This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the morning after the Boris Johnson signalled his intention to resign as leader of the Conservative Party (following the unprecedented resignation of 59 government ministers).

The current convulsions in Westminster offer, if nothing else, a compelling drama. I guess politics are, by definition, always dramatic. After all, they involve people, the ordering of society, uncontrollable events, convictions, emotions and other contingencies.

But, dramas involve characters, contexts, narratives, and so on. And a clear question that needs to be asked when the dramas are playing out around us is, simply: what is driving the characters? The audience needs to be able to understand what is going on not only on the stage, as it were, but also in the minds of the players.

To illustrate this we could look to Shakespeare – after all, a new Shakespeare theatre opens next week in Prescot, Liverpool, and there are few dramatists who explore the complexities of human character as well as the Bard of Stratford.

Shakespeare’s imagination was fuelled by a close relationship with the Bible. And he recognised that the Bible is not a handbook of doctrines, but records the narrative of a people wrestling with human nature and how to order a just and merciful society. This narrative is brutally frank about reality and how real people behave, what drives them, which values are to be seen as virtues.

And this is where the current political dramas come in. Character and virtue are both essential to leadership and the common life of a society. So are the vision and values that drive the ordering of our society. But, it is not just the actors on stage who shape the story, so does the audience by its engagement.

The episode that shapes my own mind on this comes from the Old Testament. Before the liberated people of Israel could enter a Land of Promise – after unlearning ‘Egypt’ in a desert for forty years – they had to work out what the new world might look like once they settled. Rituals were established in order that they should never forget that once they had been slaves, refugees, homeless and rootless. They were to enshrine justice and mercy in the laws and institutions of their community for the future. Compassion for the powerless was integral. And all this was to help them shape a just and virtuous society. It didn’t fully succeed.

But, when things go awry or a society faces some re-shaping, it is vital that these fundamental questions are addressed: which values will drive us? Who and what are we for? Does virtue matter in public and institutional life?

But, in these dramas no one is a mere spectator. All are responsible actors, accountable for playing their part.

This Rough Magic

De Lacy Arts Lecture, Bradford Cathedral

3 November 2021

Studying Shakespeare’s The Tempest for A Level was, at first, a disappointment. I had hoped to be assigned one of the great tragedies or histories: Julius Caesar or Henry V or King Lear, for example. Something with big characters, lots of blood and rousing speeches that change the world. Instead, I thought, I got a fantasy about magic and shipwrecks and fairies.

My introduction to the Bard at O Level had been Macbeth and I have never been able to escape the haunting warning of the consequences of the king’s “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself” – a warning that seems to have eluded some of our senior politicians in recent times. The memory of Lady Macbeth is also difficult to shake off: driven towards madness by vicarious destructive ambition, and left with blood on her hands and torment in her soul.

Here we have characters who embody hope and shame, hubris and failure, affection and violent hatred. As they walk the stage in front of us they draw us into both the contingency of human character and relationships whilst exposing slowly the corrupting power of power itself. TheMacbeths display what we might call a utilitarian view of humanity in which we use people as commodities for the satisfaction of our own desires and cravings. Even on the page, if not on the stage, Shakespeare confronts us with ourselves – our raw humanity, the discrepancy between the ideal and the real, the complexity of ethics, and so on – and all this in words and speech and rubric.

If the song is right and “a picture paints a thousand words”, then the converse is also true: a word can paint a thousand pictures. I’ll return to this later.

I soon got over the disappointment at A Level. The Tempest was a revelation. It was less the plot and more the language that caught my reluctant attention and teased my imagination.

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” “What’s past is prologue.” “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.” “Now I want / Spirits to enforce, art to enchant; / And my ending is despair, / Unless I be relieved by prayer.” I could go on.

This lecture is not, however, about Shakespeare or language per se. But, I took the title from this play because ‘This rough magic’ seems to me to describe both the importance and nature of art and the arts. Magic? Because the arts refuse to be constrained by measurable sense or economic metrics; rather, they sneak around the protective walls of reason and commodity, and fire or tease or shock the imagination in ways that cannot be captured readily. The arts touch the imagination, engage emotion (often involuntarily), stimulate association, and go beyond what is merely measurable.

Whichever form of art we choose to peruse, we find ourselves invited into a place of what I would call ‘new seeing’. John Berger’s work on this is seminal and I won’t try to repeat it here. But, engaging with art – either in the creation of it or in interacting with it – draws from us a response. This response might be visceral; on the other hand, it might be indifferent. Yet, even indifference is a particular response to what is seen or heard. Let me illustrate briefly.

I am not a visual artist. I know what I like and I like what I know. While working in Paris in 1978-9 I used to visit a different wing of the Louvre every Sunday afternoon. Why? Because entry was free and I was skint. Week after week I returned to the Impressionists, then housed in the Jeu de Paume in the Tuilleries Gardens. Here I would stand as close as possible to the Manets and Monets before stepping back to see how the dabs and strokes made sense only from a distance; but, I wanted to see how the paint had been applied in the detail that formed a bigger picture. I fell in love with Van Gogh and the deep, tortured paint strokes that seemed hewn out of the canvas rather than applied to it. I admit, his story was one I found deeply moving.

(It was also here that I stood next to an American tourist who told his wife that ‘Haystacks’ was “kinda cute” – to which she responded: “You do this room, I’ll do the next one, then we’ve seen everything.” I still haven’t recovered.)

