What I meant to say on Radio 4

Last Friday, I appeared as a guest on the Today programme on Radio 4. The subject was a report that had been done by the Institute for Fiscal Studies about how the wealth of those born in the early 1980s was half of those born 10 years earlier (when they had been in their early/mid 30s). The largest factor behind this was the inability of those born in the 80s to get on the housing ladder.

The interview was done before 7am, I hadn’t had any coffee and speaking to an audience that probably numbered in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions was rather nerve-wracking. So I stumbled over my words and didn’t make all the points I had wanted to.

This then, is my attempt to clarify and expand a little on what I had hoped to say.

The economic reality

I was born in 1983 and as such I fall squarely within the demographic being studied. I fall at the tail-end of Generation X, just a little older than those increasingly referred to as Millenials. The housing situation comes with a double-edged sword. The starting point is that rental prices are high. The effect of this is that it is difficult to save as much of one’s salary as one would like in order to contribute towards a deposit. Yet it’s a goal that is constantly moving. Moving further away. In January, the Halifax bank said that the average deposit needed for a first time buyer in my area was £91,000. More recently, the Land Registry recorded house price inflation in the 12 months to July 2016 as being 8.3%. So what ends up happening is that the real value of the savings towards a deposit is being eroded by inflation. Interest rates aren’t keeping up either. The highest rate of interest I can get on my savings is 0.75%.

As such, I cannot foresee a time within the next few years when houses may become affordable. One of the few hopes of the Brexit vote was that it would bring house prices down, but the devaluation in the pound seems to have offset any domestic instability in the market by making buying houses in the UK cheaper for overseas investors.

A fairer economics

So what needs to happen? Here are some suggestions:

  • Rent controls. First of all, curb any increases in rents and then seek to bring them down, starting with those that are most exploitative (e.g. by looking at rent charged per square foot of living space). At present, tenants are simply being milked for their cash to slake the thirst of landlords’ greed.
  • Build new houses. One of the main driving factors behind house price inflation is a lack of supply. We need new homes and they need to be built sustainably and sold affordably. There’s no point going down the “grand designs” route if all the houses you build come with a £400,000 price tag. The prices need to be linked to average local incomes. There’s also the added benefit of investment in housebuilding is invariably a boost to the economy, creating jobs.
  • Factor in house price inflation into either CPI, RPI or create a 3rd There’s a saying I use at work (nicked off a book on steady state economics): “You measure what you care about and you care about what you measure”. At present, the Bank of England willfully turns a blind eye to house price inflation. This leads to them keeping interest rates artificially low. If they cared about the economic problems caused by uncontrolled inflation, then they would start to factor it into their measures. And once they do that, they’d care about getting it right and getting it down.
  • Increase interest rates to control inflation. Linked to the above, it has to be recognised that inflation of 8% is not healthy for the economy. Incremental increases are needed to a) curb the reliance on debt and b) assist savers in going someway to stop the real value of their savers being eaten away.
  • Limit buy-to-let investors from having an unfair advantage over first time buyers. As well as the under supply of new houses, one of the problems that is contributing to the problem is that homes are being bought by those who don’t intend to live in them. Examples of such measures could include: a) penalties for property owners for not letting out empty properties, b) increased taxes on the profits from rents, c) tariffs on overseas companies & individuals buying UK residential properties, d) Legal maximum on the number of residential properties an individual can own.


The above suggestions are not universally welcome.

