breaking news from the world of ideas

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Friday, 18
October 2019

How Russell Brand won me round

When I met Russell Brand this week for his podcast Under the Skin I began with mixed feelings. I have a background in radio and television, where Brand’s reputation, especially amongst women, is poor. Most of the hostility is from a while ago, before his public clean up, marriage and treatment for sex addiction, but women have watched too many men burnish their reputations and rise too swiftly after a fall from grace to be immediately forgiving. His comments a few years ago about leaving the childcare to his partner didn’t add to my sense of meeting someone I’d immediately click with.

I’ve changed my mind. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Thursday, 10
October 2019

You don’t have to be lefty to love Extinction Rebellion

Boris Johnson with Margaret Thatcher’s biography

It almost seems Boris Johnson was performing a parody set piece of himself this week. He showed up to a Thatcher biography book launch and described Extinction Rebellion as “uncooperative crusties” who should stop blocking the streets of the capital with their “heaving hemp-smelling bivouacs”. Boris’s father Stanley promptly and proudly declared himself an “uncooperative crustie” as he showed up to join protests.

The insult inevitably captured the headlines, but in his remarks the Prime Minister also acknowledged that Thatcher was ahead of her time in acknowledging the impact of “greenhouse gases”. In 1989 she gave a speech to the United Nations warning of the impending crisis around carbon emissions:  ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Friday, 27
September 2019

How much is a prayer worth?

Economists have been trying to put a monetary value on prayer by testing how willing people are to pay for it. 

In a bid to reduce tender human experiences to pounds and pence — or dollars in this case — participants in the study were given $5 notes which they could either take away with them, or exchange for thoughts or prayers. 

As you might expect, religious people were willing to pay to be prayed for (more if it’s a priest, not a stranger). Rather more surprising, was the fact that the non-religious were willing to part with cold hard cash in order not to be prayed for. They wanted shielding from prayer. Christians, meanwhile, weren’t particularly keen to receive ‘thoughts’ from a non-religious stranger. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Thursday, 19
September 2019

A timely defence of “stubborn gladness”

Am I allowed to feel joyful? It’s an argument I often have with myself. And I recently found a book that has helped crystallise my inner debate. Christian Wiman, a lauded American poet, has collected his favourite poems on the subject but it is no “Little Book of Joy”, designed to cheer us up while defecating. On the contrary, in his opening essay he wrestles seriously with my question. Like him, saturated in the increasingly horrifying news cycle, I too often react to the idea of joy with affront:

Ruined migrants spilling over borders, rabid politicians frothing for power, terrorists detonating their own insides like terrible literal metaphors for an entire time gone wrong — ‘how with this rage shall beauty hold a plea’, as Shakespeare, staring down his own age’s accelerating grimace, wondered.
- Christian Wiman, JOY
 ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Friday, 13
September 2019

In defence of virtue signalling

This week, the Archbishop of Canterbury visited the site of the Amritsar massacre in India and prostrated himself on the ground in a gesture of public repentance. He said he wanted to acknowledge “the sins of my British colonial history”.

Perhaps predictably, the reaction has been mixed. Critiques include people asking why he didn’t address various other current atrocities and injustices in contemporary India alongside accusations of “virtue signalling”.

Colonial history is complex and contested, and the religio-politics of contemporary India perhaps even more so, but the immediate kickback was wearyingly familiar. Doing good is difficult. Doing it in public even more so, but some roles, not least national church leaders, require at least the attempt. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Friday, 6
September 2019

Harry Potter can be a sacred text

I was listening to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts recently, which had the cheery theme of Apocalypse. Harry Potter and the Sacred Text is presented by Vanessa Zoltan and Casper Ter Kuile, two non-religious Harvard Divinity graduates, who discuss the Rowling books as though they were sacred texts. 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2

For them, it is how a text is read that makes it sacred, not its literal content. So if we can read a book expecting it to help us get better at loving — with rigour and within a community —  it can be sacred. Their podcast provides a space where, they hope, a generation of millennials — millions of whom know which Hogwarts house they belong to but feel no affiliation with organised religion — can find a way to make meaning.  ...  Continue reading