Brexit and the Moral Vision of Nationhood

Note from Jake: This is an Alastair piece so it’s both extremely long and extremely rewarding to those who will read the whole thing. That said, today may be a good day to avail yourself of that green “print-friendly version” on the left-hand side of the post.

On the morning of June 24, Britain awoke to the devastation of a vast political and social earthquake, as, after an unpleasant and divisive campaign, a majority of our nation voted to leave the European Union (EU). The aftershocks and long term consequences of this earthquake are likely to define our politics for a generation.

Upon announcement of the result, the value of Sterling plunged precipitously, initially losing a tenth of its value against the dollar, as the markets responded to radical uncertainty about the future of Britain’s economy. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, quit and a vote of no confidence was submitted against Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, declared that, in light of Scotland’s overwhelming support for Remain, a new vote for Scottish independence should take place. Sinn Fein called for a vote on the reunification of Ireland. In response to Gibraltar’s 95.9% Remain vote, Spain renewed its push for joint sovereignty over the British territory. France’s current border agreement with Britain at Calais was challenged, with potentially significant consequences for the deeply controversial migrant camps there. Meanwhile, over a million people signed a petition advocating for a second referendum and many others for Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, to declare the city’s independence from the rest of the UK and remain in the EU. Continue reading

On the Quirky Author Bio

If you’ve spent any amount of time online then you have come across a weird genre of online writing that we’re going to call the Quirky Author Bio. You’ll find them at the end of blog posts all over the internet. It goes like this: “So-and-so is a writer from (city, state) whose hobbies include cooking, reading, and poking badgers with spoons. He has a pet porcupine named Mr. Prickles and loves making home-brewed kombucha. His favorite word is ‘onomatopoeia.'” (NOTE: If the subject of said biography is a Christian male, the odds of the bio also including awkward or creepy references to the man’s wife and her physical attractiveness are ~60% with that figure rising to ~85% if the man in question is reformed.)

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Monasteries, Protestantism, and the Joy of Indifference

Recently a Catholic friend who has frequently visited a monastery for much of his adult life asked me about how Protestants can create stable communities that will preserve and pass on the Christian faith without monasteries. For many Catholics, he said, the monastery is the most stable institution within the church.

The spirit behind his question is roughly in line with what David Nolan wrote for Fare Forward several years ago when he argued for the necessity of monks. The vocation of the monks, my friend said, tends toward a level of stability and fidelity that is deeply helpful not only to the monks, but also to any lay Christians living nearby. The monastery essentially says “This is a good life. We will live here and dedicate ourselves to this work. Even if no one else is here, even if no one else notices us, even if no one else cares, this is what we will do.” Continue reading

Walt Whitman on Neighbors and Strangers

It is good to remember, especially in light of these presidential primaries, that no era is without its share of baffling endorsements. Andrew Carnegie, whose imperious steel mills did more than perhaps anyone to antagonize the neo-transcendentalist folklore of Leaves of Grass, called Walt Whitman the greatest poet America has produced.

Out of the many poems Whitman wrote on the effects of industrial change, perhaps none is as poignant as “To A Stranger.” Continue reading

On Prayer Shaming

If you grew up evangelical, or at least in the fundamentalist brand of evangelicalism I grew up in, one of the things you learned about prayer is that it isn’t gossip if you tell a compromising story about another person and end it by asking for prayer.

You probably also learned that public prayer could be a great opportunity for advertising your extensive knowledge of the Bible and practicing particularly pious sounding phrases in order to impress your friends or, more likely, parents and youth group leaders. Continue reading

The Strength of the Hills Is Not Ours–Our Modern Identity Crisis

Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when the family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood – they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air & later corn, and later still bread, really was in them. We of course who live on a standardised international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, & Australian wine to day) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.
~CS Lewis

Wesley Morris has a fine essay on our obsession with identity over at the New York Times. Morris ties together a number of major news stories from the past year to highlight how they all relate in one way or another to a widely shared obsession with identity: What makes a person who they are? How much control does a person have over their own identity? How fluid can an identity be? And why is race, in contrast to gender, so much harder to redefine or shift?

