№ 1: On the Death of the Queen
... and other things
We’re back in England as of yesterday, and possibly not that jet lagged; the jury’s out. UK friends, get in touch! We’ll be here through mid-December.
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We arrived in Gatwick very very early yesterday morning, and after a courtesy visit to Foyle’s in London, headed back up to Stoke.
The day before we left, the 19th, we got up at 5:30 in the morning New York time to watch Her Majesty’s funeral – along with an unknown number of others; 32 million in the UK and 26 million in the United States alone. Archbishop Justin Welby gave an astonishingly good homily, noting that in Westminster Abbey, at the same altar we could see, in 1953, “the Queen began her Coronation with silent prayer... Her allegiance to God was given before any person gave allegiance to her.”
Christian funerals are strange: they’re so uncompromisingly hopeful - a hope that’s not an emotion but a reminder of the solidity of God’s vow to us. “Service in life, hope in death,” as Archbishop Welby said. Her Majesty’s life was the living out of a vow, made in response to God’s vow, his commitment to the human race that he has made. Primarily, of course, the vow that the Queen lived out was the one she shares with all Christians: her baptismal vow. Only after that, and in obedience to it, her marriage vow and coronation oath.
It was impossible to listen to Archbishop Welby’s sermon and not feel the strange democracy of Christian monarchy: she’s no Pharaoh claiming to be divine; she was primarily a Christian woman: “Elizabeth, our sister,” as the service called her. It’s a democracy, though, which doesn’t bring her down to the level of “the ordinary people,” but instead reminds us that there are no ordinary people: we’re all, as human beings, made to bear God’s image to creation: Adam and Eve’s task of ruling. And then, we’re all called to receive adoption into God’s own royal family. Her rulership of the land and people given to her to rule is paralleled by the rulership of our own lives, our households, which we’ve been given, and in which we can, with God’s help, hope to acquit ourselves as well as she did.
She was drafted into that job, in a way, by the refusal of her uncle to do it. A King Edward would obviously have been a disaster for the world; we can only be grateful that it was her father and not his Nazi-sympathizer brother who guided the UK through the war. But the fact that Edward punted on his responsibilities, instead living a sort of prototypically Eurotrash life, highlights the way in which Elizabeth did not. She stepped up, when she was called. She did that nearly impossible job with grace and wisdom, not abandoning her post, until she was called again. We all, in our own lives, have got to do the same.
❧ The main thing that’s come out of my workshop lately has been the Autumn issue of Plough - appropriately enough, on Vows. Go here to check it out; we launched it at an event in Central Park just before Alastair and I left New York. I ended up slightly overbuying on cheese, which I was pretty sure I was doing in the store. “The good thing about the Bruderhof,” I told Alastair after showing up with a sack full of medium-priced cheddar and gouda and things, “is that if you have too much cheese, you can just give it to them, and they’ll take it home and eat it.”
I would like to clarify here that that is not the only, or even the primary, good thing about the Anabaptist community that publishes Plough.
❧ The piece I had in that issue was a mini-bio of one of the people who Plough considers a forerunner– a kind of inspiration of the kind of active faith that we at the magazine are trying to document and promote. Sadhu Sundar Singh was an early twentieth century Sikh convert to Christianity who, somewhat to the dismay of his Anglican teachers, decided that following Jesus didn’t necessarily mean becoming respectably English-coded in the way they wanted. Read more about him here.
❧ Peter Mommsen and I recently recorded a joint episode with Shadi Hamid and Damir Marusic’s excellent Wisdom of Crowds podcast; the discussion was meant to be about the recent National Conservatism statement of principles, by Yoram Hazony and his allies, and the more-or-less opposing Open Letter by John Milbank and his confederates.
What it ended up being about instead was, approximately, everything: On what basis do people who disagree with each other live together in a polity? What does Shadi mean by democracy, specifically, and why is he so sure that democracy is the one thing we need in order to have a good political community? Is there such a thing as an unjust law, and if so, what does it not match? Do ideas matter in politics at all?
❧ Much else over the past couple of weeks has been overshadowed by the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. As Susannah described above, we got up at 5:30am to watch the BBC’s broadcast of the Queen’s funeral on Monday. It was majestic and moving, a spectacle of profound gravity, the memory of which will long remain with me.
One of many strengths of Anglican worship is the great number of scriptural texts within its services and an aspect of the funeral that was peculiarly arresting for me was the way that it provided a contextual resonance chamber within which incredibly familiar scriptural texts could be heard anew. For instance, hearing Baroness Scotland’s powerful reading of 1 Corinthians 15 (verses 20-26 and 53-58) in the context of the funeral of a monarch, I felt, in a manner I had never felt before, the force of the evacuation of temporal authority and rule, as kings and queens surrender their rule to Christ. Our departed sister has given up her crown and now awaits the resurrection with us. In the singing of Psalm 23, I was recalled to the fact that this is the song of a king, a leader of his people, testifying to his own extreme dependence upon the care and goodness of the Lord.
