Teachers inhabiting the curriculum

This is the first “play” with some ideas that I want eventually to turn into something more serious. It is based on some simple (simplistic?) thinking I have needed to do to help new teachers find a way of linking the way they see themselves as teachers with the motives and longings that brought them into teaching in the first place and the types of curriculum they want to teach and mediate to the children (whoever they are and however we have learnt to view them) that they teach.

It presupposes that most teachers have feelings about the curriculum – that it is too rigid, too child-led, too teacher-led, too didactic, not didactic enough, too objective, not objective enough, too skills-based, not skills-based enough, etc. Some teachers feel that the curriculum is too much like “delivery” and not enough like “relationship.” Some feel that it is too geared to end of KS2 SATS, and others that it is not geared enough to them (though I have not met one of the latter very recently!)

Most seem to start their journey towards being teachers by seeing the curriculum as external to them rather than something that they inhabit. It is, in the common view, a body of knowledge to be transmitted. This is the case particularly for disciplines or subjects like maths, music and science, which are seen as somehow external to the teacher (as opposed to language, which is generally already “inhabited”). I have a sense, after talking to some of the new PG primary intake, that some teachers would like to inhabit, rather than simply teach the curriculum, if they could find a way to do so. Most of course, at this stage of the PG year, are just trying to get to grips with the fact that there is a curriculum, and are less concerned about its nature.

Thus this term it has become clear that one of the obstacles to inhabiting the curriculum, or even stepping into the stream where theories of curriculum compete, is a feeling of overwhelming confusion not unlike wading into a sweet shop blindfolded. There are good things there, to be sure, but the location, shape and purpose of what they find, never mind its relationship to other curricular theories, is uncertain.

Navigating one’s way through the learning theories that govern pedagogical and curricular foundations and choices is hard. Theories persist because all have some validity, some application, or some urgent political currency (the present focus on decolonising the curriculum – whatever that actually means – is one). I am strongly reminded of Oakeshott’s insistence that the teacher’s role is to ensure that we liberate students from the tyranny of the present in order to allow them access to and respect of what constitutes their inheritance. Thus I have tended to side with those who see the postmodern critical studies movement in curriculum as valid only to the extent that they accept the reality of the inheritance to start with. Where I would side strongly with those who want to decolonise the curriculum is around the issue of a highly biased reading of history and literature that has never truly acknowledged the role education played in colonisation. Thus even an august body like the National Society, seeking to educate the poor in the 19th century, was necessarily captive to an enlightenment-sourced curriculum accepting the rightness of the Victorian social order and the policy of imperialist colonisation. Any curriculum that is “patriotic” has to ask itself whether it values the lives of British people (over, for instance, French or Germans in the wars between 1750 and 1945) or European people (over, for instance the lives of Indians, Africans and Chinese during the period of colonisation). Patriotism has eventually to run into the higher construct of justice.

I suspect today that many teachers entering the profession are open to these ideas, but given the content and emphases of the Primary National Curriculum, find themselves unable to find an opening to deal with them. The ban in some states on the teaching of critical race theory is a transatlantic expression of the same problem. Children need to think critically, but a curriculum also needs to teach them how to love and desire and to give them reasons for that too.

Teachers, before making identity-informed (or identity-forming!) decisions about the type of curriculum that they feel competent and suited to teach, also have to negotiate their own primary teacher identity, since that will impact on how they approach the curriculum, and above all their perception and beliefs (and prejudices) of what children are for, and how we are to regard them.

This latter point has to consider the past (how we see children as beloved/raised, created/evolved, individual/socialised/familial, etc) but also the future, in the bildung sense of the word, of the children we are teaching. How do we see children as influenced by their world and how do we see them as impacting their world?

Bearing in mind that the slides here are taken from the very first encounter, on the very first day, of a complex course, by a large and diverse group of postgraduate teaching students – given all that, it seems to me that we can’t make much progress as teachers approaching the curriculum until we have worked out satisfactory answers to these questions.

I owe a lot of this thinking to Zongyi Deng at UCL (for which, thanks!) but readers of this blog will recognise that they are fundamentally my concerns too. To dismiss all the postmodern and critical theories of curriculum (without which several scholarly journals would be completely lost) in a single slide is unfair, but the context demanded a severe reduction and some personal choices (and sacrifices of emphasis). However, the direction of travel I have learned to appreciate in curriculum is in there, and in plumping for a Bildung-centred Didaktik rooted ultimately in a higher purpose of education than one that is merely instrumental, cultural or economic, I betray my prejudices.

On the need for inspiration and the occasional folk-hero

Been thinking through snippets of a day yesterday where I was challenged to inspire teachers-to-be in their learning, encouraged to develop curricular thinking that defines the sort of teachers we want to see emerge from our courses, and utterly discouraged by the inability of a government reshuffle to inspire anything more potent than a wet paper bag.

All these came together as I watched the end of S6 E12 of the West Wing. Entitled 365 Days, its central theme is the deliberate juxtaposition of, firstly, a thoughtful re-envisioning of a group of senior staff at the White House (led by the returning Leo McGarry) and secondly, the needs-and-issues-led activity whirl that has consumed those same staff, focusing on details but in the process feeling like they had lost the main reason for doing so..

It is moving in this episode to see the child-like political longings of senior political figures given space and voice by an experienced leader, encouraging his president (earlier in the episode) that for the pair of them this is their last play of the game, so let’s “leave it all out on the field” and encouraging the senior staff “to effect more change in one day in this place” than they will ever be able to once they have left the government. A similar role for McGarry is seen in the episode entitled Let Bartlet be Bartlet (S1, E19), and I have discussed that here.

Being able to inspire those around you with a purpose-led vision of what you are all here to do, and finding ways of enabling the longings of each one to find expression in that vision, is a great leadership art. Our current government doesn’t have it. The last significant political leader to do this for us as a country was Tony Blair in the early days of his first term in 1997, and he very quickly found ways of not enabling the longings of the electorate to find a home in his vision.

Carl Medearis, in his book Speaking of Jesus, talks about a time when he was in Basra in 2003, sharing the gospel with Iraqis in that great but appallingly war-torn city. The wonderful story he tells from that time hinges on the reaction of a family of Iraqis he encounters in his hotel when he tells them that “we think Isa (Jesus) is in this city, and we’ve come to look for him.” What it showed Medearis was that Jesus to these people was a folk hero, somebody just like them who did wonderful things and who inspired them to goodness and faith.