In a piece that ranges from Anne Hathaway’s new movie to Barack Obama to Mr. Robot to Amazon’s popular show “Transparent,” Morris attempts to answer those questions. Continue reading

Listener Response to the Mere Fidelity Refugee Episode

Hannah Sillars, a Mere Fidelity listener, wrote in after listening to last week’s Mere Fidelity refugee episode to comment on one particular point about the ongoing refugee crisis. Hannah Sillars is an author and marketing professional who lives in Toronto, ON, with her husband, Jordan. She’s written for Christianity Today, WORLD magazine online, and blogs at www.hold-the-anchovies.com. We also have a separate post on Notes with more resources on refugees. If you want to help refugees in your area, we have information to help you do that over there.

Hi there, I’ve just started listening to Mere Orthodoxy about two episodes ago. I respect your perspectives and have since followed many of you on Twitter. I did want to comment, however, on the refugees podcast. A little background: I’m a conservative Anglican Christian. I’ve volunteered with refugees in Fort Worth, Texas, on and off since high school. This was mostly “off” until after college, when my husband and I committed to volunteering at least one night per week for a year. Continue reading

Twitter Is Like Elizabeth Bennet’s Meryton

I’m quite pleased to feature this piece from Mere Fidelity contributor Alastair Roberts today. You can follow him on Twitter here or read his personal blog here

‘A Truth Universally Acknowledged…’

In a 1997 article on communal judgment in Pride and Prejudice, William Deresiewicz observed that Pride and Prejudice is, at first glance, an apparent exception to Austen’s practice of opening her novels by introducing a central character.(1) Indeed, Elizabeth Bennet’s character doesn’t truly come to the foreground until around the sixth chapter. Closer examination, however, reveals that there is a central character introduced at the beginning of the novel: the community, with its values, expectations, conventions, and practices. The opening sentence of the book—‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’—is a ‘mock aphorism’, which is swiftly exposed to be nothing but a judgment that is ‘well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families’ of the neighbourhood. The earlier episodes of the story focus upon the neighbourhood of Meryton and its collective consciousness, which emerges as Mr Bingley and his friends move to Netherfield and become known to the community of the local gentry, most particularly in the opening ball. Deresiewicz remarks: ‘Elizabeth cannot appear until well into this initial story because it is that story—the story of how a community thinks, talks, exerts influence—that produces her plot, that produces her’ (504). Continue reading

Our Culture of Reading and the End of Dialogue: An Essay

Christians are a people of the book, a people whose lives are formed and shaped by their encounters and interactions with a God whose works have been manifested in the words that bear witness to them. The early Christians understood this, which is partly why they paired the transmission of the Scriptures with their evangelistic zeal. The number of manuscripts we have of the Bible from that era far exceeds any other books, in part because Christians cared so deeply about getting the Word out that they eagerly got the words that bear witness to Jesus out as well.

We live in the paradoxical world, though, where the volume of books is matched only by that of the handwringing about whether anyone is reading them. The explosion in books may actually have little to do with the internet. Richard Nash points out that between the 1980s and 2010 the number of books published annually jumped from 80,000 to 328,259 (a surprisingly precise figure). And while worries about reading are not a recent phenomenon—Rudolph Flesch’s influential Why Johnny Can’t Read was published back in 1955—things haven’t much improved since then. The average reading level for students in high school is just barely above the fifth grade. Students may be reading as much, but they’re obviously not reading as well as they used to. The same study found that between 1907 and 2012 the complexity level of books assigned in high school plummeted.1 Even if we read more as a culture we do not read as well.

