Balls and wheels and thrones

Latest Courier article. Normal blog service may be resumed next week, DV.

I’m writing this shortly after England’s victory over the Ukraine in the European Championships, which has – alongside France’s loss to Sweden – meant that England have reached the quarter-finals, and are avoiding Spain. If only we get past Italy we have a very tasty semi-final with Germany to look forward to. (edit: ha!!)

One of the reasons why I love football so much is because of the rich human drama that is always thrown up by it. Consider poor Harry Redknapp (if a highly successful multi-millionaire could properly be considered ‘poor’). Back in February Harry was on trial for tax fraud, and was facing a long stretch in prison if found guilty. He was acquitted, and on the very same day Fabio Capello resigned as the England manager – and those two things together seemed to be a ‘sign’ that Harry was destined to take on the England role, not least because Tottenham were playing so well. Yet since that day Spurs suffered a terrible run of form, have very unluckily missed out on the Champions League, and Harry not only didn’t get the England job but he has been ‘released’ from his Spurs job too – despite what any unbiased observer could only describe as a period of success for Spurs. From the heights of acquittal and acclaim to being discarded and out of job. Of course, the story isn’t over yet – one of the great comforts of football is ‘there is always next season’ – and it wouldn’t be a surprise to find Harry rising up once more, and trusting that the wheel of fortune will be kinder to him on the next spin.

There is, in any human life, a very large element of ‘moral luck’ – and that language of ‘wheels of fortune’ is one of the ways in which we discuss it. Football throws up all sorts of ways in which that luck is obvious, and there are many non-football equivalents (think of the lottery). What I find interesting is how we are to respond to it. To reference Kipling, how can we treat Triumph and Disaster as equal impostors? This is an issue in our society simply because of the shallow way in which we treat success, and worship those who are successful as celebrities. Indeed, our society has decayed so far that it is now possible to develop a career purely as a ‘celebrity’, not based upon any virtue or character or natural talent at all (I would name names, but it would be rude and indecorous). Whereas – and here my inner Victor Meldrew asserts himself – in previous ages there was at least some lip service paid to the classical virtues (hypocrisy being the tribute that vice pays to virtue) now we live in a society where the failure to be virtuous is held up as itself worthy of emulation. Now, I do not wish to argue that previous ages were more moral than ours – some were, some were not – only to point out that we have lost any shared consensus about how to assess moral worth. We no longer have the capacity to talk about morality – which means our ethics, which means our character as individuals and as a society – and as a result our character starts to disintegrate.

Consider all the various talent programmes that are so popular. Sometimes they throw up a charming tale – as with Ashley and Pudsey – yet to me (as someone who admittedly very rarely watches) much of the desire to watch is associated with the inevitably humiliation heaped upon certain contestants. This is the how and why of Simon Cowell’s success. This is the modern recapitulation of the Roman arena, where we watch slaves being thrown to the lions (fortunately with less blood – one of many ways in which we are more moral than that culture). Each programme represents a spin on the wheel of fortune, for the contestants and for the audience, all sharing in the illusion that the prize is worth the risk. This is the logic that leads us back to Roman culture, the inevitable end point of our decadence.

For me, these truths have for a long time been unmentionable in public and secular discourse, simply because they necessarily use language that cannot be translated into the nostrums of either science or public policy. How do you measure character? How do you heal a soul? However, because we all know that these things are of vital importance, and we want to learn about them, there is a very vigorous market for all those things which discuss it – through all the imaginative mediums of films and novels and theatre. This is where the interesting work is being done. For example, the very successful ‘Hunger Games’ sequence of novels is very good at digging out the underlying logic of our talent programmes, and it is not an accident that the society described there is called ‘Panem’.

Which brings me to my latest interest, which is called ‘Game of Thrones’, a TV series based upon a series of fantasy novels, and in which there is simple motto of ‘You win or you die’. At the risk of letting slip a ‘spoiler’, the first series (book) builds to a climax where one prominent character is executed – and that character is in many ways a moral exemplar. The world that is being described – in which we can, of course, read reflections of our own world – is simply one where being moral, being virtuous, is counter-productive, and simply leads to immense suffering for all those who are loved. The necessary skills for playing the Game of Thrones are deceit and treachery, subterfuge and ruthlessness – these are what enable a character to survive.

Is this a fair description of our world? And if it is, is this really the world that we want to live in? Can we do anything about it? I think the answer to those questions are: yes, no and yes – but explaining why will have to wait until my next article.

Finding Jesus in Sin City

You have to come here to get the unedited version of my Courier articles, and with the proper final word…

The other day, a friend commented that I had poor taste in films. Well, in many ways I am guilty as charged, but I thought I’d say a few things on the subject. Firstly, let’s hear from my favourite philosopher, who went to the cinema every week to relax (he especially liked Westerns):

“A typical American film, naive and silly, can – for all its silliness and even by means of it – be instructive. A fatuous, self-conscious English film can teach one nothing. I have often learnt a lesson from a silly American film.”

So the first thing I’d want to say is that, like Wittgenstein, the majority of films I watch are primarily viewed for relaxation. I spend such a lot of my average day thinking and reflecting in one way or another that I precisely don’t want to engage in intellectual analysis when I’m relaxing! So I very much enjoy what I call ‘popcorn movies’, which do not require me to exercise much in the way of brainpower, but have plenty of excitement and drama and loud explosions – James Bond movies are the classic example, The Avengers my most recent joy. But that isn’t the end of the story, as Wittgenstein hints. The thing is, the analytical muscles only go quiescent, they never get fully turned off, and the films that I most enjoy are the ones which engage the muscles without ever taxing them too much, and that primarily means allowing the story itself to do the work.

Now I am fully aware of, and reasonably conversant with, the way in which film is an artistic form of its own; I am also well aware of the way in which film is ‘sculpting in time’, and has an essential aesthetic element (primarily through the cinematography). Those things I can understand and appreciate, and get me on a good day and I will happily discuss those more refined areas. Yet most of the time what I am interested in is a) story, and b) character development, ie the exploration of what it means to be human.