I was lost in other periods of art history, but loved the Impressionists. Of course, I have grown up since then, have travelled the world and visited galleries of all sorts. But, my ignorance keeps growing. Hence my enthusiasm when the Canon Theologian of Bradford Cathedral, Professor Ben Quash (Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Kings College, London) addressed clergy study days here in the Diocese of Leeds by showing us several paintings and introducing us to the language employed by the artist. I don’t know how to ‘read’ the art unless someone teaches me the language … teaches me to look differently in order to see differently in order to think differently about God, the world and us. The iconography demands curiosity and learning; the language needs to be interpreted before I can get beyond merely ‘liking’ it or not. I don’t always ‘see’ until I am enabled to ‘look’.

Likewise with poetry. I grew up hearing constantly how important poetry is, but not being introduced to the adventure of language itself – of words that can open or close the imagination. One of my favourite singer-songwriters is the Canadian Bruce Cockburn, now in his seventies. Thirty years ago he wrote a song called ‘Maybe the poet’ in which he suggests that every society needs its poets – people who use word and rhythm to open our eyes and ears and imagination to the echoes of an immeasurable depth of reality and experience and understanding. Musicians and poets, he asserts, shine a different light on experience and dare us to look differently. Don’t get locked into your prejudiced viewing point: “Male, female, slave or free / Peaceful or disorderly / Maybe you and he will not agree / But you need him to show you new ways to see.”

I once did a script on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 when Billy Ocean was the guest musician in the studio. I knew he would do his most famous song at some point, so I pre-empted it with my script. Instead of “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”, I offered “When the going gets tough, the tough write poetry”. And I was serious. Poets use words and images that steal behind the defences and have the power to move, shake, surprise or shock us – placing a subtle question mark over what we have considered to be ‘normal’ or assumed to be ‘just the way it is’. Sigmund Freud once observed: “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.” It is the poets who face themselves with honesty and express what they see.

I could be confident about this because the Christian tradition is rooted in poetry – in the words of the American Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, “words that linger, texts that explode”. When Israel is in exile and longing for a home they might never see again, it is the poets who bring challenge and comfort, hope and realism. These prophets use language to help the suffering face their reality, not escape from it. It is their words that haunt the imagination of a bereft people over generations, scratching away at the memory and opening up the cracks of the hint of a possibility of a future.

Maybe a clue to the power of the arts lies precisely here – in the cracks. In the broken places and broken people whose recorded experience presents us with an opportunity to look through a different lens at our own experience of the world. It was the late and very great Leonard Cohen who sang (in ‘Anthem’): “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” The poets go beyond rational semantics; they open up the cracks in order to let light get in. Of course, we also have the freedom to fill in the cracks in order to stop such subversive things happening again.

Again, this is how the Psalms work. These are songs and poems I read every day, whether I feel like it or not, and regardless of whether they seem apposite to my own circumstances or mood at the time. They provide a vocabulary for praise, lament, joy, fear, longing, confusion, lostness, foundness, hope, dread, and so on. Jesus taught using words to paint pictures – stories and images that make the hearer do the work of thinking and imagining … if, of course, the hearer can be bothered. Poetry, in this sense, is demanding. It is also indifferent to response … which is the responsibility of the hearer or reader. In this sense, it takes people seriously as adults who need both to play with words and ideas and to change their world, if not the world.

I have dwelt on poetry because words have been my own trade and language has been my interest, both professionally and personally. I recall starting my modern languages degree at university (in German and French) and being told by a professor: “There is no point learning a language unless you have something worth saying in it.” I took the point. Which is why we then had to study not only literature, but also history, politics, economics, philosophy, and so on. In other words, words matter. But, words are not an end in themselves; rather, used well, they have the potential to change the world.

Poetry, like art, has the power to be subversive. Bracha L Ettinger put it like this: “Art adds an ethical quality to the act of witnessing.” This was said in the context of how art functions in the face of atrocity and makes the point that neither the artist nor the audience can be ethically neutral. Try standing in front of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and look only at the texture of the paint, ignoring the horror of what the paint depicts. This is where the artist invites the viewer to become a moral agent and not just a spectator. We can easily become numbed by the stream of utterly shocking stories of abuse of children by churches; but you only have to look at Kent Monkman’s painting The Scream (2017) to be confronted with the horror of what happened to children in Canada who, between the 1880s and 1990s, were torn from their families and taken to Catholic residential schools where appalling sexual, emotional and physical abuse took place behind the walls of what should have been a sanctuary. As Susan Sontag put it: “Real art has the capacity to make us nervous.”

Here we come back to the cracks. It is not only what we see in a painting – or hear through the words of a poem – that matters, but, also, what is left out. That is the power of good art: the silence speaks, the white space articulates, what is missing is eloquent by its very absence. Let me illustrate with a simple story.

When I was still in my mid-twenties, married with two very young children, my artist wife tried, on holiday, to slow me down. She asked me to draw an apple which she placed on a table in front of me. I did my best, but when she returned she asked why I had drawn a banana. I was aware of my limitations. But, what it taught me is that drawing demands attention being focused only on the object being drawn. You have to think not only about what it is (or what it signifies), but how it might be represented in a different medium. In other words, the artist has to look carefully, pay attention to how light plays on it, recognise shape and form and texture. It is the looking that changes.

The second thing she did was ask me to draw a chair. I did. It was a joke. When she came back into the room she gave me a new piece of paper and asked me to now draw the spaces between and around the elements of the chair. What emerged was less sharp, but more like a chair. It was in the space – the cracks, the gaps – that the form and the meaning emerged. It taught me to look differently. And I began to apply the same discipline to poetry, language, writing, music, theology, and so on. The absence is a presence, the silence is substance.

