A Better Christianity?

I’ve just finished reading Brian McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration (Brian D. Mclaren: The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2016. ISBN 978 1 473 62672 0).  He calls us to escape “conventional” or “traditional” Christianity, which he believes is causing a catastrophic decline in faith, and invites us to embrace a just and generous way of life more true to the example and teaching of Jesus.  Conventional Christianity, for McLaren, means a literalistic interpretation of the Bible, a “a system of beliefs” that is no longer credible, a dominating and frequently violent God and religious institutions pathologically resistant to change.  He is convinced that a new movement, based on a fresh understanding of faith and a “just and generous Christianity” is emerging.  His book can be a workbook for groups, with questions for reflection and discussion at the close of each chapter.

The migration McLaren speaks of reflects a personal journey of faith.  A Church leader from a fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren background in America, he experienced a crisis of faith when he found himself unable to believe the concepts and doctrines he had been taught and often preached from the pulpit.  He rejected his previous understanding of Christianity, and in a moment of conversion, discovered “a deeper treasure”, embracing a life style derived from a more genuine relationship with Jesus.

It is difficult to argue with the Christianity the author discovered, and the book will hopefully help many Christian believers whose experience of faith mirrors his own.  His description of the history of Christianity and his advocacy of a “great spiritual migration” is, however, fundamentally flawed.  The conventional Christianity he describes, and from which he believes he has escaped has never been typical of the faith of those who are genuinely seeking to follow Jesus, and cannot properly be described as traditional.  The literalistic, fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible he condemns may have gripped the minds of many, particularly in America, but it is a relatively modern phenomenon.

He claims that the traditional “belief system” Christianity led to appalling acts of violence and genocide, such as those perpetrated by the Spanish and Portuguese Conquistadors in the sixteenth century, and continues to justify the destruction of the environment.  Any thoughtful Christian must admit with shame that Christianity has been used to justify many dreadful things, but the Jesus of the Gospels has always stood in judgement against them, and it is wrong for McLaren to argue that his modern migration is needed in response to such horrors.  People in power have often sought to manipulate religious enthusiasm to further and justify their ambitions, and will no doubt continue to do so, but that is not the fault of the faith that derives from Jesus.  Far from being the source of all kinds of wickedness, historical Christianity has often led the way in pursuing justice and peace, championing the rights of the poor and opposing oppression.

Religious institutions, like all other kinds of institution, are resistant to change, and exercise considerable power over individuals, sometimes to do them harm.  Prophetic voices have always been needed to challenge them and expose injustice.  It may be true that none of today’s institutions seem able to solve the environmental, economic and political problems facing us, but McLaren’s extravagant claim that a new spiritual migration can move Christianity and the world to a new and better place, is misleading and overambitious.

Christian people have always been called to pursue a distinctive and prophetic way of life, in every age, to travel with Jesus, show love to all and pursue what makes for peace and justice.  The call today is the same.  We do not stand, as McLaren asserts, like ancient Israel, before a Red Sea, summoned by God to abandon the old ways and launch out into unfamiliar territory, in order to discover a new land of milk and honey.  Instead, we are invited to renew our commitment to follow Jesus in our day, just as our Christian forebears did in theirs, striving in his name to make the world a better place.  There is no better Christianity.

Peter Shepherd (December 2018)


Politics and the Way of Jesus

Our political system is under severe pressure.  Several recent developments are challenging the pattern of political life we have got used to: Scottish nationalism, Brexit, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, etc..  It’s unclear what it will all lead to, but it seems the way we think about ourselves and the way we govern ourselves is changing.

Our immediate political challenges are a reflection of deeper changes in attitude and behaviour, many of them global in scope.  Technological innovation is altering the way we relate to each other and the way we understand the world, along with every aspect of our economic activity.  The social and economic ground beneath us is shifting in unpredictable ways.  The end of the Cold War, the increased prominence of China in world affairs, the creation of the European Union and the growing economic power of developing nations are making the familiar post-war pattern of international relations increasingly irrelevant.  For us in the UK, we are still coming to terms with the decline of our role in the world after the end of Empire.

