Tim Farron, Intolerance and Classical Christian Sexual Ethics

It has been interesting to follow reactions to Tim Farron’s resignation while reading Rod Dreher’s best-selling book The Benedict Option, which was reviewed last week by Rowan Williams in the New Statesman. Like Williams I have some problems with Dreher’s diagnosis and prescription, and with his occasional hyperbole. Yet I was struck by Dreher’s assertion that western Christians who maintain a classical approach to biblical teaching on sex and marriage now ‘have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists.’ Similarly, a Facebook thread about Farron’s decision to which I have been contributing has been exercised by the suggestion that if even private religious espousal  of white surpremacism was once politically and culturally tolerated but then repudiated, it should not be so surprising that a similar shift from tolerance to repudiation should now be bearing on even personal religious convictions about sexuality such as Farron appears to hold – convictions that he, albeit regretfully, identified as no longer acceptable in a mainstream party leader.

Rogers Brubaker, Professor of Sociology at UCLA, has written illuminatingly about sex/gender/race intersectionalities in his recent book Trans, which uses the notorious 2015 Rachel Dolezal case as a starting-point for exploring such issues. Typically, classical Christians today distinguish between race and sexual expression by saying that the former is innate, unwilled and thus beyond legitimate ethical sanctioning of one or other of its plural forms, whereas the latter is ‘chosen’ and so more patient of legitimate contention about which varieties of it might be preferred. Yet as Brubaker points out, the Dolezal case raises the uncomfortable question of whether race might be ‘performed’ in the same or similar senses in which Judith Butler and other Third Wave feminist and Queer Theory writers propose that something at least as apparently innate as sexuality is ‘performed’. In short: if someone defined at birth as biologically male chooses subsequently to ‘identify as’ female, what is the problem with Rachel Dolezal’s ‘identifying as black’ even though she was born white? Cultural appropriation, perhaps? Maybe, but if so, a whole host of Second Wave feminists from Ti-Grace Anderson, Katie Sarachild, Sheila Jeffreys and Michele Wallace to Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel have construed the rise of male-female transgenderism as a cultural appropriation of femaleness – of women defined innately or biologically as women. To be clear: present-day ‘culture-wars’ are hardly confined to the religious-secular interface; they proliferate  at least as intensely between different versions of secularism, and, of course, between different religious and theological constituencies.

The point of all this is to suggest that we might be moving to a civic ethics and a jurisprudence determined far more by the delimitation of which identity choices are deemed acceptable by the greatest number than by what people might be deemed to be in and of themselves – a more voluntaristic public epistemology which will inevitably be defined by present-day majority ethical opinion or moral consensus than by traditional or historic mores construed to one degree or another foundationally or deontologically. In this landscape, the key question becomes one of tolerance for those who take a minority view distinct from the consensus, and more specifically of which particular minority views are to be publicly tolerated and which publicly repudiated. For Alasdair MacIntyre’s ‘Whose Justice? Which Rationality’ read ‘Whose Tolerance? Which Equality and Diversity?’

As it stands, western society is evidently unwilling to accept a white-born woman like Dolezal identifying/choosing to present herself as black, yet it is moving towards allowing those born as male in sex to identify as female and vice versa regardless of surgical reassignment, and to change their birth certificates accordingly. With respect to a longer-established legally-protected characteristic – age – the same western society might tolerate movie stars and others ‘identifying as’ five years younger than their birth age, but it is not yet willing to allow such identifications to be retro-fitted into legal certifications of birth or age. As Brubaker shows, the criteria by which these different modes of self-identification are defined as legitimate are far from straightforward or philosophically consistent. Race, after all, is far less biologically or genetically based than sex, yet Dolezal’s attempts at ‘trans-racial’ self-identification were massively repudiated. At best, it does indeed seem that sheer public opinion will increasingly hold sway where such matters are concerned. If this is the case, the position of what Thomas Oden calls classical Christians in contemporary western society looks as if it will become increasingly marginalised, not least because the very proportion of such Christians in that society as a whole is diminishing. In this respect, the most significant sense in which Farron’s resignation might be a ‘watershed’ moment is the sense in which it signals that classical Christians in Britain might no longer have the sheer numbers on the ground even to claim ‘protected minority’ status for their views on sexual ethics in a social and political culture that has decided, for all its championing of tolerance in general, to stop tolerating their particular position.

While I myself profoundly disagree with the equating of classical Christian sexual ethics with racism, in practical socio-cultural and political terms, Dreher is basically right to observe that the two are being elided, or, perhaps, in the Farron episode, have already been elided. Farron would surely not have resigned had he not felt that this – or something close to this – had become the case. The irony, of course, is that as a self-described ‘liberal to his fingertips’ Farron had pretty much consistently upheld LBGT rights in his public role as a legislator and party leader. Yet whereas in the historic Lockean, Millian or Berlinian construal of liberalism the quid pro quo for this would have been public toleration of his personal religious convictions on sexual ethics, it is now clear that this quid pro quo is no longer in play. Of course, in the face of such countervailing cultural and political pressure one might adjust one’s outlook in a more consensual direction, as theological liberals and self-professed ‘affirming evangelicals’ have typically done on this issue of sexuality, as on other issues. But for classical Christians – those mainline Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants and Pentecostals worldwide who in Tom Oden’s definition set relatively more store by Scripture and tradition than by philosophically-construed reason and contemporary experience or cultural norms – this accommodationist approach is fraught with problems.

In 1846, a large chunk of the American grouping at the inaugural conference of the Evangelical Alliance walked out when British representatives moved that slave-holders be barred from membership. Those Americans seceded on the grounds that the Alliance, as a plural and diverse body, should ‘tolerate’ different viewpoints on this matter. The Alliance as it stood disagreed that tolerance should extend that far, although subsequently a compromise was brokered which devolved the intended global body into semi-autonomous continental associations – a move that allowed the Americans to admit slave-holders until Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War resolved matters on the wider national stage two decades later. With hindsight, of course, we regard those American evangelical seceders as deeply misguided and wrong. And for the 30 years or so that I have been engaged in theological debates about sexuality, I have consistently said that my own classical Christian position on it might be proved wrong in due course, not principally because the state declares it unacceptable – although as with Lincoln God can speak prophetically through the state to the church – but because a biblical-hermeneutical key emerges that compels me and other such classical Christians to change our view in this area. After all, we see but through a glass, darkly. Until and unless that hermeneutical key emerges, however, the Tim Farron case suggests that we might well be increasingly stifled in the public square, marginalised from mainline politics and, in time, perhaps, legally sanctioned for speaking, writing and even privately thinking as we do. In that case, Dreher’s Benedict Option – in many ways a popularisation of the option MacIntyre envisaged 30 years ago in his ever-more prescient study After Virtue – might become the only realistic option. I hope not, since that’s not my own theological or missiological vision for Christianity today. Even so, St Benedict acted contingently in response to a social and political crisis for the church of his time, and there may indeed be lessons that we can learn from the example he set.

David Hilborn

16th June 2017

Gender Fluidity, Chronological Snobbery and Grace


Revd Dr David Hilborn, Principal, St John’s School of Mission, Nottingham and Chair of the Evangelical Alliance Theological Advisory Group

Paper presented at the ‘New Directions in Sexualities and Christianity’ forum, convened by Chester University and held at Chester Cathedral, Saturday 11th February 2017

Fellow speakers: Dr Adrian Thatcher, Revd Dr Mark Vasey-Saunders, Dr Susannah Cornwall

This is the full text prepared for the Forum, a slightly shorter version of which was delivered live due to constraints of time

Thank you, Chester University and thank you to the Cathedral for this opportunity to dialogue with Adrian, Mark and Susannah, and to engage with all of you on this highly contentious but crucial topic. I’m sure there’ll be some robust debate, but my prayer is that we’ll listen to and learn from each other as we seek God’s truth together. In fact, it’s very much in that spirit that I want to start with some critical reflections on the title of this Forum, and on the rubric that was sent to me and the other speakers for today. Having done that, I’ll more specifically address three key dimensions of Christian approaches to sexuality and gender, which reflect the ‘three publics’ for theology identified by the American scholar David Tracy. Tracy defines those dimensions as society, the academy, and the church, but here I’ll present them as the socio-cultural dimension, the hermeneutical dimension, and the ecclesial dimension.

So, as for our title and speaker rubrics: we’ve been asked to explore ‘New Directions in Sexualities and Christianity’, and in relation to that we’ve been guided to ‘look into the future’ and ‘anticipate and speculate on what developments in gender and sexuality there may be (taking a cue from the present trends towards gender fluidity), and how those might influence and affect Church thinking, theology and biblical interpretation.’ More specifically we’ve been asked to consider how far the Genesis creation ordinance ‘male and female he created them’ might be ‘challenged by developments in understandings of gender and sexuality’.

At first blush this seems a fairly neutral brief. But on closer inspection I do want to challenge one potential inference from its emphasis on ‘new directions’ and ‘developments in understanding’, and from its questioning of whether the ‘binary’ reading of sexuality in the early chapters of Genesis might play ‘any role in future discussions on sexuality’ (my emphasis). There seems to me to be a slight whiff here of what might be called a ‘Whig Interpretation’ of sexual mores, and of the theology of sexuality and gender that might flow from it. Another way of expressing this would be through C.S Lewis’ telling phrase ‘chronological snobbery’. Herbert Butterfield famously cast the ‘Whig Interpretation’ of history as a tendency to view it as a tussle between between ‘progressives’ and ‘reactionaries’, in which the progressives – the Whigs or latterly the liberals – inevitably prevail, and so advance society to a supposedly higher state of enlightenment and moral refinement. Like Butterfield, Lewis was sceptical of this approach, and ‘chronological snobbery’ described for him ‘the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age, and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited’. Lewis added that in place of this false assumption, it was vital also to regard our own present age as a particular “era” or “period” – one that, like all ages, has ‘its own particular illusions’.

