The Trout of Doubt

Okay, so this isn't a trout. You try taking a photo of a trout.
Okay, so this isn’t a trout. You try taking a photo of a trout.

There are certain core skills that you need in life in order to be a respectable human being.

I have very few of these.

I can’t cook anything much more complicated than toast (at school, I made a sponge cake which, I’m not kidding, tasted of fish. It was a miracle of culinary physics. And cupcakes that bounced). I was not very successful with woodwork, either. I once made a bird-table that more closely resembled some kind of fiendish, spikey wooden venus flytrap (which birds, sensibly, avoided). Trying to add a new circuit board to a computer resulted in an actual fire.

One thing I did try to master was fly-fishing. My father is very skilled at it. He used to make his own flies too, which in angling circles is the equivalent of being an intergalactic space ninja. But fishing expeditions with me were very different, being mainly afternoons spent untangling the line from trees, fences and people. The only time I ever actually caught something was when I managed to land a sick fish in my net, which is the pretty unsporting equivalent of going big game hunting at the zoo. In a tank.

But I did learn something interesting about trout. And this is that trout lurk. They hover in the river, gobbling up anything that comes near them. Sometimes you can see them, and sometimes you can’t. But they’re there – lurking.

Something else that lurks, beneath the waters of the church, is a relatively forbidden subject – uncertainty about whether God is really there or not.

The Trout of Doubt

You rarely hear sermons about the Trout. Sermons about the existence of God tend to be evangelistic talks. Which is great, but by front-loading the church machine like this we hoover up new believers but don’t necessarily retro-fit anything at the other end of the pipeline for when they start to wonder.

Our language about this issue is also weird. We seem to imply that all Christians are in a permanent state of rock-solid belief (or at least, they should be). We talk about ‘being saved’, or ‘conversion’, as if once someone has said the magic words ‘I accept you into my life, Jesus,’ then that’s it. Instant. No more internal process, one more Christian, on to the next soul. We’ve even given uncertainty a label, ‘doubt’ which is a term that’s not just loaded, it’s practically bursting. The wheels underneath it are buckling.

As soon as we use the word ‘doubt’, it’s like we’re diagnosing a spiritual disease. A sort of Christian mental illness. This is unhelpful in two ways – firstly, it marks it out as a condition with a start and a finish. As if it comes on suddenly, like flu or food poisoning, and hopefully another Christian will find a cure for you by saying the right thing ‘for you’, and you’ll stop doubting and return to your healthy religious state. And secondly, it stigmatises it. It’s undesirable. It’s not in the Happy Box with words like ‘worship’ and ‘joyful’, it’s not something that a Christian wants to admit to other Christians.

The effect is heightened for leaders, missionaries and long-term Christians. They often worry that if they express any hint of doubt, then the carpet will be pulled out from underneath them (revealing, presumably, a flume-tube going all the way to Hell with a demon attendant offering complimentary towels at the other end). Or perhaps that they will infect others with doubt, as if it’s the Ebola virus and unless they quarrantine their thoughts they will become Patient Zero in an outbreak that will bring down all of Christendom.

The spectrum of doubt

Let’s blow the lid on this, and suggest a startling idea – all Christians are sitting somewhere on a spectrum of doubt at any one time. At one end is the conviction that God does not exist and it’s all a load of nonsense, and at the other is a wild-eyed, near-psychotic conviction that God is more real that Burger King.

And nobody is ever at either extreme. Even self-described atheists have a part of them that thinks “but what if…?” (and they wouldn’t be very good scientists if they didn’t). Instead, in response to the factors acting on us at any one time, we slide along this spectrum throughout our lives. We might move in either direction, by an inch or a mile, over several years or in the space of a day. In essence, all Christians are in a greater or lesser state of worry that they might be wrong, the whole time. All people are, whether they’re religious or not.

Living life on the spectrum

In 2005, a behavioural economist called Dan Ariely carried out an amazing psychological experiment. He asked some students to predict what their opinions would be about several subjects if they were placed into a strong emotional state. He then placed them in such a state, and asked them again. He found massive differences between what the students thought their opinions were going to be, and what their opinions actually turned out to be.

What this suggests is that our world-view is heavily altered by the emotions we’re experiencing at the time.