In the light of all this, it is not surprising that the way power is exercised at a national and global level is struggling to keep up.  Elected politicians are losing people’s confidence and are widely distrusted.  In the search for stability and security, voices from the extremes, with their promise of a return to earlier certainties, are becoming more popular.  The danger of deepening fears and division, with the consequences they bring, is obvious.

How should we who seek to follow the way of Jesus respond?  Sincere Christian people will be found on different sides on most issues.  Some will feel strongly enough to engage in direct political activity or campaigning, but for many – perhaps for most – argument and debate will be avoided, whether through ignorance, lack of self-confidence, confusion, fear of giving offence or simply boredom.

We all have a responsibility to think and pray about the current political climate, and the specific issues facing us, and to ask ourselves what we should be doing.  How can peace and justice best be promoted and preserved?  How can the natural resources of the world God has given us be used well and protected from irreparable damage?  How can they be shared fairly?  These questions confront us all, even if answers are difficult to find.

There is a political dimension to them all.  Collective decisions need to be arrived at one way or another.  With so many of the crucial issues facing us being global in nature, international co-operation is essential, and we need to support those organizations, like the United Nations and international non-government agencies, that foster it.  Awareness and understanding, especially among the young, is also essential.  Schools, colleges, the press and mainstream media, parents, churches – in fact, all of us – have a duty to encourage a spirit of curiosity and enquiry about the world and how we live well together.

But there is something even more important.  While we seek answers to difficult questions, and pursue greater co-operation and understanding, we also know that any result is bound to be imperfect.  Politics, important though it is, will never provide a final answer to anything, and the best we are likely to achieve is muddling along in approximately the right direction.  In the meantime, followers of Jesus have a higher duty, to live by the standards he has set before us, whatever our political engagement, or lack of it.  If we are to “abide in” him, the qualities he demonstrates, such as respect for others, kindness, generosity, humility, courage and integrity, are essential, whatever we do.  In the end, political answers will not satisfy, and may be deeply disappointing, but nothing can overcome the way of life Jesus offers.

Peter Shepherd (November 2018)

Is the Pursuit of Justice a Sham?

The Secret Barrister’s Stories of the Law and How it is Broken (Macmillan, 2018) is a rather depressing account of the failings of our criminal justice system.  The author commends the integrity, hard work and dedication of most of the people who work in it, but there are few aspects of the way it works today that escape criticism.  The press is targeted for frequently ridiculing and misrepresenting the courts over the decisions they make, politicians are targeted for starving the system of the funds it needs to operate well, and the rest of us are targeted for our complacency.  The picture painted is of a system unable to deliver justice effectively and fairly.

The law and its implementation in the courts are a complete mystery to most people, and one of the Secret Barrister’s appeals is for us to be better informed about it.  The quip that the professions are a conspiracy against the laity seems to be particularly pertinent to the legal profession.  A fair and trusted system of criminal justice is essential to any healthy society, and that is what, according to the Secret Barrister, is coming increasingly under threat.  A just society, she (he?) rightly says, is the responsibility of us all.

With the best will in the world, perfect justice, where the guilty are always convicted and sentenced, fairly and appropriately, and the innocent never are, is unachievable.  For a start, guilt and innocence are sophisticated and subjective ideas, and impossible to define adequately in any legal system.  There are inevitably flaws and biases in how laws are worded, how trials are conducted and how verdicts are arrived at.  Even the wisest magistrate or judge cannot hope to always pass a fair and appropriate sentence on a person found guilty, especially as the options available are limited.  And there is a whole array of other complex issues that should be addressed in the pursuit of justice, such as the rights of victims, the rights of those convicted, the need for the rehabilitation and the role of deterrence.

The Secret Barrister rightly urges us all to take the pursuit of justice in our society more seriously than we do.  His book is, in part, an effort to inform us about such things as how the court system works, how magistrates are appointed, the availability of Legal Aid and the impact of imprisonment, and also a plea for us to act if we discover something we think is seriously wrong.

