August 2014 playlist

So… I’ve been on paternity leave… explaining my lack of posts… This is a new playlist I’m excited about, though, and of course it’s dedicated to Connie Mae Mumford (b. 31-v-2014)

War on Drugs – Red Eyes
Goodnight Texas – Jesse Got Trapped in a Coal Mine
My Morning Jacket – All the Best
Tom Petty – Don’t Come Round Here No More
Bob Dylan – Rocks and Gravel
Lana Del Rey – West Coast
First Aid Kit – My Silver Lining
Cuff the Duke – If I Live or Die
The Magnetic Fields – Quick!
Zbigniew Preisner – Lacrimosa, Day of Tears
Drew Holycomb & The Neighbors – Good Light


The brilliant David Bentley Hart

DBHA theologian who can write. A profound scholar who is pithy. A leading academic who is a master of the English language. If those sound to you like a series of oxymorons you should read David Bentley Hart, the most exciting religious writer for a generation.

Here he is on Dawkins et al: “The books of ‘the new atheists’ [are] nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men.” He gives as good as he gets: Dawkins is “the zoologist and tireless tractarian” and Sam Harris’s The End of Faith is “extravagantly callow”. I’ll see your insult and raise you vehemence.

It’s not all rhetoric, either. Hart is clever, with the substance a lifetime of scholarship affords. Continue reading

Rev: so good it’s dangerous

First published in The Guardian, p. 28, on Monday 28th April 2014

You love Rev. I love Rev. Everyone loves Rev. That’s why the hit BBC comedy is so pernicious. Unbelievers who hate the church love the fantastic satire of an ins'Rev gives us no hint of the rich diversity in the Church of England.'titution not long for this world. Unbelievers who like the church adore how it captures all those quaint little foibles. Believers who hate the church love how it lampoons everything they want to change. Believers who love the church also love it because it’s important to laugh about yourself. And vicars? Well, with a million viewers tuning in to every episode, they no doubt think that there’s so such thing as bad publicity.

But this love-in masks what is in fact a subtly damaging depiction of the church. Continue reading


April is ripe with resurrection. In central Virginia the cherry blossoms emerge from their slumber, the daffodils prove their resilience once again, and that great harbinger of lingering evenings of porch-based recreation and libation — baseball — returns to the center of the American self-understanding. All of it, as I say, ripe with resurrection. As such, enjoy the (admittedly idiosyncratic) sounds of spring:

Lake Street Dive, “Use Me Up”
Stevie Wonder, “I Wish”
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings “Humble Me”
St. Paul & The Broken Bones, “Like a Mighty River”
Vampire Weekend, “Diplomat’s Son”
The National, “Fireproof”
Father John Misty, “Well, You Can Do it Without Me”
The Milk Carton Kids, “The Jewel of June”
Neil Diamond, “Sweet Caroline”
Laura Marling, “Blues Run the Game”
Fleet Foxes, “Oliver James”

Britain, Too, Is Coming Apart

This article was first published by The Institute for Family Studies

estates Coming Apart“Our nation is coming apart at the seams—not ethnic seams, but the seams of class.” So says Charles Murray in his already famous study of 2012. The nation in question is of course America, white America to be more precise. The thesis of Coming Apart is that for decades, policymakers, social commentators, and academics have been preoccupied with race and ethnicity. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, except that it led them to overlook major changes in white America over the last fifty years. What changes? Well, at the top, the elite have segmented themselves from the rest of the population like never before, while at the bottom, civic engagement and marriage have imploded. Above all it is the unprecedented “degree of separation” between these two classes Murray zeroes in on.

Most books like Coming Apart are guilty of overreach. The argument is too sweeping. Authors will apply their organizing analysis to settings and situations that the evidence simply doesn’t support. It’s interesting, then—given how strong Murray’s thesis is—that Coming Apart is guilty of the opposite mistake. For Murray unjustifiably restricts his argument to America when in fact we in the UK are seeing some of the same ominous trends. Continue reading

The Turbulent Minister Is Right

First published in the April 2014 issue of Standpoint magazine

IDS“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Those, or something like them, were the fateful words Henry II let slip in 1170. The cleric who had provoked the king’s ire was his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket. The monarch’s careless talk cost a life, for he aired his rhetorical question within earshot of four eager-to-please knights. They raced straight to Canterbury to bump off Becket on the steps of the cathedral’s altar.

