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

Today has been designated 'Buy Nothing Day' in over sixty five countries. By now, of course, it might have spread even further afield.

I like the idea of 'Buy Nothing Day', not because I'm one of those miserable people who damn consumerism in a script written on an iPad while sitting in a warm room on comfortable furniture with music playing on the stereo and my smart phone buzzing. Every time I hear John Lennon's 'Imagine' – usually being highlighted for its encouragement to imagine no religion – I wonder how he ever got away with “imagine no possessions” written on a grand piano in an exclusive Central Park apartment.

Well, 'Buy Nothing Friday' is a reaction to what has become known as 'Black Friday' – a day of mass consumerism rooted in encouragement to greed as opposed to 'Good Friday' which roots us in self-denial and loss rather than self-fulfilment at all costs. Black Friday is a transatlantic import that many people hoped would die the death of British good taste and a sense of proportion; but, it seems to have taken hold in a culture whose consumerist monster can never be over-fed.

Well, apart from the obvious observation that for many of our poorest people Black Friday will come and go like Thirsty Thursday or Sad Sunday, we do seem to fall prey all too easily to the advertisers' siren seduction – that more stuff will make our lives more complete. We are more than the stuff we have. Shopping doesn't make us more human.

But, if I was going to indulge today, there's only one thing I would go for: Adele's long-awaited new album 25. I admire her for not allowing it to be dribbled out on music apps, and insisting on holding to the integrity of the album in the mode of its release.

But, the real reason is that her music doesn't just entertain – it stirs the soul and evokes some very human experiences.

Her last album gave a voice to the strangled emotions of love and loss and regret and wounding. She not only experienced “losing in love”, but lived with the pain of it. No cheap resolutions, no easy pretence that being dumped puts an end to love. And in her poetry she reminded me of the Psalmists of old: owning up to the agonies and fragilities of human experience – not something you necessarily get from buying a bigger telly or more clothes.

Like those Psalmists, we have to learn to live with what is actually happening in us and to us, and not simply try to wish it (or buy it) away. I guess whether we indulge in Black Friday or abstain on Buy Nothing Friday, there's something about Adele's lingering expressions of grief and joy that could still make it quite a good Friday.


This morning I read Alan Johnson's moving memoir This Boy and it nearly brought me to tears. Without a shred of self-pity, the former Labour minister simply gives an account of his childhood. Dreadful poverty, but powerful women.

This evening I read a book of sermons edited by the late John Hughes of Jesus College, Cambridge. Entitled The Unknown God, the sermons formed a series responding to the so-called New Atheists. It is funny as well as incisive, bringing together such minds as Terry Eagleton, David Bentley Hart, Tim Jenkins, Alister McGrath and John Cornwell.

The thing about sermons is that they are concise. They focus in a way that a ten or twelve minute time limit necessitates, but manage to be dialectical in nature as well as limited in reach. The only pity is that no New Atheist was invited to preach a response to these responses. (The charge that New Atheists don't preach is, of course, nonsense; assertion rather than engaged and informed argument is the nature of the approach.) but, it would have been interesting to hear someone respond within the constraints of a sermon preached.

The connection between Johnson's book and the sermons (in my reading of both books in a single day) is that Johnson's poor childhood took place as the consumerist post-war generation was growing with an assumption that religion was on the way out. David Bentley Hart observes:

Late modern industrial societies, whose economies are primarily consumerist, are already effectively atheist, insofar as the principal business of economic life in them has become the fabrication of an ever greater number of the traditional prohibitions upon the gratification of those desires. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest good is private choice… What once had to masquerade, even to itself, as a deep moral conviction and intense intellectual passion can now openly disport itself as the conventional and rather boring metaphysical rationality of a society shaped by the mechanisms and logic of the market. (p.89f)

It is the juxtaposition of a memoir that reflects on the mid-20th century development of the consumer society (finding a way out of poverty) with a questioning of the contemporary “radical” scientism that shapes or colludes with it that is interesting here. But, it is further interesting to pursue the accompanying category errors that lead to such confusions – such as that identified between 'faith' and 'belief' by Terry Eagleton.

You have to read the book to see what I mean.


So, Manchester United get another jammy win, Liverpool show flair and draw, Arsenal fall apart, and David Starkey insults someone on the telly. It looks like some things never change.

I feel out of the picture of post-riot English debate. But one thing that has somewhat surprised me is the knee-jerk (and lazily predictable) blaming of multiculturalism. Multicultural Britain certainly presents challenges, but where is the inextricable link between multiculturalism and the riots? From what I have seen from this side of the pond (so the judgement has to be provisional), the riots were multicultural in their constituency. I guess the riots were also fairly heterogeneous: black & white, young and middle-aged, unemployed and middle-class professional, etc.

So, why did nothing kick off in places like Bradford or Burnley? Why so many stories about Asians and Muslims protecting their neighbourhoods in, for example, Birmingham? What conclusions can we draw from this?

