End game: what matters, your CV or your character?

In the end, what is it about our lives that really matters?

A few days ago I gave a tribute at a Thanksgiving service held in memory of my friend and mentor Monty Barker . A fine psychiatrist, inspirational teacher, and outstanding intellect, Monty  achieved a great deal in life. There was potentially much that could be said by pouring over his CV. But along with other contributors to that service it wasn’t his achievements that I found myself rehearsing in tribute to his life: it was his character.

This put me in mind of the New York Times columnist David Brooks’ recent book about the road to character. In his exploration of the nature and formation of character Brooks contrasts 2 broad classes of virtue. The first class, what Brooks calls ‘resume virtues’, refers to the things we put on our CV: the achievements and skills we bring to the market place; the ‘indicators of esteem’ we amass over our professional career. The second class indexes what Brooks calls ‘eulogy’ virtues: the things they talk about at your funeral.

Brooks contends when people grope around for words to remember us by at our funeral, they don’t focus on our CV virtues. Sure enough, they will be often be cited, sometimes in abundance. But even our greatest achievements will be qualified with references to character as well: ‘he turned his company around from a failing corner shop business to a world-class brand that dominated the market for the better part of 3 decades but …. he always found time for the little people, to say hello, to notice how they were’.

It’s the ‘but’ that’s important. It’s the ‘but’ that gets us beyond the external to something deeper, more significant, more …. eternal. It’s as if the human spirit, forced by death to countenance eternal realities, finds itself defaulting to the search for what has eternal significance. And it isn’t what we achieve. It’s who we are.

Of course, quite often much of what is said at funerals is sentimental fiction, spun through the eyes of spectacles, rose-tinted by grief: ‘He was a wonderful father and husband’ may well gloss a reality that he was married to his job and idolised the wealth that his family shared.

But that isn’t my point. My point is that the human spirit goes searching for these values even when it needs to spin what it finds. When the spectre of another person’s death insists that we face up to our own mortality we sense that what matters, what really matters for all eternity, isn’t what we do. It’s who we are.

In the light of this Brooks invites us to become what he calls ‘stumblers’:

‘External ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve. But the stumblers occasionally experience moments of joy. There’s joy in freely chosen obedience to organizations, ideas and people. There’s joy in mutual stumbling. There’s an aesthetic joy we feel when we see morally good action, when we run across someone who is quiet and humble and good, when we see that however old we are, there’s lots to do ahead.’

In other words, in becoming stumblers we let go of our perfectionist pursuits of achievement and find time to ponder what truly endures.

Monty was a stumbler. Like all of us he struggled with status and approval, and an ingrained quest for recognition. But as others grow less flexible with age, set in their ways, captured by the desire for self-justification, Monty wanted more. In his stumbling he wanted to be better. To be forgiven. To start over again in making a difference in the lives of others and for the Kingdom of God.

That is the road to character. To stumble and then to discover in God’s grace that what really matters is that we see grace, know forgiveness and re-focus around what lasts. And what matters in the end isn’t what we achieve, it’s who we are. That is what people will remember. And that is what will shape the legacy we leave in their lives.

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A Better Story: Faith in the Shadow of the Sexual Revolution

In less than a generation the Christian moral vision – that human beings flourish when sexual interests are boundaried in life-long covenant between a man and a woman – has seen a profound loss of cultural power. Across Western Europe and the US, those who hold to traditional Christian sexual ethics not only find themselves on the wrong side of popular opinion, but allegedly on the ‘wrong side of history’ too.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for Christians with conservative views on sexual ethics to navigate the relationship between private and public spheres of faith. It is not my purpose however to address pressing issues such as rights legislation, reasonable accommodation and freedom of religion here. Instead, I want to take a step back to address the impact of the sexual revolution on evangelicalism itself. The reality is that traditional biblical ethics have not only lost cultural power in wider society, but are now seriously weakened within evangelical communities too.

The sociologist Peter Berger argued that unless ‘cognitive minorities’ (those who hold views dissonant with wider society) take active steps to sustain their internal plausibility structures (the ideas and hidden social interactions that support their particular way of life), they are destined to implode. This, I believe, is what is happening in many areas of modern evangelicalism.

Evangelical (and other orthodox Christian) leaders often seem poorly equipped to deal with the complex ethical, biological and social questions inherent in conversations about marriage and human sexuality. Despite their tradition of ‘Christian mind’, with some notable exceptions, they have displayed little serious academic engagement with these areas. Most important of all, fear of being publicly shamed seems to have silenced many and, in some parts of the Church, the shepherds have elected to referee, rather than to lead, their sheep.

This does not bode well for the future. Without a vision the people perish. So in this brief article I want to ask what needs to be done by evangelicals, for evangelicals. What can be done to stem if not reverse this tide? Can we better understand the times we live in and work out together what we must do?

Understanding the times

A revolution of ideas
Like all revolutions the sexual revolution is rooted in ideas. ‘If you want to change the world,’ Martin Luther King said, ‘pick up a pen and write’. The ideas that have so effectively torpedoed traditional Christian morality are remarkable, however, because not only do they offer new and radical perspectives on what it means to be human, but they lay claim to the moral high ground as well. This observation is important because the sexual revolution is often portrayed as a descent into moral anarchy when what is actually being offered is a new moral vision about the nature of human flourishing. Indeed, the corollary is that it is the old traditional Christian moralities that cause harm, not only hindering human flourishing but promoting beliefs antithetical to it.

There are several strands of thought here. First, in the sphere of radical feminist thought, the Christian moral vision is seen as diminishing women. Tied to a traditional patriarchy in which he brought home the bacon and she cooked it, Christian morality is held to have spawned a culture that neglected the education of girls, shamed single mothers and closeted lesbians. In contrast, the sexual revolution offers freedom from the shackles of patriarchy and a radical new vision of re-invented femininity.

