1. The Prime Minister has summoned her ministers to Chequers to discuss Brexit today. What are they discussing? Wouldn't I love to be a fly on the wall. At what point will it be recognised publicly that the EU countries with whom we will be negotiating do not have “our best interests” at heart, but will be looking to maximise their own interests? At some point those who have promised much will have to account for why much has not been given. Won't they?

2. Why isn't Rory Butler better known? Just listen to the guitar playing, the voice, the maturity of the lyric and the humour. Unique. He is appearing in Leeds soon, but I will be abroad and can't go. Tour dates are here.

3. Why do I feel sorry for Joe Hart?

4. What will the Germans be saying to us about Brexit when we meet in Munich from next Thursday for the Meissen Commission annual conference? We'll also be discussing the European refugee situation with state politicians.

5. Why do bad things make some people lose their faith when that faith is in a God who opts into the realities of this world and doesn't exempt himself from them?

Now we are into the autumn and the almost-three-year transition (from three dioceses) into a single, functioning and coherent diocese is coming to its conclusion (by the end of 2016), I hope to start blogging more frequently again. Which I realise will be of interest to some and a cause of misery to others. Oh well. We'll see.

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

It's been an interesting couple of weeks, hasn't it? I never thought I'd be interested in people riding bikes around a track, but I got drawn into the Rio velodrome. There is a massive upsurge in pride in the flag the athletes carry, even if some of the national anthems do go on a bit.

Maybe it was while the world's attention was on Rio that a North Korean diplomat chose to shine a different light on national pride by defecting to South Korea last week. Later described as “human scum” by his old regime, Thae Young Ho had managed to escape with his family from the North Korean embassy in Watford before his defection had been noticed by his erstwhile masters.

This is interesting stuff. At the same time I saw this in the news I also heard about a guy who couldn't get into his national Olympic team, so joined that of a different country.

So, where does loyalty lie? And what, when we celebrate loyalty to Great Britain in Rio, does that loyalty actually mean?

The reality is that most of us live for most of the time with multiple loyalties. Just watch the battle on social media between Lancashire and Yorkshire over which county has done better than the other in Brazil. When does loyalty to Yorkshire trump fidelity to the nation? Or when does my commitment to my family or myself take priority over that devoted to the wider community? I come from Liverpool, but live in Yorkshire – I just have to deal with it. But, there is a serious point about where we draw the lines and where the lines need to be crossed.

The truth is that we live all the time with a complex hierarchy of loyalties: to oneself, to family, to community, to religion, to nation and to the world. The North Korean defector clearly decided that the balance of these priorities had changed. Yet, his experience also illustrates that in real life we sometimes have to live for a time with commitments that are conflicted – or that, for various pragmatic reasons, we hold a line with our voice when our head and our heart have moved elsewhere.

I have been wondering how to express this, and kept coming back to the lawyers trying to compromise Jesus over the conflict between his commitment to Israel and that demanded from the Roman Empire in the form of taxes. His reply: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's” was not a cop-out. It crystallised the conundrum. It made clear that those who claim a commitment to God in any way have to evidence that commitment in the choices they make and the ethical priorities they live to.

So, within the hierarchy of loyalties, raising a flag actually raises as many questions as it answers.

This is the text of an article I wrote for the Yorkshire Post, published here today and anticipating a conference at York St John University next week – the Inaugural Global Congress on Sport and Christianity:

It took me a while to work out just why my GP advised me to give up playing squash at the age of 42. I thought he was concerned about the impact of the sport on my heart; I actually think it was because I was beating him too often.

Nothing has ever taken the place of football or squash. One a team sport (in which my dreams outran my abilities); the other a singles competition (in which I just ran about a lot). I have tried running, but get bored. I went to the gym for several years, but got bored. I bought a rowing machine, but damaged my shoulder and couldn't use it. And I am saying nothing about Body Pump…

This is probably not the right time to be exercising the ghosts of fitness past – while at the time of writing the football season is kicking off and the Olympics are racing on. Visions of athletic perfection have me reaching for another beer while urging them on to ever greater physical and mental achievement. When I met Mo Farah in a BBC Radio 2 studio in July I had to resist asking him if he needed a good meal.

There was a time when I would have thought about sport simply in terms of individual prowess – of individual training, personal discipline and physical endurance. Contrary to many popular views of what it is to be a human being, we are actually a trinity of body, mind and spirit – all held in an inextricable unity.

Despite the deeply ingrained assumption in Greek thinking that body, mind and spirit can operate independently of each other, they all actually belong in a single unity. This is why it is such a nonsense to think that the great favourite watchword of postmodern individualism, 'spirituality', leads to the uncritical conclusion that religion or spiritual life should be shoved into a corner marked 'private' and kept in the dark (where it can't impinge on public life or threaten any disturbance to the social, economic or political status quo).

