My review of Popologetics and some thoughts on gospel contextualisation in general

The aim of this essay is to offer a review and critique of Ted Turnau’s book, Popologetics. I will begin by outlining a brief synopsis of the book, before spending more time on what I found helpful and not so helpful in terms of the content within. I will then give some concluding thoughts.

Short synopsis

Popologetics is split into three sections. The first sets some foundations in place as to what one means by ‘popular culture’ and ‘worldview’ while also laying out a brief theology of popular culture. The second offers a critique of some ‘not so helpful approaches to engaging popular culture’ – it’s here Turnau analyses earlier books penned by Christians on the subject. In the third and final part, he submits his own framework for engaging popular culture, applying this model to five such examples.

What I found helpful

Worldview

I was particularly grateful for Turnau’s explanation of the term ‘worldview.’ While I did already have a decent enough understanding of the expression, he further clarified my thinking by helping me realise how one’s worldview affects:

  • How we see the world
  • What are the terms of debate within our world
  • What we live for – i.e. what is worth pursuing in the world
  • How we define and value the things of ‘our worlds’
  • What is and is not up for discussion in the world, and
  • Who we are as individuals and groups

High vs Low culture

I was also thankful for Turnau’s point that just because something may be termed ‘popular culture’ (as opposed to ‘high culture’), it does not mean that it isn’t of considerable cultural and artistic value. He explains how popular culture – whether it be pop music, blockbuster films or TV shows has much to offer in this regard, and as such, how it can help us see what the world values. I also agree with Turnau that popular culture influences (or at least does so potentially) societies and it’s the dominant worldviews and ideas within them just as much, if not more so, than ‘high’ culture.

Related to this, I was helped by Turnau’s historical analysis of how the concepts of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture developed in some cultural contexts. I found it interesting to learn of part race played in deeming Jazz music as popular, or ‘low’ culture and therefore as being of lower value than ‘high culture.’ Indeed, from a technical standpoint, Turnau compellingly argues that Jazz music is just as complex as other genres of music adjudged to be part of ‘high’ culture. Further, I found his explanation of how certain social levers such as the price of participation have been used to keep certain cultural pursuits (the opera for example) as ‘high’ culture. In short, whether something is deemed as high or low culture has at least something to do with the barriers attach to participating in that activity, and not necessarily its complexity or ability to convey complex ideas about a culture, society or anything else.

Enjoying Pop Culture

I was also glad to be reminded that there is a great deal of good to be enjoyed in what God created – pop culture included. Whether it’s a TV programme, film or pop song, Turnau rightly states that it is right not only to enjoy these things as part of God’s good creation, but also when enjoying such culture to worship God as the one who gives animators, musicians, writers the creativity and talent to craft it. He also usefully adds that as much as popular culture should lead us to worship, it should also remind us that we live in a fallen world corrupted by sin, whether that be through the false and damaging ideas portrayed through popular culture or it’s use of these things as idols.

What I found unhelpful

Contextualisation

The main weakness of Popologetics can be found in part 3, whereby Turnau turns his attention to how we should biblically engage with pop culture.

In brief, he recommends that to engage both and with our non-believing friends and family who partake in pop culture, we should, essentially, seek to first understand pop culture and then engage evangelistically on these terms.

To help explain this some more, here’s an extract from the book (p.211) which suggests how to critically engage culture from a Christian perspective:

‘We need to listen to our culture and argue with it for a bit before we are ready to speak creatively into it. Further, we need to remember that the culture (including popular culture) that surrounds us is the worldview of our friends, our neighbours, our children, and ourselves. We need to be able to understand the cultural world around us if we are going to speak the gospel meaningfully into the lives of others, or even our own lives. Popular culture is, in many cases, the point of contact with the hearts and minds of those whom God has called us to love. The shows, websites, songs, games and movies that circulate in our culture show something of the landscape of the hearts of those around us (and our own hearts as well). If we would love these people intelligently, we would be well advised to pay attention to that landscape, to be able to decipher its meanings and respond persuasively to the siren call that makes it to our desires.’

Turnau goes onto recommend five core questions to ask when engaging with pop culture:

  1. What’s the story?
  2. Where am I (the world of the text)?
  3. What’s good and true and beautiful about it?
  4. What’s false and ugly and perverse about it (and how do I subvert that?)
  5. How does the gospel apply here?

Now before I go any further, I want to say that despite having never met the bloke, it seems like Turnau is a genuine brother in Christ, who sees Jesus as Lord and who loves the Bible, which is great. Further, I am not saying his approach is wrong per se – if the gospel is shared (in whatever way), then that’s a great thing. What I am saying though is that to my mind, his approach does have flaws which I’d like to explore – not so as to ‘have a dig’, but to help us all think about how to fulfill the glorious Great Commission (Matthew 18:16-20) which we’ve all been given.

My main issue with Turnau’s methodology is that he recommends a kind of ‘bottom up’ approach. That is (and as the above extract from the book makes clear), we should engage popular culture by framing our gospel proclamation in reference to the piece of popular culture in question or popular culture more generally. Whilst I agree that this method might be helpful, I’m far from convinced that other approaches aren’t as, if not more helpful and biblical in regard to engaging popular culture.

Correspondingly, Turnau didn’t do enough to convince me from scripture that his approach was preferable compared to others – throughout the book there is very little in the way of expository textual analysis. This (even in rudimentary form) would have helped give more credence to what he was advocating.

It seems sadly ironic that having done such a good job exposing how our worldview helps shape our interpretation of the world around us, Turnau goes onto advocate an approach that runs the risk of forcing the gospel to fit into the language, imagery and context of popular culture. It would surely make much more sense, if we really do see scripture as authoritative and sufficient, to speak and share a biblical worldview into the world in which we inhabit (in which popular culture plays a part). I elaborate on this thought below.