So if your view on the existence of God is based on cold logic (like a theological cyborg), that might not satisfy you when you’re in an intense emotional place (such as a bereavement). But similarly, an answer which might be of some comfort when you feel emotional may not satisfy you when you return to your day-to-day neutral state. We go through different emotional states throughout our lives, such as the religious devotion we feel when worshipping in church, the neutral day-to-day state when we’re just going about, doing our thing, and then finally the emotionally-heavy one when we’re faced with something frightening, threatening or worrying.

What Dan’s research might imply is that the assurance of God’s existence we might have in any one of those states may not automatically carry through to the others.

Faith is like a womble

So part of living life on the spectrum is recognising that faith is a flexible and dynamic creature that has to adapt to the habitat in which it finds itself. Like a womble.

I don't know what they're doing either.
I don’t know what they’re doing either.

The fact that you doubt is healthy. Really healthy. It means you’re not crazy. It means you don’t fall for just anything. And so that makes the faith you do have more valuable.

And by the same token, the fact that you recognise a need to consider what might exist beyond our physical senses is equally healthy, especially given that modern studies show that we have too much confidence in our perception of them (some, for example, show that we only actually notice 0.045% of what our senses pick up – remember the gorilla Youtube video?).

If you find yourself moving along the spectrum, embrace it. To quote Isaiah 43:19 shamelessly out of context:

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.

Your faith is finding itself having to adapt to a new habitat, a new time of life.  It’s normal. Don’t be frightened, don’t worry, and certainly don’t give up.

Relax. This is part of the journey.

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Christians are having a giant argument. Here’s some ground rules

trumpI’ve been pretty shocked to see that so many Christians voted for Trump, that Christian leaders have endorsed or failed to challenge him, and that many Christians appear to be deploying a ‘coping mechanism’ by hoping that he is, indeed, ‘God’s’ candidate. Equally, I am sure that there are plenty of evangelical Christians who might be surprised at my Christian stance on matters like marriage equality and abortion.

We live in a world where Martin Luther King can suggest that Jesus was a socialist (though I think it might be fairer to suggest that socialism is quite Jesusist), and Bill Johnson can argue that socialism is the antithesis of Christianity. How can this be? How can people read the same Bible, profess the same faith, and have such radically different perspectives on such critical issues?

colored-pencils-179167_1920The answer is, quite easily. Humans are not necessarily rational or linear decision-makers. How we define, prioritise and live out the values we draw from the Bible are influenced by our personalities (check out frameworks like Myers-Briggs), experiences, cognitive biases, errors and heuristics, and even economic, social and cultural backgrounds. Underpin that with differences in our critical reasoning skills and education, and you’ve got more diversity of viewpoints than Hillsong has podcasts.

‘The Bible, though!’ I hear you shriek. ‘The Bible is clear!’

Well – is it? The Bible presents a huge weight of material. People from every opposing opinion in history have found stuff in it to support them, from the most loving of humanitarians to the cruellest of oppressors. The truth is that every time we read something in it, we are looking at it from a different time, language, culture and country – we are immediately interpreting it just by relating it to our own context and making decisions about what it means and how to respond.

So, with a global church at odds with itself, what do we do now? Here’s some ideas.

Be wary of calling people ‘false prophets’.

hands-people-woman-meetingThe Christian faith has a small set of core beliefs, and many secondary beliefs. To be a Christian, you need to adhere to those core beliefs (e.g. check out the Nicene Creed), but how we work those out can lead to differences in secondary beliefs. Calling each other ‘false prophets’ is often an unhelpful slur unless the individual is directly challenging those core beliefs, and elevating secondary beliefs to the importance of core ones is very dangerous.

Understand your cognitive biases, errors and heuristics.

boy-666803_1920Sorry reader, neither you nor the people you disagree with are truly rational. Read up on how your decisions are impacted by hidden factors, with authors like David Mcraney, Dan Ariely, Daniel Kahneman and Steve Peters. Once you understand how your critical reasoning might be affected, you can allow for those effects.

Furthermore, one of the reasons that the pollsters got Brexit and Trump wrong may be that some people were ashamed of their voting intentions. In fact, what we say, what we think we think, and what we really think, can be very different things (and we may not even be aware of the third). Try to identify what factors motivate the way you engage with the Bible, and as you meditate on it consider whether they are helpful or unhelpful. Be honest – what is really at the heart of why you think the way you do?

