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On the (social capital) deficit

Robert D. Putnam: Bowling AloneAny who are concerned about the sharp decline in “social capital” over recent decades would do well to read Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s 2000 classic, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. I’ll attempt to give you a flavour of the book here…

After the introduction, Section II surveys an extraordinary amount of evidence covering a remarkably diverse set of trends:

Civic disengagement appears to be an equal opportunity affliction. The sharp, steady declines in club meetings, visits with friends, committee service, church attendance, philanthropic generosity, card games, and electoral turnout have hit virtually all sectors of American society over the last several decades and in roughly equal measure (p. 185).

Section III asks, “Why?” What are the causes of this civic decline? Pressures of time and money? This might account for perhaps 10%. Mobility and sprawl? Again, another 10%. Technology and mass media? This might account for 25%, particularly as a result of television. This is partly because “Television privatizes leisure time” (p. 236), but also because “Another probable effect of television (not just programming, but also the associated advertising) is its encouragement of materialist values” (p. 245). But the biggest cause of civic decline, Putnam argues, is generational change, as one generation dies off and another takes its place.

But what could explain such a difference between the generations? Strikingly, but not particularly surprisingly, the answer seems to be World War II, which served as a strong stimulus to civic and social engagement.

In speculating about explanations for this sharp generational discontinuity, I am led to the conclusion that the dynamics of civil engagement in the last several decades have been shaped in part by social habits and values influenced in turn by the great mid-century global cataclysm (p. 275).

Section IV asks, “So What?” Does it actually matter that social capital has been in decline? Putnam reviews evidence that “shows that in measurable ways it matters that social capital and civic engagement have decined in America over the last several decades” (p. 295). This evidence is largely based on comparing various criteria with a “Social Capital Index” for each of the states of the USA. He finds a strong connection between low social capital and poor standards of education, children’s welfare, safe neighbourhoods, economic prosperity, health and happiness, and democratic participation.

So what is to be done? This is the subject of Section V. To answer this, Putnam turns to history. There is a fascinating chapter on the transition America faced during the “Gilded Age” (1870-1900) and the “Progressive Era” (1900-1915).

During the last third of the nineteenth century technological, economic, and social changes transformed American life. Between roughly 1870 and 1900 America evolved rapidly from a rural, localized, traditional society to a modern, industrialized, urban nation (p. 368).

But America survived. Why? It survived because of a prolonged and concerted investment in new forms of social capital.

It must have been tempting in 1890 to say, “Life was much nicer back in the village. Everybody back to the farm.” They resisted that temptation to reverse the tide, choosing instead the harder but surer path of social innovation. Similarly, among those concerned about the social-capital deficit today, it would be tempting to say, “Life was much nicer back in the fifties. Would all women please report to the kitchen, and turn off the TV on the way?” Social dislocation can easily breed a reactionary form of nostalgia.

On the contrary, my message is that we desperately need an era of civic inventiveness to create a renewed set of institutions and channels for a reinvigorated civic life that will fit the way we have come to live (p. 401).

But how will this come about? Putnam himself has been active in seeking a resurgence of civic and social engagement through various initiatives (such as BetterTogether), and there are signs that the tide is turning, at least among affluent young white people. But I was struck by some comments in the final chapter about the role of religion.

Faith-based communities remain such a crucial reservoir of social capital in America that it is hard to see how we could redress the erosion of the last several decades without a major religious contribution (p. 408-9).

This is based on history, since “it is undeniable that religion has played a major role in every period of civic revival in American history” (p. 409), particularly around the turn of the twentieth century. Putnam’s response is to “challenge America’s clergy, lay leaders, theologians, and ordinary worshipers” to “spur a new … ‘great awakening’” as a response to our crisis in social capital.

Those of us who see these “great awakenings” as a work of the Spirit of God will readily turn Putnam’s “challenge” into a prayer…

Christianity and the Green Party

A little flurry of online activity on this topic over the past few days.