The other thing that has surprised me is the shortsightedness of some knee-jerk comment from politicians (as reported). Just a question: if the left is being caricatured as offering bleeding-heart liberal sympathy with the poor rioters, then how does the right think that evicting families of rioters from their homes offers a long-term solution? I might have little sympathy for the criminal opportunism behind much of the looting, but as a society we still have to live with the consequences of marginalising people who already feel they live on the edge of civil society.

Bleating about ‘responsibilities’ doesn’t help us when some people don’t bother to listen. And we still have to live with them – even if they riot or thieve or fiddle their taxes.

From where I am sitting (and, again, I am at an uncomfortable distance), it is not enough to damn the opportunistic consumerism of the looters while we see the banking system that brought the world to it’s financial knees continue its rewards system without shame or demur. What is good for the goose is presumably good for the gander. It is a value question.

Anyway, I still don’t understand the headline in Russia’s Pravda from last Tuesday ( ‘Arab boomerang returned to London’. It’s funny how we read into situations the conclusions we have already drawn before even looking at the evidence.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Philadelphia, USA

When I suggested I might post 9.5 Theses from Wittenberg (a poor substitute for the 95 Theses Martin Luther supposedly nailed to the door of the Schlosskirche in 1517), I didn’t think it would be too difficult.

It is.

It is commonly thought that Luther, angry with the dodgy theology of the Pope, launched the Reformation and split the Church. However, Luther was doing more than this. The Church was raising funds to build St Peter’s in Rome by selling forgiveness and guarantees of heaven to gullible sinners. His protest was not just at the control-freakery of the Roman Catholic Church and its dodgy theology of atonement, but was also a strike against the political, cultural and economic power of the day. It was rooted in theology, but was aimed at ‘the Powers’.

So, against whom would he protest today? Not just the Church, but those political and cultural ‘powers’ that imprison people in today’s world. He went to the heart of what made life worth living for people of his world: key to this was the radical idea that you could be made right with God (happy?) without being manipulated by the Church. So, the Theses I propose here are aimed at wider targets than just the Church, but they include the Church.

Anyway, here goes (but I admit it sounds a bit trite – I can’t work up the anger of a Luther and it’s late):

1. Today’s big lie is that you can earn or buy happiness. Consumer culture is seductive, but things won’t being you joy. Nor will working yourself to death. There is more to life than ‘stuff’. Freedom from our slavery to consumer culture can be found in discovering that we are known by a God who cannot be surprised.

2. Systems are supposed to serve people, not the other way round. Visa does not make the world go around. Money might bring power, but it does not necessarily bring freedom and it certainly brings accountability. If banks cannot be allowed to fail, why can millions of poor people? If banks can be saved, why is it the poorest who will suffer the most?

3. Economic decisions have moral consequences – what is done in one part of the world affects real people everywhere else. Everything is connected and moral responsibility for the fate of others cannot be ducked. (That also goes for discouraging use of condoms in Africa…)

4. The material world should not be exploited by today’s powerful or greedy consumers, the price being paid by our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We must be prepared to pay a price for reducing our consumer demands. Responsibility means making hard choices now.

5. Celebrity culture is a form of distraction therapy from the reality of the world. Think of Weimar Berlin… or Marx’s ‘opiate of the people’ observation (which he aimed at religion). Ask why our media collude in this destructive and ridiculous fantasy.

6. Get a sense of perspective. Human beings might be clever, but we are not omnicompetent and we are expert in screwing up the world, ourselves and our societies. It is not clever to be selective in our historical remembering, harbouring grievances from long ago that serve merely to fuel (justify?) our corporate resentments and narcissism. (And, pace the French, you can’t just pretend Europe’s Christian history – for good or ill – did not happen…)

7. Security will only be found where the security of ‘the other’ is also protected. Building fences and walls will not ultimately protect – just prolong (and justify?) the cycles of violence. Love of one’s neighbour makes forgiveness possible and new relationships imaginable. Self-protection without regard to the security of others is futile.

8. Those who hold others to account must themselves be made accountable. Freedom of the press cannot be extricated from the responsibility of the press to act justly, fairly and accountably. If no other group (MPs, for example) can be trusted to police themselves, then why should the media be allowed to do so?

9. Hierarchies of victimhood are a symptom of a feeble, introspective and rootless culture. Some Christians (including the Pope) and others who think Christians are being ‘persecuted’ in Europe need to drop the whingeing. Vigorous debate should be enjoined with confidence, joy and freedom. Not surprisingly, this demands a recovery of intellectual rigour and apologetic confidence.

9.5. The Christian Church should get into perspective its primary vocation which is to look, feel and sound like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. Anything else is a fraud. The divisions between Christians – and the ways they are expressed – are a scandal, an offence and a distraction for the world that needs to discover joy, freedom, forgiveness, new life and generosity.

OK, this is a start. I could have written 9.5 specifically addressed to the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope while he is in my country and I am at the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation. I could have addressed them to the Church of England, business, the banks, the ubiquitous gambling industry or the military. I could have addressed them directly to myself. It all gets a bit confusing in the end.

So, there is my ‘starter for 9.5’ (as it were). Over to you for your ‘Theses’ to ‘the powers of this world’.