In Archbishop Justin Welby’s sermon, he observed that ‘Her service to so many people in this nation, the Commonwealth, and the world had its foundation in her following Christ’, thereby underlining the constitutional—not merely personal—significance of her faith. To be a just ruler of her subjects, she had first to be a humble servant—and follower of the example—of Jesus Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve.
The death of the Queen has provoked me to think a lot more about what she represented in my life and in the life of the nation, about the significance of constitutional monarchy (helpfully described in this thread), the prospects for the monarchy in the UK in the coming decades, and how her reign in particular and the institution of the British monarchy more generally can illuminate various dimensions of political theology.
Although British constitutional monarchy is in many respects a happy accident arising out of and playing out through an exceedingly messy history, in its current form I believe it has virtues that merit our consideration. Its intergenerational, unelected, and non-partisan nature encourages an emphasis upon preservation and healthy evolution of our shared social and natural ecosystems, to which party politics can be dulled through short-termism and sectional interest.
It has a distinctive emphasis upon, regard for, and capacity to summon us to the performance of duty, far exceeding that of elected politicians, self-promoting celebrities, and pursuers of wealth. Many viewers of the exceedingly popular Netflix series on the Queen, The Crown, have been struck by the way that it showcases the importance of duty, a virtue otherwise much neglected in our days. Besides the faithful way that she performed her duties towards her subjects, I believe that much of the love for and kinship that people around the world felt for the Queen had to do with the way that she modelled and revealed the dignity of humbly answering the summons of our duties, in whatever station in life we might find ourselves. And, in submitting with grace to the weight of unchosen duties, the Queen, despite her immense wealth and status, was a rare figure in public life in whom this most basic and common dimension of our existence was accorded its proper dignity.
Regarding constitutional monarchy more generally, there is much to be learned from considering some of the important differences between sovereignty and power. For many, direct strength to get one’s way, to control other persons or agencies, and to force others to submit to your agenda is all that matters. Politics is largely devoted to the pursuit of such ‘power’, which is antagonistic almost by definition. Yet the Queen represented something very different. Although all politics in the land were conducted in her name and although she counselled her prime ministers, the Queen was strictly politically neutral and neither voted nor could stand for election.
In resisting entanglement in political conflict and refraining from participation in public political debate, the Queen guarded the true character and influence of the monarchy. She stood for something that greatly exceeded political conflicts and party interests, even highly charged ones. I think that there is a lot we could all learn from reflecting upon the ways that the Queen could exercise sovereignty by—not merely despite—refraining from direct exercise of power and the combativeness of politics. This sovereignty was advanced, not by the antagonisms of politics, but by a sort of peace-making that resists antagonism and which overcomes partisanship.
I think there is much that Christian ministers can learn from this. The sovereignty of Christ is not typically elevated when its formal representatives get publicly entangled in partisan politics. Quite the opposite. Knowing that they are about a higher throne and kingdom will lead to caution for ministers here. The sovereignty of Christ—like the sovereignty of the monarch—is greatly cheapened when it is directly brought to bear on most political matters. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t have bearing or there are no occasions where ministers should speak to charged political matters. However, the answer to the question: “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” must always be “No, I come as a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Rulers must humbly rule with reference to the sovereignty of Christ; they don’t get to claim its direct political imprimatur.
I wrote a piece trying to gather these and others of my thoughts on the Queen and her death over on the Theopolis website.
Such political neutrality might strike many as synonymous with political inconsequentiality, yet in the absence of more overt exercise of power, monarchy can more clearly manifest the symbolic gravity of sovereignty itself and the attractive strength of its spectacles. Besides this, through her quiet dignity and self-possession, the Queen exhibited the power of calm presence as itself a mode of leadership, even apart from self-assertive action. Coupled with the exemplary character of her virtues, the potent nature of such leadership has commonly been referred to in people’s tributes. In whatever station of life we might find ourselves, we all have much to learn from reflection upon such modes of power and leadership. Often the greatest power we can exercise will be in quiet mastery of ourselves; in virtuous, self-effacing, and dutiful service; in respect for and dignity in our offices and vocations, and honouring others in theirs. Sovereigns in whatever realms God has placed us, we must also humbly recall people to the source and the dignifying mystery of all sovereignty in our behaviour.
ce also discussed the death of the Queen on the latest Mere Fidelity podcast.