  • Free market fundamentalists object to the idea of rent controls as a matter of principle, as they abhor “market interference” regardless of how justified it is. The reality is that with inelastic demand in the housing market, unfettered market forces will only push prices even higher. Those who subscribe to neoliberalism, though, subscribe to a failed economics and their opinions on such matters need not be taken too seriously, as they are always driven more by ideology than they are by sound reasoning.
  • There tend to be fewer objections here. The main issue is about where houses are built. Brownfield sites are preferable. The downside is that extra supply may push prices down, though given the rampant inflation of recent years, it seems likely that it would just temper that runaway increase in prices. Even if house prices were to come down, this is not as bad a thing as some might think it is. The term ‘negative equity’ still haunts those who remember the late 80s and early 90s, but today’s recent inflation means that homeowners have already benefitted hugely, so it is unlikely that the value of their homes would dip below the amount they bought for it. E.g. Let’s say someone bought a house for £200,000 three years ago. If inflation was about 8% a year, then that house would now be worth about £50,000 more. So if a market correction brought the price down to £220,000 they would still have a £20,000 gain, even though it had decreased by £30,000 from its inflated peak.
  • I’ve heard some contest that this isn’t necessary because mortgage inflation is already factored into the RPI. However, I don’t see this as an objection holding much weight as it only takes into account those fortunate enough to already have mortgages. It does nothing to measure how much more difficult it is to get a mortgage in the first place.
  • This is the big one that people hate. It depends on whether you are part of the “haves” or “have nots”. The downside to increased interest rates is that those with existing mortgages will find they get more expensive. It would also push up the cost of borrowing for businesses. This is where we find out if the lessons of the 2008 crash have been learnt or not. Sensible financial planning, whether personal or in business, needs to take into account the possibility of interest rate rises. If you haven’t got enough headroom to be able to afford a rate rise, then your financial planning abilities should be seriously called in question. In the case of the homeowner, when enjoying the advantages of low rates, it is prudent to save some of the excess; a rainy day fund, if you will. In the case of a business, you need to have modelled your banking covenants with sensitivities built in. Not everyone will have been so sensible, and those who have indebted themselves to such an extent that they would be unable to cope with increased will find themselves struggling more than they have done in the past. Of course, it is the job of a responsible government, with the will of the populace, to support any who fall on hard times. Some people would be hurt by an increase in interest rates, but it’s a necessary consequence of a correction to the market, and there ought to be a sufficiently robust welfare state in place to ensure that nobody is made homeless or bankrupt as a direct result of any interest rate rise.
  • Here, there are difficulties of practicality. How enforceable might they be? In particular, proposal d) might be easily dodged by the having properties owned by a spouse/partner. I must confess I’ve not thought through all the possible loopholes and there’s significant improvement needed to make this a workable suggestion. Yet the principle appears to be sound. For while on the one hand, the rhetoric of the current government is increasingly xenophobic, to pander to the support they get/need from the far right, there is at the same time keenness on investment into the UK from overseas. But we need to both educate out the xenophobia that is endemic in society and be more nuanced about the nature of overseas investment. If it is a case of “put a little in, get much more out” then this should be recognised as a threat to the economy, as opposed to blaming doctors who come from overseas and do a great job in the NHS under (unnecessarily) difficult circumstances.

Political Will

The existing economic situation is a result of the economic and political will of the past. To have a hope of changing things for the better we need a fairer economic and political will now, though it will take time to come to fruition. One of these is the need to change an unhealthy mentality that sees houses as investments rather than as homes. Just a few days ago, I saw on Facebook a post from an old school friend who is an estate agent encouraging people to see how much their house had increased in value. Someone I used to sit next to at work also had an odd boast that his home made more money in a year than he did. This is the kind of thinking that has been allowed to fester for many years and will take a long time to fix. With the above measures, there should be a reduction in the rate of increase in property prices and therefore lower returns for those who have used property as a means of investment. But none of this will happen if the political consensus carries on in the same way it has done for the last few decades. There needs to be a change, but it needs to a sensible change. As we’ve seen particularly in the last year, change for the sake of change can turn up some distinctly unsavoury characters and ideas that should never become part of public policy.