Ancient Gnosticism, which according to theologian Tom Wright has surged to become a ‘controlling myth of our time’, is another philosophical strand at work behind the scenes. In the Gnostic worldview the external worlds of society and religion, and the outer world of one’s own body, are essentially irrelevant. Indeed, they are deceptive and misleading. Beneath layers of cultural and religious accretion there lies buried your real, inner, private ‘self’. So dig deep, liberate the authentic you from the bondage of tradition and become the you that you want to be.

Queer theory, another ideology that drives forward the sexual revolution, is a modern variant form of Gnosticism. Drawing on the work of philosopher Michael Foucoult and thinkers such as Judith Butler , queer theorists construe gender categories as mere social constructions, cultural inventions perpetuated to serve the power plays of the religious and cultural elites that stand behind them. In this understanding there are no compelling biological realities behind these categories, far less any natural, organically embedded norms in which we are supposed to walk. They are the outer layers that need to be cast-off in the search for authenticity.

It is ideas such as these – radical feminism, Gnosticism, and Queer theory – that form the plausibility structures of a new moral order and underpin its vision of human flourishing. We need to get to grips with them. Christian apologetics needs to be about more than cosmology and fine-tuning arguments for the existence of God. In the area of human sexuality we are failing because we are not thinking.

A moral cause
As I noted earlier, the storm troopers of the sexual revolution not only believe they have an intellectual case, but a moral cause as well. The work of social psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt may assist us here.

Haidt suggests that, faced with moral problems, human beings have evolved to think intuitively along a limited number of cognitive systems or channels. One such ‘gut level’ system is concerned with care/harm, asking ‘is anybody getting hurt here?’ The other systems are: concern for fairness; a desire to protect the weak; respect for received wisdom and tradition (‘what have we always believed about this?’); loyalty to those close to us; and an instinctive desire to hold to what is sacred for the good of the community (‘we meddle with this at our cost’).

Haidt has shown that when asked to make moral judgments, human beings differ, often in predictable ways, in the relative weight they give to these different gut level responses. Those on the political liberal left, for example, consistently score highly on moral concerns connected with individual care/harm and equality/fairness. Social conservatives, on the other hand, score highly in respect for tradition and sense of community sacredness (‘it is no use meeting the needs of the a sub-set of the bees if in doing so we destroy the whole hive’).

We experience similar, and entirely predictable, sub-divisions when we debate sexual ethics. Those adopting a conservative stance tend to emphasise the sanctity of marriage and the authority of the bible. Those on the liberal side focus on the suffering of the individual and the need for compassion, fairness and freedom from oppression. And so we talk past one another, and descend further into animus.

To break out of this dynamic, in which one side emphasises one set of values over and against those of the other, evangelical leaders who want to make a more effective case should communicate in terms of the whole spectrum of moral concerns. They must accept that they are often perceived as hard, excluding, and lacking compassion. They need to acknowledge and repent of judgmental attitudes that have made it hard for some to find a home in their families and their fellowships. If they want to gain a hearing, they need to show that their moral concerns are motivated by the same compassion and desire for human flourishing as those on the liberal side.

But then with courage and conviction they must also make the case that compassion for the individual cannot be allowed to trump the wider social goods that hinge upon the defence of sacred values (such as Christian marriage). In other words, they need to find winsome language for their convictions that it is no use meeting the needs of a subset of the bees if in doing so we destroy the whole hive. That is not compassion it is emotionally driven folly and it is ultimately destructive of human flourishing.

Narrative power

Finally, we need to understand that the sexual revolution has narrative power. According to the philosopher Charles Taylor, facts woven together in the form of narrative have additional persuasive power. So in order to counter narratives effectively it is not enough simply to offer rival evidence and data – you need to tell a different story .

The sexual revolution is not held in the popular imagination as a list of facts – it is held as a story. It is a story about the freeing of the human spirit from the stifling shame of Christian tradition. It contains sub-plots with heroes who had the courage to swim against the tide of hatred and prejudice, and villains who tried to bring them down. These stories are narrated, over and over, through sitcoms and romcoms, in documentaries and drama. In response we have often deployed complicated arguments, or listed the ‘deviances’ and the diseases. This simply doesn’t work. We have to tell a different story. A better story that appeals to imagination as well as intellect.

So what must we do?

A better critique
First, we need a better critique, one that starts by addressing the sexual revolution on its terms, rather than our own. We should be ready to humble ourselves. Where it challenged Christian shame culture, judgmentalism and hypocrisy, we need to take it on the chin and show that we are genuinely ready to learn and change. Only then will we gain a hearing when we ask whether the sexual revolution delivered the freedom, equality and flourishing that it promised?

For example, what happened to the promise of sexual liberation? In his book ‘Sex by Numbers’ the statistician David Spiegelhalter presents compelling evidence that over the past 30 years sex as a recreational activity has actually been in steady decline. The sexual revolution promised more sex, but actually delivered less.

More seriously, what has been the impact on children? The sexual revolution promised fairness and equality but in reality the collapse of marriage has helped to heap structural injustices and inequalities on the most vulnerable of all – our children.

Marriage – having a mum and a dad bound together by promises of life-long fidelity – is good for children. Of course some individual marriages are very bad for a child; and some non-traditional family arrangements (such as adoptive same-sex parents) can be very good for a child. But in the round the evidence suggests that the welfare of children is best served by a culture of strong marriages.

As the sexual revolution got underway divorce rates rocketed in the 1960’s and 1970’s and it is still the case that 42% of marriages will end in divorce. By the age of 16, only one half of children are now found living with both their mother and father. Individual studies need to be interpreted carefully of course, but the evidence is overwhelming – divorce is generally very bad news for children .

With the rise of cohabitation the news gets worse still. A smaller percentage of people married in 2008 than in any year since records began – cohabitation is the new norm . According to data from the Marriage foundation , only one quarter of couples that first marry and then have children split apart. In contrast, independent of mothers’ age and education, over one half of those who give birth and then marry split up, and over 2/3 of those never marrying eventually split up.

The difficulty for the children of these torn relationships is that most will live in lone parent households, usually without a stable father figure. Men who are not married to the mother of their children are much less likely to invest financially, practically, and emotionally in those children’s lives . And we simply cannot escape the significant associations between fatherlessness, poverty and low education .