Life of Jesus (Gospel of John) - English

It has been a long time since Jesus was spoken of as a folk hero in any sermon that I have heard. The sheer ability of this man to inspire the people he came into contact with is shown by the exasperated Pharisees’ comment in John 12:19 “Look, this is getting us nowhere; the whole world has gone after him.”

And yet in the way we instrumentalise Jesus, making him simply a source of our salvation, of our flourishing, of “freedom” (variously defined) for us means that we take away from our ability to know him leading us as a leader, inspiring us as followers, showing us the endgame and the glory that he has come to bring about, teaching us the ways of discipleship and putting us to work in his great community of love, the church, where we would willingly pick up the tools he gives us and get to work, so that all things may one day be restored.

Ein Wahlkampf für die Zukunft

Oliver Moody has written a really interesting and useful valedictory piece to Angela Merkel in yesterday’s Sunday Times. As well as being a helpful overview of what made this remarkable woman tick (my favourite quote from Merkel in the piece is “When men get ahead, that’s the natural course of things, but when a woman succeeds in politics, then you’ll find assassinated men lying all along the wayside of her road to power”), the article is a helpful reflection on what might come afterwards and what would be needed to make it work. The Germans go to the polls in 3 weeks, on the 26 September, the same day as (this year) the European Day of Languages, which might be a meaningful coincidence for those of us who love Germany and want her to succeed as a democratic nation, but who also love Europe and its linguistic diversity.

https://time.com/4138718/time-person-of-the-year-angela-merkel-official-photographer/
Chancellor Merkel welcomes G7 heads of states shortly before the summit’s official start

At a time when the idiocy of the post-Brexit conservatives and their appalling approach to the pandemic has left virtually everything they came into contact with worse off, Merkel has been both a bastion of a civilised approach to running a large country, and a model to be emulated of how to build political relationships that count. There has been no bluster – it is not in the nature of her character to bluster – but there has been boldness. Talking to German friends since the absorption of a million refugees in 2015, I am amazed by two things – the extent to which many have been well integrated into the language and life of their host nation, and how many of those same friends have given up time and talent to support that, to welcome and help integrate new families, to open their schools and volunteer organisations to bless and encourage those who are new and in need.

Moody makes the point that Merkel was and is no ideologue, but rather a principled leader taking a flexible and thoughtful policy approach to a changing nation. Not everything has gone right for her, by any means, but Moody argues that the following four principles go a way to explaining both Merkel’s consciousness and German domestic and foreign policy over the 16 years of her leadership:

  1. Liberal democracy is a precious thing, and far more vulnerable than most of its adherents dare to imagine.
  2. Modern society is a battleground of competing interests and a real leader’s job is not to pick a single side but to try to meld them all together into something coherent and acceptable to the majority of citizens.
  3. Freedom and capitalism are the twin engines of progress but neither is an absolute good, and both must be moderated to protect the individual.
  4. Europe and the wider world are intrinsically unstable and precarious places whose best hope of security resides in dialogue, rules and compromise.

Annette Schavan, a close political ally of Merkel’s maintains that: “This is the first period in Europe’s history when peace and integration have actually succeeded, but it always remains — and she’s experienced this in all these crises — a fragile thing you have to take care of that won’t stay strong of its own accord, that you need to keep fighting for anew, over and over again.”

Moody interprets Merkel’s attitude to Europe and to Brexit through this lens. Certainly, thinking about how her actions and these principles match up, you can see the threads in the actions. Listening to the lament in her voice as she addressed the German people about the rise in Covid cases earlier this year demonstrated an honesty and a realism not matched by anyone in the British government. The things we value and work for, if this government is to be believed (and it is not, of course) centre around British greatness, British exceptionalism, a particular take on “freedom” and our self-understanding as a world-influencing nation constantly punching above our weight. The Tory government’s response to many of the events of the last 2 years – the proroguing of parliament, the management of Brexit, the Covid pandemic and the withdrawal from Afghanistan to name four of the most critical – have hacked into the first two of those “value-concepts,” trivialised the third to the point of selfishness, and damaged the fourth even in the eyes of British voters. And that doesn’t even begin to address the damage done by Boris Johnson to the union.

So to see a woman leading a country, aware of and working hard to sustain (or mitigate) the best (or worst) features of the principles above is a privilege that Germany will look back in awe upon in the future. This is not the “security” offered by Margaret Thatcher (though as statesperson and leader she makes the current occupant of Downing Street look like a child), but a measured, collegiate, compassionate and rational way to run a country in the 21st century.

I will miss her, and wish Germany the very best in the future.

Virtues in the church: some learning models from educational research (2)

Following on from an earlier post, this post seeks to complete the exploration of a 2019 paper by Bram de Muynck (and a companion paper appearing later this year, co-authored with Bram Kunz) dealing with the professional virtues that teachers can gain from studying historical figures and texts. The angle I am taking on the two papers is to apply the five theoretical approaches covered in the papers to the life of the church congregation, specifically their growth in virtue and the way that that learning is applied. The first three approaches (Model Learning Theory, Drama, and Mastery and Excellence) were dealt with in part 1 of this essay. Here I deal with the approaches described by De Muynck (2019) as resolving the dissonance or boundary crossing (his latter is the term used in De Muynck & Kunz, 2021), and the approach to learning which is evoked through imagining the historical person and allowing ourselves to be transformed by that imagination within the current context.

Both approaches are important to in the way we think about being disciples in the world today: both address the difficulty of taking inspiring learning, significant texts, of godly actions from historical figures and applying them to the situation we are living in. Both approaches can help us, I think, in working with the Bible, with significant texts from Christian thought, with the lives of the saints, and with current incidences of Christians living under pressure or persecution in contexts completely different from our own.

4. Resolving the Dissonance

This approach deals principally with how our identity, as learner (and as Christian, since we are all learners by definition), relates to the resolution of perceived differences. We are trying to grow in virtue. That is simply not an external thing, like a coat we wear. It involves our identity. As De Muynck (2019: 320) puts it

Developing a virtue is an authentic process in which a person expresses her or his personal touch. Professional virtues are not shown by the protocol-wise emulation of another’s behaviour, but by personally responding to the requirements of a situation.