Vitally important though this is, there are also more profound questions to consider.  How can we know what real justice is?  Is there such a thing at all?  Perhaps a country’s legal system is no more than a matter of it seeking its own self-interest.  Which leads to another important question: should the pursuit of justice be limited to the boundaries of a particular State, or should it be a global endeavour?  Our current system of law-making and law enforcement inplies the former, but surely there can be no real justice unless it applies to the whole of humanity, not just one part of it.

If genuine justice is always beyond our reach, then there is no redress for those wrongly convicted; no bringing to account the guilty who have avoided conviction; no resolution of all the other injustices suffered by people, past and present.  There is something profoundly unacceptable about such an absence of moral order to our existence.  We pursue justice because we believe in it.  We believe that good should be affirmed and wrong righted.  If this belief is no more than wishful thinking, and we are living our lives in a moral vacuum, making things up as we go along, it is rather a miserable condition to be in.  Fortunately, the existence of a God of justice means that our own pursuit of justice is not a sham and that our efforts are not made in an empty void.

Peter Shepherd (June 2018)



Peter Shepherd (May 2018)

In the Days of Rain

In the Days of Rain is Rebecca Stott’s biography of her father, Roger Stott.  He was a leading figure in the Exclusive Brethren, leaving the movement in 1970 when he was in his early 30’s, and when Rebecca herself was just 5.  His story was pieced together after his death in 2007.  The book won the author the Costa Biography Award in 2017.  It illustrates the power of a religious community to damage people profoundly.

The story is told sympathetically, in spite of the author’s painful childhood experiences, both before and after her father’s break with the Exclusive Brethren.  He struggled to come to terms with a deep sense of bereavement after parting company with a community which had shaped his whole life until that point. He stopped believing in God.  He became a compulsive gambler, drinking heavily.  His marriage fell apart.  He was convicted of embezzling money from the company he worked for and spent time in prison.

Stott is portrayed as a victim as much as a villain.  Bullied by his own father, he was compelled as a child to submit to the strict discipline of the Exclusive Brethren and to keep apart from the world beyond its borders.  In spite of its privations, it did not prevent him taking up a place at Cambridge University to read English Literature.  The broadening of his intellectual life that resulted from this did not lead to a loosening or breaking of ties with the Brethren, rooted as they were in deep and long-standing family bonds.  In fact, no “loosening” was possible – you were either in or out.

The 1960’s were a time of increasing rigour and extremism among the Exclusive Brethren, under the global leadership of James Taylor, the “Man of God”.  Stalinist purges took place within the movement and the demands made of its members to live separately from others multiplied.  Stott and his family were trapped in a system of close personal ties, dogma and religious practice that demanded discipline and loyalty.

The end eventually came when Taylor was exposed for being drunk, foul-mouthed and sleeping with another man’s wife at a Brethren meeting in Aberdeen.  Stott was shaken and bewildered.  For a while he continued to preach at “Non-Taylorite Exclusive Brethren” gatherings, but within a few years abandoned Christianity altogether and began a steady decline into compulsive gambling, drinking, debt, criminality and the neglect of his family.

Roger Stott’s story may be seen by some to illustrate the destructiveness of any religious belief.  The Exclusive Brethren, however, were a small religious cult quite untypical of religious groups in general.  But there are similar cults in existence, and probably always have been, in most if not all religious traditions, and in that sense it is a warning about the destructive potential of religion.

The story is better seen as an illustration of the immense power of religious faith to inspire devotion and loyalty, and to create community.  It is hard for those who deny the validity of any kind of religious faith to explain the source of this power.  There is something about our human condition that longs for the transcendent; that thirsts for God.  Extreme religion, for all its potential to do harm, reveals how deep-seated this longing is.  Religious faith needs to be acknowledged as important and brought into the open, to be talked about in a serious way.  Destructive extremism is fostered in a closed, exclusive environment where it is not exposed to challenge or debate.  The more religion is relegated to the margins or ignored, the more dangerous it is likely to be.

In the Days of Rain also demonstrates processes that encourage extremism.  The author describes the power of a close community to control the emotions and behaviour of individuals within it.  Within such an environment people’s freedom to think, to explore ideas and to make decisions for themselves can be restricted or even stolen from them.  It is not only religious communities that are guilty of this, of course.  If this is to be avoided, communities need to encourage their members to think for themselves.