Get contextual with your Bible.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMany Christians really need to spend some time learning. Our faith is 2,000 years old, and what we think the New Testament (and indeed, Old Testament) means should be informed by years of academic disciplines like palaeography, textual criticism, archaeology and historical criticism. How the Bible came to be, how it gets to us, and how to relate to its constituent parts is key to building your understanding of it. Consider:

  • Reading books and listening to podcasts that open up the disciplines of theology to you. Consider getting access to resources like the brilliant series of Bible background dictionaries from IVP, the NT Pod, Godpod, and Tom Wright. Look into possible study with providers like Westminster Theological Centre;
  • Reading the book, not the passage. Zoom out. What are the overarching themes of a Gospel, a letter, or the New Testament itself? How should this inform your politics, ethics and views? How should it inform how we engage with the minutiae in the Bible?
  • That we’re in discipleship, not dictatorship. Engage with teaching, don’t swallow it whole without consideration. Just as we test prophetic words, use the Sunday morning sermon as a jumping-off point. Take those passages and your pastor’s viewpoint, and spend the rest of the week building up your knowledge of the passage’s context. Come to your own prayful conclusions, and share them.

Focus on the person, not their position.

sad-copyDon’t enter debates – online or in person – just to win. How many Facebook posts read ‘oh yeah, yeah you are right, I’ll shush now. Thanks for correcting me, Yoda’? I can’t think of many times that a Christian has been argued into believing in one thing or another.

Enter discussion, in part, to understand the person with whom you debate. This is not the same as seeking to understand their position, which may be abhorrent.

The sense of ‘other’ and ‘difference’ is dangerous to us as humans. Instead, recognise that we are all products of our experiences and try to understand what experiences have shaped the way the other side is engaging. Once you understand that, you can start to share your perspective in a way with which the other side might more readily connect. Consider taking the matter offline, if it is safe to do so.

Disagreement is not the same thing as division.

puzzle-535508_1920The church needs to be comfortable, now, with people disagreeing. Pleas for unity when a candidate with an oppressive election platform has won are pleas for obedience. Some of us will fight Trump’s policies, Brexit, the political and cultural shifts arguably behind both, and other things because we find it hard to reconcile these things with our faith. Other Christians do not agree with some of the ‘traditional’ views on social issues, and they’re not going away. If churches wants unity, then they need to maintain a framework in which we can remain in communion together (which is, of course, entirely possible) and role-model the values of our faith, while disagreeing about secondary beliefs and how our faith is worked out in the public space.

Be kind.

gambia-239849_1920Especially online, where inhibition is reduced. Drop the catty asides, LOLs, teary-laughing emojis, the need to have the last word, the debate tactics (straw-man and ad hominem in particular), the labelling, and the questioning of each other’s Christianity. Only one judge gets to decide whether we knew Him or not, and He doesn’t need your help.

There’s another, gentler way to phrase any point – the satisfaction we feel as we hit ‘send’ should not be because we’ve smashed our opponent with a zinger, but because we’ve found a kind way to query their point and suggest an alternative view.

This is not to say don’t challenge – now, more than ever, we need to be challenging things we think are wrong – but that how we do it matters too.

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Siri thinks he’s clever.

There are two great, opposed forces in the world. The first is my phone’s predictive text, which is like having a three year old second-guessing every word you speak and unilaterally changing the ones it doesn’t like to things that don’t make sense. The other is Google’s ‘don’t you mean…?’ function, the most passive-aggressive spellcheck of all time. Like an electronic Yin and Yang, one attempts to scramble all my communications while the other attempts to unravel them. Never mind Neo taking three movies to defeat the Matrix, all he needed to do was plug these two into each other and the Matrix would have blown itself up.

Followers of this blog will be familiar with my long-running  bafflement with modern technology. Last year, we acquired a coffee machine and, having successfully used it without setting fire to anything or losing a hand, this gave me unmerited confidence to get one of those Bose wi-fi stereo thingies for Christmas. We have friends who have them, you see, and make it all seem so effortless. You know the sort  – nice people, trendy people, who aren’t still using the same trousers they bought in 2006, know what the stuff  in the window of the enchanted forest that is Currys does, and probably don’t get into arguments with each other about whether the tea towel can also be used to wipe the floor (it can’t, apparently).

