thoughts on faith, justice, politics and philosophy

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Empty Pockets

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Engine off.
Clamber down to the beach.
Vast white sand;
Dangerous, beautiful, calming
violent sea.

I realise nobody - nothing - 
needs me right now.

I'm free
to do 
as I please.

Apart from the phone in my pocket
beckoning me back to the busy
bustling world beyond.

A quick check: no signal
Power off.

And with it, the heavy weight
of all of life's responsibilities
hidden away in a cluster of microchips,
circuits and plastic - out of sight 
in my backpack.

In go the car keys and the wallet too.
No need for those here.

Just you, me and the gentle hum
of the sea as it sprays and sprawls
the Scottish shoreline.
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The Devil’s in the Detail

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Or, should that be “the devils in the detail”? A blog post on why we’ve misunderstood some hebrew and greek and how “the Devil” is as misleading as “Hell”.

We all know what the devil looks like, he’s got wings, horns, a tail and a three-pronged pitch fork. He’s dark red, and has an evil glint in his mischevious eye.

We (and by we, I mean those of us with an evangelical upbringing) also all know that the devil, or Satan, or Lucifer, or the Snake, is actually a “fallen angel” who tricked Adam and Eve, tries to trick Jesus, comes back and rules the earth for a bit and finally gets vanquished at the end of time.

Except that the first of the above two paragraphs is entirely medieval conjecture, and the second is all very misleading folk-tale stuff that has somehow become what we actually believe.

What’s in a Name?

Much like “Hell” not having one direct translation – and thus being a conglomeration of several different ideas, “The Devil” has a bit of a complicated make-up. As far as I can tell, “The Devil” is made up of the following – in chronological order:

  • Snake who tricks Adam and Eve (Genesis 3)
  • Satan to Job (Job 1), David (1 Chronicles 21) and Zechariah (Zechariah 3)
  • Lucifer (Isaiah 14)
  • Satan who interacts with and is referenced by Jesus
  • Beelzebub in the book of Matthew
  • Belial in 2 Corinthians
  • The “Evil One” in the Lord’s Prayer
  • Dragon in the book of Revelation

Let’s look at these in turn.

The Snake

The Snake tricks Adam and Eve into eating fruit from the tree, which then opens their eyes and allows them to make bad choices, which in turn alienates them and their ancestors from God. Of course, this is a mythical story which helps us to give spiritual meaning to our origins, and not a literal retelling.

The snake is the first attempt at explaining the idea that there’s a temptation to do things that aren’t good. But it isn’t an evil demi-God. The snake doesn’t appear again until the book of Revelation when it is again invoked allegorically.


For some time, the Christian idea of the devil has incorporated the “Morning Star” in Isaiah 14:12 – this is translated as “Lucifer” from the latin, and when used as an adjective means “light-bringing” or can refer to the planet Venus. The passage in question is concerned with Babylon, and the language seems to be sarcastic and hyperbolic praise to the Babylonian king.

Beelzebub and Belial

These are references to other deities. Quite why they’ve even made my list, I’m not sure.

The Dragon

The Dragon is mentioned in Revelation 12. It is described destroying the stars, attempting to devour a child, and fighting a war against the angels, with his own angels. The dragon loses the fight – and – crucially – is spoken of in verse 9 as “that ancient serpent called the devil, or satan, who leads the whole world astray”

We’ll deal with “satan” below. Devil here is “diabolos” – meaning “he who divides”.

The “Evil One”

The greek for this is “απο του” and it occures most prominently in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s gospel. Here, we need to ask what the greek is getting at. Jesus prays “deliver us from the place of evil” rather than “from the evil one”. It’s easy to start mistranslating when you’ve got an idea like the devil inside your head. Those pesky medievil monks…


Finally, the name of the devil. Satan himself. Satan is the hebrew equivalent of diabolos, meaning “accuser”, “slanderer”. You can think of Satan as the “bad cop” or the “attorney general” character, who tries to point out to people all their flaws, wrongs and negative traits.

Satan is used in various places in Bible stories to make a point. The classic example is Job, where Satan appears to be a servant of God, and is obliged to ask God to carry out his wishes.