❧ Other recent Mere Fidelity podcasts have included a discussion of introspection and a spirited argument about whether lying is ever permissible (I argue that it is).
❧ The Reverend Bart Gingerich also recently invited me onto his podcast to discuss my 2018 co-written book, Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption Through Scripture, and reading the scriptures figurally more broadly.
❧ Over on the Theopolis Podcast, James Bejon, Jeff Meyers, Brian Moats, and I have been steadily nearing the conclusion of our series on the epistle of James, most recently discussing boasting and riches in 4:13—5:6 and patience in suffering in 5:7-12. The epistle of James, and its relevance to contemporary questions of the appropriate manner of the church’s social and political engagement, has also been at the heart of the most recent Theopolis Conversation. In my contribution to that conversation, I argued, using the analogy of the patient farmer, for the necessity of healthy boundaries, which enable us to engage non-anxiously and without an antagonistic preoccupation with the culture around us.
The wise farmer, while recognizing the same dangers as the zealot, can address them chiefly by taking measures to keep them at bay. He can construct a wall or fence around his property, can erect a watchtower, can set up firebreaks and other measures to prepare for the outbreak of fires. Such actions protect his fields from the encroachment of hostile elements, destructive creatures, or enemies. Having bounded his fields, he can then dig deep wells to ensure that he has pure water with which to irrigate them. He can clear the land of stones and weeds. While such measures will not be sufficient to prevent anything hostile, destructive, or deleterious from entering his land, they will ensure that tackling such things will not overwhelm him or completely dominate his attention.
While directly fighting and counteracting invasive and encroaching elements of the wider world may provide some protection for the grain, this is not how it will grow healthy and strong. For that it requires a ‘culture’ of its own, which will principally develop as it flourishes within boundaries that keep hostile external elements at bay. This allows us to devote our energies chiefly to patient farming labour in our own hearts and churches, diligently sowing the seeds of God’s word, clearing the stones and removing the weeds that constrict or stifle their growth, scaring away birds that would take the seed, digging deep wells and irrigation channels, praying for the rains of God’s blessing, and awaiting a harvest. The ‘battles’ that should most preoccupy us should be with the hardness of the soil of our hearts and Christian communities.
❧ Material history, in particular the history of the book, has long been a matter of interest to me. Perhaps on account of our holding disincarnate notions of the character of texts, we can be unmindful of the fact that the activity of reading has a history corresponding to the diverse and evolving forms of our books. This is especially significant in relation to the history of our Bibles. After my recent Conversation with Brad East about his book, The Church’s Book: Theology of Scripture in Ecclesial Context, Theopolis has produced a series of short videos in which I discuss the evolution of the modern Bible, the different forms of reading that this has encouraged, and the theological and textual principles and realities that can inform our conceptions and practices of scriptural reading.
Within Christian liturgy, I argue, certain scriptures can be heard in their proper character as authoritative speech acts, where reading outside of the context of the liturgy might encounter them as inert propositions to be ‘interpreted’. There is, for instance, a vast difference between reading the Scripture as teaching us about the truth of God’s forgiveness and hearing scriptural words of absolution in the liturgy authoritatively declaring our forgiveness.
On a not-unrelated point, John Webster once wrote:
[W]hen the church ‘interprets’ Scripture, it does not bestow on Scripture a clarity which Scripture does not already possess, or bring about a completion of the event of revelation of which Scripture is only the precipitating occasion. Interpretation is not clarification or completion, but recognition, assent to the inherent clarity and adequacy of the prophetic and apostolic witness which bears to us the voice of the church’s Lord.
This touches upon something of my wariness about many uses of ‘interpretation’ language with reference to the biblical text. ‘Interpretation’ language can easily imply an inert and mute text that needs to be given voice and life by its interpreters. The differences of readings between interpreters can then serve practically to negate the text’s authority and be used as an excuse for ignoring it. Indeed, a lot of ‘interpretation’ seems to be designed to obfuscate and sideline disputed texts from the field of Christian discourse.
My approach to ‘interpretation’—and I think Webster is articulating some of the underlying issues with clarity here—has long been that our task is to be attentive hearers of the word, to hear with understanding and to see with perception. In interpretative practice, this means that I spend most of my initial time with a text trying to downplay my interpretative agency and to exercise my attentive reception. I shelve my questions and try to hear the text—once, twice, three, four times.
As I listen to the text, I practice my attention. What questions emerge from the text itself? Have I heard any of this elsewhere? What odd details stand out? What explains the progression of the text? Are there natural divisions or structures that can be recognized? Etc., etc. Then I spend time in company with a great many other skilled readers of the text. What have they heard? How might they sharpen my skills of attention? One of the best things is actual in-person conversation with gifted readers over a text.