A ‘top down’ approach

If scripture is indeed authoritative and sufficient to help us grow in Christ-likeness and glorify our heavenly father (Psalm 19:7-11, Psalm 119:105, Proverbs 30:5-6, 2 Timothy 3:15-16, Hebrews 4:12) then it surely makes sense that we employ a ‘top down’ approach to our evangelism and cultural engagement. That is, we should be confident that when we share scripture faithfully, God will be faithful to work in hearts according to his perfect sovereign will (Acts 17:32-34, Romans 1:16-17, Ephesians 1:11). Put briefly, what scripture from Old to New Testament gives us is uniquely and solely sufficient to help win souls and to sanctify his church, both individually and corporately.

This ‘top down approach’ is very much mandated in scripture. When we look at the apostle’s ministry in the book of Acts (Acts 17) and in the letters thereafter, what we clearly see is confidence in the apostles to share a Gospel message and truth that is directly from God (Galatians 1:11-12, John 14:16). As such, we see that the primary concern of the apostles was not to contextualise a Gospel message so that it might become more appealing or understandable to its listeners, but to share truth, as it is and let God do the work in converting (or not) those who listened. Therefore, if we just concentrate on sharing the gospel, then we can be confident that God will make the gospel and scriptures understandable to those whom he desires.

Indeed, Paul in his letter to the Galatians goes to great depth to tell his audience how they were not to desert the true gospel (which he had been given from God) for an alternative one (Galatians 1). If we believe that the truth of the gospel and Bible has been directly revealed from God to the prophets and apostles and that it is unique in all the ways detailed above, we should be careful to be as true to it as we can when talking to unbelievers.

Observe too how the apostle Paul was so keen to share the unadulterated truth as it was revealed to him that he was willing to be beaten and killed in the process for doing it (2 Corinthians 11:23-28), and even after receiving such beatings carrying on sharing what he had been given from God! Thus, it’s interesting to note how bad reactions to the gospel don’t seem to have had an effect on Paul’s willingness to share the unadulterated truth. I do wonder whether sometimes, our eagerness to contextualise comes down to not wanting to experience a negative reaction when sharing truth with others.

It is true to say of course that Paul and others acknowledged their audience and even some of the cultural artefacts around at the time. Yet in recognising this, we can be sure that they didn’t seek to any extent to contextualise their message. One such scripture that is sometimes used to support the view that Paul did in fact contextualise is 1 Corinthians 9 (‘I have become all things to all men….’). However, notice when reading this chapter how Paul, rather than contextualising the message, is actually saying that he is becoming like men so that he might share the unaltered message that he’s been given. Paul is very keen that he himself would not be a barrier to the message to the gospel.

Applied today, this might look like something my church did recently when it held an evangelistic event. Members of the church were encouraged to invite unbelieving friends and colleagues to an event of craft beer, hot dogs and such like, before a talk on the gospel given by one of our ministers with the opportunity for conversation and follow up thereafter. And so, if this is what we mean by contextualisation, then I’m all for it! That is, removing any barriers relating to food, drink and surroundings so that people might come and hear the true gospel plainly proclaimed and engaging people in conversation so that truth can be shared on a one to one level.

Furthermore, as we seek to read, meditate, pray and apply the Bible to our and others lives and use it as the reference point for all what we encounter in this world (the ‘top down’ approach), we will be able to critically appraise pop culture and engage with it and our non-believing friends and family about it in the way Turnau rightly desires (Romans 12:1-2, Hebrews 4:12). Indeed, as far as engaging others is concerned, I’m unsure Turnau’s rubric in part 3 (the five questions detailed above) is more effective than merely talking to a person about their pop culture interests. That is, as we chat with a believer, we will soon gain an idea of what they’re into and what they understand about it, and will be able to share the unfettered gospel/scripture with them lovingly and truthfully.

In closing, I hope to have offered biblical evidence as to why a ‘top down’ approach to cultural engagement may be better than a ‘bottom up’ one, as advocated in Popologetics. Let me be clear, I’m not against holding film nights, video game marathons, or whatever else with the purpose of sharing the gospel – I’m all for them! What I am arguing for though is an approach where we don’t have to explore everything (or even anything) about a particular cultural artefact (film, TV show or whatever) before engaging pop culture and/or sharing the gospel. All we need is the gospel of Jesus Christ and the timeless truth of scripture. When we share this, however feebly or weakly, and in whatever context, God in his grace does his work (2 Corinthians 7). Indeed, as we grow in our understanding of the gospel and scripture through personal bible reading, meditation, prayer and sitting under sound teaching, we’ll find ourselves able to biblically engage pop culture. Thus, while learning about the aforementioned shows might very well be helpful in sharing the gospel, and might provide a way into conversations about Jesus and scripture – I don’t believe they are as preferable or as important as Popologetics suggests.

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Why, at the cross, perfect love cannot exist without perfect judgement

During Holy Week, I’ve been spending some time thinking about two concepts that many today see as diametrically opposed to one another; love and judgement.

One is seen as positive, affirming, kind and important to emphasise, while the other is portrayed as negative, comprehensively unaffirming, mean, and something to avoid talking about unless absolutely necessary.

Why do so many of us happily emphasise the former at the expense the latter?

Is it because we have too high an opinion of ourselves? Are we essentially good people who Christ died for not because we need to be saved from anything, but because Christ wanted to show us how much he loves us?