First, there was Gillan Scott’s post on Archbishop Cranmer, entitled Green Party: Christians welcome, but only if you ignore your faith. His post was based on a narrow focus and anecdotal evidence (which is quite out of character for Gillan), and concluded as follows:

Those who keep a close eye on party politics will be fully aware of the Green Party’s narrow-minded approach to inclusion. But for those who are disillusioned with the mainstream parties and looking for a fresh political vision, going Green on May 7th would be a profound delusion.

This provoked numerous responses from Christian members of the Green Party in the comments section, giving alternative anecdotal evidence, and a broader perspective. (Warning: there are well over 500 comments on the post, of varying quality, but it is not hard to skim through looking for the sensible ones.)

Two blog posts have appeared in response. One was by Rachel Collinson, who is the Green Party parliamentary candidate for West Ham. In her post, Jesus and the Greens, she wrote:

The more I discovered about the Green Party, the more I realised that I might finally have found a political home for my theological conclusions. A party that has dared to paint a picture of world where our economy isn’t based on crippling personal debt; where the creation of money is democratised; where true economic equality is feasible; where the playing field for all people is level. I think I’d call it – not the American Dream, but the Mosaic Dream.

Another response came from active Green Party member Stephen Gray, with a post called Faith and the Green Party DO mix. He discusses three issues on which he sees the Green Party as providing a good fit for his Christian beliefs: creation care, poverty, and immigration, and concludes:

So I’ve outlined three issues that are (or at least should be) massively important to British politics in 2015 where I think that the Green Party is more in line with a genuinely Christian approach than the other mainstream political parties. In all three cases, my faith leads me to support the Green Party approach above those of other parties. Given that all three are far more salient to today’s politics than abortion, same-sex marriage, or euthanasia, Gillan’s assertion that Christians should leave our faith at the door before joining or voting for the Green Party looks a little bit silly.

Finally, and unrelated, KLICE published the sixth of their Ethics in Brief election series, as part of their 2015 election coverage. This was a paper by Tim Cooper and Colin Bell on A Greener Faith: Christianity and the Green Party. It makes fascinating reading, as they trace the history of the Green Party, and the points of connection and tension with the Christian faith. Here’s the final paragraph:

The Church of England was for many years described as the Tory Party at prayer. In future, might the Christian church, Anglican or otherwise, be portrayed as the Green Party at prayer? Time will tell. Striving for peace, justice and sustainability while challenging undue concentrations of power and excessive materialism, the Christian church and the Green Party are logical allies. A good proportion of Christians will consider supporting the Greens in the coming election, many for the first time. Is there empathy in both directions? The Green Party certainly needs support from sympathisers within the church, which environmental scientist Sir John Houghton refers to as ‘the nation’s largest NGO’. The Party seeks a renewed and transformed society in which people seek ‘the common good’; many Christians will rightly share their vision.

A Christian guide to the General Election: Votewise 2015

Guy Brandon: Votewise 2015If you’re a Christian thinking about how to vote (or whether to vote) in the 2015 General Election, and if you read just one short book on the topic, then make it this one. I doubt anyone else will publish something more helpful, in terms of being brief and to the point, covering a wide range of issues (rather than just a couple of headline ‘Christian’ issues), and in terms of bridging the gap between the Bible and the political questions facing us today.

Votewise 2015 is the third of the Jubilee Centre’s ‘Votewise’ books, with previous editions published prior to the 2005 and 2010 General Elections. Each book has been written afresh, and this time the author is Guy Brandon, part-time researcher for the Jubilee Centre, but with contributions from others at the end.

The book faces the reality that many Christians will be inclined to disengage from politics, whether that’s by doing no more than voting (‘to place a cross on our ballot sheet and to use this as an excuse to disengage from politics for the next five years’, p.13), or by not voting at all. But there are many important issues at stake, and we have a responsibility to use our votes in the best way.

Ten issues are tackled in the book: marriage and family, the economy, debt, welfare, Europe, immigration, the environment, crime, education, and health. Each is tackled in the same way: the issue is presented, then we delve under the surface (e.g., what is the economy for? what is education for? what is health?), then we look to the Bible for insight, and finally there is an attempt to draw out some implications for policy.