In this context, the musician Brian Eno spoke of the need for the artist to know when to stop, what to leave out. He said: “Having no silence in music is like having no black or white in a painting.” Henri Matisse claimed: “I don’t paint things, I only paint the difference between things.” Marcel Duchamp: “It’s not what you see that is art; art is the gap.” Grayson Perry questions the anaesthetising nature of how some art is appropriated in a culture that lacks confidence in what he calls “measuring subjective experiences”; he asserts that our lack of confidence in how to understand our own experience leads us to rely on brands that tell us what is good and how to be happy. He calls for greater emotional intelligence and less reliance on prefabricated and manipulative brands to shape our worlds of meaning.

And, so, we are back to the role and power of art to challenge and subvert our comfort or expectations – opening up the gaps and cracks, beckoning us to stay with the silences and live with the absences. Ben Quash says: “Works that ambush you are religiously important, because a sort of religious art that only gives you what you already expect and want quickly becomes kitsch. It’s just a reward for your expectations. And that shouldn’t be what religious art does. It should want to take you somewhere else, just as good religion should – it should be transformative, not merely confirming where you already are.”

And, I would add, what goes for religious art goes also for any art form. We can recognise the form and the pattern, but only in order to be compelled – or, at least, invited – to ask if that recognition is adequate. The American novelist and cultural commentator, Marilynne Robinson, said: “Sometimes people who subscribe to goodness in a programmatic way are resistant to surprise. Christianity is subversive in that sense. Christ became a slave. That undercuts cultural assumptions about what is valuable, what the hierarchies are. Art reproduces that great overturning whenever it is good art.” Rowan Williams observes that this subversiveness is rooted in grace: “It’s about the church being hospitable to difficult voices and difficult images,” he says.

“Art is the lie that reveals the truth,” said Picasso. Bertolt Brecht observed that “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” And James Baldwin gets to the point when he points out that: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been concealed by the answers.”

What I have been considering here about art and poetry comes together in a fundamental respect for the imagination. I remember being at a board meeting of an international insurance group when we were introduced to the notion of ‘stochastic modelling’, a tool used by insurance companies to posit different global scenarios (1 in 50, 1 in 100 or 1in 200 year weather events, for example) in order to do the actuarial work that underpins underwriting policies. I am not very good at such things, but the penny eventually dropped and I said: “Ah, I see. It’s an exercise in imagination.” My colleagues began to object until I made the point that ‘imagination’ is not fantasy; it is not ‘making things up’ that aren’t there. Imagining what is not actual is actually a distinguishing feature of what it means to be self-reflectively human. Albert Einstein put it like this: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.” Or, as Brian Eno (quoted earlier) says: “What is possible in art becomes thinkable in life.”

CS Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, writes: “We can’t hold faith entirely in our hands, we must creatively imagine it. … We are inveterate poets.” He goes on to suggest that the theatre is a gymnasium for underused imaginations.

Media expert and current chairman of ITV, Peter Bazalgette, makes the connection between the exercise of imagination, the arts and education when he says: “There’s a strong relationship between arts and cultural engagement and educational attainment. We see an improvement in literacy when young people take part in drama and library activities, and better performance in maths and languages when they take part in structured music activities.” Sir Anthony Gormley agrees: “Perhaps the most important argument for the centrality of art in education is that the art room can become a zone dedicated to the exercise of curiosity, a place where the instincts of questioning can find their own paths to language. What happens when I mix this with that? How does what happens affect me / how does it affect others?”

But, if art is so important to human culture, promotion of the social good, critical moral development, political narrative formation, individual growth in depth and imagination, then why are the arts and humanities being apparently devalued in the sphere of public policy in the United Kingdom? If the lockdowns of the last couple of years promoted an explosion of creativity in some homes and in the media, government also suggested that artists should consider retraining to “work in cyber”. The repeated pleas and warnings by artists, actors and musicians – performers dependent on travel for their living, along with all those needed to enable them to perform – for consideration during the Brexit negotiations were derided as just more ‘Project Fear’. That is, until it became impossible for artists to travel in Europe because of the new cost and bureaucratic impositions that Brexit enforced. Freelancers – which most working artists are – found that they were not valued and had not been considered as priorities as ‘deals’ were being done with the European Union. The despair of many artists was obvious as they felt overlooked and undervalued in the political machinations of shaking a fist at Europe.

What this oversight ignored was the economic value of the arts to this country. The arts not only flew the flag for a global Britain, but also contributed to our soft power around the world as well as making a direct and enormous economic contribution to our domestic GDP. But, you wouldn’t have thought this to be the case while witnessing the marginalising of the sector in negotiations over deals. Numerous questions were asked in Parliament, reports and evidence accumulated, and attention was brought to bear far too late. Yet, this is not the main point of my observations. The import of this phenomenon is that the arts were assumed to be economically irrelevant, suggesting that the political radar is biased against areas of life that serve the common good whilst being considered of low value in the cogs and wheels of economic thinking.

Let’s be clear, as the London-based academic Rishi Trikha has written: … “the underlying belief that creative jobs are a frivolous hobby, staffed by people who are unserious and low-skilled, has persisted for a long time. … The creative industries and cultural sector contribute over £143 billion to the UK economy every year, in addition to secondary benefits to hospitality businesses such as hotels and restaurants. The digital sector is worth £149 billion, so the idea that artists should hang up their dance shoes and get a ‘real job’ is based on prejudice rather than facts.”