Last summer I moved to America, just outside Washington, D.C. Living abroad has afforded me a new perspective on welfare reform at home. From here it looks as if the roles of Henry and Becket have been reversed. Now it seems that an Archbishop, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, wants to get rid of a minister — though, in our gentler age, the disposal Nichols probably imagines for the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith is the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. (I’d take a quick death in my favourite cathedral any day.) Continue reading

March 2014 Playlist

Electric Light Orchestra, Long Black Road
The Dig, I Already Forgot Everything You Said
Bowerbirds, Overcome With Light (North Shore Sessions)
The Waterboys, This Is The Sea (2004 Remastered Version)
Cyndi Lauper, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
The Deep Dark Woods, 18th Of December
Johnny Flynn, Where My Father Went
Bob Dylan, Things Have Changed
Beirut, Scenic World (Lon Gisland EP Version)
The Welcome Wagon, But For You Who Fear My Name
Joe Pug, The Door Was Always Open

And The Oscar Goes To… 12 YEARS A SLAVE

Staying up way past my bedtime, I was absolutely delighted that, and punched the air when, 12 Years A Slave won the Oscar this evening… here, re-posted as a tribute, is my piece on it from earlier in the year (first published in Standpoint magazine)

No saint: Michael Fassbender as slaver Edwin Epps in "12 Years a Slave"

No saint: Michael Fassbender as slaver Edwin Epps in “12 Years a Slave”

The film 12 Years a Slave is breathtaking. See it. Based on the 1853 autobiography of a free black man captured in the North and transported to the South, it takes a long, unflinching look at the institution that was American slavery.

Aesthetically, the film is overwhelming, but in a deeply uncomfortable way. From the opening shot, the series of stills the director Steve McQueen offers us have the grandeur of a Gainsborough. Refusing to choose between painting landscapes or portraits, Gainsborough opted to portray the 18th-century gentry who commissioned his works against the natural environment which was their property. His combination of clean composition and perfect perspective — lord and lady in the foreground, ordered arable in the background — communicates a world distinctly at ease with itself, a world you want to live in, or at least retire to.

In 12 Years a Slave this aesthetic is carried over but the roles dramatically reversed. Now it’s servants rather than masters in the foreground, the background not their property, rather the site of their labour. This makes for uncomfortable viewing because the backbreaking toil and unwatchably brutal beatings take place against the loveliness of the Louisiana plantations, the fecundity of the fields, undisturbed algae over gentle bayous, Spanish moss drooping.

This contradiction, this lack of consonance between what the film looks like and what it’s about lies at the heart of many great films. Making a picturesque film about a horrible thing: that’s what any director taking on a historical travesty aims to do. But that contradiction is even more acute when those historical travesties happen to have taken place in idyllic locations. Shoot a movie about the First World War, and include close-ups of young men drowning in the mud of Ypres — aesthetically, things line up. But when the Allies fought the war in the Pacific — territory Terrence Malick explored in The Thin Red Line — what ensued was evil under the sun, mass killing under the palm trees of paradise, with wondrous birds and rare species spectators of the slaughter.

But the ugliest aspect of this beautiful film is its depiction of how slavers used the Bible to justify what they were doing. Understanding this legitimation is vital to how we view Christianity in the 21st century — how we answer questions about the relevance of the faith, its relation to history, its perspicuity.

The skewing of scripture features prominently in McQueen’s film because he has remained faithful to Solomon Northup’s narrative a year after his (spoiler-alert) rescue. This, for example, is how Solomon (played by the extraordinary Chiwetel Ejiofor) introduces his first master, the “good slaver” William Ford (the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch): “In my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid Christian man. Yet the influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery.” And the film also sticks to the text when it has the “evil” slaver Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender in a performance as vicious and terrifyingly arbitrary as Ralph Fiennes’s SS officer in Schindler’s List) provide an exegisis of a parable from the gospel of Luke. This is the moral Epps takes from the story of the watchful servant: “That nigger that don’t take care — that don’t obey his lord — that’s his master — d’ye see? — that ‘ere nigger shall be beaten with many stripes . . . That’s Scripter!”

