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Author Archives: Eve Poole

Physician, Heal Thyself: Time for a Corporate Lent?

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As the World Economic Forum packs up for another year, Eve Poole proposes an action plan for virtue and a Corporate Lent.

Let’s imagine you’re the local vicar. It’s January. The roof is leaking again, and the post-Christmas lull is taking its toll on the collection plate. Imagine if you could rent out your church for just four days mid-week, for £250,000? That’s pretty much what the English Church in Davos did last week, when the 48th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting took place in their small village in Switzerland.

Each January, the WEF aims ‘to rededicate leaders from all walks of life to developing a shared narrative to improve the state of the world.’ This year, instead of celebrating Burns Night in Scotland, 3,000 of the global elite from business, finance, politics and public affairs went to Switzerland to be part of Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World. The local private jet booking service was said to be expecting around 2,000 private flights in and out of Davos, with flights there from London costing over £10,000 plus another £3,750 for the helicopter transfer.

The town is about the size of Ilfracombe, so it is somewhat dwarfed by the WEF influx, and everyone needs space. All the locals move out, and most of the shops become pop-up venues for corporates. Apparently this year Facebook rented land to build its own venue, a three-storey house to hold events hosted by Mark Zuckerberg. The English Church has been rented out by a Danish fintech firm and transformed into a venue called The Sanctuary. Sponsored by CNBC, its aim is to bring together ‘the biggest, most influential and innovative names in business, politics, and entertainment to talk about the biggest issues of today’.

I was invited onto the BBC World Service to debate one of those big issues: Inequality. But as the programme aired at 3.06am on the Saturday morning, you may have missed it. I was part of a panel from London, Washington and Davos, discussing whether or not inequality matters, and what we might do about it. For me, inequality is an issue of deformed power, but also an opportunity for us to look in the mirror and decide whether we like what we see.

The 2018 Oxfam Global Inequality Report admits that there is some good news for those at the bottom. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of people living on less than $1.90 a day halved, and continues to decline. However, at the top the picture remains extreme: 82% of global wealth is held by just 1% of the global population. And this will only get worse. As Thomas Piketty has so elegantly pointed out in his seminal book Capital in the Twenty-first Century, returns from capital investments tend to outstrip economic growth. Over time, this acts as a ratchet on wealth, exponentially accelerating the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Even if the poor are getting richer, it matters if the rich are getting comparatively and exponentially richer, not because of envy, but because this concentration of wealth also concentrates power. And power affects government priorities and policy, so it affects us all. And this is not just about obvious areas of policy like bank bailouts and tax cuts, which lead to cuts in public spending on health, education and welfare. It is also about the kind of markets we create, where it seems easier to buy eye-wateringly expensive handbags than it is to get clean water and life-saving drugs to the poor. More than that, though, these stark figures give us all a choice. Do we like this disparity? Do we want this kind of bifurcated society? What would we have the WEF do?

The English Church in Davos, now the Free Protestant Church, was originally dedicated to St Luke, the physician. This was no accident. Historically, most of the congregation consisted of patients suffering from tuberculosis, who had come to take the air. This was rather lucky for the church, which prospered. Gratitude for healing, or memories of those who had died, prompted many to donate generously. Even Robert Louis Stevenson wintered there in 1880. And it is from St Luke’s gospel that we get the phrase, “Physician, heal thyself.” Many globally would like those attending Davos to get their own houses in order before they start telling the rest of the world how to improve. As Branko Milanovic puts it: ‘They are loath to pay a living wage, but they will fund a philharmonic orchestra. They will ban unions, but they will organize a workshop on transparency in government.’

Does anyone at Davos really want to be more virtuous? If so, I’d like to suggest an action plan for virtue. It’s the idea of a Corporate Lent. Lent is one of the last public traditions that is about schooling people in virtue. For 40 days we are encouraged to pick something either to stop doing, or to start doing – give up alcohol, stop swearing, help grannies cross roads. Yes, maybe because of the ‘reward’ of Easter eggs, but not really. Would you give up all that vintage claret for a few scraps of chocolate? Mostly people do it because it’s good for the character. Keeping Lent reassures us that we have some will-power, and can behave well if we really try hard enough.