Culture and the arts do not need to be justified by economics; but, if economics are assumed to be the only or main criterion for valuing people and work, then it is right to question the assumptions and be honest about the economic benefits derived from the arts. In this context I commend Darren Henley, CEO of Arts Council England, and his book The Arts Dividend Revisited in which he identifies seven benefits that funding culture can bring to a society.*

What does it mean, then, to live in a culture in which public policy appears to be marginalising the arts as a public good? Several months ago a university vice-chancellor, Professor Todd Walker, spoke unashamedly of getting rid of what he called ‘vanity courses’ from universities. His actual words were: “The days of having a vanity course are over. We’re not here to study something for which there is no direct employment, growing market or sector.” He later apologised, but the damage was done and the game had been given away. (One commentator described his views as “utilitarian crap”.) What happened to the notion of a university as a locus of education, learning, thinking, development of critical faculties, cultural development, and so on? This is consistent with a way of thinking that values only that which is measurable economically. It assumes that unless a university course leads directly to a job that brings an income, it serves no purpose – that if it is not vocational (in the sense of training the subject to fulfil a function), it is discardable.

You can see where this is going. Teachers at every level of education have been complaining for years that ‘Ausbildung’ has transplanted ‘Erziehung’ – that is, education has been elided into mere training. Where music, art and playing are seen as a distraction from the real business of ‘learning’, we should not be surprised to dig a little way down and find an anthropology that is fundamentally utilitarian. Is learning really about cultivating the capacity and skills for thinking about life and its meaning – or is it simply about getting a job to feed the economy? Is learning more about gaining wisdom than accumulating data? Peter Bazalgette observes again that removal of a collective memory, cultivated by the arts as an essential part of society, leaves us with “a society bereft of a national conversation … about its identity or anything else.”

These are vital questions at a time when the arts and humanities are being diminished in public policy as being of less importance than, for example, economics or engineering. To be fairly crude about it: when the engineer finishes constructing ‘things’ and systems, what feeds his or her soul? Where does the music come from if music is merely an optional extra for those who like that sort of thing or can afford to study a ‘vanity course’? What feeds the person who the engineer is? And to what end is the engineering itself a means?

If, as I would argue, the common good is served by human beings – in society – being treated as more than economic cogs in a productive wheel, then the arts are essential to building a good society in which human persons, individually and together, can thrive. The arts are not an optional extra. In this sense, the arts – and society as a whole, if it wants to thrive – must push back against the insidious assumption that a market economy can slide effortlessly into a market society. The former has to do with economic choices; the latter with preventing the economy (seen in purely financial or industrial terms) from being seen as an end in itself. Put simply: does the economy exist for the good of society, or does society exist for the sake of the economy? As we observed earlier in this lecture, the point of human society is people and their communal thriving; the economy is a means to that (greater) end, not an end in itself.

The title of this lecture, taken (as I explained at the beginning) from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is incomplete. “This rough magic” is not just an evocative phrase that, I suggest, provokes thinking about art and drama and meaning and music and language. Prospero actually says: “This rough magic which I abjure…” He is renouncing it, abandoning the rough magic, letting go of the art. But, as a friend pointed out to me when discussing these themes and that phrase, this ‘abjuring’ can be understood in two ways: first – negatively – as a turning away from that which has now, through experience, become devalued – a source of doubt or disillusionment; secondly – positively – as the abandonment of one way of looking at, seeing, thinking about and understanding the world … because art has opened up a new way, an alternative perspective, a new (or renewed) vision of how the world is or might become.

I think this is what Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was suggesting when he wrote: “A man shall hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.”

Here I want to put particular weight onto this notion of beauty. Not a beauty that avoids the horrors and ugliness of the world, but a beauty that defies that ugliness because it inspires an imagination of what might be. Art can never be satisfied with what is. This is why, as  Christian, I am fired up by the scriptures in which art and beauty are praised – think of the elaborate design of the tabernacle and the temple, shaped by artists in an ancient world. Jesus teaches using stories that, once told, have been given away to the hearers. He sows images in the mind that scratch away when propositional statements have long been forgotten. I would go as far as to say that the key to the kingdom of God is not adherence to any particular dogma, but, rather, that curiosity that opens the imagination and is bold enough to – in gospel terms – walk up the beach with the Jesus who calls us into the journey without giving us any guarantees about what lies ahead.

This is, indeed, rough magic. The temptation is always to smooth it out and polish it. The genius is to explore it, even if, later, we choose to abjure it.

———————

* enhancing the nation’s creativity; improving education; advancing health & wellbeing; supporting innovation and technology; regenerating villages, towns and cities; contributing to economic growth; building a reputation for cultural excellence on the global stage. (He goes on to say that creativity and culture bring people together, support local economies and make our lives better. But, while talent is everywhere, opportunity is not.)

“Poetry is like fish. If it’s fresh, it’s good. If it’s stale, it’s bad. If you’re unsure, try it out on the cat.” (Osbert Sitwell)

“Faith precedes understanding.” (Augustine)

“The work of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” (Francis Bacon)

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Breakfast Show with Zoe Ball:

I had a chat with a mate recently when he was facing a hard choice. In the end I said: “Well, it’s in your hands, isn’t it?” I doubt if this statement of the obvious was very helpful.

But, when I rang off what stuck in my mind was the phrase about hands. Don’t ask me why – it just did.

Now, I’m rubbish at remembering poetry or quotes from Shakespeare; but, I’ll never forget doing Macbeth at school and being shocked by Lady Macbeth murdering the King of Scotland and then going mad trying to wash her hands of the guilt. “Out, damned spot!” she cries as her life disintegrates and she finds that all the hand washing in the world won’t rid her of her guilt.

And that takes me to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate who also tried to wash his hands of responsibility for chickening out of setting Jesus free when the crowd wanted blood.

