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Sunday, 29 September 2013

Home ownership is not the summum bonum

I am far from often in agreement with the Archbishop Cranmer blog. I do not share his unerring veneration of Margaret Thatcher, I am not perturbed by state intervention in principle and I am not slavishly tied to supporting "the market" come what may. However, despite the hagiographic title, his most recent post touches on a fundamental issue and, in the main, handles it well. The post - 'Margaret Thatcher "gave the Conservative Party intelligence and committed leadership"' - deals with home ownership and the current government's flawed attempts to boost the economy through a specific focus on the housing market.

I first touched upon the issue of home ownership back in March 2010. Here, I sought to explore pertinent issues related to whether Christians could, or should, justifiably own property. To be clear, I am not against Christian home ownership per se. However, I do think many Christians have failed to think clearly about the issues surrounding home ownership and a particularly worldly approach to property has infiltrated the church on some level. Again, that is not to say owning property is wrong per se. Nevertheless, our attitude toward home ownership may have been unduly influenced by our culture.

Cranmer's central argument concerns the government's current Help to Buy scheme. He states:
The Bishop of Manchester-designate, David Walker, said: “Help to Buy is like tackling a food shortage by issuing food vouchers rather than getting more crops planted”. And he is quite right. If any shift were needed, it is either in increasing the building of social housing or in dispelling the shame associated with renting. The Royal Family rents; the Archbishop of Canterbury rents. What is this Tory fixation with owning that which the market determines you cannot yet afford?
With this assertion, I wholeheartedly agree. Cranmer's view of this policy is ultimately correct when he argues:
It is difficult to conceive of a more peccable policy than one which lures you into a state of maximum indebtedness at a punitive rate of interest, especially when debts of such gargantuan proportions built on the shifting sand of inflated property prices were largely responsible for the global credit crunch and the state we’re in. This time, instead of financial institutions selling on the risk of sub-prime mortgages to an ever-cascading carousel of private banks, the taxpayer will act as guarantor of last resort. 
As with the bank bailouts, the shareholder (homeowner) takes the profit in times of plenty, but the poor taxpayer takes the hit in the lean years. It is even more invidious when you consider that those who take out these 95% loans will be subject to a higher rate of interest than those who are deemed to present less of a risk: the repayments will be arduous and the emotional costs very high. This is simply piling Pelion upon Ossa. At these thresholds, the ‘dream of home ownership’ can rapidly become a nightmare trap of negative equity and unsalability: the Englishman’s castle becomes his dungeon. House prices are not guaranteed to go on rising in perpetuity: the easier-credit bubble will surely burst, just as it has always done.
On all this, I agree with Cranmer.

However, it is difficult to support his view that Margaret Thatcher understood this issue well given that he ignores the fact she was centrally responsible for creating this very shame culture. For Thatcher, as with most Conservatives, home ownership represents the highest good whilst renting is for failures, identifiable principally by their lack of earnings and/or savings. Just as Thatcher responded with the words "what a luxury" having asked a student studying Ancient Norse Literature what she was reading at university, the Conservative mindset on home ownership is to justify all things in terms of money. That is, things are only of value if they can be quantified monetarily. Thus, if you do not have enough money to own property you must be of no value, a failure, because achievement is measured in monetary terms both in education (the earning power of your degree is its sole value) and in terms of income (you are of no value if you fail to earn). Indeed, Cranmer argues well that the central shift needed is "in increasing the building of social housing". However, he says this without irony having stated "Margaret Thatcher heralded a revolution in the property-owning democracy with the sale of council homes to tenants".

Underlying this whole argument is the understanding that all people need to live somewhere. The rental market is awash with private landlords covering the cost of second mortgages through the rents of those who cannot afford to buy their first home. Property prices have risen well beyond the rate of rising salaries and the average age of the first-time buyer is steadily increasing. The government's answer to this problem is to loan people a deposit, which must be returned, on a 95% mortgage with unfavourable terms in order to allow property prices to rise even further. A far more simple solution would seem to be the building of more houses, flooding the market with property which would naturally drive prices down. Sadly, successive Tory and Labour governments have singularly failed to build enough housing (social or private). Prices remain high because demand exceeds availability and the government answer, not by increasing house building projects but, by plunging would-be home-owners into ever increasing levels of debt in order to achieve the only thing assumed to be of any value - owning a home. Certainly the Bible has much to say about where we plough our money, the storing up of treasures and the placing of people into debt. 

