Monday, 12 February 2018



The talk on March 11th will offer us a practical experience with Shipton resident Ruth White on how we can change our attitudes, re-looking at our so-called problems and turning them to our advantage, or as Shakespeare put it: 
Sweet are the uses of adversity
The audience may choose to try a few simple stretches which Ruth will demonstrate and which can have an effect on both energy levels and attitude. 

RUTH WHITE has been an international yoga teacher for some 40 years and has taught in 25 countries. She recently held seminars in Europe and Australia and has published a book entitled 'The Truth of Yoga'.  In 2004 ten Ishaya monks came to live in Lane House Farm, Ruth's home, and both she and her husband John became Ishayas too.  Their philosophy is based on A Course In Miracles. There is much more about Ruth and her courses on her website here

Tuesday, 6 February 2018


We're all out of shape

Most of us probably know the facts, that obesity is the greatest public health crisis facing the USA and the UK (how embarrassing to be put in the same bracket...) and Sam Wells thinks it affects us all to some degree: he is interested in 'what obesity symbolises in our society'. Broadening out from the church (which is where his professional interest lies), he makes a powerful point about what obesity means for society as a whole, beyond the public health epidemic: 
Our culture isn't at all sure what it's necessary to get in shape for, what it's worth making sacrifices for, what it's so important to get ready for.  Our culture is obese. 

One direction? 

Referring to what the Greeks called telos, or ultimate direction, he wonders whether our society actually knows 'what all this education and wealth creation and health provision and military protection is actually for'.  And, addressing his Christian audience with its tradition from Abraham and Moses onwards: 
 Jesus' purpose is really no different.  He wants the church to be ready to stand before God and to be a channel by which all the world can be ready to stand before God and be with God forever. ... This is what I'm for.  This is what you're for. 
For those with a different affiliation he still has a point: does our society, do we, have any sense of 'such an overarching purpose that it's worth getting in shape for'? Is there anything our society is shaped around, besides money and choice - which Wells here castigates 'as mere holding areas leading to multiple goals that our society is reluctant to name'. 

What do you want? 

It is hard to resist this - at times emotional because heartfelt - challenge to our deepest motivations. We may not be St Paul, whom he sets up as someone who really knows what he wants, nor even church-goers, or 'religious' in any way. But his final words in this chapter bear thinking about for at least the length of a Wychwood Circle discussion: 
Look at your life. Is it easy to see what you want? What do you want? 
Maybe that's a first requirement for answering the overall question: How then Shall we Live? 

Join us, having read Part Two of Wells' book (see earlier posts), to discuss this and other issues about 'Being Human', at Wychwood Library on February 11th.  Please email in advance to signal your participation.  

Friday, 2 February 2018



From the seven-scene drama of the chapter on Disability, we move to what may well be the core of Sam Wells' approach to faith, his vision of the five-act human drama, narrated in this context to find a place for both Christian identity (not before time?) and then alongside it and within it for LGBT identity.  Whatever our reservations about Wells' essentially biblical faith and the importance he gives to Act 5 as the 'full realisation of the kingdom of God', there is no doubting the power of this drama.

Act 1 is the creation, from the beginnings of the whole 'cosmic canvas' to the emergence of consciousness and 'creatureliness as a companion to and reflection of God'.  Act 2 is the long and convoluted Old Testament story of the Jewish people through enslavement, liberation, exile etc etc. Act 3 is obviously the story of Christ, the central act (for the Christian) of God's incarnation in our little world.
In Act 4 our vocation is not to look to a template of spotless purity or obedient citizenry but to allow ourselves to be swept up in the adventure of the kingdom, inaugurated in Jesus and completed on the last day; and our relationships are evaluated not by looking them up in the owner's manual but by communal discernment as to whether they strengthen the community in its daunting challenges to embody God's glorious future in an often hostile present.

Christian Identity

To be a Christian, says Wells, is to switch (whether dramatically or gradually - dare one say? - or even imperceptibly) from seeing ourselves in a one-act play to this context of a five-act play and in particular to this 4th Act in which we have our existence, suspended between Acts 3 and 5. Since we only live in our own time we must take both what we believe about Act 3 and what we expect or hope for in Act 5 on faith, but as we have seen before at Wychwood Circle that is not to dismiss either as unreasonable or even improbable.  What this vision does provide is an understanding of Christian identity. one where no single Act makes sense on its own or provides the definitions or rules that some may yearn for.  And in Act 4, says Wells, there is both liberation and discipline, the latter being essentially the desire to be 'faithful to the character of God revealed in the first three acts' and anticipated in Act 5:
[B]eing a Christian in Act 4 doesn't mean keeping one's nose clean and holding one's distance from anyone who looks suspiciously like they might end up in the wrong queue on judgement day. On the contrary, it means finding ways to be with those with whom one will be spending eternity ...