One recurring theme is the importance of relationships. (This will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the Jubilee Centre.) In all of the areas covered, there is an enormous relational deficit. But the laws given in the Old Testament were all about maintaining and strengthening relationships: within extended families, within the nation, with the land, and with the surrounding nations. A Christian approach to politics will give attention to the place of relationships, in every area of policy.

The final two chapters form something of an anticlimax, it has to be said. The chapter on relationships seems unnecessary, given the way relationships have featured throughout the book. Then the final chapter (before the conclusion) features contributions from members of each of the five main UK parties. These have no connection with the material in the rest of the book, and say very little at all about the points of contact between the Christian faith and the visions of each party. Instead, they descend into bog-standard party-political broadcasts. Much better would have been either to give the contributors a simple questionnaire, or for Guy Brandon to have written those parts himself. (An idea for next time, perhaps?)

So, leaving those chapters to one side, that’s just 85 pages. What are you waiting for?

Keep it in the ground

Major new campaign from the Guardian, in partnership with 350.org. We’re heading for disaster if we burn the vast quantity of known fossil fuel reserves. We need to keep it in the ground.

Here’s the introductory video and description:

We need to reduce emissions to keep our planet safe for future generations - the science is clear. However, it can be quite hard to get your head around how to do that. Here’s a very simple idea from writer and climate campaigner, Bill McKibben: keep fossil fuels in the ground. If we were to burn all the fossil fuel reserves we currently know about, experts forecast the Earth’s temperature would warm by more than 2C and have catastrophic effects. Guardian journalists explain the ‘keep it in the ground’ theory in easy to understand terms.

The first chapters of everything

Alasdair Paine: The first chapters of everythingThis recent (2014) book on Genesis 1-4 by Alasdair Paine (of St Andrew the Great in Cambridge) is a joy to read. The emphasis is on how the chapters make sense of the world in which we live. Indeed, the book’s subtitle is, ‘How Genesis 1-4 explains our world’. Summing up the value of these chapters, Paine notes how they make sense of ‘the magnificence of the world we inhabit’, its orderliness, the ‘dominance of the world by the human race’, ‘the extraordinarily mixed nature of life in our world’, ‘hatred, and the power of sin to master us’, and much more (p. 179-181). The book grew out of a preaching ministry — and it shows. Issues beyond the concern of the text are kept in their proper place, and dealt with in a sensitive way, and the book is filled with vivid illustrations and pointed applications.

However, despite the excellent material in the book, and despite having the right approach to Genesis (‘Persistently asking the question “what is the message here?” is the correct way to handle the book,’ p. 8), I’m not sure Paine quite hits the target. The reason for this is the lack of attention to the context.

Genesis 1-4, as well as being the first chapters of everything, are also the first chapters of the Book of Genesis. And Genesis, like every book of the Bible, has an immediate context. It was not written for us as isolated human beings trying to make sense of the world around us. It was written for the covenant people of God — for the (physical and spiritual) descendants of Abraham. Assuming a (basically) Mosaic authorship, as Paine does, we can focus still more sharply on the primary audience, which must surely have been Israel in the wilderness.

And when we do that, the text suddenly opens up in a fresh way.

Genesis 1 can now be seen not only as teaching us about God the Creator, but as teaching us more about our God: the God who has just set us free by triumphing over the gods of Egypt, who has entered into a covenant with us, and who has promised to give us the victory over the people of Canaan. The emphasis on God’s word in chapter 1 can be traced through the rest of Genesis, with its emphasis on God’s word of promise. Will the people of Israel trust God’s promises as they enter the promised land? Will we trust God’s promises? Then, just as God finished his work of creation, so he will most certainly fulfil all that he has promised to do. And he will work out each step of his plan, so that someone like Joseph (who, incidentally, ended up having dominion over much of the earth) can look back and say that ‘God meant it for good’ (Gen. 50:20, ESV), clearly echoing the language of the creation week.