The simple genius of marriage is that it binds men to their responsibilities for the children they help to bring into the world. Single mothers do a wonderful job, of course they do. And many children will be better off with a single mother than a feckless, abusive father. But we cannot remain silent about the ideal that overall, in the round, kids do best with both a mother and a father in the home. There, I’ve said it.

Of course these data raise all kinds of methodological questions – not least the question of causation. Does marriage produce virtues of faithfulness and commitment, or is it simply the case that people who possess these virtues are more likely to get married? We will never completely disentangle these questions but it is becoming increasingly clear that ‘both-and’ explanations are needed. It needn’t be one or the other.

There are things that government must do in terms of child support, education, and reducing income inequalities. And there are things we must all do to promote a strong marriage culture, especially one that cements expectations that boys and young men develop the virtues of commitment and faithfulness that will help bind them to their responsibilities.

We could continue to interrogate the fall-out of the revolution across several other areas, not least the scandal and tragedy of the pornogaphication and sexualisation of childhood. But I am going to conclude by returning to the central question of whether, in the face of these failings, evangelicals have anything better to offer of their own?

A better story

Those holding to the biblical moral vision for sex and marriage need to tell a better story. Our culture has a good sense of what we are against, but what are we for? In the biblical worldview, what is sex is for? What is marriage for? What are families for?
There can be no ‘going backery’, no return to some bucolic moral paradise of the 50’s that never existed. The challenges of the sexual revolution call for a radical re-imagination of the biblical narrative about sex, marriage and flourishing. But what might this look like? I can only sketch the bare bones here, but our narrative needs to be framed with renewed conviction that the gospel really is good news; that it conveys truth about human flourishing; that it offers life for the world.

First, our vision is that we have not been left alone in the darkness of self-construction. If the Universe is essentially meaningless, devoid of order or any natural way of things, then indeed we must self-construct as best we can. And the sexual revolution has furnished us with a smorgasbord of sexual identities to enrich our choice. You can take your pick and when you grow tired, simply choose another. But when this freedom turns into a terrifying hall of mirrors, a treadmill of endless re-invention, then the good news is that God has not left us alone. In Scripture he not only reveals who he is, he shows us who we are as well: he speaks our identity to us.

And so, in the Christian narrative, the nurturing of personal identity is cradled in the knowledge that we have been created, male and female, in the image and likeness of God himself. As we venture on our unique journeys into the world of relationships and community, we do so knowing that God has set boundaries around the expression of our sexual interests, good boundaries necessary for our wellbeing and for the nurture of children. We can harness data from the social sciences to buttress our case here.

Second, we must be prepared to say that because we live in a broken, fallen world the Christian call to discipleship is never easy but it is always good. Our dislocation from God has taken its toll in our physical, intellectual and emotional natures; in confused appetites and desires; and for some in the deeply painful dissonance of gender confusion. But the good news is that we are equally welcome in the big-tent hospitality of the Grace of God.

God’s grace always accepts us as we are but never leaves us as we are. That is why the radical demands of Christian discipleship are always good. The journey may be long, slow and painful, but the Gospel casts the vision that one day we will truly come home. And those who persevere to the end will not be only saved, but in holy flesh they will see the face of God himself.

This narrative needs to populated with heroes as well– those who have the courage to swim against the tide of the zeitgeist; those inspired by the gospel to discover for themselves the blessings of obedience and submission. Brave young people with the guts to stand up to consumerist sex and stand out against today’s identity politics.

And finally, we must be ready to fire people’s imagination. The bible tells us that these holy ways of living are vivid allegories of the Gospel that stands behind them. They are signposts, images, and gateways to the Gospel. In the book of Ephesians, for example, the Apostle Paul tells us that in the faithful coming together of male and female as ‘one flesh’, married couples are made signposts to the mystery of God’s life-giving, covenantal love for us in Christ. In other words, God has etched the story of His love for His people into the shape of their most intimate physical relationships.

When we live out these faithful, covenanted ways of life we tell the story of God’s love in our own flesh – over and over again. And those who heroically embrace chastity so long as they remain single also bear witness to the greater reality that God’s passionate love is always covenantal. And so we not only tell the story of the Gospel with our words, but in our relationships we put it on display.

We must never abandon the public square because the goods of the Christian moral vision are for everybody and not just for ourselves. But first it needs to be re-vitalised in our own hearts and lives, in our churches, in the work of pastors and teachers, and youth groups and house groups. And there is much work to be done in challenging the compromises of the past, not least in attitudes to divorce and the scandal of our casual approach to extra-marital sex.

A daunting task? We have been here before. Two thousand years ago the belief that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead inspired Christians to create a culture – the way they treated women, children, the sexually exploited, slaves and the poor – so attractive to Pagans that by the fourth century A.D. an entire empire was on the edge of faith.

Of course there are many questions. And there are good ways and there are bad ways of making our case. We shall need wisdom as well as courage. But for the sake of our children, for the sake of the Gospel, for the life of the world, the biblical moral vision is a story we must now be prepared to tell all over again.

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Why Gratitude is good for you

‘Congratulations on owning a new i-phone 6!’ Right then, a gushing ‘congratulations’ from the Apple call-centre was the last thing I wanted to hear. With my beautiful new phone reduced to a sorry spiders web of cracked and splintered glass, forget congratulations – I wanted commiserations.

And then I wanted answers. Could they mend it? Would rumours that it meant a brand new replacement costing over £250 turn out to be true? How long would it take? And I wanted a response please in rather less than the 20 minutes already spent being shifted around Apple support’s robot algorithms.

And yet … as the conversation progressed I realized that the word ‘congratulations’ had worked a strange magic. At a stroke, it seemed, Apple’s scripted exercise in brand awareness had deflated my frustration, re-framed my perspective, and subverted my ego-absorption. I felt different.

Overwhelmed by the small disappointment of a cracked screen (it turned out that it could easily be replaced) I’d forgotten that I was blessed to be among the top few percent of the world’s population for wealth and prosperity. Be thankful. OK, it was going to hurt my wallet to fix my new phone, as only Apple knows how, but I could afford it. It was my pride and need for control that was being hurt, not my wallet.

