Dissenting Radical

The Common Good: A 'Christian-Left' perspective on radical theology, progressive politics, authentic culture and sustainable living.

Month: August, 2015

Holiday photos (Spain, 2015)

Day 1. Flew to Madrid. There I got a taxi straight to the hotel where I was going to meet my wife. She’d been away for three weeks beforehand visiting her mother in France (she’s a teacher, so she gets longer summer holidays than I do). There are no photos from the first day: after three weeks of separation, all of our exploring and recreation took place solely within the confines of the hotel bedroom, and I’m sure you don’t want to see photographic evidence of that! ūüėČ

Day 2. Breakfast in the sunshine. Enjoying good strong coffee and fresh orange juice. Route planning: You know you’ve reached an important milestone in life when, instead of reaching for the Lonely Planet, you pick up a Michelin Guide. Today Madrid to Segovia.

Alcazar at Segovia:


Another view of the Alcazar:11831682_10155993445140455_8292378974443014482_n

A monastery just outside the city walls of Segovia:11836677_10155993445285455_8236388908642682736_n

The Cathedral at Segovia:11846562_10155993445065455_3959948962896544317_n

The main square of Segovia:11846641_10155993445370455_8518740429666874421_nDay 3: From Segovia to Avila – the town that St Theresa came from. The town was having a 500-year anniversary of St Theresa, so it was all a bit commercialised with religio-tat. We had a few thoughts along the lines of throwing money-changers out of the temple. We ate very well at a little restaurant in a small courtyard in the middle of the old town.

Avila. The city felt a bit squashed and airless inside its walls. The best sights were looking out over the walls to the suburbs and countryside beyond:


One of the gates of Avila, from the outside looking in:


More of the outside of the walls of Avila. Because it was quite crowded inside the city, we went for a walk around the outside. Even there it was busy, but there was a bit more space:


One of the portals of the Cathedral in Avila: 11822754_10155996373975455_7271424186464050599_n

The hotel where we stayed in Avila – beautiful in every respect: 11846770_10155996373105455_8130813107888385120_n

The town hall in the main square of Avila – the civic architecture is almost as interesting (in its formulaic predictability) in the towns we visited as the ecclesiastical architecture):11800313_10155996371635455_7891237837568643339_n

The church of John the Baptist, Avila: 11822523_10155996370960455_7265720863505315776_n[Under Construction. I really should get around to adding the rest of the photos.]



Sporting Endeavours

People think that I’m a portly, tweedy, bookish sort of fellow, who is happier stroking his wild beard in the obscure corners of the library than getting muddy on the sports field – and they would be entirely right. It is true that I don’t like sports, as a general rule, and that I especially don’t like those that involve a lot of tribal shouting, shoving and dashing about.

But there are some sports that I did enjoy participating in when I was younger, such as rowing, sailing, fencing and shooting, and I can still appreciate these. Cricket – if played in a sedate and leisurely manner, and not in some horrific 20/20 format – is still a pleasant diversion, and I will very happily punctuate slow summer days by tuning in to Test Match Special.

The only other sport that can capture my attention, though, is one that few suspect, because it seems so decidedly out of character: American Football.

I know, as a good lefty European with communitarian socialistic tendencies, I should abhor this game. I know it represents, in its crass commercialisation, mindless tribal patriotism and wanton violence, all that is worst in the civilisation of the United States.

And it is true that the Americans don’t get many things right: no universal healthcare, absence of workers’ rights, grotesque levels of poverty and economic inequality, unhealthy overprocessed food because of the commercialisation of agriculture, a barbaric criminal justice policy, systemic political corruption, warmongering imperialism, widespread police brutality, institutional racism, and crazy religious fundamentalism.

But they do at least have a form of football that makes sense. They also have sweet pretty alt.country neo-folk bluegrass fusion music, NASA, and the concept of bacon-with-pancakes, but all of that is another story.

American Football makes sense to me because I am enough of an amateur classicist to see American Football for what it really is: a slightly stylised simulation of Greek hoplite warfare. And Greek hoplite warfare, which represents the triumph of the cooperative solidarity of democratic citizens over the slavish luxuries of monarchic despotism, is a surely proper subject for good left-wing Europeans of a beardy bookish nature to study.

Unlike ‘soccer’, which is all about kicking and passing the ball, in American Football the ball is almost incidental.¬†The¬†essence of the¬†game is gaining and holding territory through the push and shove of the phalanx: advancing the front line, getting through and¬†getting around. Just as the linemen represent the heavy infantry of the phalanx, the backs and recievers represent the light troops – the slingers and skirmishers, who attack from above and around the side.


I don’t really¬†follow the professional game. The NFL is too hyped-up, too manufactured, for my tastes. Sport is always better in its amateur form – people playing because they enjoy it, not because they are making millions. I do, however, quite enjoy intervarsity American Football, which¬†remains a very niche¬†minority sport on this side of the Atlantic.

