Friday, March 23, 2007


I have just published what I must admit is a fairly dense (though I hope not opaque) essay for Ekklesia entitled What difference does God make today? Let me introduce its purpose in this way: I recall that a number of years ago Peter Selby, then research professor in applied theology at the University of Durham, now Bishop of Worcester, commented to me that today - in an environment where the presumption is widespread that Christian belief as a serious intellectual proposition is finished - all theology needs to be, in a certain sense 'fundamental theology'.

The term has nothing to do with fundamentalism. It is derived from Catholic scholasticism and refers to our accounts of foundational elements of the Christian narrative - the identity and meaning of God, Christ, the Spirit, and so on. What Peter was saying is that people have mostly lost touch with a coherent way of speaking about such things. This is partly because they were assumed rather than argued for in civic 'Christendom culture', and partly because education within the churches has become so thin - at least when it comes to exploring core issues of belief. The upshot is that attempts to speak of Christian perspectives in the public arena have lost their moorings. Many people have ceased to have much of a clue what we in the churches are talking about. To them we speak in a code which they can no longer crack. This is our loss before it is theirs. The onus of communication is on the communicator. Indeed I think things are worse than this. It is frequently observed that communication is indivisible, and in that sense Christians struggle to speak to themselves too, as the appalling 'debates' about sexuality indicate. The Word has become silent, and not in a humbling and chastening way.

More than 60 years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognised this problem. He famously suggested in his prison diaries that it might now be necessary to find ways of expressing biblical ideas in non-biblical language for a post-religious age. His death at the hands of the Nazis tragically truncated his thinking on this and many other matters, but it is fairly plain that he was not talking about some superficial 'demythologisation' programme, or the evacuation of Christian meaning into a hollowed secular shell. Even as he wrote (knowingly) from the depths of Enlightenment culture, and out of one of the darkest hours of modernity, he remained a person sustained and resourced by the deep piety and theologia crucis of Lutheranism.

What he recognised, I think, was that in a world of evolving understanding and cultural autonomy, sustaining the core dynamism of Christian belief is not about building walls around inherited expressions, as if the fleshly Word really was words, but engaging in a process of continual re-expression -- finding ways, if you will, of digging fresh insight from ancient quarries, re-resourcing contemporary speech from the riches we have inherited. David E. Jenkins used to point out that this was, in itself, a biblical procedure. The living God of the Bible, in the words and events of Jesus and the prophets, is always to be encountered in the contemporary, not locked up in 'the biblical'. The language that speaks of a God beyond our grasp will always be fresh and new, and yet will - to those who recognise its resonances - simultaneously reverberate with what has been said and done and performed throughout the ages. (Something like that.)

Anyway, my essay is very far from achieving any of this, and its formulations are probably still too 'religious'. But it is an attempt, heavily indebted to the work of Nicholas Lash, and especially his book Holiness, Speech and Silence, to reconsider "the question of God today" in terms of contemporary philosophical challenges and the demanding call to discipleship - the following of Jesus through thick and thin. The key questions are 'who is God?', 'how do we speak of this God in a work of plurality, pain and darkness?' and 'what distinguishes God-talk that can claim vitality and aspire to truthfulness from the fantasy and non-sense of much religion?'

It's a stab, anyway. And it's based on my growing conviction that a durable theological language is not reductionist but subversively resourceful - in Walter Brueggemann's words, it "funds the postmodern imagination" out of a narrative stock and a grammar which connects us to the continuing liveliness of the God beyond our expectations and grasp - but who nevertheless touches us at the deepest, most vulnerable places of human longing and becoming.

[Apologies for the infelicities in the earlier version of this post - written late at night, and I was tired]

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


In reading Terry Sanderson's Guardian article on the original sin of religion, and in responding to it (Resisting the polarizing mindset), I was brought back to some comments by Catheine Madsen, who is neither Christian nor atheist, from what I gather. She is, however, a wise woman:

[O]ur obligation to our fellow humans is to make our own point of view not unassailable but intelligible. She goes on (in Learning to converse like adults): [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.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


A couple of new review and culture articles from me on Ekklesia: Judas makes another comeback (The story about how Judas has been misrepresented in the Gospels and was mainly trying to rescue Jesus from false notions of messiahood has surfaced again - via a Jeffrey Archer 'novel'); and Endism is nigh, texts are tricky (responding to the apocalyptic non-sense purveyed by a good number of internet Bible sorcerers). There's also a lively debate on writer Dave Hill's excellent weblog Temperama about A. C. Grayling's less than nuanced into the debate about religion - An extended yawn. I normally try to keep clear of this kind of thing, but Dave's helpful post was too much to resist. And Lent is exactly the right time of year of re-negotiate with our temptations. Oh, I should also plug this, too: Current Research: Reconsidering the secular.

