Monthly Archives: January 2015

Book Review: Capital (Das Kapital) by Karl Marx

Having read some of the great communist works early last year (The Communist Manifesto, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific) here I finally come to the daddy of them all. Or did I?

First up, though, a confession. The version I read, in the Oxford World Classics range, is an abridgement. Marx originally intended for his magnum opus to be 5 volumes, but he only finished volume 1. Volumes 2 and 3 were substantially complete at the time of his death, finished off and published by Friedrich Engels. The volume being reviewed contains most of volume 1, a tiny bit of volume 2 and some slightly longer extracts from volume 3. I don’t normally read abridged versions, but it was not my intention to become a disciple of Marx, but rather to understand his thoughts so that I could have a more informed view of what Marx thought. After all, was he not rumoured to have said, upon hearing a particular view described as Marxist, “if that is Marxism, then I am not a Marxist”?

Marx begins with a detailed look at the nature of commodities. What are they are how they are valued. He distinguishes between different kinds of values. It’s important to keep these in mind throughout, as use-value is a different beast to exchange-value, yet we all too easily think of “value” as though it were one thing represented on a price tag. The example Marx starts with is that of a coat and of linen. A coat may be exchanged for 20 yards of linen. Yet the use-value of a coat is not the same as the use-value of 20 yards of linen, for they are intrinsically different and serve different purposes. So use-values cannot be used for comparison. Instead, we need to then consider exchange-values. So a coat may be exchanged for 20 yards of linen or for a quantity of coal or for any other commodity. But then all we have are a set of relative exchange-values expressed, essentially, in terms of barter. One may choose any one commodity to be the standard by which all others are measured. In the economics of the time Marx lived and wrote, this was gold. And we still refer to the gold standard today. Yet it might be interesting to consider what Marx may have made of something like Bitcoin.

And so we get to the concept of money. We see that money is an intangible thing but which is commonly represented by gold, and which is the means of exchange. There is a slight flaw in Marx’s analysis here as he makes a statement that the value of money does not change with time. Yet as almost anyone trained in economics or accounting will be able to tell you, a sum of money does diminish in value over time. Unless you have perfectly steady state economics (see here for more detail) then the time value of money has to be taken into account.

From here we get to the notion of capital. It is something that is tricky to summarise, as it is best dealt with by example. The kind that Marx uses is by contrasting two different types of transactions. One of these is what he sees as a precapitalist kind of transaction whereby an artisan has a commodity, sells it for money and then uses that money to buy other commodities. In contrast, the capitalist transaction process begins with money which is used to buy a commodity (C) and then gets sold on for a higher value of money (M). In chain form, the contrast is between C-M-C’ and M-C-M’. Where C’ is a different commodity from C and M’ is a different sum of money from M. Yet M and M’ are both capital. M is the initial capital and M’ is the final capital. Only then, in Marx’s analysis M’ then becomes the start of the next chain of transactions.

As an aside, it was interesting to think through more recent economic practices, particularly that of short selling, which gained notoriety during and in the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crash. That is very similar to C-M-C’ only in this case C=C’ and the commodity is sold before it is purchased.

For those of you who have some basic accountancy training, the concept is readily identifiable as the process of what happens when you roll forward the accounts of a sole trader where their initial sum is generally referred to as capital anyway. So even though Marx is rightly considered the father of communism, this is not an inherently communistic work. The fact that modern capitalists still use his methodology is indicative that in this respect, at least, his analysis was spot on.

One of the odd features of the book is that at various junctures, Marx tries to posit that there are fundamental contradictions within the capitalist system. But I had to ask myself “what contradictions?” Perhaps it is a consequence of my more modern point of view, but it seemed that the contradictions were only apparent when phrased in the particular way that Marx puts them. In other words, it was flawed questioning and the assumptions that went into those questions that skewed Marx’s thinking and creating the illusion of a contradiction when in fact there was none. One could think of Zeno’s paradoxes as a comparison.

One of the key notions that Marx introduces is that of “surplus value”. He derives this by looking at the value that a worker imparts to his work. As soon as the value imparted is equal to the value required for the worker to live off, then anything in addition is considered surplus. In other words, if (to use today’s prices by way of illustration) a worker is paid £75 per day, then Marx argues that (s)he need only work for as long as it takes him/her to produce £75 worth of goods. If, though he makes this up in 6 hours and the working day is 12 hours, then the employer, the capitalist, gets £150 of value out of the worker, but only spends £75. It is the difference between these two that Marx defines as surplus value.

You may wonder, as I did, whether this was not simply profit. It seems a slightly roundabout way of looking at it. Indeed, it is not until much later on that the admission is finally made that surplus value is the same as profit. Though the example I used above was done so deliberately, as Marx always assumes that rate of surplus of surplus profit is 100%. This assumption is never justified, though his analysis would seem to still work if a different rate were used. It is just unfortunate that his choice of 100% means that some of his numbers are easily confused.

This leads Marx to look at the exploitation of the labourer. His chapter on working conditions makes for sobering reading, as he looks at the extent to which the capitalist system sought to extract out of the worker every last ounce of work in order to generate more and more surplus value (profit). There is even an argument made that work diminishes the lifespan of the worker. Marx is not at this point talking about unhealthy working conditions, but that the mere act of work reduces one’s life expectancy. It’s an argument I found unconvincing as there are so many other factors to take in to account that a controlled experiment or study to determine shortened life seems unfeasible. So at best it is supposition.

Having looked at how capital gives rise to more capital, the question Marx then asks is “[where did it start from?]” In answering this Marx reverts back to his historical paradigm as espoused in the introduction to The Communist Manifesto. He argues that capital only arose through violence and theft. While I subscribe to the idea that there is no such thing as a neutral view of history, Marx is clearly far from it here. He seems to cherry pick his evidence and ignores a wide variety of other factors. It’s not a wholly false view, but it does come across as over-polarised and quite susceptible to critical enquiry.