But the point I really want to make is about whether a film is edifying, in a Christian sense. For in that conversation with my friend, we also touched on the film Sin City, which is one of my all-time favourite films. Sin City is an extreme and highly stylised portrait of present society which doesn’t flinch from the cruelties of contemporary life. Now ‘Sin City’ began as a sequence of graphic novels written and drawn by Frank Miller (‘graphic novel’ is the the ‘correct’ term for comics-read-by-adults) drawing on some of the staple noir elements – hard-bitten ex-cons, troubled cops, prostitutes with hearts of gold etc – but putting them through a particular stylisation which makes the contrasts incredibly stark, and which Miller sought to have reflected through a very spare visual vocabulary – lots of heavy black blocking, outline drawing of characters, almost no colour. And Robert Rodriguez has faithfully reproduced that style in his film; it was very effective.

At this point, there may be the question: is this something that a priest should be reading? (or watching?) Isn’t it anti-Christian in some way? (Heavens, if Harry Potter is considered anti-Christian, then Sin City is enough to make such maiden aunts have heart attacks…. But then, these are the people who want to restore the Levitical purity codes.) Obviously, it isn’t something that might naturally be seen as Christian. Yet I would argue that it is thoroughly informed by a Biblical outlook, and it is, in the most important sense, orthodox.

To my mind, the issue about any work of art, from a Christian point of view, is whether it is orthodox or not. Now I use orthodox here in a particular way. I don’t mean ‘has it signed up to saying “Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Saviour”?’ I mean ‘is it informed by the resurrection’? Which I take to mean: are there signs of grace, forgiveness, redemption and hope? Or is it a work characterised by the opposite of the resurrection, which is nihilism, which is characterised by the absence of meaning, the denial of hope, the embrace of corruption and the elevation of inhumanity into a model to be emulated? Is death seen as the final evil, or are there ways in which death is overcome?

For it seems to me that the structures of the world, the principalities and powers (as St Paul describes them in Ephesians 6) to which we must forever be opposed are built upon the contention that death is the final evil which must be resisted. The resurrection is what demolishes those principalities and powers precisely because it says that we do not need to be quite so afraid of death; that there are things which death cannot touch; and that our life and our hope lie in the resistance, not necessarily the overcoming. To use the technical Christian term, this is what it means to live eschatologically, in the light of the end time.

Sin City seems to be a world where – to put it no more strongly – orthodoxy is possible. It is a portrait of a corrupt world, where the principalities and powers are overwhemingly present, and where the suffering that follows is rendered starkly. Yet in the face of these powers, there is redemption and love and self-sacrifice, rendered most obviously in the film through the character-arc of the Bruce Willis character, where any Christian will recognise a copy of the original Story: “An old man dies, a young girl lives. Fair trade.” Perhaps it’s the imaginative portrayal of reality in fantasy that makes the reality itself tolerable. The fantasy equips the mind with the tools that enable the reality to be digested, rendered meaningful. Is this not the shield of faith with which we can overcome the world? The link between imagination and faith is intimate, and the nurturing of our imaginations is a Christian task.

Two final points about Sin City. One: if Christians are not to spend time in Sin City, for fear of being corrupted by the violence and debauchery, then they must also close the pages of the Old Testament. Nothing in Sin City is as shocking as, for example, Ezekiel 16. Two: Sin City is the abode of those whom society has rejected. The sinners, the outcast, the prostitutes. I have no doubt that Jesus would choose to spend his time in Sin City. There live the ones who recognise Him for who He is.

That’s what I most look for, when I am after an evening’s entertainment. Something that will absorb me, take me somewhere away from my preoccupations for a little while, but, ultimately, something orthodox. After all, for me, at the end of the day, there is no rest or peace without Christ.

This article was based on two previous blogposts here and here.

Our most gracious Sovereign Lady

(Latest Courier article – in UNedited form!)

One of the quirks of working in an established church is that, before being ordained as a deacon or a priest, the person to be ordained has to swear an oath of loyalty to the Monarch of this country. So, in one of the small buildings next door to St Paul’s Cathedral, in 1999, I said the following before the Registrar: “I, Sam Charles Norton, do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors, according to law: So help me God.”

This was not an oath that I particularly wanted to give. When we were being prepared for our ordination, our Principal said that if anyone had any concerns about being able to say this oath, that he would be very willing to have a chat with them. I took him up on that offer. At the time my inclinations were not particularly monarchist – although I’ve never been an out and out republican, in anything except the US political sense. I just felt – in line with many recent comments offered up in these pages – that our monarchy was an anachronism, and that it bolstered a corrupt hierarchy. Talking things through with the Principal, however, I came to a point where I was content to say the oath – I placed great weight on the phrase ‘according to law’ – for if there was going to be a change in the arrangements I certainly wouldn’t want the change to be carried out in a lawless fashion! Yet, as with many other things, my views on this have changed much. I’d like to pick out the one main error that I believe that I made when considering the issue all those years ago.

In discussing the constitutional arrangements, in an academic culture, the debate was about what was most rational – what was the best way to order our arrangements, what system made the most sense? Of course, the criteria used to assess the answer were all rational criteria, and this is not an accident. The purge of monarchies in Europe at the time of the French Revolution and after was intimately tied up with the project of the Enlightenment, the project to bring all of our understandings into a rational system. This is why the Republican regime in France abolished the existing calendar and replaced it with one that was much more systematic. Each month was split into three weeks of ten days each, and each day was split into ten ‘hours’, each of a hundred ‘minutes’. I do not doubt that such a change – or many others of like character – can be defended as rational. In the same way, criticisms of our present constitutional arrangements can be admirably rational and logical. The trouble is, as I have come to realise, that such rationality takes no account of the quirks and gnarls of human nature. That is, we are not rational creatures; we are human beings, and our rationality is simply one part of a broader human nature.

If we were purely rational creatures, then developments such as those imposed by the French Revolutionaries would not have led to slaughter and horror – people would simply have said ‘oh yes, that makes sense’, the system would have shifted overnight, and nobody would have looked back. As it was, human beings fell into horror and long warfare, simply because their wider values were not taken into account. The Enlightenment project had a profoundly deficient understanding of what it meant to be human and placed far too much weight on our capacity to think, disregarding the importance of how we feel – and how our thinking and feeling interact. As part of this Enlightenment project all of the building blocks of human culture are dismantled and we become, not so much creatures planted in a garden, but programs operating within a computer. Fortunately, the problems with the Enlightenment project are now widely recognised, the ideal of a purely rational re-building project is rejected, and the monarchy tends mostly to be rejected by the crustiest of procrustean republicans who believe that it is somehow radical and revolutionary to be supporting a centuries-old project that has been a proven failure! At least, that is how I now view my former self.