Monday, March 19, 2007


That's the title of a new book from my colleague and friend Giles Fraser, pubished by Canterbury press and available to order through the internet here (through Ekklesia's affiliate shop). There's a sample chapter ('Family Values') here, in *.PDF format. Much of the material is derived from columns in the Guardian and the Church Times, along with BBC Radio 4's 'Thought for the Day'. The blurb sums up the overall impact as follows: "Giles Fraser is one of the most passionate and outspoken figures in the church today, and a refreshing antidote to the bland and soggy language of much of modern Christianity - not least, he admits, of his own liberal tradition. Inspired by the fiery language of the Bible, whose writers believed in what they said as if their lives depended in it, here is a real prophet for our times who has the honesty and bottle to say what he believes without hesitation or qualification. In Christianity With Attitude he gets to theological grips with a wide range of subjects including the morality of war, the meaning of death, church committees, sex, atheism, giving up smoking, Bratz girls and why you can't trust Christian cowboys."

Crackpots or cracked pots? (Guardian comment-is-free). Simon Barrow March 19 07, 12:30pm: Those who claim that Christians are being discriminated against are wrong, but not mad. We need careful argument rather than demonisation as the demise of Christendom generates change and uncertainty.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


We are in for another row about public religion, after research commissioned by 'The Heaven and Earth Show' (BBC survey says Christians feel they are discriminated against, 18 Mar 2007) - and a debate being pushed by The Mail on Sunday.

Further responses from Ekkesia: UK Christians urged to be positive not negative about loss of status and Grounds for discrimination? Full press release: Crying 'discrimination' harms churches' message.

Saturday, March 17, 2007


Various additions by Simon Barrow: The History of Christian Thought - Review; a feature article Lords and bishops go a-leaping (reform of the second chamber in the UK); and Current Research: Reconsidering the secular.

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Friday, March 16, 2007


The contested nature and shape of 'the family' in contemporary Christian imagination and practice has been thrown up by many recent arguments in Britain: about the place of LGBT people in the church, in the Catholic adoption row, via the question of children at communion, and more. The careful and thoughtful argument about why magnanimity (rather than exclusion) is at the heart of an alternative vision of family, rooted in the dynamic of the gospels, is set out by Deirdre J. Good in her important new book, Jesus' Family Values. It's available (via the link) from Metanoia's bookshop. Today Ekklesia offers an introductory excerpt: Wrestling biblically with the changing shape of family.

"When I kneel side by side with someone whose construction of family looks radically different from mine, I witness to a God whose ways are not our ways, whose judgments cannot be limited by our finite understanding, whose generosity and creativity must not be circumscribed by our tiny hearts and minds." ...

"Reading ancient texts like the gospels or letters of Paul is hard work. It’s not just a question of investigating ancient sociological or literary contexts; it’s a question of asking critical questions about bringing ancient texts to bear on modern realities. Our interrogation of ancient texts, more often than not, lays bare not so much the texts as our own presuppositions. But our fidelity to these texts and their authority for us makes it imperative that we continue to do it in full awareness of the provisional character of our readings and applications."

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Thursday, March 15, 2007


Respected environmental author Bill McKibben on the US religious right's denial of human influence on climate change, and their attack on faith groups (especially mainstream evangelicals) who are taking up the issue: "[James] Dobson, [Jerry] Falwell, and their ilk are the voice of a Christianity so deeply compromised by its embrace of American materialism that it needs to treat as a threat our brothers and sisters in Christ who come bearing the news of physics and chemistry. Rich Cizik has been faithful in reading the signs of the times, and so it is unsurprising he is under attack. But one way or another, his moral clarity will prevail."

See: Drowning your neighbours? and Dobson and friends get personal on global warming.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007


There are a number of models for how government, politicians and policy specialists can engage with people of different beliefs in modern Britain.

In thinking about these, the All-Parliamentary Humanist Group will be joined by Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian think tank Ekklesia, and by a representative of the new organisation British Muslims for Secular Democracy on 14 March 2007, at the House of Commons.
"Why has the government chosen to engage with ‘faith communities’ in the way that it has, privileging them as communities of identity, extending the right to run state-funded schools to them and encouraging their involvement in the provision of public services and in the formation of public policy? What alternative models for engagement are there?

"The situation here appears more complex than in other western countries, both because of the establishment of the Church of England and its consequences (not least our large number of state-funded Christian schools) and because of the great diversity of belief that exists in the UK today. Things have been further complicated by the difficulties posed by hard-line Islamism."

These and other issues will be explored.

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Sunday, March 11, 2007


The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone. ~ George Eliot (thanks to Maggi Dawn).

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Saturday, March 10, 2007


Two different angles from me on faith and rage: a note about the essays concerned with Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ' in Consuming Passion (here), and a reflection on Jesus' assault on the Temple money system (Violent for peace?). Incidentally, in his Guardian review a few weeks ago, Giles Fraser described Gibson's latest film, 'Apocalypto', as a Mayan follow up to "a Christian snuff movie". Ouch.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


When I wrote this article (A land beyond our possession) I had a number of thoughts in mind - Lent, Jerusalem, and our very human struggles over identity and security, in particular. Given the focus, I naturally single out the difficult issues faced by Christians, Jews and Muslims, the three faith communities who share (or fail to share) what is supposed to be a Holy City, but is all-too-often a site of unholy conflict.

