We never walk alone. One of the things discovered by many people in the recent strange weeks of Covid-19 lockdown is that we have the time and space for a new questioning.

Four resources might help us along the way. We can look at them in the company of others who might be wanting to do their own ‘walk to Emmaus’. This isn’t just for Christians; it is for the curious. And it doesn’t predetermine an outcome. That’s the point.

The first is Francis Spufford’s wonderful Unapologetic – a race through the emotional appeal of Christianity. Funny, sweary, intelligent and passionate – it can be read alongside other resources of apologetics.

Secondly, Tom Holland’s brilliant account of the way Christianity has shaped the world and much that we take for granted in our now-secular culture: Dominion. It is surprising, erudite, but genuinely unputdownable.

Thirdly, Rhidian Brook’s new collection of Thought for the Day scripts: Godbothering. I do Thought for the Day (on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme) from time to time – I am doing next Friday – and I know how tricky it is. I read Rhidian’s scripts and wonder why I can’t write like he does. Beautiful use of language, vivid storytelling and imagery, imaginative theological reflection on the stuff of life. No wonder he is a novelist and screenwriter.

Fourthly, a book of sermons. I have a problem with books of sermons: preaching is an event – you have to be there; context and audience matter. Reading them later, almost as a flat script rather than a spoken event, can render them interesting-but-dull. Not when the preacher is Mark Oakley. His recent collection of sermons, The Way of the Heart, demonstrates the power of language beautifully and powerfully deployed. Moving, challenging, arresting – I wanted to stop in every paragraph and meditate on the way the words go deep. This is a wonderful book and a challenge to all preachers.

Of course, there are many more resources. But, that’s a start. Readable, accessible books for helping us on the journey from Easter.

The headline doesn't sound too promising, does it? But, it brings together the last couple of days before I return to Bradford tomorrow for a week of work before having a scheduled holiday the following week.

Having finished Ben Quash's excellent Found Theology, I intended to just spend the last couple of days reading German frivolous stuff. But, I started on Imaginative Apologetics, edited by Andrew Davison instead and got hooked. Serendipitously, it hangs together very well with the Quash book, although written from a different perspective and toward a different end.

Imaginative Apologetics recognises that the current irrational obsession of the New Atheists with what they think of as 'pure reason' (as if it wasn't mediated by a person who brings to the task a tradition and unargued-for presuppositions about the world, the way it is, and why it is the way it is) and 'pure science' (see above) does not need to be responded to on its own redundant terms, but that the premises of the argument can be questioned. And, to cut a long argument short, people need to be appealed to at the level of imagination and emotion – finding a consistency with real lived experience … which is more (but never less than) than 'rational' – and the Christian tradition has a huge amount to offer in this respect.

In fact, Davison himself makes the case right at the outset for Christian confidence when he writes:

The Christian faith does not simply, or even mainly, propose a few additional facts about the world. Rather, belief in the Christian God invites a new way to understand everything. (p.xxv)

He also cursorily quotes Yale's Denys Turner's observation that “the best way to be an atheist is to avoid asking certain questions”. The purpose of this is not to dismiss atheism or atheists, but to ask robust questions about the assumptions and presuppositions that lie before and behind assertions about reality and the absence of God. There is material here for good debate, if the theistic case is accorded some credibility and not simply dismissed prior to consideration. As Alison Milbank puts it, the apologetic task of the Christian is not to appeal to pure reason (as if there could be such a thing), but “to awaken in the reader this feeling of homesickness for the truth”. (p.33)

Each essay is worth reading in itself and I don't intend to go through the whole book here. However, the appeal to art, literature and the imaginative life of a human person (as well as communities) chimes in very well with the case being argued theologically by Ben Quash in his book. In other words, take culture seriously; explore and appeal to the imagination that takes reason seriously; be confident about the role of the imagination in comprehending reality.