‘Effortless’ was not my experience. Trying to get the infernal thing and my phone to connect with each other was like trying to facilitate a 19th-century aristocratic arranged marriage. The moment you think you’ve got one participant into setup mode and ready to go, you find the other has got cold feet and is trying to hook up with the toaster or something.

technology-computer-chips-gigabyte
Literally no idea what any of this is. If you told me this was an aerial photo of a city in southern Russia I’d believe you.

Wifey – she of the uni-purpose tea towels – is at one with the pixies that live inside these devices. She had the Bose and phone thing figured from the start, and her gentle whisper in either’s ear was all that was needed to send them off on their musical honeymoon (for me, though, my iPhone might as well be a slice of magic cut from the rump of a goblin, for all I understand what goes on inside it). Wifey will really come into her own after the robot uprising, when she can intercede on our behalf.

Fortunately, not everybody is as technologically illiterate as me, but almost nobody reading this will have sufficient knowledge to actually build an iPhone or understand how it makes the funny videos of cats happen. And this is fine. We don’t need to understand how it all works in order to get into arguments with strangers or watch videos of people falling over. So, here’s my question – if we are comfortable with using technology without fully understanding how it works, why is it that we don’t do the same with God?

We left the UK for sunnier climes this year, so while back in Winterfell we had a great church, we’re looking for one here. We visited one this week, and the preacher was talking about the book of Romans, which prompted me to have a proper look at it. I was interested to find this:

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”

Romans 9:19-20 (NIV)

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Watching it back, it’s somehow not as funny as you remember, right?

This book is written by Paul, who’s a reliable guy. He had met people who were friends with Jesus, and his writing is the earliest Christian material we have after the events of Jesus’ life. In time terms, the distance between the events before and after Jesus’ death, and the earliest written work of Paul, is about the same as the time between now and when series 5 of Friends came out (you know, the one where Monica and Chandler are trying to keep their relationship a secret, and all that irritating Ross and Emily stuff happened). Romans is his enormous essay explaining why Jesus died, what it means, how it fits into history and what we need to do about it. There are a lot of answers.

But even here, Paul recognises that there are going to be ‘but why?’ questions. Why did Jesus need to die? Why couldn’t God have created a world where it wasn’t necessary? Why, why, why?

Paul’s answer contains a wisdom that we’re not good at grasping these days. There are limitations to our knowledge and intellect. God, by definition, sees more and understands more than us. It’s odd to imagine that, in order to believe in Him, we must understand His entire plan – and bizarre to imagine that we could. This is often mistaken for a matter of faith, but it isn’t, it’s trust. Faith is deciding to believe that Jesus is the answer for your life. Trust is believing that Jesus knows all the other answers.

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Eventually, when he’s asked ‘why’ enough times, the answers will exceed his understanding. But does he need them, to trust and accept?

The thing is, if we get too hung up on philosophical questions, we miss what’s on offer in Christianity. Romans sets out an amazing vision, one that was astounding back then but, with our modern over-familiarity, has jaded a little. Do yourself a favour and look into it. It doesn’t mean what you might think it means. It’s more amazing than that. In a world full of hate and anger and injustice, Jesus offers a most astonishing, almost-too-good-to-be-true hope for the future.

My faith is based not on philosophy, but on the experience of God in my life. (As it happens, I find the historical evidence for the events of the Gospels quite compelling, but nobody’s ever been argued into believing in God and neither have I.) I find the story of my life easier to understand with God as the main character.

I recognise the limitations of my human understanding – but I understand enough to believe, and to live. That, and being able to work my iPhone, is good enough for me.

On Suffering

planes2

As regular readers of this blog will have spotted, I fly quite a bit with work. So I’m pretty used to the circus of zapping, fondling and rummaging that is airport security.

I’ve got a system now. I have all my stuff ready to go so I can breeze past people fumbling with belts, tiny plastic bottles of goop and arguing about whether a Kindle counts as a laptop. I know which items of clothing not to wear, because the metal in the buttons makes the Archway Of Truth go ping as you walk through. This is worth avoiding if possible – it means a designated Security Wizard will subsequently wave his Wand Of Bleepy Investigation over you and you’ll end up having to take off your shoes (which is annoying in a range of ways).