This trivial incident is a powerful reminder of the ways of the fallen heart and the medicine it needs. Shower us with the brightest and the best and we remain self-absorbed, discontented, ungrateful souls. As Bart Simpson would say before supper: ‘Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves so thanks for nothing’.

In contrast, the bible presents the cultivation of gratitude as one of the core disciplines of the Christian life. ‘Overflowing’ with gratitude, we are called to give thanks ‘always’ and for ‘everything’ (Eph 5:20) in ‘whatever [we] do’ (Col 3:17). We are called to be grateful because it is the right thing to do: a spirit of thankfulness acknowledges the sovereignty of God and asserts the dependency of his creatures. It positions grace at the very centre of our spiritual journey.

But it turns out that cultivating a grateful spirit is a good thing to do as well. Psychologists are beginning to uncover how cultivating gratitude benefits mental health and wellbeing. This must never be our primary motivation, of course, but these developments should encourage us on our journey. Here’s how it works.

First, gratitude changes our psychological posture. Like physical posture, our psychological posture (or mind-set) is the way we incline toward the world. It determines what we see and how we see it. Gratitude forces us to shift posture because it is a powerful subverter of the control, autonomy and entitlement that sits so naturally with the fallen mind.

Being thankful creates a state of psychological dissonance. You cannot cede control in gratitude whilst at the same moment grasping onto it. You cannot recognise the gracious act of the giver whilst asserting your entitlement to their gift. It’s one or the other – you cannot have both. The act of saying ‘thank you’ dispels pride and entitlement, instead nudging us toward the virtues of humility, dependence and submission.

Second, gratitude appears to exert a positive effect on mood and general wellbeing. For example, in one of his studies in this area, the psychologist Robert Emmons, randomised subjects to 1 of 3 journaling tasks. Those in the first group were instructed to keep a record of the events and circumstances of the day for which they were grateful and then to meditate thankfully by ‘counting their blessings’; the second kept a record of ‘hassles of the day’; and the third a list of neutral events. When Emmons compared the outcomes across a range of mental health indicators several weeks later, the gratitude group scored significantly higher in several sectors, reporting a more positive and optimistic mood overall.

Let’s be clear, learning to cultivate gratitude in this way isn’t a cure-all and it is unlikely to make much impression on entrenched depression. We don’t know how well benefits are sustained over the longer term. And it is probably better to start to practice the discipline of gratitude in this way when life is going well, rather than in the depths of despair or when confronting trauma and loss. This is a liturgy that needs to be cultivated gradually, day be day, month my month, year after year patiently re-constructing a psychological posture of thankfulness.

But what might a regular liturgy of contemplative gratitude look like? It starts with the decision, let’s say for 10 minutes every day, to inhabit the present moment. Gratitude wrenches us out of the future with its endless planning and forces us back into the present. Put down the iPhone, close the calendar, put aside the ‘to-do’ list and pause in God’s presence

Second, think intentionally about what is good: about God; the Gospel and about your life circumstances right now. Literally counting our blessings in this way imposes a positive cognitive filter on our relationship with the world, forcing us to go looking, intentionally, for what is good. It summons us to locate, and then to contemplate, the ‘ten thousand places’ where we happen upon the grace of Christ every day of our lives.

G.K Chesterton, for example, reveled in the goodness that he discovered dancing everywhere around him:

‘ I like the cyclostyle ink, it is so inky. I do not think there is anyone who takes such fierce pleasure in things being themselves as I do. The startling wetness of water excites me; the fieriness of fire, the steeliness of steel, the unutterable muddiness of mud…’

The language of gratitude forces us to slow into the present moment, to discern what is true, what is noble, what is right, pure, lovely, admirable – and then to notice them.

Third, and finally, offer words of thanks to God as the author and giver of all that is good. Take moments to imagine his gracious face, his open, bountiful nature, and his self-giving posture of generosity. Affirm the gifts around you as tangible evidence of his goodness- see them, touch them, savor them. Say thank you over and over, moving back and forth between the gift and the Giver.

A posture of thankfulness should not undermine a sense of personal achievement built upon our efforts and determination. When the fruits of our labour have blessed others, and brought life to the world, we should stand ready to receive their gratitude as well as praise from God himself.

But then pause to remember the grace-drenched context of your achievements- you did it in His strength, drawing on His encouragement and inspiration, motivated by His pleasure and delight. You probably used the fruits of other people’s labour too – the Chinese technician who assembled the keyboard on which you write, the Brazilian sailor who manned the container ship that carried it across oceans, the Polish van driver who knocked on your door. Give thanks for them and for their labour. Position your efforts in the context of the Sovereignty of God – for what do you have (your skills, aptitudes, even your dogged determination) that you did not in some sense also receive (1 Cor 4:7)?

That’s it. Ten minutes a day is a long time for an ungrateful heart. But if we want to train the heart to aim well, to default in the midst of life’s challenges with a godly spirit of thankfulness, here is a liturgy that is right and good. Good for you, good for others and good for the life of the world. And as an added bonus, after a few years, the ink may begin to appear a little, well, inkier.

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Why we need to pray for journalists

‘I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people’ (1 Tim 2:1)

Last night I watched the TV dramatisation of events that took place 4 years ago less then a quarter of a mile from where I am sitting right now. In the ‘Lost honour of Christopher Jefferies’ (second part follows tonight) we encounter the story of how an innocent man, a retired Clifton College schoolmaster and Landlord of the flat from which 25 year old Joanna Yeates had disappeared, was hounded by a mob of journalists baying for his blood.

Cruelly portrayed in the press at the time as a ‘creepy’, marginal individual with a shifty demeanour and unusual hairstyle, he was noted to love ‘poetry’ and, perhaps most damningly of all, to be ‘a member of a the Prayer Book Society‘ (an organisation that promotes the book of Common Prayer).

Oh, and he hailed from Grimsby. This, as it happens is my own place of birth (along with Norman Lamont and Ian Huntley, the convicted Soham murderer) but I believe that even this Press Witch-Hunt failed to spot that particular piece of guilt-by-association.