Well, is that scripter? That’s the question which looms large. Can you find an endorsement of enslavement in the holy book of the Abrahamic faiths?

For all its immediacy in 12 Years a Slave, the question is not a new one. It provoked a civil war for one thing, as the American historian Mark Noll argues in The Civil War As A Theological Crisis. That is, aspiring emancipators did not simply concede to Epps and his ilk that scripture sanctioned slavery, promptly discarding it for Enlightenment principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. Not at all. Rather, as Abraham Lincoln put it in the second inaugural, “both sides read the same Bible”. The forces which opposed slavery, wherever they were on the spectrum, also held to the authority of scripture. They simply argued the slavers’ interpretation of it was illicit. But who was right?

In the Hebrew Bible slaveholding in ancient Israel was qualified and curtailed in a way it never was in 18th- and 19th-century slavery. More like indentured servitude, rules governing the practice commanded automatic manumission after six years and prohibited any physical violence against slaves. According to Exodus 21, if a master even so much as touches a slave’s tooth he is to be freed.

By the time we reach the New Testament, and Jesus and Paul coming up against Graeco-Roman slavery, we find them clearly constrained by context. So, Jesus heals the centurion’s slave but does not demand his emancipation. Paul, though commending a runaway to his former master as “no longer a slave, but better than a slave . . . a dear brother”, can only hint at, rather than insist upon, that man being granted his freedom. In a world which was not their own, but occupied by foreign powers with foreign power-systems, the mission of the messiah, and the aims of the apostles to make this known, required some capitulation to — or, better, patience with — injustice.

That said, traceable across the New Testament are definite trajectories, certain arguments the implications of which are left unstated, as African Americans themselves highlighted throughout the 19th century. The Sermon on the Mount’s golden rule, “do as you would be done by”, led Daniel Coker to declare in 1810: “It is very evidence, that slavery is contrary to the spirit and nature of the Christian religion.”

Trajectories? Implications? Lest this seem wild retrojection, reading back modern egalitarian values into ancient texts, admit one more consideration. The reason we can talk about trajectories and implications is because the Bible is fundamentally dynamic. It is a sweeping drama, an immense movement driving towards God’s ultimate redemption of the world in Christ. And the social consequences which flowed from this — “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male nor female” — could not but lead to the questioning of, in the words of Solomon Northup, “the idea of a man holding his brother man in servitude”.

GUEST BLOG – Under Pressure, by Abi Speers

Tragedy struck Langley High School last week. Two 17 year-olds, both male, took their lives, a day apart. The police have confirmed that neither drugs nor foul play played any part in their deaths. While the school mourns their losses, Abigail Speers, who graduated from Langley High School in 2013 and is now a freshman at the University of California, reflects on the pressure under which students at elite high schools find themselves.

I’m going to rant for a second. I’m not a big advocate of rants. In fact, I’m probably one of the last people you would imagine to deliver one. But I feel like this needs to be said, and if it helps anyone at Langley High School right now, it’ll be worth it.

If you have heard of Langley High School, I am sure that you have heard of its academic prowess. But you might also have heard disturbing things about its culture. I certainly don’t want to bash Langley or the admin. for the sake of it, nor in any way victimise the student body. But looking back, the truth is I could not be more grateful to be out of that environment. And I could not be more saddened and sickened by the thought of students who did not make it out to see the other side. I did not know the boys who took their lives. Nor do I know the circumstances surrounding their deaths. All I can say is that it is unbelievably tragic. And to other members of the student body who might be struggling, hear this: Langley is a bubble; a tiny, distorted bubble.