Tom Wright, in his book Scripture and the Authority of God (2005) likens our use of scripture to writing a last act to an unfinished Shakespearean play. This is helpful. We cannot deviate from the planned intent of the first three or four acts, but there is a degree of improvisation that we have to enact in order both to make those first acts relevant and meaningful to those watching the play. We have to ‘be ourselves’ within the overview of scriptural authority and the recorded life of the saints and of Jesus himself, not least because, as Oscar Wilde said, ‘everyone else is taken.’ Imitation is not enough. We have to learn from and with our texts and role models, understanding them differently to our historical figures and thus being required to act differently. There is a cognitive dissonance between what the learner is seeking to achieve in his or her walk with God, and that which is yet to be achieved. This is a dissonance we all live in, whether we are ‘at peace’ with God or not. It is the restless motor of self-improvement that comes from us being imagining creatures, but it is informed by the experience and walk of those who went before us.

Resolving this dissonance can be done through a reflection on Romans 14. Paul here thoroughly contextualises his beliefs within a foreign and curious culture where the Jewish constraints on eating meat and Sabbath observation collide unceremoniously with a wide range of Roman Christian responses to food and the use a day could be put to. A bit like mask wearing in post-lockdown days, all sorts of judgments were made about one another based on their eating and Sabbath keeping habits. So in seeking to help his congregation resolve this dissonance, Paul resorts to some guiding principles that will help Roman Christians navigate the issue faithfully: accept him whose faith is weak is the first principle (v 1a) closely followed by don’t quarrel over disputable matters (v 1b). These are rooted in the humbling of the ‘strong’ in order to serve the weak, and the overarching commands of 14:19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification and 15:7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. Tom Wright’s interesting case studies on Sabbath and monogamy in Scripture and the Authority of God are other examples of this kind of applied learning.

Hebrews 11 is full of this. Those who walked with God in the millennia before us, saw a future community of faith and love, a ‘city’ if you will, that motivated them and brought them closer in both understanding and character to God. The way that they resolved the difference was often by enacting: building a city, erecting a tabernacle, building a temple, extending the rule of God through conquest of surrounding nations, living life as a hermit, creating monastic communities – the list goes on. Not many of these attained the perfection they were seeking, and that is exactly what the writer to Hebrews is trying to say. But they were genuine attempts to put the vision that God had shared with them into some sort of practice. It is exactly what I was trying to do at Christ the Sower. I knew that I would never reach a perfect school community – that is impossible, obviously, not least because it was I who was doing the motivating! – but it didn’t stop me trying to draw the contours of what a community of love, faith and hope might look like.

Each church fellowship will have a way of putting this into practice. They start with the acknowledgement of God’s sovereign power and their own sinfulness and weakness, but then see what can be done, with the people and resources at their disposal, that mirrors the vision of the perfect city. Within the contours of their theology and scriptural understanding, a direction will emerge for them to strive towards, living within the cognitive dissonance, and resolving it step by step in their learning journey.

5. Historical Imagination

The imagination that is necessary to ‘see’ the vision of the city of God and the community of love and faith that works and worships in it extends both ways. Here we are in the ‘what would Jesus do’ world of faithfully transporting ourselves backwards to a time where we have to imagine it realistically enough to inform our learning (and this requires language study, exegesis, hermeneutics, historical exploration and all the other disciplines that we don’t often have time for, but which we leave to ‘professional Christians’); but also in the world of faithfully transporting noted historical figures to the present day, to our circumstances, and seeing what they might do, imaginatively.

This is fraught with difficulties. John Henry Newman joined the Catholic church for a number of reasons, but one was that he saw it as the church that Augustine would have recognised as most like the ‘original church’. It is pretty disputable that the Roman church in the 400s was anything like the early Christian communities of 1st century Palestine, but I mention this as an example of the sort of thing we try and do. Arthur Wallis, in his Radical Christian attempted a similar exercise, from a Brethren perspective, about what the original church looked like, in order to justify certain authoritarian practices in the Restoration movement.

These efforts are pretty futile, because we don’t have enough information. In De Muynck’s treatment of the historical imagination (p.321), he describes his own time at Bethel in Bielefeld, allowing his own imagination to touch that of the life of Von Bodelschwingh, whom he was studying, and this is a much more productive idea. A good friend of mine visited Luther’s places of ministry in Germany and Calvin’s Geneva in order to absorb and root his imagination in what he wanted to – needed to – learn from these two men. Seeing Jan Komensky’s statue in Prague did the same for me, sparking a life-long interest in his work and practice. This is more than just visiting Graceland to learn about Elvis. It is a concerted effort to understand and absorb the greatness of the person, through profound exercise of our historical imagination:

The process of imagination elicits new desires in the direction of the habitus of the historical person or strengthens the student’s desire to acquire the excellence of the historical person (De Muynck, 2019:321)

We are here in the world of pilgrimage, of attending places or travelling to places that will help us focus on those virtues that we find deeply attractive in the person but through a process of historical imagination. This is not dissimilar to a Bandurian identification, but uses the power of place to bring us closer in time. To that extent it is entering into what Mikhail Bakhtin called a chronotope, the deep sediment of a culture. De Muynck’s use of the word habitus describes a similar sediment. Those engaging in pilgrimage almost automatically access the past imaginatively, reenacting certain liturgies or practices. This can be a great help for a church desiring to exercise its imagination in growing closer to Jesus’ intention for them.

With the scriptures, we are in a different territory, and the practices we use in church might be closer to lectio divina and the Ignatian questioning of a story by immersion. These deliberately enact the imagination in an attitude of submissive enquiry after God.


Both of these two learning models are alive and well in Christian churches, and thoughtful leaders already use them. Whether they are used as part of a corporate body-learning by the whole church, I don’t know. In our western world, it is often the individuals (the keen ones!) that access this kind of learning, go on retreats and pilgrimages, etc. Less so the whole church as a body.

For these two models, and the three that preceded them in De Muynck’s paper, it seems to me that there must be an explicit link made by pastors and church leaders: “these are five ways we can learn as a whole church, paying attention to our lives and to the quality of relationships between us and thus our ministry to the world.” This explicit articulation of our learning, a form of spiritual training that Dallas Willard saw as essential to the whole church as it seeks to become formed in the likeness of Jesus, needs to be front, centre and communal if it is not to be counted as the sort of teaching that falls on the pavement and gets eaten up by the birds.