The problem with Satan is that it’s actually “satan” – a generic noun (a concept) rather than an individaul, used as an individual in rhetorical form to make a point. The word means “to obstruct, or oppose”. It can refer to any accuser, except when used with the definite article (“ha-satan”), referring to a specific character – it is that character with whom we are concerned.

Fundamentally, of all of the above possible variations of “the Devil”, the only realistic possibilities are “the Dragon”, some instances of “the evil one” and “ha-Satan“. Everything else can go into the bin of bad (folk?) theology and medieval mistakes.

Ha-Satan occures 13 times – in Job (10x) and Zechariah (3x). Let’s look at Zechariah first:

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Ha-Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Ha-Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”

Zechariah 3:1-2

The question we should ask ourselves is this: what is the context? An angel is telling a story to Zechariah and showing him a vision. He sees a specific character in a vision. Much the same could be said of Job. Job is a story about the different voices, ideas and tensions that we have around the nature of God and the nature of evil, and how we respond to adversity. It is also incredibly old and early on in the development of the Jewish faith.

Jesus and Satan

Fast forward to Jesus and the Greek rendering of satan (σατανᾶς) and devil (διάβολος). One crucial thing to note is that “satan” here is translated as a proper noun (Satan) but could equally be seen as a regular noun (“a satan”, “satan” – i.e. an accuser). The same is true of diabolos.

Thus, we can’t conclude from any of the traditional “Devil” scriptures that there’s a pointy-fork-holding chap called Lucifer/Satan who wants you to worship him, rebelled from God, and will torture you forever if you mess up and don’t accept Jesus as your personal lord and saviour.

Rather puts to bed the idea of hell in its traditional form too, doesn’t it?

It doesn’t mean there isn’t some sort of influence on us, an adversary, an accuser, a voice that speaks negatively to us – but perhaps that what satan truly is in many of these stories – perhaps that comes from inside us, perhaps it comes from a specific voice or personality. But there’s certainly no reason as far as I can see to think that there is some sort of demi-powerful “Devil” at work in the world.

Perhaps instead we should focus on God. Happy Halloween!

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Bad Habits

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I recently finished reading a book called “Voices of Silence”. It’s an incredibly gripping read documenting the experience of the author’s journey getting to know various Trappist monastic communities, mostly in America.

For those of you who don’t know who or what a Trappist is, they are an order of monks. Trappists are big on silence (hence the title) and ceded from the Cistercians some time ago, owing to a desire to be more “orthodox” in their practises and adherence to the monastic way of life. The Cistercians in turn are strict Benedictines, who had similar feelings about their predecessors.

So you’d expect me to be pretty damning about them. Overly religious, obsessed with ritual and rule, boring, detached from the world, pointless, etc. Malice aside, some of those sentiments do indeed have traction. But that’s not what I want to write about today. The book gripped me – its stories staying with me even now two months after finishing the read.

What drew me in was their desire for authenticity. Yes, there were many older monks described in its pages who resisted the most feeble changes and modernisations at every turn, but even they found themselves redeemed in later chapters. Broadly, the monks we meet along the way recognise two key truths about life that I think are invaluable to us all:

  • We cannot force God to meet with us; we cannot demand a voice or an answer to prayer
  • Routine, rhythm and simplicity are not intended to restrict, but to bring to life

What struck me the most about their lives was that they are in a sense no different to yours or mine. They grieved, wept, laughed, cried, conversed, argued, were filled with joy, sadness, fear, loneliness, experienced community, and so on. The ideal of a monk is to leave the distractions of the world behind and to focus on a prayer life with God. From what I could tell, this was no easier a task inside the monastery than outside of it – it turns out that people cause problems and those problems follow you everywhere you go.

They did have a heightened focus on the divine, of course. But that heightened focus often served only to amplify their experiences. To return to my two points above:

We cannot force God – monk, priest or “lay person’ – we have no control over God. We are not here to demand his attendance in our lives. That is up to God. It’s a level playing field, and don’t ever let any Christian tell you otherwise. I don’t care how many times a day they meditate or read their Bible or whatever. Meeting with God requires both sides to take part. You might be struggling with this. I know I have. I forget on a near daily basis to bother to pray. But that doesn’t mean I don’t meet with God in all kinds of ways. Which brings me to…

Routine, rhythm and simplicity are life giving because although we cannot force God to meet with us, we can give ourselves space to meet with God. We can make a choice to avoid where possible the lures of the other masters of this world – the master of money, the master of power, the master of status. We can choose instead to bind ourselves to Yahweh and to recognise that the Kingdom of God is a far greater way of life. Deliberately taking time out on a daily basis to remember this isn’t exactly going to do us harm – not if it is done well. We may never meet with God in doing this, but that’s a risk worth taking, isn’t it?