Another force in the growth of extremism is the role of the charismatic leader.  A frequent feature of dysfunctional communities is a leader whose authority is accepted without question.  The leader’s status is identified with the welfare of the community as a whole, so that to question it is seen as profoundly threatening.  To prevent this, the community needs to develop a strong sense of its own identity, quite apart from the personalities that rise within it, and that can survive their departure.

Reading Rebecca Stott’s book would benefit anyone preparing for ministry or leadership in the Church.

Peter Shepherd (February 2018)

Unseen History

An intriguing aspect of the ministry of Jesus is his reluctance to seek publicity.  His claims and deeds pointed to a status that was unique, but he often asked that people keep quiet about it.  The parables, which made up a large part of his teaching, are open to a variety of interpretations and they sometimes seem deliberately obscure.  Some of them explicitly make the point that God’s work in building his kingdom is a hidden activity – its results can be recognized, but not how they were achieved.  When asked directly by his opponents whether he was the Son of God or the Messiah, Jesus does not deny it, but neither does he unequivocally affirm it.  His preferred title for himself is “Son of Man”, which although having Messianic associations, is open to a variety of interpretations.

William Wrede suggested that the “Messianic Secret” was an invention of the Gospel writers to explain the absence of any explicit claims by Jesus himself.  This has never seemed convincing to me.  Others have suggested that Jesus wanted to play his true identity down because of the risk of being misunderstood, or of prematurely provoking a violent reaction.  Certainly, contemporary notions of Messiahship, involving the overthrow of Roman rule, were very different from how Jesus understood his ministry, and the claims to divine status that he did make, or imply, were vehemently rejected by those in authority as both ridiculous and blasphemous.

The fact is that every aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry took place in obscurity, from birth to ignominious death as a common criminal.  His reluctance to promote himself publicly is consistent with this.  In the end, his claims and his ability to teach and heal could not be kept secret, and they led to his crucifixion, but it seems that Jesus wanted to keep them out of the public domain as long as possible.  To the end, he refused to call on the crowds who gathered around him for support, and his loyal followers remained few.  This is one of the reasons why he alone was executed; he led no others to their deaths.

This hidden character of Jesus’ ministry suggests something important for all those who want to follow him, and something important for everyone who wants to do good in the world.  The best things are achieved not in the glare of publicity, but in hidden places.  Jesus knew that the work he came to do – which would ultimately change the world and transform the lives of millions – could only be done quietly, without fanfare, and often without recognition except by those immediately involved.  This pattern is one we would do well to acknowledge for ourselves.

Our history books are full of heroes.  The rich, the popular and the powerful are praised as the movers and shakers of the world.  They are the figureheads of social and political movements, leading people and nations because of their personalities and gifts.  But they are not the real shapers of history at all.  Behind every hero or heroine are the hidden people (or perhaps just the hidden person) who made them what they became.  Historical events or social movements that change the life experience of millions of people always have their origins long before their leaders hit the headlines.  Theories may subsequently abound as to their causes, but identifying definitely why and how they arose is an impossible task.  Take the Reformation, for example, or the Industrial Reformation, or the First World War, or, more recently, the Brexit referendum.

We honour those who work in the glare of publicity.  They do important things often in difficult circumstances.  But those who want to make the world a better place can take heart from the example of Jesus, and be challenged by it.  It is the hidden, unacknowledged acts of kindness and goodness that really make the difference.  That is the way the Kingdom of God works.  Every small good deed changes the world, and may have more profound consequences than we can imagine.

As we try to understand the world, we should not be misled by claims that the people who have statues in public places or biographies on library shelves have made it what it is.  Equally significant, and probably more so, are the people who have long been forgotten and who will never have a memorial.  Jesus’ place in history is unique, and the Church acknowledges him as Lord, but this should not obscure the remarkable fact that nothing of what he did and said at the time was publicly acknowledged or celebrated.