In other words, hand washing hasn’t had a great press, has it?

Well, as things seem to be closing down again in pandemic Britain, hands are making a big new appearance. Our hands hold a key to learning to live with a virus that isn’t going to go away – how we behave is literally in our hands; I am responsible for how I decide to love my neighbour by being responsible for their safety. Secondly, washing my hands might seem insignificant, but it isn’t. It’s the small steps that make the biggest difference.

As a Christian, of course, hands make another appearance in my memory. And, for me, this is the answer to both Lady Macbeth and Pontius Pilate. When the friends of Jesus meet him after the resurrection, he shows them his hands and, shockingly, they still have the wound marks of crucifixion. He is not ashamed to show the world the marks of loss and hurt and pain. And healing does not simply wipe away the wounds – the scars remain.

So, today I want to put my hands up. No need to hide the pain or the failures. How I love my neighbour actually lies in my hands.

 

 

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

I was once in the foreign ministry of another country asking hard questions of the deputy foreign minister. He was a little evasive and so we pushed harder on how a particularly challenging situation might be addressed, if not resolved. Eventually, he stood up, banged his fist on the table and said: “Sometimes it seems there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But, it is not because the light is not there; it is because the tunnel is not straight.”

Fair point, I thought.

And it’s not a bad image to hold onto during the current uncertainties. It is hard to spot the light when the bends shorten our vision.

But, today we celebrate the birthday – and, with remarkable symmetry, the death day – of someone who looked at his ‘now’ with a vision that has spanned centuries. William Shakespeare developed characters who couldn’t always see around the next bend or whose light turned out to be a source of violence rather than illumination. Think, for example, of Macbeth whose “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself” blinds him to the tragedy he has already set in train.

But, Shakespeare was a genius at imparting wisdom subversively. He never dumps moralising aphorisms on his audience. Rather, he lets the drama roll on, the language surprise, and the characters reflect back to the audience the truths about human nature and society that sometimes are uncomfortable to acknowledge. And he often does this while making us laugh.

Which makes Shakespeare a man for the moment. Steeped in the language of the Bible, he delved into the messy realities of human motivation and choices. His characters are never one-dimensional. And they pose questions four hundred years later that are pertinent as we look now to the post-pandemic future. Which motivations are noble and need to be held onto as we shape a different future? How, as the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures illustrates, might we as a society not lose sight of the gains and gifts this crisis has offered: togetherness, social solidarity, care for the marginalised, self-sacrifice, valuing people and jobs differently?

None of this is abstract. It invites a conversation – an argument, even – about how we want to be. I remember a business leader once telling me that the most important person in his business was the cleaner who had his office ready for him every morning. I asked if the cleaner’s remuneration reflected this value, but got no answer.

So, as some parts of the world now enter the maelstrom of infection and others think about emerging from the worst experience, the light at the end of the tunnel invites both hopefulness and realism about the nature of the task ahead.

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

Earlier this morning India launched a rocket to deliver a satellite to join a constellation of seven satellites which will take high-resolution full colour video of the earth from space. Which means that it won’t be long before we get to see some remarkable film of the tiny globe on which we live.

I well remember staring at the first photographs of the earth taken from the moon. I was a child and hadn’t fully registered the fact that human beings had never before been able to look at the whole globe from a distance and see it against the backdrop of the universe.

The initial pictures were stunning and had a long-lasting impact on those who saw them. Having seen ourselves as the centre of the universe and had our perspectives shaped by the intimate dramas of our particular habitat, it came as a shock to see the beautiful, tiny, fragile orb spinning almost insignificantly in the vast ocean of star-studded blackness. Are we really that small?

Well, the sense of mystery that these photographs evoked was not unique. Nearly three millennia ago a peasant looked up at a Middle Eastern sky and wrote: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” OK, the poet wasn’t looking back on earth, but from earth looking up – and this had the effect of causing him to wonder what life is all about and why we matter anyway.

And it is this perspective that puts in context both the global and local struggles that consume human energy, aspiration and fear – from the future of the NHS to North Korean nuclear missiles and a post-Brexit UK.

Science explores the shape and mechanics of the universe, sparking the imagination and causing us to face reality based on observable facts. What science can’t do, however, is attribute to what is seen any inherent meaning, however inspiring the observation itself might be. What is seen has to be mediated, interpreted or apprehended, but it cannot of itself impute particular meaning other than to say that it is what it is.

But, this is where science and faith can be seen to play on the same field. The old so-called ‘conflict metaphor’ – in my view – needs to be consigned to the intellectual bin. George Lemaitre was a Belgian priest and professor of physics in the last century. It was he who proposed the theory of the expansion of the universe in what became known as Hubble’s Law. Praised by Albert Einstein in 1933, Lemaitre went on to say: ”There are two paths to truth; and I decided to follow both of them.”

So, science and faith are not enemies in the search for truth.

Or, as Shakespeare put it in Hamlet “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

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

Having lived for nine years in Leicestershire and now living in Yorkshire, I feel like I inhabit the tension around the final burial place of King Richard III.

His bones will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral, less than a hundred yards from the hole in the city centre car park that I found myself looking into 2 years ago. Their symbolic journey has of course been much longer.

But, who was he? Was Richard a megalomaniac psychopathic child killer who was as lousy a monarch as he was a warrior? Or was he a sick victim of someone else's arrows of misfortune, caught up in the political intrigues and power plays of his day? Shakespeare hasn't necessarily helped us in his portrayal of the desperate king who, despite not winning very much at all, at least developed a good line in rhetoric.