Relatedly, perhaps we’ve been infected with the worldly notion that because we’re all fundamentally good and decent people we can achieve anything we put our mind too – we have it in us to achieve great and wonderful things. Why therefore would God need to judge us?

Further still, maybe we don’t talk about it because the very thought that that we might be sinners deserving of judgement offends our self-esteem, making us feel uncomfortable or depressed.

Maybe the thought of thinking or talking about judgement comes across as far too uncouth or impolite for our western palates. That is, if thinking we deserve judgement ourselves is bad enough, telling others they too deserve it is totally unthinkable!

It’s important to say that in one sense these two concepts are widely different to one another. And yet, one of the amazing and beautiful things about the account of Jesus Christ crucifixion and resurrection, is how love and judgement meet, intermingle and cleave together so magnificently and perfectly.

And so, what I’m trying to say is this: If you want to know what love is, look to the cross (1 John 4:10).

Why can love be found at the cross? Because this is where Jesus willingly goes in our place (John 10:18), taking on the judgement that you and I deserve (Isaiah 53:6) for turning away from God and living our own way (Romans 3:12).

Many of us I’m sure have heard this phrase (‘if you want to know what love is, look to the cross’) or a variation of it before. However, have we really reflected on not only our deserving judgement and the fact Jesus took the place of the Christian, exchanging his righteousness for our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21), but the means by which, and the implications of this remarkable exchange?

Have we for instance reflected on how costly this exchange was? This was no light thing for Jesus to undertake. Films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ seek to portray the excruciating physical pain of Jesus’ death, and make no mistake, Jesus death by crucifixion was utterly brutal. And yet more terrifying, frightening and painful still was the pouring out of God’s wrath on Christ for our sin (Luke 22:42, Mark 15:34). Think about that – God’s righteous, undiluted anger and judgement for sin all concentrated on Christ. We can barely begin to comprehend it.

Never before or since has there been a costlier demonstration of love. Fellow Christian, Jesus literally endured the torment of hell for you and me, the hell you and I deserve. And only Jesus could have done this, God could not accept no other sacrifice (1 Peter 1:19), his perfect requirement for justice had to be satisfied (Romans 3:26).

When we bear all of this in mind, it makes no sense whatsoever to airbrush judgement out of the picture when talking about love as seen in the cross. In other words, to not acknowledge or talk of the judgement of the cross is to do nothing less than scandalously diminish the most clear and powerful demonstration of love the world has ever seen.

And so, I say again, want to see love? Then behold the cross in all its glory!

My prayer is that we’d encounter and embrace this love this Easter – epitomised by the cross and intertwined with righteous judgement. For when we do, we find not only love, but the opportunity to make it personal for ourselves today through faith in the Lordship of Christ and repentance from our sin. Through such faith and repentance, we can experience all the benefits of a relationship made possible by this sacrificial love now (such as growing to be more like Jesus) and into eternity as this relationship becomes fully realised.

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Photo Credit: Scott Fillmer

Why in today’s disunited times, biblical unity matters

‘The times, they are a-changing’, so goes the familiar melody by Bob Dylan, and when you look both at the world we live in today, and how it might change in the future, it would be hard to disagree with Mr Dylan wouldn’t it? To me, this change is particularly characterised in two ways. First, we seem to be in a state of increased disunity. The changes thrust upon us in recent times seem to have exposed divisions based on colour, religion, politics, income, I could go on. Second, we live in a world of uncertainty. Of course, change of whatever kind often brings uncertainty, and events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are no exception.

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You may be pleased to read that I’m not going to spill any ink analysing policy, scrutinising decisions and their implications or studying the character and morality of figureheads. Plenty of this has been done already and will continue to permeate our screens in the days, months and years to come. Instead, in part 1, I want to argue that the disunified and uncertain times we live in should lead Christians to take heart, and perhaps surprisingly, rejoice. Part 2, focusing on the theme of uncertainty, will be published in due course.

Disunity

I’ve just finished looking at the book of Ephesians with my Bible Study Small Group. One of the things we saw was how both Jew and Gentile believers have been united as one body. This wasn’t done on the basis of race, income, politics or any human means, but by the blood of Jesus Christ. As such, Paul is saying that if people groups as different (and as vehemently opposed to one another) as Jews and Gentiles have been brought together by the blood of Jesus, then so have we today in all our differences.

And so, because we are unified in one body, Paul prays that:

‘Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.’

This prayer shows us that the unity that has been achieved isn’t just any old unity, but an incredible, amazing unity so much better than anything the world can offer.

Paul goes onto say that if we have been unified in this way, we should act like it. Paul wants us to maintain this amazing unity we’ve been given, and one the ways we do that is by building up the body by speaking the truth (that is, the truth of the Bible) in love with another:

‘Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.’

Now, it goes without saying that we’re still sinners, and this unity won’t be fully realised in all its glory until Jesus comes again and ushers in the new creation. In addition, we as a body, in our own families, congregations and churches will sometimes find it hard to maintain this unity, and we won’t always feel that unified. It is true however to say that in Paul’s eyes, we are undoubtedly unified now. Further, as well-being able to know this factually, we’re also able experience something of the joy of this unity today.

In an increasingly disunified world, these realities should provide great comfort to us as a body today.

It isn’t just about us though. My hope and prayer is that as the church displays this unity, outsiders would see be attracted to it[1], particularly in today’s increasingly fraught environment.

Maybe they’ll notice the way which we actively seek to speak the truth in love with those who have different views about Brexit or Donald Trump, instead of segregating and sowing discord. Or perhaps they’ll be struck by the way we refrain from calling people who are different to us nasty names, instead affirming them as part of a closely-knit body. Alternatively, they might see the way we don’t merely tolerate those different to us, but cherish them as if we dearly need them in our Christian walk.