As it is, my respect and admiration for our Queen has continued to grow year by year, and the meaning of that oath I swore has deepened similarly. We have so much to learn from her, so much to be grateful to her for, and we will surely miss her when she has gone. She has upheld the dignity of her office, not least through her reticence – and that is something which your Reckoning Rector particularly needs to ponder. In the meantime, I look forward to the festivities of the Jubilee, when we can celebrate her life and work and when I shall say with a glad heart these inimitable words from the Book of Common Prayer:

O LORD our heavenly Father, high and mighty, King of kings, Lord of lords, the only Ruler of princes, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth: Most heartily we beseech thee with thy favour to behold our most gracious Sovereign Lady, Queen ELIZABETH; and so replenish her with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that she may alway incline to thy will, and walk in thy way: Endue her plenteously with heavenly gifts; grant her in health and wealth long to live; strengthen her that she may vanquish and overcome all her enemies; and finally, after this life, she may attain everlasting joy and felicity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

What does the Bible say about homosexuality?

Nothing. That is, the short answer to my titular question is: the Bible says nothing about homosexuality. This is because ‘homosexuality’ as a concept was developed in the nineteenth century, and the word ‘homosexual’ does not occur in the Bible, and Jesus never discusses this issue. What the Bible does discuss, in a small number of texts, are the ethics (or holiness) of particular actions. What I want to do in this article is go through three of the main relevant texts in turn but I will return to this first point at the end – the Bible doesn’t say anything about homosexuality – because it is actually fundamental to the conversation which our church and society is having at the moment.

The first text to consider is Genesis 19, the sin of Sodom leading to their destruction in fire and brimstone. This is the story from which the word ‘sodomy’ derives, and it is a deeply unpleasant tale – and yet, it is also a tale that can be read in various different ways. In brief, two men – who are actually angels – come to stay with Lot. At night, the men of the ‘city’ (probably a village smaller than Mersea) surround Lot’s house and tell him to cast out the angels so that the resident men can have sex with them. Lot refuses, the angels blind the men, and in the morning Lot escapes and the Lord destroys the city. Now, in our sex-obsessed culture, we tend to emphasise the sexual elements of this story and say ‘this is all about how God hates homosexuals’. This is not the emphasis of the story itself. After all, if the emphasis was on bad sexual behaviour then Lot – who is the righteous man in the story – would not say to the men outside his house “Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them.” (Compare and contrast this story – where the daughters actually get away – with the similar story in Judges 19.22-29 which doesn’t have such a ‘happy’ ending.)

So if the sin of Sodom is not principally about sexuality, what is it about? In a word, hospitality. What Lot says immediately after the offer of his daughters is “Don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” Ancient near-Eastern culture was not obsessed with sex, as we are, but they were obsessed with the importance of hospitality, and the rights and obligations associated with it. It is this social regulation that the Sodomites were transgressing, and it was for their overthrowing of the norms of hospitality that God destroyed them. How can I be so certain that this is the right interpretation of the story? Simply because it is how Jesus himself understood it – see Matthew 10.14-15, when Jesus invokes Sodom in the context of talking about hospitality.

The next significant texts to ponder are from the book of Leviticus, which are very similar so I’ll treat them together. Leviticus 18.22 says “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable (‘abomination’)”; Leviticus 20.13 says “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable (‘have committed abomination’). They must be put to death.” The book of Leviticus is essentially a book describing how the Levites – that is, the priests – are to carry out the worship of God in the Temple, and how the Jews more generally are to achieve holiness. In other words, Leviticus cannot be understood separately from the context of ritual worship. For Christians, all of the theology in this text is subsumed into the ‘New Temple’ worship of Holy Communion, and so the specific legalities associated with the ritual worship in the Temple have been superseded by what Jesus developed. This is why Christians have no problem with carrying out many things also considered abominations by the book of Leviticus, such as eating oysters, or cutting men’s hair. That is not to say that the book of Leviticus has no use for Christians today – on the contrary, I believe that a proper understanding of Leviticus would be the best safeguard for keeping contemporary Christian worship meaningful – but it is to say that these specific commands have no particular weight. A homosexual act is as intrinsically ‘wrong’ as eating shellfish or wearing clothes made of different fibres (like a polycotton shirt), no more, no less.

So what of the New Testament? It’s fairly straightforward for a Christian to argue that we don’t have to submit to Old Testament laws because we follow a God of grace and freedom, but what of particular relevant passages in the New Testament? The key passage to ponder is this one, from Paul’s letter to the Romans. To put the passage in context, Paul is speaking to a Jewish audience in Rome, and he is listing all the ways in which the surrounding culture is decadent – in order to then make the point that his listeners don’t have a leg to stand on, for whilst his audience has avoided some obvious and external immoralities, their hearts are full of judgement and condemnation of others, and that “There is no-one righteous, no not one” – which is why we have to rely upon a God of mercy and grace, and not on our own merits or achievements in avoiding obvious sins. However, that does not mean that what Paul describes as sinful aren’t actually sinful! Having talked about the origin of bad behaviour in bad worship (ie idolatry – bad worship leading to bad behaviour is an axiomatic truth in the Bible) this is what he says: “… God gave them over to sinful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

So what is it that Paul is denouncing? Remember the context – Rome, the centre of Empire – where there was a highly developed culture of temple prostitution. It is this bad worship which is Paul’s target. For example, in Cybele’s Temple there were male transvestite priests who had cut off their own genitals and offered themselves to men as part of the temple rituals. These rituals were essentially about fertility – using expressions of human fertility (ie what we might think of as ‘exuberant’ sexuality, orgies) to honour the gods of fertility in order to ensure a good crop and stave off hunger. The bad worship leading to bad behaviour – it is the entire package that Paul is objecting to. The question is: what does this have to do with homosexuality today? The short answer is – not a lot. I don’t know many gay men who want to chop off bits of themselves in order to generate a more bountiful crop of wheat.

