After Getting High: Getting Down

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As many of you will already know, I’m just beginning writing again. Through five works of non-fiction I’ve been wanting to follow my heart over to the other side, and I’m really thrilled that I’m going to have the chance to work on a novel this coming academic year.

This has been made possible through two generous grants from Arts Council England and The Society of Authors, which means that I can step back from teaching for part of each week and really get my head down properly. My school have been great, and have also honoured four weeks of term time sabbatical leave, which is fantastic.All of this means that I need to focus 100% on this manuscript, which in turn means stepping back from most other writing stuff, including posting here. So, no posts or weekly email updates for a while. 
More news on progress – or otherwise! – when I have it. Be good while I’m gone 😉

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In Which Mark Zuckerberg Says Facebook is the New Church, and We Are All Its Priests

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Zuck

In a recent speech, Mark Zuckerberg has declared that Facebook is the new Church, and its users should all be like Priests.

“Communities give us that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are not alone, that we have something better ahead to work for,” he noted, before adding that “people who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity — not just because they’re religious, but because they’re part of a community.”

Which is why he wants Facebook to be a place where people focus their belonging, by joining groups. Of course, he couldn’t possibly be suggesting that Facebook wants to pretend it cares, just so that it can bleed you for money and tell you what to think 😉

Joking aside, my thoughts are this:

1) I think Zuckerberg is absolutely right. But not in the way that he thinks.

2) I think church leaders will bristle at the comparison, but should actually take a moment to reflect and take this seriously, because they probably are far more like Facebook than they would like to admit to themselves, and perhaps not in ways that they’d necessarily want.

3) All of this makes me think that Zuckerberg has probably just finished Getting High. Because it’s all in there. So you should definitely do as your Archbishop Zuck++ tells you and go buy a copy now. (Seriously – the book goes very much into this theology and technology interconnection 😉 )

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Harry Potter and the Death of the Hallowed

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In celebration of 20 years since the first Harry Potter book was published, I thought it’d be a good chance to look back to one of my own offerings  in which I offered a radical reading of Potter’s relationship to his magical art.

During a short speaking tour on Mutiny in the US with Peter Rollins, I realised that I had some unfinished business with the material. I’d touched on the piratical roots of Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest, but not really dug down deeply into what the main character Prospero’s abandonment of magic in the final scenes really meant:

Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up
The pine and cedar; graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

Prospero’s life has been ruined by his obsession with his magical art. It caused him to neglect his work looking after the people of his city, and it fractured his family. The play opens with him exiled on a far-off island, only the savage Caliban and the sprite Ariel for company. What unfolds is essentially a story of a family’s reunification, one that is made possible only by Prospero’s realisation that his superpower – this extraordinary magical craft – must be renounced if he is going to exit his exile and re-enter community. ‘This rough magic I here abjure… I’ll break my staff… drown my book.’

As the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Orgel notes:

By renouncing his special powers, Prospero becomes more fully human.

Yes, I thought, the act of abandoning divine powers in order to become more fully embodied as a human? Abandoning a lonely paradise in order to be re-born in human community? Yes, that sounds like a seam worth mining.

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AfterMagic

These thoughts became After Magic – Moves Beyond Supernature, From Batman to Shakespeare, a work that has only been marginally less successful that Rowling’s own offerings 😉

What I wanted to explore there was this hunch that The Tempest offered a pattern which pretty much all of the great stories involving ‘super-nature’ follow: that in order to become ‘more fully human,’ the protagonist – whether Batman, Banquo or Frodo – must give up the magical art that they had committed their lives to. As I write in the prologue:

Magic is everywhere. Despite the best efforts of the Enlightenment and the pursuit of the scientific method to investigate our universe, stories about magic and fascination with magic have not only persisted, but blossomed. The most popular single volume fiction book of the past century, bar none, is the story of a hobbit and his adventures with wizards and a magical ring. The most popular book series has been that concerning a young wizard called Harry Potter. Not far behind is C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

As these enduring magical stories plot out something of what it means to engage with the supernatural they also plot out how this supernatural engagement has affected the journey human beings have taken as we have come to understand both our world and our relationships with one another. My contention here is that the most long-lasting of these tales – the ones that go beyond familiarity and into archetype – all share a common strand as they come to fulfilment: they all contain a move beyond super-nature, a renunciation of magic in favour of something greater. It is by these stories that we will be helped in our natural next stage of human development: to navigate our way in the world ‘after magic.’

In each of the stories I pick up – and the book apparates deftly between Macbeth, Spiderman, Watchman, The Prestige… and the Bible – I explore how the promise of a super-natural power lures the hero into thinking that they can finally conquer and get what they desire… but then ends up dehumanising them and removing them from community, from healthy relationship. In fact, the most heroic thing that they do is to give up the very power that they believe had made them heroes. It is only in this renunciation of super-nature that they can become truly human, and thus truly perform the sacrificial work of salvation that they are called to.