The rest of the book looks in some detail at various aspects of 19th century industry through the perspective of the above analysis. The focus is inherently industrial which was certainly right for the time that Marx was writing in, though as we are now in a post-industrial age it seems that much of what he observed has now been rendered redundant. Capitalism has moved on and changed in many aspects.

It is for this reason that I would consider much of Das Kapital to be out of date. It served its purpose in a different age, but one has to pick through it to find elements that are applicable to today’s world. I would certainly not advocate throwing the whole lot out of the window, as some might be tempted to do, particularly if they continue under the impression that Das Kapital is a programme for a communist economy. Because one of the failings (possibly Marx may have intended this for later volumes) is that while the book is full of critique, he proposes very little positive change. He says “[this is wrong]” but doesn’t put forward an alternative. Also the very high focus on the industrial age of manufacture has little bearing on a predominantly service-based economy. He does attempt to address services, but is all too brief and dismissive.

So where do we go from here? First of all, at the start of the volume Marx states that he is building upon the work of G.W.F. Hegel and his development of dialectic materialism. I confess that I have neither read any Hegel nor read much about him. So perhaps it would be wise to learn a bit more in that regard before reassessing Marx. Also, it seems that the modern world is need of a critique every bit as sharp as Marx’s, but which takes into account the changes that have occurred in the last century and a half or so. For that, I think our best bet is Thomas Picketty. So it is my intention to review his Capital in the Twenty First Century at some point. Before that, though, it is only fair to hear a view from the other end of politico-economic spectrum.

Book Review: The Desert Fathers by Various Authors

This is a collection of the sayings of the early christian monks, as published under the Penguin Classics label and translated by Benedicta Ward. As a very early piece of writing, it needs a good translation to be able to convey the message across centuries and languages. I’m no expert in languages so cannot speak as to the faithfulness of the translation. All I can say is that it was readily accessible.

A while ago, I mentioned it as being an omission from the Church Times list of the best 100 books. Indeed, that list had as its top 2, Augustine’s Confessions and The Rule of St Benedict, both of which owe a great debt to the Desert Fathers. So if they were considered to have a lasting influence, why not this work? That’s a question I can ask, but not one I’m in a place to answer.

When asking around about this, I was advised to read it very slowly and to consider each part carefully and thoughtfully. Thankfully, it was already my intention to have this as a coffee table book which I would dip into just a few pages at a time. For having flicked through it in the bookshop, I could see that it seemed to be made up of multiple short paragraphs, arranged in mini chapters by theme, but with no overall narrative or timeline. In that way, it rather resembles the book of Proverbs. One would be ill-advised to read that all the way through from start to finish in as few sittings as possible.

As such, it is almost impossible to review as one might a more conventional book. The sayings are grouped thematically. In some cases, the individuals are named, though frequently we are simply told the saying or the story comes from “a hermit” who remains anonymous. So what I’ll do is highlight a few of the sayings that particularly caught my attention.

One of the examples that struck me as particularly odd was the case of Macarius who, for reasons unknown, decided that he would sleep in an old pagan burial place, using a dead body as a pillow. Here he was taunted by some vocal demons including one who feigned to be the woman’s body upon whom he was sleeping. His response was to thump the body and speak dismissively. What exactly this was meant to demonstrate is lost on me. Was it about courage in the face of demons? If so, it seems a bizarre way to go about things. I’m certainly not going to be advocating sleeping on top of corpses.

Some of the most perturbing instances come from when these monks interact with one another. For example, in some cases they advocate being hospitable to those who visit them, but in others they will refuse to speak to someone, even their own family, causing much upset. One example is Theodore of Pherme was rude in such a manner to someone who knocked on his door for 3 days and eventually said to one of his disciples, “As a matter of fact, I said nothing to him because he’s only interested in getting credit by reporting what others have said to him.” So my question is: who ensured that this account was written down?

This next one I shall simply quote, suggesting it be filed under WTF:

“When Nesteros the Great was walking in the desert with a brother, they saw a dragon and ran away. The brother said, ‘Were you afraid, abba?’ Nesteros answered, ‘I wasn’t afraid, my son. But it was right to run away from the dragon, otherwise I should have had to run away from conceit.'”

For the most part, the sayings are fairly lifestyle-based and or concerned with wisdom. There’s very little by way of biblical theology. What there is, though is disappointingly wrong-headed. For example, there is one tale of a monk who gets the symbolic nature of communion but he himself is portrayed as a heretic by those who have fallen prey to a functionalist understanding. He is rebuked thus: “You mustn’t say that, abba; according to what the Catholic Church has handed down to us, even so do we believe, that is to say, this bread is the Body of Christ in very truth, and is not a mere symbol.”

I could not agree with their point of view, as I understand the idea of transubstantiation to be a false doctrine. Yet this view, first proposed by Justine Martyr, had clearly become widespread by the time of the desert fathers so it serves an historical interest as a marker in the drift from christianity to catholicism. Yet this flaw should not detract one from engaging with their more sound teachings.

Having finished it and had some time to reflect on it, the lasting impression is rather mixed. On the one hand there is great admiration for their devotion and some of the levels of commitment are far beyond anything I have ever witnessed. Yet this is tinged with sadness at the withdrawn and ascetic life they chose, which seems to be the very antithesis of a life-filled church. There is no sense of community or of a mission to the world. If anything, it is about personal holiness and about appeasement, seemingly linked to a works-based justification. The number of times “doing penance” is referred to adds weight to this conclusion.

I would recommend that you read it, but I couldn’t agree with all of it. I doubt many would.

The time value of money

One of the odd things about this blog is that though I work in finance, I rarely write about it. Partly this is to keep my blogging life and my work life separate, but perhaps that separation is greater than it need be. Shortly, I plan on publishing my review of Karl Marx’s Capital. In writing that review, it became necessary to critique Marx’s dismissal of the notion of the time value of money. However, I recognise that not all of you are necessarily chartered accountants or have A-levels in economics. So you may not have heard the term before. If you have, and are aware of it, you may happily go about and read something else unless you want to pick my analysis apart. For those for whom the term does not mean something precise, then I hope this will sharpen up the concept in your mind, though I apologise if this comes across as patronising.