I sound these notes of caution not least with regard to the first main aspect of sexuality and gender I want to explore – namely the social-cultural aspect. No doubt, statistics suggest that in Britain and the West at least, we’re on a pretty steep trajectory of growing sexual permissiveness and diversity, and of increasing acceptance of gender plurality and fluidity. When I edited the Evangelical Alliance report Faith, Hope and Homosexuality in 1998, more than two-thirds of men and more than half of women in Britain thought homosexual practice to be essentially wrong. In 2013, a Pew Research Centre survey showed 76% of Britons affirming that homosexuality should be accepted by society, and just 18% stating that it shouldn’t. What’s more, the legal landscape has shifted in line with these fast-changing public attitudes. As Adrian notes in his Introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality and Gender, in most First World countries ‘a single generation has known homosexual intimacy to be a criminal offence; then it has seen it partially decriminalized and tolerated; then in some countries [like Britain in 2001] the age of consent was reduced to 16; then discrimination against any person on the ground of sexual orientation became a crime; then civil partnerships and finally marriage for couples of the same sex has been or is being introduced.’ The pace and direction of change has, indeed, been quite staggering.

Longitudinal studies of social attitudes to bisexual and transgender people are rarer, but what evidence there is points to a kindred liberalisation of attitudes in the west, albeit from a lower base and at a slower speed. Legislatively, here in the UK moves towards gender self-definition – in particular, last summer’s announcement by the government that it would grant new passports to transgender people without medical evidence of permanent change – have again reflected rapidly liberalising public opinion on sexuality and gender.

Now in Christian terms it might seem that such growing socio-cultural permissiveness presents a strongly concerted and ever-more pressing challenge to traditional church teaching – the teaching which holds, in the words of the Evangelical Alliance’s more recent report, Biblical and Pastoral Responses to Homosexuality (2012), that marriage, defined as an ‘exclusive relationship for life’ between ‘one man and one woman’ is the ‘only form of partnership approved by God for sexual relations today, and that all other forms of sexual relationship are ‘incompatible with his will as revealed in Scripture’. For all its acknowledgement of differing approaches to gay and lesbian partnerships within the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion, and for all its desire for a ‘fresh tone and culture’ in the debate, this is the same positon as has been reaffirmed in the new House of Bishops’ report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships. Despite the three years of ‘shared conversations’ following the Pilling Report of 2013, this new document records ‘little support’ among the bishops ‘for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage as expressed in Canon B.30’ – that is, the teaching that ‘marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them so part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side’, defined as such by its generic procreative potential.

Clearly, in England and the UK in 2017, such reassertions of traditional teaching on sex and marriage become increasingly counter-cultural. Whereas the so-called ‘Higton Motion’ at General Synod in November 1987 and the landmark Bishops’ Report issues in Human Sexuality in 1991 disavowed ‘homosexual genital acts’ and same-sex partnerships against a background of majority social disapproval of these phenomena, as we’ve seen the traditional view is now not just increasingly a minority view within society at large; it’s come to be seen as increasingly outmoded, unacceptable, and prejudicial. That, of course, raises acute questions for the Church’s ministry and mission in 21st Century Western society – questions which I shall address shortly.

In our brief, it was suggested that the speakers here today might think ‘5, 15 and 50 years ahead’ as part of our assessment of new directions in sexualities and Christianity. For my part, as things stand it’s hard to see anything other than a growing general liberalisation of social attitudes and law-making with respect to LGBTQI people over the next 5 to 15 years. Over the next 50 years, however, I would not want to be so sure. And this, more particularly, is where I would reiterate my warnings about Whiggish progressivism and chronological snobbery…

It wasn’t an evangelical theologian but a lesbian second wave feminist, Camille Paglia, who proposed in her 1990 magnum opus Sexual Personae that increased sexual pluralism and gender fluidity might not necessarily bespeak inexorable cultural progress, but might instead be indicators of cultural decadence, fragmentation, and decline. Most especially, in that book and since, Paglia recounts several instances from history in which blurring of male-female sexual differentiation presages the ‘last phase’ of particular societies and civilisations – from ancient Greece and Rome through the Renaissance to late Victorian Romanticism and the end of the British empire – Oscar Wilde, Pre-Raphaelitism et al. Moreover, after that final phase there might follow a period of conservative retrenchment in the next era, as happened in the transition from pagan to Christian Rome, or from a relatively licentious late 18th century Britain to the relative public moral rectitude of the early-mid Victorian age. My point here is not to argue the finer merits and demerits of Paglia’s thesis, but to stress that it’s not only conservative Christians who question the idea that a proliferation of transgenderism and gender fluidity will ipso facto correlate to unqualified social advance.

More specifically, Paglia is just one of a prominent group of second-wave feminists like Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, who have questioned both the claim of male-female transsexuals to genuine female identity, and more acutely still, the growing provision of gender reassignment surgery to children and teenagers. This latter trend was highlighted in the recent BBC2 documentary Transgender Kids – and again, Evangelicals and Catholics were hardly the only ones to question the sexual ethics and gender-definitions implicit within it. Bindel has written that as a teenager beginning sexually to be attracted to women, she temporarily equated her feelings with wanting ‘to be a boy’. Yet, whereas she then came to a realisation that the two things need not be linked, ‘If I were a teenager today, well-meaning liberal teachers and social workers would probably tell me that I was trapped in the wrong body…And terrifyingly, I might easily be recommended for gender reassignment surgery…just because I didn’t like the pink straitjacket imposed on girls.’

The issue here is not whether transgender adults should have the ‘right’ to present as a member of the opposite sex, or undergo gender reassignment surgery if they choose to do so. We might debate how much public funding should be devoted to such surgery, but in a plural democracy in which I’m in a minority of those who think such surgery wrong on religious grounds, it’s a quid pro quo of my right to preach and practise my faith that I should acknowledge others’ freedom as adults to choose such surgery if they desire it. The more pressing concern, however, is for minors who might not be developmentally or psychologically ready for so decisive a procedure – and as I say, that’s hardly a traditionalist Christian concern. In a society that has otherwise become increasingly dedicated to the protection and safeguarding of children, it seems almost paradoxical – if not perverse – to allow the known hormonal volatilities of adolescence to be fixed so drastically in time by so invasive a medical procedure. It could be that the widespread confusion and contention around this issue is symptomatic of a wider socio-cultural malaise – one that prefers sexual self-definition and even solipsism to authentic engagement with a ‘given other’. Arguably, a similar trend can be detected in the explosion of online pornography, and the damaging effect that Spencer B. Olmstead and others have shown it having on young people’s relationships. Longer-term, advances in wearable computer technology look likely to facilitate ever-more sophisticated forms of autoeroticism that could have a similarly negative relational impact: an icon of Augustine’s image of the fallen humanity as incurvatus est – estranged from God and others and ‘turned in’ on itself. Certainly, my hope is that in 15 years’ time, such trends will have been and gone.

One of the key underlying tensions in all of this is a tension that I’ve so far named but not explained – the tension between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. This is worth unpacking, particularly in relation to feminism.

So-called First Wave Feminism developed in the nineteenth century, and assumed an essential biological difference between male and female sexes, based on what would become known in 1905 as XY and XX chromosomes. The most famous campaigners of first wave feminism were the suffragettes, who distinguished sexual difference from social and political equality, and argued vigorously for the latter. Second Wave Feminism – the feminism of Betty Friedan, Greer, Paglia and Bindel – arose in the ‘60s and maintained the concept of essential biological duality, but developed a distinct notion of ‘gender’ to define the apparently ‘natural’ but in fact socially-constructed roles assigned to men and women on the supposed basis of their sexual differentiation – roles typically accorded less status, and less financial reward. Even so, distinctions of sex as such remained crucial in this Second Wave’s lobbying for abortion rights, and against domestic violence and rape.

By contrast, Third Wave feminists like Judith Butler and Rebecca Walker question the sex/gender distinction and see sexual differences and relationships as themselves socially constructed through language and cultural performance. In that context, it’s not difficult to see how transgenderism and gender reassignment has burgeoned. If language can shape sexuality, then so can the surgeon’s knife! Yet the concern of Second Wave feminists like Paglia and Greer is that this conception might allow male-female transsexuals to appropriate women’s essential sexual identity, just as in the past they have appropriated women’s labour, bodies and motherhood for their own patriarchal ends. As Greer famously expressed it, it’s ‘not fair’ that ‘a man who has lived for 40 years as a man and had children with a woman and enjoyed the unpaid services of a wife…then decides to be a woman.’.

Notwithstanding the distinct biological complexities of intersex conditions, the widespread opprobrium heaped on Greer and Paglia on this matter suggests that gender constructionism is eclipsing gender essentialism as the dominant means through which to construe sexual identity in Western culture. In our second key dimension of hermeneutics, this is typically echoed in ‘liberal’ and ‘radical’ approaches which prioritise reason and experience in the interpretation of Scripture, as compared to Evangelical readings which emphasise its ‘plain sense’, and more Catholic approaches which regard tradition as a prime guide for biblical exposition.

As I mentioned, in our brief we were asked to focus particularly the male-female relationship as presented in the Genesis creation narratives, so I will use this as an illustration of where things have got to with biblical and theological interpretations of sexuality and gender, and of where they might be headed. I so doing, because of time-constraints I’ll focus on Paul’s use of male-female language in Romans 1, precisely because of its indebtedness to the Genesis creation stories. I’ll then trace the possible implications of ongoing differences of interpretation for the church – that is, for our third, ecclesial dimension of the debate on gender and sexuality.

In Romans 1:26-27 Paul writes of men and women ‘exchanging natural intercourse for unnatural’, and thereby bringing ‘degradation’ and ‘punishment’ upon themselves. This is in fact the third of three vital ‘exchanges’ – exchanges which precisely demonstrate a healthy and an unhealthy construal of creation. In v.23 Paul states that the wicked characteristically ‘changed (ēllaxan) the glory of the immortal God into images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles’. One thinks of the Israelites’ golden calf (Ex. 32), and clearly the Decalogue’s prohibition against ‘graven images’ looms large here (Ex. 20:4). But Paul quickly broadens his conception of idolatry to take in the First Commandment, too: ‘they exchanged (ēllaxan) the truth about God for a lie’, he says, ‘and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator’ (v.25, cf. Ex 20:1-3). Thus, Paul also casts same-sex sexual practice against the backdrop of the ‘creation ordinances’ of Genesis 1-2, with their picture of humankind made ‘male and female’ in God’s image, and of the union of male and female in ‘one flesh’ (1:27; 2:24). Granted, John Boswell notes that no full-blown system of ‘natural laws’ was institutionalised in civil society until ‘more than a millennium after Paul’s death’, but the absence of such a system doesn’t in itself denote the absence of laws in a more implicit sense, or of an outlook which might see creation order as coincident with God’s prescription for sexual relationships.

