Faith And Doubt At Christmastime

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A brief personal Christmas reflection on waxing and waning faith

At this time of year, back in England, I would often attend Christmas carol services where it was customary for an excerpt from John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas” to be read aloud from the pulpit. Chances are that if you grew up attending church in Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century, you know it too.

The well-known poem concludes:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

The poem is nice enough, and one can certainly understand why it is enthusiastically incorporated into Christmas services across denominational divides (I would often hear it at an Evangelical Congregational church the week before Christmas and again a week later at Midnight Mass).

But at present, my mind keeps returning to another Betjeman poem on the subject of faith, this one entitled “The conversion of St. Paul”. Betjeman was apparently spurred to write it as a response to the (shocking for the time) broadcast on the BBC of a humanist lecture attacking Christianity – given by the “Mrs. Knight” mentioned in Betjeman’s verse.

My personal faith has ebbed and flowed this year. Highlights certainly include attending the Easter Vigil Mass at a church in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and finding a very welcoming home at my new university’s Catholic Student Center. Meeting some good friends there, attending a Catholic Bible study (that rarest of things) and praying the increasingly rare yet beautiful form of Compline (my grandfather would have approved) have all been very happy and spiritually affirming memories.

On the other hand, my disillusionment with the Church hierarchy has grown deeper and deeper, to the point of physical disgust, and an involuntary repellence from the rituals and practices which are often necessary to maintain a healthy spiritual life.

Another explosion of child sexual abuse cases – this time implicating very senior officials across numerous diocese in the coverups after the Church in America supposedly cleaned house after the 2001 scandals – make it increasingly hard to believe that many of those in positions of leadership within the Church are doing anything more than securing power and status for themselves, while placing the stability of the institution over the flock it is supposed to serve. Only recently, the Cardinal Archbishop of my new home diocese, Washington, D.C., was finally forced to resign under a cloud of scandal and suspicion.

The author and blogger Rod Dreher has written frequently and movingly of his disillusionment and eventual detachment from the Roman Catholic Church over the same issues, though Rod as a journalist had far better knowledge of what was going on and the depth of depravity and corruption within the hierarchy. In one piece (I forget which – if I find it I will update this piece with the link) he talked about the way that skepticism about the human institution can easily bleed into skepticism about the doctrine and theology which its leaders proclaim, and so works as a kind of metastasizing cancer throughout the faith. I must confess that I have not found myself entirely immune from this syndrome.

I have not yet taken the plunge of leaving the Church as Rod Dreher did, and have no current plans to do so. But this has been a year of waxing and waning faith, even more than usual for me. And it is this experience which finds resonance in Betjeman’s other poem, which I have reproduced in full below.

The last two paragraphs in particular resonate with me at this time and in this unusual Christmas season, my first spent as an expat, immigrant and permanent resident of the United States. Much like Betjeman, “no blinding light, a fitful glow is all the light of faith I know”; yet even now, we “stumble on and blindly grope, upheld by intermittent hope”.

 

The Conversion of St. Paul

Now is the time when we recall
The sharp Conversion of St. Paul.
Converted! Turned the wrong way round –
A man who seemed till then quite sound,
Keen on religion – very keen –
No-one, it seems, had ever been
So keen on persecuting those
Who said that Christ was God and chose
To die for this absurd belief
As Christ had died beside the thief.
Then in a sudden blinding light
Paul knew that Christ was God all right –
And very promptly lost his sight.

Poor Paul! They led him by the hand
He who had been so high and grand
A helpless blunderer, fasting, waiting,
Three days inside himself debating
In physical blindness: ‘As it’s true
That Christ is God and died for you,
Remember all the things you did
To keep His gospel message hid.
Remember how you helped them even
To throw the stones that murdered Stephen.
And do you think that you are strong
Enough to own that you were wrong?’

They must have been an awful time,
Those three long days repenting crime
Till Ananias came and Paul
Received his sight, and more than all
His former strength, and was baptized.
Saint Paul is often criticized
By modern people who’re annoyed
At his conversion, saying Freud
Explains it all. But they omit
The really vital point of it,
Which isn’t how it was achieved
But what it was that Paul believed.