Needless to say of course that there’s more we as a body can be doing to pursue biblical unity, but the fact remains that to my mind, these things even only slightly demonstrated show the Church to be a more united institution than any man-made equivalent.

To sum up, making efforts to pursue and maintain unity is worth it for at least three reasons. First, it’s a biblical command. Second, it’ll do us individually and corporately as a body the world of good. Thirdly, this unity puts the majesty and glory of God’s church on display to both the ‘rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’, and to the world at large. With all this in mind, let’s keep going in pursuing unity, in good times and in bad and whether it seems easy or hard.

[1] See 2 Cor 2:15-16, John 13:34-35

On Trump, part 2

Part one of my thoughts on Trump explored why he won, this second part seeks to offer some ideas on where we go from here.

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If we are to learn one thing from the 2016 US Presidential election, it is this:

Shouting at, or telling people that certain things are innately good and decrying alternative viewpoints as outrageous or wrong doesn’t necessarily lead to very desirable outcomes.

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That is, being given a seemingly irrefutable worldview by an elite of how the world should be doesn’t necessarily make it correct. Indeed, recent events like Brexit and the 2016 US election tell us that the question of what kind of world we want to live in is as contested as ever.

Ironically perhaps, more and more of our public discourse seems to be focused on ‘preaching to the converted’ and creating safe spaces around us where we are incubated in our self-contained echo chambers from people and views deemed ‘offensive’ or intolerable rather than seeking to discuss, argue and persuade others of how we think things should be. In other words, if you think your vision of the world is better than mine, then talk to me, convince me, don’t shout at me that it is simply so!

Indeed, in getting to know people outside our circles, we might be surprised not only to discover these people are human, but that their views and concerns are more valid than we think, even if we don’t agree with them. The same goes for reading outside our normal frames of reference. Hence, being exposed to ideas different to our own doesn’t mean we have to compromise, but it might result the beliefs we hold dear being sharpened, this being a very good and important thing.

Before we move on, there’s a commercial aspect to the echo chamber effect that is worth touching on. That is, the ‘old way’ of paying for journalism have given way to expectations that what we read should be free. As a result, proprietors are now increasingly turning to ‘click bait’ to pull in the readers, and the advertising revenue that comes with it. We’ve known this for a while, but what seem far less explored is the way in which this new model portrays language, people groups and ideologies in increasingly polarised terms. In short, people will read the controversial and the divisive more readily than they’ll read the nuanced, in depth and balanced. Given the above, this is a concern.

In saying all of this, I’m not as naive as to think that this engagement will lead to a ‘Lennon-esque’ world where people of all different backgrounds all hold hands in a circle singing Kumbaya all united in every way imaginable. Indeed, it would be optimistic for a proponent of high levels of immigration to think that anti-immigration sentiment will disappear if we just talk to people who have concerns about the issue. This is a dilemma the UK Labour Party has experienced in recent years; having embraced immigration under Tony Blair, the Party in red are finding that a good number of their voters don’t like immigration very much (or, they may well have known all along, but assumed it didn’t matter), or at least in the numbers seen in recent years. The dilemma they have faced is whether to argue the case as to why immigration (either in general, or at as high levels as it was under New Labour) is a good thing, or to cave in and say, actually, no immigration can be a problem and/or we need to reduce it.

I should also say that more engagement shouldn’t necessarily lead to more pandering either. Those whom we find (for whatever reason) genuinely hateful or offensive should be called out as such. Worryingly, I recently read something (I can’t remember where) which argued that those in positions of privilege and/or power are (especially in today’s times) in danger of shutting down dissenting views – this of course being one of the defining features of Fascist ideology. Ironically, given both his and his supporters protestations about being gagged, signs of this can be seen from both Donald Trump and his supporters.

This whole issue of the need for better engagement issue was summed up perfectly in a podcast I was listening to the other day. One of the journalists was talking about the change seen in Shoreditch (an area in Central London) in recent years. To him, Shoreditch used to be a place full of ‘undesirables’ – racists and the like. What was telling though was that he thought that the change seen in the area (I think it’s now become something of a self-parodying theme park myself) had been brought about by the irrepressible rise of social liberalism in the area. On the one hand, he’s right, as gentrification has taken hold in areas like Shoreditch, these parts have definitely become more socially liberal. What he missed out though, and this is critical, is the question as to where the so called ‘undesirables’ went. Shoreditch isn’t an area of social transformation, more an area subject to ‘social shifting’. The people who used to live in Shoreditch haven’t just disappeared or magically changed their views but have moved to other areas. Certain groups that used to live in Shoreditch and inner East London have moved outwards towards Essex for example. Thus, it isn’t as if social liberalism has taken over the UK or the US. Rather, over generations, certain areas have changed in terms of their makeup. This reinforces a point made earlier – the battle as to what kind of nation and society we want to live in is by no means settled.

There is one more theme that needs discussing before summing up – uncertainty. The election of Trump epitomises this on a global political, economic and social level, and to a degree not seen before by many of us. Will he bring in policies in line with his bombastic rhetoric or will his tough talk be just that, all talk, and the neo-liberal orthodoxy seen in the past will, more or less, continue unabated? We just don’t know. My own view is that Trump on his own doesn’t have the nous to implement or oversee a substantial change in direction, political, economic or social. His presidential picks on the other hand might, and Trump may be happy to operate like a Chairman, rubber-stamping the direction of things (and of course taking the credit where the opportunity presents itself), leaving the nitty gritty to Messrs Pence, Harbertson etc.