It should be clear by now that that an essentialist, creation-theological reading of male and female sexuality in Romans 1: 26-7 derives from the broad contours of Paul’s discourse, and not, as is often alleged by ‘pro-gay’ apologists like Victor Paul Furnish, from a dogmatic eisegesis of the single words ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ (phusin, phusikēn). Nor can those contours plausibly be limited to specific, context-bound practices like temple prostitution or pederasty. Granted, these words do carry other meanings in Scripture, but given the strength of Paul’s wider ‘argument from creation’, it would take a quite extreme form of special pleading to divorce ‘nature’ from his understanding of God’s eternal intent for humans (cf. v.20). Besides, the notion of homosexual practice as ‘against nature’ or para phusin, is found in several contemporary Graeco-Roman sources, and especially in that Hellenistic Jewish tradition with which Paul himself was associated.

Thus, since Romans 1 is the most thorough text on same-sex sexual relations in the biblical canon, and since after 30 years of considering whether any other texts might endorse such relations I have been unable to find them, it seems unlikely that I or most of the 1 billion or so evangelicals and Pentecostals around the world who take a similar view would find a ‘hermeneutical key’ that leads them to a contrary conclusion – whether 5, 15 or 50 years hence. Unlikely…but not impossible. Indeed, it’s important that all of us in this wrenching debate are prepared to say, ‘we see but “through a glass, darkly”; and we might have got it wrong.’ Or as Paul puts it in Romans 2:1: ‘You have no excuse, whoever you are, when you pass judgement others, for in passing judgment on another you pass judgement on yourself.’

This last principle, I’d suggest, should inform the final dimension of our take on gender and sexuality here – the ecclesial dimension. While we must surely keep striving for mutual comprehension in forums like this, we might at the same time need to accommodate what Jean Francois Lyotard calls an ‘incommensurability of judgements’. In other words, we might ultimately have to concede that rapprochement on sexuality and gender issues within the church is impossible this side of glory, and that the kind of union that still pertains – albeit precariously – in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion is no longer workable. Whether that means an extension of alternative episcopal oversight, the creation of non-geographical provinces, or a straight division of the communion – and even of the CofE – along confessional lines, I cannot say. What I can say for myself is that I have no desire for separation, and would not leave unless the current position of the CofE changed substantively from that articulated in the House of Bishops’ report. Even then, I might well need to be told by others the leave rather than leaving of my own volition.

In any case, I’d want to say that it’s essential to balance biblical sexual morality with biblical grace. I’d want to say that doctrinal truth on its own can be presented as occupied more with the letter than the spirit of the law. I’d want to say that the heart of the gospel is that truth finds its fulfilment in God’s offer of repentance, forgiveness and new life to people of all backgrounds and situations. And I’d want to say that such truth is not compromised when compassion and respect are shown to an individual; nor that such responses are a seal of approval on wrong behaviour. I’d want to say instead that they are a sign of God’s love. That is an observation not just for 5 years, or 15, or 50, but for all time, and for everywhere.

David Hilborn

The Jew Who Got the Blues: Bob Dylan and ‘Blind Willie McTell’

The Jew Who Got the Blues: Bob Dylan and ‘Blind Willie McTell’

David Hilborn

This text is from a talk originally delivered at the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity in 2007

In Nick Hornby’s novel How to Be Good, there’s a cute take on Bob Dylan. The narrator, Katie, is married to a jaded, middle-aged cultural snob called David. David loves nothing better than to slay sacred cows and assert rigid critical preferences. So in David’s view the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh and – yes – William Shakespeare are ‘talentless’ or ‘overrated’. And the only people in world history who are any good are Graham Greene, Quentin Tarrantino, Tony Hancock and – you guessed it – Bob Dylan.

Well, by contrast I love the Stones, the Beatles and Shakespeare. But I am a bloke, I am middle-aged, I am called David, and I do often insist that Dylan is one of the few true geniuses in popular music. So maybe Hornby’s onto something.

Still, I like to think that it’s more relevant to my love of Dylan that I do theology for a living…

From the outset, Dylan’s work has displayed a rich biblical consciousness. Throughout his long career, he has taken the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as a key poetic and philosophical reference-point. Their colours and cadences, their textures and timbres, run right through his vast canon of song.

As he hit superstardom in the Sixties, this biblical strain in Dylan’s output was often eclipsed by his image as the poet of the counter-culture: the bard of youthful rebellion. Just as he attacked government and the military, so, it was widely assumed, he was anti-religion, too.

But the truth was more complicated than that.

For one thing, Bob Dylan is a Jew. For another, he’s a Jew who got the blues…

Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Minnesota, in 1941. At school he showed a strong aptitude for poetry. But he also studied Hebrew. In preparation for his Bar-Mitzvah in 1954, he took Bible lessons from an old Brooklyn rabbi. Later, poetry vied for his attention with early rock n’ roll and the films of James Dean. But his outlook was changed forever when an uncle gave him a batch of records by the legendary Louisiana blues singer, Lead Belly.

In Lead Belly the young Zimmerman heard the pain and yearning of the African American experience, reaching back to the slave ships and the cotton fields, and on into the terrible segregation that still blighted the US at the time. As he explored the blues further, he began to draw other associations. He realised that blues had been the foundation for jazz and rock n’ roll. But he saw, too, that it had itself developed from the ‘spirituals’ sung by slaves as they worked the fields of the Deep South.

And as a well-schooled Bible student, he must have noticed how often the motif of the Exodus and the Passover had suffused the music of the plantations: ‘Go Down Moses’; ‘Let My People Go’; ‘Pharaoh’s Army Got Drowned’. Indeed, once he started performing as ‘Bob Dylan’ in deference to his poet-hero Dylan Thomas, his own early repertoire would feature the Exodus-themed classic ‘Wade in the Water’.

From his debut LP in 1962 right through to his most recent albums, the blues have vitally underpinned Dylan’s work. Not only has he covered a number of blues standards straight: he has adapted, reworked and refreshed the blues, melding them with folk, rock, surrealism, satire and burlesque, to forge his own unique style. Yet he never forgets the blues singers who inspired him: not only Lead Belly but also Robert Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sonny Boy Williamson and others. And it’s one of those other blues heroes who forms the focus for Dylan’s greatest single track since the Sixties – maybe even including the Sixties. The track dates from 1983. It’s called ‘Blind Willie McTell’.

Blind Willie McTell himself was from Georgia. Like several blues singers, he really was blind. But his voice was not rough and raw like many of his fellow Delta bluesmen. In fact, it was smooth and light, almost feminine. Yet on tracks like Statesboro Blues and Dyin’ Crapshooter Blues, he was a match for any. Dylan’s song expresses a profound affinity with a great bluesman. Yet as it does so, it bewails Dylan’s own inability to match McTell’s pathos and poise. As the refrain puts it: ‘I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell’.

The melody of the song is adapted from the old blues standard ‘St James Infirmary’. Dylan refers to this source in the last verse, when he sings, ‘I’m gazing out the window of the St James Hotel.’  St James Infirmary was a hospital in New Orleans, and the original song takes it as an ominous symbol of death and loss: ‘I’m goin’ down to St James Infirmary/See my baby there;/She’s stretched out on a long, white table,/She’s so sweet, so cold, so fair.’ Sad to say, that song came into its own again for New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

St James Infirmary was later converted into a hotel; and it’s there that we find Dylan as narrator, taking in the history of the South. And what a lot there is to take in…

Famously, Dylan’s biblical sensibility found its most explicit expression when he embraced evangelical Christian faith in 1979, and embarked on a series of unashamedly proselytising albums and tours over the next three years. At the time many of his more secular fans saw this as a gross betrayal, just as many folkies had cheered when he was branded ‘Judas’ for turning electric in 1965-6. Yet in retrospect, the whole ‘gospel’ period can be seen as a radical extension of that Scriptural mind-set which Dylan had always brought to his music.

By 1983, the evangelical fervour was less evident, but the biblical worldview was still very much there – not least in ‘Blind Willie McTell’.

In keeping with the gospel roots of the blues, the song starts with the Exodus and the Passover:

Seen the arrow on the doorpost

Saying, “This land is condemned…”

In Exodus 12 God instructs the Israelites to daub their doorposts with lamb’s blood so that the angel of death will ‘pass over’ their first-born in the slaughter to come. The mark to be made there is not an arrow, but Dylan’s arrow evokes time’s arrow – the line which points from birth to death, and so again recalls St James Infirmary, New Orleans and the birth of the Blues.

Israel might have escaped death in Egypt, but even in the Promised Land – even once settled in Jerusalem – she would find herself attacked and exiled time and again by this empire and that.

Just as Jerusalem was ‘condemned’ by various imperial invaders who enslaved and exiled the Jews, so the American South is ‘condemned’ by its exiling and enslaving of Africans. Likewise, just as many Jews were martyred for their faith, so many slaves died as ‘martyrs’ at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, based as it was in the ‘East Texas’ cited by Dylan.

Through all this, Dylan establishes a powerful link between his own family heritage as a Jew, and his adopted musical heritage in the blues. Both, he says, are grounded in suffering; and in both, this suffering produces great poetry – great psalms and laments. He knows all too well that he can only live the blues indirectly, vicariously, as white man born into an émigré Jewish family in a suburban mid-west town. He will never sing like Blind Willie McTell because he can’t ever have lived McTell’s life. Yet Dylan conveys the mood and history of the blues – the sights, sounds, touch, taste and smell of the South – so well that he matches the intensity of the greatest blues songs, despite his self-deprecation:

Well I heard the hoot owl singing

As they were taking down the tents…

See them big plantations burning

Hear the cracking of the whips

Smell that sweet magnolia blooming

See the ghosts of slavery ships…


I can hear them tribes a-moaning

Hear the undertaker’s bell

But nobody can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell.