So what might a Corporate Lent resemble? Pay all your invoices within 28 days? Source local? Take on some mentally challenged workers as well as your physically challenged ones? The best place to start would be to crowd-source ideas for virtue pilots from your co-workers, your supply chain, your community, or your customers. The joy of Lent is that it’s only 40 days, which cashes out as just over 30 working days once you exclude weekends and the odd bank holiday. Just six weeks to experiment in better ways of being corporately virtuous. And individuals could choose their own mini-projects. Fewer emails and more face-to-face? Less gossiping? Better listening?

This year, Lent starts on 14 February. So will you be my Valentine, and take up a Corporate Lent this year?


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Halloween: a Trick or a Treat?

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Eve Poole considers the opportunity to affirm a Christian message and ritual around the festival of Halloween.

It seems like supreme irony to me that our local playgroup has been told by the church hosting them that children dressing up for their Halloween party should avoid ‘anything associated with dark magic.’ Perhaps it’s not news that a church should feel ticklish about Halloween; Christians often have. The Christian entrepreneur Gary Grant doesn’t stock Halloween items in his famous Entertainer toyshops either. But I think we’ve got the wrong end of the stick about this wonderful festival. Indeed, I should like much more dark magic, not less.

After Christmas and Easter, Halloween now eclipses even Valentine’s Day as a commercial festival. Many people dislike the creeping Americanisation that has made ‘trick or treating’ normal for today’s children, and such a bonanza for retailers. In my youth, we had the less threatening tradition of ‘guising,’ where children at least had to dress up in disguise and perform to earn sweets, rather than simply demand them with menaces. With my sisters, I had to learn the entire Witches’ scene from Macbeth to net a few satsumas and the odd tube of Spangles, and my poor brother had to drag his viola from door to door playing Bach cello suites. Admittedly we were raised in St Andrews, which sets a rather high bar for impressing the neighbours on the doorstep.

You don’t need me to rehearse the history of Halloween, which links to parallel festivals throughout the world – and throughout history – about death and remembering the dead. But with our complicated mixture of skeletons, witches and pumpkins it is sometimes hard to remember what on earth it’s really about, making it rather easier to focus on ‘dark magic’ than its deeper purpose.

It is supremely human to fear death, which is why all traditions have festivals about death, whether to honour ancestors and loved ones, or to scandalise death in general by being defiantly un-scared of it. That is why we dress up as death to make a mockery of everything we most dread. And even the benighted ‘trick or treating’ honours this tradition: what could be more outrageous than misrule by *innocent* children? In a similar vein, my Latin teacher used to delight in telling us that in Roman times children would be engaged to run behind a newly-wed bride and groom shouting obscenities, to scare off the evil spirits who were thought to be prudish.

But unease about ‘dark magic’ means that now more children are dressing up as pumpkins or Disney characters rather than as witches, ghosts or skeletons, which robs the festival of its purpose. And it seems that churches are encouraging this trend, when we should be doing the exact opposite. That’s why it is ironic that a church should worry about an association with ‘dark magic’: if Jesus harrowed hell we have nothing to fear from the dead: if God is both benevolent and omnipotent, we need not fear ‘dark magic.’ So if we collude with this idea that Halloween is somehow dangerous, we deny our very deepest Christian beliefs.

What we have this Halloween is opportunity. To ask, again, ‘Death, where is thy sting?’; and to rejoice in a festival that is gloriously about being alive and having nothing to fear from the darkness and from dark powers. As one of the faith traditions that has a particularly strong narrative about death, we can use this festival to explain anew why we are not afraid, and celebrate it as another Easter, albeit with pumpkins and sweets rather than with bunnies and chocolate eggs.

There is, however, one important element of this festival that the commercialisation of it neglects. Halloween is named for the days that follow it in the Christian calendar, where the emphasis is less on death in general and more about honouring the dead. In the UK we publicly honour the war dead each year, but the churches remain sparsely populated for both All Saints’ Day and All Souls. Yet we are here because of those who have gone before us, and there are those recent dead whose memory burns strongly in the hearts of those who mourn them still.

The Jewish tradition has Yahrzeit Candles to commemorate the dead, lit to burn for 24 hours on the eve of the anniversary of their death, and at other festivals throughout the year. Since the lighting of candles in churches and cathedrals seems a universally acceptable practice, could we not tempt people back into church after Halloween to remember their own dead in this way? Perhaps with orange candles, if you’re keen to capture some Halloween market-share.


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From Alpha to VUCA: The Art of Unknowing

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Have you heard of the term VUCA? I thought it was perhaps something you catch in a swimming pool, but apparently it is military jargon to characterise the times in which we now live. It stands for: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.

