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Posts from the ‘modernism’ Category


Some Holy Week thoughts and provocations

Ongoing writing means lack of ongoing blogging, as ever. But the end is in sight. On the home straight for getting full draft editor by 1st Jun.

But here are a few links for this Holy Week Read more »


5-a-Day I: Detested & Loved words

Hate is a strong word. In fact, one of my favourite aphorisms of Graham Greene (taken from his astonishing The Power and the Glory) is that “Hate was just a failure of the imagination.” It is precisely because we are all such conflicted and complex people that the hatred of individuals is such a blight – there are always extenuating circumstances (even if they are not sufficient to justify actions). Read more »


Modernist Ministry’s Dehumanising Metrics – consolidated

Last summer, I wrote a series of posts on the highly pretentious sounding ‘dehumanising metrics of modernist ministry’. Don’t be put off (although in fairness, I have to say I was quietly pleased by the alliteration there) because the more I’ve thought about it, and the more I’ve chatted with folks, the more I think there are some crucial things to discuss. This is certainly not the perfect analysis nor last word. But I hope it will at least present something of what troubles me these days. Read more »


Václav Havel’s 1978 warning to the West

I’m trying to understand power – what it means, how it’s wielded, how it affects us. Big topic. But I’m increasingly convinced that we can’t understand the culture of suspicion without grasping the power of power (and its abuses).

This has drawn me to someone who has been a bit of a hero, but whose writings I’d only dipped into. Reading Václav Havel‘s masterly and vital 1978 essay The Power of the Powerless has blown me away. Written in the dark days of Czechoslovak communism (only 10 years after the false dawn of the Prague Spring), it is a profound analysis of what it was like to live under a regime built entirely on lies. The only response, the only subversion of the regime, therefore, is to live in truth. Read more »


As If These Walls Had Tears: Reflections on Berlin’s Holocaust memorial

Apparently there were only 19 hours of sunshine in Berlin between 1st January and 22nd March – a record low. Such absolute greyness is oppressive. But in recent weeks, there have also been huge snowfalls. The result is an eerily monochrome world. Not ideal for taking sightseers’ photographs. But somehow appropriate for a visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Read more »


Francis Spufford on Childhood books 4: Why Narnia matters

For me, though, the standout of Francis Spufford’s reading memoir The Child That Books Built is the chapter entitled The Island. For it is here that he waxes lyrical about Narnia. It is not just because he chimes with the countless numbers who loved C S Lewis’ books (despite the likes of Philip Pullman and Polly Toynbee). It is the fact that he grasps something of their theological wonder (which will come as no surprise perhaps to those who have enjoyed his Unapologetic). Read more »


The subversive messages of a dollar bill

I’d been vaguely aware of these from a while back, but had never looked carefully at them. It wasn’t until they were used as running gags in last week’s New Yorker money edition that I sat up and noticed. Dan Tague has created a series of prints in 2008 of dollar bills folded in such a way as to reveal all kinds of subversions of American capitalism and western materialism. There is something rather delicious about making a dollar spell out ‘American Idol’ or an American revolution battle cry, or the best advice of the contemporary conspiracy theorist.

Ingenious Read more »


Cynicism or Criticism? Developing an integrated mind at University

This is an update of a talk I gave nearly 15 years ago to some students back in Sheffield. My aim was to help them avoid the classic polar mistakes of either avoiding the intellectual challenges of university or being swamped by them altogether. There are all kinds of other joys, opportunities and challenges when people first go to uni, and so intellectual development is only one aspect of what needs thinking about. But I fear it is often overlooked altogether.

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The dehumanising metrics of modernist ministry 3: The Past

No man is an island entire of itself said the prophetic priest-poet of old. Modernism and its western offspring, individualism, have done their utmost to prove him wrong. In vain. For whether we like it or not, we are all part of one another. And while Donne was clearly speaking of human society, he could equally have been referring to human history. For one of modernity’s most damaging trends has been to legitimise our innate haughtiness about the past. So having discussed how modernist culture shapes our present, and then sensed the crushing power of modernism’s relentless pursuit of progress, we must close the circle by considering the past.