Having read this stuff in a cafe in Basel yesterday, I then moved on to the Kunstmuseum Basel. I particularly wanted to see the Hans Holbein painting of the dead Christ (referred to by Ben Quash in his book) and the impressive Impressionist collection. There is nothing quite like an art gallery to make me feel ignorant and illiterate. I look at paintings and know that I don't know how to read them – I don't know the language. I had intended to scan the bulk of the collections and stay for longer with the stuff I knew a little about from my reading, but I found I had paid to see the special exhibition of James Ensor: The Surprised Masks.

I had never heard of James Ensor. I realised I had come across several of his works (The Fall of the Rebel Angels and The Entry of Christ into Brussels on Mardi Gras, for example) but I knew nothing about him or his art. It was stunning. The paintings were interesting, but it was the ink drawings that grabbed me. They explore death, dying, mortality and humanity – but with the sort of humour that had me laughing as I looked at them. It reminded me a little of how I felt when I read Robert Crumb's cartoon version of The Book of Genesis.

The point here is that art goes beyond pure reason (but entirely reasonably) into the imagination in a way that digs at 'truth' and pushes our perceptions of what we assume to be 'reality'.

And this, bizarrely, is what takes me on to immigration. If coming to Switzerland helped me escape some of the sterile immigration debates in England, I quickly got plunged back into them. Recently a referendum narrowly backed the view that restrictions should be imposed on immigration into Switzerland. This caused a huge storm both here and in the wider European Union: decisions have consequences. The political fall-out has been interesting to read whilst actually here in Switzerland. And 'imagination' – in the perverse, but common sense of 'fantasy' – has come powerfully into play in the rhetoric around the issue.

The friend I am staying with is employed by the Swiss Reformed Church to engage in industrial and economic matters (Pfarramt für Industrie und Wirtschaft). He was invited by the local newspaper, the bz Basel, to attend last week's opening night of a performance of Max Frisch's Biedermann und die Brandstifter and to be interviewed by the newspaper afterwards. You really have to know the play, but the performance had a twist in that the stories – in their own words – of immigrants to Switzerland were told to a surprised audience. The interview appeared today and Martin (Dürr) has been getting very supportive messages all day. In the interview – which is amusing as well as intelligent – he sharply calls into question the rhetoric propagated by the right wing that mass immigration is threatening the Swiss way of life. The right wing press (in some cases owned by the leader of the right wing party, the SVP) fan the flames of fear whilst simultaneously offering themselves as the saviours of the nation. Martin put it like this (my translation):

We have to draw a line. For many years the SVP has succeeded in building fears and resentments. The play exposes the mechanisms behind this. I believe there are some very respectable people in the SVP. But, the element that has the say has managed for years to present itself as both victim and saviour. This is a fascinating achievement… They present themselves as victims of the foreign masters in Brussels and of the Left and the Greens and even the remaining left wing press. These are doing terrible things to us and our Swiss identity is being destroyed – say the SVP. At the same time they get up and announce: “Comrades, don't be afraid! We offer you the antidote to this. We are the only ones to really fight to keep the Switzerland that has existed since 1291.”

Sound familiar? Create the spectre – regardless of facts and reality – and then offer a solution to the fear that you have created. It is an interesting and powerful example of political apologetics. It works on the imagination by conjuring a fantasy and then calling it reality.

We are not alone…


Why are some people fearful of engaging with the media?

Well, you only have to know anyone who’s fallen foul of them to know why keeping your distance might be a wise tactic. So, given that I know plenty of people who would include themselves in that category, why do some of us keep getting stuck in?

Last Sunday I was asked to address a hundred or so theological students (St Milletus College) on the theme ‘Old message, new media’ – a theme that got me asking questions about language, content and confidence. Having commended engaging with old media and new social networking media (in a disciplined way, of course), I emphasised three points:

  • we need to be confident about the message we hope to communicate via various media
  • attention needs to be paid to learning the languages that people speak/hear in order that we can ensure good communication
  • new media offer great new possibilities for (a) giving people access to people (like me – a bishop) whose life and preoccupations might otherwise belong to a remote and mysterious hidden world, (b) engaging outside  and beyond the safe and comfortable territory of those who ‘belong’ to the communities in which we live and work, (c) being present in a space where a different sort of conversation can be had, and (d) allowing connectivity between people, groups and ideas that in a previous generation might not have been possible, even if desirable.