He knew as certainly as we
Know you are you and I am me
That Christ was all He claimed to be.
What is conversion? Turning round
From chaos to a love profound.
And chaos too is an abyss
In which the only life is this.
Such a belief is quite all right
If you are sure like Mrs. Knight
And think morality will do
For all the ills we’re subject to.

But raise your eyes and see with Paul
An explanation of it all.
Injustice, cancer’s cruel pain,
All suffering that seems in vain,
The vastness of the universe,
Creatures like centipedes and worse –
All part of an enormous plan
Which mortal eyes can never scan
And out if it came God to man.
Jesus is God and came to show
The world we live in here below
Is just an antechamber where
We for His Father’s house prepare.

What is conversion? Not at all
For me the experience of St. Paul,
No blinding light, a fitful glow
Is all the light of faith I know
Which sometimes goes completely out
And leaves me plunging round in doubt
Until I will myself to go
And worship in God’s house below –
My parish Church – and even there
I find distractions everywhere.

What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St. Paul.

– John Betjeman.

 

Additional: If you are a regular reader, derive value and enjoyment from my writing and have not yet contributed to my Christmas fundraising drive (particularly important now that I am an impoverished student once again!), please consider doing so here.

 

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Christmas Appeal

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A cheeky request…

I feel a little bit guilty making an appeal this year, given that I have managed to output a mere 67 articles over the course of 2018 (down from 162 in 2017) – but such have been the challenges of trying to keep the blog going while traveling around Southeast Asia, emigrating from Britain to the United States and commencing what turns out to be a very demanding legal education in Washington, D.C.

In fact, were I still in London and ours a two-income household, I most likely would not be asking. But since the vicissitudes of life find me in the position of being an impoverished student once again (living in one of the more expensive cities in the world) I am emboldened to repeat my annual pledge drive.

Therefore: If you have enjoyed or derived value from my writing and commentary over the course of the year – whether you primarily read it here or over at Country Squire Magazine, The Daily Globe or Guerrilla Politics – and have the means to do so, please consider using the PayPal donate button to make a small contribution.

 

 

Your contribution will not only enable me to keep writing the content that you love (or love to hate), but also save me from the potentially lethal effects of excessive instant ramen noodle consumption. If that’s not a win-win, I don’t know what is.

I am very grateful to all those who have generously donated through the course of the year, including several of my long-time regular contributors, without whom I may well have hung up the keyboard by this point. Your support means more than words can express, particularly at a time when the prestige or mainstream media is in no hurry to acknowledge the work done by the independent blogosphere.

The year ahead promises to be eventful, or quite possibly the fulfillment of the curse “may you live in interesting times”. Given all that is happening in the world I would love nothing more than to resume a daily blogging schedule, but sadly this is likely to remain incompatible with the demands of the first year of law school.

2019 is therefore likely to see a similar posting frequency to the past year, but as usual I shall try to provide commentary or perspectives which are under-provided elsewhere (rather than simply repeating what you can read from the people who get paid to do this for a living).

Thank you as always for reading, and to my donors for your ongoing generosity. In this festive season I wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas, a Happy 2019 and a blessed, peaceful holiday season.

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Dispatch From Washington

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Nothing much to report here

I’m writing this from the desk in my study, where right now just four blocks away in the White House a president whose daily conduct raises legitimate questions about his fitness to govern is raging in helpless impotence. Why? Because some faux-patriot within his dumpster fire of an administration decided to hint to the New York Times about just how bad things have become – supposedly out of civic duty – yet lacked the courage to give the accusation real weight by putting his name to the anonymous OpEd. All this is just today’s drama; no doubt tomorrow there will be some new unprecedented scandal to bump this story down the news agenda.

These are interesting times to be living in Washington, D.C. I must admit that I have not yet gotten over the novelty of watching the bottom of the Washington monument appear in the background of a live TV broadcast, then looking out the window of my study and seeing the top of the same structure mere minutes away. In British terms, our new home is within close earshot of Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster. This means a constant stream of noisy motorcades carrying second-tier officials down the next road, and regular glimpses of Marine One as it ferries President Trump back and forth as he escapes the city to play golf.

