A fresh alliance?

Last week, I read an article on the Evangelical Alliance (EA) website on the subject of diversity. This comes about a week after I did a survey for them on what it means to be an evangelical.

Both the article and the survey perturbed me somewhat. This is my attempt to articulate that discomfort.

In the survey, one of the questions was about what an values an evangelical christian should hold to. The first option there was along the lines of “Oppose same-sex marriage”. I shook my head in disappointment as I chose the option ‘Evangelicals should not do this’. It later got a bit farcical by giving the names of various celebrities and asking if they were evangelical, christian but not evangelical or not a christian. It seemed slightly valueless. Yet the article I read this week, penned by the Alliance’s General Director, spoke about diversity but didn’t mention what remains probably the most problematic issue faced by the Church in the 21st century – the acceptance of LGBT christians.

I’ve written before about the shameful decision that the EA made a few years ago when they ejected Oasis church for their leader’s stated support of the christian LGBT community.

It’s this sort of thing that gives evangelicals a bad name. To many, the term evangelical is automatically prefixed by the adjective ‘conservative’. Or for the particularly hateful, it is sometimes shortened to the pejorative term: con-evo. To someone who, like me, describes themselves as a liberal evangelical, this is somewhat irksome, as there is a kind of guilt-by-association levelled at me for being associated with those who hold views I don’t agree with. The common examples are being homophobic, opposed to women in ministry, anti-science, etc. I don’t deny that such views exist within evangelicalism. What I dispute is whether they define it or are otherwise characteristic of it. After all, such views also exist within the anglo-catholic world.

I would love it if everyone agreed with me on all things, it would make the world so much simpler and better (of course), but it’s never going to happen. I have to live and work with those who disagree with me, as do you. If we want to talk about diversity in evangelicalism, then that has to include diversity of opinion, of biblical interpretation and of praxis. Much as I might want everyone to be a liberal, overriding that is the desire for a Church (big C) that embraces both the liberal and the conservative. This is why, on the survey, I identified one of the key threats to evangelicalism as being the appointment of those who hold conservative views into positions of leadership. If the EA wants to embrace the idea of diversity seriously, then it has to change. It’s in danger of becoming the Conservative Evangelical Alliance, failing to properly welcome, respect, include and represent the views of those of us who are more liberal.

In its etymology, evangelicalism should be about bringing good news. The distinctive, defining feature should be the kerygmatic proclamation that the risen Jesus is the messiah. When Peter said that Jesus was the messiah (Christ), Jesus responded that that declaration was the rock upon which the church would be built. All else is mere window dressing. I want to be a part of a Church where the liberal can worship alongside the conservative, where LGBT are not part a hived-off community, but are fully integrated and where there can be good disagreement, where differences are set aside as we jointly focus on that which unites us.

One of the key passages that sums this up is 1 Corinthians 12:21-25

“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.”

To many christians, evangelicalism is the less respectable member. And there’s often, sadly, good reason for thinking this. Though to those that hold more socially liberal views (usually in contrast to conservative ecclesiology) the attitude towards evangelicals is often more one of ostracism than of the biblical view above of treating them with respect. Anti-evangelicalism is really quite fashionable, but it’s not helpful. So much as I call for the evangelical world to be more open, so the plea has to turn around to the non-evangelicals to be more welcoming to their brethren. We all need each other and that which ought to unite us is far more powerful than anything that divides.

Book Review: The Bible – A Very Short Introduction by John Riches

You might think that I’d be fairly familiar with the bible, right? I’ve read it cover to cover once and dip into it most days. But it’s never a bad thing to be reminded of exactly what it is we’re reading. Having earlier in the year looked at it through the eyes of an American fundamentalist, this is a take from “a white, male, European, English-born, Anglican Christian teaching New Testament in a Scottish University.”

Riches begins by comparing the most widely read and the most influential books of all time. While he cites Das Kapital as an influential book, few have read it. Popular crime thrillers and romances may be widely read, but have had little lasting impact on the shape of the world. The bible (I stick with the lower case, as usual) has the unusual quality of being both widely read and hugely influential. It is this combination that makes of great interest to the literary scholar, sociologist, historian and just about anyone else who operates in the spheres where the bible has had an effect. He cites the Koran as another similar example, but makes no further comment, so I would refer readers to the VSI on that work.

Part of the reason it is so widely read is the variety of audiences that it speaks to. Riches gives some examples, including pro and anti apartheid campaigners, a Benedictine sister in the Philippines, a bishop in Mozambique as well as American fundamentalists (here Riches uses Timothy La Haye as his example).