Peter Shepherd (February 2018)

Gender and Equality

Talk of gender and sexuality is everywhere.  Terms that once seemed clear are being challenged, and anybody who wants to engage with the issues involved soon discovers an uncharted minefield to negotiate – the link between biological sexual identity and gender is questioned; the traditional meaning of marriage no longer holds sway; a new community, identified by a series of letters updated from time to time to incorporate varieties of sexual identity, has come into existence; how men and women should properly act towards each other is facing new kinds of scrutiny; feminists are fighting new battles.

Gender and sexuality lie at the heart of personal identity and of what it means to be human.  Sexual difference and the notions of masculinity and femininity are fundamental to the way we think about ourselves, and they shape social interaction at every level.  Exploring what gender and sexuality mean is necessary and challenging, both for individuals and society.

Justice and equality under the law are the right of every person in any decent society.  The principle of equal rights for all has not always been accepted, but even where it has, there has not often been agreement over what it means.  It cannot simply mean that everyone is treated the same, as the needs of people differ widely.

What equality means varies over time, according to changing historical circumstances, and differs between cultures.  We should not judge people living in other places and times with the standards we accept for ourselves.  In our own time, some aspects of equality are clearer than others, and often enshrined in law, even if they are not always upheld in practice.  A large majority of people would accept that equal work should be matched by equal pay, that men and women have an equal right to own property and vote, to pursue a career and to have one’s testimony accepted in court.  What equality means in other respects may be more difficult to resolve, such as the division of property or the custody of children when a marriage breaks down, the right to marry or enter a civil partnership, the right to anonymity when allegations of rape or sexual abuse are made or the career implications of extended maternity leave.

Equal treatment for all is predominantly a matter of law, but there are also other areas of uncertainty, especially relating to children and young people.  If gender and sexuality are flexible and not necessarily tied to biology, how should this be reflected in the way children are treated and taught?  When is the boundary between flirting and bullying crossed?  How can we protect the vulnerable from sexual exploitation and abuse?

There are many examples of people – girls and boys, women and men, straight and homosexuals – being exploited and oppressed in obviously unjust ways, and we all have a duty to speak out against such things.  Anomalies and differences in treatment exist in every society, and we all share responsibility for identifying when they are no longer culturally acceptable and become disrespectful, unfair or unjust, and changing our behaviour accordingly.

It helps to be guided by some principles as we engage with all this, such as the following:

  • A reliable ideological or spiritual basis for regarding all people as having equal value is essential. For me, that value is rooted in the being and love of God.
  • Treating people equally does not mean treating everyone in the same way. People have different needs and these should be taken into account when deciding what equality means.
  • What gender means is bound to be shaped by culture, but separating it altogether from biological sexual identity is bound to be a difficult and possibly dangerous process for individuals involved.
  • However meaningful other forms of sexual activity may be for the individuals involved, sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is uniquely significant.
  • Financial reward is important, but is not a measure of a person’s value.
  • Questions of gender and sexuality can only be answered by men and women working together. It is impossible to achieving justice and equality for women without reference to justice and equality for men as well.

Peter Shepherd (18 January 2018)


Looking back over nearly 40 years of pastoral ministry in Baptist churches, there are many reasons to be thankful.  One of the confusing things, however, is that there are a few people who have been -and as far as I know still are – angry with me or have decided they don’t like me, for no obvious reason.  I’m sure I am over-sensitive about this, as it has happened rarely, and the occasional irrational hostility is probably inevitable for anyone in a prominent or public position.  It is important not to give such unpleasantness more weight than it deserves.

My experience is minor compared to the abuse received by some others.  But why does unexpected, and apparently unreasonable animosity, even hatred, arise?  Is the need to have enemies an integral part of human nature?  In the past, such prejudice between nations or ethnic groups sometimes resulted in war.  There is no reason why this may not still happen, but there is a different, and more pervasive spirit in evidence today.  Abuse and threats are made against individuals in many areas of life, particularly those involved in public service such as politicians, social workers and sporting referees.  It causes significant personal distress and is a serious disincentive to people taking up such positions, undermining the whole concept of public service.