Let’s briefly explore this theme of uncertainty through one issue – world security. Trump has indicated, in line with his general isolationist bent that he wouldn’t necessarily object to the USA withdrawing from NATO under certain circumstances. Such an action would obviously cause great levels of uncertainty. Up until now, if a NATO state were to be attacked by, oh I don’t know, Russia, then the USA would be legally obliged to step in and help defend that nation state. Might a USA-less NATO arise, then it’s states (not to mention surrounding world regions) would be far less secure and far more vulnerable to attack from an enemy. Even if the USA doesn’t leave, Trump’s apparent cosying up to Vladimir Putin could in itself signal a change in geo-politics. Put it this way, if I were a citizen in Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia, I’m not sure I’d be confident of the USA coming to my aid should Putin fancy a westwards invasion. And this is all before we think about any relationship between Trump’s impetuousness and the red button! Should such a pressing come to pass, then we all could really be in trouble.

It is perfectly possible that none of the above will happen of course. Nonetheless, people are understandably fearful about the coming weeks, months and years. I hope to write something in due course on how fear doesn’t have to be the last word however.

For now though, let us conclude. Many have been worried about what a Trump presidency might bring, and these concerns may well manifest themselves. But I also think Trump (and Brexit for that matter) present a great opportunity. For much of my lifetime for instance, there has been a broad consensus about what kind of world we should want to live in (pro-globalisation, socially liberal, pro- welfare to work, pro Europe, pro-immigration). The election of Trump presents a real challenge to this consensus, and an chance to ask ourselves about what kind of world we want to live in. It also provides an important challenge and chance for proponents of the consensus to make their case. As such, now seems to be an ideal opportunity for the main parties and media to do better in engaging with the public, including unfashionable minorities, and offering alternatives that don’t necessarily pander to racism and unkindness but offer chances for people of all backgrounds to be heard.

Indeed, maybe Trump has shown us that ‘business as usual’ in terms of politics, the economy and society and the media for that matter just won’t do anymore.

On Trump – Part 1

Now before I start, please allow me to offer something of a disclaimer. A lot of the following should be treated as theoretical possibility rather than certain fact. Owing both to the complexity of humanity, the fact that the election fallout is still unfolding, not to mention the uncertainty around the man himself, we just don’t know what will happen in the coming weeks, months and years. Neither do we know whether the explanations proffered for Trump’s victory are correct, or the extent to which they are so. Indeed, one of the regrettable consequences of how our 21st century media landscape works is the clamour for immediacy in the wake of significant events – manifesting itself through shallowness, slogan instead of prose, and catchy and ‘confirmation bias esque’ explanations. This is one of the reasons why I’ve waited a little while before offering some thoughts. I believe in potentially seismic times as these, it is wise to let things percolate before spouting off, and I say this as someone who all too often has been guilty of this.

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So, why did Trump win? A lot of reasons, probably.

Much of the commentariat have pounced on a whole array of data and hypotheses to try and explain why Donald Trump is now the president elect. Early on, there seemed to be at least two camps, the economic and the socio-cultural. The former argue that this election was won because a high number of poor to middle income voters plumped for Trump – those who have had their incomes squeezed and who have lost jobs (which haven’t been replaced) as the manufacturing bases which formed the bedrock of many communities have moved overseas. It is true that the rust belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania all voted Trumpwards. And even more remarkably, there was a 16 point swing toward Trump amongst voters earning $30,000 per year.

Indeed, a core component of politics in the last 30 years has been the consensus around neo-liberalism, an important part of which has been the embrace of globalisation and with that, the embrace of things like international trade arrangements and the free movement of labour. Proponents will argue this has brought widespread national and international economic growth, but inevitably, there have been losers, many of which can be found in the aforementioned rust belt communities. Thus, voters, fed up with seemingly unending economic stagnation wanted change and to them, Trump represented just that. Whether he’ll bring in jobs and greater prosperity for these communities (as he’s promised) is still to be seen, as is the reaction if he doesn’t.

Others have pointed to more cultural and social explanations to explain the result. Yet these explanations aren’t totally divorced from the economic. Again, globalisation, along with what many perceive as the ever increasing pace of social reform (gay marriage, shifting social norms around gender and sexuality), and high levels of immigration has left many in the USA (and in the UK for that matter) feeling threatened, uncertain and increasingly disconnected from debates around what kind of nation they want to live in. Elites, whether they be political, media or otherwise have imposed new ideas on their citizens and many are rebelling. Trump, the scheming pragmatist that he is, capitalised on these legitimate concerns and offered an alternative vision of a better society. As with the above, it is still to be seen whether Trump will have the desire or ability to carry through on bringing about the social reforms many of his voters desire.

I wonder whether to many Trump voters it matters that much whether he actually brings in any significant change. To many, he represented a refreshing change from what had gone before, and he appeared to listen to and represent groups who felt they hadn’t been listened to in a long time. On the flipside, it may be that if Trump and his team are unable to bring in the promised changes, supporters may deem him to be in fact no different from the rest, and a backlash may ensue. It’s worth saying that if the president elect doesn’t do much of what he has promised, excuses are already being made for him. ‘Alt Right’ stalwart Alex Jones for instance, quite literally the day after Trump won, said that the mainstream media and the political elite were scheming against him to make sure he failed. Thus, if Trump does indeed fail, it won’t (in the eyes of Jones and no doubt many of his supporters) be because of any malpractice or incompetence of the Trump administration, but because of an elitist conspiracy to stop him succeeding. It’ll be interesting to see whether many of who voted for him will buy this if perceived failure does ensue.