The book really gets going with a brief overview of how the bible was written. This is soon followed by how it came to be put together. These twin topics could never be covered comprehensively in just a couple of dozen pages. Interestingly, Riches takes the view that a fair bit of the New Testament could have been written after A.D. 70. Clearly this goes against the view of F.F. Bruce and is not as extensively reasoned as the latter’s viewpoint. It almost seems to me like an axiomatic assertion upon which one’s view of the bible is shaped.

In the chapter entitled ‘The Bible in the world of believers’ Riches looks at one passage in particular and tries to view it from several viewpoints. That passage is from Genesis, where Abraham took Lot up the mountain with the intention of sacrificing him. It’s quite pertinent, as that is one of the passages I struggle with the most. Riches doesn’t answer the moral dilemma here, but gives a brief look at a few possibilities. However, the length of the book prevents a satisfactory answer; for that the author can hardly be deemed at fault.

There follows a chapter on biblical criticism, which starts with Martin Luther and ends with later German higher criticism. This is a really a whistle-stop tour of what this reader finds a very interesting field of study. Again, there is really insufficient room to do justice to the subject, but for one who is unfamiliar with biblical criticism, this serves as a useful taster.

In a chapter on the bible in culture, we get to see some of the art that has been inspired by episodes from the bible and the ideas within it. The focus here is on so-called “higher” culture, so many who consider themselves connoisseurs of art may well find themselves on familiar territory, though no doubt they may mutter at the omission of their favourite artists. I certainly chuntered at the lack of Titian. However, there was a greater oversight here which I cannot let pass. The chapter doesn’t mention the destruction of artwork by some of the more over-zealous reformers. For me, an understanding of christian art cannot be anywhere near complete unless one understands the use of art as a means of education for the illiterate, the artistic license that was taken which gave rise to poor theological thinking, the basis for accusations of idolatry by the reformers and the centuries of regress and subsequent marginalistion of art as a means of worship.

The book finishes with a chapter on the bible in politics. Once again, Riches hit upon one of the themes that particularly interests me and it was good to see him give the anabaptists and Quakers a mention here. Riches gives a carefully balanced view which will likely both enrage and encourage people from all political backgrounds.

As I finished the book, I tried to think of what a certain reader might take away with them. This is a reader who is unfamiliar with the message of the bible but who is enquiring and wishes to gain an overview before embarking on the detail. Would they finish the book with a fair impression? I’m afraid the answer to that has to be no. There is much of some interest here, but it seems that the wood has been lost for a close examination of the shape of some of some of the leaves and the structure of the bark.

Thoughts on the EU referendum

With the date for the referendum announced and campaigning underway, I wanted to try to enunciate my thoughts on the subject. I’ve written before on my desire to have a referendum. 3 years ago I said that I “would likely vote to remain in Europe”.

Likely, but not certainly. I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument from either side. So I wanted here to think aloud, as it were, and hopefully either prompt you in some questions you may not have thought of, though I’d rather like to start a reasonable discussion.

By ‘reasonable’ I have in mind cutting out a lot of unnecessary bickering, demonisation of the other and acknowledgement that there may be good reasons on both sides. I’m fine for someone to have made up their mind, but not for them to become belligerent in putting forward their case at the denigration of the opposite view.

The idea of “project fear” has been touted quite a lot. There’s a problem with it, though. It is right for the Remain campaign to point out the risks that are associated with leaving the EU and to ask questions about how those risks would be mitigated. Some of that has been worded a bit too strongly, possibly with the intention of trying to scare people into sticking with the status quo, but it is wrong for every legitimate concern raised and question to be dismissed as part of this “project fear”. Thus far, the Leave campaign has used this as a means of not answering questions which I, and others like me, want to hear the answers to.

An interesting thought I had regarding the referendum centred on the Scottish National Party (and, by inference, other nationalists around the UK). On the Andrew Marr Show, Nicola Sturgeon said that she would be on the side of the Remain campaign but that were the UK to vote Leave, then that would likely trigger a 2nd Scottish independence referendum (you remember, the “once in a lifetime” referendum that we had about 18 months ago).

So it would make a kind of sense if the SNP were to not be too persuasive in their case for remaining in the EU. i.e. be seen to be supporting the Remain case, but don’t actually try to win (rather like Manchester City’s team selection in the FA Cup). That way they get a second bite at the independence cherry, even though it would then be their intention to apply for membership to the EU.