Here is a lovely photo of the¬†University of Edinburgh American Football team (the ‘Predators’, in the green and white) playing¬†the University of¬†Glasgow (the ‘Tigers’, in the black and gold).

As a graduate of both Universities, I can cheer for the winner no matter who wins!

Doing the (charismatic) stuff.

When I first became a Christian I fell deeply and immediately, without much thinking, into charismatic stuff. I just thought it was normal. I was introduced to it through the Alpha Course ‘Holy Spirit’ weekend. For several years, I regularly attended charismatic services. ‘Doing the stuff’ of charismatic Christianity, like healing and prophecy, was part of my usual Sunday routine. ‘Praying in tongues’ was as natural and easy as praying in English.

By my late twenties, however, I had become quite skeptical of all this. I was jaded by the way in which I saw, in some churches and ministries, charismatic claims being abused – for manipulation, for ego-trips, for money-grubbing, and for covering intellectual laziness. I decided that most pretenses to ‘prophecy’ or ‘words of knowledge’ were a product of delusion and imagination (or, worse, a product of a desire to manipulate and dominate) rather than a gift of the Spirit.

In recent years, I’ve again become less skeptical with regard to certain charismatic claims and practices. Perhaps I see them as a bit rarer and more exceptional than I did in my youth (and there’s definitely a need for critical discernment, discretion and a healthy detachment) but I’ve seen enough and experienced enough of the Holy Spirit that I just cannot bring myself to completely deny it. In fact, the Holy Spirit is the attribute or name of God that I find it least difficult to truly believe in.

Has anyone else had a similar journey: from uncritical embrace, through critical rejection, to critical embrace?

A Modest Proposal

Why are property rights over people not protected by law? People can own land and water, which we did not build or create. People can own ideas. People can even own corporations, which are legal persons. So why can we not own other people?

Just think how easy it would be to solve migration or homelessness if people had an economic value. These problems are really a case of not allowing the market the freedom to do its job in allocating resources according to economic efficiency. People have lots of uses – they can be forced to labour. Or they -particularly females – can be used as recreational devices in the adult entertainment industry. Not to mention their use as a source of protein or fertilizer.

People could be a valuable commodity for investors, too. There could be growth in the financial sector if there was, say, a futures market in humans.

Moreover, creating a market in humans would reduce problems associated with an aging population, because owners would have a strong market-incentive for culling those who are no longer economically productive.

Of course, it might be asked how one is to acquire property in persons in the first place. The most obvious answer is through debt. Rather than bankruptcy rules, which allow certain debts to be unpaid and therefore encourage indulgence (imagine if we did that to Greece!), persons who fall into unpayable debt could simply be sold at auction for the benefit of their creditors.

All this potential economic activity squashed by the dead hand of big government because anti-market hippie do-gooders don’t want to respect property rights!

[For similarly ridiculous, immoral and abhorrent ideas brought to you by the forces of oligarchic capitalism, see here: http://www.adamsmith.org/blog/planning-transport/britain-needs-more-slums/ ].

Back in the DDR

I’ve been watching some documentaries about the DDR – the old ‘East Germany’, which passed from existence 25 years ago. The country actually had some remarkable achievements. Perhaps it would have been a very noble experiment, and the DDR would have been quite a nice society to live in, if only:

1. They had built socialism within a pluralistic, constitutional, democratic state – without the STASI, the show-trials, systemic torture, repression of dissidents, the Berlin wall, the one-party state, the soviet occupation, and the lack of civil liberties – and with more localism, more participatory government, and more room for independent civil society; and

2. They had managed the finances better, allowed a private productive sector alongside the state sector, especially in consumer goods, and opened up the economy a bit more to small businesses, private farms, and foreign trade.

Actually, if the DDR had done all of that, it would have been a completely different country: less in the evil image of Joseph Stalin, more in the benign mould of early Swedish Social Democrats like Hjalmar Branting.

Basically, moderate democratic socialism is good, totalitarian communism bad. Not a very profound point, perhaps, but one that’s worth making when people use the word ‘socialism’ as if it’s a bad thing, or try to shut down debate about serious attempts to address economic injustice by invoking ‘The Red Terror’.

In opposing the assumptions, the doctrines, the policies and the consequences of neo-liberal capitalism, I’m not advocating communism; I’m advocating genuine form of social democracy – ‘commonwealism’ – that offers the fullness of a free and flourishing life to all.

Christian Goth

When I was in my late teens and early to mid twenties, I was quite heavily into the Goth scene and subculture.

It started at the age of about 16 with films. I would devour everything gothic, from ham-acted Hammer Horrors to beautifully crafted vampire movies by the likes of Roman Polanski (the Fearless Vampire Killers, 1967) and Werner Hertzog (Nosteratu, 1978). It was there, I think, that I got hooked on the dark beauty of the gothic aesthetic. (These films also sparked my fascination for Central-Eastern Europe, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and whole ‘Woods and Werewolves’ trope).