Now, to broaden out the discussion a little, I think it would be fair to say that the Bible does take sexual misconduct seriously – that is, there is such a thing as sinful sexual behaviour, and indulging in it threatens our relationship with God; the most obvious example is adultery, which it would be fair to say that God absolutely detests. Yet there seems to me to be a logical leap between saying ‘certain acts are sinful’ to saying, more broadly, ‘homosexuality is wrong’. That is, there seems to be a confusion between what it means to do something wrong, and what it means to be someone. Which brings me back to where I began, which is that the Bible says nothing about homosexuality – which, I now confess, is ever so slightly misleading. For there are several instances when it talks about relationships between people of the same sex – not in the context of obsessing about sexual behaviour (remember, that is the hang up of our culture, not the Bible) – but simply in terms of celebrating what it might mean to honour a loving relationship.

The most prominent example of this is that of David and Jonathan. Some texts to ponder: “Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself… and Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself” (1 Samuel 18); “David rose from beside the stone heap and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more. Then Jonathan said to David, ‘Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the LORD, saying, “The LORD shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, for ever”” (1 Samuel 20); “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women” (2 Samuel 1). Clearly with David and Jonathan we have an important relationship between two people of the same sex which was dedicated before God in the form of a covenant. There is no hint of disapproval in this story for the relationship between the two (except from Saul, but he’s the ‘bad guy’).

The response to mentioning David and Jonathan in this context is often ‘but their relationship wasn’t sexual!’ which simply reveals our own obsessions. Clearly it is possible to have a loving and affectionate same-sex relationship that is honoured by God, and that is fully Biblical. Is that compatible with a prohibition on particular sexual acts? Of course. Are those relationships which seek a blessing in church more like Jonathan and David, or more like the cult prostitutes in Rome? Perhaps readers can use their own judgement on that; I trust my own view is clear.

One last point, which is strictly for Christians. To my mind the biggest problem that compromises conversations on the topic is that we don’t take baptism seriously. That is, for Christians, baptism is when we are set free from the law of sin and death (things like Leviticus) and enabled to live by grace alone. In other words we become members of a group of people who acknowledge a common lack of righteousness before God, a bunch of people who get things wrong and need forgiveness, mercy and grace from each other in order to progress. If we took our baptism seriously then, firstly, we wouldn’t obsess about the sins that our fellow Christians may or may not be carrying out, and, secondly, we might take seriously the intention of those same fellow Christians to live out a life of holiness before God, doing their best to know him and to walk more closely with Jesus day by day. It is because we don’t respect our fellow Christians’ integrity that the wider culture no longer respects us, and sees us as obsessed with rules about what we can or cannot do with our genitals (or whether you need certain genital equipment to exercise leadership in a church). Obviously we need to obsess about these things because our Lord spent so long teaching about them. Jesus wept – at the graveside of a man he loved.

What does the Bible say about…?

After my article about gay marriage a number of people asked me to explain my understanding of certain biblical texts that applied to that topic. This I am happy to do, but I felt it would also be helpful if before doing so I took a step back and explained how to understand ‘what the Bible says about’ anything, as it is often the case that a disagreement about what the Bible says about a particular topic actually stems from a difference in how to understand the Bible as such.

The first thing that I would point out is that the question seems to assume that there is one single answer to the enquiry ‘what does the Bible say about…?’ This is a mistake, and it is a mistake with very particular Modern origins, which I’ll explain below. One of the most important things to understand about the Bible is that it is a library of Holy Scripture – that is, there are many different voices within the Bible (even within particular books of the Bible) – and this is of God. That is, it is in recognising both what different books have in common, and where they disagree, that an individual Christian is enabled to come to a mature understanding of the text.

Let me give an example, which will hopefully not be too controversial. In the Old Testament there is a long-running tension between the priests and the prophets. The priests are those responsible for the correct administration of the cult (ie the sacrifices in the Temple) which were ordained by God in great detail in books like Exodus and Leviticus. The prophets are those who speak the word of God against the priests and people, and who criticise the administration of the cult in great depth. This is the tradition that has striking texts like this from Amos chapter 5: “I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”

The art of understanding the Bible properly is to realise that in the interplay between different points of view lies the truth. Imagine that you come across a group of people having an intense conversation about a subject you know very little about – let’s say it’s about football tactics and whether the new England manager should use a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 in the forthcoming European championships (I favour the latter – but you don’t need to understand why in order to get my point!). As you listen to the different voices you start to get a sense of what the different viewpoints are and then, as time goes on and you learn more and more, you start to develop your own perspective. However, unless through this conversation you also realise that there is a game called ‘football’, and that the purpose of the game is to win football matches (either through playing or coaching) then the point of the discussion is being missed. Someone might become a wonderful expert in the language of tactics, and be able to hold forth with great knowledge about the importance of the ‘false nine’ to modern football (eg Lionel Messi of Barcelona) – but this is just abstract unless there is a link to an actual game being played.

In other words, the Bible points beyond itself. The point of the Bible is not that we become experts about what the Bible says, but rather that we recognise what it is that is being talked about – and then get on with pursuing that (which is, for a Christian, all about getting to know Jesus and becoming more like Him). Buddhists would call this distinguishing between the pointing finger and the moon which is being pointed to, but the Christian tradition has its own way of describing the difference. In one of his many angry confrontations with the Pharisees, Jesus says “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” – in other words, the Pharisees, despite their very great knowledge of Scripture, didn’t realise what the ultimate point was. They were like football fans whose only knowledge of the game came from reading reports in the newspapers, and who had never actually seen a match played, let alone kicked a football for themselves.

This is why the Bible can’t be assumed to have one single unequivocal thing to say about a topic. Sometimes God actually wants us to use our own judgement about a question – and a good example of that comes with the Council of Jerusalem, described in the Acts of the Apostles, which shows the early church deciding to dispense with some clear Scriptural commands about circumcision, because ‘it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to them’. Do we take this as simply an amending of an existing legal process – which can then not be amended again – or do we take this as a worked example of the authority that Jesus has given to the church, and which therefore allows the church to amend what is acceptable over time? The answer given to that question will, of course, largely shape the answers to many other questions that arise in our common life.