I say “a kind of sense” because I must admit I don’t understand the view of some nationalists who want to be independent of the UK but not independent of the EU. If anyone can explain that one to me, I’d be most grateful.

Finally, I wanted to look at the theological perspective. Which of Leave or Remain better fits the maxim: Love your neighbour as yourself.

My issue with the Leave and Remain campaigns is that both have, thus far, put a large amount of stock in the idea of which makes Britain “better off”. But no one’s saying at what cost. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the UK is better off leaving. Does that mean also that our neighbours in France, Greece, Hungary  or Ireland will be better off? Or is it a case of making ourselves better off and choosing to not care about others?

When you try to dig into the matter, what does “better off” mean anyway? Is it purely a cold measure of macroeconomics, or are we factoring in the cultural and the spiritual? If it is purely economic, then one must be careful that the “better off” argument isn’t merely a form of prosperity gospel.

Possibly the strongest argument the Leave campaign has (in terms of appeal to the general public) would be that it would signal the end of UKIP. They would have achieved their aim and then all could see whether or not their myth of withdrawal from the EU being the panacea to all our ills would bear out in reality.

The strongest argument for the Remain campaign has actually come from one of the cheerleaders of the Leave side: Michael Gove. He claimed that the Conservatives have been stymied in pushing through some of their punitive measures because of the European legislation. In my book, anything that helps to tie the hands of Tories from hurting citizens is a good thing.

For now, I lean slightly inwards, but that lean is ever so slight. Those who promise than a UK outside of the EU will be a land flowing with milk and honey are not people to be taken seriously. Neither are those who speak as though withdrawal from the EU will be the end of civilisation. It’s a choice between two different shades of beige.

Persuade me, entice me, allure me to your point of view. Just don’t beat me about the head and call me an idiot. Such tactics rarely work in evangelism, whether religious or political.

Tax transparency and the left’s financial illiteracy

When stories regarding tax hit the news, it frequently frustrates me at the lack of clarity with which they are reported. The recent example of Google paying £130m has illustrated this quite well. What I find frustrating is the reaction and commentary from the political left when it comes to matters of tax; in particular corporation tax.

My frustration stems from the fact that by profession, I’m a chartered accountant. I’ve taken exams in taxation and though it’s not the area of finance I work in everyday, I do have a good knowledge and understanding of it. In particular, I can tell when others don’t know what they’re talking about.

The ideology of the right wing parties such as the Conservatives and UKIP is for a low tax society. That’s their stated aim. The caricature that is then made of the more left wing parties is that they are in favour of high taxes. This is generally a false caricature, as the aim of the political left is rather for fair taxation that properly funds public services. Though to put it that way risks putting the cart before the horse. So let me put it this way:

The left aims to have properly funded public services that are fit for purpose, that support the vulnerable and those who have fallen on hard times. In order to fund this, there is then required an appropriate level of taxation and it is the job of a left wing government to determine the fairest way of spreading the cost.

But what is fair? It’s an intuitive notion that pretty much everyone gets, so long as they’ve got a reasonable moral compass. Yet taxation is inherently a quantifiable thing. So we have to try to quantify fairness. And this is where, in my view, the left fails to make a suitable case.

All too often, the discussion veers onto a company’s revenue and we get comments like “Industry analysts estimate true UK sales of the six at £14.2billion. Yet they paid £41.3million in UK corporation tax – just 0.3 per cent.” [source: The Mirror]

Trying to make such a link simply isn’t how corporation tax works. Corporation tax is based on profits, not revenue. I sometimes wonder if journalists reporting on finance matters understand the difference. It is especially unhelpful when phrases like “how much money they made” are used. What does “made” mean? It’s unclear, and where there is a lack of clarity, there is room for misunderstanding.

Corporation tax is quite unlike income tax that the average employee is subject to, as in that latter case, the tax is based on the gross income. It is understandable, then, that mistakes can be made if the two are perceived to be equivalent. Indeed, perhaps it might be fairer if an element of corporation tax were based on revenue, but that’s not the way the law stands at the moment.

The thing is, there are hints in the public domain that some companies are paying less tax than one might reasonable suspect they should. But such suspicions do not constitute evidence. There are a number of reasons why a company that has a large amount of revenue may pay very little tax. The obvious reason being that it’s not particularly very well run and that their costs are almost as much as their revenues, meaning they have very little profits on which they may be taxed. But we don’t know that for sure.