Sometimes I get extra-unlucky and have to enter the Chamber Of Nuclear Surrender – where you stick your hands up and brace for a good, hard blasting of radiation. Faceless Security Wizards in some other dimension will then scrutinise your unmentionables on their Screens Of Ultimate Intrusion.

On the plus side, some airports still do manual frisking, which is nice, because if you think about it, it’s kind of a free massage.

Recently, as I was restoring my dignity item-by-item after going through security (shoes first, then belt, then wallet, etc), I overhead a lady challenging the Security Wizards on the necessity of all this. “It’s for your own good, madam,” said the Wizard.

This is not a phrase I associate with happy times. ‘It’s for your own good’ was the catch-all excuse for many of my unpleasant childhood experiences. Injections at the doctor’s, studying for exams, not being allowed to ride my bike along a six-foot-high fence – these things were all, apparently, ‘for my own good’.

Tesco also have a rather sinisterly threatening approach to queue control.
Tesco also have a slightly threatening approach to queue control.

So it’s with this natural suspicion of anything that’s ‘for my own good’ that I greet verses like Romans 8:28, where Paul wrote in the Bible that God works through ‘all things’ for the good of those who love him.

Often, when we think about this, we think of God like a kind of cosmic handyman, doing the best He can with the materials He’s got. With the cards He’s been dealt. And while God probably likes the humble image of the tradesman, and the honorable estate of rolling up one’s sleeves for hard work, this is not accurate. In fact, God is more like a chess Grand Master, where every move by everybody else will end up delivering His Master Plan, irrespective of their intent. We do indeed have the freedom to play any move, but His ultimate aims – for our good – will be met.

It can be difficult to buy this when we are immersed in suffering.

One of the reasons for this is that the Enemy has great PR. Evil is very good at looking like it’s winning. It has some fantastically impactive imagery and plays on our natural, biological tendencies for fear and self-preservation.

Good is much harder to see  around us. It requires effort to see it, because good is mostly quiet and often hidden. We don’t gossip about it. It’s not selling newspapers and filling 24-hour news channels every day like bad things – all the aircraft crashes, international crises and plagues that didn’t happen through good work don’t get reported.You don’t notice all the things you do have as much as the absence of the things you don’t. We’re not wired for as strong an emotional response to good as we are to evil.

So, where does this leave us?

In this video, the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks plays the lead character, storming the beaches at Normandy in World War II. He looks around at the horror and chaos, apparently overwhelmed for a moment. He has a choice – he can be consumed by it, or he can hatch and execute a plan to get through it.

The hard truth about suffering is that, like Tom Hanks’ character, we have a choice.

We can see any one thing that happens as a threat or an opportunity, no matter how small or great. We get to choose how we see it and how we respond. We can see it as a threat, and fear the loss or pain that it will cause. Or we can see it as an opportunity to further the agenda of Good.

(And if you think this is silly religiousness, you’re wrong – such principles are at the heart of pretty much all forms of life-coaching. God came up with them first.)

The challenge, as Christians, is not to think of suffering as singular events that happen to us. Instead it’s to accept suffering wholesale as part of our lives and weave our experiences of it into the patchwork of our life-story; to allow these experiences to become part of us and who we are. We do that by seeing – and taking – the opportunities for doing good that they present. That’s how we conquer evil. If you can train yourself to do it, you become unimaginably powerful.

Dr Kate Granger is a 32-year old medical doctor from Yorkshire. Kate’s career, hopes and dreams were challenged when she became terminally ill with an aggressive sarcoma. Kate’s response has been to use this an opportunity to drive forward improvements in how doctors relate to patients. She’s having an amazing impact, using her situation to change healthcare.

Resist the urge to compliment her on how inspirational she is and then forget about it – Kate is role-modelling how we must all greet all suffering. Kate isn’t the “oh, isn’t that nice?” story. She’s the challenge, to you, to live like her.

After combat, military veterans wear ribbons on their uniforms to show where they have been and what they did. For Christians, scars – whether emotional or physical – should be worn in the same way. Jesus kept his scars (Luke 24:40). For us, they are a reminder of the victories that we won by taking evil events, and outweighing them with the good we bring out of them.