This term is the buzzword of the corporate world: VUCA is the zeitgeist, and we must all master it to survive. Cue lots of snake-oil salesmen selling courses. But I would contend that Christians here have the competitive advantage.

First of all, the Gospels. Given that Christ is the central belief of this religion, it is quite extraordinary that history has chosen to preserve not one authorised biography, but four, which wildly disagree. Did he feed 4000 or 5000, with five loaves or seven, and just once, or twice? Was it the Sermon on the Mount or the Sermon on the Plain? And what were his famous last words, preserved for posterity? Well there seem to be seven in total, spread throughout the gospels, but half the gospels have him saying three things, and the other half only one.

Then there is this business of the person of Christ. Wholly God and wholly man. What?! And, by the way, consubstantial, co-equal, and co-eternal with God and the Holy Spirit, the three-in-one. No wonder we need a lot of incense to veil the complexities of the Trinity.

I could go on, but at this point one could just roll one’s eyes and say that these Christians are all barking mad. Or one could have a think about VUCA. Because, let’s face it, Christianity is pretty damn VUCA.

So if the Alpha Course was to go Beta, and do VUCA, what would we teach? The central thesis of our VUCA course would be that omniscience is properly a divine property, not a human one.

Last week saw the death of Robert M Pirsig, author of the 1970s publishing phenomenon Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In it, he makes the powerful point that our need to carve things up into categories is about ego. Because certainty, evidence and measurement is really arrogance. And what happened when Job insisted on an explanation? ‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?’ roars God in response. Our drive for certainty is recognised as a common trait in personality psychology, which holds that we demonstrate our competence, our potency, and our very agency, by taming our surroundings. But Christian theology teaches us to relax. We do not need to know. Of course we should not languish in error, so diligent truth-seeking is also encouraged, but we need not imagine we will ever really know, because that is God’s job, not ours.

And this central un-knowing, this VUCA at the heart, requires a response of faith, not certainty. We don’t even need to be certain of our faith, because our immutable God is not impacted by the quality of our belief. However, we are, so the Christian religion has evolved centuries of liturgy to shore up faith, even when the signals seem weak. Therefore our VUCA course would start where Christianity starts, by making belief into a good thing in and of itself, like Luther’s emphasis on sola fides. Secular society has been fed an unremitting diet of empiricism since the 1700s, so it is not surprising that we are all Doubting Thomases now. But allegiance to data makes us a victim of data, especially where data is not available in time, or when it is unclear. The lesson of faith is to trust your instincts and travel hopefully, because it is often on the journey that you find the information you need.

Next, messaging. Through liturgy, the faithful are exposed to reinforcing messages, week by week and year by year, in a perpetual cycle of lectionary and worship that has been going on now for two millennia. And remember, these are not simplistic messages, they are fraught with the disagreements and tensions I mentioned above, so that the VUCA muscle must be continually flexed. Shouldn’t the business schools try harder to resist the post-hoc rationalisation of corporate hagiography, and try to tell the stories of situations that are manifestly more VUCA? So talking of motorbikes, the famous Honda case study taught at Harvard has been re-written to reflect more accurately the ‘emergent strategy’ they deployed to enter the US market, but others could be re-visited. Economics is already under attack for its false homogeneity, and other business disciplines could also embrace a wider spectrum of approach and diversity of view, as could business reporting in the media.

Third, our VUCA course would make heavy use of role models to encourage believers to enact their faith in their everyday lives (the classic ‘fake it til you feel it’ strategy). Christianity finds its role models in Bible readings and from the centuries of belief since, through the prophets and saints and other famous followers. Many have feast days to make us notice them. If you have values you want your followers to live by, even on a bad day or when no-one is watching, which role models could you deploy that would resonate with them? What stories are told in your culture that communicate the myths and stories you need to inform behaviour, and how could you start some more?

Finally, prayer. The corporate world is doing this through mindfulness – and WHSmiths through colouring books. Prayer is about re-alignment with God. Whether or not you believe in a deity, the practice of pausing to give thanks, to ask for help, and to remember others is a vital exercise in reclaiming perspective. Because for those who do enjoy a belief in God, we know that we are loved even when we don’t know the answers, or when we get it wrong. We know that there is always a second chance, and an opportunity to improve. We know we are destined for great things, and this confidence gives us courage in the face of VUCA. You don’t have to believe in God to know this, really: because God believes in you.

Eve Poole is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.


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