Side issue: the radio experience

Having gone through the experience, there are any number of things I would have liked to have done slightly differently. I had lots of thoughts (which I’ve tried to enunciate above) but I didn’t arrive in the studio with a set of points to make. I was given some idea of the questions, but John Humphrys could ask me what he liked, having been given a briefing paper on the think tank report and on what I had told the show’s producers the evening before. So I have something of a new-found respect for the politicians who go on live interviews. They come on with a set agenda, something they have come prepared to say. While we were off-air, just before the interview, John asked me “So you’re going to say you’re broke, are you?” which I wasn’t. When the microphone was on, I could think of 3 different things I could have said, each worded in another 3 different ways, and so in trying to pluck the right words out of the air, I hesitated, mumbled and then stumbled over what I actually said. That’s why I’m ever so grateful for the existence of a backspace key on the keyboard. I was also conscious of the rumour that if Radio 4 goes silent for 6 seconds, it’s a sign that something’s gone very wrong, so every moment of silence on my part (while my pre-7am coffee-less brain was trying to work) added to the pressure I felt in the interview. I do admit to dodging one question, as it was about another member of family (who’d been invited on, but declined) where I wasn’t prepared to speak on their behalf.

Final thought

As frustrating as it is to be living a relatively miserly existence, certainly compared to friends and colleagues, I am by no means poor. There are many more who have been hurt far worse by the failures of Conservative economics. One need only look at the proliferation in the need for food banks in the last 6 years to see the damage that Cameron & Osborne wreaked upon the citizens of this country.  Whether we are rich or poor, as measured by non-liquid assets, cash or income, there is far more to life than materialism.

Book Review: Thomas Aquinas – A Very Short Introduction by Fergus Kerr

A little while ago, I picked up a whole load of Very Short Introductions (VSIs) about christianity. I have already read and reviewed The Bible VSI. Moving chronologically forward, I now meet Thomas Aquinas. In case you’re interested, the others to follow are the VSIs on Protestantism and Pentecostalism.

Aquinas is not a figure I came to this work knowing an awful lot about. Some things are common knowledge, but one sometimes wonder about the extent of their truth. For example, I have previously understood him to be the person who incorporated Aristotlean philosophy into christianity. This hybrid version went on to form the foundation for medieval catholicism, but his influence has lasted long into philosophy and christianity as well, with Thomas being regarded as the last great philosopher prior to Kant. His Summa Theologica ranks as one of the great ‘large works’ of christian thought, alongside Augustine’s City of God, Calvin’s Institutes and Barth’s Church Dogmatics. It was also ranked recently in the Church Times top 100 books of all time.

So that’s how I approached the book. What of its content?

As is usual with the case when the subject of a VSI is an individual, the opening chapter is an overview of Aquinas’ life and times. It reads like an extended encyclopaedia article, placing Aquinas into his historical context. Following this, there’s a short chapter on Aquinas’ works, other than the Summa Theologica. So a student of Aquinas could well use this as a guide to his lesser known works.

Most of the book is written as a summary of the Summa Theologica. This then gives any potential reviewer a problem. Having not read the Summa from cover to cover, can one really critique how well the summary is done? If I critique the content of what I read, am I then really trying to critique Aquinas through an intermediary who may or may not have given a fair and accurate summary?

It certainly left me with the sense that I had read an overview of the Summa, and it was most interesting to note that Aquinas abandoned his project after his study of the sacraments, so that these read as a kind of culmination of the work. In the more conservative sections of the church, this legacy is evident when christianity is spoken of as being “inherently sacramental” even though the very concept of a sacrament was a post-biblical theological development.

This work then concludes with Aquinas’ legacy and how he is viewed today, in particular the revival of interest in Aquinas through the advocacy of Pope Leo XIII, as well as Aquinas’ influence on the modern human rights movement. Each of these could be expanded much more, so I must say that the ‘Very’ in Very Short Introduction is rather emphasised here. I doubt the experienced scholar who has looked at Aquinas for many years will find much to stimulate them here.

This is a book I think I’ll return to in the future, when I get around to reading Aquinas for myself, as it should serve as a useful guide. If any of you are more familiar with Aquinas’ work and have read this VSI, then your input would be much appreciated.