But a people whose curriculums are shot through with Shakespeare will have more tools to deeply understand the world than those who are assigned The Hunger Games, however enjoyable they might be or well they might be written. The plays can be tough reading and the pleasures and joys deferred until a re-reading (or, in some cases, a re-re-reading). And the work required to understand them is considerably greater than that which contemporary fiction demands of us, if only because of the gap between Shakespeare’s time and ours. We should struggle through books like Shakespeare because the sort of understanding about the world that we need often doesn’t come on a first read of it, but on a third or fourth. Confronting a text whose meaning is initially obscure to us and being impelled to press onward, to work and think and wrestle, gives us the sort of discipline and training that genuine wisdom demands.

As we move into a world where people can no longer read deeply or well, Christians will be in a territory we have charted once before but have long forgotten. We may be a people of the book, but we are not a people who thinks that book’s meaning is easily or quickly grasped. The perspicuity of Scripture, or the idea that Scripture’s meaning would be clear to anyone, never entailed that it could be grasped on a first reading. And we even have a Bible verse to prove the case. 2 Peter 3:16 notes that “[Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort.” In a world that struggles to understand Shakespeare, we have Biblical reasons to think we will do no better with the Apostle.

Yet it is not simply reading that is imperiled. A culture where reading is in decline will be a culture where inquiry and learning struggle as well, and the possibility of genuine and meaningful dialogue with those who we disagree will erode too. There is a fundamental connection between how we take in the world around us and sort through it internally and how we participate in conversations with those around us. As our culture reads more poorly, it will speak more poorly and respond more impatiently and less charitably.

——

Perhaps no part of Scripture is as insistent on the value of words to the Christian life as the Gospel According to John. The book opens with the magisterial identification of Jesus and the logos, the “Word,” a term that is as difficult to understand as any in Scripture. Yet throughout the Gospel, John highlights the value of the words that Jesus says and implicitly underscores the unique importance of the words he is writing that communicate them. In John 6, a controversial passage in recent church history, Jesus points out that the Spirit is the one who gives life, and that “the words that I have spoken to [the disciples] are spirit and life” (John 6:63b). Jesus qualified his famous line that “the truth will set you free” with the condition that it will happen “If you abide in [his] word” (John 8:31). In John 15, the symmetry of Christ abiding in us and us abiding in him is disrupted by the asymmetry of us abiding in Christ and Christ’s words abiding in us as the premise for power in prayer. Those words, interestingly, conspicuously stand in the very spot in the story where every other Gospel records Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper. And in closing the Gospel, John himself point toward the truthfulness of his written testimony and its limitedness: “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (John 21:24-25).

There are two metaphors for what happens in reading a text like Scripture: on the one hand, we take it into ourselves and make it a part of us. The words abide in us, make their home in us, rearranging our thoughts and reframing how we see things. On the other hand, we enter into a world that the words create. There is a certain self-forgetfulness that happens in reading, particularly when we read fiction or read books that we struggle to understand. This is true of reading Scripture, too: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” is not a sentence that has anything to do with us, at least not immediately. Only by entering the universe John points to with his words can we properly come to understand them.

On both metaphors, though, how we read a text significantly affects how it changes us. There is no substitute for slow, unhurried lingering over the words of a book—abiding, we might say—to come to grips with its subtleties, its nuances, and its depth. When we marinate ourselves in a text, we begin to think thoughts after the author—for good or ill. James Gray, an evangelical theologian whose career spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, once commended reading the same book of the Bible over and over again to master it (or rather, to have it master us) instead of simply reading through the whole thing.5 When Fred Sanders reminded us of the passage, one writer–my brother– humorously decided to test out the thesis by doing the same with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and spent his time thinking Emersonly about the world. Emerson isn’t the writer I’d commend starting with, but he makes the point well: words will change us, but only if we give them the time and space to do their work within us.

Abiding in a text, though, and allowing words to abide in us demands an attentiveness and care that we seem to increasingly struggle with. When we return again and again to a text, we may eventually get bored with it—but in doing so, we place ourselves in a situation where we can notice what we have not noticed before. By exhausting what we have to say about a text, we reach the point where we can open ourselves to something it might have to say to us. Continue reading