I’ve tried typical postures of ‘interpretation’ before and, having since devoted myself to such a posture of attentive hearing, I can testify that the difference for me has been like night and day. I am attuning myself to the living word, rather than seeking to liven a mute text.
❧ There are many striking uses of numbers in the book of Genesis. One of the more surprising instances of peculiar numbers is found in the sequence of the ages of the great patriarchs from Abraham to Joseph. Abraham died at the age of 175, Isaac at 180, Jacob at 147, and Joseph at 110. Besides the length of their lives, an arresting detail is the pattern that these numbers follow:
110=5²+6²+7² or (5²+6²+7²)x1
Numerological patterns are a common feature of the biblical text, alerting attentive readers to important details, patterns, and associations. This sequence, with its ascending squares (which are summed up in the final number in the sequence) and descending multipliers, provides a numerological witness to the textual and a theological sequence of the patriarchs, suggesting a significant relation between and ascending meaning to their stories. In particular, it suggests that Joseph is the climax and in some sense a summation of those who preceded him.
The book of Genesis concludes with Joseph’s story, which, though one of the most moving stories of the scriptures, has seemed ill-suited as a climax to the book by many commentators. In his recent book, Sam Emadi makes the case that Joseph’s story is in fact a fitting conclusion to Genesis and that Joseph offers a typological paradigm into which several later characters are placed in Scripture, the climax of that paradigm being seen in Jesus Christ. Sam joined me for a discussion of his book and the character of Joseph more broadly.
What We’re Reading
Alastair: I often point out to Susannah that the notion of being ‘in the city’ does a lot of psychological heavy-lifting, enabling people to think little of long periods of time spent in travel, provided that the entirety of the journey occurs in the subway system. It takes about as long to get to the centre of New York from Forest Hills as it does to get into the centre of Manchester from Stoke-on-Trent on the train (and the centre of London is less than an hour and a half away), but, due to the mental distortion of the concept of the city, the latter—as inter-city rather than intra-city travel—registers as much less natural and much more onerous than the former.
Anyway, besides offering a period in which to decompress from the day, a benefit of a frequent commute into the city (where we will often work in one of the hotels or cafés for the day) is regular time within which to read. Over the last week or so, my subway read has been Liah Greenfeld’s 2019 book, Nationalism: A Short History. I had previously read her stunning 1992 work, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, which covers a lot of similar ground, but the former work is by far the more accessible of the two and is the one that I will more typically be recommending to people in the future.
In her historical approach to the issue of nationalism, Greenfeld argues that nationalism is a development that originated in England around 1500, that the sharply differing forms of nationalism that have arisen in different countries can best be understood through the manner of its historical spread, and that nationalism is the underlying impulse behind several political movements that are not typically attributed to its influence, not least among them communism in Russia. Greenfeld’s reading of the emergence and development of nationalism is provocative, ambitious, daring, and frequently profoundly illuminating as a descriptive historical account. I suspect I will write some more substantial thoughts on it at some point in the future, but for now I will highly recommend it as a challenging and frequently enlightening interlocutor and describe her introduction of her larger thesis.
As in her longer book on the subject, Greenfeld observes the peculiar evolution of the term and concept of natio or nation, from a term used for a group of low status foreigners in Rome (the ‘litter’, as of animals), to foreign students loosely united by origin in the University of Paris (the ‘nation’ of France representing all students from the regions of Italy, France, Portugal, and Spain, and the ‘nation’ of Germany representing all students from various western principalities of Germany and from England, for instance), to communities of opinion, and then to the decision-making elite representatives of a cultural or political authority.
This final sense of the term was the dominant one well into the eighteenth century in continental Europe, with the term ‘nation’ largely being exclusively used of the nobility of a territory. The ‘people’, by contrast, referred to the common folk of the lower social orders. In the society of orders that existed in the old Europe that preceded the rise of nations, the elites and the people were presumed quite separate from and unlike each other. None but the most negligible sense of common consciousness and social membership really existed. While the existence of defined realms, territories, or kingdoms might imply the existence of ‘nations’ in the contemporary sense, our modern sense of nationalism would have been deeply alien.
The critical evolution, preceding corresponding developments on continental Europe by a couple of centuries, occurred in England from the end of the fifteen century, through a phase of history perceptively dramatized in Shakespeare’s cycle of historical plays from Richard II to Richard III. The blue-blooded Plantagenet dynasty having been wiped out through the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses, the new Tudor dynasty did not seek to justify its standing so much by dubious claims to blue-blooded status, as through the radical claim that the English people was a nation, equating two terms formerly considered deeply distinct, granting a common inclusive identity, conceptually vesting sovereignty in the population as a whole, and allowing for mobility in the social hierarchy.