Read more »


The dehumanising metrics of modernist ministry 2: The Future

Having speculated a little about how the prevailing winds of modernist culture affect our perceptions of the present, I now want to think about how we face the future. Which in some ways can have an even more dehumanising impact. And yet again, I need to say at the outset that there is a valid counter-argument to each point. But why should simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with oneself get in the way of a blog-post? Read more »


The dehumanising metrics of modernist ministry 1: The Present

There is a clear counter-argument for every point I want to make here. In fact, I sort of agree with every counter-argument myself. But I feel the need to make them nevertheless. For my hunch is that one of the key factors in ministerial burnout is that we are far more influenced by post-enlightenment modernism than by the values of the Kingdom. It shouldn’t come as any surprise – we’re always more insidiously affected by our culture than we appreciate. It’s just so sad how little we face the problem. Read more »


The Pop-Culture Game-Changer: Ted Turnau’s Popologetics

Every now and then a book comes along which demands serious attention. Ted Turnau’s Popologetics is just such a book. I should be up front at this stage and declare that he is a friend, so perhaps some will merely assume this is a question of mutual back-scratching. I can assure you it’s not (I’ve received no commissions… as yet). But still, this is a great book. For a whole range of reasons: it is very readable and lucid; it makes its case with wit and self-deprecating humour; it is a model of how to handle disagreement (theological and otherwise) with great grace and generosity; and it demonstrates extensive appreciation of the field and offers a rich mine of treasure to any reader. Read more »


Q’s Espionage Festival: 1. Gordon Corera’s The Art of Betrayal

BBC Security Correspondent, Gordon Corera‘s new book, The Art of Betrayal – Life and Death in the British Secret Service covers ground that will be familiar to all students of the Cold War and spy fiction fans. But he does so in a very readable, engaging but authoritative way. The British Secret Service was in some ways one of the last relics of British imperial glory, with an ability to strut across the world stage despite other aspects of British influence declining. Read more »


The Soviet Utopia and the assimilation of Biblical Imagery

I was very struck by this fascinating article (“Building Blocks” from the latest Royal Academy magazine) about post-revolution architecture and art in the Soviet Union. Never having visited Russia itself (despite having travelled fairly extensively through its former cold war satellites), my presumption was that architecture in that era was full of monolithic, brutalising and depersonalised buildings. But it seems was that this was primarily the result of Stalinist totalitarianism and did not characterise the confidence of the brand new revolutionary state that held (to some extent) its ideals intact. Read more »


I can’t help myself…? It’s time to deny the denial

It’s an ambiguous title. It can mean two very different things. Either I can’t stop myself (e.g.I have little self-control when it comes to resisting temptation, whatever that might be) or I can’t rescue myself (and I’m stuck). It seems to me that western culture is in denial about both. Control and autonomy are our post-Enlightenment mantras (in the name of personal freedom of course). And much to our frustration, neither are truly attainable. Read more »


Nothing Buttery: a Reductionism Rant

Reductio ad absurdum: one of those nice little Latin phrases that comes in handy every now and then. It has a noble pedigree and describes an age-old form of argument designed to pick one’s opponent’s claims apart. It means ‘reduction to the absurd’, or ‘to the point of absurdity’. And it is definitely worth mastering. Read more »


Harnessing Nature’s Power – James Watt & The Steam Age

It was slightly surreal – an invitation to a mere blogger, who occasionally and with the reckless confidence that comes only from profound ignorance, dabbles in the realm of science. I guess it was because of past raves about books like The Age of Wonder and God’s Philosophers that someone somewhere had the random idea of inviting me to the press opening of the Science Museum’s new James Watt Exhibition this morning. So I duly pitched up, enjoyed my complimentary coffee and croissant and circulated with the best of them. I listened with interest as the museum boss and then celeb-historian Adam Hart-Davis gave us their three-penny’orth. And then wandered around the new displays – just off to the left of the main Energy Hall on the ground floor – a full 24 hours before it opens to the public tomorrow.

And in the brief time that I could be there, it was great. So I guess if someone goes as the result of this little post, their punt was worth it. The centrepiece is the installation of Watt’s home workshop exactly as he left it when he died in 1819. The Science Museum had gained it, lock stock and barrel, in 1924 – and now it is cleverly set up so that one can walk into it and glimpse the place where this great engineering mind spent his days in retirement. It’s full of bric-a-brac gathered from a life of relentless enquiry and experiment – what Hart-Davis amusingly described as junk – and what fascinating junk it is (it includes the first ever circular saw apparently). The advantage of being a press opening is that we could go behind the glass and look around the exhibit (under watchful eyes of course). Check out one or two snaps I took. Read more »


Society, you’re a crazy breed…

One of the most moving films of recent years has been Into the Wild (dir by Sean Penn). Here are some clips backing the version of Jerry Hannan‘s song Society, sung by Eddie Vedder (who did the whole soundtrack). The song has a bewitching melancholy – but also carries a prophetic voice about the absurdities of western materialism. The film is based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young graduate who turned his back on it all, by fleeing into the wonders and brutalities of the Alaskan wilderness.