Which brings us back to sport.

Thinking today about sport has pushed me in a slightly broader direction. Biblical writers encourage Christians to be as disciplined in their discipleship of Jesus as athletes are in their singleminded training regimes – keeping their eye fixed on the ultimate goal and not the immediate pain or privations. But, the Christian vision also goes deeper. If you can't divide the body from the mind or spirit, then you can't separate the essence or importance of sport from the fabric of the rest of social life.

Society demands order. To put a long argument very briefly, social order needs white lines on a pitch in the same way as a game of tennis cannot be played on a moor. The particular rules might vary from game to game. The shape and nature of a pitch might look different depending on the nature of the sport being played: a football pitch looks different from a 110 metre hurdles track. But, what both require is parameters within which a game can be played and in which creativity can be deployed in the playing of it. What you can't have is a measurable game played by individuals who make up their own rules as they go or decide when and where they wish the white lines to be placed.

I realise this sounds obvious. But, we live in a culture where it is often assumed that any opinion is valid, any individual choice is equally apt, any personal preference is acceptable – regardless of the impact of these on the wider social order (or what is often called the common good). The point here is to assert that the white lines on the pitch are not constraints imposed in order to limit freedoms, but precisely the means of enabling a creative game to be played in the first place. If you don't believe me, ask Andy Murray to play a Wimbledon final in the middle of Roundhay Park or above the rocks on Ilkley Moor.

This is what I mean when I suggest that the power and fascination of sport transcends mere competition or competitiveness. It certainly transcends the power of celebrity from which it currently seems to take its financial fuel. The shaping and dynamics of sport – both individual and team – reflect deeply the fabric of human being and human society: we need order, common constraints, the creative opportunities that these parameters enable, and the commonly respected commitments that creating such a life acknowledges.

I see a Christian vision for society being reflected in the phenomenon of sport, in which mutual competitiveness aims at pushing the limits of both spectacle and potential whilst illustrating the necessary effectiveness of working with each other and for each other for a common goal. Both require the development of character and virtue as the end to which the training is merely the means. This is why drug abuse should be inherently shameful – shame not simply being an effect of having been found out.

Clearly, more can be said. But, as we sit in front of the telly, reaching for the beer and crisps, 'encouraging' the athletes to “run faster”, we might just consider what sport tells us not only about ourselves, but about our common life as a society – and what it is ultimately for.

 

What is it about politicians that encourages them to make absurd pitches for power? During the EU Referendum campaign we saw ridiculous promises, based on dodgy assumptions, made with a confidence and certainty that defied reality. In the USA we see it in Donald Trump's campaign slogan: 'Make America great again.'

No definition of 'great'. No real definition of 'America' – by the time you've excluded all the people Donald doesn't like, it isn't clear who is left to enjoy the 'land of the free'.

Anyway, I am only thinking about this because on holiday earlier this month I read five books (including Elvis Costello, Tom Wright and Sam Wells), two of which haunt me: Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar' and Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 'Romulus der Große'. I have already written very briefly about the first (brilliant book), but it is the latter that comes to mind just now in the context of Trump and other matters.

Not many Brits have heard of Dürrenmatt. A Swiss novelist and playwright, he describes 'Romulus der Große' as an “ungeschichtliche historische Komödie” (an unhistorical historic comedy). Written in 1950, it shows the demise of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, with the action taking place during the day of (and the day following) the Ides of March, 476. The Empire is about to collapse under the invasion of the greatly feared Germans and Romulus awaits its – and his – demise calmly. His family, ministers and courtiers try to force him to act decisively against the catastrophic and imminent Germanic invasion, but Romulus prefers to stay at home breeding domesticated chickens and doing nothing in response to the threat.

The ending is surprising and very civilised.

It is very clever, very funny, and needs to be rediscovered nearly seventy years after its initial production. Written in the aftermath of the German catastrophe of the twentieth century, it has much to say to us today in the aftermath of Iraq/Afghanistan, Brexit and America. Here are a few quotes (my translation as I only have the text in German):

Even the worst news sounds quite pleasant when spoken by someone who has rested well, has bathed and shaved, and has had a good meal.

It is not about the content of the language…

ZENO: “Now we must save our culture.” ROMULUS: “In what way is culture something that can be saved?”

Echoing elements of George Orwell's 1984, Romulus and Zeno (Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and escaped from Constantinople) come up with slogans they might use to counter the German invaders:

“For freedom and servitude!” “For slavery and justice!” “For caprice against barbarism!”

Rea, the daughter of Romulus, argues with her father that he must give everything to save the fatherland:

REA: “Our unconditional love for the Fatherland is what made Rome great.” ROMULUS: “But our love did not make Rome good.”

