Wednesday, 27 June 2007

‘Life at the Bottom’ and the Gospel of deliverance

It is not often that I read a book virtually overnight, but that is what I have just done with Theodore Dalrymple’s Life at the Bottom. And I find myself very thoughtful as a result.

‘Theodore Dalrymple’ is, in fact a pseudonym, due to the fact that Dalrymple was a GP and a doctor in the prison service. And this is why the subtitle to his book, ‘The Worldview That Makes the Underclass’, is so important.

Dalrymple’s thesis is that it is the way the underclass look at the world that causes most of their problems. They are victims, not of blind forces or social structures, but of themselves. It is anathema to the Liberal and it is, of course, dangerously seductive for the Conservative. But given that Dalrymple writes entirely from long personal experience, it is a thesis which must be heard, albeit with care.

Dalrymple points out, for example, the way those who have murdered or assaulted others deny personal responsibility, preferring to say ‘the knife went in’, rather than, ‘I stabbed him’:

The knife went in—unguided by human hand, apparently. That the long-hated victims were sought out, and the knives carried to the scene of the crimes, was as nothing compared with the willpower possessed by the inanimate knives themselves, which determined the unfortunate outcome.

It is also, perhaps, no surprise to find that Dalrymple identifies the welfare state as what some theologians might call a structure of ‘institutionalised sin’, keeping the underclass under. This may sound heartless and preposterous until you read, for example, his description to a doctor from overseas of what would happen to a woman whose boyfriend repeatedly beat her and wrecked her flat:

“They’ll find her a new flat. They’ll buy her new furniture, television, and refrigerator, because it’s unacceptable poverty in this day and age to live without them. They’ll charge her nothing for the damage to her old flat, because she can’t pay anyway, and it wasn’t she who did it. He will get away scot-free. Once she’s installed in her new flat to escape from him, she’ll invite him there, he’ll smash it up again, and then they’ll find her somewhere else to live. There is, in fact, nothing she can do that will deprive her of the state’s obligation to house, feed, and entertain her.”

I asked the doctor from Madras if poverty was the word he would use to describe this woman’s situation. He said it was not: that her problem was that she accepted no limits to her own behavior, that she did not fear the possibility of hunger, the condemnation of her own parents or neighbors, or God. In other words, the squalor of England was not economic, but spiritual, moral, and cultural. (138-139)

Of course we must ask whether it would be a better world in which such a woman did fear hunger, disapproval or God. But clearly her life is not improving as things stand, despite all the provision being made for her. And of all people, Christians should surely listen when someone who is apparently a man of no discernible faith writes of a spiritual ‘squalor’ damaging people’s lives.

As Christians, moreover, we must also ask how the gospel addresses the terrible situations that Dalrymple describes. Elsewhere he writes of teenagers who are,

... condemned to live in an eternal present, a present that merely exists, without connection to a past that might explain it or to a future that might develop from it. Theirs is truly a life of one damned thing after another. (70)

Surely the gospel offers such young people something by which to get their bearings in life. Yet how are they to be persuaded of the gospel’s truth and relevance?

One of the things we are told constantly is that people judge the gospel, and are drawn to it, by its effects on the lives of others. And this should surely be as true with the ‘underclass’ as it has been anywhere else. Indeed, we know it can be! One of the often-quoted features of the Methodist revival is that people improved their social status after their conversion, due to the change it brought about — changes that Methodism deliberately fostered — in their manner of life.

What is odd, however, is that in the 1970s this social improvement was derided by Evangelicals as a betrayal of the working class. The Methodists, and others, it was claimed, left the working-class areas as their lives improved and so the gospel ceased to be proclaimed.

That is as my be, but the answer is surely not to deride the effectiveness of the gospel in bringing about individual social improvement. Rather, the gospel preached to the ‘underclass’ should be that of breaking free from the chains that bind — including the chains of blaming anything but oneself for one’s problems.

Dalrymple’s book challenges the Evangelical orthodoxy of the fourth quarter of the twentieth century which had ceased to confront the personal choices that, in his view, create the underclass. Indeed, he gives instances where an almost ‘evangelical’ personal challenge has, on rare occasions, resulted in someone turning their life around and leaving the past behind.

Might it not be that, far from helping those with whom it rightly sympathises, the church has ironically wound up colluding with them, because it has failed to identify the true source of their problems? Might this, indeed, specifically explain the failure of the church to help the black community, despite the widespread prevalence of religious belief? Might it also be why Islam sometimes succeeds where ‘Christianity’, so-called, fails?

These are weighty questions. They are worthy of thoughtful answers.

Revd John P Richardson
27 June 2007


  1. Thanks John. This ties in well with comments on sin on the Fulcrum web site and message board that move away from seeing it as firstly personal.

    And it's interesting how a welfare state designed to eliminate one set of instituionalised sins goes on entrenches another set of problems. I agree the key to this seems to be the need to accept personal responsibility for our sin and to see our personal need of a Saviour.

    In Christ,

    John Foxe

  2. Dalrymple is an acute observer of creation and its distortions. We Evangelicals have no difficulty trusting other acute observers such as scientists and technologists. Revelation is not the only source of knowledge that we can make good use of in developing our apologetic method and content.

    I also deal with people at the bottom and find Dalrymple articulating my clinical observations more reliably than anyone else.

    His comment regarding the Victim status nails the matter. We live in a victim culture in which there is no value, obligation or purpose in considering personal responsibility for oneself. The corrosive extent of this worldview is hard to measure. The nationalising of the person and care has destroyed all personal grounds for charity and the de-personalising of the process of care-giving into a bureaucratic process leaves me obliged to pay the taxes for the lady described above with no, absolutely no possibility for me to interact with her in any other way that might encourage a maturity that does not seek out the Victim role.

    Our latest Prime Minister wants to talk the talk of encouraging public service but he demonstrates no insight into the culture likely to produce it, viz the protestant work ethic which has been steadily undermined and that with determination for a hundred years apart from a brief period of Margaret Thatcher.

    Is it now time for Evangelical Christians to consider how left wing political systems have been undermining their church, their culture and their nation but most of all their God required act of Charity toward the poor.

    Is it not also time to start translating the Hebrew word as rebellion instead of sin. It is too easy for Christians to hide behind sin, whereas I know when I am turning my back!

    L'Chaim! Ifan

  3. Ifan,

    I guess it depends which Hebre word your translating -the one that means sin or the one that means rebellion/transgression!

  4. This is an over-simplification tending towards total nonsense, of course.

    I've been in prison, I have also travelled and worked in various low wealth countries.

    It is simply not the case that every person in prison is there because they are victims of themselves. Every person has a moral responsibility for themselves, but also bad stuff also happens to you. Any person in prison is a product of bad choices and bad circumstances in varying proportions. Most people cannot claim that they are not morally responsible for their actions, but equally most are influenced by their circumstances to some extent or another.

    I have worked in India with the very poor. It is true to say that they have far far less than the poor in our country. But they are very wealthy in some respects that many in our country are lacking: they have hope and expectations that their lives can get better. Many in our country are totally disenfranchised and feel that their lives are entirely pointless and worthless.

    The best thing you can give a battered woman is not a TV set but security, life back and lifeskills and tools to deal with the abuser.

    How is what you are suggesting anything other than the failed pull-yourself-together mentality?

    Finally, I'd appreciate it if you didn't make snap judgements about my sexual ethics. You have absolutely no idea what I think on the subject because I have no interest in talking to you about it.

  5. Well, Joe, I did say you probably wouldn't like it.

    (If anyone is wondering what this is about, look here.)