As Michael Gray has noted, the cinematic frames and panoramas of Dylan’s vision here recall Gone with the Wind. You can all but smell the plantations burning, feel the whips cracking in the air, shudder at the undertaker’s bell. Meanwhile, the tents which were the Israelites’ home in the wilderness of Sinai link to the tents of the circuses and travelling shows in which black people lived with their own hangover of enslavement: as itinerant ‘gypsy maidens’ and feathered dancers, trussed up for the delectation of their white paymasters.

In the final verse of the song, these dark scenarios are traced back to their common root – back to the source of the deathliness they exude. Back, that is, to sin. In his magnificent study Dylan’s Visions of Sin Professor Christopher Ricks nails what so many secular liberal analyses have missed: that at heart, Dylan’s work is concerned with the most basic biblical themes of fall and redemption, judgement and salvation, eternal condemnation and eternal life. Those who prefer to cast Dylan as a paragon of existentialism or an icon of self-expression tend to get squeamish about this. But it looms massively in his work, and never more so than here:

Well, God is in his heaven

And we all want what’s his

But power and greed and corruptible seed

Seems to be all that there is

I’m gazing out the window

Of the St James Hotel

And I know no one can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell.


Here, Dylan looks sideways at the famously naïve exclamation of Robert Browning’s poem Pippa Passes: ‘God is in his heaven / All’s right with the world!’ Browning’s outlook does become more wizened as the poem develops, but Dylan insists that even youthful optimism like this needs a reality check. And turning again to his Bible he finds it in 1 Peter 1:23, which speaks of the ‘corruptible seed’ of the sin which leads to death.

Clearly, this seed was rampant in slavery, and in the oppression of African Americans which was maintained in segregation, and which continues today in more subtle forms of racism. Yet since death comes to us all, rich and poor alike, and since ‘all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory’, this last verse pushes the horizon of the song beyond Israel and the Deep South, towards a thoroughly universal vista. The whole world is corrupted – not just obvious villains like Pharaoh and slave owners. As in the days of Babel, ‘we all want what’s God’s’: we all seek to grab what belongs to God alone, even as in our better nature we all seek to honour him through humble ‘godliness’.

Dylan recognises the dreadful ambiguity of all this – yet in the final reckoning, he doesn’t despair. ‘Power and greed and corruptible seed’ are pervasive, but they are not everything: they only seem to be ‘all that there is’. 1 Peter 1:23 is stark in its depiction of sin, yet the early Christians to whom it is written are reminded by Peter that they have been ‘born again…of incorruptible seed, by the Word of God, which lives and abides forever.’ In the midst of darkness, there is light; in the midst of death, life; from the agony of suffering, redemption; out of crucifixion, resurrection.

Dylan understands that authentic biblical faith has no room for cheap grace – for skirting round sacrifice to quick-fix bliss. Exodus and the Psalms taught him that as a boy; the blues reinforced it as a young man; and Christianity confirmed it as he entered mid-life. ‘Blind Willie McTell’ fuses these sources and distils this essential theme.

I guess you could call ‘Blind Willie McTell’ a postmodern Blues song, inasmuch as it’s a song about singing, or rather not being able to sing authentically – a meditation on the aching space between Dylan’s allusive, magpie song craft and the simpler, more ingenuous art of the Delta bluesmen, and of McTell in particular.

Yet unlike most postmodern art this song miraculously breaks the shackles of allusion to become utterly present to itself, because totally present to Dylan’s self. By its end, Dylan realises not only that he can’t sing like McTell, but that he shouldn’t even try.

But he can attempt to find his own true voice through the medium of the blues. For while the blues will forever belong to a particular race and ‘tribe’ of persecuted people, they are too evocative, too intensely human to be hoarded by their custodians. Rather, they are those custodians’ gift to the world. And Dylan, part of another persecuted race and tribe whose heritage became a gift to the nations, appreciates that he can at least graft himself into the blues, and produce his own variety, his own hybrid stock.

For the wonderful irony of this great track is that in lamenting his inability to capture the essence of the blues, Dylan delivers a stunning blues song all the same. Out of his struggle and sense of inadequacy flows something so empathetic, so fundamental to what it means to be alive, that we are transported from the depths to the heights, from the dark valley to the mountain-top.

This is Bob Dylan at his best, and there are few things better.


David Hilborn

On Switching to a Mac – Some Random Reflections

For the past three weeks I’ve gradually, painstakingly, sometimes exasperatedly converted from using a PC to using a Mac as my work computer. I know, I know – First World Problems and all that. Anyway, I started off gently, deploying my MacBook Pro purely for domestic tasks like listening to music, posting contributions to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, sorting out family photos etc. But then, before term began, I made the really Big Switch – adopting the Mac as my professional workhorse – and in an IT context reliant on a Windows server and overwhelmingly defined by PCs rather than Macs. Sure, a few colleagues have been devoted Mac users for a while, but brilliant though they all are, they tend to be part-timers and less dependent on continual access to the server, printers, etc. For me as Principal to cross over into the Jobs-Ive-Cook domain felt like laying down something of a marker, and I must admit that I was apprehensive. I had been happily using an i-Phone and an i-Pad for a number of years, but I didn’t generally write academic papers, sermons and reports on them; they were useful for keeping my Inbox under control, but my PC laptop bore the brunt of my emailing activity, stored the default archive of my files, and functioned as my main tool for online research.

So how has the conversion gone? Well, it certainly wasn’t an overnight phenomenon, but three weeks in I reckon I’m just about ready to echo the Apple fan’s slogan of choice and say that having switched to a Mac, I’ll (very probably) never go back. I’m enough of an aesthete to cherish the sleek, clean lines of the MacBook’s design as a key element of its appeal. The sound from the integral speakers is phenomenal. On screen, most of the programmes I use on the Mac beat their PC counterparts for look and feel – although it took me an inordinate amount of time to work out the right Display settings to view everything clearly on the external screen that is essential to avoid a permanently cricked neck. Given that our whole administrative set-up is based on the Office suite, and that I’ve been working with the PC version of Office myself for years, it’s been helpful to have MacOffice available to smooth the transition – I never could get on with Pages or Keynote on the i-Pad, and they’re no better on the MacBook as far as I’m concerned. Even so, I have to say that some key features of Office don’t translate from the PC to its Mac variant very well: attaching files to calendar entries is annoyingly complex and roundabout, for instance, as is saving emails as .eml or msg. files. PDF attachments have to be ‘exported’ for some reason rather than simply saved. Why? You can change the font size of email messages in Outlook on the Mac, but not, apparently, of email sub-folders or preview panes.

If I had been a ‘cradle’ Mac user like my two children, I’m sure every routine operation – every click and keystroke – would have seemed entirely natural. But as a convert it has often seemed like I have entered a foreign country with a very different language, culture and semiotic system, with all the initial disorientation that entails. Windows are cancelled, minimized or expanded from the top left rather than the top right. Yet Desktop icons are right-aligned rather than left-aligned. In the West we read from the left, so that seems weird. The lack of a delete key on the MacBook itself (though not on the external keyboard I use with it in the office) is just plain crackers. Remembering when to use the ‘cmd’ as opposed to the ‘alt’ and ‘ctrl’ keys can be tricky when the PC deploys only ‘ctrl’ and alt’. In coming to terms with all of this, my IT Manager, Martin, has been absolutely fantastic. He is a Windows/PC genius and has not had a lot of interaction with Macs, but he has been game for walking this ‘road less travelled’ from PC to Mac with me, using all his transferable professional skills to look ‘under the hood’ of this new vehicle while I try to steer it in a straight line.

In short, the familiar claim of Mac devotees that their chosen kit ‘just works’ might make good sense if you started with a Mac, have always stuck with a Mac, and have consistently looked upon PCs as alien beasts to be mocked as lumbering inferiors destined always to lag behind the Cupertino-defined curve, the Jobs-determined embodiment of computing cool. But if you are forcing yourself, as I am, to launch out from ‘PC World’ and relocate to ‘Planet Mac’, be warned: the journey might take a while and even after you land there might well be a good deal of acclimatization, settlement and adaptation to undergo before you are truly indigenized. But will it have been worth it? Three weeks into the process, I am pretty certain I can now say Yes – Yes, it will have been worth it.

Bearing Witness to the Resurrection

Sermon Preached at Saint Paul’s Lorrimore Square, Walworth, London. Easter Day, 27th March 2016

1 Corinthians 15:9-26
John 20: 1-18

2016-03-27 11.24.202016-03-27 11.24.53

The Risen Christ in Glory. Freda Skinner, 1960. Lime wood. St Paul’s, Lorrimore Square, London.

On a good day you could say that women are more equal now than ever before. In the past few decades we’ve had an Equal Pay Act, statutory maternity leave, a female prime minister. And maybe later this year there’ll be a woman as president of the United States – maybe. Also, of course, in our own Church of England we’ve seen first women priests, and more recently women Bishops. And you’re now blessed here at St Paul’s to have a woman as Priest-in-Charge. That wouldn’t have been possible 25 years ago…

But then, just when you think the whole equality thing is going pretty well, along comes a guy like Raymond Moore to remind you that there’s still a fair bit of old-fashioned sexism out there. Raymond Moore is the former director of the Indian Wells tennis tournament, who last week suggested that female tennis players should be paid less than men. Never mind that women in major tournaments have been paid equally for a number of years: Mr. Moore wanted to set the clock back, and shift women once again to the side-lines.

Well, Raymond Moore did actually resign for making those comments, but 2000 years ago – or even 60 years ago – his attitude would have passed for normal. Back in first century Palestine especially – when Jesus walked the earth – the place of women was very different from what it is in the West today. There was no prospect of their leading a country, or working on a par with men; no chance that they would be a priest in the temple or a Rabbi in the synagogue. In fact, the religious culture of the time meant that their testimony in a court of law was worth far less than a man’s – and a famous Rabbi’s daily prayer gave thanks to God that he was not born a woman. Women got less inheritance, less education, less opportunity all round back then.

So it’s pretty amazing – pretty staggering -that the first witness to the greatest event in human history -the resurrection of Jesus from the dead – should be a woman. As our Gospel reading from John 20 makes clear, it was Mary Magdalene who came earliest to the tomb of Jesus that first Easter morning; Mary Magdalene who first saw the stone rolled away; Mary Magdalene who ran and told Peter and John about it; Mary Magdalene who first laid eyes on the risen Jesus, and Mary Magdalene who then announced to the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” It really is quite astonishing.