In the wake of the Milly Dowler affair, the wider phone hacking scandal, the Leveson disclosures, and the seedy, whisky-soaked, dog-eats-dog culture caricatured in Private Eye, the events portrayed here are yet another low point in the sorry tale of British journalism. No wonder that the mother of Paul Vallely, a journalist writing for the Independent, rang him up to tell him that she was ‘praying for him’.

Those who have been bruised and embittered by the rough justice, or rather injustice, dolled out in the court of journalistic mob opinion might feel that prayer is too good for the likes of them. But for most of us I guess it just sounds hopelessly sanctimonious, patronising and out of touch. Either too lazy, cowardly, devious or intellectually challenged to engage with the issue directly, we blandly reassure our opponents that we will invoke the services of the Almighty in their favour.

But we should be praying for them. The Apostle Paul urged Christian believers to make petitions, intercessions and thanksgivings for all people, and especially those in positions of power (‘for kings and all those in authority’ (1 Tim 2:2)). He was echoing Jeremiah’s prophetic call to his own people being carried off into captivity to pray for the ‘prosperity and peace’ of their place of exile: ‘because if it prospers, you too will prosper’ (Jer 29:7).

In a liberal democracy such as ours journalism is a critical load bearer in the power structures that support our way of life. At its very best, journalism pursues the facts without fear or favour, speaks truth to power, and exposes the endemic hypocrisy and deceitfulness of the human spirit. Think Watergate, the expenses scandal, the abuse of vulnerable residents in care homes. The list is endless.

But at its worst, journalism panders to the instinctive self-righteousness that almost always motivates the all-too-easy slide into mob-rule. Human beings have a deeply rooted sense of moral propriety. When we believe ourselves to be unobserved, we are capable of chilling levels of callousness, deviousness and disregard. But in the public eye what matters more than almost anything else is to be seen to be good and virtuous: as psychologists such as Mark Leary have shown, we are obsessively concerned with what others think of us and capable of harnessing powerful psychological mechanisms of self-justification.

The public shaming of such as Jefferies affords a quick and easy opportunity to parade our righteousness before others, and before ourselves. The personal cost is a quick tweet or a head-shaking scan of the headlines. As a means to feel good about ourselves, it’s simply too hard to resist. And the Jefferies affair is a chilling reminder of how easily those who are supposed to deploy truth as a bulwark against the self-righteousness of the mob are themselves so easily made victims of its psychology.

This phenomenon is too frightening a prospect to be left to (necessary) Inquiries such as Leveson and to calls for yet more regulation supposed to ‘ensure this never happens again’. So long as the human spirit remains snarled in sin, it is always going to happen again. Always.

Which is why, for all the risks of sounding patronising and hopelessly sanctimonious, I think Paul Vallely’s mother was right. Christians do need to pray for journalists, along with all those who deploy institutional power. We are called to bless, honour and offer ‘thanksgiving’ for them. To respect and look for the best in the profession. To pray for  wisdom, courage, integrity and a love of truth among those who work in it. To ask that our brightest and best will give their lives to this calling; that they will be graced with insight to detect humbug; and endowed with humility to acknowledge error and make good when harm has been done.

So let’s add journalists to our prayer lists because when journalism prospers, we all prosper. When journalists flourish, in the true Aristotelian sense of bringing benefit and life to others, we all flourish.  The season of Advent, when Christians anticipate the final revealing of the truth of all things, may well be a particularly good time to make a start.

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Support for slavery and support for traditional marriage: 2 sides of the same coin?

As pressure mounts on the Church to change its convictions about the sanctity of marriage, and the sacredness of celibacy outside of marriage, one of the arguments often deployed by revisionists is the analogy with slavery.

Just a few days ago a clergyman explained to me how, in the past, the Bible had been used to support slavery and regrettably the same was happening today with same-sex marriage. The idea seemed to be that, ‘as everybody knows’, the Bible is a self-contradictory pandoras box of culture-bound prejudices, and so when a particular reading of the Bible falls out of fashion the offending texts need to be re-examined and ‘proclaimed afresh’  in line with the zeitgeist.

It’s a frequently heard argument but does it stand up to scrutiny? It is certainly the case that, in the past, Churches and Christian leaders used the Bible to support slavery in the European colonies and in particular North America. As their work demonstrates, Bible verses can be decontextualised and re-cast in support of almost any injustice you care to mention. The response of mainstream Churches to the rise of Hitler in Germany is another (more recent) case illustration of how the message of the Bible can be re-cast to ‘get with the programme’ of popular culture and political expediency.

Interestingly, it has often been the mainstream Churches, those closest to the establishment, that have felt most under pressure to update their convictions to reflect contemporary culture. Thus, one of the strongest supporters of the ‘biblical’ case for slavery in the 19th Century was the American Episcopal Church (TEC). After all, Jesus didn’t say anything about slavery, did he?

And so, in common with others, my clergy friend was arguing that these historic abuses of scripture provide an analogy with the situation today. Once again an outmoded, culture-bound, and ultimately indefensible reading of the Bible is  being used to oppress the weak and vulnerable, in this case people who identify as LGBTQIAetc.

But if you think about it, the case of Churches’ support for slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries may be used to make  the opposite case too. These abuses of the reading of scripture may also be viewed as a historical equivalent of the readiness of some Churches today (such as TEC)  to compromise traditional moral convictions (about marriage and celibacy) to accommodate cultural pressure for change. There are a number of reasons to suppose this may be the better analogy.

First, when slavery was introduced into the Colonies, it had already largely died out in Christian Europe. Of course, the history of slavery in Christendom is complex, not least its definition, and  for centuries various forms of involuntary servitude functioned alongside other problematic labour structures, such as bonded labour and serfdom. And in their attitudes toward the social institution of slavery, early Church Fathers took various positions ranging between different forms of accommodation to outright condemnation.