I said earlier on that the idea that the Bible does have a single and unequivocal meaning is a particular Modern idea. Whilst it has some earlier roots, it really came to a head with the influence of something called ‘Scottish Common Sense Philosophy’, which was a philosophical school that initially flourished in the eighteenth century, and which had a major impact especially in the United States. This philosophical perspective taught that, with respect to the Bible, there was a clear and simple meaning associated with a particular passage that was open to any reader. There was therefore no need for a community to have any specified authority to determine the sense of any particular passage, all that was needed was the reader and their own Bible.

Now there are lots of things wrong with this perspective philosophically, which I won’t go into, but there are also problems with it from a Christian perspective. The major problem is that it privileges a particular technology, in that it is only possible within a society that has invented printing. For the first 1500 years or so of Christian thinking, the Bible was something that was primarily read and interpreted by a community, not by individuals (indeed, the ‘individual’ is itself a post-Biblical concept!). The Bible was read out loud when the community gathered together (out loud because ‘faith comes by hearing’) and it was the community as a whole which then interpreted the meaning of what has been read. Furthermore, it is the community which decides what books (ie what Holy Scriptures) are included within the Bible in the first place. In other words, the long history of understanding the Bible in Christian practice has been primarily communal. The idea that it can be done on an individualistic basis is simply part and parcel of post-Enlightenment thought in Western society (which is why Fundamentalism – which is what Scottish Common Sense philosophy leads to – is also, rather ironically, entirely a product of the Enlightenment).

For myself, as an Anglican, I accept the Bible as having supreme authority, but the Anglican view is that such authority is necessarily mediated by a worshipping community (what we call tradition and reason). Whilst any individual thinker can have their own views and beliefs about what the Bible says, it takes the endorsement of the worshipping community to say whether those views and beliefs are correct or not. In what I write in further articles, I will be writing very consciously from an Anglican perspective – and next time, I’ll talk about the texts which reference homosexuality in Scripture.

Why is it a ‘Good’ Friday?

Courier article

Why ‘Good’? The simple answer is that the crucifixion of Jesus reveals the truth about the world – and the truth sets us free. I believe that what is Good about Good Friday is that on this day above all God is revealed as a God of love, that with this God there is no place for fear of punishment. There are lots of theories that Christians debate about how we are to understand this (it’s technically called ‘the Atonement’) but I think CS Lewis put it best when he said: “We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself… ”

Good Friday is really the culmination of something that I have been trying to describe through my last half-dozen articles – it is the climax and inevitable conclusion of living in a Fallen world. That is, it is because of our sin and brokenness that someone who was innocent ends up getting lynched. What makes Jesus remarkable is that he recognises what is going on and doesn’t fight back. He recognises that what keeps the fallen system ticking over is the process of praise and blame, judgement and condemnation. As an innocent man Jesus had every right to retaliate against those who were accusing him, those who were beating him and flogging him. But he didn’t. Instead he forgave them. In other words, what Jesus was doing was breaking the cycle of violence and pointing out that we didn’t have to keep trudging around that path.

Righteous violence, after all, is what put him on the cross. It was the certainty of being righteous that gave each group of accusers their justification for putting Jesus to death. Whether that be the Romans, the religious authorities, the crowd or even the friend who betrayed him, there was always some more or less expedient rationale that could be deployed to make sense of doing something wrong. That is still the world that we live in. In effect, what happens on the cross is that judgement itself is judged, condemnation itself is condemned. The cross is the declaration that God is not on the side of those doing the denouncing, rather God is the one who is being denounced, the one who has offended the political authorities and the religious authorities and disappointed the expectations of the crowd and his friends.

When Christians talk about the cross – which is so central to our faith – this is what we are conscious of. Our own failures and brokenness, all the ways in which we have fallen short of God’s intentions for us. Yet the thing is – it is level ground at the foot of cross. That is, we are all in the same boat; as St Paul puts it, ‘We are none of us righteous, no, not one’. To come to the foot of the cross is, for the Christian, simply to recognise our own fallen nature, to see the consequences of that fallen nature, but also to recognise that God has taken those consequences onto himself, and that if we acknowledge this truth and let go of the compulsions and fears that lead us to judge and condemn each other – then we need have no fear of condemnation and judgement ourselves. This is the secret at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’. We just stand at the foot of the cross, not asserting our own goodness, but recognising the fate of goodness in our Fallen world.

Of course, if this was the end of the story, it would mean that the fallen world was all that there is – and that really wouldn’t be Good. But I don’t want to spoil the end of the story for those who don’t know it… I’ll say something about that in my next article.

The prostitutes get to heaven before the priests

Most people are familiar with the phrase ‘the lesser of two evils’. What this means is that, in any particular situation, the choices available might all be objectionable in one way or another, and that includes the choice not to make any decisions at all and simply let events take their course. A classic example from the movies is ‘Sophie’s Choice’ but they don’t have to be that dramatic. It might simply be someone shopping at the supermarket and finding that there isn’t enough money to get everything needed – so do we do without milk or eggs this week?

Christian thought describes this using the language of ‘The Fall’ – as I touched on in my article about assisted dying. As I said then, the importance of the story of Adam and Eve is not about particular historical events that may or may not have taken place several thousand years ago, but about the nature of the life that we are living today. As a result of living in a Fallen world, we are often in situations where there is no right answer and there is simply the choice between different evils.

There is a lot of ethical thought which the Christian tradition draws on when considering these questions (it’s called ‘casuistry’), but such thinking is not distinctive to Christianity. It is shared by lots of other ways of thinking, especially within governments, where it is occasionally admitted to (it’s called ‘utlitarianism’ – the greatest good of the greatest number). What is distinctive to Christianity is an understanding that the lesser of two evils nevertheless remains just that: evil.

The way this works is to recognise the difference between the choice that is being made at any one point in time, and what is actually right and good from God’s point of view. In other words, if someone is forced to go without either eggs or milk in the supermarket then their family is going to suffer from the evil of deprivation. This is not God’s intention for that family. Therefore, even though a ‘lesser of two evils’ decision might be made between eggs or milk – and even though that decision could be readily defended by the casuists and the utilitarians – it is still a decision that is a ‘wrong’. Why is this distinction important?