This is the Mary Magdalene who’d had seven devils cast out of her (Luke 8:2). Not only was she a woman; she’d been a demoniac, too.Talk about a recipe for marginalisation in the ancient world. And yet Mary was chosen by God to be the prime witness to the start of a whole new future – a whole new world.

The resurrection is the greatest of all miracles, but it’s something of a miracle in itself that Mary should be chosen for this crucial role. At a time when society devalued her witness, God called her to bear witness first that Christ is risen – that he is risen indeed. Alleluia!

But now let’s fast forward a bit – to 1960…

By 1960, gender discrimination might not have been as great as it was in Jesus’ day, but it was still pretty rife. For instance, it was very unusual then for a woman to make a career in the field of sculpture; and even rarer still for a woman to become director of sculpture in an art school. Yet Freda Skinner was no ordinary woman. At the age of seven she began modelling in clay, and by the time she was 11 she knew that sculpture would be her life’s vocation. By 17 she’d gained a place at the Royal College of Art, where she studied under the famous male sculptors Henry Moore and Alan Durst. After the Second World War she stood out in a male-dominated art scene to be appointed Head of Sculpture at the Wimbledon School of Art. As well as being a great teacher, Freda flourished in her own sculpting – winning a number of prestigious commissions, including a war memorial in Battersea parish church and a Virgin and Child at St Elphege, Wallington. But as many of you know, perhaps her greatest commission was the magnificent lime wood carving towering above us here now: her ‘Risen Christ in Glory’, which she completed and installed in this chancel in 1960.

In their different ways, then, both Mary Magdalene and Freda Skinner bore witness to the resurrection. Both understood its massive, cosmic significance; its eternal power; its importance for anyone who’s ever wondered what God is like, what life means, and whether hope might lie beyond the grave.

In verse 2 of John 20 Mary dashes off to Peter and John, unable to contain her shock and mounting agitation that something awful – or maybe something awesome – has happened around that rolled-away stone. In verse 13 she weeps because she doesn’t know what it might all mean. Yet in verse 18, having met and eventually recognized her resurrected Lord, she proclaims the best of all the good news that Jesus brings. Death is defeated! Evil is conquered! Sin really is forgiven! And eternal life truly is available to those who trust and believe in Christ.

It would take a while for Mary to process all of this, but 30 years or so later St Paul would sum it up eloquently, in our Epistle for this morning from 1 Corinthians 15. Jesus’s resurrection that first Easter dawn was the foretaste of a new creation, the guarantee of salvation, the ground of our future hope of communion with God for ever. And then, 19 centuries after Mary and Paul, Freda Skinner brilliantly captured all of that excitement and wonder and promise and grace in this extraordinary carving – this extraordinary witness to the risen Jesus.

In verse 17 of our gospel reading, Jesus tells Mary, ‘“Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’.”’ At this point, just after his resurrection, Jesus is between earth and heaven. Rising from the dead is staggering enough, but for Jesus it’s a step on the way back to his beloved Father, to a place of glory, to a rule and a reign or over the whole universe that means fear and hatred, discrimination and terror, evil and injustice, will never have the last word. A glorious Lordship which means that however dreadful, outrages like the one we saw in Brussels this week will not win the day, will not extinguish the light of life, and hope, and truth. Alleluia!

Freda Skinner’s great work here above us understands all this very well. It’s called ‘The Risen Christ in Glory’ because it recognizes that even in the dawn of his rising, Jesus was on his way back to the Father, and to the realm of the Father; that he was preparing for his ascension 40 days later; that he was, indeed, between earth and heaven – straddling the two, linking the two, and pointing to an eternity which John would go on to define as ‘a new heaven and new earth’.

So in the sculpture you’ll notice that Jesus is looking upwards, towards the place he will occupy at God’s right hand, from where he will direct the nations – readying himself to judge and to bless them at the end of the age. He’s wearing a crown to denote his authority as King of kings and Lord of lords. Yet even as he looks above and looks ahead to his glorious reign, there are reminders that he lived and died as a man on earth – as Jesus of Nazareth, fully human and fully embodied. Tempted in every way as we are, except for sin. Moved by suffering. Acquainted with grief. Wracked with pain in Gethsemane and on Calvary. Echoing the Psalmist’s cry on the point of death: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And notice that the crown is sharply pointed – a subtle reference back, perhaps, to the crown of thorns forced onto his head as he was mocked and humiliated prior to his execution. Notice, too, that the shadows of his nailed wrists and feet are still there on the cross behind him: reminders that he really did suffer, really did die. And see how while he’s focused on ‘things above’, he still has a clearly human body – a recognisable physical form. How he’s still ‘one of us’, still representing our humanity to God and God to our humanity. He’s not a ghost here; not a phantom. He remains Jesus, son of his mother Mary, while also glorified as Son of God.

Sure, the body Jesus has after his resurrection is transformed. Sure, this other Mary – Mary Magdalene – doesn’t recognise him at first because the divine Spirit that conceived him and that animates him has become so much more apparent, so much more overwhelming, since he’s conquered the tomb. But she does come to recognise him, and when she does it’s with the decidedly human name of Rabbouni – teacher.

So the risen Jesus still identifies with us here and now – still embodies God’s love for us as we are, today. Yet as he said to Mary, and as Freda Skinner’s sculpture testifies so powerfully, he’s also pointing us towards a greater future – a renewed and restored world in which death and mourning and crying will be no more – inviting us to a great banquet in which the last will be first and the first last. A banquet in which all – male and female, slave and free, Jew and Gentile – will truly be one in him if they put their faith and hope in him.

In a few moments we will look forward to that great banquet of love as we share in our Easter Day Holy Communion. But as we eat broken bread and drink wine outpoured, we will also remember his sacrifice for us in death, just as Freda Skinner’s ‘Risen Christ in Glory’ reminds us of his pierced hands and feet, even as he ascends to his Father and our Father, to rule in majesty forever.

And as we share in Communion, like Mary Magdalene, like Peter and John and Paul, and like Freda Skinner in her wonderful wood carving, we are also called to witness. To tell the good news that Jesus is risen for us, for others, and for the world.

So as you receive from this table, can I encourage you to pray. Pray for faith, both individually as a church, to make Jesus’ risen life real for this parish, and this community, in your words and in your deeds. To make the great message of our Gospel and Epistle, the message of this sculpture, your message: that Christ has died and Christ is risen; that Christ is reigning in glory and will come again in glory. And that because he is risen and reigning in glory there is hope for our hurting world. Alleluia!

David Hilborn

The Beatles and the Church









I’ve just spent a marvellously absorbing day in Liverpool, on a Beatles tour of post-doctoral erudition led by man called Ricky, whose forensic knowledge of the Fab Four makes my 40-year dedication to them look decidedly amateur. There was so much to ponder, but one thing hit home particularly, and that was the extent to which church featured in their early development. 

As an avid reader of books and articles on the Beatles I knew that Paul first met John at St Peter’s, Woolton church hall in July 1957, the same weekend that John’s skiffle band played outdoors at the same church’s annual fete. I knew that John had attended Sunday school, and that Eleanor Rigby was buried in the St Peter’s graveyard. I knew that Father McKenzie was based on Paul’s close observation of local clergy. I knew that George was the only Catholic in the band among three Protestants, and that this had prompted periodic banter between them, not least given the sectarian tensions in a port city that served as a key gateway to and from Ireland. I knew that Strawberry Field (singular) was an orphanage run by the Salvation Army. I knew vaguely that there was a church on the ’roundabout’ mentioned in Paul’s glorious ‘Penny Lane’, and that Paul had sung in the choir of that church. I knew in turn that this had lodged in his consciousness sufficiently to influence the hymn-like ‘Let It Be’. 

But it’s one thing to read about such ecclesiastical motifs in the Beatles’ biography and discography; quite another to see and experience them in person. To stand on the very church-owned spot where Paul made such a deep first impression on John with his knowledge of the chords to ‘Twenty Flight Rock’. To set foot on the same consecrated ground that John’s Quarrymen occupied when they performed for those Woolton parishioners almost 60 years ago. To see all four Beatles’ childhood homes, and inside John Lennon’s house on Menlove Avenue to read his actual Sunday school attendance card. To view the modest family grave containing Eleanor Rigby. To look across that roundabout from the Penny Lane barber’s shop to St Barnabas church, and wonder how Macca’s boy soprano voice might have sounded in its chancel. To take in George’s terraced house in Speake and the city’s imposing Catholic Cathedral, and to wonder what led him to turn from his Christian heritage towards Indian spiritualities – sitars, Hare Krishna et al. 

As the Fifties gave way to the Sixties the Beatles’ childhood links with church faded away. The rebellious spirit of rock n’ roll, the existentialist influences at Lennon’s and Stu Sutcliffe’s art school, the drugs and prostitution of Hamburg, the avant gardism of Astrid, Klaus and their other German friends – all appear to have played their part. As the Sixties wore on and their fame went stellar, they both reflected and defined the increasingly permissive spirit of the age – free love, anti-establishment philosophies, radical aesthetics and politics. Along the way, Lennon pronounced the Beatles to be bigger than Jesus while Harrison turned to avatars and gurus, and for a time persuaded the other three to follow the Maharishi. In the process McCartney and Starr’s church affiliations became ever more nominal. Indeed, while Lennon’s and Harrison’s abandonment of their childhood church formation might have been more explicit, it was McCartney’s image of Father McKenzie, ‘writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear’ which perhaps most poignantly evoked the dramatic loss of Christian influence in British society during this period – a period of disastrous decline in church attendances, not least among the young.

In more recent times, as various members of the Beatles’ circle have passed away and as some have been given Christian funerals, we have seen Paul and Ringo in church again – perhaps with more frequency than at any time since they were teenagers. But obviously the context is very specific – and, if anything, a reminder that for vast numbers of people since the Sixties, church has essentially become at best a cultural space in which to mark key rites of passage, rather than the more regular feature of life it was for the childhood John, Paul, George and Ringo, their families and their friends.