Moving on, it is impossible to overlook the role race played. It can’t be denied that Trump was supported (and voted in) by those who are overwhelmingly white. White men voted him in by 63% to 31%, whilst most white women also voted in favour of the Trump-meister, despite his infamous comments. There are undoubtedly links between this point and the above; communities affected by the decimation in the manufacturing base in the US (plus many more besides) and who have valid concerns/views regarding immigration tend to be white. Perhaps correspondingly, elements of the ‘coastal media elite’ have wrongly labelled these legitimate concerns regarding immigration, job losses, security and terrorism and economic difficulty as racist, or racially motivated. Yet, as legitimate as these concerns are, it could well be true that there is a genuinely racist overtone to the Trump vote. That is, some voters simply don’t like ethnic minorities, and the fact that the changes brought by pro-globalisation policies have resulted in an increase in the number of people from these ethnic groups, or rather, a perceived increase. Nonetheless, it is imperative not to conflate these two groups.

There are other factors too that could and perhaps should be explored. Others have pointed to educational background being a factor. As seems normal these days, certain commentators and individuals have (both implicitly and explicitly) mocked and derided Trump voters for being stupid. This would be a grave error. For one thing, this label stands at odds with the fact that white men regardless of educational level voted for Trump, and secondly (and more importantly) it gives an excuse to delegitimise certain viewpoints as lesser, without proper engagement, something not helped by the way in which our social media platforms are designed (shouting and sloganeering rather than thoughtfulness and insight.)

Moving on, a piece in the Financial Times also raised the impact of personal values. What particularly caught my eye in this piece was the research cited – it found that most of those analysed DIDN’T change their personal values they had been raised with during university. Further, it found that those who went into degrees around the political and social sciences didn’t find university as an experience which challenged their views on the world, but merely entrenched pre-existing opinions further. This then is a challenge to the oft espoused notion that education is the key to making everyone that bit more ‘tolerant’ and ‘progressive.’ It could be that personal values are entrenched earlier on in the education system, at primary or secondary school. Another alternative could be that parents play a key role in shaping the personal values of their children.

Maybe we’re overanalysing all of this. Celebrated pollster Nate Silver remarked in a podcast just after the election that every so often people just fancy a ‘change.’ It doesn’t go much deeper than that. Every so often, the electorate want a change see a change in the party in power, regardless of whether it’s red or blue. Perhaps this is why Barack Obama back in 2008 utilised the word ‘change’ and placed it front and centre of his campaign (to great effect, he won the thing). He successfully persuaded enough of the US electorate that he was the ‘change’ candidate. Indeed, whatever you think of Trump, few will disagree that he likewise was the ‘change’ candidate in 2016. It is unnecessary to explore what exactly constitutes ‘change’, merely that a decent portion of the electorate feel something different is required every now and then, and whoever happens to be in opposition and perhaps manages to utilise the desire for a different direction reaps the benefits.

Returning back to the media, the way in which this fourth estate works is such that its less about WHAT is said but WHEN it is said. That is, due to the fierce competition for clicks (more clicks means more advertising revenue) there is a race to put out articles which quickly and comfortably offer explanations for certain phenomena or results. By ‘comfortably’, I mean explanations which offer relatively simple explanations for events which although often controversial, confirm one’s view and opinions. This results in publications and websites offering output which sits well with audiences, while at the same time offering novel enough explanations as to generate the advertising revenue. Further, in the age we live, we simply don’t have the time to mull over the reasons for and the implications of certain events. The danger then is at least twofold; a.) we fall for simplistic explanations of the world and the events around us, without leaving ourselves and each other the time to fully consider the evidence and or experiences, and our own views of these experiences, and b.) we naturally gravitate towards explanations which conform to our own pre-determined views of the world and events.

I feel like this latter point has been done to death, but the first point is an important one. In the case of Trump’s victory, I think it’s probably true that all the aforementioned factors, plus more, played a role in the Republican candidate’s victory. Thus, it is true that BOTH economic and cultural factors played a role in his success (as well as many others.) And whilst its fine to focus in on an individual factor and examine its role in an outcome, it is surely just as, if not more, important to consider how ALL the factors interacted with one another to foresee an event. I’ve seen precious little of this in the coverage around Trump; it’s been ‘education levels key to Trump victory’ or ‘economic decline amongst US middle classes key to Trump victory’ etc. Admittedly, considering a number of factors and their relative importance to an event can be very difficult, and is probably beyond the remit of statistics or quantitative research alone. By no means should we give up in the pursuit of explaining events, but as already said, humans are incredibly complex beings, and it therefore might be impossible to totally get to the bottom of why Trump won the election.

So, why did Trump win? A number of reasons, probably.

On Trump – Part 1

Now before I start, please allow me to offer something of a disclaimer. A lot of the following should be treated as theoretical possibility rather than certain fact. Owing both to the complexity of humanity, the fact that the election fallout is still unfolding, not to mention the uncertainty around the man himself, we just don’t know what will happen in the coming weeks, months and years. Neither do we know whether the explanations proffered for Trump’s victory are correct, or the extent to which they are so. Indeed, one of the regrettable consequences of how our 21st century media landscape works is the clamour for immediacy in the wake of significant events – manifesting itself through shallowness, slogan instead of prose, and catchy and ‘confirmation bias esque’ explanations. This is one of the reasons why I’ve waited a little while before offering some thoughts. I believe in potentially seismic times as these, it is wise to let things percolate before spouting off, and I say this as someone who all too often has been guilty of the former.