On rhizomatic thinking

Earlier in August I made a vain attempt to uproot an area about two foot square of the rhizomatic mat that sustains my lily of the valley patch. This is less a patch than it is a factory: a concerted propagation zone that sends lily of the valley off on its subterranean way to colonise any space at all that is not otherwise occupied in the garden – and quite a few bits that are already occupied. I learnt that, like mint, you don’t just plant one lily of the valley and hope to keep it that way. Like western Christendom, it has an urge to colonise and drive out the original inhabitants.

At the start of July, I got into a good fiery debate with one of my friends who is a lecturer at York St John University. She sees herself as a monist: for her all things are interconnected at a spiritual level and (I imagine) flow into and out of each other, without fixed (or any) boundaries. For the first time in quite a while I was cast as a dualist, a label I have worked hard at distancing myself from, because to my friend, I acknowledged that God as an entity was external to me. We went at it hammer and tongs based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what each other saw as dualism. For her, it was the proposition that not all things were one and interrelated; for me, it is the attempt to get rid of the sacred-secular divide in Christian thinking, and the platonic and Manichean philosophy that underlies it. Seeing myself as one with God would make me Hindu, not Christian.

But it was a useful tussle, if only because my Christianity, verging on being more mystical and less propositional than it was 30 years ago, is open to the interrelatedness of things. The older I have got, the richer has been my understanding that the natural world is deeply interrelated. When Carl Mika spoke about the Maori interrelatedness of people and land, earlier this year, it didn’t threaten my understanding of nature and life, but seemed a reasonable perspective from a people whose attachment to land has no room for a concept of ownership. Yes there is a creation-creator divide, but it is I think more blurred than we like to imagine in western evangelical circles.

These debates underpinned some of the discussions held at the annual conference of the International Network for the Study of Spirituality (INSS), particularly by Oliver Robinson from the University of Greenwich, whose paper and book exploring the route out of modernity to a “trans-modernity” addressed the problem many feel about the limits of modernity (but who can’t for whatever reason accept a Christian solution to those same limits).

Rhizomatic thinking and learning was coined and given some context in a book by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and developed in particular by the Canadian academic Dave Cormier. I find it absolutely descriptive of what happens in my mind, and some of the connections I have found the most helpful in many of these blog posts have come directly from the “reach” that my mind makes, particular through the use of metaphor, into areas that are otherwise highly divergent. But it goes beyond the individual mind into collections of minds, as described from this Advance HE post:

Rhizomatic learning recognises that learning is a complex process of sense-making to which each learner brings their own context and has their own needs. It overturns conventional notions of instructional pedagogy by positing that “the community is the curriculum”; that learning is not designed around content but is instead a social process in which we learn with and from each other (Cormier 2010). In rhizomatic learning there is little structure to guide community learning learners negotiate the curriculum create and share artifacts (there is no pre-packaged content) harness personal learning networks make creative connections across traditional boundaries determine their own goals or “learning subjectives” and are not measured or graded in any traditional sense. In short rhizomatic learning is messy, unbounded and it doesn’t sit comfortably within current structures of formal education. It poses a fundamental challenge to traditional modes of thinking by re-imagining the role of the teacher removing conventional measurement frameworks and encouraging participants to adopt a mindset of unrestricted and creative inquiry

This is both uncomfortable (particularly, I suspect, for us men, for whom linear propositional thinking has become one of the norms by which we tend to live by) and liberating. It may also, as Robinson argues, be related to the way that our brain is structured. But whether uncomfortable or liberating, it is becoming increasingly important, particularly in the thinking of Rosi Braidotti (Utrecht) and posthumanist critical theory. The perception of our “human” lives as interconnected with those of other biological forms, a vision of the world without human dominance, an assault on humanist philosophy and traditional ways (including religious ones) of seeing humans in the world – these are some of the strands that make up posthumanism. It is easy to see the overlap between a rhizomatic approach to learning and thinking and the kind of posthumanist philosophy adopted by Braidotti.

This type of challenge is important to us as Christians, even if quite a lot of it is covered by what Os Guinness called the dust of death. We can’t just run into our propositional silos and reach for our copies of RA Torrey or BB Warfield. We have to be more open, because God is very big.

Light from the Orion Nebula that we can see today, left the nebula in 680AD or so, around the time that Hilda of Whitby died and the Battle of Karbala was being fought. God, and the bulk of his creation, is of a size that is designed to boggle our minds completely.

We have to live in a faithful relationship with Jesus, the enormous God in (tiny, restricted) human form, and with the Holy Spirit whose size, too is immeasurable and probably unknowable. Allowing our thinking to be faithful, rooted in the revelation of God to the world in the nation of Israel and in Jesus, and walking in love, means that we have to be open to the idea that there might just be aspects of God that we have not yet cracked!

Interestingly, for the monistic mind that sees all things as interrelated, but whose concept of spirituality does without God, there are real problems with issues like sin and broken relationships (how do you define sin?), with the concept of morality (who decides?), with authority (again, who decides?) and therefore with democracy and political structures.

But it must be possible, I think, to learn from posthumanism and communal, rhizomatic thinking, whilst remaining faithful to the revelation and the God whose authority was expressed in creation, in Jesus Christ and in the scriptures. How we do that is actually a challenge for every Christian to think hard and interpret the authority of the scriptures and God’s personal revelation to us in the increasingly difficult thought-world inhabited by the majority of people.

The logic of standardisation

Yesterday saw the end of the consultation period for the ITT Market Review. After weeks of being too livid to write anything on the consultation website, I calmed down slightly and put in my two penn’orth, answering as a private citizen rather than representing any institution. I have read extensively from others’ contributions, and have seen little anywhere, other than on the DfE and the Telegraph website, that commends this review. I have not seen any proper analysis anywhere that suggests that this is a necessity. Tinkering is always helpful, as are efforts to raise standards and to monitor those: we need an effective and imaginative teacher workforce in England. The wholesale nature of the changes, including revalidation of all institutions against very dubious “quality standards” (high quality? low quality? – it doesn’t say) – is completely unnecessary.