The film’s agony is that McCandless thought he could be free from a materialistic society by escaping society altogether – only to discover (too late, tragically) that what he desperately needed was not the absence of society, but the reality of a truly redeemed society.

Read more »


The oppressive shadows of the Berlin Wall: Anna Funder’s Stasiland

The Berlin Wall has been gone for over 20 years. But its shadows haven’t.

People here talk of the Mauer im Kopf or the Wall in the Head. I thought this was just a shorthand way of referring to how Germans define themselves still as easterners and westerners. But I see now a more literal meaning: the Wall and what it stood for do still exist. The Wall persists in the Stasi men’s minds as something they hope might one day come again, and in their victims’ minds too, as a terrifying possibility. (p233)

Read more »


Confessions of a magazine junkie

Someone made the mistake of asking me the other day what magazines I read. And it came as a bit of a shock to me when I tried to work out my list. I’ve always been a magazine junkie, I suppose – because at their best, they’re far more significant than mere advertising vehicles or glorified gossip columns.

So here’s my main list, in no particular order. I remember Tim Keller saying in a talk once (but can’t remember for the life of me which talk it was, so you’ll have to take my word for it) that he reads a careful selection of magazines simply because they are often the best indicators of the shifts and prevailing winds of popular opinion or insight. Well, that did it for me! I became a professional magazine consumer as a direct result. So you can blame him…

To get a taste of each magazine, click on its image.

Well, some would say it’s a ridiculous indulgence. And it probably is. But here are my justifications (!)

  • Wired UK (monthly) – it’s not just a geek’s bible. It often has fascinating and well read, insightful articles about all kinds of technological and scientific advances. It is an education – but a highly enjoyable one (especially for geeks). The heights of human ingenuity are on display.
  • The New Yorker (weekly) – ok, yes I know it’s high-brow and its articles are probably the longest on the planet. Each edition will have at least 3 or 4 10 page articles. But this is my biggest treat. It is perfect for long journeys – and it’s range of interests is incredible. One week you can be reading about an American art philanthropist, gun-running in the Sudan, the history of late night chat shows on US TV etc etc. The cartoons are fab too. What’s not to like?
  • BBC History Magazine (monthly) – it partly reflects the centres of gravity of modern history teaching (eg there’s always something about the Tudors and the Nazis) which is a bit annoying. But the range of articles is usually good; there is always a fascinating section looking at the historical background of a big news item; and the book reviews are great. Oh and I always enter the crossword competition in the vain hope of winning a book. No such luck so far.
  • Private Eye (fortnightly) – during his 5-minute interview on BBC Online, editor Ian Hislop explained that the purpose of satire was “to expose vice, folly and humbug“. Private Eye does that in spades – most of the time, it is not too scurrilous. Much of the time it is doing a great public service and I’m grateful for it. As well as hugely amused.
  • Empire (monthly) – probably my longest subscription. I adore movies – and love to know how they were made etc. But I hardly get time to see them or even to watch DVDs these days. So at least I can read the reviews. Though my frustration with Empire is that it is becoming a bit too celeb-dazzled (or has it always been? can’t work it out).
  • Christianity Today (monthly) – it’s always interesting to see Christianity from another cultural perspective – and this American mag (if you can get past the interminable adverts for Christian colleges and seminaries in the US) often provides that.
  • Tate Etc (quarterly) – this comes automatically with being Tate Friends – and it is lavishly produced and a real treat. Very interesting for keeping up with developments in the art world. Often provocative but always informative and beautiful to look at.

I also, from time to time, dip into The Briefing, Church Times, and EN – and for finding books I want to read, my most productive source has been the Culture section of Saturday’s Daily Telegraph.

Ok, so I know what some of you are thinking. How on earth does he have time? Doesn’t he have a day job? Should his employers not be informed?

Well, here are my explanations/further justifications:

  • Reading stuff is part and parcel of my job – and being in touch with what’s going on is essential to it. So this is work.
  • Although it is fair to say that this definitely combines business with pleasure.
  • I have strange reading habits – I’m fortunate enough to be able to pick something up and read it for 5 minutes and then come back to it later. So if I’ve got a spare moment waiting for someone to turn up, I’ll read something. In fact, I’m sure I need to see someone about this – but I have a pathological need to be reading something all the time (even if it is about the calcium content of Corn Flakes).
  • Most magazine articles are bite-sized anyway (apart from the New Yorker obviously) – and so designed to be read in short bursts. Perfect for loo-reading, then.

So there we have it.

Would be very interested to know if you have particular favourites. Or even if there are magazines you think I should add to the list!! 🙂