Then, today I went to Cambridge for the first day of an Apologetics Conference at Westcott House. The theme was ‘How Does Today’s Church Engage with Today’s World?’. The first speaker up was Professor Alister McGrath who seems to write a new book every week. He stressed the need for clergy to help their congregations to grapple honestly with tough questions and grow in confidence in the competence of a Christian world view to account for the way the world is (and could become). Critiquing the New Atheists, he made the point that simply making assertions is not the same as rationally arguing a point (something Christians need to note also).

I followed Alister with a ramble through my apologetic method and illustrated what it looks like in my own experience. Key to this approach are the following:

  • objections to religious belief must be taken with the utmost seriousness
  • interlocutors are people with histories, contexts and contingent lives: they are not projects upon whom we work our philosophical or theological games
  • the way Christians speak to and about each other is sometimes so scandalous that many observers get nowhere near hearing the ‘good news’ behind the sheer bad news of how some Christians behave (parodied as ‘They’ll know we are Christians by the intensity of our mutual loathing…’)
  • Christians need to model the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ and change the rumour about God and the church
  • we must start on other people’s territory and learn their languages – primarily in order to listen and understand before questioning coherence or consistency.

Underlying all this, however, is the conviction that unless Christians are prepared to open themselves to the possibility of changing their mind, they have no right to expect anyone else to do so. Conversation must be respectful and genuinely dialectical.

This was followed by Dr Andrew Davison, Tutor in Doctrine at Westcott House, who looked briefly at such matters as creation, God, christology, eschatology and pneumatology in their apologetic connection. And he was followed by Ruth Gledhill, Times Religion Correspondent who reflected on journalism, journalists, the Church and media.

Two points need further thinking through on my part.

First is Ruth’s statement that the erection of the Times paywall has (a) vastly reduced the number of screaming nasties on her blog, (b) improved the quality and courtesy of the discourse between those who do engage with her and each other, and (c) led to a recovery of clearer (less distracted) journalism.

Now, I am opposed to the paywall, but I know other news agencies are keen for it to work. A new and effective business (financial) model for journalism is needed if quality journalism is not only to survive, but thrive in the complex new media age. Despite my prejudices about the effects of the paywall model on universal access to news, I hadn’t thought about the potential for the paywall to change/improve the quality of the discourse between those who do engage behind it.

Second was a question posed to me about mad or dangerous Christians – a question to which I did not respond adequately. Having asserted that Christians need to stop bitching about each other and work out their inherent unity as disciples of the Jesus who calls them, how should we then deal with the crazies and horrible nasties who claim the Christian label? Or, put more simply, when is it legitimate to disown and firmly distance ourselves from the loonies?

On initial reflection I think we can say that (a) Christians who, for example, espouse violence should be disowned and distanced, and (b) this should be done in language that still bears the hallmarks of grace and generosity, not arrogance and self-righteousness. More reflection needed on this one.

So, the last few days have exposed me to a wide range of people who are taking really seriously the need for Christians to engage with the wider world on the wider world’s terms, bringing a confident and gracious critique to the world’s presenting agenda, and offering an apologetic for Christian faith that is rationally coherent, emotionally powerful, existentially consistent and makes sense of human experience (which is more than purely rational).

In last Sunday’s Observer Victoria Coren invited theists to own up confidently to their faith:

Come on; let’s make this a fair fight, at least. Identify yourselves, thinking believers! Don’t be cowed into silence by the idea that faith is the weakness of a halfwit, like buying your goldfish Christmas presents or watching ITV2. It isn’t. I’ll start: I believe in God and I’m perfectly intelligent and rational.

Time to stand up. And new media make this possible in new ways. (The Apologetics Conference continues tomorrow, but I won’t be there…)