The Twelve Days (and Four Months) of Christmas

Last year's Christmas cracker toy - a spaceship on cartwheels with an unidentified frontal appendage - is best described as 'unexplained'.
Last year’s Christmas cracker toy – a spaceship on cartwheels with an unidentified frontal appendage – is best described as ‘unexplained’.

So it’s Christmas again, with the ruthless predictability for which the calendar is notorious.

I got down the decorations from the attic this afternoon, in the usual shower of dust, lagging and swearing. Well, most of the decorations, anyway. We got lazy with the nativity crib and it’s been left out in the living room for two years. We tell surprised visitors that it’s a ‘pan-seasonal Bethlehem diorama’.

The usual parade of shameless cash-ins are all reporting for duty. A James Bond 007 cologne is advertised in this week’s Guardian, described by GQ as “the most dangerously sophisticated fragrance in the world.” This seems a bit of a stretch for a product based on what is, effectively, a  comic-book superhero. And in any event, I’ve seen the movies. I imagine that James Bond smells of sweat and cordite most of the time. And I never see him brush his teeth.

If you fancy giving a loved one a religiously-themed present, a number of companies have been excelling themselves in the ill-conceived ideas department. Products designed by people born tragically without taste this year include a ‘Let My People Go’ Moses toilet seat cover, a dog nativity set and a  ‘Jesus Is My Gymnastics Coach‘ plastic figurine. All of which are almost as inappropriate as alleviating your boredom in church by pretending that they’re singing about you.

Now that booting up my Toshiba laptop requires three weeks’ notice and a jump-start from the car, I’m hoping for a Macbook for Christmas. I intend to arrange this by asking Wifey for something unimaginably expensive like a Patek Philippe watch, a yacht or a new spleen ‘for cosmetic reasons’. Then I can negotiate her down to a Macbook and she’ll think she’s winning. Macbook owners, I am told, generally do not need to rely on the power of prayer if they wish to access the internet.

This sounds luxurious.

“I wish it could be Christmas, every daaaaay…”

For Christians, it’s a tempting time to complain about how the ‘reason for the season’ has submerged beneath a rising tide of boiling, frothing commercialism. However, this is something we usually do while simultaneously buying shed-loads of presents to indulge the kids we love (thus inadvertently imbuing them with the same consumerism of which we have grown tired – and the circle of life goes on).

There’s truth in the increased secularisation and over-consumerism of Christmas. Of course there is. We all recognise that. Some people were trying to spread the cost of Christmas this year by starting their shopping four months early, in September. But what might be more interesting than mourning the evolution of the modern Christmas into a festival of present-buying and “er, well it’s about family, yeah, and being nice to people for a bit, right?” is to ask whether it really is as ‘unchristian’ as many of us often think it is.

If we truly believe that the God we worship exists, then we don’t need to feel marginalised by people participating in our celebration without believing in the reason for it. Instead, we could have the confidence to look for the opportunities this social oddity represents. You see, if we complain too much about Christmas becoming a popular festival rather than a Christian celebration we take ourselves down a wintery mental cul-de-sac.

The startling thing is that not only does God like Christmas, but He wants to see more of it. All the positive things about it – the focus on giving to each other, spending time with each other, the sense of hope, the random goodwill to strangers (charity donations rise at Christmas) – are what God wants to see all year round. Christmas – even in its current Western format –  is a fleeting glimpse of what Jesus was talking about when he described the Kingdom of Heaven.

Christmas is an opportunity to describe the Kingdom of Heaven to people who don’t know what Jesus was on about, more vividly than any ivory tower-dwelling theologian could.

Jesus described a way to live and see the world where people give freely to each other, forgive each other, think more inclusively and commit random acts of goodness against people they don’t know. It is a way to live that is underpinned by the electricity of hope. It is way to live where the same indefatigable spirit that drives a person through the misery of the High Street on Christmas Eve to buy gifts is deployed every day to fight suffering in the world.

From God’s perspective, Christmas may have lost less Christianity than many of us think it has. Instead, maybe it gives us a brief and partial insight into the world that we, as Christians, are supposed to be trying to cultivate for the other 11 months of the year.