Bonhoeffer and bullshit (1)

Here’s a quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer loosely related to the post on ‘too much talk?’

It is a consequence of the wide diffusion of the public word through the newspapers and the wireless that the essential character and the limits of the various different words are no longer clearly felt and that, for example, the special quality of the personal word is almost entirely destroyed. Genuine words are replaced by idle chatter. Words no longer possess any weight. There is too much talk. And when the limits of the various words are obliterated, when words become rootless and homeless, then the word loses truth, and then indeed there must almost inevitably be lying. When the various orders of life no longer respect one another, words become untrue. Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 329-30.

These words were written in the context of Hitler and the twisting of words to serve a power-hungry ideology. But I think that they remain startlingly prophetic today.

We in the West are not under threat of a totalitarian regime. But we do live in a culture where words have lost weight. Where we are saturated with words that that are untrue or half-true and where we have become deeply sceptical of truth-claims of any sort – whether by politicans, advertisers, bankers, historians, celebrities, public relations people, church leaders – you add your own names here.

This post-modern turn (don’t hear that word so much these days) is brilliantly summed up in Bonhoeffer’s description of rootless and homeless words serving the hidden agendas of orders of life that no longer respect each other.

What is the Credit Crunch but a massive con-game built around incomprehensible banking ‘products’ to describe immoral and high-risk behaviour with other people’s money designed to make an elite very rich and to hell with the consequences for the wider population?

What is much of the advertising industry but a cynical game with words, often designed to hide the truth or represent a half truth in order to make a product sell?

Reading Bonhoeffer, it is apparent that the weightlessness of untrue words is not a new thing. But may I suggest that what in his day was the extraordinary manipulation of the public mind has in our day become routine?

Or to put it another way, we swim in a daily tide of bullshit and we hardly even notice.

Now you may think that a rather a crude thing to say on this normally politie blog and you’d be right. Certainly Bonhoeffer did not use this word! But his words above are an elegant way of describing bullshit.

Why use that word? Well, some very interesting work has been done on bullshit by Yale and Princeton philosopher Harry G Frankfurt. He published a bestseller of a book On Bullshit. The essence of bullshit he says is a “lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are”. He argues that bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are because it eats away at respect for the truth. Which sounds very much like Bonhoeffer.

What for you are examples of bullshit? How have you been bullshitted today?

More on this in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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Too much talk? (or initial thoughts about the spirituality of blogging)

When I started blogging on 1 January 2010 I set myself a private target of a post a day for 6 months. This was a great way to get into the rhythm and discipline of blogging.  Since then I’ve been more relaxed. I decided a while ago that I would not post just for the sake of posting something. Posts had to come out of ordinary everyday life – from processing ideas, teaching, reflecting on conversations and events with students and friends, engaging with books and then verbalising those thoughts in a hopefully coherent way. And the pleasure in blogging is the conversations with others along the way.

I’ve done very little blogging recently due to more important responsibilities in ‘real life’. And that feels fine. And I have only been glancing at the (fairly small) list of blogs I read in my Google Reader.  And when I do, I’m increasingly feeling there is just too much to keep up with, even within my selected corner of the blogosphere. There is so much talk – a lot of it excellent, but maybe I’m just slow but I can’t process or think about 99% of it in any meaningful way.

Even since I started, I’ve noticed that the speed of blogging has increased. At many popular Christian sites, there is a smaller and smaller ‘window’ to engage in a discussion. Come a day later and it is all over – the conversation has moved on to the next topic.

There is also something of the ‘tyranny of the immediate’ in a lot of Christian blogging. Whether it is the latest big dust up between the Gospel Coalition and its critics, or the latest controversial book by Rob Bell or whoever. I wonder if we are being sucked into mirroring the insatiable appetite of the modern media for controversy by which to gain market share.

This links to something Sean said in the last post about the need deliberately to slow down, to nourish thankfulness and take time to reflect. Yes, I’ve connected with people and learnt tons from reading other blogs and the conversations that go on and will continue to read them – but I wonder if all this voracious talking reflects a very particular type of spirituality? An evangelical spirituality of activism, of individualism, of entrepreneurialism?

Perhaps it is a rule of being a ‘successful’ blog (interesting discussion right there – what is successful Christian blogging?) that you need to be posting at least once every day to gather readers who keeping coming back every day for something ‘new’. And alongside this production, you need to be marketing your site and maximising readers and so on.

But when does such ‘production’ become ‘over-production’? When does blogging become shaped by the dictates of consumer demand – a mirror image of our hyper-consumer market world that produces far too much stuff, most of it thrown away and a lot of it with little or no value?

