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Memento Mori: Matthew Parris, The House of Commons and the 1994 Death of John Smith

John Smith MP was one of those tragic political should-have-beens. But while Leader of the Opposition riding on Labour’s 23% point lead over the Tories in 1994 and widely assumed to be Prime Minister in waiting, he died 18 years ago tomorrow from a pair of massive heart attacks. He was only 55. For those concerned with public life, it was one of those remember-what-you-were-doing-moments. But the reason for picking up on it here is that I was blown away at the time, and recalled in conversation last week, the piece written by the great Matthew Parris, at the time The Times’ Parliamentary Sketch-writer and oft-quoted by Q. Read more »


Matthew Parris on form again – What Africa really needs

Picked up by a number of blogs, Matthew Parris has written a brilliantly provocative piece in today’s Times: As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God. He has wonderfully resisted the western secular agenda that lies behind so many development agencies, despite being an avowed atheist, with its barely disguised disdain for what is fundamental to African culture and life. But Parris knows what Africa is like – he was brought up in what is now Malawi, and has returned many times. And more importantly, he has seen what Christians actually do, and what impact it actually has

But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

The fascinating thing in all this is that Parris refers to the Christian God and not any other (especially not the Muslim god). As someone who has reservations about the value of a lot of development work in Africa, i have to say that this article has made a hugely important contribution. If only people would take it seriously.

Read the whole article – and some of the comments are great too. Here are 3:

It seems to me that Christianity inspires its adherents to build hospitals, schools, orphanages and clean water projects in a way that other religions do not. At the same time you hear so little of Christian suicide bombers walking into crowded Muslim weddings and blowing themselves up. Brice Baker, Waterford, USA

As an African I have to say well done Mr Parris. I may not agree 100% with all you’ve said, but I can detect this is coming from the heart and you do care about what happens to Africa. Ben U, Benin City, Nigeria

As an African, I applaud your ‘out of the box’ thinking, which is very much at variance with a neo- Marxist orthodoxy that seeks 2 blame colonialism and the West for Africa’s problems. Naturally, expect 2 be maligned by left-leaning intellects that fetishize the “Noble Savage”. A book next? Baraka, Washington, DC, USA


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 81 (June 2015)

Sacred Treasure

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Hackgate, Corruption and African perceptions of the West

During the 4 years we worked in Uganda, I would have this conversation with students all too often. They would despairingly deprecate African states for their oh-so predictable corruption, nepotism and despotism. It would be shrugged off and perhaps accompanied by a green-eyed comment about western political systems. And indeed, when chatting with friends back home, they would often enquire whether X or Y countries were doing ‘worse or better these days’ – shorthand for whether their respective rulers were now more, or less, openly corrupt and oppressive. Such is the caricature many outsiders have of Africa – and of course, there’s no smoke without fire, etc etc. Read more »


BBC reports Mongolian revival!

It is not everyday that you get positive religious news from the BBC. But having found myself stuck in Istanbul for an extra day (the result of the snow-enforced closure of Heathrow yesterday), I was watching BBC World with my lovely hosts, Robin & Lorna. And suddenly, on came a televised report by Robert Pigott from Ulan Baator about the re-emergence of religion on post-communist Mongolia. The indigenous traditional form of Buddhism has inevitably been reinvigorated. But what was most surprising was seeing evidence of the rapid growth of Christianity. And one clear point of his report is that it is the practical support and development that Christian workers bring to the country that has given the gospel a platform. We couldn’t believe our eyes!

On the televised report, he showed footage from a church and then from Union Bible college – somewhere that we’ve known a number of people who have worked there. I’ve not been able to find the video online but perhaps it will turn up at some point. But you can check out the radio report…

And on that report for From Our Own Correspondent, he focused on the work of MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship) as well. MAF is a fantastic outfit, and we had good friends with them when we were in Uganda. How refreshing to hear something postive about the impact of global mission instead of the usual PC rants. 