But among Christian believers, within the community of the Church itself, slavery quickly fell into disuse. As Christians read the ethical trajectory of scripture, ending with Paul’s letter to Philemon and his unequivocal condemnation of slave-trading, they began to responded radically in this, as other areas (e.g. their high view of marriage), in the way they organised their community life together.

As a result, the practice of slavery crumbled within Christian communities and, by the time of the Christianisation of Europe in the middle ages, traditional slavery had largely died out. Thus, in 1102 trade in slaves and serfdom was condemned by the church in London (Council of London), and then later, after the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, Clause 30,  Habeas Corpus, created the basis of a law against slavery in English common law. In 1435, a Papal Encyclical – Sicut Dudum – of Pope Eugene IV banned enslavement on pain of excommunication. There are many other examples of the gradual withering of institutionalised slavery in the economic and social structures of Western Europe.

And so it can be argued that the the introduction of slavery to the Colonies under pressure of economic expediencies represented a push-back, a kind of revisionism, against what had become the mainstream of practice in Europe.

Second, not all Churches supported slavery in the Colonies. Some evangelicals such as Wesley and later Wilberforce, were firmly and resolutely opposed. It was they who stood in the central tradition of Christian teaching and practice on this issue in Europe and who fought the revisionists of the time.

Of course, let’s be clear this certainly isn’t a simple Evangelical versus the rest thing : George Whitfield’s views (and other New England Puritans) on slavery were famously ambiguous and open to question. My point is simply that marriage revisionists who raise the example of the Church’s accommodation to slavery may be highlighting a precedent for what they themselves are doing today, namely playing fast and loose with the ethical teachings of the scripture to conform to cultural pressures for change.  The brave and prophetic stance of such as Wesley and Wilberforce is an inspiring reminder that others, too, have swum against the cultural tide.

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The Church of England’s Gospel of Human Flourishing: Whatever Became of of Sin?

One of the centre-piece debates at the General Synod of the Church of England in July focused on the Christian imperative to pursue the ‘Common Good’.

Early in the afternoon, Jim Wallis, President of Sojourners, gave a plenary address. His talk was inspirational, refreshing and humorous although, in truth, given his reputation I was expecting more substance.

Fortunately, when we got to the debate itself,  a well-researched background paper from the Mission and Public Affairs Council of the Church grounded the concept of the Common Good with greater intellectual coherence. The paper suggested that ‘at the heart of “common good” thinking is a commitment to “intermediate institutions” – structures much smaller than the state but much wider than individuals and their families, which are substantial enough to be part of how people define the values they share.’

This is a stimulating and and heuristically helpful idea. The paper is saying that the Church exemplifies the kind of intermediate community  made necessary when we  strike a political balance between too much government on the one hand, and too much individualism on the other. It challenges us to create, or rather to be, the kind of bridging community envisioned in the manifestos of political thought leaders such as Philip Blond (‘red Tory’) and Maurice Glasman (‘blue Labour’). So far, so good.

Then, building on the paper during the debate itself, Justin Welby underscored the Gospel’s compelling call to Christians to serve their communities in deed as well as word:

‘To commit to speaking of the common good is not enough; we must also commit to live it, not only in the actions and the parishes, but in the whole way we live out our common life as the church.’

I was challenged. I pay lip-service to the injustices of poverty and inequality but what am I really doing about it?  It’s easy to talk the talk, but how do I really contribute, beyond words and good intentions, to building tangible good in the lives of others? The description of ‘pure religion’ in the Epistle of James stung and hit home in a way it hadn’t done before:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1: 27 ESV)

The message was clear and uncompromising. I needed to get my sleeves rolled up.

And yet, without wanting for one moment to let myself off of the hook of that compelling call, as I reflected upon the day’s events, I grew increasingly uncomfortable. Something was missing. Jim Wallis alluded to it, but didn’t really address it.

It was the ‘S’ word.

In stark contrast to what I heard in the debate, the Old Testament Prophets had no fear of exposing injustice and poverty whilst also naming the corporate and personal sin that lay behind it.  In fact, they weave together the language of sin, service and social justice:

‘Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow.…’ (Is 1: 16-17)

And James’ vision of ‘pure religion’, too, is an ambitious amalgam of far-reaching engagement with the needs of the world on the one hand and an unyielding commitment to personal holiness on the other.  Our hands need to get dirty with the personal and structural sin of our world, but they must never be stained by it.

So in the Church’s proclamation, whatever became of sin? Forty years ago, Karl Menninger, one of the great innovating practitioners and humanistic thought leaders of 20th Century Psychiatry, famously wrote a book entitled ‘Whatever became of sin?’ He observed:

“In all of the laments and reproaches made by our [modern] seers and prophets, one misses any mention of ‘sin,’ a word which used to be a veritable watchword of prophets. It was a word once in everyone’s mind but now rarely if every heard. Does that mean that no sin is involved in all our troubles—sin with an ‘I’ in the middle? Is no one any longer guilty of anything? Guilty perhaps of a sin that could be repented of or atoned for?… Anxiety and depression we all acknowledge, and even vague guilt feelings; but has no one committed any sins? Where, indeed, did sin go? What became of it?” 

Menninger lamented the loss of the notion of personal sin in general public discourse. But now, the same hole appears at the centre of the Church’s contemporary discourse on the Common Good too. Nowhere have I heard explained, or unpacked, the relationship between the Common Good and Gospel proclamation that confronts us individually and corporately with our sin and calls us to repentance.

True, in the Synod debate and discussions, the point was made, more than once, that when those we serve are inspired to ask us about our motivation, we stand ready to explain that the love of Christ constrains us.  But beyond that, where was the passion, the ‘searing vision’, the inspiration to take into the world the life-giving Word of salvation from sin and personal transformation to holiness? The scriptures hold forth no ultimate vision of human flourishing gutted of the problem of sin. I may have blinked – but if the problem of human sin was addressed, I missed it.