Well, the huge benefit that comes from treating such decisions as instances of continuing evil is that we do not lose our moral moorings completely. To recognise that having to choose between milk and eggs is an evil is a way of holding on to the notion of social justice, and therefore it provides fuel and energy to all those who seek to help build a society where families don’t have to choose between milk or eggs. It allows us to hope and long for a better world.

To use a sailing analogy, it is the difference between working out the best immediate course to follow given local conditions of wind and tide, and knowing the eventual destination. Without having an eventual destination in mind, the sailor simply runs with what seems best at the time. With an eventual destination in mind, course corrections can occur over time, and tacking in the ‘wrong direction’ can be recognised as a necessary evil on the way to the eventual safe harbour.

Without the ability to retain a sense of lesser evils still, nonetheless, being evil, we soon lose our sense of any moral fabric at all. A good recent example is a philosophical paper arguing for the legitimacy of infanticide. When the laws around abortion were changed in the 1960s, the argument put forward was that it was a lesser evil to have safe and legal abortions than to have illegal, backstreet operations which put the lives of young mothers at serious risk. That makes sense – it probably is a lesser evil. Yet what has happened is that, without the acknowledgement that such abortions remain an evil, abortion has become just another lifestyle choice, and the logical consequences are now being seriously argued for – that where an infant is inconvenient, it is not wrong to kill them. Such are the depths to which our society has now sunk, simply because it has lost any sense of where it is going.

Which brings me to the nature of grace and redemption. As I said in my last article, I’m in favour of blessing civil partnerships in church, but I’m not in favour of ‘gay marriage’. That is simply because I see the right way to bring up children as being by their natural parents. Call this the ‘ideal’. What happens, however, when – as inevitably happens in our fallen world – such an ideal outcome is impossible, either through death, or divorce, or desertion? Well, then we are in the midst of our choosing whatever is the lesser evil, and those lesser evils can be seen all around us, functioning more or less well. I know of many cases where broken families are put back together with others, and where real security and love can become possible again. I’ve even been privileged enough to speak God’s blessing in such situations, to allow a second chance and a remarriage in church. This is what Christians call redemption. Redemption is simply when God takes something which we have broken and builds something good out of the pieces. It is not an endorsement of what has gone wrong before; it is not saying ‘you were right to choose the lesser evil’; it is simply God saying ‘I am not going to let you go and I will work with you to bring something good out of this situation’.

Which is how we are to understand what Jesus did. If we look at Jesus’ own ministry, he was normally to be found amongst those who don’t fit, those who are broken and very aware that they don’t meet the standards of what is socially acceptable. Why? My sense is that Jesus spent his time with those who have experienced pain and brokenness for the simple reason that they didn’t indulge in the illusion that they were perfect; rather, they were the ones that were extremely conscious of their own failures, the ways in which they fell short of God’s intentions for them. They knew that their choices of the lesser evil were still evil – and so they longed all the more for their eventual destination, when things would finally be put right. In contrast, the ones that Jesus criticised the most were the ones who believed that they had all the answers, and that they were ‘right’ – in other words, that their choices of lesser evils were not evil, and so they felt able to be self-righteous, and they used the ‘ideal’ as a club with which to beat all those who fell short. That is why Jesus is so astonishingly abusive to them – they had become vessels of merciless judgement rather than grace. There are, of course, those with the same attitudes today.

There is a wonderful Leonard Cohen song called ‘Anthem’ which expresses this eloquently: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in”. The light gets in, because it is those who are broken who recognise the need for genuine non-judgemental love, love which gives without a thought of receiving, love which sees what is wrong but loves anyway, love which can redeem what has gone wrong and graciously build something new. This is what Jesus offered, and that’s why I try and follow him. Then Jesus explained his meaning to the religious authorities: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do.” (The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 21, verse 31)

The prostitutes get to heaven before the priests

Most people are familiar with the phrase ‘the lesser of two evils’. What this means is that, in any particular situation, the choices available might all be objectionable in one way or another, and that includes the choice not to make any decisions at all and simply let events take their course. A classic example from the movies is ‘Sophie’s Choice’ but they don’t have to be that dramatic. It might simply be someone shopping at the supermarket and finding that there isn’t enough money to get everything needed – so do we do without milk or eggs this week?

Christian thought describes this using the language of ‘The Fall’ – as I touched on in my article about assisted dying. As I said then, the importance of the story of Adam and Eve is not about particular historical events that may or may not have taken place several thousand years ago, but about the nature of the life that we are living today. As a result of living in a Fallen world, we are often in situations where there is no right answer and there is simply the choice between different evils.

There is a lot of ethical thought which the Christian tradition draws on when considering these questions (it’s called ‘casuistry’), but such thinking is not distinctive to Christianity. It is shared by lots of other ways of thinking, especially within governments, where it is occasionally admitted to (it’s called ‘utlitarianism’ – the greatest good of the greatest number). What is distinctive to Christianity is an understanding that the lesser of two evils nevertheless remains just that: evil.

The way this works is to recognise the difference between the choice that is being made at any one point in time, and what is actually right and good from God’s point of view. In other words, if someone is forced to go without either eggs or milk in the supermarket then their family is going to suffer from the evil of deprivation. This is not God’s intention for that family. Therefore, even though a ‘lesser of two evils’ decision might be made between eggs or milk – and even though that decision could be readily defended by the casuists and the utilitarians – it is still a decision that is a ‘wrong’. Why is this distinction important?

Well, the huge benefit that comes from treating such decisions as instances of continuing evil is that we do not lose our moral moorings completely. To recognise that having to choose between milk and eggs is an evil is a way of holding on to the notion of social justice, and therefore it provides fuel and energy to all those who seek to help build a society where families don’t have to choose between milk or eggs. It allows us to hope and long for a better world.

To use a sailing analogy, it is the difference between working out the best immediate course to follow given local conditions of wind and tide, and knowing the eventual destination. Without having an eventual destination in mind, the sailor simply runs with what seems best at the time. With an eventual destination in mind, course corrections can occur over time, and tacking in the ‘wrong direction’ can be recognised as a necessary evil on the way to the eventual safe harbour.