On celebrating diversity within the church

What follows is the crystallisation of a few thoughts prompted by a recent Guardian article on what it perceives to be a crisis in the Church of England and how it is being taken over by a dastardly sect called evangelicals. This was followed up with a few conversations in various places on similar topics.

The thing that often frustrates me is that when Anglicans use the term ‘evangelical’ they often mean something rather different than when evangelicals use it. When one word is used to denote (or connote) different things, then a mutual lack of understanding can often, needlessly, ensue and can result in hostile, or otherwise unhealthy attitudes between members of the same faith. If one claims that evangelicalism is a “wing” of the Church of England, that’s a misleading statement. Evangelicalism is a far broader, richer, more varied church that can be contained within any denomination (even the largest of them). Rather than try to re-tread well-trodden ground to state who is and who is not evangelical, I attempted to demonstrate that the question wasn’t quite that simple via the use of a Venn diagram that I put together during the last 10 minutes of my lunch break.

 Christian expressions

The point in the diagram was not to highlight differences or to show “why I am not like you” or anything like that. It was rather the opposite. It was to celebrate the breadth and diversity of different expressions of christian identity. It was also to counter some of the overly-narrow focus that some expressions have of themselves, placing them in a broader context. It wasn’t meant to be a complete or accurate representation of all expressions of christianity, merely an improvement to that offered by The Guardian (which in turn, echoed a sentiment I come across frequently, particularly among those who have a phobia of evangelicals). If one were so inclined, you could find at least a dozen things to take umbrage with, and indeed some chose to deliberately miss the point by doing so.

To give example of a kind of unhealthy attitude referred to above,  take someone who is indoctrinated to think that a church must be liturgical in order to be whole, fully functioning, etc. The reason it’s unhealthy is because it gives rise to ecclesiastical snobbery and a hatred towards to the more ecclesiastically liberal churches that can have a well-rounded theology, with healthy worship that have no need of liturgy. Indeed just the other day I read a comment that expressed a fear of any involvement of evangelicalism within that person’s denomination, describing it as “theologically impoverished”. Such a view is not borne of understanding and love, but of ignorance and hatred.

I am not saying that evangelical churches are beyond reproach. There is a time and place for fair, reasoned and loving critique to help build one another up. Even if that sometimes takes the form a rebuke. Yet one must recall “the plank in your own eye” if you find it necessary to speak up about another church/tradition than your own (see here for a recent take on the Evangelical Alliance). Those critiques that carry the most weight come from those that can recognise the weaknesses in their own tradition. It’s fine to pick your particular strand of christian belief, be it Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, etc. but such an identity must be held to lightly, rather than clung on to in white-knuckle defensiveness.

One of the other illustrations that I like to use is that of dog breeding. You can have any number of different types of pedigrees and you have cross-bred mongrels. Pedigrees can look beautiful. But the preservation of the purity of their identity comes at the cost of poor health in some. In contrast, mongrels can be ugly things; one can spend time trying to work out the different breeds that have gone into making the dog what it is. Yet for their ugliness, they tend to be healthier dogs.

In this (yes, flawed, analogy) I’m a mongrel christian. I find my home in the Ichthus Christian Fellowship, but on the weeks when we don’t get to meet, I will regularly visit other churches. In the last 3 years alone, I’ve been to Assemblies of God, Baptist, Church of England, Congregationalist, FIEC, Methodist, New Frontiers, Pioneer, Redeemed Christian Church of God, URC and other independent churches. There are several attitudes one could take when visiting another church. One could go with a kind of sneering snobbery that seeks to see how they “do things wrong”, determined to see the bad and to leave with a smug sense of superiority about one’s own church. I much prefer to think of it as going to worship with a slightly more distant relative and seeing what good things they do that my home church doesn’t.