What is going wrong here? There are many reasons but briefly here are two of them. First, inevitably, in the mixed economy of tradition and theologies that characterise the Church of England, a shared vision has to shrink around the lowest common denominator. My liberal anglican friends seem uncomfortable with the language of personal sin and salvation, so inevitably our joint platforms tend to pivot around what we hold in common: in this case a shared understanding that we serve men and women who are fundamentally loved as bearing the image of God himself. And in doing so we witness to, and incarnate, the love of God for all. This is profoundly true, but for evangelical anglicans (and for traditional catholics) it is Gospel-lite.

Second, there is a great deal of discomfort, and rightly so, about Christian service being offered as a condition of receiving the Gospel call. Our love must be unconditional and our service offered freely to all. The ‘rice Christians’ of past missionary endeavour – those who professed faith to fill their stomachs rather than their hearts’ – stand as a warning against that. And it’s just plain wrong. But this is a problem that needs addressing, not avoiding. The relationship between individual sin and the injustices of poverty and suffering is complex and needs some careful qualification, but that doesn’t make it a no-go area.

I couldn’t help comparing the vision being offered by General Synod with that of great evangelical social reformers of the past such as John Wesley and William Booth. Booth, within just 3 decades of starting his ministry in 1865 established a massive network of social services, defeated one of the great ‘Wongas’ of his day ( by bringing an end to the infamous use of white phosphorus in the British manufacture of safety matches) and unmasked and fought the white slave trafficking of girls as young as thirteen. His great ‘I’ll fight’ sermon at the end of his life in 1912 stands as a soaring testimony to his devotion to the Common Good:

“While women weep, as they do now,
I’ll fight
While little children go hungry, as they do now,
I’ll fight
While men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now,
I’ll fight
While there is a drunkard left,
While there is a poor lost girl upon the streets,
While there remains one dark soul without the light of God,
I’ll fight-I’ll fight to the very end!”

William Booth was one of the greatest warriors for the Common Good in all of Christian history. And yet it was Booth who also said:

‘To get a man soundly saved it is not enough to put on him a pair of new breeches, to give him regular work, or even to give him a University education. These things are all outside a man, and if the inside remains unchanged you have wasted your labour…’

I don’t actually agree with Booth that you have wasted your labour, because you have witnessed to the love of Christ and incarnated the same unconditional compassion he showed during his ministry. But the passion to see souls saved clearly sat at the very core of Booth’s motivation and framed the scope and scale of his ambition. His passion for souls was welded to his service of the Common Good, but it was precisely this bridge, explored intellectually, and expressed passionately, that was missing at Synod.

I don’t doubt for one moment that the Archbishop shares Booth’s vision for the salvation of souls. In words and action, Welby has done much to promote evangelism as being integral to the Church’s mission. And the excellent resourcing paper from the Mission and Public Affair’s Council I cited above recognises the challenge of integrating evangelism with service in a quote from William Temple:

‘If we have to choose between making men Christian and making the social order more Christian, we must choose the former. But there is no such antithesis.’ 

But in a Synod that sought to raise the Church’s game, envisioning and equipping us for service, the challenge to resolve that antithesis, bringing a sense of theological coherence to the imperatives that drive the Church’s mission, remained strangely unexplored. To do so, we need to re-discover the courage to use the ‘S’-word. Because the gospel of human flourishing, gutted of sin and repentance, is really no Gospel at all.


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Sexuality and the Politicisation of Science

Very shortly, in Dioceses across the Church of England, ‘Shared Conversations’ on the Church’s approach to sexuality will start to take place. To the best of my knowledge the topics to be discussed have yet to be decided.  We can be sure however that at some point, with comments such as ‘in the light of new scientific insights’ or ‘well, as studies have shown’, people on all sides of this debate will reference the claims of science. But what does the science actually tell us about this issue?

The use of science in the theological exploration of human sexuality has a long and controversial history. On one side of the debate, speculative concepts of illness and pathology have been used to marginalise and humiliate people that society considers to be different. On the other side, some revisionist theologians have deployed science to imply that the Bible no longer has anything relevant to say on this issue. So we need to think carefully about how science works, and what it can actually contribute to serious theological debate. And more importantly, we need to be vigilant to the way that science can be used (on all sides) for political leverage.

Science in a social world

Ideas are born and transmitted in human cultures and within social contexts. Sometimes, when social conditions are especially favourable, new ideas can spread like a viral epidemic. Even when evidence to the contrary emerges, a notion may have become so popular and culturally acceptable that people now just want to believe it. As the sociologist Peter Berger observed, once an idea has entered into the conversational fabric of a culture at a ‘well everybody knows that don’t they?’ level, it’s extremely difficult to maintain objectivity.

 We prefer to think that scientific ideas stand aloof from the social processes that bias thinking in other areas. The process of discovery, we believe, is overseen by a scientific community dedicated to objectivity and guided by the strict codes of the scientific method. Here, the objective cartographers of reality test and probe, sift and search, discard the useless and preserve the good. In contrast to the cynical old hacks dominating the media, and the foul-mouthed spin-doctors controlling politics, scientific knowledge producers can be trusted to tell it how it is. But is that how it works in the real world?

True, under strictly controlled conditions individual ‘facts’ can indeed be subjected to scientific scrutiny, sifted and then tested objectively. The scientific method has delivered an incredible array of social goods for our civilisation. I am certainly not seeking to undermine the ability of the scientific method, strictly applied, to get through and beyond our social biases. 

But in complex areas like the study of human behaviour, individual facts have to be merged to create bigger facts, or stories, which are more difficult to test under controlled conditions. And it’s here, as ideas get strung together to tell stories about reality, that bias potentially kicks in. 

Scientists are susceptible to the same desires for social acceptability, and the prestige hierarchies, that seduce the rest of us, and this can lead to biases in decisions about which hypotheses get picked for further research, which results are repeated rather than ignored, and how much visibility is given to any findings. It’s well know, for example, that in the past pharmaceutical companies did not always publish the findings of all the studies they had carried out, leading to concerns that less favourable data about their products were being selectively withheld.

Social factors play into how scientific findings are publicised in the media and then get into the ‘conversational fabric’ of the general population as well. Once media and social elites have settled on a particular way of looking at the world, it may be more socially acceptable to give priority to some study results; to repeat the findings we like and ignore the ones we don’t. And once the latest scientific discovery has broken through into popular culture it may assume a life of its own, surviving in the popular imagination long after there has been a severe weakening of the evidence behind it.