Which is where Trump comes in. Has greatness solely to do with power? Or success? Or self-protection? Where does “making America good” come in? Or the UK, for that matter?

I could quote other bits that resonate still, but that will do for now. Read the play – it isn't long. I have no idea if it is available in English, but the German is powerful even today. Under the humour and the satire there is a powerful punch.

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

I have just got back from the reading of fat books on holiday. The one that grabbed me this time was Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar'. It all sounded so contemporary. The voice in my head kept repeating the plaintive phrase from the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun”. Power, violence, subterfuge, ego, leadership struggles, populism and politics – it's all there. It always is.

I also kept hearing the line from Proverbs: “Where there is no vision the people perish.” The problem with vision is that it emerges from memory. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said this week that Judaism is a religion of memory. So, I would argue, is Christianity. Both remind us, for example, that empires come and go, that hubris is ultimately embarrassing, and that history sadly repeats itself. Christianity makes no sense at all without rituals that are there to compel compulsive amnesiacs to re-member their story: in this case that by recalling that we were once slaves, we will refrain from treating other people like slaves; that we are set free to serve; that we are to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God (and one another). For Jews the Passover goes to the heart of this memory; for Christians the Eucharist re-tells the story into which we fit ourselves and shape our future.

We can only know who we are if we know from where and from whom we have come. The problems emerge when either we think we have been born into the ultimate 'now' – that nothing valuable went before us – or we choose the bits of memory that are convenient to our present or future self-justifications.

And that is as dangerous for nations, continents and communities as it is for individuals or religions.

With this in mind, and having read about the Caesars, I wonder if every government should appoint a Cabinet Historian to remind it of the past and challenge policy for the longer-term future in the light of experience.

Of course, all readings of history are partial, and memories are always susceptible to selectivity. But, some of the challenges we face (for example, in the light of Brexit) would be informed by a sober re-membering. Memories are short, but how will anyone born in this millennium understand Russia and Ukraine when they have no experience of the Cold War – and a world divided not just by affluence but by starkly competing ideologies? Memory is not quite the same as history, but both can become commodities in struggles for power, as the biblical narrative reminds us.

Well, I won't hold my breath, but without a memory the people cannot form a vision. And without a vision the people perish.

Every government should fire one advisor and appoint one historian. I have remarked on this before, especially when reviewing Christopher Clark's study of the origins of the First World War, 'Sleepwalkers', and noting how Angela Merkel's cabinet famously read it and took a day out to discuss it with the historian directly. It is no wonder that history repeats itself so regularly when decision-makers fail to be reminded of history – that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, “there is nothing new under the sun”.

Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar' is the book I have been waiting for. Unforgivably ignorant of the broad sweep of Roman history, the narrative drives on dramatically, and the book is hard to put down – even at the beach. Now I have the five Caesars in some semblance of order in my head: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, with bits of others thrown in. It is a wonderful read of a horrendous story.

But, what it evokes is the sense that some things never change. If Blair and Bush launched a war in Iraq before considering how to win the peace when the big guns stopped firing, they clearly didn't look back to the Caesars. If we take for granted in Europe the seventy years of peaceful coexistence, a reading of history would remind us that empires come and go, that people get bored of peace, that memories are shorter than a couple of generations, that hubris-fuelled violence is never far away. Civilisation is thin – fragile. A century of hard-won pax under Augustus can quickly subside into the cataclysm of a Nero.

So, it is the resonance with the contemporary that makes Tom Holland's book go deep. It is a brilliant read, its funniest line being the observation on the post-matricidal Nero that “Comet or not, there could be no doubting who was the real star” of the subsequent mass crowd-pleasing festivities (p.363).

(I will also remember the recorded wisdom of Claudius to the Senators: “Everything we now believe to be the essence of tradition was a novelty once.” (p.371))

 

The great thing about holidays is the space to switch off and read stuff that has nothing to do with work.

This time I am starting with Elvis Costello's brilliant autobiography Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. It was a bit of a silly choice to bring to the beach – an enormous fatty of a tome. But, it follows on from Philip Norman's excellent biography of John Lennon and Sylvie Simmons biography of Leonard Cohen – both perfect, intriguing, funny, poignant and entertaining. They were followed by Bruce Cockburn's epic memoir that laid bare the life and mind behind the poetry and music.

Like Cockburn, Costello wrote the book himself and the same lyrical humour pervades the text. I am only half way through, but can't put it down. Not the usual beach book, but it provides a mental soundtrack that doesn't require sticking headphones in my ears.

Not so much “watching the detectives”, but, in the light of what's going on around the world, more a case of “Poor Fractured Atlas”.

 

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