The effect of this, Greenfeld argues, was akin to a religious conversion, producing a completely new consciousness, one not shared by any other people at the time. The English people became profoundly invested in their national standing and dignity and deeply competitive with perceived rivals on the continent, who did not yet share their national consciousness (even though—so total was their transformation—the English could not help but project their consciousness onto them). Nationalism was the motivation, contra Weber, that provided the unrelenting growth impulse for capitalism in England (lacking at the time in the Netherlands, its principal competitor) and which drove England’s scientific revolution.
This is only the start of Greenfeld’s far-reaching account of the consciousness of nationalism in Nationalism: A Short History, which should amply reward the brief time that it will take you to read it.
Susannah: He kept interrupting me to read aloud from it during recent subway rides; I, meanwhile, have been reading Herbert’s Dune, continuing a trend of reading Books that Fifteen Year Old Boys Like. Alastair has taken to looking at me tenderly and saying “how you Dune?” in a Joey-from-Friends voice; he does this many times every day and it is going to make me go insane.
It was a quick and enjoyable read; propulsive, and had that falling-into-the-story feel. But the standard comparison - with Lord of the Rings - seems insane to me. The world of Dune is fundamentally a spiritually cramped one: I will not say desiccated, because that would be too obvious. The book is all about religion; the universe that Herbert created was, like its creator, atheistic. Or – more than atheistic; human-centered to a profound and stultifying degree. It’s around eight thousand years in the future, and yes, there are all these planets, all this adventure, all this lore, many new religions – but it feels stale.
I was trying to capture the feeling, trying to remember the lines to something that described it, and I’ve only just now remembered:
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
What there’s not a lot of in Dune is the undesigned-by-men, the outside: that place which is wild and at the same time carelessly generous. Everything is controlled, or must be, down to the breeding program that’s produced Paul; the planet might only with great care and pains be made not aggressively hostile to life; any greenery that will be, will be planted. There’s no God: there’s only politics. And it’s not just that there’s no God— there’s no nature either, nothing that humans can’t control, or shouldn’t.
The lack of God is very precisely reflected in the lack of a self-sustaining ecology. The Litany against Fear isn’t a prayer: it’s a psychological and neurological technology, a series of mental exercises: they work, but through his own control. There is no Outside from which to seek help, and no outside where rain can fall. The only wildness, the only uncontrolled things, are the sandworms, and the possible future genocidal war.
I used to play this game with myself, when I was around thirteen. I would imagine that I lived on a spaceship, where everything that I encountered was aggressively manmade, very carefully designed; all the air was recycled, and the one thing that you never felt was wind; there was of course a hydroponics lab but the green there, so carefully tended, only highlighted the poverty of the manmade world.
I would imagine this as hard as I could. And then I would go outside - to Central Park, to Riverside Park, just out the door – and feel the air and look at the sky.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Anyway obviously I bought the second book and have started it; honestly, it’s so good. It’s just that it’s also good to go outside, and have a drink of water.
Happenings and Doings
❧ On the twenty-first anniversary of the attack upon the Twin Towers, we visited the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, neither of us having done so before. It is a remarkable memorial: surrounded on all four sides by long parapets bearing the names of the lives lost upon their bronze surfaces, water flows down from each side into two vast reflecting pools where the towers once stood, from which, at their centre, their water falls into a deep dark void beyond the sight of the viewer. We were both surprised by how moving we found it, our feelings doubtless compounded by the poignancy of the occasion.
❧ Earlier in the month, we went upstate to visit Susannah’s dad and stepmom. While there, Alastair visited an American county fair for the first time—truly a novel cultural experience!—and we attended a concert with Judy Collins (with whom we visited backstage) and Richard Thompson.
September 24: Join us at the Davenant Institute’s Second Annual UK Convivium, in London. It’s an all-day event, and there are (possibly) still a few tickets left.
October 3: Susannah (and possibly Alastair, tbd) will be at Keeping Your Word, a Plough event in Birmingham. It’s a conversation at Second City Church at 5 pm featuring Krish Kandiah, director of the Sanctuary Foundation; Miriam Cates, MP, and Frank Young from Civitas.
October 6: Susannah (again, Alastair is a maybe) will be at the UK launch for Plough’s VOWS issue in London, featuring Elizabeth Oldfield, King-Ho Leung, and John Milbank.
We hope to see you at one or more of these!
Till next time,
Susannah and Alastair
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