So in the contentious area of human sexuality especially, we need to exercise extreme care when somebody claims scientific support for what they are asserting. There’s no substitute for going back to the facts, asking some hard questions, and then deciding for ourselves.

 Science and morality

We need to be especially careful when the findings of science are used in moral reasoning. Science can help us to map and investigate our experiences, but it can’t interpret them or answer questions of moral value. Science can help us to understand factors that predispose us to experiencing certain attractions, and it can make predictions about the outcomes of different courses of action, but it can’t tell us what we should actually do about our wants and desires. These are different categories of analysis and we need to be careful not to confuse them. So when we hear the latest claims about science and ‘what we now know’, we should handle with care: science can’t settle the moral status of human sexual interests.

A gay gene?

The notion that there is a gay gene is a particularly good example of how preliminary scientific findings can be seized upon, politicised and then embedded in culture as an indisputable fact that ‘everybody knows’ is true. 

Over 20 years ago one particular study[i] claimed to have found a specific gene linked to male sexual orientation. It was never replicated but it helped to spawn the idea that there are just 2 groups of people – gay or straight – whose sexual interests and attractions are somehow fixed genetically at birth. Let’s look into this a little further. 

The ‘born that way’ theory implies that genes (or some other biological factor) directly ‘cause’ same-sex attraction. In fact, over the past 2 decades, as the methodology of studies has improved, the evidence for a genetic cause of same-sex attraction has weakened considerably. The best available evidence taken from more carefully sampled twin populations[ii] suggests that genes contribute to the development of our sexual desires and interests – just as they contribute to the development of personality traits such as humility and compassion – but can’t be considered to be a ‘cause’ in any direct sort of way. Whatever our attractions and instinctive interests, sexual or otherwise, these are almost certainly the result of a complex interplay between genes and environment[iii]. And of course all kinds of factors come into play (including personal moral reasoning and agency) when we decide whether, and how, to act upon our attractions and desires.

 The ‘born gay’ theory also implies that, in every case, sexual interests are fixed and inflexible. But more recent and more reliable surveys (all of them have problems of accuracy) now seem to suggest that bisexuality is the most common minority sexual identity label chosen by women[iv].

Further, researchers such as Lisa Diamond argue that there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that for some men, too, sexuality can be experienced as more fluid and changeable[v]. A self-identified lesbian and active supporter of gay marriage, in a recent radio interview Diamond argues:

“The queer community has been obsessed with cultivating the idea that we all have fixed sexual identities. We’ve crafted terrific narratives and political platforms based on the notions that all gays are ‘born that way’. But what if sexuality is more complex? What if biology actually intersects with environment, time, culture and context? Could we possibly be more fluid than we’ve supposed?”

And the lesbian feminist Julie Bindel recently provoked a minor storm among advocates still wedded to the ‘born gay’ theory, by declaring ‘there is no gay gene’ and that for her lesbianism is a ‘choice’[vi].

Reflecting this cultural shift a new generation of young people has grown intolerant of labels and categories and, by tagging an endless string of additional letters onto the old ‘LGBT’, underscored the variations and fluidity of sexual experience[vii]. Even in the gay community the idea that our sexual interests can be summarised in the simple binary of ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ is rapidly collapsing.

Of course, this complexity does not diminish the reality that for a small minority of men and women same-sex attraction is a powerful, stable experience from earliest memory. Whether or not we want to use the language of ‘born that way’, it certainly feels that way to them. This is a reality the Church must engage with and respond to pastorally. But we also need to recognise that this group is but one part of a larger, more complex, landscape of human sexuality and our theological discourse need to get up to speed with these modern realities. 

Finally, we urgently need to consider how this trajectory is going to develop further. As society moves away from viewing heterosexuality as some kind of expected ‘norm’, we have no idea how this loss of expectancy and assumption is going to affect the (at least partly socially constructed) sexual maturation of children, teenagers and young men and women.

‘Does it matter anyway?’ some will ask. It’s a fair question.

The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who has fought hard for the defeat of a ‘heteronormative’ framework of sexual flourishing, doesn’t think so and has written lucidly about what this implies for our sexual formation:

But if one sexuality is not privileged over another … [t]he need to maintain sexual differences, boundaries and identities disappears with the demise of straight supremacism. As we evolve into a sexually enlightened and accepting society … [t]he vast majority of people will be open to the possibility of both opposite-sex and same-sex desires, regardless of whether they act upon them. They won’t feel the need to label themselves (or others) as gay or straight because, in a future non-homophobic civilisation, no one will care who loves who. Love will transcend sexual orientation.

This isn’t my own worldview, but given Tatchell’s premises, his logic is surely correct. If there is no morally ordered Way in which we are summoned to walk, a path revealed from beyond the horizons of subjective desire, then why should anybody care who loves who? Why not be fluid? Or as Queer theorists devoted to the deconstruction of heteronormative culture might say, why can’t we all just be queer?

Surely that is a theological issue that the Church, and those taking part in the Shared Conversations need to address. Vague talk of ‘inclusion’, ‘acceptance’ and ‘equality’ simply won’t do. 

[i] Hamer, D.H., Hu, S. et al. ‘A linkage between DNA markers on the X-chromosome and male sexual orientation’, Science (1993) 261(5119), 321-327

[ii] For example: Bailey, J.M., Dunne, M.P. & Martin, N.G. ‘Genetic and environmental influences on sexual orientation and its correlates in an Australian twin sample’, Journal of Personality & Social Psychology (2000) 78(3), 524-536

[iii] For a careful overview see De Pomeroi D (2010) The Witness of Science. In: Groves P, The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality. SPCK

[iv] For example: Gates, Gary J. (2011) How Many People are Lesbian, Gay, bisexual, and Transgender? The Williams Institute, UCLA.


[vii] ‘Generation LGBTQIA’ (2013) New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/10/fashion/generation-lgbtqia.html

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