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So, why did Trump win? A lot of reasons, probably

Much of the commentariat have pounced on a whole array of data and hypotheses to try and explain why Donald Trump is now the president elect. Early on, there seemed to be at least two camps, the economic and the socio-cultural. The former argue that this election was won because a high number of poor to middle income voters plumped for Trump – those who have had their incomes squeezed and who have lost jobs (which haven’t been replaced) as the manufacturing bases which formed the bedrock of many communities have moved overseas. It is true that the rust belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania all voted Trumpwards. And even more remarkably, there was a 16 point swing toward Trump amongst voters earning $30,000 per year.

Indeed, a core component of politics in the last 30 years has been the consensus around neo-liberalism, an important part of which has been the embrace of globalisation and with that, the embrace of things like international trade arrangements and the free movement of labour. Proponents will argue this has brought widespread national and international economic growth, but inevitably, there have been losers, many of which can be found in the aforementioned rust belt communities. Thus, voters, fed up with seemingly unending economic stagnation wanted change and to them, Trump represented just that. Whether he’ll bring in jobs and greater prosperity for these communities (as he’s promised) is still to be seen, as is the reaction if he doesn’t.

Others have pointed to more cultural and social explanations to explain the result. Yet these explanations aren’t totally divorced from the economic. Again, globalisation, along with what many perceive as the ever increasing pace of social reform (gay marriage, shifting social norms around gender and sexuality), and high levels of immigration has left many in the USA (and in the UK for that matter) feeling threatened, uncertain and increasingly disconnected from debates around what kind of nation they want to live in. Elites, whether they be political, media or otherwise have imposed new ideas on their citizens and many are rebelling. Trump, the scheming pragmatist that he is, capitalised on these legitimate concerns and offered an alternative vision of a better society. As with the above, it is still to be seen whether Trump will have the desire or ability to carry through on bringing about the social reforms many of his voters desire.

I wonder whether to many Trump voters it matters that much whether he actually brings in any significant change. To many, he represented a refreshing change from what had gone before, and he appeared to listen to and represent groups who felt they hadn’t been listened to in a long time. On the flipside, it may be that if Trump and his team are unable to bring in the promised changes, supporters may deem him to be in fact no different from the rest, and a backlash may ensue. It’s worth saying that if the president elect doesn’t do much of what he has promised, excuses are already being made for him. ‘Alt Right’ stalwart Alex Jones for instance, quite literally the day after Trump won, said that the mainstream media and the political elite were scheming against him to make sure he failed. Thus, if Trump does indeed fail, it won’t (in the eyes of Jones and no doubt many of his supporters) be because of any malpractice or incompetence of the Trump administration, but because of an elitist conspiracy to stop him succeeding. It’ll be interesting to see whether many of who voted for him will buy this if perceived failure does ensue.

Moving on, it is impossible to overlook the role race played. It can’t be denied that Trump was supported (and voted in) by those who are overwhelmingly white. White men voted him in by 63% to 31%, whilst most white women also voted in favour of the Trump-meister, despite his infamous comments. There are undoubtedly links between this point and the above; communities affected by the decimation in the manufacturing base in the US (plus many more besides) and who have valid concerns/views regarding immigration tend to be white. Perhaps correspondingly, elements of the ‘coastal media elite’ have wrongly labelled these legitimate concerns regarding immigration, job losses, security and terrorism and economic difficulty as racist, or racially motivated. Yet, as legitimate as these concerns are, it could well be true that there is a genuinely racist overtone to the Trump vote. That is, some voters simply don’t like ethnic minorities, and the fact that the changes brought by pro-globalisation policies have resulted in an increase in the number of people from these ethnic groups, or rather, a perceived increase. Nonetheless, it is imperative not to conflate these two groups.

There are other factors too that could and perhaps should be explored. Others have pointed to educational background being a factor. As seems normal these days, certain commentators and individuals have (both implicitly and explicitly) mocked and derided Trump voters for being stupid. This would be grave error. For one thing, this label stands at odds with the fact that white men regardless of educational level voted for Trump, and secondly (and more importantly) it gives an excuse to delegitimise certain viewpoints as lesser, without proper engagement, something not helped by the way in which our social media platforms are designed (shouting and sloganeering rather than thoughtfulness and insight.)

Moving on, a piece in the Financial Times also raised the impact of personal values. What particularly caught my eye in this piece was the research cited – it found that most of those analysed DIDN’T change their personal values they had been raised with during university. Further, it found that those who went into degrees around the political and social sciences didn’t find university as an experience which challenged their views on the world, but merely entrenched pre-existing opinions further. This then is a challenge to the oft espoused notion that education is the key to making everyone that bit more ‘tolerant’ and ‘progressive.’ It could be that personal values are entrenched earlier on in the education system, at primary or secondary school. Another alternative could be that parents play a key role in shaping personal values on their children.

Maybe we’re overanalysing all of this. Celebrated pollster Nate Silver remarked in a podcast just after the election that every so often people just fancy a ‘change.’ It doesn’t go much deeper than that. Every so often, the electorate want a change see a change in the party in power, regardless of whether it’s red or blue. Perhaps this is why Barack Obama back in 2008 utilised the word ‘change’ and placed it front and centre of his campaign (to great effect, he won the thing). He successfully persuaded enough of the US electorate that he was the ‘change’ candidate. Indeed, whatever you think of Trump, few will disagree that he likewise was the ‘change’ candidate in 2016. It is unnecessary to explore what exactly constitutes ‘change’, merely that a decent portion of the electorate feel something different is required every now and then, and whoever happens to be in opposition and perhaps manages to utilise the desire for a different direction reaps the benefits.

