana, Sorin Books, 2001).

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Thursday, November 02, 2006


This powerful observation from an interview with the late Anthony Bloom, speaking from an Eastern Orthodox perspective (hat-tip to Johan Maurer):

"It seems to me that today the whole Christian world... has distanced itself terribly from the simplicity, integrity, and the joyful beauty of the Gospel. Christ and his group of disciples created a Church that was so deep and wide and complete that it could contain the universe. Over the centuries we've made the church into one human social group among many. We're now something less than the world we live in, and when we talk about that world coming to Christ, we are talking about everyone, as many as possible, becoming members of that limited social group. That's our sin, it seems to me.

"...[W] stand accused in this world. In its rejection of God and the church, the world says, "You Christians cannot give us anything we need. You don't offer us God, you offer us a worldview. And it's a moot point if God is not at its core. You give us instructions on how to live, but they're just as arbitrary as the ones other people give us." We ourselves must become Christian--Christians according to the example of Christ himself, and his disciples. Only then will the Church obtain, not power, that is the capacity to coerce, but authority, the capacity to say words that make the soul tremble and that open up the eternal depths within any soul.

"... We confess faith in Christ, but we've reduced everything to symbols. So, for example, I'm always struck by our Good Friday service: instead of the cross on which a living young man dies, we have a wonderful service that can move us but that actually stands between us and that rude and ghastly tragedy ... Of course that reworking does reach us, but we so easily begin to get a taste for that horror, even deeply experiencing it, being shaken and then regaining our calm; whereas the vision of a living person who is murdered is something quite different. That remains as a wound in the soul, you don't forget it; having seen it, you'll never again be the same as you were. And that is what dismays me. In some sense, the beauty and depth of our worship must break it open, and must lead every believer through that opening to the terrible and majestic secret of what is actually happening."

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

[02.19 AM] Politics is bigger than the parliamentary game - in a comment column reproduced on Ekklesia and in the latest Third Way magazine, Simon Barrow asks what really happens when Christians 'join the party'.