The concept of the time value of money should be one that you find fairly instinctive. I’ll demonstrate this with a few examples. Firstly, I offer to you a sum of money, let’s say £100. You can have that today, no strings attached. Or I could ask you to wait a week and then I would give you £110. Which is more valuable to you?

You have a choice between a smaller value or a greater value in the future. Can you wait for a week or is your need for the cash flow so great that you would settle for a smaller sum, effectively forfeiting £10?

Another trade-off would be if I offer you £100 now or £101 in ten years’ time. Which is more valuable to you?

I would hope that in the first case, waiting is the better option for you and that in the second case it is better to take the guaranteed sum now. Yet all this hinges on a level of subjectivity. It can vary from person to person or from business to business. The trick is to try to find an equivalent rate whereby the current value is equal to some future value. For example, if our choice was between £100 now and £105 in a year’s time, then would you “um” and “ah”, being unable to work out which is more valuable to you. If you put the money in a bank would you get a net rate of interest of 5%? If you could get more, then it’d more rational to put the £100 in the bank and get more interest, so at the end of it you have more than the £105 you might have had. If the net interest rate is lower, is there another way by which you could get a greater return in one year? If not, then your best bet is the £105 in a year’s time.

So the time value of money is expressed as an interest rate, being the rate that you would consider reasonable for a rate of return if given the opportunity to have a different sum at a future point in time.

One of the consequences of this is that higher interest rates are associated with higher levels of risk. You may have heard the phrase, “high risk, high return”, particularly if you’ve looked at choices for pension investments or if you think back to the global financial crisis of 2008, particularly with regards to the critique that the high risk aspect was ignored by the bankers whose actions played a significant part in precipitating the financial meltdown.

In my view, a part of the reason for this was that the fundamental subjectivity of the notion of the time value of money was forgotten by the systematic use of the Black-Scholes formula for options trading. That attempted to turn finance into a science which is a category error. Risk cannot be accurately quantified and it is a mistake to try to do so. Measures such as interest rates are indicative, so one looking at bonds can tell that a rate of 7% is riskier than one offering 2%. I know this personally quite well as I had considered changing my ISA some years ago and found the best rates of interest available to UK investors were to be found in Iceland. I even got so far as to the have an application form on my living room table. But I was suspicious about the high interest rates and, coupled with the relative devaluing of the Icelandic Krona against the Pound, I hesitated. Two months later those Icelandic banks collapsed. They were offering a high return because they were high risk investments.

The other aspect to think about is inflation. This is another reason why I stated at the top that the time value of money should be fairly instinctive, even if the term is new to some. Inflation is the creeping rise of prices of various goods, services and assets. If you have a fixed sum of money then it’s value decreases over time. In my childhood, £1 could buy you four packets of sweets with change left over. Years later, £1 might leave the shopkeeper asking for the rest of the money if you try to buy a single packet. So looking at cash as the arbiter of value is inherently flawed. What we can do is ask about what is known as present value.

What this does is look at future (generally fixed) payments and ask how much is the sum of those payments worth at today’s values. For example, the rent on my one bed, mouse-infested and rather cold flat is £11,700 per year. Let’s say that that rent doesn’t change for 10 years. Is the present value £117,000? No, because in 10 years’ time £11,700 will not be worth the same as £11,700 is today. I need to employ my subjective interest rate, my measure of risk, to do a calculation. Yet even that calculation will be assuming a constant rate of risk, but who knows what the future may bring?

If anything, that’s the point. The world of finance and of economics in general contain a great many unknowns. Those who would profess to declare with confidence exactly what will happen in the future are generally false prophets. Look out for this in the economic arguments in the general election. There, politicians from party Y will declare unanimously that if party X is elected then the economy is doomed whilst at the same time asserting with equally misplaced confidence that if they are placed in stewardship of the economy (though I doubt they have the humility to use the term stewardship) then all will be well. This will be on top of party X and party Y making promises on the other’s behalf.

I wouldn’t trust either who take such an approach to finance, but I would also warn against placing trust in finance in the first place. Believe me, I’m an accountant!

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This was one of those books I just picked up almost at random as I was browsing round a Waterstones in Covent Garden one day. Having looked at the endorsements on the front cover, I was surprised as to why I hadn’t heard of it before. It seems to have garnered lots of praise and accolades yet I can’t recall a single reviewer ever mentioning it, nor had I seen it mentioned in the press. After buying it, it came back to mind recently when I noted it being mentioned in Adam Rutherford’s Creation.

What we have here is science told as a narrative. It is not only the narrative of the events and discoveries that were made, but also the narrative of the uncovering of the story. So while it starts out as a biography of Henrietta Lacks (prefaced by a personal story of how Skloot became interested in Henrietta) it expands its scope and becomes a part autobiography of Skloot’s battles to be able to tell Henrietta’s story, and that of her family.

Henrietta Lacks was a black American woman who died in 1954. The crux of the story is what happened shortly before she died. You see, she died young. She died of cancer. After her diagnosis a biopsy was taken from her cervix and the cells grown in culture. It is those cells that are the heart of the story. From here, we go back a short time and tell the story, as far as it is known of Henrietta’s life, growing up and getting married in the American state of Maryland.

The cells that were taken from her body were capable of being grown in a laboratory, something that scientists had been aiming for but had not been successful with. With these cells (named HeLa), it enabled labs across the world to be able to a variety of tests without doing them on living humans. After all, even though they were cancerous, they were still human cells and behaved as such. Skloot tells us the story of 20th century medicine from the cells’ point of view, both the good and the bad. Many of the greatest developments seen in the last 60 years have involved the HeLa cells in one way or another. Sometimes this was unintentional as it turns out that where other cells were grown in cultivation they were in fact contaminated by HeLa.