Why not? Well, this gets to the nub of the issue. Transparency. The amount of information disclosed in a company’s annual accounts is not the same as the amount of information as needed by HMRC in their corporate tax return. Worse still is the fact that the disclosures in a company’s accounts include other accounting adjustments that have nothing to do with the corporate tax for the year and which only serve to obfuscate the matter. What are these adjustments?

They’re referred to as “deferred tax” and are an accounting adjustment, not directly related to the tax incurred by the company that year. Deferred tax arises because of the disparity between the accounting rules and the tax rules. In tax, one may have transactions which do not result in a change in this year’s tax but which may either allow you to pay less tax in the future or oblige you to pay more tax in the future. Under the accounting rules, the fact that this is in the future is irrelevant, and the adjustments goes through this this year’s income statement.

So if you read a set of financial statements and see the line entitled “Tax (charge)/credit” on the face of their income statement then the number next to it is likely to be meaningless.

If you want to see the amount that was actually paid, then you have to look at the cash flow statement. But then again, the amount of tax paid in a given year will not necessarily be related to that year, as they’re likely to be paying off the liabilities from the previous year.

I’ll stop shortly. The point is that to read a tax figure off the face of the income statement is naive, and to link it to the revenue number is just plain stupid.

My advice to anyone who wishes to campaign for fairer tax (and there are some beginnings to this, though I’m far from convinced by it yet) is first of all to learn how to read a set of financial statements. Know the difference between P&L and cash flow, strip out any deferred tax and recognise that you are unlikely to be provided with all the information you need to be able to make an accurate judgement as to whether a company is paying a fair amount of tax. If they are an international group of companies, it gets more complicated, given different tax systems in different countries and again, there isn’t enough information in a set of financial statements to clearly see how much profits arise in which countries and what reliefs may be available in those countries.

So by all means, campaign for greater transparency and keep asking awkward questions. But if you assert that a company has avoided X amount of tax then don’t expect to be seen as a reasonable, financially literate person. Any legitimacy to your argument will be washed away as your credibility goes down the drain.

2015 in books

This has become something of an annual habit. You can see my reviews of the years 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. I began by polishing off a couple of books I started at the tail end of 2014.

The christianity books have been more numerous than any other. The reason for this is that I had simply acquired more books in this category than any other. I tried to roughly alternate between general theology, something specifically related to Jesus and testimony.

My science reading has pottered on. I made no particular choice to pursue certain topics. Though it remains slightly depressing that if you browse the science shelves of the average bookshops that you will find quite a gender imbalance, so the fact that my science reading is almost exclusively male is more reflective of the publishing industry than it is of a conscious choice on my part to avoid women writers.

In fiction, I continue to try to mix up classics with lesser known works. This year saw the publication of Harper Lee’s follow-up to To Kill A Mockingbird. The publication was announced at the start of the year, with Go Set A Watchman hitting the bookshops in the summer.

The other non fiction has attempted to plug some serious gaps in my understanding of philosophy, with some pepperings of history and economics. Yet just when I thought I was getting somewhere in patching up these holes, I ended the year by reading Slavoj Zizek, which rather exposed just how ignorant I am.

At the start of the year I gave myself a challenge to read some things that would counter my own worldview. It is of little use merely reading books that I think I will agree with. It’s good to look at things afresh. If we all only ever sought out views that accord with we what we believe already then no one will ever learn anything. I also asked for recommendations of books that would challenge me or otherwise be off my beaten track. Specifically, these books were:

Cover Her Face – P.D. James (to challenge my dislike for crime fiction)
Taking God at his Word – Kevin DeYoung (to challenge my liberal objections to biblical inerrancy)
Neither Here Nor There – Miriam Drori (which wasn’t really to challenge me, I think the person who recommended it to me is a friend of the author and recommended it to me as a way of helping them out)
The Road to Serfdom – Friedrich Hayek (to challenge my left-wing economic views)

Christianity (18)

The History of the Church – Eusebius
Dazzling Darkness – Rachel Mann
Jesus the Jew – Geza Vermes
Life Together – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
How Jesus Became God – Bart Ehrman
Simply Good News – Tom Wright
How God Became Jesus – various authors
Taking God at His Word – Kevin DeYoung
Theology of Hope – Jurgen Moltmann
Hebrews For Everyone – Tom Wright
Cranky, Beautiful Faith – Nadia Bolz-Weber
The Bible: A Very Short Introduction – John Riches (review pending)
The Quest of the Historical Jesus – Albert Schweitzer (review pending)
Gravity and Grace – Simone Weil
Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction – Fergus Kerr (review pending)
Mark for Everyone – Tom Wright (review pending)
Quaker Writings – various authors (review pending)
Baptism in the Holy Spirit – James Dunn (review pending)

