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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A Semi-Partisan Christmas Appeal – Spare Change, Please

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It’s that time of year again…

As another busy year approaches its close, the time has come for me to pass around the begging bowl and ask that if you have read and enjoyed my writing and commentary in recent months, you kindly consider making a small contribution to the upkeep of this blog and to help support my work as a writer.

It gives me no pleasure to write these emails – with Christmas bearing down on us I know that everybody has their own priorities and distractions, and that money is often tight. However, I write this blog entirely as a labour of love, and the only income I ever receive for my writing comes through your generosity.

This has been another busy year for Semi-Partisan Politics. Overall output was slightly down on last year now that the excitement of the EU referendum is behind us, and there was a dip in overall pageviews too – though since many of my articles are now being regularly republished on other excellent sites (notably Country Squire Magazine, The Daily Globe and The Participator) I know that my words are reaching more people than ever before.

As always, it has been nearly impossible to get any kind of traction or recognition from the Westminster media, who apparently have all the time in the world to lavish you with attention if you dress up in a superhero costume and prance around in Brussels praising the EU, but then become incredibly imsular and myopic when it comes to acknowledging anyone who offers a perspective which differs from the traditional and expected Tory/Labour or Leave/Remain dichotomy.

As in past years, this blog has received far more attention from the American political media – much thanks, National Review! – than from anybody in the incestuous, back-slapping world of Westminster journalism. And given the likely future focus of this blog, that is potentially no bad thing.

I have had two overriding missions this year when it comes to my writing – firstly to publish a book about the intellectual and ideological decline of British conservatism, which is still very much in progress, and secondly to do something in my own small way to arrest that decline. The latter has manifested in my Stepping Stones 2022 project, still very much on the drawing board, but which I hope might eventually provide a useful framework for analysing the challenges facing modern Britain in order to arrive at set of coherent, mutually-supporting and politically feasible policies. Obviously this is not something that I can do on my own, and so I am seeking partners and have been in discussions with a few people – if you are interested in getting involved then please do let me know.

Anyhow, all of this activity takes time and effort. And if you are able to spare a small amount – either on a one-off or recurring basis – to support this blog and my ranting in general, then I would be most grateful if you could avail yourself of my PayPal tip jar:

There is much more work to do in 2018, when the battle for Brexit will reach a truly decisive phase – and as the battle for the soul of the Conservative Party looks set to begin in earnest. There will be much more to write and debate, and your generosity will help me to keep playing my part.

Many thanks to all of my readers and contributors, and to those who are celebrating I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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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Music For The Day

“The Little Road To Bethlehem”, by Michael Head (words by Margaret Rose).

One of my favourite Christmas carols, sung here by the choir of Wells Cathedral, with Robert Karlsson-Bourke taking the solo part.

Another lovely recording here.

 

As I walked down the road at set of sun,
The lambs were coming homeward one by one.
I heard a sheepbell softly calling them,
Along the little road to Bethlehem

Beside an open door as I drew nigh,
I heard sweet Mary sing a lullaby.
She sang about the lambs at close of day,
And rocked her tiny King among the hay

Across the air the silver sheepbells rang.
‘The lambs are coming home’, sweet Mary sang.
‘Your star of gold, your star of gold is shining in the sky.
So sleep, my little King, go lullaby.’

As I walked down the road at set of sun,
The lambs were coming homeward one by one.
I heard a sheepbell softly calling them,
Along the little road to Bethlehem

 

the-road-to-bethlehem

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