Coupled with this is the story of the Lacks family and their struggle to come to terms with Henrietta’s legacy. It was years before they even realised that her cells were being used for research purposes. When they did, this was around the time that details were emerging of the Tuskegee syphilis scandal where, if you’ve not heard it before (I confess I hadn’t), black people in America were deliberately infected with syphilis under the guise of free healthcare. So there was deep suspicion over what Henrietta’s cells were being used for and also who was profiting from them. Skloot’s role here was not only as someone researching a book but also of the one who helped the Lacks family, especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, understand what happened.

The book ranges over a number of diverse topics. One of those that I noted in particular was the development of medical ethics; not so much in theory, but the practice. For the descriptions (and yes, as a warning, they are quite graphic – particularly at the start of the book) may well strike you as particularly barbaric. The reason why this jars against a modern sensibility is that when the facts surrounding the lack of consent about what was done with Henrietta’s cells became more widely known within the medical community it spurred people into action.

As an aside, I encountered a slight confluence of issues as I read this, as I was also watching the American tv show, The Wire, during the same period of time as I was reading this (actually, I’ve been on The Wire all year; the book took about 3 weeks to read). But they are both predominantly based in the city of Baltimore and have a huge amount to say, in microcosm, of the state of racism in America in the last half a century or so.

One of the things that becomes clear, though whether this was the author’s intention, I’m not sure, was the sheer barbarism that still persists within what passes for a national healthcare service within America. One of the ongoing battles the Lacks has had, and a cause of their major gripes were that the vast leaps in scientific work as a result of Henrietta’s cells did not allow them the financial means to be able to pay for their healthcare. The USA remains a country so backwards that if you go to a hospital, they have the audacity to present you with a bill – which the rich usually pay for through insurance and the poor are made to go without. The concept of universal healthcare which is free at the point of need still hasn’t made the journey across the Atlantic.

The book has apparently become a standard text in some university courses on cell biology. That’s not because the science is overly technical, though what is there is excellently communicated, but because it is a story of one aspect of modern science that has rippled far beyond the Maryland origins of one bereaved family. C.P. Snow famously espoused the notion of the two cultures: humanities and sciences. Here, Skloot has woven the two together to make a fabric that is stronger than either and makes for a fabulous piece of writing. It is educating, enthralling and overall one of the best pieces of writing I have had the pleasure of reading. It was only because of the more immediate need to heed the words of Harry Leslie Smith that this missed out on being my top book of 2014.

Book Review: Why Worry? by Andrew Adeleke

A few months ago, as part of the Mystery Worshipper project, I visited a church a couple of miles up the road from me that I pass most days on my commute but which I had never previously visited. I went in, observed the Sunday service and went to do my write-up, which you can read here. As all first time visitors are herded into a room before a fairly burly looking chap stands by the door to make sure that nobody can leave, it was a fairly unwelcoming welcome. But they did give us a little bag of bits to take away with us, including a Benny Hinn DVD (which I haven’t watched, but do use as a coaster) and this little book by the pastor of the church, Andrew Adeleke.

He begins by looking at 7 things that people commonly worry about. In short, these are:

  1. Material possessions
  2. Physical, emotional or spiritual losses
  3. Oppressors
  4. The wicked and those who do wrong
  5. Basic human needs (clothes, food, shelter)
  6. Perceived helplessness
  7. Tomorrow

One could look at this list, wonder about the order of how these are prioritised (later on, he does refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and whether there has been some artificial splitting of these. For example, why would number 1 be material possessions and number 5 basic needs? Clothes, food and shelter are a sub-category of possessions after all. So it would seem as though the differentiating factor is between those things that we need and those that we don’t, but desire anyway. For the latter to be placed at number 1 seems to be a case less of rigorous sociological testing and more a matter of the author projecting his own desires onto those of others.

But if one reads this book, one gets a strong sense that material possessions are highly prized in Adeleke’s eyes. Indeed, if you look through some of his other publications, one may see one book entitled “Prosperity capsules”. If one looks further at the teachings of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, then further evidence of this kind of mentality is prevalent, whereby promotions, wealth, etc. are seen as tokens of reward for one’s faithfulness. Yet there are instances in the book where the author seems to try to distance himself from this viewpoint. Such contradictions make for a bit of a muddled read.

With half the book devoted to chapter 1, as outlined above, the second half of the book is comprised of saying in as many ways as possible: “[don’t worry, it’s not Godly]”.

Since this is a rather negative review, I ought to justify this with some more specific examples. On page 29, he states “The ideas of freedom and pro-humanity now take precedence over biblical teachings.” This certainly indicates where our theologies diverge, as the bible I have portrays God as the most pro-human being ever, who longs for us to be free from the captivity of sin, a God who sides with the oppressed and who calls us to welcome the foreigner and look after the sick and the elderly.

On page 40 he states: “Recent events in world market [sic] triggered by the American mortgage market further prove that no matter how much we try as humans to ensure a secured future, we are bound to fail without God’s stamp of success.” There is a point here to be made about the greed that is the heart of capitalism and why such right-wing views are incompatible with the christian faith, but that’s not what Adeleke seems to be saying. This is just one instance (of which there are several) where he speaks of “success” as a desirable thing, yet he only ever speaks of it in materialistic terms.

There’s an intriguing medical claim on page 56: “Worry is associated to heart disease and some other life threatening physical ailments.” Unfortunately he doesn’t provide any references to back up this claim. I couldn’t help but speculate that he may have meant “stress” instead of “worry”. If he is conflating the two. I can’t know for certain, but if he is then it shows that the whole premise of the book is a bit squiffy.

Perhaps one of the most hurtful and misleading things he says comes on page 68: “Seasons of uncertainty will definitely come but it shall be well with you.” He attempts to back up this claim by using Isaiah 3:10. Yet he never defines what he or what Isaiah actually mean by “well”. Incidentally, the word translated here is the Hebrew tob which has rather a long and multi-faceted definition in my concordance (Strong’s) – but it is essentially a word of moral goodness, not of material prosperity. The word can also be translated as “good” in the sense of “[what she did was good]” where this meant to denote upstanding, Godly, righteous behaviour. The verse comes in parallel with prophecy over what will happen to the guilty, though Adeleke chooses to ignore this.