I’d encourage you to visit churches outside of your normal experience every once in a while. It’s possible you may find something very weird, compared to your regular worship experience, whether that be being asked to kneel in front of someone dressed in robes or seeing someone wave a flag. If you decide to not go back, preferring the ways you are familiar with, that’s OK. But at least if you go and engage with others, then you can come away having shared fellowship with a wider circle of christians than you otherwise might, and you get to experience a different part of the christian life first hand, rather than rely on 2nd hand accounts and scare stories.

Some choose to see different denominations as signs of division within the church. But try seeing it as a sign of diversity instead. Then sample that diversity. If your diet consists of knowing the nuance between different types of potato, then you’re not really having a varied diet. Likewise with churches. To taste and see just how good the Lord is, it helps to sample from a different dish every now and then.

Today’s political madness

Between the time of starting to write this (1:38pm on Monday the 11th of July) and publishing it, I should imagine that an awful lot has happened in British politics. Andrea Leadsom just pulled out of the Conservative leadership, leaving Theresa May as the de facto prime minister. Meanwhile, Angela Eagle has launched a leadership bid against Jeremy Corybn, just a few days after he lost a vote of no confidence by the parliamentary Labour party (PLP).

I’m a some-time Labour voter, but not a member of the party. The recent fiasco puts me off even more. But if they are to have a chance of winning sufficient seats in Parliament to form a government and implement some sensible left-wing policies, then they need to have a decent strategy to win, and that seems to be lacking at the moment.

I like Jeremy Corbyn. He’s a centre-left moderate and I agree with many of his views. What I don’t like is the short-sighted vehemency of some of his supporters, who mistake a fervency of support for widespread support. Having thousands of people turn up to a pro-Corbyn rally is very different from convincing Conservative voters in marginal constituencies in England or SNP voters in Scotland. In particular (and this was highlighted last week, with the eventual publication of the Chilcot report) there is the toxic legacy of Tony Blair. The last Labour leader to win a general election propagated a war that left hundreds of thousands of people dead.

The idea then is that no Labour leader who voted for the Iraq war could ever become prime minister. Though Blair still won in 2005, after the war started. David Cameron voted for the Iraq war, as did Gordon Brown and Theresa May. So the idea that someone who voted for the Iraq war (as horrendous as it was) cannot win an election, is simply untrue.

But Blair’s toxicity is double-edged. The term “Blairite” has spread far wider than those MPs who supported Blair over Brown in the 2nd half of the last decade. It has become a pejorative term for anyone on the left who someone else on the left doesn’t like, though in particular of anyone who might subject Jeremy Corbyn to any level of scrutiny or criticism. I’ve lost the link [update: I found it], but I read a piece yesterday that referred to the author JK Rowling as a Blairite. The other side of this is now generally “Corbynista”. In my view, these very terms, used as insults, are part of the root of the problem. It is a case of “Othering” – whereby, in the desperate desire for simplicity in a complicated world, the whole view of a group of diverse people is summed up in a single word that is used to demonise.

As things are at the moment (now 2:07pm), the Tories have an open goal. The British political left’s idea of unity is “[well, if we’re disunited now, then you must agree with me in order to be unified]” – with no one willing to compromise, jostling to be an opposition of protest, rather than a government in waiting. When Gordon Brown became leader of the Labour party, he was wrong not to call a general election. My opinion is that was fear of losing that stayed his hand. There ought to be no such fear on Theresa May’s part if she were to do the honourable thing by calling an election, though it has been made more difficult since the coalition government introduced the ill-thought-out fixed-term parliaments act. Difficult, but not impossible, though.

I just pray that this whole ruddy mess gets sorted out, but that in doing so, we don’t see a further rise of the far right. Good government needs a strong opposition. The ideal situation would be for a left-wing government with a strong Conservative opposition holding them to account, but we seem to be a long way from that. For now, we need a Labour party that is willing to cooperate with itself, as well as with, inter alia, the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Greens to hold to account and oppose whatever shape of Conservative government will emerge from the rubble.

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.