People in positions of authority will inevitably be unpopular sometimes, and the decisions they make are bound to be resented at times.  The divide between those perceived as having power and others who see themselves as victims has always existed.  It is also important that powerful people are accountable for what they do, especially those in public office.  But the level of distrust and depth of hostility evident today is symptomatic of a destructive trend which is in danger of pulling society apart.  We see and hear it in political debate, which is more about ridiculing or abusing opponents than reasoned argument, in newspaper headlines and media interviews, in ordinary conversations when anything of public or political interest is touched on, and constantly in social media.  Occasionally this anger expresses itself in acts of violence.  The election of Donald Trump in America and the decision to reject the European Union were driven, at least in part, by it.  A widespread disaffection searches for someone to blame.

The social media has undoubtedly reinforced this trend, increasing divisions in society by making it easier for us to find others who agree with us, and distracting us from serious political engagement.  The process of globalization has also played its part, creating a sense of powerlessness in the face of forces beyond the control of any one country.  Both of these powerful forces shaping our world also have huge benefits, and neither of them are going to go away, so simply blaming them for what is going on is not a sensible answer.

Anyone concerned about the world our children and grandchildren will inhabit has a responsibility to consider how to nurture a greater spirit of respect, trust and co-operation in this kind of environment.  There are many small ways in which this can be done.  Showing appreciation for good done, for example, refusing to participate in destructive gossip, speaking out in defense of people unfairly attacked or taking steps to learn about people who are not like us.  There are many ways of contributing to good community relations through local groups.

Those who find themselves victims of personal abuse need resilience not to be intimidated and to seek support.  Organizations, including churches, need to develop a culture of intolerance for rudeness and abuse.  And we probably all need to bear in mind that when anger spills over into destructive words and actions, the root cause is most likely to be found in the kind of world in which we live, rather than with the individuals directly involved.  The task of opposing acrimony and unpleasantness is one we all share.

Peter Shepherd

Robert Harris and Politics

I have been reading Robert Harris’s novels.  I enjoyed his latest, Munich, but also had a good time with Conclave, Dictator and Pompeii.  Some time ago I read Ghost.  Fatherland was serialized on television recently.  Some of his books are set in real historical events.  The imaginary context for others has a similar feel, involving people and places familiar to us.  They have all required painstaking research, and we are left with the impression that the characters live in a world that is familiar to us, and that the events described could easily have happened.

In Harris’s historical fiction, the past comes alive by means of imagination and invention.  He gives the reader a perspective from which to engage with history.  Purists may complain that the distinction between fact and fiction is not always clear, but to my mind that doesn’t matter.  Clearly, Harris interprets past events in ways that serve the interests of the story he wants to tell, but he has no interest in deliberate distortion or falsehood, and goes to great lengths to maintain a feeling of authenticity.

Hilary Mantel tells us that imagination is always involved in the telling of history.  Subjectivity and interpretation is inevitable, and to present history as pure fact is naïve and misleading.  Writers like Harris and Mantel do not pretend their books are anything other than fiction, but by writing well and treating their sources with respect, they make it possible for us to enter into the world of the past and think helpfully about what it means and what it can teach us.

Harris’s novels centre on the nature and use of political power.  His imaginary characters, through whom the stories are told, are caught up in the political intrigues and power struggles of their day.  Munich describes Neville Chamberlain’s attempt to avert or at least postpone war at his meeting with Hitler in 1938.  We see the event through the eyes of civil servants Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann, caught up in this fateful encounter.  The main focus of the story, ostensibly on their relationship, is actually more about the international power-play going on around them, and how their personal fortunes are tied up with that.  The book carries us along like any good thriller, but also enables us to engage with the impact, risks and limitations of political power.

Dictator is about the political struggles of ancient Rome as the Republic fell and first Julius Caesar, then Octavian took power, seen through the experiences of the rhetorician and statesman Cicero and his secretary Tiro.  Conclave concerns a different kind of power struggle as the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church meet to appoint the next Pope.  Pompeii, which gives a dramatic account of the eruption of Vesuvius and of a romantic relationship developing in its shadow, is also about the political ambitions of powerful people in the cities affected.  In both Conclave and Pompeii, the action is told through the experiences of a main character struggling to navigate through the political complexities in which he finds himself.