It is strange to be living in the modern equivalent of Ancient Rome at the height of its power (or perhaps shortly into its terminal decline), the seat of government of what is effectively the most powerful empire in the world. Many of the buildings here are built in conscious acknowledgement of the torch that was passed from Ancient Greece to Rome, and so on through Britain to the New World. I find myself walking amid the classical architecture in this planned city and wondering what future historians or tourists will say as they pick over the ruins or buried past of this metropolis, many centuries in the future.

Highlights have to include the Lincoln Memorial. Abraham Lincoln has been a particular interest and inspiration of mine since I was a teenager, and since then I have devoured enough books on the 16th American president to comfortably fill a bookshelf. Standing inside that immense marble memorial and reading the inscription above Lincoln’s statue – “In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever” – is a moving experience. Even when full of screaming children and selfie-happy tourists, there is a sense of power and dignity in that place. While there, it is also hard not to dwell on just how far we have fallen from that ideal in recent years.

Law school has started well. You must forgive me for the lack of blog posts over the last month; road-tripping half way across the country from Texas, establishing a new home in DC and going through law school induction took up all of my spare time, and even now I have thirty pages of Criminal Law reading which I should be tending to this evening. However, for my own mental health and diversion if nothing else, the blog will continue, albeit maybe somewhat more sporadically than before.

Being back on a university campus as someone with a record of speaking out forcefully against the excesses of identity politics has been interesting – I can confirm that all of the warnings I have been giving over the past few years were prescient and on point. There have been no stand-out incidents yet which lead me to believe that my institution is faring worse than any other, but it only takes one supposedly “controversial” speaker invite or student society activity to create havoc and endless protests, so we shall see how things develop. Halloween will likely be a good indicator, given recent controversies elsewhere and the growing conviction that “cultural appropriation” is a harmful, negative phenomenon. Today was the law student organization fair, and reflecting my semipartisan nature I added my email to the law school chapters of both the ACLU and the Federalist Society. I agree with neither organization entirely, but look forward to some interesting debates.

Adjusting to student life has been challenging, but frequently fun. Though I am a graduate student I am still on the generic university email list, so have been receiving helpful daily missives about how to do my laundry and accomplish other tasks now commonly known as “adulting”. On the flip side, there is nothing like living in close proximity to a bunch of eighteen-year-old undergraduates to make you feel your age, and there has been more than one occasion when I look from all these young whippersnappers with their lives ahead of them to myself and wonder momentarily what it is that I am doing, making this mid-life career course correction. Fortunately these moments never last long – I came here with a purpose, albeit a somewhat inchoate one, and many of my classmates have impressive and inspiring backgrounds.

Intellectually I feel like I am holding my own thus far, though the annoying habit of American law schools whereby the first real feedback only arrives in the form of all-or-nothing final exams in December means that I won’t really know precisely where I stand for awhile. Mostly it is just a relief to have made a start, after having done so much preparation and read so many conflicting pieces of advice about how to succeed at law school. There is a satisfaction when the reasoning behind some obscure rule or legal concept finally clicks into place – it is good to be learning again. Growing, hopefully.

We have some pretty eminent academics who teach here, people whom I knew and respected before the thought of going to law school even occurred to me. One Supreme Court justice teaches a constitutional law seminar here, and another is coming to speak next week. Mostly I am awed by a sense of vast new possibility – the law is not really one career, it is a gateway to a myriad of different sub-vocations, almost as different from one another as it is possible to be. And while I can pre-emptively rule out certain options – it is pretty safe to say that I will not be becoming a small-town lawyer or one of those personal injury kings with their face on a billboard above the freeway – the possibilities remain varied.

Anyhow, this will likely be the longest thing that I write for some time outside of law school. Necessity dictates that I will at last have to do what I have often threatened to do on this blog but never quite succeeded at, namely trying to adopt a “little and often” approach to commenting and reacting on stories of interest. At this point you all know what I think about the big issues anyway, and I can always link back to those longer-form pieces when necessary. Time constraints now mean that if I want to say anything at all – and keep the blog ticking over – I had better find a way to condense my opinions into a paragraph or two. It will be good practice; Lord knows that much of what I have written the past six years would have benefitted enormously from an editor’s red pen anyway, if not the shredder.