Genesis 2-3 come to life when we think about the Tabernacle (as Paine does, very briefly). Eden was a garden sanctuary, in which God was especially present. In the same way, Israel in the wilderness has become a mobile sanctuary, with God present in their midst. And just as Adam and Eve faced the choice of life or death, so Israel was about to face the choice between life and death as they entered the promised land: ‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live,’ (Dt. 30:19, ESV). Would they listen to the Lord, or would they listen to the serpent, enticing them to serve other gods? And what about us?

I have found this to be a very fruitful way of approaching the first chapters of Genesis. Just as when we read a New Testament letter, we try to hear it first through the ears of the original recipients, and only then begin to apply it to ourselves, so it should be with Genesis. We shouldn’t bypass the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings in order to hear Genesis more directly. God speaks to us today through the word that he spoke to his people in the past. We need to keep them in mind if we want to hear what God is saying to us now.

On the Green Party's policies

A couple of people asked me what I made of the Telegraph’s recent article on Green Party policy, Drugs, brothels, al-Qaeda and the Beyonce tax: the Green Party plan for Britain. So I thought I’d jot down a few notes for a (potentially) wider readership.

  1. The Green Party has some crazy, wacky, ludicrous or disturbing polices, and if you are willing to wade through 161,403 words, you will find them! The party’s policies have been built up over decades. The only way policy can be changed is by the party conference. This makes the policies very democratic, but also gives them a tendency to grow, and grow, and grow. Few people in the party spend much time reading the policies, and members are far more likely to propose additions to policy than deletions from it. Have a quick look now at policy.greenparty.org.uk.

  2. Only a small subset of the policies are important at any given time, and these policies may be found in manifestos and heard in media appearances. It’s much more important to pay attention to those.

  3. The broad principles are more important than the individual policies and that’s what attracted me to the Green Party. Green politics, internationally, is built on four pillars: ecology, social justice, grassroots democracy, and nonviolence. Derek Wall’s book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Politics is a good introduction to this: see my posts here and here. If you like the sound of that, don’t be unduly put off by the minutiae.

  4. A vote for the Green Party could influence negotiations in a hung parliament even if your vote doesn’t directly contribute to a Green MP being elected. The small number of MPs the party ends up with would be able to say they represent the views of a huge number of people around the country. So they might have a disproportionate amount of bargaining power — still not very much, though — but only in respect to the party’s most prominent and realistic policies. This might be on energy, welfare, benefits or scrapping Trident, depending on how willing the other parties are to make accommodations. There’s absolutely no risk that any of the party’s more idiosyncratic policies will get implemented.

  5. Other parties don’t disclose their policies and either keep them secret or make them up as they go along. When I joined the Green Party I familiarised myself with the core principles underlying party policy and, for comparison, tried to find something similar on the websites of the other major parties. Could I find anything? No.

  6. You can change Green Party policy for the better. Just join the party and go to the conference! That’s what I’ll be doing in a few weeks’ time. Or join some other party and get involved in that one. But I doubt there is another party in the country that is shaped so directly by its members as the Green Party is.

(No, that wasn’t a listicle!)

Christians in Politics: will you #ShowUp?

In politics, it has been said, decisions are made by those who show up.

Christians in PoliticsChristians in Politics launched a new campaign today:

The Show Up campaign aims to encourage positive Christian engagement in the run up to, and beyond, the 2015 General Election.

The launch video is below, and puts it very clearly:

We have a choice as believers in the UK. Are we going to spend the next few years just commentating and complaining about the state of our country? Or are we going to follow the biblical precedent of people like Joseph, Esther and Daniel, who served in the midst of regimes that make present day politics look positively virtuous. Surely it’s time for Christians to Show Up.

What could you do, beyond just voting?

Christian same-sex marriage?

Jeffrey John: Permanent, Faithful, StableI recently read one of the most prominent books of its kind: Jeffrey John’s Permanent, Faithful, Stable: Christian Same-sex Marriage. It’s the first such book that I’ve read; I understand it might not be the best example, but it is certainly short.