My girlfriend often jokingly mocks me for my love of monasticism. It is true, I have an immense admiration for men and women who are prepared to sacrifice what the world sees as the more fun aspects of existence, and instead seek to be with God as frequently as possible. I think it’s the wrong approach, but I respect it nonetheless. That said, the rhythmic, ancient traditions it holds dear have been a source of great strength for me.

I have found that in my life, when I make daily space to meet with God, then I appreciate not only those moments, but also the rest of the day – the little things – like when someone smiles back, or a tree looks particularly beautiful – are easier to enjoy and appreciate when one is postured towards God.

I have found that in trying to live a simpler life – both outwardly and inwardly, I have less to worry about, less to think about, and less to distract myself with. Leaving me with two things: more space to meet with God, and more space to love others. Someone once said those were two of the most important elements to life.


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Why I’m Voting Labour

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This time it’s not an April Fool. I really am voting for Labour on 7th May, I promise! I’ve been overwhelmed / offended / confused / amazed at the volume of people who didn’t realize that my previous post was an April Fools joke. So, in case some of my arguments actually managed to sway you in any way; here’s a swift debunking of why they are all totally made up:

Ed Miliband Is Not Incompetent

The Tory press has been relentless in its criticism of Ed. There have been countless “bacon sandwich” type incidents, attacks on his family, attacks on his kitchen (by a press that supports a cabinet of millionaires) and so on. But none of this has gotten to the heart of the matter. Then one day a Conservative spoke up and talked about ruthless Ed. And he has been.

  • Ed stopped Syria from being bombed, which would have escalated the conflict in the region
  • Ed has signalled that Labour would stop the Bedroom Tax
  • Ed has pledged to increase the minimum wage, reform zero hours contracts and protect the rights of workers.
  • Ed has promised to change tack on the way the government deals with the NHS, no longer following the privatisation policies of old. No more New Labour.

Nick Clegg? An honourable man, but a footnote of history after this government is finally a thing of the past. He may have stopped Tory horrors. But why stop Tory horrors when instead you can calm down Labour zealousness?

I don’t claim to believe that Labour are either a) radical enough on economics or b) sensible enough on policies such as immigration. But I do think a Labour-led government will be better than a Tory-led one. The key here is better. Yes, we can abstain, complain, moan, and whinge about how the gap is too small; but that gap contains a whole lot of hurting people that we can help. It’s the least we can do.

The Green Party, contrary to being “Sandal wearing loonies” are economically extreme but socially very, very insightful indeed. They see a return to caring for the earth and for one another as the core principles behind their social policy, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s just a shame I don’t live in Brighton or Bristol West.

UKIP? I got that one the most wrong. They’re not so much loony as evil. Cold, calculating, racist, xenophobic evil. Benefits claimants are not statistically a problem in this country. Overseas aid is less than 1% of GDP, gays do NOT cause thunderstorms and to top it all off  they’re headed up by an investment w…sorry… banker.

As for the Tories? Well…

  • The Bedroom Tax
  • Warmongering
  • Benefit cuts
  • ATOS
  • NHS privatisation plans
  • Free schools
  • A massive increase in the need for foodbanks

And the worst of all sins, hypocrisy: an ever ballooning deficit.

As far as my previous “praise” goes? well:

  • Marriage equality would have become legislation under any party leader, given the climate. Look at how many Conservatives opposed it!
  • Creating jobs is all well and good, but only if they’re not zero hours or part time!
  • The public sector did a better job of running the rail network than any of the current lot
  • Universal Credit still isn’t fully here, is still a joke, and should still be scrapped

Locally? Charlotte Leslie works tirelessly for the people of Henleaze and Westbury. She puts a token effort in for Southmead where her government continues to screw over the primary demographics. And she defends their abhorrent record. Who cares about a railway line? Seriously? Henbury is too far away to walk to anyway, for most people.