What interests me in the Richard conundrum is this not insignificant matter of reputation. Once the mud has been thrown, it is difficult to wipe it off. And, 500 years after his violent – and apparently humiliating – death in battle, here we are doing a balancing act between honouring his short-lived status as an English monarch and creating a battleground of judgements on his inability or otherwise to live up to his calling.

Reputations are hard won, but easily lost. And in the culture of blame and scapegoating that we seem to have developed today, it is especially hard for a lost reputation to be regained. Where there is smoke there must be fire – even if the evidence denies this. Just ask people who have been wrongly accused of crimes or dishonourable behaviour.

Shakespeare himself writes in Richard II: “The purest treasure mortal times afford / Is spotless reputation/ … / Mine honour is my life; both grow in one; / Take honour from me, and my life is done.” But, it didn't stop him having a go at the next Richard in such an elegant way that the king has never quite recovered, did it?

A problem for many people is getting trapped in a reputation from which you simply cannot escape. Once a crook, always a crook; one moral failure, always damned. Yet, one of the scandals of Jesus of Nazareth was his anti-social insistence on setting people free from the prisons of their past – offering the possibility of hope, of new life, and of freedom. According to him, redemption is always on offer – even when self-righteous people resent the fact. Remember the prodigal son, the father who waits in hope for him to return, and the elder brother who resents generosity, forgiveness and new life. According to this way of seeing people and their purpose, to fail is not necessarily to be a failure. The story can never be said to have ended.

Perhaps Richard's bones can now rest in peace… and his re-burial invite us to be as merciful to him as we would wish history to be to us.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest Caliban retorts to Prospero:

You taught me language, and my profit on ‘t
Is I know how to curse. (Act 1, Scene 2: 437-438)

What is it about us that seems hell-bent on turning anything good into something bad? Words are wonderful, but they can be used to kill. Science progresses with techniques for curing and healing, but the same technology gets diverted into ways of killing ever more efficiently. Why? What is wrong with us?

Well, none of this is new if you are remotely familiar with any Christian theology… or basic human experience. But, in relation to current news stories, I make two rather simply observations: first re the Jimmy Savile horror story, and second re racism in football.

Various churches have had to pay heavily for allowing the systemic abuse of children and vulnerable people over decades. Quite right, too. Yet there has been a hint of a suspicion in some quarters that those doing the gloating about the nasty churches might one day need to defend themselves and their own institutions on similar terms. No schadenfreude here – just a fear that the problems experienced in the churches have less to do with the churches’ theology and more to do with common human propensities.

The BBC is now under scrutiny and certain newspapers scream at the BBC in judgement – seemingly oblivious to the moral questions hanging over their own treatment of vulnerable people. The BBC faces serious scrutiny and it clearly needs it. For Savile to have been able to exploit its culture for so many decades raises serious questions that must be (and will be) addressed.

But, those pointing the fingers now might need to be a little cautious in their judgements. They might be next. For the basic truth about all this stuff is that human beings have a tendency to turn goodness into badness, to exploit weakness and power, to put self-preservation before truth, and to pervert what began beautiful.

This applies to the banks, businesses that pay no taxes, media organs that treat people like commodities for the entertainment of others, clergy who abuse trust and abase the ‘good news’ they are supposed to represent. As we keep having to remind those who uncritically (and sometimes mindlessly) accuse religion for all the world’s ills, the worst abuses of human life in the twentieth century came from anti-religionists such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot. These are human problems, not just problems to be nailed to people we don’t like.

In other words, this stuff goes right back to being human and not just part way to what humans say motivates them.

This is another reason why people like me get fed up with accusations that Christians are escapists, whilst humanists are people who ‘take responsibility’ for themselves. Christianity is rooted firmly in this world, in facing reality and taking direct responsibility for the whole shebang. The cross of calvary involves God and us looking the sad reality of the human condition in the eye and naming it for what it is. No romantic escapism; no fantasising that if we just tried harder everything would be OK; no wishful thinking about ‘myths of progress’ that seem somehow to end up lying in pools of other people’s blood dripping from the altar of someone else’s tribal ego.

Francis Spufford calls this “the human propensity to fuck things up” (HPtFtU). The Bible calls it ‘sin’. Take your pick, but the former spells out what the latter means after we have drained it of all the negative associations piled onto it as the shorthand that means all Christians are miserable self-haters. No, we are lovers whose experience cries out for some explanation, if not excuse. Read Spufford’s wonderful Unapologetic to see how he deals with this universal feature of human being. (And read Stephen Cherry for a reflection on the book.)

This is where the racism stuff comes in. I am writing this while Liverpool are giving away a two-goal lead against Everton – football being the game that houses racism (leaving match fixing to cricket, doping to cycling and competitive-dadness to Monopoly). Yes, we must do all we can to expose racism wherever it comes to light. Yes, we must legislate against behaviours and language that represent a curse within our society, blighting lives and scarring all of us with sheer nastiness. But, no, we shouldn’t be surprised that these things go on and will not be eradicated by all our best efforts.

As I once said to a neighbour in a General Synod debate on something or other: it is easy to win a vote – but winning the vote does not mean we have won the hearts and minds.

Unless HPtFtU is taken seriously – and the alternative is escapism, romanticism, fantasy, wishful thinking, etc – we will continue to bow at the altar of the sort of relativism that we see in our press: assuming that the best guide to moral goodness is merely that we know we are better than [insert chosen ‘monsters’]. (Which, of course, means that we might be well down the moral pecking order, but at least we are not as low as…)

Ferdinand (not Rio or Anton) bleats to Prospero in The Tempest:

I warrant you sir;
The white cold virgin snow upon my heart
Abates the ardour of my liver.