It was hard to write a response to something that I see as fundamentally unnecessary, a piece of political posturing and skulduggery that seeks to undermine the work done by universities and other providers of teacher education in England. It was harder because they allowed for no other assumptions in the review other than those they had built the review on. Talk about being philosophically misaligned. The questions pre-assume a view with which I constantly found myself in conflict, both politically and educationally, so it was very difficult to respond to some questions as in doing so you had to accept the premises they dictated. As I went through it, I was reminded of the Govian assaults on “the blob” in 2013.

The key issue for me is that of the insistent standardisation that comes with the cumulative effect of the Ofsted ITE framework, the Core Curriculum Framework for ITE providers and the Early Career Framework. The last mentioned is perhaps the best of the three, but all three build on the poverty of the 2013 Teachers Standards. The process of revalidation against “quality standards” is another standardisation that is both unnecessary and probably destructive.

Standardisation has its own logic, but the concept has also to function in the real world, where neither teachers nor children come as standard. And nor do school and university providers of initial teacher education, which is why I imagine the government thinks it had a problem. The stress on revalidation in the review and consultation is all about levelling the playing field in order to exert more control. The timeline (about which much has ben written) is again all about jumping people into a new arrangement fast.

In the standardisation of teaching and curriculum in England, there is a zone where ‘standardisation’ of provision (that which can be legitimately argued for, legislated for and properly funded) meets the standardisation of practice, which deprofessionalises teachers and reduces teaching to ‘delivery.’ The logic of standardisation as articulated by the current government (and the one before) unfortunately, pushes into that boundary, insisting that everything that can be standardized across a system, should be. It takes considerable political subtlety to manage this boundary. The reasons for standardisation have to be carefully argued, and the vision of children, schools and community inherent in the standardisation, carefully articulated or challenged. This political subtlety is not a feature of the present government, and so the motivation of centralised control, dressed in a national economic costume, behind all their actions is clearer to see.

The trouble with standardisation is that its internal motor will be to standardise everything. It cannot bear for there to be an intellectual line of enquiry or evidence base that falls outside of its need to standardise and control. Children are standardised, and if they are below or above standard, then interventions are put in place to make them more standard. Teachers are standardised through the teachers’ standards and the ECF, and now the “ITT market review” seeks to standardise for its own sake, as a political tool to shift the direction of thinking towards de-intellectualising the role of the teacher and to make it more of a set of skills to be delivered in the classroom. This is not new. It is merely the latest assault on teaching as a profession, a lost neoliberal trope looking for a home.

Big skies

These pictures are probably enough to evoke what I want to say in this post.

In one of the essays that Laurie Lee wrote in I Can’t Stay Long he talks about the skies in the Netherlands that are complete, the sky filling all the space available. I remember meeting a man in Skegness in 2005 who talked about his wife who was from the Fens. They had married and gone to live in Yorkshire, but she felt claustrophobic and needed “more sky,” so they returned to Cambridgeshire and lived on the Fens, so her soul could breathe again.

Paddy Ashdown spoke about this too: he came from what he called the “eggs in a basket” countryside of Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, and arrived as a young man on the Cheshire Plain. He had never imagined such flatness, such sky. The first thing I feel whenever I drive out of Peterborough and up the A47 to Wisbech is the sense that the sky has been restored to its full majesty, and the land retreated to being merely a decorative edge to the main event.

We spend as much time as we can along the North Norfolk coast, swimming when warm enough, walking when not. One beach, accessed from Thornham Old Harbour, appears in the pictures here, and no photo that I take can ever describe the big sky feeling I get simply by standing in the marshes or between the tides. These are skies destined to speak of God’s sovereignty and to make us as humans feel very small. Villages and settlements seem to take on the character of a refuge for humans from the awesome expression of bigness that these skies convey, the low-towered churches like hunched shoulders as a village adopts the role of protection for travellers.

These skies either require my complete silence, allowing the birds to sing and cry, and the waves and wind to enact their call and response, or they need something majestic, the overture to Tannhauser or the 3rd movement of Sibelius 5, to roar as soundtrack.

It is becoming clearer than ever this summer that we have largely destroyed the self-sustaining beauty of the earth, something in which not all are culpable, but in which all are, at the very least, complicit. Living in the awareness that we have sinned against the earth and failed to fulfill properly the creation mandate, these skies remain as rebukes to our self-centeredness, and promises of the grace of God the Creator should we find ways to repent and make restitution for all we have done.

Ordure to manure?

The concept of street-level bureaucrats was coined by Lipsky to describe those public service leaders who have a degree of discretion in the way that they apply the policies deriving from levels above them – local and national government, principally – in order to meet the perceived needs of those they serve or have responsibility for.

In the neoliberal conjuring of the term, it also includes an unaffectionate and distant oversight combined with a vigilant apportioning of blame from the policy maker (at the centre) towards the street level bureaucrats trying to interpret and make sense of the policy for their people. Not only do street-level bureaucrats try and protect their people, they also make handy people to blame by policy-makers when things go pear-shaped (or worse).

A perfect metaphor for this, arising in conversation with a headteacher friend who I had not seen for 5 years, is that provided by the collectors of human excrement in Japan, Korea and China and their selling on of the human waste to farmers who, in FH King’s observations in 1911, had kept small plots of land fertile, organically, for 3-4000 years simply by using this method. The key is in taking the collected ordure, adding water so it becomes a liquid manure and then applying it to fields, keeping them productive without depletion. This was done out of necessity and as a function of the small acreages farmed by the vast majority of farmers.


Following the metaphor, if policy-makers are going to crap all over us, as street-level bureaucrats, then the least we can do is to find a way of turning that into fertiliser that will improve that which we have responsibility for. In the reduction and conversion of raw policy waste, and its combination with the more wholesome materials we usually use to lead people, we can perhaps use the policy-crap fruitfully. Policy intent is often bizarre, or so it seems to those using it, because of its failure to link desired outcomes to the sort of things that street-level bureaucrats can actually accomplish.

The metaphor breaks down around this point, because the whole point of early 20th century Asian farming was that human excrement is so full of goodness for the soil, it would be a crime not to use it. The same cannot be said for the policies coming from the current (or previous) governments. Their purpose, generally, is control and centralization, efficiency and money-saving, not health and fertility of their public service systems. They might say that they want to “make improvements” but rarely does this happen without the careful application by local leaders to the schools, hospitals, clinics, prisons, probation services, etc. under their care. A lot of it might be characterised as crap-without-content. Street-level bureaucrats have to work very hard and with a lot of imagination and their own resources.