As for the Southmead Survey? I was more than a little disgusted at the way in which she piggy backed the hard work of many volunteers in producing a Southmead Community Plan, by then sending out “Charlotte Leslies Southmead Community Plan” which was, of course, hugely politically biased. That was the nail in the coffin for me.

Darren Jones on the other hand is a pleasant local lad whose government will stand up for the many and not the few.

So, on May 7th, I’ll be voting Labour. I’d encourage you to do the same.



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Advent IV: In The Name of Jesus

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Since the beginning of time we have fought. Over land, over resources, over love, over grudges, over family, over power, over influence, over all kinds of things we have killed one another and allowed death to be an accepted, necessary part of our footprint on this earth.

Often, we do this in the name of God.

God told me to invade that country.
God would be proud we are spreading His message.
God is on our side.

“Those who live by the sword will die by the sword”

The sword kills men
The gun kills more men
The bomb kills innocent men, women and children
The hydrogen bomb kills millions of innocents.

War begets war.
Forgiveness begets peace.

We need peace,
We need forgiveness,
We need Jesus.

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Advent II: Two Masters

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“You cannot serve both God and money”.

You cannot serve both God, and money.

You cannot
both God
and money

You – you are not exempt,
you are not immune,
you are vulnerable.

cannot serve – you are enslaved,
you are captivated,
you are saving up,
you are spending away,
you are worrying about,
you are waiting for,
you are enslaved.

both God and money:
they have different priorities
they have different goals
they have different ideas
they have different stories
they have different destinations

Choose wisely.

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Faith and Grief

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There are two systems of thought I have found in recent years, and indeed in recent weeks, particularly interesting. Those are the Kübler-Ross model of Grief and Fowler’s Stages of Faith. As someone who, like most people, has been through both of these things (that is, grief and a faith journey) – I can relate to how they work and largely would affirm them as valuable and indeed accurate assessments of the human psyche.

Something dawned on me earlier today. What if they’re the same thing? What if our journey of faith is simply an overly-complicated (by both the frame of reference we exist within and indeed our own conscience) grieving process – the slow but sure realisiation that perhaps, just maybe, this is all there is – and there is nothing we can do about it.

Let me take you through the stages of faith, briefly. This is lifted verbatim from Wikipedia:

  • Stage 0 – “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith (birth to 2 years), is characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). If consistent nurture is experienced, one will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine. Conversely, negative experiences will cause one to develop distrust with the universe and the divine. Transition to the next stage begins with integration of thought and languages which facilitates the use of symbols in speech and play.

  • Stage 1 – “Intuitive-Projective” faith (ages of three to seven), is characterized by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the Unconscious, and marked by a relative fluidity of thought patterns. [1] Religion is learned mainly through experiences, stories, images, and the people that one comes in contact with.

  • Stage 2 – “Mythic-Literal” faith (mostly in school children), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic. During this time metaphors and symbolic language are often misunderstood and are taken literally.

  • Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith (arising in adolescence; aged 12 to adulthood) characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies.

  • Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. As one is able to reflect on one’s own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one’s belief.

  • Stage 5 – “Conjunctive” faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems. The individual resolves conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent “truth” that cannot be explained by any particular statement.

  • Stage 6 – “Universalizing” faith, or what some might call “enlightenment.” The individual would treat any person with compassion as he or she views people as from a universal community, and should be treated with universal principles of love and justice.

And now the KR model of grief:

  1. Denial — As the reality of loss is hard to face, one of the first reactions to follow the loss is Denial. What this means is that the person is trying to shut out the reality or magnitude of their situation, and begin to develop a false, preferable reality.

  1. Anger — “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; ‘”Who is to blame?”
    Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. Anger can manifest itself in different ways. People can be angry with themselves, or with others, and especially those who are close to them. It is important to remain detached and nonjudgmental when dealing with a person experiencing anger from grief.