The tone reminded me somewhat of the now famous Matthew Parris article at Christmas about gospel work in Africa and how beneficial it was. What both Pigott and Parris seem to have overlooked is actually how beneficial it can be for the west again. But you’d never get the BBC saying that now, would you!?


Q’s AFRICA week: 5. What’s going on? (Bono & Chris Martin)

Chris Martin & Bono did this cover of Marvin Gaye’s classic ‘What’s going on?’ back in 2001. The original was a reflection on the madness of the world at the time – with Vietnam looming large, as well as black-on-black violence in America’s inner cities. 

MosAzian has made this video compilation of photos from Africa to accompany the cover. I pondered quite a bit about whether to include it. Because, as the piece read by Djimon Hounsou earlier this week made clear, it is all too easy to tarnish the wonders and joys of this great continent with the stereotypical images of famine-starved families and child soldiers.

Well this video manages to avoid a monochrome approach – with some wonderful, life-embracing and inspiring images interspersed throughout. But, we can’t escape realities. Despite the difficulties of navigating the waters of political correctness, the fact remains that there are STILL millions starving, disease-riven and war-torn across Africa. And if I was one of them, I wouldn’t care less whether or not my suffering was stereotypical – I’d want my story heard far and wide in the (vain?) hope that someone could do something about it.

The first step has to be getting informed – for without that, the ghastly modern neurosis of ‘compassion fatigue’ would cause all but the most devoted to skulk quietly past. And above all, it is the gospel in action that can make the difference (as Matthew Parris so brilliantly articulated last week).


Glimpses of light from the outside – sometimes that’s what it takes

One of the things that fascinates me (but also invariably troubles me) is how people who are not believers view those who are. Of course, there is a lot of mutual prejudice and ignorance – all too often the worst culprits are sadly the Christians who presume to comment categorically and dogmatically on those who are not. There is no excuse for that – and I have to say I wince sometimes (perhaps even often) when Christians speak out publicly, especially when they claim to do it in my name as a fellow-believer. I dare say that others have winced when i’ve done the same thing – and we certainly need great care.

Still, non-believers are no less prone to stereotyping and strident prejudice or ignorance. I fear that our good friend Richard Dawkins is too often guilty of that. So it is very refreshing when people seek to be more objective, open and/or honest. This doesn’t necessarily mean they accept the premises of the Christian faith at all – in fact, in the examples I cite here, most of these writers do not. But that makes their comments all the more powerful or helpful. And certainly with these here, i’m sitting here going alleluia because they make so much sense. I just wish we could maintain their level-headedness and sanity when we discuss things that atheists believe strongly…

  • Madeleine Bunting on THE NEW ATHEISTS WHO LOATHE RELIGION – grateful to Steve Timmis for putting me onto this one – fascinating article from yesterday’s Guardian. She engages with the likes of Christopher Hitchens and especially Sam Harris who has recently published the chart-topping Letter to a Christian Nation.
  • Dawkins is an unashamed proselytiser. He says in his preface that he intends his book for religious readers and his aim is that they will be atheists by the time they finish reading it. Yet The God Delusion is not a book of persuasion, but of provocation – it may have sold in the thousands but has it won any souls? Anyone who has experienced such a conversion, please email me (with proof). I suspect the New Atheists are in danger of a spectacular failure. With little understanding and even less sympathy of why people increasingly use religious identity in political contexts, they’ve missed the proverbial elephant in the room. These increasingly hysterical books may boost the pension, they may be morale boosters for a particular kind of American atheism that feels victimised – the latest candidate in a flourishing American tradition – but one suspects that they are going to do very little to challenge the appeal of a phenomenon they loathe too much to understand.