But the links to the farmer model of school leadership, which I have discussed here, here and here, are obvious. A central concern of a farmer leader is the maintenance of fertility. He or she knows that each crop cannot be improved except by that which gives life and nutrition. So he or she has to find the fertilizer from somewhere and usually that is found in careful use of that which has decayed (for plant life) or excreted (for animals on the farm). The application of manufactured fertiliser and chemicals from an agribusiness is to an extent an admission of defeat, that the land cannot sustain itself.

But a farmer-leader in a school, similarly convinced, also knows that she or he cannot expect year on year to see improvements, because of the broad influence of other factors, from home, community, prior learning, pandemic and changes in the type and quality of the crap provided by local authorities and the Department for Education. Good farmer leaders recognise what makes for life and fertility and what does not. In Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s phrase, they get really good at ‘crap detecting’ – though for positive reasons not for negative ones. What sustains them more than anything is the love they enact for the children and staff in a school. They can, and do, plan for the provision of conditions (relationships, quality of teaching, depth of curriculum, structure of learning, external support and opportunities for learning beyond school, mental, spiritual and physical health) that relate in the metaphor to the tending and fertilisation of topsoil, drainage, tree cover, plenty or perennials that support the growth of a farm year on year, and the husbandry of animals in the right herd and flock numbers.


In Parker Palmer’s The Active Life, he writes about the Taoist poet’s Chuang Tzu’s poem The Woodcarver. The woodcarver, Khing, is employed by his feudal lord to make a bell stand, and in that royal and dictatorial culture, if he fails, or if the work is substandard, he dies. Mindful both of the need to conduct good work and to live and serve under his lord, Khing fasts so that he can embrace and work within the Taoist concept of wu-wei, which we can think of as right action. In the poem, Khing fasts for three days, and can then “forget gain or success.”

After five days, I had forgotten praise or criticism.

After seven days I had forgotten my body with all its limbs.

Along with this, all thought of “your highness and of the court” had faded away. “All that might distract me from the work had vanished. I was collected in the single thought of the bell stand.”

Eventually, Khing goes to the wood, and comes upon the right tree, sees the bell stand within it, puts out his hand and begins work on the carving. He knows that if he had not found the right tree, there would be no bell stand. The fasting allowed him to see that, and to produce the work.

What Khing has found, and what those seeking to convert policy-crap into a nutritious life for their charges can find, is the ability to know where life comes from, and that it can be sustained through practices in schools that allow it to arise. This is part of the farmer-leader’s provision. Those who pour the policy-crap onto our surprised heads are nothing, of no account, compared with the life-giving and life-sustaining work we are called to. The challenge of the farmer-leader is to find imaginative ways of using what comes in the night-soil bucket to enrich his or her school…

Virtues in the church: some learning models from educational research (1)

This post follows on directly from the one I wrote recently on professional virtues for teachers. I applied it to teachers because the original paper from which the ideas came, by Bram de Muynck (TU Apeldoorn and Driestar Educatief, Gouda) was geared towards the appropriation by teachers of professional virtues learnt from historic figures and embed into their practice, specifically during the fourth year of a four year teaching degree.

How this embedding could be done was the purpose of the paper, and as I have both a strong interest in the formation of teachers as well as how ordinary Christians in ordinary churches learn to follow Jesus, I found the paper of more than simple educational interest. It has a contribution to make to the theme of discipleship, and can inform and be informed by the work of Jeff Astley, David Smith and JKA Smith (amongst others) who have tried to unpack the processes by which Christians in education are formed into the likeness of Jesus, whether within the educational institution (David Smith) or within the church (JKA Smith) or both (Astley).

When we are considering the formation of Christians within a generally hostile culture (most cultures are, to some degree, hostile to the Christian life, so the process is widely applicable), we have to cede the authorship and development of Christian character within the disciple largely to the work of Jesus Christ within us, by the agency of the Holy Spirit, acting upon the scriptures, times of worship, prayer, confession and all the other Christian disciplines laid out 40 years ago for us in Richard Foster’s wonderful and seminal Celebration of Discipline. The work of transforming us into his likeness is, as Watchman Nee (Nee of Foochow) wrote in Transformed into His Likeness, mostly a work of our getting out of the way, adopting a position of humility and worship and expectation, and giving God the glory for any changes that occur.

I write this because to say that we can effect our own formation into the likeness of Jesus is actually a heresy, and assigns more value to our efforts than they merit. It is neither an action of the self, and nor is it a work of the individual. The work of Christian virtue-building is both corporate, a work of the whole church brought to bear upon each other’s virtuous lives, and sovereign, a work of God acting within us to form us in the likeness of his Son. As Paul wrote to Philippians: He who began a good work in you will carry if on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (1:6).

But there is, clearly, work for us to do. The New Testament is not shy of bossing Christians into the actions needed to grow in their virtue. Peter commands the scattered believers reading his second letter, to “make every effort to add to your faith goodness….” The writer to the Hebrews commands her hearers: “See to it that nobody misses the grace of God.” Paul, to the Ephesians this time, writes: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received,” whilst urging the Romans to “offer their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” I could go on. This is not, as some immature evangelicals would have it, salvation by works: it is the responsible and responsive life of somebody who knows that he or she has been bought with a price and owes everything to the one who bought him or her. We work out (enact and make meaningful) our salvation in fear and trembling.

The problem for us is that we live in a very different learning culture from that of the early church. In fact, we live in a different learning culture from that which informed Christians even 30 years ago, never mind 50 years ago, as the charismatic movement got under way, or when Thomas Merton was showing is the way to live contemplatively in the west. The role of church traditions, of historic role models, of ancient texts – all of these have shifted away from the consciousness of young people with the advent of pop culture, curricular changes and the rise of the internet.

Reading Bram De Muynck’s paper gave rise to a biblical reflection whereby his “matrix of five theories” that I discussed in the earlier blog post might be refracted through the scriptures on formation, and as they were so refracted, might give rise to some practices that would help Christians in churches find better ways of learning to be more like Jesus.