I adore the Beatles’ music, and I loved the Beatles Tour of Liverpool. But for all I sense the joy and liveliness of God’s Spirit in their songs, for all the resonances with the gospel in their message of peace and love, for all the prophetic insight of their later, more socially conscious material, it came home to me as I moved from Beatle home to Beatle home, from St Peter’s Woolton to St Barnabas, Penny Lane, from Strawberry Field to the Casbah, that they had not only exemplified the church’s startling loss of influence on Britain and Britain’s youth in particular, but that they had become for many representatives of an alternative worldview, an alternative ‘spirituality’ in which church was incidental, or even irrelevant. Ricky, indeed, began the Tour by describing it as a ‘pilgrimage’, and the guides in Lennon’s and McCartney’s houses respectively described them as ‘hallowed ground’. 

The challenge for the church today, of course, is to re-energise young people as dynamically and as profoundly as the Beatles did in the Sixties, while recognising that the cultural apparatus of late Christendom with which the Beatles themselves grew up is now far less detectable in Britain, or, indeed, much of the western world. For all his later flat denials of God, Lennon’s 1966 observation that the Beatles had become ‘bigger than Jesus’ was more a melancholy comment on the then-nascent cult of celebrity, and on growing consumerism and secularism, than an outright blasphemy. Viewed from today’s perspective, it in fact seems highly prescient.

I’m sure that the Beatles’ music will continue to enrapture young – and old – for centuries to come. It  – and they – are truly extraordinary. I will never stop listening to their wonderful songs, never stop marvelling at how they progressed from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘A Day in the Life’ in five short years. But for all their genius they don’t have the words of eternal life, and they can’t redeem and renew our broken world. Can continued appreciation for the Beatles and their astonishing artistic legacy be accompanied by a reversal of the retreat from church and Christian faith that they both mirrored and embodied? I hope and believe it can. I pray that it will. But as I reflect on a great day out with the Beatles Tour, I know that it won’t be easy, and that it’s likely to take some time.

David Hilborn

19 March 2016

Syrian Intervention and Just War Theory

I have many Christian friends and respected dialogue-partners who argue that we should stay out of Syria on the grounds that as things stand, bombing has ‘no reasonable chance of success’. Some, like Justin Thacker, go on to cite Just War theory in defence of this point. Yet there is a lot more to the application of Just War theory than the pragmatic prediction of likely ends, significant though that may be as one part of of the process. Certainly, an element of the post-Thomian conception of Just War is an interpretation of the Just Cause criterion which encourages a calculation of whether military action will result in better outcomes for civilians in the aggressor nation and in the nations of those attacked by the aggressor. And I said at least twice in my initial piece that this was the hardest of all considerations to weigh up in the debate on whether to extend bombing of Daesh strongholds from Iraq to Syria. Yet if we are to discuss Just War, this consideration – though clearly important – needs to be assessed alongside several other aspects of Just War theory. And I believe that when that fuller assessment is undertaken, the solemn decision made by parliament on Wednesday can be viewed as a cogent one. Let me explain…

Thomas Aquinas required that war should be declared or sanctioned by a Proper Authority – i.e. a legitimate government, state or equivalent body. Check: parliament voted convincingly for the Syrian intervention and the UN passed a resolution backing ‘all means necessary’ to combat Daesh. Then there is the fact that the very Just Cause criterion in Thomas that the later Salamancan tradition extended into pragmatic concern for ‘successful outcomes’ also includes the restoration of territory to those who have had it forcibly annexed by imperialist bullies. Check on this, too: Daesh are as unashamed in their murderous territorial rampage through the Middle East as the Nazis were in theirs through Europe.

Then, also under Just Cause, Thomas actually included ‘punishment for evil’. This makes a lot of modern-day liberals and Corbynite socialists particularly squeamish because the mounting influence of secular humanism on their worldview has led them to doubt the very existence of evil as a moral category at all. In this context it was notable that Hilary Benn was bold and unequivocal in calling Daesh ‘evil’, and thereby reminded his party that democratic socialism has historically been defined by a moral vision that can actually include this category – not least by dint of its roots in the Christian Nonconformist tradition. Benn’s grandparents, remember, were leading Congregationalists. So once again, check: unspeakable evil is being perpetrated by Daesh both against Syrians in and beyond Syria, and against non-Syrians through terrorist slaughter all over the world – including now, it seems, in California. We can debate how far this remit to ‘punish evil’ is our responsibility; we can worry about the danger that we and our NATO partners might over-play the role of ‘world police force’; we can agonise about the ‘imperialist evils’ that stain our own past. But we are talking about Just War theory, and in Just War terms it is legitimate to resist palpable evil with military force.

What else? Well, there is the criterion of Right Intention, which in Thomas includes the intent to bring peace rather than further conflict and chaos, and – tellingly in this context – the intent to support allies in their own attempts to defend themselves from further threat and attack. Well, yet again, check: it would be a gross misrepresentation of those who voted for action on Wednesday to cast them as ‘warmongers’, just as it was wrong of Cameron to cast those who voted against as ‘terrorist sympathisers’. However we construe the likely tactical consequences of either side’s position, surely we can agree that the intention of virtually all concerned was to increase the potential for peace rather than exacerbate suffering and bloodshed. I quite accept that an intention to achieve something is not the same as achieving it. I’ve allowed already that no one can be 100% sure what the pragmatic outcome of Wednesday’s vote will be in Syria, any more than it would have been clear what the outcome would have been if the vote had gone the other way. But we are dealing with Just War theory here, and in Just War terms an intent to resist terror, imperialism and atrocity through military means is a valid intent.

Furthermore, as I say, this valid intent is made even more valid in Just War terms if it is an intent shared by allies who are also under genuine threat, and if those allies explicitly ask for one’s support, as the socialist government of France and a number of other governments have done with respect to Britain in this instance.

More recent versions of Just War theory have elaborated on Thomas and the later Salamanca tradition to identify various other criteria. One of the most important is Proportionality: that is, targeting military forces, convoys, headquarters, resources, supply lines and infrastructure rather than, say, indiscriminately bombing mass populations. Check on this front too: Daesh’s territorial and global violence is wilfully indiscriminate, entailing brutal annihilation of innocent children, women and men. There is a cost to standing by and letting this happen, just as there is, no doubt, a cost to intervening to prevent it. The allied campaign in Syria is focused militarily on Daesh-specific sites, resources and personnel, precisely so that Daesh might be resisted from intensifying their beheading, rape and displacement of these innocent victims and the destruction of their homelands. Granted, the horror of such war is that however precise the targeting, some innocents get killed rather than saved in the process. In Just War terms, war is not an innate good, not a virtue. It is a dreadful but sometimes necessary expedient applied to stem yet further iniquity in a sinful, fallen world.

To repeat: the ‘chance of success’ dimension of the Just Cause dimension of a complexly-developed set of moral philosophies grouped under the heading ‘Just War’ is a key consideration in the whole Syria issue. I’ve conceded that it’s the toughest of all considerations to determine. But by its nature no one can be absolutely sure of the answer to it in this case. Analogies can be sought in favour of the Corbynite position from Afghanistan and Libya, but no two wars are exactly the same. Daesh might bear certain resemblances to the Taliban and Al-Quaeda, but they are distinct from each, in ideology, in tactics and in strategy. Hilary Benn made a passionate case for intervention on analogy with fascism, and with socialists’ willingness to go to war against it in World War II. I believe he was right to do so, but as I said in my previous post on this issue, Daesh are fighting both a ‘conventional’ ground war to grab foreign territory, Nazi-style, and at the same time a ‘global, postmodern’ war based on the terrorisation of innocents in disparate nations around the world. There are potential continuities and discontinuities in the parallels drawn by both sides in the argument. On balance, as I’ve shown, I take Hilary Benn’s view, and I do so not least with reference to the wider understanding of Just War that I’ve set out here.

Yet I don’t pretend for a moment that this matter is clear-cut, and I continue to pray for those suffering at the hands of Daesh, for the military personnel from the UK and other countries involved in the campaign, and for the politicians and diplomats engaged in complementary economic and intelligence-driven initiatives to stifle the repugnant threat that Daesh represents. Last, but not least, I pray for those either drawn to join Daesh, or already drawn into Daesh, that by God’s grace they might think again, and see it for the barbarous, nihilistic death-machine that it is.

Hilary Benn, Syria and Authentic Socialism

Many of those who opposed its conclusions have nonetheless recognised the ‘rhetorical brilliance’ of Hilary Benn’s Commons speech supporting air strikes on Daesh strongholds in Syria. ‘Rhetoric’ in this modern-day context suggests style over substance; suspect manipulation of oratorical technique for dubious moral ends. But classically, rhetoric combines genuine emotional passion and verbal fluency with cogent argument and ethical coherence. I believe that Benn’s speech demonstrated these classical qualities richly: indeed, it was one of the finest parliamentary speeches I have heard in my lifetime. Let me explain.

Many of those who have questioned Benn’s case have done so on the ‘pragmatic’ grounds that bombing Daesh is unlikely to make us safer in the short term. Granted, this may be the hardest of all elements to determine in the whole Syria debate. But the truly incisive thing about Benn’s speech was that it nailed the double standards of so many on the left of the Labour party, in the Stop the War movement, and more generally in the ‘not in my name’ constituency. Like Nick Cohen in his book What’s Left? and in Cohen’s more recent articles, Benn skewered the hypocrisy of those self-professed socialists who claim the moral high ground in suggesting that ‘violence breeds violence’ as a general ethical principle while in fact only really condemning violence they deem to be ‘ideologically unsound’.