In truth, we need to move away from the view that property ownership is the ultimate good. We do need to increase social housing - a problem exacerbated by the sale of council housing - but we also need to increase the number of private homes being built too. Moreover, we need to move away from any concept of shame in renting and value inherent in home ownership. Why should housing not be treated in the same way as any other good? Why is a house about the only piece of property to increase in value in perpetuity when almost every other depreciates? This culture - seen almost nowhere else in Europe - causes people to take themselves into untold debt in order to own property they cannot afford whilst simultaneously reducing their living standard and impeding their ability to move freely. At heart, the question we are left with is 'are mere bricks and mortar really worth it'?

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Do you know "Talkative"?

In light of my last post - The Guardian's 100 best novels: No 1 - The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan (1678) - I thought I would share this.

'Do you know "talkative"?' details an excerpt from The Pilgrims Progress in which Faithful and Christian encounter Talkative.

It is an interesting little article worth a moment of your time.

Monday, 23 September 2013

The Guardian's 100 best novels: No 1 - The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan (1678)

I was delighted to see this in today's Guardian. Delighted for two reasons: (1) It is an absolutely magnificent book; a classic in the truest sense, and; (2) It is about the only piece of fiction that has genuinely changed my life; through it I became a Christian.

True to form, the Guardian insist on seeing the book as "an allegory of state repression" without paying heed to the patently obvious allegory actually intended by Bunyan.

Nevertheless, I'm so pleased the Guardian counted it amongst their 100 best novels - placing it at No. 1 no less - and always think on it with fondness. If you only ever read one "classic" in your lifetime, make it this one.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Crazy Busy

I found this deliberately awkward video quite funny so thought I would share. Enjoy!

For more videos explaining why Kevin DeYoung wrote this book and it's overarching message, visit here.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Promising to "be true to myself"

Victoria Coren, in yesterday's Observer, wrote an article bemoaning the recent change in pledge from the Brownies'. Instead of promising "to love God", would-be Brownies' will now vow to "be true to myself and develop my beliefs". Quite aside from the fact this new pledge means absolutely nothing, she states "I've never met a child who wasn't true to itself... Every bit of acting up through resentment, impatience, temper, boredom or sadness [when she was a child] was "true to myself" and if my parents had sent me to the Brownies, I suspect it would not have been for a pat on the back".

Like Coren, I do not think the Brownies' are a bad organisation. Unlike Coren, I am not particularly concerned they have removed the statement to "love God" from their pledge. It seems better to remove this vow altogether than force children to make statements of belief to which they evidently don't subscribe. Nor does it place churches in the "insidious position" Coren thinks. Many churches allow secular community works to use their building, usually as long as the specific activity is not actively opposed to the work of the church itself. For example, one should imagine it very odd were the church to grant a meeting place for the British Humanist Association, whose sole mission seems to be seeing religious organisations closed down altogether! Similarly, other religious groups propagating a message fundamentally contrary to the church (a category under which one might argue the BHA fall) would also be unlikely to find a home. Nevertheless, secular language classes, toddler groups, homework clubs and the like often find a home in church buildings and, despite their decision to drop the pledge to "love God", there seems to be no reason the Brownies' couldn't benefit in the same way.

The rather more troubling element of this change is not the part of the pledge they dropped but the insertion that has been deemed better. I am not remotely bothered that Brownies' who probably don't love God are no longer pledging that they do. Rather, it is concerning they deem it better to vow to be "true to myself". As Coren notes:
Although, I repeat, it [being "true to myself"] doesn't mean anything at all, it certainly carries a suggestion of something utterly individualistic. It's the language of The X Factor. It feels stubborn, self-important and faintly aggressive. It brings selfhood looming into the foreground, reducing the rest of the world to passers-by who benefit or suffer by mere coincidence as the individual dream is followed.
Indeed, in step with the national zeitgeist, God goes out the window in favour of being true to oneself. Self takes centre stage whilst God doesn't get a look in.

And where does the desire to be true to oneself end? Weren't many of the heinous individuals of the past century, whose very names are now by-words for evil and moral vacuity, merely being true to themselves? Surely the string of court cases currently being pursued against countless celebrities are merely the product of their having been true to themselves? If being true to oneself is life's raison d'être - the summum bonum of existence - does the good of others even factor? 