Harris depicts the political world in which his characters are set as a dark place of intrigue, deception, personal ambition and the threat and use of force.  They face risks and try and avoid disaster at the hands of the powerful people around them.  The sub-plot (or is it the main one?) is the nature of political power itself.  Does Harris’s Machiavellian depiction relate to politics in general?  His novels cover a variety of scenarios, including Nazi Germany, ancient Rome, the Roman Catholic Church and contemporary international relations.  The dramatic value of presenting politics in this way is obvious, and perhaps this is all that matters, but it nevertheless raises questions about politics more widely.

Popular perception seems to suggest that politics is by nature as Harris portrays it.  Distrust and cynicism are widespread.  It might be less appealing to novelists, but it should be possible to see politics more as a matter of persuading others through reasoned argument and debate, where politicians are prepared to change their minds in the light of evidence and reason, and not condemned for doing so, where Parliament is a place of genuine debate and compromise rather than a struggle for power between two fighting factions, and where the desire for personal status and power takes second place to the search for the common good.  At a time when democracy faces severe challenges, Harris’s books are not only a good read, but also a stimulus to thinking about the nature of politics and the risks we all face when the hunger for power becomes dominant.

Peter Shepherd (October 2017)

Data Storm

The creativity of today’s games-makers and web-designers, and the impact they have on our lives, is astonishing.  People huddle over small screens, building cities, fighting battles, challenging unseen opponents, thrilled by success and frustrated at failure.  Others are communicating with their absent friends and colleagues, receiving and sending messages, pictures and videos, smiling and frowning in turn as their fingers swipe and click, liking, commenting, downloading and sharing.  Still others are exploring possible holiday destinations, comparing prices, reading about people, places or events, reading up on current affairs, checking diaries, confirming directions.  A few are at work, e-mailing, texting, creating.  Occasionally a conversation will take place with someone unseen.  All fully engaged intellectually and emotionally in what they are doing.

What a wonderful kaleidoscope of data now available to us!  Life has been enriched in all sorts of ways, the possibilities open to us have been expanded and our ability to make decisions, maintain relationships, entertain and educate ourselves has grown enormously.  Naturally, adjustments to this new world are painful for some, but the practical benefits are many.

Less clear is how our sense of personal identity is being altered, how our view of the world is being transformed and how the way we think and feel about relating to each other is developing.  Some of the people most closely connected to the corporations driving this technological revolution are expressing anxieties about the way it is changing us.  As we try to cope with such an ocean of data and opinion, the tendency is to select what we would like to see and hear.  Far from broadening our horizons, which is what we might expect, this tendency reinforces pre-existing ideas and prejudices.  The democratizing of information, where everyone’s voice is given equal weight, has the benefit of giving everyone the opportunity to be heard, but it also makes discerning what is valuable or true that much more difficult.  What is said with passion or humour often rises to the surface, regardless of the merit of its content.

Worrying too are the motives and prejudices of those who exercise power within this new world of information.  Advertisers, publishers, editors and owners of every age have been able to shape opinion and behaviour, but many of the limitations on such power have now been swept away by the global scope of the internet.  The presentation of data is largely in the hands of a few huge global corporations, and to some extent Governments, each with its own commercial or political agenda.  Often hidden behind claims of openness and freedom, those with the relevant skills and opportunity (or who can purchase them) can manipulate what, how and when we see and hear things.

Such control is rarely blatant or coercive, and may be exercised with proper consideration, but the power it gives is considerable.  To be in a position to influence a huge number people’s emotional response to what they see and hear, and the decisions they make as a result, even in a marginal way, offers huge benefits.  If it did not, those who devote large amounts of energy and money to acquire it would not bother.