Finally, while it may be somewhat cheeky to mention this when I haven’t published anything new for a month, I am now technically an impoverished student once again and without a regular income, so any donations to the instant ramen noodle fund are most gratefully received.

 

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New Year Update

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A few changes for 2017

Greetings from Texas. Getting the blog up and running again after a longer-than-anticipated Christmas and New Year break is somewhat harder than in previous years – or rather, I should say that it is proving difficult to spurn the joy of unstructured leisure time for the largely thankless task of ranting into WordPress.

Having taken a full fortnight away from the daily grind has been refreshing, and also revelatory. 2016 was the fifth year of Semi-Partisan Politics and by far the most successful, with a threefold increase in readership compared to 2015, helped along in large part by the EU referendum campaign and the American presidential election. But this positive trajectory has come at the cost of nearly every free moment in my all-too-undisciplined free time.

Writing a political blog (and trying to make it successful) is hard. In order to build and maintain an audience you have to publish nearly every day, often multiple times. Unless you have the benefit of establishment connections to furnish you with gossip or pimp out your work, you have to be demonically active on social media, tweeting effectively and trawling for pageviews on Facebook. And for a one-man outfit like this, time spent promoting the blog on social media is time taken away from writing and the all-important reading and research which adds value to the content, while too much time spent reading and writing at the expense of self-promotion means that one’s best work often goes largely unread.

Whatever value Facebook has as a medium for discussion and promoting this blog, it is also a black hole from which I now intend to escape. I could easily double or triple this blog’s readership in a short time by actively promoting articles on the various political Facebook groups – and indeed I did so for a time in the buildup to the EU referendum. But my time is limited, and I will no longer waste it affirming people’s current biases to a lazy applause of “likes” or posting in hostile groups only to receive endless comments telling me that I am Hitler. A well-placed Facebook intervention may draw in countless likes and re-shares resulting in a thousand additional pageviews, but too often this is low quality traffic with no loyalty or engagement. The readers I value most are the ones who stick around without Facebook nagging, and who both educate and argue with me through the Comments.

SEO is a cruel mistress. This blog’s most-read piece for 2016 was a short, throwaway piece about Tony Benn’s euroscepticism and likely stance on Brexit. Because of an inadvertently well-chosen headline and a dearth of similar articles it placed well on Google, and attracted many thousands more views than the polemics, fisking pieces or other articles of which I am far more proud and which contain much greater originality.

Meanwhile, the British media establishment continue their demented hostility toward the political blogosphere and dogged refusal to acknowledge some of the best and most original analysis out there (though fully aware that it exists) simply because it appears on a site with a .wordpress or .blogspot suffix and does not carry the imprimatur of the prestige titles which increasingly churn out so much unoriginal pseudo-analysis or breathless court gossip.

This blog has been linked several times in both the National Review and the New Republic, the premier conservative and liberal journals in America, despite the limited attention that I have given to US politics this year. Meanwhile, links from the incestuous British media are almost non-existent – though I am grateful to the Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow for occasionally citing this blog in his own excellent and comprehensive political liveblogs. But the idea of sullying myself trying to attract the attention of SW1’s finest on Twitter in exchange for a mere “like” or (rarer still) a retweet no longer holds any appeal.

Then there is the constant feeling that one is only as good as one’s most recent blog post – which, if you are me, means long periods of self-doubt and wondering why I am bothering in the first place. As the email bulletins and Google alerts ping into the inbox every hour of every day there is the constant feeling of needing to go “on the record” about whatever new person or event is driving the 24-hour news cycle, of committing a hot take to public record while it is still relevant, to assimilate the latest information and latest developments, and then inevitable feelings of inadequacy when this high bar – impossible to achieve while working a full time job – is not met.