Langley is a hard place to navigate. Not just because it is extremely demanding academically. And not just because of stupid high school hierarchies. Those exist everywhere. Whatever. The Langley culture is not overtly oppressive. It’s often more insidious. At Langley, you are reduced to a letter on a piece of paper and your social persona, until you feel like you are a product that’s being mass-produced.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great people in the school. But if you do not fit the ‘Langley mould’ you are very likely to have one hell of an experience. Because free-thinkers, free spirits, oddballs – all too often they get stamped out by a message that feels an awful lot like:

‘Sure, you can be different. But only on your own time! Get an ‘A’ our way or you don’t get out. Get an ‘A’ our way or watch your life chances get sucked down a drain. It’s your life, just don’t forget that we control it.’

That’s the message I got day after day. So I kept my head down, got the grades, tried not to step on too many toes, and escaped. But it was lonely. Do you really learn in that environment? Or do you learn to excel for the sake of exceling? I think that’s maybe why I love an outcast. I root for the underdog, and I’m unimpressed by false bravado. At Langley you live in such a bubble that you don’t feel how isolated that situation is. You just think that that’s life.

I feel conflicted. It’s a strange dichotomy, because I can’t say how many times I’ve been grateful for how well Langley set me up for college academics. I found my dream school and I am incredibly thankful for the people who helped me get here. I mean it. I was well prepared for college. But I walk around even now and I feel like I’ve been branded by Langley. It’s not something you easily shake off.

I’m re-reading The Catcher in the Rye at the moment. Holden Caulfield reminds me of how little qualified I am to judge my peers. I know everyone at Langley tells you that they are preparing you for the ‘real world’, like the life you’re leading is make-believe. But let me tell you: in terms of ‘real’ Langley misses the mark. Why? Because it’s an environment places all the emphasis on the ‘ends’, of achieving a great education, and very little on the ‘means’. Sometimes it feels purely a place to build a resume. Everyone there is so hyper-aware of how competitive college admittance is. The courses are streamlined, and the teachers and administration need only wave the old academic record in a misbehaving student’s face to get their message across (which they do.)

In high school, my passion for learning was utterly crushed by the sheer number of hoops I had to jump through to ‘get the grades’. Every class was about how it effected your GPA (grade point average). And even then, the top grades weren’t always enough. In my year-group a perfect score, a GPA of 4.0, was not enough to get a large number of my peers into their own state university. So, on top of the grades, you need to take every AP (advanced placement) you can; or work for a senator on Capitol Hill; or start up a non-profit; or log an absurd number of community service hours; or do anything else you could think of to make your application stand out.

Yet underlying it all is a massive irony: because Langley is one of the best high schools in the country, each of the top colleges can only accept a certain amount of us. So all our efforts may prove futile anyway due to a factor totally out of our control. How healthy is it, then, to spend four years as a kid in an environment where your self-worth is inextricably tied to which colleges accept you? The whole system is one which only leaves students feeling helpless. It’s just so hard to fight to be an individual within a system whose evaluation you are constantly being told will have an enormous impact on your future.

College, by contrast, has come as a breath of fresh air. For example, yesterday when I got off the phone with my mom, at the entrance to my college I was greeted by the usual hoards of student activists. They’re not out there to cushion their resumes. They’re there to fight for causes they really believe in. Whereas many students leave Langley with shining records and absolutely no idea what they are passionate about.

I graduated from Langley High School. I know the culture. I was there. I get it. But looking back, and thinking back about those two boys who died, the idea of kids giving up on themselves before they’ve even tried to discover what they’re about/ that life is more than a perfect GPA, it’s just too heartbreaking for words.

GUEST BLOG – ‘Benefits Street: If only it was ‘unrepresentative’ By Chris Bullivant

In 2010 the newly elected Conservative-led British government announced the most radical overhaul of the welfare system since its creation, post the Second World War. At the start of 2014 Channel 4 broadcast a five-part series, Benefits Street, documenting the impact of these changes on residents of James Turner Street, an area of high unemployment and benefit dependency in Birmingham, England.

images-2Benefits Street has caused a furore in the UK. Some viewers unfamiliar with the way of life portrayed are disgusted by these ‘benefits scum’; while left-leaning voices rail that the program is unrepresentative, extreme and exploitative. Continue reading