Book Review: Vexed

Vexed James Mumford

When you work for a publisher, and are fortunate enough to get quite a few review copies from publishers, it is quite rare for me to pre-order a book. With my subscription to the London Review of Books (and generally keeping abreast of what’s going on), I like to think I could be relatively well read. This book, not necessarily my  normal fare, was one that piqued my interest partly because of the author (Mumford is a thoughtful guy, and I’ve interacted with him a bit both in my MA dissertation and through the Society of Vineyard Scholars) and partly because it is right in my wheelhouse as someone who enjoys difficult conversations and actively wants to see bridges built between different tribes. Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes is a readable,  and radically sensible look at some of the big ethical questions live in Western culture, and an invitation to discuss them like adults, rather than scream at each other on social media.

This is a book that I hope will be widely read. In six chapters, sandwiched between an introduction and conclusion, Mumford engages creatively and seriously with some hot topics, in creative ways. Here’s the chapter list:

  1. Inclusivity: Should Liberals Back Assisted Suicide?
  2. Family Values: Why Social Conservatives Should Raise Wages
  3. Sufficiency: Why the Left and Sexual Liberation Make Bad Bedfellows
  4. The Sanctity of Life: What’s Pro-Life about an AR-15?
  5. Reverence for Nature: Why Greens Shouldn’t Become Cyborgs
  6. Personal Responsibility: Why the Right Should Release Ex-Offenders

A brief read of those chapter titles will reveal one of the intellectual delights of this book – Mumford refuses to engage any issue on solely partisan terms. This means that, reading through, on alternate pages sometimes, I found myself guffawing with laughter, nodding in agreement, and folding corners. Given that I read a lot of this book in the post-natal ward with my newborn daughter sleeping nearby, meant that I got some strange looks from my wife and hospital staff. Behind all the fun – and this is a fun book – is a serious ethical brain. For example, in the superb chapter on sex, Mumford concludes by noting that “Behind every moral critique lies a picture of flourishing, a picture of what it means to make a success of life…“. He’s just enjoyed demonstrating the complexity of sexual ethics; “notional consent is no bulwark against commodification and the moral failure to recognise a person“, and invites the reader to think behind the question at hand to the bigger questions of human flourishing and ‘the good’.

Perhaps my favourite chapter, in terms of simultaneously forcing me to think and affirming something I’ve long thought, is the chapter on Reverence for Nature. Mumford betrays his own opinion here, “if reverence is indeed the attitude that nature demands, if environmentalists are right – and I believe they are – to insist that the world is  a gift that should invoke gratitude before all else, then it follows that we also face an imperative to revere human nature“. We are invited not to master ourselves, but instead recieve a gift. What a radically good way to think about things. His closing words are also excellent: “Why must we underestimate ourselves so?… Certainly we are shaped by our environments. But have we to be determined by them?… We live in a world, we are reminded ad nauseam, which is socially constructed. Doesn’t that mean we can, by the same token, deconstruct and reconstruct it? We must begin by believing in ourselves again“. Mumford isn’t arguing, I don’t think, for a Disney-esque ‘search for the hero inside yourself’, but rather a robust, honest and careful engagement with reality.

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed this book. With that in mind, I’d recommend it in two different directions. If, unlike me, you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian, can I encourage you to read this book? You might see why some people think differently from you, and it might just start a conversation worth having. After this, you might find Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic an interesting next step. If, like me, you are a Christian, then this book is a great tool for thinking about our culture, why people think things, and for taking a hard look at ourselves and the positions we hold. This is probably one of my books of 2020 – and I would wholeheartedly hope that it will recieve a wide readership.

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