Science (8)

Stuff Matters – Mark Miodownik
50 Ways The World Could End – Alok Jha
Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science – Jim Al-Khalili
The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins
The Spark of Life – Frances Ashcroft
The Signal and the Noise – Nate Silver (review pending)
The Descent of Man – Charles Darwin (review pending)
Alex Through the Looking Glass – Alex Bellos (review pending)

Fiction (11)

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Cover Her Face – P.D. James
Good Evening, Mrs Craven – Mollie Panter-Downes
The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton
Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
Dear Life – Alice Munro
Go Set A Watchman – Harper Lee
Thank You, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse
Neither Here Nor There – Miriam Drori
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons (review pending)
The House on the Strand – Daphne du Maurier (review pending)

Other non-fiction (14)

Watching the English – Kate Fox (already started)
Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction – Catherine Osborne (already started)
The British Constitution: A Very Short Introduction – Martin Loughlin
The Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle
The Koran: A Very Short Introduction – Michael Cook
Before I Say Goodbye – Ruth Picardie
Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction – Nicholas Vincent
Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction – Cynthia Freeland
The Social Contract – Jean-Jacques Russeau
The Early History of Rome – Livy
The Road to Serfdom – Friedrich Hayek
Hegel: A Very Short Introduction – Peter Singer
Wanderlust – Rebecca Solnit
On Belief – Slavoj Zizek (review pending)

Total (51)

Started but not finished (1)

The Black Prince – Iris Murdoch

So of these, which were the best and which were the worst?

Let’s start with the negative first. In fiction, there were no real stinkers, though Miriam Drori’s overly-explanatory style and simplistic writing stood out as being rather more amateur than the other books in that category. In science, again there were no particularly bad books, though Charles Darwin’s ‘The Descent of Man’ stood out merely for its dullness. Not a dullness of wit or intellect, but rather that it made for an uninteresting read, particularly in comparison to the expectations that I had for the book. The subject has been covered by others since Darwin and has been done a lot better. Other non-fiction didn’t fare so well. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘The Social Contract’ is very outdated now and speaks to a different world to the one in which we live, so I cannot find myself recommending it. Onto more 20th century politics, Friedrich Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom’ is more relevant, but his whole premise and conclusions are topsy-turvey to reason and good sense. The year finished with my introduction to Slavoj Zizek who had moments of sparkle, but where the whole work was so far up its own arse it rendered it incomprehensible. Within the writings on christianity, I had some issues about James Dunn’s ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’ though that was more with the presentation of the book than its contents. Much worse in terms of the writing was Simone Weil’s ‘Gravity and Grace’ which had its moments, but read like a disparate string of half-formed thoughts. But taking the biscuit was the worst of the lot, not because of a lack of clarity but because of how wayward and misleading the content was. So my award for the worst book of the year goes to Kevin De Young’s ‘Taking God at His Word’.

With the less pleasant reading done with, let’s look at the sunnier side of things. Staying with christianity, the year began well with Rachel Mann’s ‘Dazzling Darkness’, which was a very creditable effort and which I’d recommend to pretty much anyone. Any work by Tom Wright is always worth checking out and this year saw me finish three such works, two of which were part of his ‘For Everyone’ commentary series; though his work, ‘Simply Good News’ was a great work, which did a lot to summarise his magnum opus on Paul: Paul and the Faithfulness of God. But my best christian book of the year goes to one that dates from the mid 20th century, as a gracious, yet firm, take on christian life. I’m referring, of course, to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Life Together’. Moving onto the fiction works, I rather enjoyed Jessie Burton’s debut offering, ‘The Miniaturist’, even though it was for reasons quite different from what I was expecting. ‘Go Set A Watchman’ was always going to be a book that would anger some, given the high regard for ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, yet I found it a worthy companion piece that posed some very awkward questions of the reader. Though science was the most neglected of the 4 categories I use, there were some great works within it. None managed to top the book that I started the year with, Mark Miodownik’s ‘Stuff Matters’ which was a superb example of enthusiasm married to expertise. In other non-fiction, I was very pleased with Peter Singer’s Very Short Introduction to Hegel, but this was eclipsed by one of the most spectacular set of essays I’d come across about walking. So taking my recommendation to you as the best book of the year is Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust.