From there I got into gothic literature (broadly conceived, everything from the proto-gothic imaginings of William Blake, through classics like Mary Shelly, E. A. Poe and Bram Stoker, to the ghost stories of M. R. James, and even some of the more contemporary American-gothic stuff).

I started to explore gothic music: from old school goth rock like The Cure, The Mission, Jesus & Mary Chain, Sisters of Mercy etc from late 80s/early 90s, through to more EBM and instrumental and experimental neo-folk, neo-medieval stuff.

I soon discovered that I liked the clothes. I went to a private, all-male school where (I kid you not) we had to wear business suits, and I grew up in a situation where well-pressed shirts and shiny shoes were, for some inexplicable reason that I never found out, considered to be really important. I hated that. It seemed so pointless and constraining. One outlet for me in my earlier teens was drama – which gave me the opportunity to dress up and to be a different self – a self that felt comfortable, and not one that was imposed upon me. I guess I carried that love of dressing up and acting into the goth scene, only, the person I was ‘playing’ way my self. Strange and evil silly as it may now seem, when appearing in public dressed head to toe in black (with maybe a bit of purple or red for trimming), with frills and capes and pointy boots, doing a bad impression of a 19th century Polish nobleman, I really felt that I was playing the character of the real me. It certainly felt more real than the suited, clean-cut version of me that I was required to play at other times.

In all these cultural artifacts, whether they be film, literature, music or clothes, I liked the gothic aesthetic. It spoke to me in its¬†dark romanticism, its intricacy and delicacy, its acknowledgement of the darkness, sorrow, fragility and preciousness of life. It didn’t pretend to be upbeat, cheerful or optimistic. It made room for lamentation, despair, uncertainty, ambiguity and even for the sort of nostalgic, wistful melancholy which was at the time my most common emotional state.

I gradually got involved in the goth scene, going to goth clubs in Edinburgh and Birmingham, and making a semi-regular annual trip to the Whitby Goth Weekend. I liked the fact that the atmosphere was generally one of fun, friendship and acceptance. There was a common bond that make striking up conversation easy. My confidence soared. It felt safe in other ways, too: I never saw any violence or antagonism, and I never saw anyone use any drugs harder than beer or cider.

Of course, there was one snag: as well as being a goth – and actively self-identifying as such – I was also a Christian, having become one during my first year of University. To be a Christian and a goth was a strange combination. From the age of about 19 to about 27 I experienced a chameleon-like sub-cultural double life: I was, as far as I knew, the only Christian in my circle of goth friends, and I was, as far as I could tell, the only goth in my circle of Christian friends.

I was well aware of the tension between these two things. Sexual ethics were one notable area of difference, and in this field I regret that I sometimes slipped rather further into the mores of the gothic subculture than I should have. There was also a fairly large overlap between the goth scene and the pagan-wiccan-druid scene.

Yet, Christianity and gothicism did not seem to be necessarily contradictory. Indeed, so much of the gothic culture really seemed to be about a longing for God, for the kingdom of God, and for a deeper shalom. The presence of goths in town centres and shopping malls seemed to be a kind of ‘momento mori’ – a witness against the vanity and the shallowness of a self-centred consumerist life. Gothness seemed to stand in opposition to a life of ‘keeping up appearances’ and of ‘keeping up with the Jones’, calling us to reconnect with a deeper, more spiritual humanity and to experience the joys and pains of life in all its fullness. Even the iconography of the gothic style (its use of crosses and religious motifs) seemed to express a sort of longing for elements of the medieval christendom that modernity had made so alien to our way of thinking – but that our souls and our senses could still pine for, and that our imaginations could embrace.

I no longer self-identify as a goth. Although I still like the gothic aesthetic in art, architecture, music, film and literature, I no longer feel the need to be part of a ‘goth scene’ or to dress up in goth clothes. I don’t feel the need to express myself in that way anymore. The christian thing, though, has continued. Through all the ups and downs it has actually become a stronger, more central and more foundational part of my life. Leaving the goth scene behind was probably part of growing up: getting married, turning thirty, having a proper job and a mortgage. But I also think that leaving the goth scene was a response to a growth in christian maturity. The despair, the lamentation, the fear, the longing – all these are still there, as I worry about the state of the world and the future of humanity; yet these feelings are, they must be, overlayed and interlaced with a sort of hope – a hope I can sometimes barely see, but that is there nevertheless – of transformation, restoration, wholeness, healing, peace, joy, love, justice and freedom.

Yet, although I seem to have now mostly grown out of it, I can understand and empathise with people who are christians and goths. The gothic culture, seen through a Christian lens, recognises that we are lost, but not abandoned; broken, but not cast out; sinful, but capable of being sanctified; in a world that is often full of evil, but infused with a good and holy power. That’s still a beautiful thing.