And so to Potter.

On the radio this morning, a theologian was talking about how the Potter books could show people how evil can be conquered with the help of a higher power. If this were true, it would be going against the grain of all these archetypal tales stretching back over the history of story. And I believe that Rowling is far too smart to do that.

Instead, she has deftly offered generations of children a superb tale about how to navigate our way towards ‘becoming more fully human.’ Harry’s journey is from one of total ignorance about the magical world, through wide-eyed and naive joy, and on to healthy critique and – I would argue – rejection.

Consider the effect that magic had on his life: destroying his parents, his godfather, his friends. It is no surprise that, at the conclusion of the whole thing, as Harry reflects on the ‘elder wand’ – this powerful magical object akin to Prospero’s staff – he concludes:

‘That wand’s more trouble than it’s worth,’ said Harry. ‘And quite honestly,’ he turned away from the painted portraits, thinking now only of the four-poster bed lying waiting for him in Gryffindor Tower, and wondering whether Kreacher might bring him a sandwich there, ‘I’ve had enough trouble for a lifetime.’

And from that moment on, there is no mention of Harry performing magic again. Interestingly, though the final book is about the ‘Deathly Hallows’ – these super-magical objects without which Harry doesn’t think he can destroy Voldemort – he in fact uses none of them. He drops the resurrection stone, pulls off the invisibility cloak… and what eventually kills Voldemort is his own death-curse rebounding back onto himself.

In fact, beyond super-nature, the essence of what allows him to overcome Voldemort (read: ‘the death drive’) is a power much greater: love. In the very final battle, as Voldemort sends the killing curse, Harry’s final spell is instructive: ‘expelliarmus!’ His last act is to try to un-wand his enemy, to take away his magical staff, offering even up to this last point a chance for Tom Riddle to re-enter his own humanity too. Magic has been more trouble than it’s worth, and he has now had enough trouble for a lifetime.

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The Harry Potter books are a great gift to children because they plot in almost real time this most extraordinary journey from naive childhood into the foothills of adulthood. This is the time of soaring passions and fundamentalist viewpoints. And what Rowling offers, I believe, is a modern-retelling of the most ancient archetype: that if we are to become fully human, we must slip off the cloaks of magical arts, the alluring powers that, at the birth of our individuation in our adolescence, promise to lift us above others into something more powerful and heroic. The most holy thing we can do is to destroy the idea of the holy, these hallows that promise life, but turn out to be deathly.

Despite its limited readership, I’m extraordinarily proud of After Magic because through myriad stories, ancient and modern, it paved for me the way towards the real (hor)crux: that it is not the transcendent, but the radical Christian narrative that fits this form so perfectly. It is here in the post-theist reading of the gospels that we see a young man, so troubled in birth, grow up to battle a great foe, realising that it is only in the laying down of his great powers, and his absolute association with the deepest essences of human existence – love and death – that evil will be unmasked and defused.

As Rowling herself said in a commencement address to Harvard students in June 2008, she wrote the books from the depths of her own struggles. ‘Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life.’ To these students with such great power and privilege at their command, she was clear:

‘We do not need magic to transform our world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already.’

That power is no more, and no less, than love for each other. Despite promises to the contrary, the introduction of a divine dimension to this love does not enrich our humanity, but reduces it. This, I believe, is right at the heart of Jesus’ teachings.

It is not that these higher powers do not exist. As I have explained elsewhere, I’m the opposite of atheist: I think that it’s obvious that we are surrounded by forces – whether consumer capitalism or techno-optimism or state-sponsored communism – that impact on us as ‘super-natural demands,’ that lead our behaviours away from kindness and generosity and into something closer to delusion and madness. As we grow we are tempted by their promises, but maturity as human people means appreciating that the most godly thing that we can do is to put these godly drives to death (and do so over and over again as a eucharistic act) in order that we might become more fully human(e).

This is as true for our view of divine good as it is for hellish evil. We cannot simply reject doctrines of hell until we reject the idea of an eternal heavenly paradise too. There will be no magical act to save our world, only our own human agency.

In fact, Rowling performs both deicides in orthodox order: Dumbledore must die before Voldemort can be destroyed, because God must be forsaken before the devil is vanquished. The point about her Potter books is that neither can exist without the other: transcendent good and pure evil are co-created by our desire to overcome death, to escape the human dress, but we must first relinquish the promised prize – heaven – if we are to disempower the idea of hell. To attempt it the other way round simply will not work.

So, three cheers for Potter at 20. They’ve delighted me and my kids and I for one am hugely grateful to Rowling for putting such extraordinary themes in a story cycle that – because it is so deeply rooted in archetype – will be read not for 20 more years, but 200.