I wanted to add, but it didn't quite seem appropriate in this piece, that non-religious people and those of other faith traditions, in recognising the characteristic sins of the 'peoples of the book', should beware letting themselves off too lightly, either. None of us is sweetly innocent. The traumas of history in the Middle East and elsewhere are the fruit of malign secular politics as much as religious manipulation. Modern history is too complex to yield simple solutions and cosy attributions of blame.

One of the things that worries me about the 'religionists versus secularists' rhetorical battle right now, is that it conveniently lets everybody off the hook. Each 'side' can (and does) selectively blame the other for all the world's ill, using this to leave its own challenges un- or under-examined. The alternative route is to seek difficult relationship across the divides so that we can share responsibility rather than apportioning guilt. This seems much more productive.

When it made peace with established political order, Christianity forgot the history which produced it. It began in occupied Palestine. Its story involved displacement (exile), moving on (mission), sojourning (diaspora), settling (church planting) and journeying (pilgrimage).

Followers of Jesus are, as Stanley Hauerwas has observed, ‘resident aliens’, strangers in the land. They have ‘no abiding city’ and are constantly in search of ‘another country’, a territory free of domination, the New Jerusalem. A Cross marks the place where the contradiction between this freedom quest and the logic of religious and political order is seen at its most deadly.

What we should learn from this is that possession and conquest are not paths to security. Land alone is not hope or glory. To be at home is to be loved, not to be in control. It is in seeking mutual relationship that we learn a fruitful disposition toward each other and toward ‘the land’.

These are very hard lessons. Christians made a tragic mistake when some of them sought to end their early captivity not by exodus, but by buying into empire. They gained the world but lost their souls. And the Jews paid the price, among others.

Similarly, it is a tragedy that some Jewish people now seek to gain security for themselves not by sharing the land with their Semitic neighbours, but by occupying it and building walls.

Likewise, some Muslims seek to recover their dignity not by the spiritual struggle of the heart (which is what jihad truly means) but by a battle for possession involving fear and bombs.

This land, our land, your land, any land will not be made inhabitable if we seize it (by war), any more than it we neglect or despise it (by greed and ecological destruction). It will only bear fruit when we see it, and each other, as a gift to be cherished and shared. In the process that will involve recognizing each others wounds, not just our own.

Such a change of heart may seem unimaginable in a world darkened by the politics of aggressive counter-assertion. But it is what Lent, the willing embrace of the wilderness, is about. Only from a position of voluntary dispossession can we get a true picture of what is at stake in remaking the city as a land for all: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets … how often I have longed to gather your children together… but you were not willing.” (Jesus in Matthew 23)

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007



As part of the development of the new Ekklesia website ( launched on 1 March 2007, we have put together and revised a values statement which spells out where the think-tank and news briefing is 'coming from', so-to-speak. Here it is...

EKKLESIA is an independent public policy think-tank seeking to examine the role of religion in a creatively critical way. It is rooted in the Christian tradition, but not tied to any one denomination or major church body.

Through its commitment to an honest dialogue about faith and politics, Ekklesia is positive about finding common ground with people of other convictions (religious or otherwise), while simultaneously retaining its own distinctive outlook.

In the media Ekklesia has been variously described as ‘liberal’, ‘evangelical’, ‘catholic’, ‘protestant’, ‘left-wing’, 'traditional', 'progressive', and more. This is perhaps the best illustration that the stance it adopts does not fit conventional categories, trying instead to transform received labels.

Ekklesia’s approach to issues of religion in the public sphere is primarily shaped by a strong theological and political critique of ‘Christendom’ – the historic collusion of institutional churches with state power and vice versa.

Instead, through research, publishing and commentary, Ekklesia seeks to reinvigorate a different understanding of the church as an alternative-generating ‘contrast society’ within the wider civic order: one that is politically active, but not seeking dominance.

The Greek word ekklesia denotes a people's assembly within the public square. It is also a key New Testament term for ‘church’, summoning the followers of Jesus Christ to a fresh form of social existence based on mutuality rather than self-aggrandizement. Continued in full here.

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Monday, March 05, 2007


In case you wondered where I've disappeared to, there's been something of a hiatus on FaithInSociety while I reflect on the future of ths weblog in the light of develoipments on my main project, Ekklesia - which, at the beginning of this month, launched a completely new and redeveloped site. This is thanks in no small part to my amazing colleague Jonathan Bartley and to the formidable Joe Baker at Anyway, we have an opportunity on the transformed Ekklesia to run our own blogs, to link others, and to syndicate more. FinS is currently being run through an aggregator down the right-hand column of Ekklesia blogs, which is still in development. There are problems with this, as you will see -- namely the fact that the header formatting gets in the way. Which is why I have started to abandon it from this post, together with the rather arcane numbering system I adopted back in 2003. Also, I'm not sure how and whether the aggregator, which also picks up the Ekklesia MySpace blog [illustrated], needs prompting. - and, if so, how.

All of which is probably of little interest to you, dear reader -- except to say that it probably makes most sense to roll this venture into my Ekklesia blog. So that's the plan. But, as with many plans executed by the willing but not necessarily able, I'm not quite sure whether and how it will work. So I shall keep FinS alive in the meantime, not least while I figure out what to do with the archives. I will, as they say, keep you posted.

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