Book Review: Cranky, Beautiful Faith by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Before I begin, it should be noted that this book has two titles. In the UK it was released under the title Cranky, Beautiful Faith but in the US it was released under the title Pastrix. I am not aware of any significant differences in the contents of the book, but just in case you’d read Pastrix and were thinking of getting this book, I believe they are the same. All I can say is that the American spelling mistakes were left in the edition I read, published by the Canterbury Press imprint of Hymns, Ancient & Modern.

So what’s it all about? This a personal testimony, a memoir of half a life. For those who’ve never come across Nadia before, she is the minister at House For All Sinners & Saints (HFASS) in Denver. Yet this hasn’t always been her occupation. We get a whistlestop tour of how she came to be a pastor, having been “the religious one” in a group of friends of junkies, drop-outs and alcoholics. When one of them died at a hideously young age, she took his funeral. From then on, she took it upon herself to become a pastor. Yet Bolz-Weber was never going to be conventional.

Her first thing to do was to get a tattoo of Mary Magdalene (readily visible on the front cover of the book). There never seems to have been much of a plan either. The book is told almost as a series of anecdotes. Yes, there is a story that emerges and yes, it’s roughly linear in time, but each chapter lives in its own little space, with slightly thin walls separating it from the next, so that you can faintly hear the shouting from the room you’ve just left as you enter the new one.

The style of writing is probably what will appeal to most people. It has the peculiar feeling of being both rough n’ ready as well as being thoroughly thought through. It is as though it has been carefully crafted to sound uncrafted. In this respect, it is like a less staccato, less annoying version of Rob Bell’s writings. At least Bolz-Weber manages to write in paragraphs!

Bolz-Weber often gets rather close to the bone. One of the incidents that stuck firmest in my memory was her recounting a time when she was conned by a pimp posing as a survivor of hurricane Katrina. This is just one example of a world which, to this British middle-class accountant, seems rather alien. Yet there is a familiarity to the kind of situations and characters described. They are just so much more exaggerated than one normally faces.

One of the things that shines through is her passion for the inclusion of the outsider. The church she established, HFASS, became known as welcoming those who…..how can we put it…..aren’t generally associated with church. Not because they shouldn’t be, but because churches have done a dastardly good job of shutting people out or demanding conformity. The question of inclusion of the LGBT community is possibly one of the most divisive issues in the Church today. In noting that it is needlessly so, I am in full agreement with Bolz-Weber.

Yet while Bolz-Weber may come across as wonderfully liberal and rather bucking against conformity, she stills holds to quite a conservative, pro-liturgy ecclesiology. Throughout the book, then, there’s this tension between the liberal and the conservative. Just when you think you’re agreeing with her, she drops something in there that makes you think “Really? I’m not sure about that.” An example of this would be that while the book is heavy on practical and thin on the academic side, one of the few theologians she speaks highly of is the late Marcus Borg (see here for why I find this a questionable stance).

Holding these contrasts together, there is something beautiful in Bolz-Weber’s testimony. Not everyone will share in her extremes, but there is a vein of great honesty that feeds her narrative and makes for compelling reading. I’ve already compared her to Rob Bell, but I know that he annoys many and that some may be put off by that. So let me add two more names whose voices I heard echoed or imitated here: Rachel Mann and Stanley Hauerwas. If you’ve read them and found them stimulating, then this is definitely a book that will interest you. If not, then I still recommend it to you as a work to make you smile, shake your fist, weep and think.

Book Review: The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek

Disclaimer: This is published under the Routledge Classics label, an imprint of Taylor & Francis, which is a wholly owned Division of the company that, at the time of reading and reviewing, I work for. I bought it at retail price and was not asked to review it by anyone I work with. As ever, I review it of my own volition and the opinions expressed here are wholly my own and should not be taken as indicative of the publisher or the parent company.

At the start of the year, I wrote a blog piece about books that would challenge my worldview. This was one I chose myself, rather than having it suggested to me by anyone else. Known as one of the fathers of neoliberalism, Hayek’s economics stand is stark contrast to my kind socialism. And I am a firm believer that one should, from time to time, read and engage with those who hold a vastly different opinions than you do.

Hayek’s opening premise is one that is a distinct product of his time. The Road to Serfdom was first published in 1944. As such, many of the horrors of fascist Germany were known to the world. An Austrian by birth, Hayek was living and working in England at the time. His opening assertion is that the rise of fascism was the natural outcome of socialism in Germany. He is here issuing a warning that England is in danger of following along the same path.