When is there just too much talking for the sake of talking? And what I wonder are the consequences for those participating?

Here’s a story I like to tell: some years ago a large group of members and staff of an evangelical Christian organisation were away on a 2 day retreat in a very nice hotel. (I guess funding had been sourced from somewhere!). We had an excellent time socially and in discussions, workshops and talks. At the end a Catholic priest who had been invited as an observer shared his thoughts. He said something like this (in a very gracious and gently witty way),

In our tradition when someone goes on retreat they go to experience and listen to God. The first way they do this is to fast. You have not stopped eating all weekend. A second characteristic of a retreat in our tradition is to spend many hours in prayer. You have hardly prayed at all except quickly to give thanks to God at meal times. And a third characteristic is to spend considerable time in silence, listening for what God is saying. You have never stopped talking.

There was silence at that point alright. His words hit home because they were true.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

building habits of ‘simple’ gratitude in a consumer culture

I’ve had a remarkably pain-free and privileged life.

Good health, loving parents, a wonderful wife and family, a job I enjoy, freedom to plan and travel, expectations of longevity, a good education, friends, a roof over my head, a guarantee of food to eat and clean water to drink, a stable democracy in which to live, and relative wealth compared to the vast majority of people on the planet.

All not to mention the richness of God’s grace in and through his Son and made present by his Spirit. Or the multitude of blessings associated with being in a loving local church community etc.

I could keep going.

So why is it that I moan so much? Why is it that I tend to focus on what I don’t have, or on what’s wrong (or might go wrong) rather than what’s right? Why am I so thankless? Answers on a postcard please.

Of course I could just be a miserable grumpy old sod but let’s quickly move on to wider possibilities 😉

This is prompted by (of all things) watching an interview with Gary Player at the Open last week. Player has made a life out of being Mr Positivity. He’s always tried 100% at everything he does, whether golf or fitness or business. He was a boyhood hero of mine. I was a shy introvert with limited self-confidence and his can-do attitude and apparently boundless self-belief was inspiring, He’s 77 now and can still do 1000 push ups and performed a nice high-kick for the interviewer.

Anyway, I digress. In the interview he came back to a favourite theme of his – gratitude. Now he didn’t say to whom (or what) he was thankful – perhaps it is God or ‘golf’ or maybe the Great Spaghetti Monster I don’t know. And maybe it is ‘easy’ to be thankful when you seem to have everything.

But it struck me how rare his words sounded in contemporary culture.

We live in an atmosphere of pervasive and manufactured discontent. One consequence is a dearth of thankfulness.

We are bombarded by countless messages every day designed to remind us of what we don’t have, what we don’t look like, what we have not experienced, where we have not been, what we have not eaten, what we have not worn, what we have not achieved, friends we do not have, cool technology that we don’t own, skills and qualifications we should have, life-changing wealth that is someone else’s and celebrity status we will never possess.

Gratitude and contentment are too dangerous to be allowed to flourish within an endlessly avaricious culture. We are made to consume. It is our purpose and right to have more. Hey, it’s even our national duty to buy to keep the economy going.

Frustration, envy, complaint, dissatisfaction, boredom, cynicism, acquisitiveness and thanklessness – these are the fruits of a hyper-consumer culture. For how can you be thankful when you never have enough?

So if my thanklessness is (at least partly!) a symptom of being conformed to and shaped by Western culture (or the ‘world’) the question is how to build in habits of mind and practice that are counter-cultural?

One simple but powerful example is giving thanks for our food. As an observant Jew, Jesus kept this Jewish practice (feeding of the 5000, Last Supper etc and taught it in the Lord’s prayer). In a culture of waste and excess, genuine thankfulness for food is dulled – which  is all the more reason to practice habits of thankfulness.

Elsewhere in the NT, the most common reason to give thanks to God is for the good news of what he has done in and through his Son. However you understand the wider context of Romans 7, verse 25 is an overflow of thankfulness for Jesus. “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” See 1 Cor 15:57 for the same sentiment and many other places like Revelation 7.11

11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying:

“Amen!
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honour
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
Amen!”

Paul frequently gives thanks for spiritual life in others – since they are evidence of the presence, grace and power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:4 for example, “I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.”

He also rejoices that thanksgiving to God is happening or will happen. In other words, thanksgiving to God is a desired fruit of ministry. It is a sign of spiritual life, it brings right and proper glory to God. “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” 2 Cor 4:15.