I have also been dwelling on the fact that the words published on any political blog do not hold their value for long. Sure, some articles will be blessed by the SEO gods and provide a constant stream of traffic, but generally speaking a reaction piece I write in response to a Guardian headline today will be lining the digital waste paper bin by tomorrow. I increasingly want to write words that hold their value for longer, and to some extent this means stepping back from the fray and going more in depth, which in turn requires more expertise (and a rebalancing away from writing toward reading and research).

The upshot of all this introspection is that the thought of returning to the fray – spending the bulk of my free time hunched over the laptop, only to be studiously ignored by those who drive the national conversation – has been less than appealing, especially while I am still enjoying the company of my American family and have easy access to some of the best tacos and Tex-Mex food that money can buy.

Fear not, though. Or don’t start celebrating, if you are a fire-breathing SJW who hates my guts. I’m not going away. This blog will continue. But I have taken a long, hard look at my priorities and there will be some changes afoot.

I am not yet at liberty to discuss the most significant change that I will be making from a personal perspective. Suffice it to say that I have decided that being taken seriously without some serious form of credential is almost impossible, and that it is time to bow to this inevitable fact. At present, I am neither a politician nor a lawyer, nor an accredited expert on the constitution, the European Union, healthcare reform or any of the other subjects on which this blog touches. Over time, this will now change. The focus of this blog may therefore shift and be refined slightly over time, though there will be no immediate change.

The fruits of this work may not be visible for some time, but I hope to be able to provide more detail in due course. In the meantime, here’s what you can expect:

  1. Slightly less frequent updates (I religiously posted nearly every day in 2016; this tempo is now likely to decrease)
  2. More short reaction pieces or flags (bringing other worthy articles or videos to your attention with only limited commentary from myself)
  3. Fewer “fisking” pieces (taking apart and critiquing articles and speeches line-by-line)
  4. Hopefully a few more longer-form, ruminative pieces on certain subjects close to this blog’s heart (Brexit, free speech, identity politics, healthcare reform and the NHS)

And one thing will not change. This blog will continue to be stridently independent, and I will at no time “sell out” to raise my profile through artificial means. If I happen to be published, linked or quoted elsewhere in the coming year, it will not be the result of modifying my positions or moderating my tone. Likewise if by some chance I end up back on the BBC as the token “anti-social justice” guy.

I will still be in Texas for the next couple of weeks, but activity on the blog will now slowly start to ramp up again. Please accept my apologies if I am slow to approve or respond to comments, emails or tweets – the backlog is long, and I am still very much in holiday mode.

I wish all my readers a very happy and prosperous 2017.

Sam Hooper.

 

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Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas from Texas

It is currently 29 degrees Celcius (84 Fahrenheit) on Christmas Eve in McAllen, Texas, and I am starting to regret not packing more shorts and t-shirts, as well as failing to remember to pack my sunglasses for the fifth consecutive year.

Christmas in the Rio Grande Valley is very different to the Christmases I knew growing up on the Hertfordshire-Essex border in southeast England, but it comes with its own unique and wonderful traditions – waiting in line with half the town to collect a delicious order of tamales from Delia’s, taking in a movie on the afternoon of Christmas Day, driving around to look at the most opulently decorated houses and streets, and of course attending bilingual English/Spanish Mass (complete with Mariachi music) at the local Catholic church or at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle.

And of course there are the many unifying factors too, common to Christmas in Britain and America – coming together as a family, sharing a Christmas meal (including a smoked turkey over here), opening presents, making the day extra special for the children.

While I enjoy celebrating with my wife’s family here in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas I also think of my dear family back home in England, including those who are sadly no longer with us but who had such a formative influence on me – particularly my grandparents and an aunt who did so much to make each Christmas special.

And of course I think of all of you, my growing family of readers on this blog. We agree, we argue, we (mostly) remain civil while passionately arguing our cases, we educate one another – or at least, you all educate me. I have a long reading list of new books and academic papers suggested by many of you which I hope to read in 2017 and a forthcoming New Year’s Resolution to read as many of them as possible, and hopefully reflect back a fraction of this distilled wisdom in the future pages of this blog.

To all those who are celebrating this weekend, I wish you a very Merry Christmas.

 

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