He speaks of socialism as having, as its essential feature, the idea of planning. i.e. that central government decides what needs to be done and then plans to do it. This view rather misses the point. He mistakes process for outcome. In order for the realisation of a socialist society (i.e. one where people are paid fairly, where none are left behind, where people are treated fairly instead of being exploited and where those who gain from the benefits of living in a civilised world pay their fair share of taxes) it is inevitable that some planning is necessary. But Hayek is too short-sighted and sees only the planning, not the goal. It like saying that the construction of a block of flats is all about cranes and heavy lifting. There is some truth in that, insofar as it is the means, but it omits from the narrative the idea that there will be homes where people will eventually live.

While it is absolutely right that any number of political/economic systems should come under scrutiny, there are further flaws in Hayek’s reasoning. Implicit in his writing that there are two possible systems: liberalism and socialism. He frequently puts capitalism into scare quotes, implying that there’s no such thing. This seems to be because he so keen to appropriate the positive connotations of the word ‘liberal’ that he wishes to push aside other, more accurate terms, in favour of a terminology that puts his own views in the most rosey light. In so doing he sets up the logical fallacy of a false dichotomy. He posits these two ideals and attempts to trash one, thus leaving only one left – Hayek’s neoliberalism. Yet this in itself is assumed by default. It is an early example of the ide of TINA (There Is No Alternative), yet the consequences of neoliberalism are not adequately explored in Hayek’s work. Like a mediocre chess player he considers possible moves, rules each one out in turn and opts for the one he has thought about the least, not examined with the same critical eye that he has applied to the others.

Hayek is, in effect, telling us a ghost story. It is the story of how evil has come to rise, and it is because of certain views that have been held in the past. Like John the baptiser, he calls us to repent of our socialist ways and make straight the way for free enterprise. But Hayek’s messiah is not Jesus, it is a certain kind of freedom. It is the freedom for any individual to do as they please. Here, he comes up with the ultimate statement of laissez-faire fundamentalism: “It is necessary in the first instance that the parties in the market should be free to sell and buy at any price at which they can find a partner to the transaction, and that anybody should be free to produce, sell, and buy anything that may be produced or sold at all.”

Wow, that sounds good doesn’t it? Yes. Until you think about it. If followed through, there is nothing here to prevent a manufacturer from making weapons of mass destruction and selling them to terrorist organisations or hostile governments, providing they pay the right fee. There’s nothing here to prevent the sale of narcotics to children, if they’ve got the cash on them and can negotiate a price amenable to all. There’s nothing here that protects the rights of workers, ensuring that they are given a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work or any legal protection as to whether they can rely on the ongoing nature of their employment.

Another underlying assumption that the kind of liberty Hayek is so desperate for exists and is readily attainable.

Here are just a few more quotes that demonstrate the paucity of Hayek’s thinking:

On individualism:

“…recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends, the belief that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions, that forms the essence of the individualist position.”

Here, Hayek shows his contempt for the rule of law. It’s no different in substance from the philosophy of Sheryl Crow (“If it make you happy, it can’t be that bad”).

On property & privilege:

“It would indeed be privilege if, for example, as has sometimes been the case in the past, landed property were reserved to members of the nobility. And it is privilege if, as is true in our time, the right to produce or sell particular things is reserved to particular people designated by authority. But to call private property as such, which all can acquire under the same rules, a privilege,  because only some succeed in acquiring it, is depriving the word privilege of its meaning.”

This misses the point by an almost unbelievable amount. We may have the same rules, but not all have the same means. Private property remains (and possibly more so than ever) the reserve the richest elite in the country. I’ve written before on the generational gap that those under the age of 34 will possibly never be able to own their own home.

Probably no part of the book turned my stomach as when Hayek came onto the subject of inequality. In it, he states that a person who loses their job out of sheer misfortune is bound to feel less hard done by than someone who has had their job taken away from because of the actions of the state. That may have some truth in it, but if we dig under the surface we find a level of denialism firstly that the state may be the provider of jobs and secondly that private enterprise is ever in any way at fault for causing people to become unemployed. It is merely attributed to market forces. Further, Hayek states a flat contradiction to a statement of Jesus that “the worker deserves his wages”. What Hayek proposes is that if a person, employed to do a job, does it, only for the end product to, for some reason or other, be rendered redundant, then the worker should not be paid. In other words, the worker should bear the cost of the labour, while his employer takes no financial hit. This is an idea that I find morally repugnant and should be shunned by any person who takes seriously the idea that workers should be treated with dignity and fairness.