Sexual Identity

And so to three judgement calls which we may be reluctant to make but which are essential to understanding sexual identity, both socially and theologically: 'The first call is whether sexuality is something you do or something you are'. The second is the relationship between LGBT people and the largely heterosexual society at large, particularly if sexual identity is integral to human identity. Wells gives three extended answers to this question, including this point, comparing humanity to a football team or a newspaper editorial process where there are many roles and many kinds of people are needed:
A narrow binary gender distinction between male and female impoverishes human life by assuming there are a very limited number of key activities and roles, focused around reproduction, security of shelter, food and clothing, and nurture of children. But in most of the world today the understanding of human flourishing goes beyond these narrow Darwinian contours of personal and species survival. 
If we all have roles to play in this world this leads back to the idea of vocation, which Wells has touched on in earlier chapters and which he now names as the third judgement call for Christians:  'How significant is sexuality for the whole of our lives before God?'  In the same way as he wants people to see their lives 'located between Act 3 and Act 5 of the five-act play', he now says that vocation 'requires the whole of one's identity'.

So for Wells, while the church should be asking itself what kind of people it needs to fulfill its mission in Act 4 - by implication, all sorts, obviously, all of whom bring unique strenghts and insights - individual Christians may also ask themselves (in words resonant of the Book of Common Prayer), 'what kind of a life do I need to live if I am going to support such a community and in its service find perfect freedom?'

'In the front seat of the van'

And the role of LGBT people? Well, they should know about being marginalised and scapegoated, rather like 'those people closest to Jesus' heart, Jesus' company and Jesus' ministry'. They also by their very nature 'break the assumption that human existence is indelibly tied to reproduction'. And his third point is perhaps uniquely perceptive and relates back to the first chapter in Part Two, on Family and the breakdown of the so-called nuclear, or industrial, family 'which no longer reflects the social and economic reality of a critical mass of the population' (p 68):
LGBT people are ahead of the majority population in exploring the longevity and sustainability of desire and tenderness that is neither upheld by the sanction of social endorsement nor cemented by the responsibility of offspring and nurture.

Redefining marriage and the shape of the post-industrial family?

Nothing pious or specifically for Christians or people of faith there: it's a social issue that we could all do with pondering.  And on marriage, such a preoccupation of the poor old Church of England if not for the rest of us, (and the theme of a separate chapter):
[P]erhaps the question in our generation should not be 'Have LGBT people any right to be married?', but rather 'Can the church begin to redefine marriage for a very different era without the wisdom and experience LGBT people can bring?'  
In a book that bravely tackles a whole range of issues, mostly in chapters of five or six pages, this chapter is unique, as well as central, in occupying nearly 17 pages.  It is almost as if the rest of the book has been constructed around it - but that is a wild guess if ever there was one.  Relevant as 'identity' is in our culture, it could nevertheless be the one topic which we should recommend to others who may not want to read the remaining 26.  But that is to prejudge what gems may yet emerge in later, denser chapters.

Saturday, 27 January 2018


From disability and domestic violence to retirement and vocation

Whatever the topic that Dr Samuel Wells alights on, you can be sure that, having stated the problem (if that is what it is), he will turn to a carefully chosen Bible story to find a framework within which to discuss it.  That will irritate some and reassure others.  A positive response is to sit back and let him choose his ethical framework - probably as good as any - and then join in with his examination of the themes which arise.  After all Sam Wells is too intelligent and worldly to resort to Old Testament commandments or even New Testament injunctions.  These are stories as illustrations and, whatever one makes of the person of Jesus Christ, a thoughtful twenty-first century application of them to very contemporary problems can be a useful springboard to a moral discussion - as we do at Wychwood Circle. 

A soap opera ... with everything at stake 

In his chapter on Disability, Wells turns to the story of a blind man whom Jesus heals - but he calls it a 'seven-scene drama of healing, controversy and reversal', and seen in this light it is not too far-fetched to then compare it to 'a soap opera; except with life, the universe and everything at stake'.  There are important, everyday themes about how the blind man is seen by his community as a nuisance, about prejudice and stereotyping, about personal responsibility versus structural injustice, about empowerment.  Then there is the deeper metaphor of what it is 'to see' and to know and the whole discussion - as we have touched on several times in recent months - as to what reality is and how to discover it.  As the author says in his three-part analysis:
[And] the third level is a journey that makes sense of why many disabled people see their lives as more fulfilling than a conventional life.  It's about empowerment and vocation, about subversion and wisdom, about what only the blind can see and only the intellectually impaired can know. 

Being human in retirement

Sam Wells comes at Retirement from his own experience of management studies and the Four Stages of Work. In essence he wants to empathise with those who don't know when it's time to go - or if they do know they are reluctant to make the move: 
'If I don't come to work I don't know who I am - all I have left is the unresolved issues in my home, the mirror of my own mortality, and rather less money coming in to make either more palatable.'
He also makes the point that the whole concept of retirement is still quite a new phenomenon in our human history.  No wonder it is something that can be an awkward transition, if not a source of serious depression.  How nice, you might think, to find that his biblical illustration this time is 'the story and doctrine of Jesus' ascension'!  The starting point is: 'Jesus stopped because he'd finished'.  Or had he? Well, for the Christian, according to Wells:
Salvation remains today what it was on Ascension Day.  Not a life without disappointment, a life without discomfort, a life without disillusionment; but a life with a faith to look back on, a hope to look forward to, and a love to live. 