Without the ability to retain a sense of lesser evils still, nonetheless, being evil, we soon lose our sense of any moral fabric at all. A good recent example is a philosophical paper arguing for the legitimacy of infanticide. When the laws around abortion were changed in the 1960s, the argument put forward was that it was a lesser evil to have safe and legal abortions than to have illegal, backstreet operations which put the lives of young mothers at serious risk. That makes sense – it probably is a lesser evil. Yet what has happened is that, without the acknowledgement that such abortions remain an evil, abortion has become just another lifestyle choice, and the logical consequences are now being seriously argued for – that where an infant is inconvenient, it is not wrong to kill them. Such are the depths to which our society has now sunk, simply because it has lost any sense of where it is going.

Which brings me to the nature of grace and redemption. As I said in my last article, I’m in favour of blessing civil partnerships in church, but I’m not in favour of ‘gay marriage’. That is simply because I see the right way to bring up children as being by their natural parents. Call this the ‘ideal’. What happens, however, when – as inevitably happens in our fallen world – such an ideal outcome is impossible, either through death, or divorce, or desertion? Well, then we are in the midst of our choosing whatever is the lesser evil, and those lesser evils can be seen all around us, functioning more or less well. I know of many cases where broken families are put back together with others, and where real security and love can become possible again. I’ve even been privileged enough to speak God’s blessing in such situations, to allow a second chance and a remarriage in church. This is what Christians call redemption. Redemption is simply when God takes something which we have broken and builds something good out of the pieces. It is not an endorsement of what has gone wrong before; it is not saying ‘you were right to choose the lesser evil’; it is simply God saying ‘I am not going to let you go and I will work with you to bring something good out of this situation’.

Which is how we are to understand what Jesus did. If we look at Jesus’ own ministry, he was normally to be found amongst those who don’t fit, those who are broken and very aware that they don’t meet the standards of what is socially acceptable. Why? My sense is that Jesus spent his time with those who have experienced pain and brokenness for the simple reason that they didn’t indulge in the illusion that they were perfect; rather, they were the ones that were extremely conscious of their own failures, the ways in which they fell short of God’s intentions for them. They knew that their choices of the lesser evil were still evil – and so they longed all the more for their eventual destination, when things would finally be put right. In contrast, the ones that Jesus criticised the most were the ones who believed that they had all the answers, and that they were ‘right’ – in other words, that their choices of lesser evils were not evil, and so they felt able to be self-righteous, and they used the ‘ideal’ as a club with which to beat all those who fell short. That is why Jesus is so astonishingly abusive to them – they had become vessels of merciless judgement rather than grace. There are, of course, those with the same attitudes today.

There is a wonderful Leonard Cohen song called ‘Anthem’ which expresses this eloquently: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in”. The light gets in, because it is those who are broken who recognise the need for genuine non-judgemental love, love which gives without a thought of receiving, love which sees what is wrong but loves anyway, love which can redeem what has gone wrong and graciously build something new. This is what Jesus offered, and that’s why I try and follow him. Then Jesus explained his meaning to the religious authorities: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do.” (The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 21, verse 31)

‘Gay marriage’ and the blessing of civil partnerships

My latest Courier article

There is much fuss at the moment about the status of marriage, whether the Church of England should be obliged to bless civic partnerships in church, and whether the state should allow something which is described as ‘gay marriage’. This is definitely one of those arguments that is generating more heat than light, but I hope I can add a little bit of the latter rather than the former.

The first thing I want to say is that, amongst the very few mentions that Jesus makes about marriage, that we have recorded in the gospels, one of the most important is to say that ‘there is no giving and receiving in marriage in the resurrection’ – in other words, marriage is principally a this-worldly arrangement, and is not part of our eternal nature. So what is at stake in these arguments is not quite as important as it is sometimes made out to be. Put bluntly, civilisation will not come to an end if our society chooses to redefine how marriage is understood. The Bible records a great many diverse marital arrangements through history, and life-long monogamy is only the most recent form.

From an anthropological perspective it is possible to see that monogamy developed because it provided the most long term peace for a society. In human history 80% of females have succeeded in reproducing and passing on their genes, whereas only 40% of males have achieved the same. That is because in the animal kingdom the ‘alpha’ has greatest access to mating opportunities, and those males who don’t measure up have no chance to reproduce, and get eliminated. This also means that violent conflict is inevitable, as one alpha overthrows the next. What monogamy meant – and it is something that only became possible with the development of agriculture and permanently settled land – is that most men gain a chance to reproduce. Where monogamy is enforced – that is, where female adultery is taken seriously and has consequences like public shaming or being stoned to death, as described in the early part of the Bible – then the great majority of men have a stake in the maintenance of a stable society, and the level of internal violence within a society is greatly reduced. This allows for the establishment of laws and the much more rapid development of culture. Yes, this is completely patriarchal and sexist, but the gains that have come from monogamy have not been trivial, and should not be trivially set aside.

There is a second way in which society has needed to regulate sexuality, and that is because the wider society has a stake in how children are raised. Everyone suffers the consequences if children are raised without the sense of emotional security and trust that is provided by a stable family framework. Until the advent of modern contraceptive technology there was a fairly reliable link between sexual relations and conception – and that meant that the wider society had a significant stake in the regulation of sexual relations, and this was what lay behind the stigma of illegitimate birth. Our technological development means that we are in an unprecedented situation – the link between sexuality and procreation has been made optional, and our theologies and ethics are still catching up with what that means.

For example, the root of the ban on contraception in the Roman Catholic church goes back, via Aquinas, to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who taught that each element of the human body had a particular purpose, and that right behaviour lay in conforming our desires to those purposes. The purpose of the sexual organs was reproduction; therefore, any use of those organs for purposes other than procreation was wrong. If that basic assumption is rejected – if, for example, you believe that the sexual organs may have a role in “the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one [partner] ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity” (1662 Prayer Book) – then a wider understanding of sexuality is acceptable, and so is contraception.

This also means that some aspects of sexuality need not be so tightly regulated by society, and that some sexual expression that was previously forbidden may now become acceptable. Homosexuality is one such. Now there are, of course, a small number of Scriptural texts – often misunderstood – that would seem to argue against the wisdom of this change. I would be quite happy to discuss such texts, their meaning and their applicability, at another time – maybe in another column, if that would be of interest. If sexuality has a place in providing cement for a relationship, however, irrespective of the needs for procreation, why should such a relationship only be allowed for heterosexual couples? The general acceptance of this line of argument is what has led to the development of civil partnerships, and the pressure on the Church of England to allow such civil partnerships to be blessed in church. It is what has led our Prime Minister to lead calls for accepting ‘gay marriage’. It seems to me that there is a confusion of thinking here.