  1. Bargaining — “I’ll do anything for a few more years.”; “I will give my life savings if…”
    The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow undo or avoid a cause of grief. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Other times, they will use any thing valuable as a bargaining chip against another human agency to extend or prolong the life they live. Psychologically, the individual is saying, “I understand I will die, but if I could just do something to buy more time…” People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek to negotiate a compromise. For example “Can we still be friends?” when facing a break-up. Bargaining rarely provides a sustainable solution, especially if it is a matter of life or death.

  1. Depression — “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon so what’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?”
    During the fourth stage, the grieving person begins to understand the certainty of death. Much like the existential concept of The Void, the idea of living becomes pointless. Things begin to lose meaning to the griever. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and sullen. This process allows the grieving person to disconnect from things of love and affection, possibly in an attempt to avoid further trauma. Depression could be referred to as the dress rehearsal for the ‘aftermath’. It is a kind of acceptance with emotional attachment. It is natural to feel sadness, regret, fear, and uncertainty when going through this stage. Feeling those emotions shows that the person has begun to accept the situation. Often times, this is the ideal path to take, to find closure and make their ways to the fifth step, Acceptance.

  1. Acceptance — “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”
    In this last stage, individuals begin to come to terms with their mortality or inevitable future, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event. This stage varies according to the person’s situation. People dying can enter this stage a long time before the people they leave behind, who must pass through their own individual stages of dealing with the grief. This typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the individual, and a stable mindset.

It seems clear to me now that these are indeed instances of the same thing. Let me propose a new model for us to understand our faith journeys with. An amalgamation of the two models above:

Stage One: Primal, Undifferentiated Faith (aka “Belonging”) 

At this stage in our faith journey, we very quickly pick up a bent towards one way of believing or another. We are surrounded by people who affirm a particular way of seeing the world. Either we come to find extremely high levels of comfort in this, or we find it wanting and reject it. Grief is not yet relevant.

Stage Two: Intuitive-projective faith (aka “Experiencing”) 

At this stage we begin to learn that our faith has depths, complexities, and difficulties associated to it. We experience our faith or lack of (because we are predisposed by stage one to do so either way) in a tangible manner. Grief is not yet relevant here, either.

Stage Three: Mythic-Literal faith and Synthetic-Conventional faith (aka “Denial”) 

This is the first stage at which the two previous models truly meet. There is a strong belief in justice and the reciprocity of the universe. This is the “This isn’t fair, God” stage; or the “that isn’t right” stage. Literalism is often king and the Fundamentalist will live here. Exposed to the real world, the no-longer-infant mind is forced to deny the loss of the concrete world built up around them by their parents and instead chooses to continue on in the fantasy of a religious faith.

As the person grows older, they simply choose to harden their beliefs one way or the other – further spiraling down into the world of denial rather than being capable of embracing the reality around them.

Stage Four: Individuative-Reflective faith (aka “Anger”)

The person at this stage is anxious, struggling, and takes on their beliefs for themselves. In reflecting upon them, they begin to see the cracks in the wall; the fallacies and the problems in what they believe. This often manifests itself as anger – as the denial is unable to continue any further, frustration becomes the primary sentiment. The world around them is changing and it is a deeply unsettling process.

Stage Five: Conjunctive faith (aka “Bargaining” and “Depression”) 

Here, the paradox of reality is acknowledged and conflicts are resolved by a complex understanding of thins -often a paradoxical one or one in which paradox is simply a paradigm by which the universe can be understood; this, in my mind, is a suspension of belief in reality and is an attempt to bargain with that reality – e.g “if I choose to see my faith in this particular way I can still keep it rather than having to let it go altogether”.

The person will move back and forth between the bargaining approach and a depression that things are simply not the way they want them to be.

Stage Six: Universalizing faith (aka “Acceptance”) 

Some would call this “enlightenment”. It is the stage whereby we realize that nobody can have a right answer about faith. If we assume the natural progression of the model then we are left with Acceptance. This sounds like pretty much the same thing! One crucial thing here is the choice that the individual makes at this stage – faced with the uncertainty do they allow this to remain a tension, or do they embrace the abandonment of faith as the full human journey? Arguably the former is in fact a step backwards through the stages to denial.

I don’t know what I make of this. I’m just putting it out there. If you have any thoughts then please add them below!

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