Today I spent time with a couple of unconditional, out-and-out Christian pacifists from the Bruderhof. I don’t agree with their outlook, yet I utterly respect their consistency. But Corbyn and the majority of his followers are not in this category: they’re, at best, selectively pacifist. Corbyn has been an apologist for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His new director of communications, Seumas Milne, has been a welcome guest at Putin’s various propaganda forums. Corbyn and John McDonnell have defended the IRA, Hezbollah and Hamas. Ostensibly, Corbynites will assent to military action when the enemy is classically fascist, as with the Nazis of World War II. But when Benn, Cohen and others point out – correctly – that Daesh are also fascists and just as morally repugnant as the fascists against whom good British socialists fought willingly in Spain, Italy and Normandy seven or eight decades ago, it sits much more uncomfortably. Why? Because bombing Daesh could ‘make us less safe’ back here in Britain? If that’s truly the main argument of those who opposed last night’s motion, they might just as well have asserted that appeasing Hitler would have ‘made us safer’ because it would have avoided the Blitz. Again Benn made a telling point here: Labourite socialism is not a ‘Little Englander’ creed, not insular and protectionist. It’s internationalist, and one aspect of internationalism is recognising that we do not walk by on the other side just because the innocent victim battered and lying in the road happens to be battered and lying in a foreign road.

Of course, this cannot mean intervening in each and every conflict around the globe. Of course, there are judgments to be made in a fallen, imperfect, sinful world about one’s own nation’s interests, and about the protection of one’s own people. That’s one of the key responsibilities of those who govern a country. But as Benn also pointed out, it isn’t as if we’re not already bombing Daesh in Iraq, and it isn’t as if Daesh hasn’t already sought to export terror to the UK. Seven Daesh plots have been thwarted by the security services in 2015 alone. If one more such plot happens to succeed now that bombing has extended to Syria, it won’t be as if that extension will simplistically have ’caused’ the terror. The terror is already here: as Benn vividly stressed, Daesh already hate all that the British parliament, British democracy and British plurality represent; they already want to destroy it. Maybe in their deranged and twisted worldview bombing Syria as well as Iraq will give them more ‘reason’ to terrorise Britain; but are we really saying that this ‘rationale’ is to be taken as our own benchmark for deciding how best to resist their fascist death-cult?

If you want to have a debate about the sheer balance of probabilities on practical outcomes, fine. I’m prepared to look at this from a consequentialist angle – will it make us in Britain safer? But let’s not pretend that’s the whole issue here. In the long term, it’s clear that Daesh wants to build a territorial empire – caliphate as Reich – and insofar as that represents a pretty traditional fascist threat it can be met effectively by bombing, and maybe, if necessary, by ground troops. The more ‘globalised’ or ‘postmodern’ exportation of terror in atrocities such as occurred in Paris is a newer sort of fascist threat, and by its nature will need to be resisted more by counter-terrorist intelligence and security than by army and air force units. It will also, of course, need more gradually to be addressed through sanctions, education, community work and integration. Too much of the debate thus far has proceeded as if these two sets of solutions to these two very different forms of fascism are mutually exclusive; they are not, and Hilary Benn was right to say that they are not.

I don’t for a moment pretend that any of this is straightforward. But I cheered Benn in my home along with so many others in the Commons last night not because of his phrasemaking, skilled though it was. I cheered because he reminded his own party that authentic Labour values have never and should never collude with the kind of self-satisfied virtue signalling that too often these days passes for socialism. ‘Not in my name’ might be a catchy slogan, but in keeping with much supposedly left wing morality right now, it seems too often to be more about ‘me’, ‘my identity’ and ‘my ideological purity’ than about the genuine wellbeing of the other.

The Holy Land – Recollection, Hope and Reality

The Holy Land – Recollection, Hope and Reality

Earlier this week, quite unplanned, I found myself sitting opposite Jeremy Bowen on a train. Mindful of Bowen’s long and distinguished record as the BBC’s Middle East correspondent I was itching to engage him in conversation about the current round of hostilities in the Holy Land. However, he was busy with his phone and I had plenty of emails to answer, so I waited until we were nearing the end of the journey to strike up a conversation. He’d just collected a deserved honorary doctorate from Nottingham Trent University, and was enjoying a brief respite from covering the latest bloody clashes between Israel and Hamas. He will be back soon enough to report on a tragedy that seems interminable. As we spoke I recollected my own first-hand encounter with that tragedy, when I visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority back in March 2005 as part of an ecumenical team that included my then colleague Don Horrocks, with whom I had worked closely over the previous eight years in the Theology and Public Affairs department of the Evangelical Alliance. I also recalled an unprecedented and highly challenging conference I had organised for EA two years before that, which brought together a broad spectrum of Christian organisations representing a diverse range of positions on modern Israel and its role in the purposes of God. In the last few days since that brief unscheduled conversation with Jeremy Bowen, I have gone back over my notes and papers from the 2005 trip and the conference which preceded it, and have been struck again by the fact that while the finer details have changed, the same basic, underlying issues persist.

If Christians are deeply divided on the Holy Land, Evangelical Christians are more divided than most. In nearly a decade at the Evangelical Alliance, I helped steer it through a number of controversies which seriously threatened its unity — from debates on homosexuality to the nature of hell, from the Toronto Blessing to prosperity teaching, from penal substitutionary atonement to identificational repentance. Yet of all the conferences and ‘summit meetings’ I organised to broach such vexed questions, the tensest and most volatile was that day meeting in June 2003 on how Christians should regard the state of Israel, and on how they should understand the condition of the Palestinian people in relation to it. The atmosphere was uneasy, fragile, disconcerting. Many polarised positions were simply reiterated, many deep-seated doctrinal divisions rehearsed. Yet it did at least manage to model an active and measured dialogue between parties who had long criticised each other in print but who had rarely, if ever, met under the same roof. I no longer work for the Alliance, but given more recent developments in the Middle East, it might be time for a follow-up conference along the same lines…

Far from entailing abstract theological concerns, the Israel-Palestinian problem comprises urgent, life-and-death realities: suicide bombings, house demolitions and rocket attacks. For years the Middle East has commanded considerable time, energy and resourcing from the administrations of the USA, Britain, Russia, the European Union, the United Nations and others. When I visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2005, international involvement in the so-called ‘Road Map to Peace’, and in the Israeli government’s ‘Disengagement Plan’ to withdraw Jewish settlers from Gaza, were underlining that what goes on there affects the whole world. The latest armed exchanges across the Israel/Gaza frontier only reinforce that point. They also amplify a message that has become ever louder and clearer since 9/11 and the second Iraq War – that religion and politics are inextricably, and often intractably, linked. As Jeremy Bowen stressed when we spoke, the notion that they can be disentangled is both peculiarly western and relatively new in terms of world history. As in most politico-religious disputes there are various shades of opinion, but Evangelicals basically split into two camps on the Holy Land: ‘Christian Zionism’ and ‘Supercessionism’.

In keeping with many Orthodox Jews, Christian Zionists maintain that God’s biblical covenants with elect Israel hold good today in respect of the ‘promised land’. The precise borders of this ‘Biblical Israel’ may be debatable, but Christian Zionists insist that it is the duty of believers to back the modern state of Israel in its control of the territory it gained at its inception in 1948 and in its subsequent conflicts with surrounding Arab states. In particular, they support retention of the key areas occupied by Israel in the pivotal 1967 war: East Jerusalem, ‘Judea-Samaria’ (more widely termed the ‘West Bank’), and the Gaza strip. Admittedly, while most Christian Zionists are Evangelical, not all Jewish Zionists are theologically motivated. Zionism began in the Nineteenth Century as a response to successive anti-Semitic pogroms dating from the early medieval period, and many of its founding figures promoted the idea of a ‘safe homeland’ on secular humanitarian grounds rather than from scriptural conviction. The most influential of these, Theodore Herzl, even contemplated a re-gathering of Jews in East Africa rather than the Middle East. However, when the state of Israel was founded in the wake of the Nazi holocaust, secular and religious Zionist aspirations had effectively converged on the area defined in 2 Chronicles 9:26 as ‘west of the Jordan’ and south ‘to the border with Egypt’. When this territorial vision was largely realised in 1967, the UN condemned Israel for its ‘land grab’, and for its eviction of those who had lived on that land for centuries—the Muslim and Christian peoples known collectively as Palestinians. Christian Zionists have joined conservative Jews in rejecting such criticism from the international community on the grounds that biblical prophecy cannot be trumped by secular resolutions.

By contrast, Supercessionists argue that the territorial manifestation of Israel has been superseded, or replaced, by the ‘new covenant’ predicted in Jeremiah 31:31-4, and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. This covenant, they argue, is realised in the hearts of Jewish and Gentile Christians all over the world, and should no longer be associated with a particular race, land mass or temple. Indeed, on the basis of Hebrews 8:13, they maintain that it has rendered land-specific aspirations obsolete. Also known as ‘replacement theology’, this outlook holds that the Church has taken over the role of Old Testament Israel. Since this Church is a worldwide body, partisan support for the modern state of Israel qua Israel is deemed to be unjustified. Indeed, citing the human rights abuses levelled against Israel by the UN and others, Supercessionists typically accuse Christian Zionists of letting misguided eschatological commitments override basic moral precepts, such as are taught in the Sermon on the Mount—and, for that matter, in the Law and the Prophets. In fact, they stress that prophets like Micah saw Israel’s possession of land as subject to moral and spiritual criteria which she did not always meet, and whose neglect resulted her forfeiting that land (2:4-5). In response, Christian Zionists contend that Supercessionism has often gone hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism, that it unduly spiritualises God’s covenant promises, that God’s land-pledges to Israel are never in fact revoked, and that at various points in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 24, Romans 9-11) the Jews maintain a distinct role in God’s purposes.

On my trip to the Holy Land in 2005 the schedule was largely geared to inspecting Christian Aid-supported relief work among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but balance was provided by meetings with representatives of the Church’s Ministry among the Jewish People and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. We also had discussions with joint Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations, and with members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Included on our itinerary were exposure to YMCA rehabilitation and educative programmes in Bethlehem for those disabled by the conflict, to the work of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society in Ramallah and the West Bank, to the refugee support programme of the Culture and Free Thought Association, and to the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees near the Egyptian border in Gaza. We were privileged to meet many Palestinian Christians, including the Christian bishops and Patriarch in Jerusalem, and a gathering of the committee of the Near East Council of Churches in Gaza City. While in Gaza, we also visited medical clinics and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

The entire 2005 visitation team, especially those who had not previously visited the Palestinian territories, were shocked by what we saw and heard. Even the never-ending stream of media reporting could not have prepared us for what we encountered. We unquestionably witnessed intense suffering on both sides. However, there was a discernible humanitarian disaster mounting in Gaza and the West Bank. With the Palestinian birth rate set to outstrip the population of Israel by 2030, it seemed impossible to see how the confinement of Palestinians within enclaves behind walls could ever pretend to offer Israel lasting peace or security. Few people on either side left us with any sense of optimism for the future. Rather, we encountered either entrenched antagonism or a general air of resignation to the ongoing conflict. Cynicism greeted mention of ‘road maps’ and so-called Israeli ‘disengagement’ – a cynicism which has since sadly been borne out by the rise of Hamas in Gaza and by Israeli retaliation against Hamas’s relentless, barrage of rocket attacks on Israeli towns and cities. Our group returned home then with an overwhelming desire that core gospel ethics should not be obscured by entrenched political, racial, geographical or eschatological dogma; that desire remains, but its realisation seems even farther off now than it did then.