There is a political dimension of all this.  We value the freedom democracy gives to enable us to choose and influence those who govern us.  To do that we need to know about the options available, to consider them rationally and then to make informed decisions.  The internet makes more information and a greater spread of opinion available, and enables easier participation.  On the other hand, however, if the mass of data available at our finger-tips bewilders us, and results in prejudices being strengthened rather than challenged, the consequence is likely to damage the operation of genuine democracy.  The ability to manipulate or present data so that they are noticed, without regard for their accuracy or fairness, can result in decisive political advantages.  For example, fears can be exploited, salacious gossip can be shared or rumours released at critical moments in a campaign.  The scope for this and the scale now made possible has been dramatically increased, and not only for those directly involved.  Internet corporations and foreign governments operating beyond the scope of a country’s framework of law have the power to undermine the proper functioning of democracy in these and other ways.

The internet is changing us and the world we live in.  The evidence is there for all to see.  It is impossible to say what its lasting impact will be, for good or ill.  At least we should be aware of the new dynamic at work, and its ability to change the way we think, feel and choose in unprecedented ways.  We may not be able to master the forces at work, but by opening our minds to what is happening we can perhaps avoid becoming passive victims.

Peter Shepherd (October 2017)


Values for an Internet Age

The internet is transforming our world. The way we make and maintain relationships, hear news of what’s going on in the world, buy and sell things, have new experiences, travel, learn, are entertained, manage our finances, become victims of crime . . . the list is endless. It probably represents the most comprehensive technological change humanity has ever experienced. How are we supposed to understand, let alone respond to the personal impact this transformation has on us?

Every significant technological development in history has resulted in social and political change, sometimes revolutionary change. The ability to use iron for tools and weapons, for example, or the development of the printing press, or the construction of railways, or the widespread use of contraception. Rarely, however, has the significance been immediately apparent, and with the internet, the social and political impact is still very unclear.

The internet is also changing our sense of personal identity. We define ourselves, among other things, by the relationships that are important for us, the places where we live and work, and the way we understand the world around us and our place in it. These building blocks suddenly look very different.

There is a natural tendency to deny the personal impact of technological change, and to protest that while the internet may change the way I do things, it cannot change who I am and what is important to me. History tells us something different. Consider, for example, the development of printing.

The printing press enabled the wide and rapid dissemination of ideas and information as never before. It played a crucial role in revolutionizing religion, science and politics in early modern Europe. Ordinary people, not just the privileged few with access to hand-written documents, were no longer limited to what they were told. They could read what others, who they could never hear personally, were saying. Collective action could be organized more easily and pamphlets and books became dangerous to those in power. Education and the broadcasting of news were transformed. This was not just a technical matter – in time, everyone’s experience of life was profoundly influenced by the invention of printing. How much more, then, the internet?

The internet is changing the way we live our lives in bewildering and comprehensive ways. Take Satnav. An amazingly helpful aid for finding our way. But it is far more than just a tool to aid efficient travel. As maps, road numbers and sign-posts become increasingly redundant, our sense that we live in a geographical world – to be people of place – also becomes less significant. No longer does it matter how different places relate to each other geographically, or where we are in relation to those places, only that we are progressing from a to b. Where a and b actually are is unimportant. It is a significant shift in our perception of ourselves as material bodies in a material world.

Or take the way we relate to public personalities like TV celebrities, political leaders, performers, sportsmen and sportswomen. Before the internet, with its attendant plethora of social media, there was an inevitable distance between these people and those who followed them. Television, newspapers and magazines did bring them into our homes, but for the most part they were still remote figures and inaccessible. Now there is an immediacy and even intimacy in such relationships, as tweets are posted and images shared on personal devices. Millions of fans engage directly with their chosen celebrities, and their impact is powerful and global. What they say or wear, the things they do and the homes they live in change the way millions of others think and feel about themselves.

The internet is here to stay, driving globalization, changing our cities and our ways of life in profound and lasting ways. It is also changing us, with the result of raised levels of anxiety and a loss of confidence. The ground is shifting beneath our feet.

Amid this loss and confusion, values that transcend all change need to be recognized and affirmed.  Personal integrity, kindness, treating others fairly and the equal value of every person are reliable foundation stones for private and public life, whatever the future holds.  Ultimately, such values command our allegiance because their origin lies beyond us.  They are especially important for the technological revolution we are now living through.

Peter Shepherd (August 2017)