The way the whole book is laid out is to include lots of short passages from across the books of the bible, with little or no context given to them. Andrew then either paraphrases them or makes a rather non sequitur remark to try to link the passage to his point. The ways he refers to the bible are indicative of a fundamentalist mindset, whereby the English translation chosen is taken as unquestionable and meant directly for the modern reader. As a classic example of the prosperity gospel which he espouses, he rips Jeremiah 29:11 out of its place, its audience and implies that this is a promise written by God to you and me today, with no reference to the human author of the book, the historical context in which it was written or the hope that it was necessary to give to those in exile.

Possibly the most frustrating thing about the whole book is that Andrew at no point attempts to define precisely what he means by worry. He takes it as a given that everyone has the same understanding of the word that he does. But he is unclear over discerning the different between a more obsessive concern and merely planning for the future, or anywhere between.

In conclusion, I cannot say that I recommend this little book to anyone. It is theologically shallow at best, misleading in others. While I would not doubt Adeleke’s faithfulness to the gospel he preaches, I am far from convinced that this is a true and fair view of the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth.

Radical christianity and tolerance

[n.b. I had this prepared prior to the events in France last week. If anything I think it is more pertinent now when discussing the backgrounds of the perpetrators of the violence witnessed and some media commentators have used the word ‘radical’ in what I believe to be a misguided sense]

During the Christmas holidays, I found myself (as one does) watching repeats of debates in the House of Lords on BBC Parliament. One that caught my attention was from the 27th of November, entitled the role of religion  in British public life. The comments varied in quality, though it was mostly positive and civilised. Standing out though was this statement by Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick, reflecting on the modern tendency to misuse the word ‘radical’:

I am very grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for introducing this vital debate. This has been a difficult week, in which we had the report on the activities of Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, and the radicalism, as the Home Secretary referred to it, of their lives, which brought about the tragic and evil death of Lee Rigby.

In the few minutes available to me, I want to do two things. First, I want to recapture the word radical—and radicalism—from being seen as negative. It enters the lexicon of common understanding as something we despise. As a follower of Jesus, I am convinced that the lifestyle he promoted and spoke of was radical. People criticised him for being associated with those who society despised. He made it clear that if you want to find life you must choose to give it away. He made it clear that the obsession of our day, which is the relentless pursuit of materialism, ought to be focused on the pursuit of the kingdom of God. These are radical truths, and if radicalism is to be seen as a negative and religion is to become known—and if I dare say so particularly Church of England Christianity, of which I am very grateful to be at times a member—for its tolerance and its mediocrity, then we have lost something profoundly essential. The very nature of faith allegiance, belief, and the love relationship that followers have with the one they follow requires radical living.

Radicalism, in our modern society, is seen as extreme. If you hold strong views—if you believe distinctly in certain values—that puts you on the edge of unreasonableness. However, that is exactly what would have been said of Jesus, and many of us are happy to line up with him. That radicalism is the pursuit of justice, the sharing of the commitment of one’s life, and the giving away of oneself. That is the radicalism that we need to discover in our century.

When I think of radical people I am delighted to mention two people who live in the noble and right reverend Lord’s own area of Oxford: two very dear friends of mine, Tom and Jane Benyon. In the last three years, these two people—one in their 60s, one in their mid-70s—have walked 1,500 miles to raise £2 million for the poorest people of the broken communities of Zimbabwe. Why does a former Conservative MP from another place choose to commit himself to the task of walking around England when he needs a hip replacement, in order to raise money for the people of Zimbabwe, for which he gets no gratitude from the British Government, let alone the Zimbabwean Government? It is because of his radical pursuit of the conviction that he says Jesus has placed on him and on his wife—the founder of the first food bank in Oxford, now a network of food banks; it is because the radical pursuit of Jesus, of belief, of conviction, leads you to defined and distinct actions.

The embrace of people on the outside is not about a tolerant place in which we can all feel easily comfortable, it has to be about a radical place in which we make distinct decisions to help those on the margins, to choose to act with justice, to receive those who have little and to give to them, even from our little. The Economist, just a few weeks ago, had an amazing report on the growth of the church in China—fascinating: 300 million committed believers, followers of Jesus, in China. It is amazing—almost more people than the population of the United States. However, the Economist concluded with a very interesting reflection: what, it asked, would kill this church dead? The answer was: if it becomes institutionalised, if it becomes a state-accepted church. In that case it will accept the tolerance required by the state and the system; it will lose its edge; it will give way to being simply an accepted mediocrity. It will no longer challenge its society. And so it will die. Let us get radicalism back into the agenda of our faith.

It is worth noting a later comment from Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve on the matter of toleration, whose views are more similar to my own:

I want to make three points. First, this right [freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as stated in Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights] is the successor to the great traditions that established the importance of religious toleration in north-western Europe, above all in Britain and the Low Countries in and following the Reformation. Today, toleration is often interpreted in a tepid way as no more than a matter of putting up with something, so as to demand no more than mere indifference. Unlike my noble friend Lord Hastings I take a more radical and classical view of toleration. Nothing could have been further from the view of the early protagonists of religious toleration than the thought that it was something tepid or mere indifference. They thought of it as a profoundly, excruciatingly difficult virtue—a duty not to repress belief or to persecute others, even when their beliefs were taken to be profoundly wrong and subversive.

When Oliver Cromwell famously wrote in 1650 to the Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland with the words:

“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken”,

he was acknowledging that tolerating others’ beliefs can be enormously hard because we may find it impossible to imagine that our own beliefs could be mistaken. Toleration became central to the history of Europe and, subsequently, of human rights, not because it was a matter of indifference but because it was profoundly difficult and yet a duty.

I was pleasantly surprised to see such informed comments on matters of religion be uttered in Parliament. You may find the full debate in the Parliamentary record, Hansard, here (scroll down to 11:53am).

One of the offshoots of this is a question that’s troubled me for some time. We often hear that the fastest growing church in the world is the Chinese, as testified to above, but I never hear of any Chinese school of thought in theology. Are they producing a generation of theologians to inform their congregations and the servant leadership? If not, from where do they draw their theology? If you know what shape the answer may take, then please let me know.