Hayek acknowledges that his form of economic liberalism will inevitably result in ineqaulity. In effect, though, he says “[tough titty]” to this, as it is of little consequence compared to the dangers inherent in striving for a fairer society. For in Hayek’s view there is no such thing as moderation; any economic planning that is designed to curb the increase in, or reverse, inequality must be wholly totalitarian and therefore the temptation to go down this route must be resisted. In effect, Hayek holds the liberty of the individual to do act as they want is the highest, most sacrosanct of all things, and that inequality is a justifiable expense of maintaining this freedom, even if it is the freedom of the individual to economically oppress another.

In a chapter entitled ‘The End of Truth’, Hayek puts forward the idea of the power within narratives and that such narratives may be constructed as a post hoc rationalisation for the prejudices which one holds. In this, he is quite correct and I understand the theme was later picked up by the philosopher Mary Midgely in The Myths We Live By. For example, he states, “The need to rationalise the likes and dislikes which, for lack of anything else, must guide the planner in many of his decisions, and the necessity of stating his reasons in a form in which they will appeal to as many people as possible, will force him to construct theories, i.e. assertions about the connections between facts, which then become an integral part of the governing doctrine.”

Hayek is here speaking of the speck in the eye of his opponents. But the log is own eye is just around the corner. It is somewhat apt that immediately following ‘The End of Truth’ we catch Hayek doing exactly what he has just warned about. For he rationalises his dislike of socialists by stating, in ways that are designed to appeal to many, a theory that socialism is at the heart of Nazism. This is indeed the heart of Hayek’s doctrine. In so doing, he makes the foolish mistake that many on the right still make, by supposing that because the German regime was called National Socialism, that that is demonstrative of what socialism is. Such thinking would also lead one to look to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a model of democracy. It is sheer idiocy.

As he tries to make his case, one will note some absurd statements. For example:

“”The ideas of 1789″ – Liberty, Equality Fraternity – are characteristically commercial ideals which have no other purpose but to secure certain advantages to individuals.”

This displays a crass ignorance of the French Revolution. Equality is one of the things that Hayek denounces over and over in this work. As for fraternity, that is by no means a bad thing, but it is the very opposite of the individualism which is the hallmark of the society Hayek wishes to build. It should be plain by now to the reader that Hayek’s view of liberty is a rather warped one indeed; a kind of liberty where one individual or corporation should not be prohibited from economically oppressing another individual, a community or even a democracy.

“To regard war as inhuman and senseless is a product of commercial views.”

Frankly, this bullshit. To regard war as inhuman and senseless is a product of humanity and sense. Loss of life is far more important than loss of profit, but Hayek seems not to have grasped this.

In what passes for analysis, such non-sequiters are not in isolation. Though it is interesting to note what Hayek doesn’t say as what he does. In his account of the rise of Nazism, the figure of Hitler is barely mentioned. Neither are the crippling war reparations that were imposed on Germany after the first world war. Nor is there any sign of the great depression. These are all vital factors that any reasonable person would need to consider amongst the many circumstances of history, culture and geography that saw the rise of the Third Reich. So why might Hayek have missed them out? It seems that he has already found his scapegoat: socialists. Those democratically minded lovers of justice and equality must have been the cause of the the totalitarian, evil regime, convinced of its own superiority over other races that the 20th century ever witnessed.

These are but only a glimpse of the flaws in Hayek’s thinking.

So what became of his fears? Ultimately, Hayek was proved to be wrong. His warnings weren’t heeded and Labour ended up leading a socialist government after the end of the second world war, just a couple of years after Hayek wrote his thesis. Did this result in the inevitable slide into totalitarianism? No. It resulted in the most progressive government this country saw in the 20th century. It kick-started the rebuilding of the country, established the welfare state and the National Health Service, under the leadership of Clement Attlee and with the vision of Nye Bevan. It wasn’t really until the 1980s, under Thatcher, that we really saw the outplay of Hayek’s philosophy, though usually through the lens of Friedman. Mass privatisation and deregulation of the markets sowed the seeds for the 2008 crash, the biggest economic failure since Hayek’s time, which came about not because of socialist planning, but because of the neoliberal lack of good governance and oversight that is dismissed as “big government”.

So read Hayek, not because he speaks a warning from history, but because he is a warning from history. Sadly, it is a history that is still being played out today.