In previous times, where there was a direct link between sexuality and procreation, where that understanding guided the ethics of a society, and where society had a great stake in the raising of children, the society established strong boundaries around the expression of sexuality. We no longer live in such a society, and so it seems to me that we need to distinguish between two forms of relationship: one in which the mutual society of the two partners is the central element, and one in which the raising of children is the central element. The first is effectively a civil partnership, the second is what has classically been understood as a marriage.

I believe that society can sit very lightly towards the former, and that we can celebrate human love and affection wherever it can be found. Whilst there are undoubted gains in the quality of a relationship where it is intended to be life-long, should such relationships break down, the pain and suffering is principally restricted to those directly involved. In so far as the church might be able to assist such relationships to flourish, that would seem to me like a worthy Christian endeavour. At the moment blessings of a civil partnership in church are forbidden, but should I ever be in a position to vote on the matter, I would happily endorse them.

The latter form, however, is different. It does still require more profound social involvement, for we all have a stake in the raising of healthy children. I am not convinced that it makes sense to move from what is already available – civil partnerships – to an acceptance of ‘gay marriage’. Here is where I have some sympathy with Aristotle, for I would argue for the normativity of a child being raised by both its parents and, at least for now, that means a mother and father, a heterosexual relationship. Biology may not be destiny entire, but a proper respect for our biological inheritance would suggest that the procreation of children is not a core part of a gay relationship. This is why I think the government is confused in its thinking – there is no need to redefine marriage in order to enable a full equality for gay people.

What have the boomers ever done for us? *

As I write, Greece is experiencing a dramatic confrontation between the governing classes – imposed by the EU, rather than elected democratically – and those who are presently suffering the economic consequences of several decades worth of mismanagement. Most strikingly, this is an exchange as reported in the Guardian newspaper: “Six inches from the riot policeman’s shield outside the Greek parliament last Friday, a tall, pale boy was shouting at a man who could have been his uncle: “It’s your generation that brought us to this point, but it’s mine that has to pay for it. You have to take responsibility for what’s happening here.””

Those who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind. How have we ended up with such a crisis in the European Union – supposed vanguard of all that is most modern – that is running such a risk of turning into generational conflict? For that is what is at stake. In order to keep the economy functioning – or, at least, to maintain the pretence that the economy can continue to function in the way that it has done – the young and the poor are being bled dry in order to maintain the appearance of good order and financial management, to stop people looking behind the curtain. Sadly, there is only a certain amount of illusion that can be maintained in the face of abject misery and suffering – which is what is happening in Greece at the moment, and may well be coming to a street closer to home sometime soon.

One of the ways in which this will gain a painfully clear focus is through pensions, and this is where generational conflict is likely to rear its head. The financial crisis is, to put it brutally simply, a result of an imbalance between claims to wealth and actual wealth. That is, the banks and other asset-holders have a certain amount of genuine wealth – shares in companies, ownership of land and other valuables like gold and so on. The claims to that wealth are vastly greater – that is, there are a very large number of IOUs being passed around, keeping up the illusion of how much wealth we have. It is essentially like a game of musical chairs, except that whereas, in the game, only one chair gets removed at a time, when the music stops for our financial affairs, most people will be left without a chair. Wealth that isn’t directly tied to an asset directly – eg the deeds to a property – is highly likely to simply melt away, in the way that those who have held Euro-denominated Greek government bonds are finding their wealth melting away. This applies, most of all, to pensions.

When this happens – and it probably won’t happen all at once; there will simply be a steady progression of pension funds finding that they are unable to meet their commitments – those who are reliant on such paper will find that they have to fall back on much more old-fashioned sources of wealth – such as family ties. Yet this is where the whirlwind is really likely to cause havoc. For what sort of family structure has been left behind by those who wish to be drawing their pensions? Let us remember that these are the generations who pushed through ‘no fault’ divorce, leaving misery in the lives of their abandoned children as they pursued the gratification of their own needs and desires. Of many possible exemplars, let’s take Bill Clinton as the type – someone who was for a time ‘the most powerful man in the world’ who was incapable of exercising power over his own passions.

Now obviously this is a vast generalisation – this is an opinion column, the natural home of vast generalisations – and it doesn’t apply to every boomer, nor even to a majority of boomers – but there does seem to be a prominent generational characteristic to the boomers of ‘live now, pay later’. Well, we have now arrived at ‘later’ and the trouble is that it is the next generation along that is going to have to pay the bills. Or, to change the metaphor, we have now reached the morning after, and it is the children who are having to clear up after the wild party of the night before. The great political negotiation of the next ten to fifteen years will be how far those who are presently working will be prepared to pay higher tax rates to cover the costs of failed pension schemes. My suspicion is that the answer to that question is ‘not very far’.

What I believe that we shall see is a political movement centred upon the restoration of classical virtues and traditional morality. After all, those are the only tools that we will have to cope with the immense poverty bearing down upon us. We will only be able to make it through if we return to the values of economy and thrift. Other nations in the world can already see the extent of the transition that we will have to go through; it’s only the make-believe of our governing classes that stops us grasping the truth. Mahathir Mohammed, the former leader of Malaysia, commented in a BBC interview recently: “Europe… has lost a lot of money and therefore you must be poor now relative to the past. And in Asia we live within our means. So when we are poor, we live as poor people. I think that is a lesson that Europe can learn from Asia.”

We are going to have to live as poor people – which means much greater reliance on the extended family and the local community. This is not an unattractive vision – after all, the happiest places in the world, such as the Philippines, have exactly this pattern of life, and there is no reason why we, too, couldn’t be (relatively) poor but happy. But it is not what our culture has supported for many years, and there is a bill to be paid for the destruction of family life. Who gets to pay that bill will, as I say, be one of the principal political issues of the next several years.

* For those who are unfamiliar with the marvellous Monty Python film ‘Life of Brian’, my title is an allusion to a particular scene in that movie – my point being that, of course, boomers have done lots ‘for us’.