Says it all, really.

(And, Christianity doesn’t stop at realism or diagnosing the problem of the human condition; it offers a response that takes the human condition seriously. Start with Easter…)

Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech yesterday in which he praised the impact of the King James Bible, stamped all over the nonsense assumption of secular neutrality, and called for Christians to be confident about their faith, the Bible and their right (nay, responsibility) to speak into public life. Not surprisingly, it has caused a bit of a stir amongst the commentariat whose assumptions got a bit of a kicking.

Cameron was speaking in an Anglican cathedral, so was duly confident in his laudatory observations on the impact of the King James Bible. He also used the occasion to give the Church of England a bit of a kick in relation to its wrangles over women and sexuality. Fair game, I say. And it was good to hear a British politician ‘do God’ without embarrassment, hesitation or self-exonerating caveat.

But, having praised the phenomenon and some of the content, I am still left with a cautious hesitation myself. And I think I know why this is.

He managed to talk up the language of the Bible without really referring to the content of it. Yes, the KJV has powerfully influenced our language and, proclaimed by the Church, has shaped our culture and law as well as our worship. But, we can’t just leave it there.

It reminds me of a rude remark I made recently at an interfaith gathering. I said that many of the global interfaith conferences I attend are a bit like a glorified BT commercial: ‘It’s good to talk’… provided we don’t actually talk about anything. Yet, avoiding ‘content’ is a sure way to waste time and money on non-engagement and the fostering of a false sense of coherence when all we have done is avoid speaking about ‘content’ that might prove contentious. Of course, this is a caricature, but it made the point: we have to move beyond talking about talking to talking about something.

Well, Cameron lauded the language and spoke eloquently about the need for moral codes and ethical foundations in private as well as public life. He argued for a thought-through moral and spiritual basis for our ethics – rather than just assuming one.

But, the problem with the Bible is that as soon as you get beyond the language to what it says, you begin to find it challenging – on lots of fronts. Beautiful language is a means to comprehension, not an end in itself. And it’s taking a bit of a risk challenging the Church of England on its ethical conflicts when those conflicts arise precisely from going through the language and on to conflicted ways of reading the text in its integrity. So, it is alright for the Prime Minister to “recognise the impact of a translation that is, I believe, one of this country’s greatest achievements” and to claim that “the King James Bible is as relevant today as at any point in its 400 year history” as long as we don’t delve too deeply into what it says. He goes on:

One of my favourites is the line “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” It is a brilliant summation of the profound sense that there is more to life, that we are imperfect, that we get things wrong, that we should strive to see beyond our own perspective. The key word is darkly – profoundly loaded, with many shades of meaning. I feel the power is lost in some more literal translations. The New International Version says: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror”. The Good News Bible: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror”. They feel not just a bit less special but dry and cold, and don’t quite have the same magic and meaning.”

I take the point (and basically agree with him), but the Bible isn’t meant to dazzle us with poetic magic; it is meant to open us to the mind of God… which tends to be a little bit challenging.

Like Shakespeare, the King James translation dates from a period when the written word was intended to be read aloud. And this helps to give it a poetic power and sheer resonance that in my view is not matched by any subsequent translation.

Again, point taken. But, resonance isn’t enough. It isn’t a performance prop. Like with Shakespeare, it is possible to enjoy the spectacle and experience of a play while going home oblivious to the point of it all. It won’t kill you, but you are missing out on rather a lot.

Cameron (or whoever wrote the basic text) does a good job of exposing assumptions of neutrality, affirming the role of the Bible in the development of British politics and culture, the fundamental power of biblical anthropology in shaping what would now rather weakly be called ‘human rights’, and the importance of biblically informed theological and spiritual motivation in social altruism. He says:

The Bible has helped to shape the values which define our country. Indeed, as Margaret Thatcher once said, “we are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible.” Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love… pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities… these are the values we treasure. Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that.

I didn’t know we were afraid to acknowledge that. But, we are not told which biblical origins these virtues are derived from… or just how to deal with the fact that some people who read that same Bible will not recognise in the same way Cameron does how those virtues should be worked out in concrete priorities, policies or practices. He is absolutely right to knock on the head the utter nonsense that confident Christianity confounds those of other faiths – usually a patronising and ignorant gesture from secular humanists who think they know better than Muslims what offends them. Christianity has indeed created the space in which all people can freely worship or not.

However, Cameron’s conclusion made me wince a little – not at what he said, but at the unarticulated assumptions behind it:

I believe the Church of England has a unique opportunity to help shape the future of our communities. But to do so it must keep on the agenda that speaks to the whole country. The future of our country is at a pivotal moment. The values we draw from the Bible go to the heart of what it means to belong in this country
…and you, as the Church of England, can help ensure that it stays that way.

And what might the ‘agenda that speaks to the whole country’ actually be? I suspect it has to do with stuff that some Christians, precisely because of their reading of the Bible – in whatever translation – believe is contentious on moral grounds. I am not saying they are right or wrong; my point is simply that Cameron’s point is itself contentious… as soon as you move beyond vague generalities about ‘values’ and ‘magic’ and into the text itself.

But, maybe he has just opened the door a little to a willingness to take the content of the Bible seriously and invite people to look at the text itself rather than some general or selective bits of nice language. (‘The Word became flesh’… which is when it all got a bit difficult…)

Two cheers for a brave and serious speech. One cheer reserved for the reservations above.

The start of a new year always feels like we’ve got to the top of a dodgy ladder and fallen off, only to have to start climbing again. No guarantees and no foreknowledge of what exactly is to come.