Most Israelis are supportive of the of the ‘security wall’ that was being built when I visited the region nine years ago, and that is now one of the starkest symbols of division between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours. Back in 2005 I and my companions had dinner with David Pileggi, an Italian American working with the Churches’ Ministry among the Jewish People. He had lived in Jerusalem most of his adult life, having studied at the Hebrew University there as the only Christian in a class of Jews. He explained that every day, his and his wife’s children travelled to school on a bus route which had been subject to suicide bombing. More than once, they had found themselves frantic with worry that the children had been killed. The security wall had reduced such attacks by two-thirds, they said. If we were in their shoes, would we not support its construction, for all the hostility it symbolised and provoked? Like many Israelis then and now, the Pileggis had thought deeply about their country’s situation, and were not afraid to criticise its harsher actions towards the Palestinians. But they also made the point that they were free to level such criticism, whereas many Muslims in surrounding Arab states were not similarly at liberty to protest against their leaders.

All the Palestinians we met in 2005 – Muslim and Christian alike – felt deeply oppressed. Though none we spoke to overtly justified suicide bombing, some suggested that it represented the desperation of a people for whom there seemed no other solution. A similar suggestion was made last week by the Liberal Democrat MP David Ward in relation to Hamas rockets. He was rightly condemned for his appalling remarks. Yet the contrast between prosperous, fertile, westernised Israel and the wretched poverty of Gaza and the West Bank was stark then, and is starker now. We met many Palestinian Christians who had not seen members of their families living elsewhere in the region for years. Bethlehem resembled a ghost town. Close to economic collapse following its virtual encirclement by the wall, visitors to it were either unable to travel or unwilling to face the traumas of getting through checkpoints. In response, Israel emphasised that necessary exclusion zones were being violated. It also warned that tunnels were being dug beneath the Israel-Gaza border to transport weaponry for attacks on Israeli positions and settlements. That warning, of course, was true, and the tunnels in question have been at the centre of the latest iteration of military conflict. However, back then we saw hundreds of Palestinian homes bulldozed or dynamited by the Israeli army, with many refugees living in the ruins for want of any alternative accommodation. There also seemed little excuse for the Israel’s razing of greenhouses on arable land, other than that they were visible from Jewish settlements, and that Israel wished deliberately to undermine Palestinian economic sustainability. True, it made good on its promise to withdraw from Gaza soon afterwards, but in doing so it was well aware that such economic sustainability would, if anything, recede further beyond the horizon.

Our visit to the Israeli Ministry for Foreign Affairs in 2005 proved interesting, not least for its spokeswoman’s frank admission that Israel was acting as an occupying power, that human rights were being abused, and that massive injustice and potential humanitarian disaster were involved. However, all this was explained by the fact that Israel was in a state of war. Given this position, it seemed hard to accept her later assurance that the security wall was a ‘temporary measure’, especially when we had seen for ourselves just how massive and permanent it looked. Our scepticism then has, of course, been vindicated by the persistence and extension of the wall. Then again, the stunning design and sophistication of the Israeli government buildings brought home the extraordinary achievements of the Jewish people in developing a First World democracy so soon after 1948, not least in the face of such fierce hostility from neighbouring Muslim regimes. Indeed, the contrast between our visit there and our trip to the Palestinian Legislative Authority HQ in Ramallah was stark. Despite considerable international support and funding, the PLA was still struggling to establish itself as a credible governmental body. In its meagre parliamentary chamber, in its iconography, and in the minds of its officials, the figure of Yasser Arafat still loomed large. He was revered as the ‘Father of the Nation’, but as his own countrymen at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights later attested, he had left a legacy of corruption and factionalism which his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, would find it hard to dismantle. As we later drove through the streets of Gaza City, the varied uniforms of the eight or nine different security forces which Arafat had sponsored at his whim presented a vivid symbol of how far the PLA still had to go.
The demise of the PLA’s and Abbas’ power since, and the corresponding rise of Hamas, has proved this prognosis right.

One abiding memory we brought home with us in 2005 was the plaintive cry of Palestinian Christians everywhere throughout Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, that we should tell their Christian brothers and sisters in the West about their struggles and challenges. Without exception, they maintained that they and their fellow Palestinians were being deprived of their historic land, liberty and sustenance. Of course, their fellow believers in Messianic Jewish and Christian Zionist congregations in Israel and elsewhere firmly disagreed. No doubt we did not see the full picture. Having said this, beneath all the resentment, fear and despair, it was possible to detect a genuine desire for peace in those we met—an honest hope that Palestinians and Israelis might live harmoniously together. Indeed, as well realising that we needed to grapple in greater depth with the theological issues, we were left with a commitment to pray more earnestly for the ‘peace of Jerusalem’, and to explore more urgently what we could we do to help bring that peace nearer to reality. That commitment remains, but events since then have made peace seem yet more distant and more elusive.

As Jeremy Bowen and I got off our train, I asked him whether he had found it hard to step away from the Holy Land when it was once again so emphatically leading the news. Yes, he said, but the conflict was continuous, and would be there sure enough when he went back. As I bade him farewell, I resolved to go on praying, hoping and working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But I was also reminded of the prophet Jeremiah’s sober critique of those who too readily cry “peace, peace” when peace is, in fact, far off.

David Hilborn

Liking ‘Rev’ as an Evangelical

My name is David, and I’m an evangelical who likes ‘Rev’.

I realise that puts me at odds with some of my fellow evangelicals, and to a degree I understand their concerns. Yet like my fellow evangelical and friend Steve Holmes I think ‘Rev’ needs first to be viewed within the frame of the Classic British sitcom – disparate, quirky folk apparently thrown together by circumstance and somewhat ‘trapped’ within a particular setting or institution. Think seaside hotel, prison, Home Guard, rag and bone business and here, of course, a struggling East End church. The final episode of the current series offered a profound portrait of vocation – of the way it can seem at once limiting and irresistible. But in that very sense it was skilfully dovetailed to its genre. The problem is, as evangelicals we can be too prone to read art denotatively, for its headline ‘message’, without regard to the genre in inhabits.

Denotatively, I wouldn’t choose to go to Adam Smallbone’s church if it existed. Indeed, if I were an Archdeacon I might recommend its closure, or replanting. But denotatively I wouldn’t want to stay in Fawlty Towers, rely on Mr Mainwairing’s Home Guard, or attend a gig done by Jack Dee’s hapless comedian in the underrated ‘Lead Balloon’, either. Yet through their mishaps, failures and desire to do better, we do kind of root for the deeply flawed, tragi-comic protagonists of these shows, and grow fond of the oddballs who surround them. This elevates such series from glorified gag-fests to something more dramatic – more epic even. Indeed, compared to any other religiously-themed sitcom I’ve seen, and interpreted within the semi-tragic parameters of sitcom at its best, ‘Rev’ deserves to be recognised as a classic.

But even as ‘Rev’ works with the conventions of great sitcom, it also manages to transcend them – not thanks to any headline message of ‘religious optimism’, but because it understands that true godly hope climbs a steep and narrow path, holds on in anguished prayer, and takes up a cross. Think Moses, David and Peter, and their struggles with God’s call. Think of how the church started behind a locked door, when frightened, beleaguered and angry disciples began to see that there was life beyond death – when they recognised the risen Christ in their midst.

This goes to Martin Luther’s distinction between theologia gloriae and theologia crucis. Not for nothing did the latest series of ‘Rev’ culminate in Easter. We had to go through the wrenching devastation of Adam’s personal Good Friday in Episode 5 to get to his resurrection experience in Episode 6. It would have been specious if there had been no Episode 5, if we had bypassed the cross and skipped straight to the resolution of Easter Day. Despite our avowed crucicentrism, it does seem at times as if we evangelicals have become somewhat squeamish about the darker side of faith and discipleship – about doubt, weakness, loss and lament. Obviously we cannot dwell on and revel in these things – there is good news to proclaim, a world to transform, and Christ is risen. Granted, this broader missional confidence is downplayed more than it might have been in ‘Rev’. Granted, when church planting was depicted in an earlier series, it was lampooned. As an evangelical I passionately want churches to grow, and obviously ‘church’ in this sense means far more than the sort of unsustainable building that Adam was scrabbling to keep open.

But Calvary mocks any attempt to confuse God’s mission with mere worldly success, and in walking out of his interview for a City management consultancy when catching sight of his condemned church through a high-rise window, Adam exemplified that powerfully. And let’s be clear: Adam didn’t go back to St Saviour’s to rescue a church building; he went back to celebrate God’s salvation with the frightened, beleaguered and angry crew God had given him to pastor, and significantly he celebrated the resurrection with them outside rather than inside the church, to reinforce that they were more important than the structure behind them. And tellingly, even when they did break back into the sanctuary, it was for a baptism – for a sacramental reminder that sin, death and burial are part of the Christian story as well as new life.

So there was a message in ‘Rev’. But it was a message best discerned not so much through the lens of Church Growth Theory as through the lens of a classic British sitcom genre which finds humour in our thwarted ambitions, vanity and pride, yet which nonetheless shows affection and even compassion for those caught up in such things. Applied as deftly as they were here to the life of a deeply flawed yet prayerful minister and his deeply flawed yet loveable congregation, those tragi-comic conventions unexpectedly facilitated the telling of a much richer, more authentic and more challenging story – the story of a God whose grace is so free and extravagant that it can heal even the most lost of vocations, and even the most hopeless of churches.

David Hilborn