And he pushes this attitude of thanksgiving wider – the Christian to be actively giving thanks to God for everything, whatever the circumstances. Most famously in Philippians 4:6 [“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”] but also in Ephesians 5:20 and Colossians 3:17,

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

What I see here is a pervasive attitude of thankfulness to God out of which all of life is lived. It is an attentiveness to life – a thoughtfulness if you like – that takes time to notice things and give thanks to God for them. It is in a deeply Christian sense, a self-forgetfulness, a looking away from ourselves to seeing what God is doing elsewhere as well as through our lives.

What I don’t see in the NT is a ‘how to manual’ of developing such an attitude. I suspect that is a good thing. We love to feel we can identify a problem, apply a solution and bingo, problem solved.

So while I don’t think there is a ‘right’ answer to fostering thankfulness, we can learn from each other. So, come on, help out an old grump,  I’d love to hear your thoughts and struggles on building habits of simple gratitude within an avaricious consumer culture.

Apostasy (5) Concluding Thoughts

I’ve been posting through some chapters of Phil Zuckerman’s book on Apostasy, Faith No More: why people leave religion and am fast forwarding to the end.

Zuckerman’s book is a good read. But after a while a curious reversibility becomes more and more apparent. Just as the journey to apostasy is (usually) gradual, so is conversion.

It strikes me that it would be perfectly possible to write a mirror image of this book based on 87 stories of conversion to ‘religion’ (a fairly useless word to describe something to leave or convert to but let’s stick with it). Indeed it could be argued that all conversions are a form of apostasy from something. In other words, apostasy can go the other way; from irreligion to ‘religion’.

Zuckerman argues that apostasy represents a refusal to conform and ‘is thus strong evidence of the undeniable significance and importance of individuality, variability, and human agency.’ (170). But the same thing could be said of conversion to faith, especially in the increasingly secular, post-Christendom culture of the West.

Throughout the book it is implicit where the author’s sympathies lie. This is made explicit in his self-confessedly impressionistic description of apostate characteristics: ‘courageous’, ‘bright’, ‘inquisitive’, ‘freethinkers’, ‘life-lovers’ and so on. Yet, the same words could be used if I was to compile a similarly impressionistic description of committed Christians I know (leaving out the fearful, slow, uncurious, conforming and life-hating ones I know 🙂 )

So while this is a well written and engaging read that sheds light on the stories, emotions, thoughts, experiences and struggles of men and women in the United States who have left faith and religious involvement for a more secular life, I am not sure that it tells us anything definitive or new.

Comments, as ever, welcome

The Dark Knight Rises

Saw this yesterday with 4 people aged 17 and under. Christopher Nolan and co got a big thumbs up from them and me. Some sketchy notes:

Splendidly over the top, but with a big heart and lashings of style. Lots of threads tied together at the end. Full of big themes:

– redemption by (and of) a flawed and all too mortal a hero with complex and mixed motives;

– a battle for human nature. The movie gets how fragile is the veneer of ‘civilised society’ and explores what society might soon look like if that veneer is removed (big class struggle here – an undercurrent of rage against unjust capitalism in the light of the Crash?). The fascistic and apparently irresistible ‘will to power’ of Bane versus those who give their lives for liberty. Between those who cynically manipulate and intimidate and those who trust the people.

– of how evil cannot be controlled by money; of the uselessness of wealth to understand what it is dealing with in Bane.

– of personal moral choices: The lone individual living for the self or something ‘bigger than that’ – willing to die to the self, to live for something greater? And even the appearence of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities “It is a far far better thing I do than I have ever done ….” to drive this secular servanthood theme home.

– of utilitarian ethics versus transparency and truth; pragmatism versus idealism

– a great line about hope and despair. When a hope is kindled and crushed, only then true despair flourishes. The power of hope to transform, to look to the future: the lifelessness of living in the past, without hope.

– an urban movie, with all the ambiguity of the city in full show

– and even an existentialist (literal) leap of faith to freedom, authentic because there was no rope to cling on to.

And if you don’t want to bother about all this reflective stuff; hey it’s great action movie that builds to a humdinger of a finale with a few nice twists.

Some thoughts on love and God (and theological education) (2)

Following up from yesterday’s post on God and love, here is a wee article  I wrote for our recent IBI Newsletter on a similar theme, this time relating God, love and theological education:

Faith working itself out in love

Let me ask you a question. Do you see yourself primarily as an individual; free, autonomous and solely responsible for all your beliefs and actions? Or are you primarily a member of something bigger than yourself; one person within a wider network of relationships, with built-in obligations and responsibilities to others? Obviously I’m generalizing here, but how you answer will likely depend on where in the world you are from.