Book Review: Prayer by Roger Forster

Disclaimer: This book was a gift from my church which I received at a newcomers evening (though I have been involved with the network since 2002, I have been attending this particular congregation since last autumn). Roger and Faith Forster began the church and are still present and very active in the life and management of it. I was not asked to review the book so, as ever, this review is wholly of my own initiative.

As the title of the book states, this is a book about prayer. Subtitled ‘Living in the breath of God‘ this is a sort of short guide to everything you might want to know about prayer within christianity. There’s little to nothing here of any other religion and it’s not really an academic text, detailing theory of prayer, it’s developmental history or anything like that. Rather, this is a devotional book that seems very much aimed at the person who is already a christian or who is looking at christianity seriously with an eye to conversion.

Roger starts with a fairly straightforward look at ‘why we must pray’. I would hope that most would find this opening unsurprising. If one were to survey a wide group of christians and ask for a set of reasons and some scriptural backup, then you would not be far off reproducing most of the contents of the chapter. Most, but not all. Because Roger is a charismatic christian, in just about every sense of the word. As such, we get to see what the subtitle is about – the breath of God harks back to the term pneuma which can be variously translated as breath or wind or spirit. So to pray is to live in the Holy Spirit.

As one might expect from a preacher with many decades of experience, he manages to make use of alliteration in his answer to why: communication, communion, command, co-operation, compassion, continuation, confrontation. Though if you want more details on each, you’ll have to read it for yourself.

With it fairly well drummed into us that prayer is a necessary part of the christian life, Roger turns to how we must pray. Roger focuses on some particular examples, though he limits himself to only looking at the New Testament. One could expand this to a whole book in itself and I’m sure you could pick any number of other examples that are omitted here.

Of course, one could hardly have a book on prayer without discussing the so-called Lord’s prayer. This follows on in the same vein as the previous chapter, with a phrase by phrase dissection of the prayer. Of course, one might ask ‘which version of the prayer?’ The version that most people seem to know (I recall a very odd training day at work when it was the one thing that everyone knew off by heart) is the version from the Book of Common Prayer. Of course, that’s a mongrel version, combining elements of both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel. Roger focuses on the two biblical approaches, warning against mindless chanting of it, which negates its validity as a genuine prayer. He picks up his preacher’s alliteration again when looking at 3 possible ways one understand and pray the Lord’s prayer: Eschatologically, ecclesiastically and emotionally. There’s also a neat comparative between the versions in Matthew and Luke, as well as a little bit on textual criticism on the differences between them, though unfortunately, in my view, no discussion on Luke 11:1 from which it has been suggested by others that what we know as the Lord’s prayer may actually be something Jesus copied from his cousin John.

As an aside, there are a few general theological stances made in the book that it might be worth noting. One that caught my eye in particular, given some recent reading was that Roger seems to advocate the more Calvinist view of imputed righteousness. This was partly a surprise as I know from conversations with him that he’s not particularly keen on Calvinism, and indeed one of the things that marks Ichthus out from other charismatic churches is that it is known for being far more Arminian in its soteriology. The idea of imputed righteousness is then linked (by way of an opposite) to imputed sin, which is of course linked to the idea of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). The reason this is particularly interesting is that recently the church hosted an American anabaptist speaker who talked about nonviolent atonement and was very set against the idea of PSA. You may be read more about that on Ben Trigg’s blog here.

The next chapter looks at the question of prophetic prayer. As something to a build up to this, please do see this preparatory post on ‘what do we mean by prophetic‘. Roger uses the term prophetic a lot, though he doesn’t really define what it is, which is a little frustrating. But one can get a fairly good grasp by inference throughout the chapter. It’s really an expansion of one part of his opening chapter. Specifically, he takes a Johannine view of abiding in God and God dwelling within us. This symbiotic relationship is then expressed through prayer in as much as we are allowed to participate in the conversations that go on within the Godhead. So prayer is not a list of asking God for things and having one reply out of: A) Yes, B) No or C) Maybe. It is far more symptomatic of an intimate relationship.

Following on from this, we get a chapter from Faith Forster, though why the book doesn’t then have dual accreditation is a mystery to me. She starts by defining 4 types of prayers. 1) Petitions and supplications, 2) Outpourings, 3) Intercessions and 4) Thanksgiving. Though even after having read it, I’m still not sure what the difference between 1 & 3 is supposed to be. She then takes another look at the Lord’s prayer with a different pair of spectacles on.

From here on in, the book looks at prayer as a weapon in spiritual warfare. Though it is not one of the named “Ichthus distinctives” those of you who are familiar with the church will note that it is one aspect of christian theology that gets a lot of attention; more so than in other denominations. To some this is welcome, though I know that others find it offputting. I confess, while I largely agree with the shape of the theology as it is taught, I do think it is rather over-emphasised at times, almost to the degree that personal responsibility can seem to be glossed over in favour of the power of ‘dark spirits’. But this is not a book of the occult, certainly. Rather, I think Roger and Faith’s aims are to shine a light into the darkness (again, a Johannine theme)

In conclusion, the christian book market is loaded with books on prayer. If you wanted, you could look at it from any number of perspectives. Of those that I’ve read, I would still say that Pete Greig’s God on Mute is one of the few “must-reads” that I would recommend.  But this is well worth reading, if only because you may have an interest in reading about prayer from a charismatic point of view, if you are more used to an ecclesiastically conservative way of looking at it.

Ultimately, it’s not so much a book to be read as to be applied. If you finish it, put it aside and think “well that’s interesting” then perhaps Roger will be sorely disappointed. As I’m completing this review some time after finishing reading it, perhaps the question that ought to be asked is: has it changed my prayer life? If I’m honest, the answer is probably ‘no’. That which I agreed with I probably do anyway and that which I disagreed with, I didn’t find convincing enough to make me change.

