JUST a little Christianity this week: the story in The
Guardian that "A group of Churches has called for an urgent
overhaul of the Government's benefits sanctions regime, describing
it as punitive, inhumane and un-Christian. The Churches say the
sanctions regime deliberately causes harm to claimants, and suggest
that it is aimed more at cutting welfare payments rather than
helping people back into work."
Nothing very remarkable there, you may think, until you look
into the detail of the "group of Churches" involved. They are "the
Church of Scotland, the Church in Wales, the Methodist Church, the
Baptist Union of Great Britain, and the United Reformed Church, as
well as the charity Church Action on Poverty."
To a newsdesk, this list is - forgive me - the epitome of worthy
but dull. I must have binned a hundred press releases or more
rather than waste energy trying to interest a news editor in
It's possible that Patrick Butler, who wrote the story, is just
a more persuasive journalist than I am. But I'd prefer to think
that what's really happening here is an illustration of the way in
which the collective news sense of the media works like the human
immune system: it recognises only what it has seen before. You have
to present a foreign protein to it again and again until it
recognises it and generates antibodies, which will, from then on,
fix on to some feature on the coating of the story and attempt to
In this case, it appears that "Churches attack government cuts"
now stimulates an automatic response, and it doesn't matter which
Churches or which cuts. This is a bit unfortunate for the clergy
who want to provoke thought rather than reaction.
It's doubly unfortunate for the bishops of the Church of
England, who really don't want to be thought of as revolutionary
scourges of the Establishment - especially as the immediate
counter-attack is always to point out that they are revolutionaries
with palaces, chauffeur-driven cars, and seats in the House of
Lords. But that's showbusiness, I'm afraid.
OTHERWISE, there was the fascinating matter of Mohammed Emwazi,
or "Jihadi John", and what turned him into a young man who could
cut throats on camera. I was at an interfaith event in Bradford the
night before The Washington Post identified him, and both
the Christian and the Muslim speakers said enlightening things from
I quote from memory. The Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Revd Toby
Howarth, said that we had to understand that the jihadi narrative
was hugely attractive to young men: the video clips of the Paris
killers loping down the street, pausing to shoot a policeman, and
then driving easily away, might have come straight from a video
game. There is a part of every adolescent which yearns for that
kind of untouchable immunity, especially as a member of a similarly
entitled gang, and in prosperous peacetime societies it comes to
Shaykh Fuad Nahdi, meanwhile, simply observed that life for an
observant Muslim teenager in Britain was really, really boring: "No
sex, no alcohol, no rock and roll."
That means, of course, that the counter-measures must themselves
work within the imagination. Intellectual argument won't do. What's
needed is something that unpicks the pictures, or untells the
Malise Ruthven, writing in The New York Review of
Books, has some fascinating examples of the jihadi imagination
and the apocalyptic imagery that flourishes within it: "There are
nearly fifty references to 'the Hour' or the 'Appointed Time' in
the Koran and the signs by which it can be recognized are manifold
and abundant: 'Piety will give way to pride and truth to lies,
while licentious practices such as music, drinking of wine, usury,
adultery, homosexuality, and the obedience of men to their wives
will pre- vail. Sex will be performed in public places, cousin
marriage will give way to extrafamilial unions, and there will be
no Imam to lead the faithful in prayer. . .'
"For jihadists, such signs are rife in the Middle East
Ruthven goes on to write: "The parallels between this ideology
and the beliefs adopted by Christian fundamentalists known as
'premillennial dispensationalists', who expect all born-again
Christians to be 'raptured' or physically transported to heaven
while others perish in earthly mayhem, are so strong that it is
hard to escape the conclusion that they draw on the same ancient
reservoir of Near Eastern myth.
"In the Muslim version a great wind will take the souls of the
believers, before the trumpet sounds and all are resurrected to
face divine judgment."
Damian Thompson at the Telegraph used to argue with
great force that the appeal of millennial fantasies to Charismatic
Christians in the 1990s derived largely from the fact that they
were so much more interesting than the prospect of the world going
on as usual. The part played by boredom in the genesis of horror
should not be underestimated.