Returning back to the media, the way in which this fourth estate works is such that its less about WHAT is said but WHEN it is said. That is, due to the fierce competition for clicks (more clicks means more advertising revenue) there is a race to put out articles which quickly and comfortably offer explanations for certain phenomena or results. By ‘comfortably’, I mean explanations which offer relatively simple explanations for events which although often controversial, confirm ones view and opinions. This results in publications and websites offering output which sits well with audiences, while at the same time offering novel enough explanations as to generate the advertising revenue. Further, in the age we live, both we simply don’t have the time to mull over the reasons for and the implications of certain events. The danger then is at least two fold; a.) we fall for simplistic explanations of the world and the events around us, without leaving ourselves and each other the time to fully consider the evidence and or experiences, and our own views of these experiences, and b.) we naturally gravitate towards explanations which conform to our own pre-determined views of the world and events.

I feel like this latter point has been done to death, but the first point is an important one. In the case of Trump’s victory, I think it’s probably true that all the aforementioned factors, plus more, played a role in the Republican candidate’s victory. Thus, it is true that BOTH economic and cultural factors played a role in his success (as well as many others.) And whilst its fine to focus in on an individual factor and examine its role in an outcome, it is surely just as, if not more, important to consider how ALL the factors interacted with one another to foresee an event. I’ve seen precious little of this in the coverage around Trump; it’s been ‘education levels key to Trump victory’ or ‘economic decline amongst US middle classes key to Trump victory’ etc. Admittedly, considering a number of factors and their relative importance to an event can be very difficult, and is probably beyond the remit of statistics or quantitative research alone. By no means should we give up in the pursuit of explaining events, but as already said, humans are incredibly complex beings, and it therefore might be impossible to totally get to the bottom of why Trump won the election.

So, why did Trump win? A number of reasons, probably.

 

4 reflections on unemployment

I’ve just emerged from a time of unemployment, well, sort of. I finished a long-ish term position in April this year, and have now just been offered a full time role (praise the Lord!), having had a couple of intermittent short term temporary posts in the intervening period. Here are 4 reflections.

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1. Fundamental truths

You’ll maybe have heard and have believed the basic truth ‘God provides what his children need everyday’ or a variation of it for years. And yet, during the last few months, God has led me to believe this in a fundamentally deeper way as I’ve been unsure as to what the future holds. I think this has something to do with the fact that when a safety net like a job is removed, we (as was the case for me) are forced to trust in God’s providence in a more real way than previously. As we do so, we see the folly of self-reliance and the wisdom of God reliance.

Likewise, you may be familiar with the adage – ‘your value is in Christ.’ During this season of uncertainty, It’s been a real privilege to see more clearly how in a culture that screams at us ‘you are your job’, ‘your value is defined by your career’ and so on, how our value is actually defined solely in Jesus. This is to say that whether we’re a CEO, a cleaner, banker, lawyer, baker or whatever, when God looks at the believer, he sees Jesus – we can have no higher value! As I worried about my friends ‘getting ahead’ in the world of work, and how others might think of me now I was unemployed, God drew me back to this unconditional reality – enabling me in the process to perceive and appreciate this truth more acutely.

2. It’s not about me….

When jobless, it can be very easy to get caught up in ourselves. That is, as we expend lots of energy and time trying to find that job, I think we can become somewhat cocooned, as if the world revolves around me and finding my job. At church, we’ve just started studying Ephesians and one the amazing truths of the book is not only that as believers, we were chosen to be holy and blameless before the foundation of the world, or that God has a plan to unite all things in heaven and earth under Jesus, but that the reason he does these things is so that he might be praised. We’re also told elsewhere in the Bible to do all things to the glory of God. Applied today, the Bible as a whole teaches us that life is not all about me and my life, but about God’s glory, and the praise of that. This acts as a real challenge to me!

3. How’s the job situation?

During the last month, I’ve been greatly blessed as friends and family have shown love and support through prayer, practical advice, offers of financial support and more. I’d like to think that as this has happened, we as the wider body of Christ have grown together in Godliness. As such, we shouldn’t see the joblessness of our brothers and sisters as a burden, or something to be ashamed of, but as an opportunity for love and service.

Having said that, I’ve been doing some thinking about the amount of times I’ve been asked ‘How’s the job situation?’ No doubt, I was asked this out of genuine loving concern. However, I wonder whether the frequency to which this question was put to me shows something of the sometimes unhelpful value we place on work and the employment status of our friends and family. In actual fact, I wouldn’t have minded if my employment position hadn’t been raised as much in conversations. Why? Firstly, out of slight social embarrassment on my part if there had been no change from the previous week, or feeling pressured to put a positive gloss on things when asked that question. Secondly, because our lives don’t revolve around jobs, nor, as discussed already, do they define us.

4. It could be you

In employment terms, we live in an increasingly short term, fragile and transient age. Gone for the most part are ‘jobs for life’, and in are short term temporary assignments, zero hours contracts and consultancy agreements. And while it’s still far too early to assess the consequences of Brexit, sizeable job losses may take place in certain sectors in the months and years to come. Even if you are on a relatively secure, ‘perk-tastic’ contract, many will tell you that an unjust boss, a hostile work culture, and sub-par personal performance could leave you out of work. Put simply, unemployment can happen to anyone. This should keep those of us currently in work humble – not in anyway thinking ourselves as superior as unemployed brothers and sisters.

Summing up

Overall, the last few months have led me to a deeper appreciation of certain biblical truths. I’ve been reminded that trials exist to refine our faith, and to help transform us into the image of Jesus. This time has also helped alter my perspective; in the grand scheme of things, my career really doesn’t matter that much! Finally, God has used the last few months to help me better understand how we can be helping those in the church who find themselves without a job.