  • matthew_parris_body.jpgMatthew Parris on THE HEART OF THE MATTER: regular readers will perhaps have picked up that I’m on the whole a big fan of Matthew Parris – former Tory MP, hilarious and astute political commentator (for years the Times’ parliamentary sketch writer) and now regular columnist in the same paper. I was given an old photocopy of this column he wrote some time back – i’ve no idea when and haven’t been able to trace it on the net. All I know is that it was definitely in the Times and was around Easter time. If you can trace it that would be great, so i can provide a direct link. In the meantime, i’ve posted a transcript of it. He is trenchant and spot on. There is an old gag amongst ministers that the things that are guaranteed to cause trouble (and even splits) in churches are Music or Flowers, or even a combination of the two. It takes someone like Parris to shake us up and bring us to our senses. Here is a small taste – one of my favourite bits:
  • For if God exists then our Godless existence falls apart. And if God does not exist then surely the church falls apart! We would be dealing with a superstition. A whole range of ancillary debates would just drop away as pointless. Forms of prayer? Hats or no hats? Thou or you? What would it matter? Would we discuss how to address the Loch Ness Monster if we did not believe in the Loch Ness Monster? Would we pay money into a pension policy if the insurance company were a fiction?

  • Terry Eagleton reviewing Richard Dawkins’ GOD DELUSION: because this is so good, i thought I’d link to it again (having 1st linked to it on Feb 4 2007). Full of very sane and sensible criticism from this brilliant literary theorist, former Oxford Professor and Marxist. The whole article was originally in the London Review of Books.

This is slightly different but no less intriguing.


  • roy-hattersley.jpgLord Hattersley on LINKING FAITH & GOOD WORKS: this is one of his regular columns in the Guardian, written 18 months ago, and did the email rounds at the time – but it is definitely worth keeping in circulation as it is generous and honest, even if you don’t agree with everything he says:
  • It ought to be possible to live a Christian life without being a Christian or, better still, to take Christianity à la carte. The Bible is so full of contradictions that we can accept or reject its moral advice according to taste. Yet men and women who, like me, cannot accept the mysteries and the miracles do not go out with the Salvation Army at night. The only possible conclusion is that faith comes with a packet of moral imperatives that, while they do not condition the attitude of all believers, influence enough of them to make them morally superior to atheists like me. The truth may make us free. But it has not made us as admirable as the average captain in the Salvation Army.


Interesting Easter Media Moments

It is fascinating to find out how much the secular world around us is by turns fascinated, appalled and bemused by the major events of Christian history or other faith incursions into public life.

First up is Matthew Parris’ full-frontal attack on religion in general, and the claims of Pope John-Paul II’s miraculous nun-healing in particular, is pretty robust – and i must say i agree with him on the pope business. The rest is provocatively polemical!


Where are you, intelligent Christians? Where is your voice, your righteous anger? Where is your honest contempt for this nonsense? Take that claimed recent miracle, for instance. I know lots of nice, clever Catholics — friends, thoughtful men and women, people of depth and subtlety, people of some delicacy, people who would surely cringe at the excesses of Lourdes. Do they believe that John Paul II may have cured this nun from beyond the grave? You are living, dear reader, at a watershed in human history. This is the century during which, after 2,000 years of what has been a pretty bloody marriage, faith and reason must agree to part, citing irreconcilable differences. So block your ears to the cooing voices on Thought for the Day, and choose your side.
“But how can you be sure?” Oh boy, am I sure. Oh great quivering mountains of pious mumbo-jumbo, am I sure. Oh fathomless oceans of sanctified babble, am I sure. Words cannot express my confidence in the answer to the question whether God cured a nun because she wrote a Pope’s name down. He didn’t. Mere language does no justice to my certainty about whether God might be waiting for the return to their Biblical lands of the Israelites, before arranging the Second Coming. He isn’t.
Shout it from the rooftops. Write it on walls. Carve it into rock. He didn’t. He isn’t. He won’t.

Wow – don’t mess!

It certainly spurred Charles Moore in today’s Telegraph to action, or at least to his keyboard. His op-ed title said it all: Militant Atheists: too clever for their own good.

And picking up the more traditional issues of Easter, the leader article was The flesh and blood hopes of Easter