A word on the typesetting. This might seem harsh, considering I know who did the typesetting, but it really could do with a review. The book is littered with typing mistakes, the most common being a lack of spacing after punctuation. I just flicked the book open near the beginning and straight away on page 3 I can see the following:

“We are meant to communicate because God is a communicating God.There is a discipline in silence, but there is no discipline in non-communication.”

No space between the sentences. But please don’t let that detract you. If you want a book on prayer, this is as good as any, and certainly more practical than Rowan Williams’ Being Christian.The only omission I think there this is on the topic of the angry prayer, the lamentation, on which I wrote recently as a guest writer for the Big Bible blog.

What do we mean by “prophetic”?

This is sort of a follow up to this piece on the recent christian new media conference, prompted by a couple of the comments. It concerns the nature of prophecy and what we mean when we speak of something as prophetic.

The subject also came up recently when I was reading Roger Forster’s Prayer: Living in the Breath of God which I will be reviewing fairly soon. So I wanted to lay the foundations for that review first.

A very short summary may be found in my guest post the Big Bible blog, where we were looking at the book of Isaiah. The key point that I tried to make was put well by Jaroslav Pelikan when he said that prophecy was less about foretelling, but telling forth. In other words, the prophetic is rooted in the present but is forward looking. To imagine it simply as a form of fortune-telling is a lazy, simplistic and misleading way of talking of prophecy.

The biblical prophets were writing first and foremost to the world they lived in. As we have just been through Advent and Christmas, many will have heard snippets read from Isaiah (probably chapter 53) and Micah (chapter 5). While these passages certainly are forward looking, it is a disservice to them to remove them from their context and only read them with the benefit of hindsight. Both passages are to be found within a wider picture, and even those form a wider landscape of OT prophecy. This is a rugged and varied landscape. While Micah 5 is largely an expression of hope, this comes after pronouncements of judgment and warnings. Such warnings may be found throughout the OT prophets. As an example, the book of Jonah (which all too often is watered down through familiarity via Sunday school) tells of judgment which is to be pronounced against Nineveh, yet this judgment is not final. That judgment comes with the opportunity for redemption through repentance.

Likewise, John the Baptiser (I hesitate to call him “the Baptist” as it makes him sound like a Spurgeon-esque figure, replete with anachronistic overtones) was a fairly harsh figure, yet he called people to repentance. So we see that judgment should not be equated with damnation. It’s a conflation that happens far too often, particularly when christianity is viewed from the outside and our collective communication skills have failed, allowing the confusion to take place. Adopting Wright’s take on Paul’s view of justification, judgment is an eschatological verdict, but justification is the present verdict in anticipation of the final judgment. But that judgment, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, is in our favour. It is only when the offer of grace is rejected that the judgment becomes one of damnation, a verdict of the second death, or annihilation. But it is not our place to judge, either in favour or against, another.

It seems right that secular prophecy should not be excluded from such a discussion. What do I mean by secular prophecy? It is simply any prophecy where a spiritual element is lacking. It is observation grounded in the present, combined with insight as to the causes of a situation and the probable outcomes, which usually come with some kind of warning. As an example, I would state that one of our most prominent secular prophets is George Monbiot, whose frequent warnings over climate change meet the criteria above. In America, one of the most rigorous of the secular prophets is Nate Silver, whose work with polls, combined with an acute understanding of statistics led him to famously predict the correct result of 49 out of 50 of the US states in the 2008 general election. As a side note, I intend to read his book, The Signal and the Noise, later this year.

The final aspect I wanted to look at is the question of the “prophetic act”. This is slightly different, as it is generally less direct than the others. I want to illustrate by comparing two prophets: Elisha and Jesus.

Even among non-christians, the story of the feeding of the 5,000 (men) is fairly well known. But it is often portrayed simply as a miracle as though this were some kind of proof of Jesus’ divinity. I would contend that such a view rather misses the points (for there is more than one). On top of it being an act of kindness, it was a prophetic action that harked back to the lesser known story of Elisha feeding 100 (men) as told in 2 Kings 4:42-44. If one puts on a post-hoc set of glasses, one might think that Elisha is here foretelling what Jesus would later do. That’s one way of looking at it. The other way is to put yourself in the shoes of those who were in the crowd at the later event. They would be reasonably familiar with the law and the prophets and rather than Elisha’s act foretelling the act of Jesus, it was Jesus’ act that harked back to Elisha’s. In this highly symbolic action, which would not have needed to be explained out loud, Jesus was identifying himself with the ministry of the one of Israel’s great prophets. Seen this way, we remove some of the puzzlement over the disciples’ response when Jesus asked “Who do people say that I am?” and they come back with “John the Baptiser; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” If you will permit me a small liberty, if it walks like a prophet and quacks like a prophet then it might well be a prophet.

Sticking with Jesus’ miracles, many of the acts of healing that we find are not only compassionate acts that alleviate suffering, but that they were on those whose afflictions would have rendered them ritually unclean or cause them to be cast out from society. The act of healing then was a prophetic act that says “[you are clean]” which is brought out more explicit with the vision Peter had of the sheet being brought down containing foods that had been considered ritually unclean and commanded to eat.

Hopefully it should be clear that this way of looking at prophetic acts entails communion and baptism. They are highly symbolic acts which hark back to the most important week in world history.

A modern example of a secular prophetic act was the salt march that Gandhi undertook in 1930. As this is quite long, I’ll let you read up more about it rather than recount the history here.

So can we summarise what we mean when we speak of prophecy or to say that some word, image or action is prophetic? My usage would be thus:

An act of prophecy is the act of telling forth of an insight into the present which has repercussions for the future. Something which is described as prophetic is foremost an act or a statement that is loaded with symbolism which, when understood, is meant a statement of prophecy. Secondarily, a prophetic act or word can be something which harks back to earlier such words or actions, but which is marked out by being highly symbolic, yet not to such an obscure level that it needed to be explained by detailed semiotics. They typically reference things which are commonly known and understood. The primary and secondary meanings here need not be separate acts, but can be entwined in a single act.

What hasn’t been addressed here is determining true prophecy from false, or how to respond to it. I’ll leave that for you.