Surely, the Brownies' are left with a total contradiction when they simultaneously pledge to "be true to myself" and yet "to help other people". Which is it? Unless we are going for complete doublespeak and trying to claim that "helping other people" includes "being true to myself" they have something of a problem. Of course, they may have in view the totally self-serving sort of altruism that expects something in return or is merely done because it makes us feel good about ourselves. That would certainly involve being "true to myself" whilst sort of "helping other people" but, one suspects, that is not in view given most people - were such intentions stated honestly - would consider the action morally questionable. It is largely agreed that altruism is not altruistic when we do it with the inheritance in view!

Such views of being true to one's self and following one's own dreams are fairly widespread. The advancement of self is part of our national consciousness. However, it is interesting to note that 
Aleister Crowley, famous occultist and founder of the religion Thelema, stated "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law", and that people should learn to live in tune with their "True Will". Similarly, the Church of Satan claim they do not believe in gods and devils but that one's self is their own "God". They go on state that Satan "represents indulgence instead of abstinence". Such thinking seems to be the basis of occultic and satanic thought.

Now, I am not for one second suggesting that the Brownies' are now following occultic practice and aligning themselves with the Church of Satan. What I am saying is our national consciousness reflects these same values and the Brownies' are reflecting the national consciousness. Could it be these strands of occultic thought (Crowley as early as the late 1800s) were reflecting something of a change in public attitude? Perhaps. More likely, especially given these groups are relatively young and the language they choose to adopt specifically Koine Greek and biblical, they actively - and self-consciously - stand in opposition to Christianity in particular. Such ideas of self-promotion and being true to one's self share an uncanny resemblance to this school of thought.

All of that is to say, what does our national focus - and the Brownies' specific focus - on being true to one's self say about us? Could the dropping of God, and the promotion of self, say something far more serious than mere attempts to be "inclusive"? It is interesting that the Brownies' pledge has not come out the blue, for nationally we dropped God a long time ago and the indulgence of self has been promoted ever since. If self is the summum bonum, what exactly distinguishes us from the Alestair Crowley school of thought?

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Four pertinent articles related to my saddest blog post

It saddens me somewhat, as a brief glance to the top left of this blog will confirm, that the most read post (rather more unfortunately headed by Blogger as 'most popular') is one about some controversy surrounding Peter Masters, the Metropolitan Tabernacle and two-stage separation. Sadder still is my suspicion the post gained this accolade because it happens to mention the name of an individual at the centre of a widely discussed issue. No doubt ardent supporters read the post, based predominantly on the name mentioned, to get affronted on behalf of the individual regardless of the issue presented. Likewise, unerring critics, on the basis of the name, read it to get irritated at the latest act of offence.

In light of that post, I would like to offer four related articles dealing with the issues of separation, division, discussion and learning in the church:

Dr Master's and Two-Stage Separation - From the Martin Marprelate blog, another take on Peter Master's two-stage separation policy.
"There is no doubt that separation from wickedness and apostasy is a command of God, but, ultimately, every church and every Christian is going to have to come to their own minds about Second-Stage separation. For my part, I cannot separate from my faithful brethren within the mixed denominations who are holding onto Biblical convictions in the midst of such deep darkness. I believe that such people need our support and understanding and that we should stand together, ‘Holding fast the word of life’ (Phil. 2:16)."
A Warning Against Division - R.C. Sproul offers a warning from reformation history concerning division within the church.
"I don’t know of anybody who’s a greater fan of Martin Luther than I am. But one of the low points of the Reformation took place in 1529 when an attempt was made to unify the Reformers of Switzerland and the followers of Luther in Germany."
How Do We Learn From the Idiot in the Room - Mez McConnell offers helpful advice for learning from those who do not come from our theological or ecclesiastical stable.
"Some people are so frustrating and annoying. That is a fact of life. It is unavoidable. Even the most sanctified and patient of us struggle with difficult people (just ask my wife). There is a danger though and it is this. Sometimes we hear something about another Christian or a leader and we make up our minds about them before we’ve met. Personally, my inner defenses always shoot up when I meet somebody I’ve never met for the first time and they say, “I’ve heard about you”. Sometimes, if I’m going to a meeting with a person I know is going to be difficult I steel myself to ‘just get through it unscathed’. It’s an ongoing war within my soul and I have to pray hard for love and forebearance. Sadly, it means that very often we miss out on learning something because of these (very often unspoken) prejudices."

How to Mentor Young Disciples When They Differ Theologically - Andrew Davis at The Gospel Coalition blog offers some helpful suggestions for mutual learning and discipleship.
"what happens when the men you are training up to be pastors and elders begin to develop differing theological opinions? How should a pastor approach these disagreements?"