Jeffrey John is Dean of St Albans, and made the headlines in 2003, when he didn’t become the Bishop of Reading, following a big fuss about his stance on same-sex relationships, not least his own. The book was first published in 1993, then again in 2000 and 2012. This most recent edition has a new preface and postscript, lamenting the lack of progress on the issue within the Church of England, and rejoicing in the developments in the UK, with civil partnerships introduced in 2005, and with same-sex marriage looming on the horizon at the time (see here and here for a couple of my posts on that particular development). You can get a clear impression of the hurt and sense of injustice that people in John’s position have experienced. Any pastoral response needs to take that into account.

The core of the book consists of three chapters: ‘Is it Scriptural?’, ‘Is it Moral?’, and ‘Is it Achievable?’. John argues that the biblical texts speaking against same-sex sexual activity are either against only some such activity, or are intended simply to make a sharp distinction between Jews and Gentiles. A couple of pages are devoted to the centurion and his servant, with the suggestion that ‘Any Jew … would almost certainly have assumed they were gay lovers’ (p. 14). On the moral question, he sees sex within marriage as ‘good in itself, quite apart from any possibility of childbirth’ (p. 26). Thus he sees no reason to consider same-sex relationships to be morally inferior. The achievability chapter tackles both the question of promiscuity and fidelity and whether it could conceivably find acceptance within the church.

I found John’s biblical exegesis strained at times. But rather than deal with that here, the thought occurred that, even supposing his interpretations are correct, his case still wouldn’t be settled. First, with one exception, John doesn’t make a positive case from any passage; he merely tries to deflect the negative case. The one exception is the centurion and his servant. John takes Jesus’ words and actions to at least hint at approval of their (alleged) relationship. I find this far from compelling. But, second, I don’t think I would make the case against same-sex relationships primarily on the basis of those few verses that address the matter directly. A broader perspective is needed.

What is completely missing in John’s approach is any sense of the significance of ‘male and female’. As NT Wright makes clear in the superb video below (prepared for the recent Vatican conference on the topic), the complementarity between man and woman is intimately entwined with a thread that runs unmistakeably through the whole Bible. The marriage relationship, between a man and a woman, is one of the clearest signposts we have, to point us towards ‘the fulfilment of God’s good purposes for creation: the coming together of all things in heaven and on earth in Christ’ (16:20).

I realise this leaves a thousand questions unanswered. Some other time, perhaps!

Election 2015: Christian comment from KLICE

The excellent Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE) has a new page devoted to the 2015 (general) election.

You can read all about it in their recent KLICE Comment: Beyond Pantomime Politics: KLICE pauses for thought before May 2015.

Here’s the introduction from the page itself:

KLICE is commissioning a range of thought-provoking election pieces between January and April 2015. These will provide serious theological reflections for readers as they prepare to engage with the election issues and reflect on how to vote. Our major offering is a special series of eight Ethics in Brief on the main British political parties. These won’t advise you how to vote but may help to think more critically about your political allegiance.

Make sure you sign up for KLICE Comment for email updates.

Steel Angels: the personal qualities of a priest

Magdalen Smith: Steel AngelsThe Church of England puts people forward for ordination based on nine criteria. Those criteria form the basis for this 2014 book by Magdalen Smith, who is the new Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO) for the Diocese of Chester.

Such a book could potentially be extremely dull. It could end up reading like an interminably long ‘person specification’, with essential and desirable characteristics of the successful candidate sprawled out for page after page. It could be like this or this, but only longer.

Mercifully, that is not the approach of this book. Rather than stating what the criteria are, Smith instead shows us what they look like. Vivid images, such as ‘steel angels’ (a reference to The Angel of the North) are combined with real-life anecdotes to give us an attractive portrait of the kind of person the criteria are intended to select. As such, I found the book had the effect of opening up possibilities and stimulating my imagination, rather than restricting and narrowing, as dry criteria can easily do. It makes me want to pursue ordination, rather than just giving me a huge list of reasons why I might not be suitable.

The book has the fairly standard parish priest in mind; it might not be so relevant for people serving or seeking to serve in less typical contexts.