Entering fully into the more mundane aspects of life 

For Christians and non-Christians alike, though, there are some useful and applicable points:  you, as a human, 'don't have to get it all done, you don't have to leave it all tidy, you don't have to ensure it for ever remains just the way it is now.'  After all, the incarnation is about (amongst other things) being more fully human and therefore 'entering fully into the more mundane aspects of human life'.  And this, he says, is what retirement is about: 
You haven't got a mask to put on each day to protect yourself from your fragile reflection in the mirror.  But you are as fully alive as you ever were, as fully human as a young graduate starting out on a career. 
So it could mean a whole new beginning; it must be about the future, not about looking back. In fact there is a Japanese tradition that sees a whole new cycle of life beginning at 61! The question, asked by the two men in white robes when Jesus could no longer be seen, is a good one and a challenge, sooner or later, for all of us:  'Why do you stand looking upward towards heaven?'  There are new discoveries to be made, the world is full of needs to be met, and there may yet be possibilities of transformation, for us and for the communities around us. 

To join us on Sunday February 11th as we discuss Part 2, 'Being Human', of Sam Wells' book, please email for details. 

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

BEING HUMAN - book discussion

PART TWO: 'BEING HUMAN' - a discussion based on the 9 short chapters of this second of three parts in Sam Wells' book  

Our February event takes the form of an informal discussion on the themes aired in this book by Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin in the Fields in London, academic and theologian.  His approach is that of an experienced Christian pastor and preacher, but our own discussions can range far and wide.  

Attendance does require a commitment to read the relevant chapters.  Please email to be included. 

Tuesday, 9 January 2018



A not very nice word usefully describes the verbal malaise which we are living through.  Evan Davis of BBC2's Newsnight and formerly of the Radio 4 Today programme wrote a book last year called 'POST-TRUTH - Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It'.  

One possible source for this infelicitous phrase is a former speechwriter for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who in turn may have got it - in this context - from the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurter in the 1980s, who later wrote 'On Bullshit' (2005). The speechwriter, John Lovett, describes it as 'one of the greatest threats we face' and one is inclined to agree. It may have been common for some years but in the UK it certainly reached its peak in the 2016 referendum lies, counter-lies, widely disseminated misinformation and (consequent?) distrust of experts. Now anyone from presidents to prime ministers is routinely expected to mouth at best half-truths and at worst blatant verifiable untruths. 

Economical with the truth?

The 'common but simplistic' definition of bullshit, as Davis has it, is 'to talk nonsense to someone, typically in an attempt to deceive them'. As someone who, having started out as an academic economist, has now for several years interviewed politicians and other public figures as part of his job as a journalist, Davis is well-placed to go on, as he does in his book, to examine the concept further and in a number of contexts. Examples include the defense in the Soham murder trial in 2002, claims by scientists about CFC gases and the ozone layer, statements made by paid public figures to advertise products, the Spycatcher case (1986) where Sir Robert Armstrong was 'economical with the truth', and, much more recently, predictions of the effect of Brexit on the UK economy. 

A key point Davis makes early on is that, while there are undoubtedly facts - and falsehoods - which may or may not appear straightforward, we do in fact very often have to make a judgement in deciding what is a fact and what to believe. We may weigh up the probabilities, the evidence, the source or speaker, their motivation, the scope for interpretation, and so on, but things are rarely as straightforward as banal facts, such as 'the sun is shining'. 

Non-factual, post-factual or afactual

'The essence of bullshit', according to Frankfurter, 'is not that it is false but that it is phony.'  If he got here in the 20th century, says Davis, he was ahead of his time in 'capturing some of the silliness of twenty-first century public discourse'. Davis' book is illuminating for the light it sheds on a broad variety of 'non-factual (or post-factual or afactual) discourse': he identifies a number of different forms in which we have got used to statements - and sometimes actions - which are factually misleading, including:
  • the near-lie: using the right words to give a wrong impressions
  • selective facts
  • spin: a favourable interpretation of the facts
  • deception through delusion
And then the numerous examples of plausible statement where facts are actually irrelevant:
  • empty assertion (not false but meaningless)
  • obfuscation (true but irrelevant)
  • gibberish and gratuitously complex language

What about experts?

The more one considers these multiplying examples the more it is tempting to think that nothing has changed.  People have always exaggerated, obfuscated, twisted the truth - from conversations in the pub to advertisers and politicians. But has it in fact got worse, and does it matter?  And what about that notorious phrase used by Michael Gove in the EU Referendum in the UK: 'people have had enough of experts'? 

Truth and trust - and do they matter?

We are lucky in the Wychwoods to have ex-Marine and Oxford philosopher Tom Simpson on hand on Sunday 14th January to help us think through this maze or malaise, and consider in depth the issue on which he has specialised in his research: that of Trust.  Join us at Wychwood Library at 7pm.  Free entry - retiring collection to cover expenses.