What to read in 2015?

Having listed out the books I read last year it seemed appropriate to look ahead at 2015. I’ve had a look at all the books that I have on my living room floor (in several piles) and in my desk drawer at work to see what I could read this year. Below, I’ve split the books out into my normal 4 categories. They aren’t necessarily in the order that I will read them but a rule of thumb would be that those nearer the top of each category are more likely to be read before those near the bottom of the same category.

As you can see, there are imbalances all round. For example, I’ve got far more christianity books than fiction books and far more books by men than by women. So I have a few questions for you that will help shape my reading for the forthcoming 12 months.

  1. Can you suggest some science and fiction books to even up the categories?
  2. Can you suggest some more books by women to even up the gender imbalance?
  3. Of the books listed, are there any that you particularly recommend (i.e. that I read them sooner rather than later)

The fourth question is a bit more convoluted. While I aim to read books that I think I will enjoy, I also want to stretch myself by reading things that I may well disagree with. In 2014, I read several works by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, where I didn’t expect to agree wholly with them, though I sit towards the same end of the political spectrum as they do. As a complete opposite, you will spot Friedrich Hayek’s most famous work, The Road to Serfdom, on my list. So the 4th question is this: What book would you recommend as something to challenge my views, something you think I will disagree with? This comes with a couple of caveats: first, no extremist literature; I have no intention of reading Mein Kampf or anything like that. Secondly, if you make a suggestion that I take up, you must take up a reciprocal suggestion from me. Thirdly, it must be a reasonable price and length; I would be hesitant to take up a book that is 500+ pages long or costs in excess of £25.

Christianity (24)

  • The History of the Church – Eusebius (already started)
  • The Making of the Creeds – Frances Young
  • Jesus the Jew – Geza Vermes
  • Quaker Writings – various authors
  • How Jesus Became God – Bart Ehrman
  • Cranky, Beautiful Faith – Nadia Bolz-Weber
  • How God Became Jesus – various authors
  • Baptism in the Holy Spirit – James Dunn
  • Imitating Jesus – Richard Burridge
  • Dazzling Darkness – Rachel Mann
  • Zealot – Reza Aslan
  • Theology of Hope – Jürgen Moltmann
  • Letters to London – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • God’s Smuggler – Brother Andrew
  • Simply Jesus – Tom Wright
  • The Return of the Prodigal Son – Henri Nouwen
  • The Inner Life – Thomas a Kempis
  • Life Together – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Why Did Jesus, Moses, The Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? – Brian McLaren
  • A New Monastic Handbook – Ian Mobsby & Mark Berry
  • The Go-Between God – John Taylor
  • The Bible: A Very Short Introduction – John Riches
  • Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction – Fergus Kerr
  • Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction – Mark Noll
  • Pentecostalism: A Very Short Introduction – William Kay

Science (10)

Fiction (8)

  • Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
  • Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Dear Life – Alice Munro
  • The House on the Strand – Daphne du Maurier
  • The Black Prince – Iris Murdoch
  • War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

Other non-fiction (20)

Total                      (62)

You may also place a wager as to how many of these I will get through.

Book Review: Silas Marner by George Eliot

I vaguely recall a tv adaptation I saw of this when I was a child, sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. I was not particularly interested in at the time and George Eliot has been just a name of an author that I was aware of, but I have not had any great yearning to read her works. I could name a few of her books in a pub quiz, but beyond that, I must confess my ignorance. She was recommended to me on the back of my fondness for Thomas Hardy as I was told by several people, “[If you like him, you’ll like her]”.

It has to be noted that this is a very short book; indeed, I am led to understand that it is the shortest of George Eliot’s works.

Our title character is introduced to us as a man who has been wronged. We get a short backstory telling of how, as a youthful man, he loved, was engaged, was tricked and who lost all that was important to him. Effectively driven from his home he made his living in a new place, yet as a consequence of the hurt he suffered he now lives alone, almost as a hermit. In some ways, I was reminded of myself.

The trouble that I found with the book is that the title character is so brilliantly written that all the other characters are muted by comparison. So when, in the middle third of the book, Silas Marner largely drops out of the picture as we get embroiled in what seems like a side plot, my interest began to dwindle greatly. It was no wonder that those who were made to read it between the ages of 13 & 16 found it tough-going. For though it is a short book, the hump in the middle makes it seem unduly long.

*spoiler warning*

It is not until we have the arrival of Eppie that the book sparks back to life again. After her mother dies, a young toddler finds her way to Silas’ home and makes her home in front of the fire. Silas then takes her into his home and raises her as if she were his own daughter. This part is undoubtedly the highlight of the book, as we finally get two characters of equal verve in a delightfully sweet interplay. There is probably no scene better than when, having taken on some parenting advice, he puts her in a coal hole for a few seconds as punishment (something probably frowned upon by most people today) and she thinks it’s utterly delightful.

The book climaxes with the revelation of all the interlinked stories, some of which were those that I confess rather passed me by. When all is clear and further moral choices are to be made, we hark back to earlier choices and see them through to their natural conclusions.

*end spoiler warning*

One of the over-arching ideas that Eliot has in mind is that of justice. One could almost say karma, though I’m not sure about how widespread the idea was in her day. But this is a sort of justice that is gilded with irony, which at times is all a little too obvious. For example, Eliot makes it quite blatant that Eppie’s golden hair is a token of the gold that Silas has stolen from him.

As an aside, it is sometimes interesting to note confluences between different books that I read at the same time. So while I was reading this, I was also going through Karl Marx’s Capital. In that work, he examines the rise of the factory and machinery, taking as one of his examples the unemployment of linen weavers as a result of automation. While this is not ostensibly a history book, one couldn’t help but think that Eliot’s portrayal of life in her time and place as inspired by what was observed. As such, the book gives a human insight into the economic phenomenon which Marx partially describes.

While it is an admirable book, with some great writing, I found it inconsistent. So I can’t say I found myself longing to read another of George Eliot’s works straight away. I had considered Middlemarch as a follow up but I may look elsewhere for my next lot of fiction reading.