You can order After Magic here.


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Cathedral of the Pines

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Pines1

If you happen to be around London over the next couple of months, I’d highly recommend going to The Photographers’ Gallery near Oxford Street to catch this (rare) exhibition of Gregory Crewdson’s new series of photographs.

And, though they look more like paintings by Hopper, these are photographs. The technical set-ups for each shot require Hollywood style crews of people, and as highly staged, meticulously planned pictures, these are far from ‘in the moment’ snaps… but the effect is extraordinary, and the sense of place incredible. Well worth it.

Pines2 Pines3
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On Football as Socialism, Pentecost, and ‘Keeping Death in your Mouth’

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Brand

Russell Brand is very often an annoying tool, but (once you get past the annoying first 10 mins) this podcast episode with Simon Critchley is stunning. Spinoza, Aristotle and the complexities of hating Frank Lampard, plus the ontology of West Ham, time dilation and why football is socialism. Not to mention Pentecost, keeping death in your mouth, and the art of comedy. Beautiful.


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Burning Questions and Political Facades

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PintoGrenfell

Against the ravenous tiger of fire, we give the rich a rifle and the poor a feather.

In 1971, an engineer at Ford motors called Lou Tubben invited all of his fellow company engineers to a presentation he’d put together about gas-tanks. Driving around with a whole lot of highly flammable liquid is, when you think about it, bound to carry some risks, and Lou Tubben had some ideas about how the integrity of the gas-tanks Ford were installing could be improved.

In fact, Ford had been made aware that there was a particular problem with one of their models – the Pinto – with increasing reports of the car exploding into flames if rear-ended even at low speeds. Lives had been lost, and Tubben and his boss had begun to have real concerns. This was not a theoretical, niche issue. People were losing their lives.

Tubben put together a detailed presentation about the issue, and some ways in which the Pinto could be made less vulnerable to catastrophic fire. When the day of the meeting came, only two people turned up: Tubben and his boss.

‘Safety isn’t the issue,’ another engineer admitted. ‘Trunk space is. You have no idea how stiff the competition is over trunk space. Do you realize that if we put a [safer] tank in the Pinto you could only get one set of golf clubs in the trunk?’

This was the price of safety: a set of golf clubs. As a seminal report by Mother Jones put it in their 1977 exposé:

Heightening the anti-safety pressure on Pinto engineers was an important goal known as “the limits of 2,000.” The Pinto was not to weigh an ounce over 2,000 pounds and not to cost a cent over $2,000. “[Ford] enforced these limits with an iron hand,” recalls the engineer quoted earlier. So, even when a crash test showed that that one-pound, one-dollar piece of plastic stopped the puncture of the gas tank, it was thrown out as extra cost and extra weight.

As the Pinto scandal grew – as Tubben predicted it would – Ford found themselves with a much more serious problem. Recalling all of the Pintos on the road would be a hugely expensive job, so they had the finance people run some cost-benefit figures:

(Price to install a safer tank) x (number of cars needing making safer)
= total cost to Ford of the Pinto recall.

(180 deaths per year from burning if the recall doesn’t happen) x (pay-out cost to Ford per death)
= total cost to Ford if they don’t do the recall.

Wait a minute. Ford put a dollar price on a life? Yes. Working with the government of the day, in order to complete their ‘cost-benefit analysis’ they needed to know how much a life was worth. After a bit of discussion, they decided. A life was worth $200,000.

180 x 200,000 is $36m, lower than the cost of recall. Ford’s mind was made up: it wouldn’t be worth making their cars safer. People would continue to burn, but it was cheaper to let them.

— / —

There is something so savage, so elemental about fire. In ancient myth, it is the gift we stole from the gods, and the source of our future torture in hell. It consumes without thought. It is said that those who drown experience a moment of tranquility before they are finally taken by the waters. No one says this about fire. It is no coincidence that pain itself is described in terms of burning.

As London smoulders in the aftermath of the raging inferno at the Grenfell Tower, what the charred skeleton of the structure reveals is the brutal calculations that layers upon layers of government have put on the price of life.

When the ‘Pinto Memo’ about Ford’s cost-benefit analysis was discovered, it caused complete outrage, and the company was plummeted into a corporate disaster entirely of its own making, yet one that forced fire safety back onto the agenda. 1.5m cars were recalled – the largest in history at that point. Improvements came immediately. The issue wasn’t that Ford didn’t know that their fuel tanks were likely to explode, it’s that they calculated that it would be cheaper to ignore it.

Underneath all of this, one can’t help feel that those in charge of these blocks of council homes knew enough about the fire risks, but, like Ford, calculated that it would cheaper to let some people burn.