At least, that’s the idea! Here is a summary diagram of the matrix:

The fields are De Muynck’s, both from the paper I mentioned but also from a book chapter that is coming out later this year (De Muynck, A. and Kunz, A.J. (2021), Having a great thinker as a companion: Toward a didactical framework for studying core texts at the last stage of teacher education. In Brooks, E., Cohen de Lara, E., Sánchez-Ostiz, A., & Torralba, J.M., Literature and Character Education in Universities: Exploring Core Texts from across the Disciplines, pp. 59-76. New York: Routledge). The bracketed parts are my own.

So, to some analysis. This might be quite lengthy and stretch into a second post, or even a third.

  1. Model Learning, Observation and Imitation

The model learning theory of Bandura (the yellow circle above) is centred on close observation and imitation, not that different from the rabbinic idea of discipleship. We watch those who we want to be like or be inspired by, and then we follow them by doing the same things, or the same things to the extent our context allows. This is shown in such Pauline expressions as “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (I Corinthians 11:1) or “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice” (Philippians 4:9). For the church, this is a case of looking both to biblical models of the reflection of Jesus, and those who we see today who reflect Him most fully in their own lives. Robert MacSwain’s work on the lives of the saints being evidence for God’s existence and the truth of the gospel is helpful here.

There is a caveat, however: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” is better translated “To the extent that you have seen me imitate Christ, copy me!” – we have a responsibility as church members to filter what we see through our understanding of the work and love of Jesus in the gospels.

A good scriptural place to begin is Philippians 2. In the following passage, Paul is acting as midwife to the process, labouring to bring the Philippians (and us) face to face with the learning implications of their experience of Jesus: this results not only in like-mindedness, but also like-loved, like-affectioned:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who….

Here we are to strive toward having the same love, the same mind, guided by the same spirit. We observe all the aspects of Jesus’ humility and abandonment, and through imitation, begin to set ourselves on the path so that the Holy Spirit can effect change within us. The reminders of how to do this are here too. De Muynck (2019: 317) finds three notions to help us with this modelling – observation – imitation process, and each finds an echo in Paul’s words to the Philippians:

  • The adjustment in the learner’s own behaviour towards the mental representation of the observed person – here described in Phil. 2:6-11, the great hymn of Jesus suffering, abandonment and triumph,
  • The attraction to the similarities (with us) observed in the historical person – and here, those similarities were effected by Jesus humbling himself and making himself a servant so we could make sense of his life (Phil 2:7) and
  • The learner’s active role in combining the observed behaviour with his or her own: this is expanded by Paul in Philippians 2: 12ff: Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure…

Thus Paul provides a model of urging, purposeful explanation, example and ways to begin the process, that are a useful exposition of Bandura’s theoretical lens. The point, I stress again, is not that we “change ourselves” but that we intentionally offer ourselves to God through these concrete acts of obedience, so that the Holy Spirit can form them as habits of the heart.

2. Drama, Identification, Empathy and Sympathy

The second learning model, in orange, is derived from film theory and drama, and involves spending time in the presence of the observed person in order to learn from them. This is the dramatic story of the gospels and Acts: people spending time constantly with Jesus, whether in person or through the powerful actions of the Holy Spirit, and thus growing more and more to be like him. If we did not have the Book of Acts, we would have no way of learning how that transformational work happened in Jesus’ physical absence. It is, as a learning tool, a link between the gospels and our own lives, not culturally normative, but normative in the description of how the Holy Spirit works and sanctifies. De Muynck uses the work of Murray Smith to show how a story or drama draws us toward identification, empathy and sympathy with the observed person, using three levels:

  • The first level “makes the observed character recognisable” though repeated depiction/description.
  • The second level provides emotional information about motivations, feelings and actions.
  • The third level provides understanding of the mental and moral framework from which the observed person operates, and thus commands allegiance. (cf. De Muynck, p. 318)

Perhaps it is in the gospel narratives around servanthood that this is most finely drawn. The disciples are being constantly taught, though Jesus’ drawing their attention to the authority structures of the day, about where leadership and love really lie. Smith’s first two levels are, in the case of Jesus’ disciples, simply attritional: even the dullest disciple would pick up this information, and be attracted to Jesus in so doing. The third level needed Jesus to articulate his own framework, rooted in his Jewishness and the narrative of Israel, but framing it in a very different way from the dominant Jewish expectations and power structures. Jesus was rabbinic, but not pharisaic, and nowhere is this seen more dramatically than when talking about leadership, servanthood and power.

Coming in the middle of a power grab by James’ and John’s mum on behalf of her two lads, Jesus says this, in Matthew 20:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Again, in John 13, Jesus reiterates this, on the night before his death:

You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

The way you think of power, guys, is changing now. You know I am powerful, but this is how I demonstrate it, in serving you. You will demonstrate my power in serving others. You’ve seen how the Romans and the Jewish leaders throw their weight around. But you’ve also seen me, and I’ve just told you why I work this way…

This dramatic learning is of the form “when I did this, when I was saying that, when I did miracles there – this is what I was up to.” Here is a role for the biblical expositor, to take from the scriptures and undermine our expectations by allowing us to be diverted to where Jesus is standing. And this excites us, and challenges us, and makes us wonder, and creates a rich desire within us to be like this amazing man who is also our King!

This kind of focused, dramatic learning is also cumulative. The learner processes, practises and habituates certain ways of working: The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher, says Jesus in Luke 6:40. We work to become more like Jesus. We should be more like Him at 30 than we were at 20, more like him at 60 than at 50, and so on. This learning expresses itself in the conviction that last year I learnt this, and did this as a result; next year I am going to do that, to build upon what I have already achieved.

This idea leads us to the third of the circles above, namely…for the church in seeking to grow in Christlikeness through the

3. Mastery and Excellence

This Aristotelian virtue-acquisition works, in De Muynck’s telling, through the matching of ‘professional challenges of the person who studies historical educators and those experienced by the latter’ (p.319). It involves observing a higher standard of excellence in the ‘master’ – here seen as a guild-type master to an apprentice. I have written about some of the problems with concepts of mastery here. However, the New Testament perspective on this is that of putting in especial effort to present ourselves available to God for his use and transforming power. The idea is that of a tool cleansing itself – and odd concept, but one that Paul used in 2 Timothy: Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work. (2 Tim. 2:21).

De Muynck writes:

A variety of historical educators can demonstrate a range of virtues, such as justice, compassion, compassion on disabled persons, recognition of others’ gifts, patience, self-control, and humility (p.319).