A story illustrates this well. In a fascinating book, Christianity Rediscovered, Roman Catholic missionary Vincent Donovan tells the story of his ministry among the Masai tribes in East Africa. For an hour each morning for an entire year he met with all the members of one tribe with the aim of simply communicating the Christian story. When the year was up he asked them for a response – would they decide to follow Jesus and be baptised? And he added that he would not baptize those who had missed lots of sessions or showed little comprehension of the gospel. At this point the tribal leader responded and said:

Padri, why are you trying to break us up and separate us? During this whole year that you have been teaching us, we have talked about these things when you were not here, at night around the fire. Yes, there have been lazy ones in this community. But they have been helped by those with much energy. There are stupid ones in the community, but they have been helped by those who are intelligent. Yes, there are ones with little faith in this village, but they have been helped by those with much faith. Would you turn out and drive off the lazy ones with the ones with little faith and the stupid ones? From the first day I have spoken for these people. And I speak for them now. Now, on this day one year later, I can declare for them and for all this community that we have reached the step in our lives where we can say, ‘We believe.’

For many of us in the West this seems an alien story because we tend to prize individualism. I haven’t got time to trace the origins and development of individualism in Western thought, save to say that the exaltation of individual rights has become the overwhelmingly dominant paradigm of our culture.

A couple of years ago I attended a wonderful conference on the theme of community and theological education.[i] It was attended by Christians from all over the world including Africa, Asia and South America – continents from which the majority of Christians globally now come from. Many there agreed that Western societies have gone too far in the direction of individualism and this has infected the Western church as well.

For example, evangelicals have always rightly insisted on the necessity of a living personal faith. But this all too easily can be distorted into what missiologist David Bosch called a ‘shabby’ me-centered narrow gospel.

If this is true, a vital question for places of theological training like IBI is how can we help and challenge students to recover a proper place for community in their Christian life and thought? There are at least two places to begin to answer this:

1. The Bible and theology

The most important way for us to recover the role of community in the Christian life is to understand and take in deeply what the Bible and theology teach. Here is a short summary:

(i) God works in plurals

Right from the beginning, community is at the heart of God’s purposes for humanity. He creates Eve because ‘It is not good that man should be alone’ (Gen 2:18). Male and female are in perfect relationship with each other and with God. In many ways the story of the Bible from Genesis 3 onwards is a story of relational breakdown and God’s redemptive purposes to bring healing and wholeness. In my first year theology class we talk about how sin breaks relationships in four directions: relationship with God, with each other, with the self and with creation. All of these need healing and the good news (gospel) is that this is exactly God’s agenda in and through his Son, Jesus Christ.

This means that we need to understand the wonderful breadth and depth of the gospel. Salvation is NOT just about saving spiritually the individual (though it includes this). It encompasses the redemption of fractured relationships and the restoring of the whole creation (Rev 21).

I like to say that ‘God works in plurals.’ In the Old Testament, God’s focus is not on saving isolated individuals like Abraham or Moses but on forming and redeeming a whole nation. Israel is his loved and chosen people through whom blessing to all nations is to come. In the New Testament the church is also consistently understood in ‘plurals’: laos (people); hagioi (saints); the elect; the Israel of God; ekklesia linked to qᾱhᾱl the congregation of Israel; ‘the body of Christ’ (1 Cor 12); ‘the family of God’ (Rom 8:15ff); ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ (Phil 2:1); and in 1 Peter 2:9 four communal metaphors for the church are combined; race, priesthood, nation and people.

Do you get the sense that God values community and relationships!? But this relational priority does not just drop out of nowhere. It is rooted in the fundamentally relational nature of God himself.

 (ii) ‘I love therefore I am’

Christians worship a triune God. This is a deep truth with many implications, but perhaps the most important is that God in himself is relational. The one God is eternally three persons. Father, Son and Spirit delight in and love one another. If God himself is a community of love (1 Jn 4:16) and humanity is made in his image, then we are created to love. If God is a trinity of joyful love, real joy comes from loving others.

It is no accident therefore that love fulfils the whole purpose of the Law (Mt 22:37-40). It is the primary work of the transforming presence of the Spirit. Love is the sign of authentic and deep spirituality and without it all Christian activity is completely useless (I Cor. 13:1-3). Paul even puts it this way, “The only thing that counts is faith working itself out in love.” (Gal. 5:6). That’s strong stuff. To paraphrase René Descartes’ (1596-1650) famous dictum (“I think therefore I am”), Christians can and should say “I love therefore I am.”