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‘Exceptional Collaboration Resulting in Ultimate Perfection’

Just a few short streets away from Grenfell Tower is another high rise block. In so many ways, One Hyde Park, still in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, could not be further away. A single apartment in this block recently sold for £55m. The figures are staggering, and the wealth that those who live here have is extraordinary. When dealing with these riches, the calculations suddenly become different.

Thus, as the website for Kilnbridge Fire Protection Services boasts, the systems installed in this block were unparalleled. ‘A new benchmark for this standard of finish was realised,’ the company gushed, ‘typical of the level of detail and quality demanded on every aspect of this development.’ Sprinklers. Fire stopping to ductwork, pipe work and cable tray penetrations passing through all fire compartment walls and concrete floor slabs. In summary, the project was about ‘exceptional collaboration resulting in ultimate perfection.’

Those who are worth more, are worth more. The Ford Pinto was a cheap car, for people whose lives were deemed cheap. Built at exactly the same time as the Pinto, Grenfell was a cheap tower, re-clad 40 years later with the cheapest possible materials.

This is what fuels the anger. Not that the fire service hadn’t done an extraordinary job. Not that an already over-stretched NHS didn’t blink and took on another huge disaster. No. The accelerant here is that one of the wealthiest boroughs in one of the wealthiest cities in the world accepted a gaping chasm between the value of the lives of its rich residents, and those who were poor. For the rich: the very very best protection against a horror that respects not class or skin-colour or religion or wealth. For the poor: cut corners and minimal standards. Against the ravenous tiger of fire, we give the rich a rifle and the poor a feather.

This is a borough who – in the midst of austerity – saw fit to offer residents a rebate on their council tax, because they’d cut local services so far to the bone that they were now running a huge surplus. A borough who opted for cladding panels that were £2 cheaper, even though they weren’t the most fire-safe. They were the budget buy, illegal in the US, but deemed good enough for the poor.

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Burning Facades

Perhaps the best we can hope for out of all of this is that the political facades that have been hastily thrown up around the Tory party will also be burned through, and reveal the same brutal Thatcherite structure that remains underneath. ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ has never rung true. If you are poor, if you are disabled, if you are unemployed, they are still the nasty party they always were.

It runs from top to bottom. We have a Prime Minister who lied about the election, and lied about social care. We have a Foreign Secretary who lied about Brexit, and an Environment Secretary who may well have been put there by Rupert Murdoch, and who stabbed his colleagues in the back. And below all this, a Conservative council that has treated residents’ concerns about the safety of their houses with utter disdain.

Why? Because — just like those who ran the Ford motor company — they believe in an economics that doesn’t care about people. Market economics says opt for the cheaper cladding. Market economics says break up the NHS and make it for profit. Market economics says means test people with severe disabilities, and chase down poverty-stricken benefit cheats when 10 times more money is lost on tax evasion by those who are rich enough to afford it.

Perhaps it will have taken a terrible tragedy like Grenfell to burn this facade down, this cheap political cladding that diminishes all of us. The spin. The bullshit. The pretence that there is governance in the interests of all, equally. In short, the foul construct that is everything that the Daily Mail prints: fear, anxiety about ‘the other,’ house prices.

What the multiple tragedies of Manchester, Borough Market and Grenfell have exposed so clearly is just how strong and stable and caring and diverse our communities are. What we deserve is government that is as good as this. For that, I’m afraid we need to pull down the charred remains of a Tory administration in disarray, propped up by an intolerant and toxic party of Democratic Unionists, before it starts to re-clad itself, and present on the surface something it demonstrably is not underneath.


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‘When We Rise Up, We Must Not Lift Away… Real Hope is Horizontal’

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DAlUQnWXgAAE8_V

Thrilled to announce that my talk at TEDx Exeter is now online! It was a huge honour to be asked to close the event, which was on the theme of hope.

‘Instead of getting out of our heads, we must work with our hands.’

In Countering Political Turmoil with a New Summer of Love I look back 50 years to 1967 and the technologies of escape that lifted people away from fear and anxiety – LSD, Apollo and religious ecstasy – and argue that, in equally tumultuous times, if things are going to change, our hope needs to be horizontal.

If you’ve appreciated my work on Getting High, please – it would help hugely if you could click click click and share this widely! Thank you 🙂


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‘Sometimes the Burned Landscape Blooms Most Lavishly’ | ‘All This Is Temporary’

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Beautiful – and important words here from Rebecca Solnit, via Robert Macfarlane. Something all writers – and politicians – need to digest:

Burned Landscape

On that same plane, I’m really grateful to Barry Taylor for sharing this talk given by Mark Fisher in February 2016, in which he gives a rather brilliant summary of his thinking… and, perhaps hauntingly, leaves with the urging that ‘all this is temporary.’ Fires and burning, waste and wastelands… and yet… and yet… perhaps long-lain words will germinate. Perhaps we might call that an answer to prayer.


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