Compare this with what I believe is the core text for the church that seeks to grow in Christlikeness, individually and together, in 2 Peter 1: 3-9:

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

Here we see both the motivation, but also the empowerment that comes in the Christian life when seeking to become more like Jesus. We position ourselves, as Dallas Willard writes in The Divine Conspiracy, as the student at the feet of the master. We seek the skills and dispositions that enable us to do the work of our King, and bend our efforts to adding to what we have, with more. This is more than imitation: this is practice for good. We need to improve in our character and our learning, but we are not the goal, the productivity and effectiveness of service and a virtuous life are the real goal. And it requires a degree of imagination too: ‘someone who intensely imagines becoming like his or her master unconsciously acquires emotions that bring him or her into a position to adopt the desired behaviour’ (De Muynck, 2019: 319). The psalmist has this attitude as that of a handmaiden waiting on her mistress. We are in the presence of the other, the all-knowing other, and watch and wait for the signals to put into practice that which we have learnt.


And with that, I must stop. This is turning into something unreadably long, and there is much thought to go, still, into the the other two perspectives. Thanks for reading!

John 10:10a: the context of Jesus’ abundant life

It is generally a good idea, when reading or studying the scriptures and making decisions for our lives within the context of our divine calling, to focus on three things:

  • on God’s purposes in creation,
  • on God’s purposes in salvation and resurrection, and
  • on God’s purposes at the end of the age when Jesus returns in glory to rule.

This strong narrative keeps us aligned with God’s plans and desires for us, for our world and the created order, and for our conduct and virtue in the world in the light of Jesus’ return. Each of the three lenses interprets and explains the others, and also helps us when interpreting the scriptures. Each one helps motivate our work and our witness as disciples, rooting our present life, our calling and position as God’s children, and our future, in the broader narrative of God’s kingdom and of the certainty of his justice.

The graphic at the top of this blog tells a small story that needs reclaiming and re-setting in this larger narrative. John 10:10 has been used by countless schools and dioceses to encapsulate their ideas for human flourishing within the context of Church of England education. It is a good verse, a helpful way of thinking about education more generally, and it has the under-utilised advantage, in my view, of linking the ‘abundant life’/’life to the full’ that stands for ‘human flourishing’ directly with Jesus, the author of salvation.

But the graphic indicates that what we generally quote is John 10:10b. The first half of the verse is rarely quoted on school literature, websites or on diocesan mission statements. The CofE Vision for Education, rooted in a Johannine theological perspective, obliquely refers to the second half of the verse once, but the import of the thinking behind the ‘abundant life’ trope, in the way the CofE thinks about human flourishing is profound. However, despite the importance attributed to the verse, the first half hardly ever gets a mention.

I don’t want to focus overly on the negative, but we do need to have a think about this. Jesus didn’t speak ‘abundant life’ into a vacuum, but into a historical and political context:

Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

Jesus is speaking here to Pharisees (see verse 1 and 6 of John 10), religious leaders and self-appointed guardians of the law. These were not silly men: on the contrary, Pharisees were a large part of the reason why Judaism was in the good shape it was when Jesus lived. They had recognised the pressures from Greek thought and culture and sought refuge in the scriptures and in the zealous application of Mosaic practices. Where they were criticised by Jesus, it was generally for focusing on externals of law-keeping – and the pride that accompanied that – rather than finding and living by its heart and true purpose. Amongst them were some very serious rabbis and thinkers, whose voice of reason can be seen to be heard cropping up in the gospels and Acts.

The ‘sheep’ in this passage are those that belong to the shepherd (v.12). The abundant life is not promised here to all, but to the sheep, the shepherd’s property. There is a sense in this passage that the ‘thieves and robbers’ were other voices claiming the allegiance of the sheep – historically this would have been all those seeking to lead the people of Israel, from the breakup of Alexander’s empire, and the subsequent war between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, to the Maccabees and the Romans. Politically it included the Sanhedrin, an invasive Greek culture and the (very invasive) Roman occupation. Some might want to spiritualise ‘the thief’ of John 10:10a as the Satan, or the accuser, but that would be out of character with Jesus allegories, which always identified (clearly, but obliquely) the main actors, and meant them to refer to actual people or powers.

This context puts a different gloss on the kind of ‘life’ that Jesus says will be abundant, as well as offering a context of death, theft, destruction and suffering for those he has called as sheep. It means that the life of abundance, for those who have decided to follow the shepherd, will be abundant in the context of suffering, in the context of loss, and in the context of death.

We cannot just appropriate the ‘abundant life’ trope and invest it with all the best of our ideas of human flourishing. Sin and evil is the context of this abundant life. In some ways, a better description of this life can be seen in John 17:2-3 where Jesus, at the preface of his great prayer of that chapter says:

You [God] granted him [Jesus] authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus the Messiah, whom you have sent.

This, to my mind, equates the eternal life of John 17 with the abundant life of John 10. This eternal life is not a description of a life of length, but of a life of a particular quality, rooted in and powered by our knowledge of a creating, wise God and his glorious, humble, servant king of a Son. Dallas Willard calls it ‘the eternal kind of life’ which is a far better and more helpful way of thinking about it. Yes it is abundant, but it is abundant because it is filled with the power and grace of God, and those who have access to such a life are those who have turned towards the shepherd and started to follow him. It is available to everyone, but on terms dictated by the Shepherd, not simply assumed by us.

Marcus Rashford’s recent book is lurking in the front of bookshops at the moment. Entitled “You are a Champion: how to be the best you can be,” it seems to me that it represents better what we often mean when we talk about the ‘abundant life’ – finding our best and living it, as though there is a ‘perfect life’ out there and we can live it! It is a lie, of course. No such life exists, at least not in the Kingdom of God, where the fullness of our life is tied to our obedience to the Shepherd (and the suffering that that often entails), rather than the expression of the self. As I have argued elsewhere, there is no true human flourishing without God’s life.

I have been thinking in recent days of the Christians of Afghanistan, and those who serve them from mission agencies and the worldwide church. Like the church in Phnom Penh in 1975, they have been ‘anointed for burial’ and prepared for a period of enormous pressure and pain, the like of which we have not experienced in Britain since the 17th century religious wars. They have chosen to follow the Shepherd, and thus to them, as to all who have made that decision, opens out the possibility, under extreme suffering, of His abundant life.