OK, we can assume that 2011 is going to bring huge challenges to many people and life is going to be tough for individuals, families, businesses, institutions and charities:

  • as unemployment shoots up, so there will be huge pressure on marriages (undermining family stability and affecting large numbers of children)
  • history teaches us that this will put additional pressure on the NHS – particularly mental health services (which are already under-resourced and often hidden)
  • radical public service cuts will have a direct effect on local economies which depend more on public services (particularly in the north of England)
  • private businesses will consequently suffer in the wake of the above
  • crime will increase, but the police will have fewer resources to address either the real situation or public perceptions of it.

And that’s just the miserable stuff for starters. You can add in predictions of continuing public unrest, direct protests against the effects of the cuts, and a growing public instinct for ‘doing something’ about it (an expression of human dignity and responsibility?).

So, no cheer then? Well, that depends. It is unclear whether faith communities and charities will be able to plug the gaps left by local or central government funding withdrawals. Asking people to give more to charity, though always desirable, is no answer to the problem of cuts to essential funding of local agencies who meet needy people where they are. Among others, churches may be deemed the appropriate agencies for rising to new challenges; but, so far, no research has been done into either capacity or competence.

In other words, we are walking blind into uncharted territory. I have sympathy with David Cameron’s vision for the Big Society, but I have serious doubts about it being deliverable in the short term – I can see it being undermined in both practice and theory by an over-ambitious and overly-radical programme of immediate (rather than programmed/staggered) cuts.

So, given the potentially overwhelming challenges that colour our view of the prospects for 2011 – internationally as well as nationally and locally – where might we turn for an overarching theme that might shape our approach to whatever lies ahead?

I think the Guardian put it well this morning in its editorial comment:

The cynicism which pervades public life at the dawn of 2011 is … a creed that ascribes the basest motives to everybody, and dismisses the very possibility of moral improvement. … mistrust is paralysing politics. It is evident in marketopian reforms which treat public servants as knaves to be slapped into line by the self-interested whack of the invisible hand. It is evident, too, in fear and loathing between the governing and governed, and – we admit – in newspapers being too gleeful about catching yet another snout in the trough. The great injustices of the day have at times been buried in a blizzard of dodgy receipts for duck islands and patio doors. The dismal worldview reaches its apogee in the rightwing blogosphere, where pundits parade as anarchists but subtly entrench hopelessness by decreeing every call for public virtue to be a cover for private vice. None of this is to deny the praiseworthiness of doubt and sceptical inquiry, preconditions for both good government and clear thought. But it is to hope, however vainly, for a collective resolution to extend a smidgeon more trust in considering what makes people tick.

Trust is essential and central to any constructive or positive approach to what lies ahead of us – which we have the responsibility to shape and not just to decry as if we are helpless victims. Trust assumes that we will take seriously the Common Good.

This means – taking the context of the Guardian’s piece seriously – that the media have a massive responsibility not only to question and critique, but also to see themselves as ‘players and participants’ of our society and drop the pretence of being disinterested, objective observers of everybody else. The media shape public perceptions of reality and motivation – and that makes them responsible agents in shaping society and the trust or cynicism that infect public life.

In All’s Well That Ends Well Shakespeare put is like this:

Love all, trust a few. Do wrong to none.
We don’t have a right to happiness, despite the assumptions behind the American Declaration of Independence. But, we do have a responsibility to take seriously the well-being of all in our society – especially those least able to secure their own. Trust will either encourage us – or its lack will further destroy us.

I don’t have a very good memory for poetry, but there is one line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth which has been playing on my mind in the days since the inconclusive General Election:

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
And falls on th’other. . . . (Act 1, scene 7, 25-28)

Macbeth intended to kill Duncan, the King, but lacked a motive. The Prime Minister’s ambition tells a different story.

Gordon Brown is leaving office (and, if reports are accurate, politics) amid a mixture of respect and scorn. He craved the top job for so long and yet has only been able to hold on to it for three years. It seems that his dark resentment against Tony Blair blinded him to the limitations of his own abilities. Rather than being content to fulfil his potential in the roles that were suitable for his gifts, his ambition compelled him to manoeuvre his way into a post for which he has always appeared ill-equipped.

Therein lies the tragedy of a good man whose ambition o’erleaped itself and led to a sad departure. Gordon Brown is one of the most eloquently ethical politicians I have ever heard. Intelligent, informed and articulate, he was on his best ground when addressing socio-economic realities through a framework of powerful moral (even biblical) ideals. Those who heard his impassioned appeal to the bishops of the Lambeth Conference at Lambeth Palace in July 2008 will forget the prophetic urgency of his speech – urging the bishops to take seriously their commitment to hold governments to account in relation to the Millenium Development Goals. He was honest not only about the political contraints on politicians, but also about the moral force of bishops (and others, of course) who should keep reminding governments of the commitments they had made.

The best line of the post-election game has been the one about us moving on from the Lib-Lab Pact of the 1970s to the ConDemNation of today. The shenanigans of recent days will soon resolve into some sort of government for next few months. But I suspect that one day the history books will be kinder to Gordon Brown than are the media this week. His policies (under Blair and subsequently) brought many people out of poverty, gave parents a better start and, amid some of the not-so-great elements, treated international aid seriously. He had his weaknesses – but he also had his strengths and these should be recognised.

Perhaps for the first time, he might now get a family life before offering his huge skills and experience to the world in a different capacity. In the meantime, we will no doubt be entertained by other politicians whose ambition is no less than Brown’s. It won’t be an edifying spectacle.