2. Working out some implications

This theology of relationships, love and community raises profound questions and challenges for Christians living in an intensely individualist culture like ours. How can a place like IBI integrate and enhance the place of community and relationships within our training programmes?

Answering this sort of question would take another article (or three!). I don’t pretend that we have the solutions but these are some things we are trying to do within the community of IBI. Do please pray for us and the students in this process.

We are not a residential college but relationships can be prioritized by intentionally developing a community ethos:

– students and staff belong to small groups where life can be shared honestly

– students are asked to work in teams and to do some joint presentations to counter an inbuilt individualism

– a ‘head, hands, heart’ ethos is emphasized where the quality of relationships are as important as grades

– references give equal weight to character as to academic ability

– models of leadership are taught that focus on biblical themes of servanthood, equality, love and plurality rather than on impersonal techniques or performance skills

– staff are appointed not just because they have the right academic or technical skills but also their spiritual and relational maturity in Christ

– an atmosphere inside and outside the classroom with is interactive, non-hierarchical and demonstrating mutual respect among faculty, administrative staff and students

– the Mentoring and Apprenticeship Programme (MAP) is a core strand of the degree

– a Pastoral Care team gives opportunities for students to talk through issues and develop self awareness

I’m not saying that we have ‘cracked’ the problem of individualism. But we hope that these sorts of things will help develop students who don’t just view training as a means to an end. Men and women who know the Scriptures and have the skills and academic ability to think, reason and engage with wider culture but also people who do so in self-giving relationship with others.

For let me say it again; love is not a pleasant optional extra that may or may not accompany someone’s theological training, it is the whole purpose and goal of the enterprise. 


[i] The story of Vincent Donovan and the Masai comes from a paper given at that conference by Bishop Hwa Yung of the Methodist Church of Malaysia called ‘Energising Community: Theological Education’s Relational Mandate’ presented 5 October 2009 at the ICETE International Consultation for Theological Educators, Sopron, Hungary.

Some thoughts on God and love (1)

On this blog I’ve reflected now and then on ‘losing faith’.

Here’s a proposal forming in my mind (in other words I’m airing a half-baked formed idea for discussion – but hey that’s what a blog is for!).

For a committed Christian to walk away from their faith (not just the church but from belief in orthodox Christianity towards agnosticism or atheism) there has to be a ‘falling out of love’ with God.

Now I don’t mean this in any romantic sentimental ‘Jesus is my girlfriend’ sort of way.

I mean that somewhere deep down there has to be a disbelief, an apostasy if you will, in the moral goodness, the loveliness, the sheer beauty of God and in the compelling attractiveness of the ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ.

Scripture is packed full of praise and adoration of a God worth loving with our hearts, souls, minds and strength. Worth loving for what he does and who he is – in whom there is no darkness, only light. One image I like is from David in Psalm 52

8 But I am like an olive tree
flourishing in the house of God;
I trust in God’s unfailing love
for ever and ever.
For what you have done I will always praise you
in the presence of your faithful people.
And I will hope in your name,
for your name is good.

Rooted. Flourishing. Fruitful. Unfailing love. Community. Praise and thanksgiving. Hope. All flowing from a knowledge and experience of the sheer goodness of God.

Therefore a negative view of the doctrine of God or ‘theology proper’ is a fundamental element of Christian apostasy.

And is it significant therefore that it is the doctrine of the unadulterated goodness of God that is most under attack in the new atheism and other anti-Christian movements within contemporary culture? Here is the redrawing of God as a moral monster full of bile, injustice, violence, racism, etc etc

And what happens do you think when an experiential belief in the goodness of God leaks away in a Christian’s life? What’s left at the bottom of the bucket?

One symptom may be an unhealthy and negative attitude to the church itself. Once love for God goes, so does love for his (imperfect) people, perhaps manifesting itself in deep-seated frustration at the church’s failings or cynicism towards others. For if the love and grace of God are not central then all that is left is participation in what is often a frustrating and amateur organisation.

Another symptom of disbelief may be a sense of sadness and loss – there is no actual hope beyond the broken and unjust world we see every day. Like Douglas Coupland years ago saying that God isn’t there and he ‘misses him’.

Or perhaps love for God gets replaced by church politics, positions, power, factionalism and so on. Plenty of that around.

So the most spiritually searching question a Christian can ask him or herself is this: am I loving the Lord with all of who I am – mind, heart, life? If not, why not? What has ‘displaced God’?

And a follow up question – what does loving God in this way look like in practice ? In the specifics of daily life?

Comments, as ever, welcome.