January 31, 2009
Posted by nickbaines under music
| Tags: church
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One of the joys of living in London is having to negotiate the transport system – especially the Tube when there are delays, cancellations and other problems that demand quick thinking and re-routing. And I am not being sarcastic when I use the word ‘joy’. Travelling inLondon is never boring.
A coupe of days ago I was having a particularly ‘joyful’ journey across town when, in a crowd of people looking determined but fed up, I caught a glimpse of the new T-Mobile advert. It was just a snatch of some people dancing, but it was enough to make and others stop, go back and continue the journey smiling. The strapline is simple: ‘Life is for sharing.’ And, funnily enough, it made complete strangers look at each other, smile and exchange words.
It was recorded at Liverpool Street Station on 15 January 2009 and is wonderful. The station announcer starts to announce a train departure and then Lulu launches into the classic ‘Shout!’ (which I heard her do forty years after the original at the Royal Albert Hall in November 2008 with Jools Holland). The concourse is transformed by people dancing to a string of songs. Watch the faces.
If anything illustrates the human need for society, this does. With wall-to-wall misery on every front (from the economy through Gaza and Zimbabwe to Liverpool’s lousy form), this expression of sheer fun and surprise is just lovely.
I so wish I could dance…
January 30, 2009
Yesterday I addressed a group of people at a law firm in the City about Zimbabwe. These wonderful people have an ‘austerity lunch’ of bread and cheese and donate to the ‘project’ under discussion – which, yesterday, was Zimbabwe. I was invited because the Diocese of Southwark is deeply involved with the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe and I have been out there on my own and leading a group visit.
It was a good coincidence that I got home in the evening to hear that the Zimbabwean Dollar has been dumped and that foreign currencies are now allowed across the economy. This is only legalising what has been happening anyway – the parallel market has been operating in US dollars for years. Then, today, I heard that the MDC has voted to enter government with Zanu PF. This is precarious and we will have to wait and see what actually happens as plans are taken forward during the next two weeks. The MDC could find itself compromised and then more easily discarded by Mugabe later.
Yet, despite this news, I still get almost daily reports of human rights activists going missing, torture and abuse of prisoners, intimidation of MDC and Church people, and corruption at every level. The vital prerequisite for any improvement in the lives of Zimbabwe and her people is the restoration of the rule of law. Court judgements in respect of ownership of finances, accounts and property made against the ousted Anglican Bishop of Harare, Dr Nolbert Kunonga, have not been implemented – and Kunonga, with the backing of Mugabe’s men, continues to steal money, retain possession of churches, intimidate anyone who denies him support and makes a mockery of justice.
The law firm people I addressed have asked to donate £1000 towards important projects in Central Zimbabwe. Wonderful stuff that will make a real difference now that foreign currency can be used and we don’t have to do dodgy things with currencies.
Today has also seen the publication of a statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding the launch of the ‘Faiths Working Together’ Fund for rebuilding civilian lives in Gaza and relieving suffering in Israel through the work of Christian Aid, Islamic Relief and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel. This is surely a sensitive and laudable attempt by Christians, Jews and Muslims in this country to address the humanitarian need without regard for causes of conflict, ethnicity or status. The link also gives advice on how to donate.
Why set this up when DEC is already doing the business? Well, I guess it is in order to demonstrate what many secularists prefer to ignore: people of different religions working together for the common good and going beyond the arguments that sometimes appear to sterilise effective action. Good stuff.
January 29, 2009
When I read yesterday that the prolific American writer John Updike had died, I didn’t feel particularly moved. Martin Amis’s obituary in the Guardian ended with the observation: ‘This is a very cold day for literature.’ Well, Philistine that I am, I haven’t actually read any Updike, so I wouldn’t really know if it was a cold day, a cool day or any other sort of day. Perhaps when I have finished working my way through Dostoyevsky I ought to remedy this and see what all the fuss is about.
But today I was deeply saddened to hear that the great singer-songwriter John Martyn has died. He was one of the great musicians who didn’t really give a toss about playing the game and instead just kept on writing and recording beautiful songs. Why the difference in response when I heard of his demise only a day after that of Updike?
Much to my horror, I was in someone else’s office this afternoon when I read the news on the BBC website and nobody there had heard of him. Far be it from me to suggest they are cultural pygmies, but… well… they are.
The first time I heard John Martyn play live was in the mid-1980s at the Colston Hall in Bristol. The sound failed and, drunk as a skunk, Martyn struggled to keep a decent show on the road while attempts were being made to fix the problem. He tried (unsuccessfully) to tell jokes. He even tried singing songs from musicals. It was embarrassing and annoying – especially as I had paid good money when I had very little good money to spend.
But there was a rare honesty to his songs and he had a wonderful ability to make the guitar sing. Many people don’t realise that they know his songs because they have only heard them played by other artists: Sweet Little Mystery and Head and Heart are two of his most famous. Over four decades he managed to put into words and music the deepest experiences of a human being exploring the beauty of the world and love and loss at the same time as wrestling with the demons of drugs and alcohol. Out of the struggle came a rare beauty and an integrity that reads in his lyrics like the guileless openness of a child. Complex and inconsistent, he wrote and sang and played of life as it is – not as we think it ought to be.
I have thought for years that it is always the poets and musicians who tell the truth about the world and enable us to keep alive the hope of redemption amid the intricacies of life. It brings us back to Leonard Cohen’s ‘broken and holy hallelujah’. Like the poets of the Old Testament, who (as Walter Brueggemann put it) ‘kept alive the language of home’, it is the raw honesty of these guys that breaks through the polished conventions of ‘life’ and allows light to shine through the cracks of their brokenness into the worlds we inhabit. They articulate in word and sound what some of us struggle to formulate.
Anyway, it is a sad day and a great loss. And I am going to listen to Solid Air (1973) this evening while I read.
January 29, 2009
I don’t often identify with members of the Kennedy clan in America, but I couldn’t help but sympathise with complaints about the premature demise of Senator Edward Kennedy on Obama’s inauguration day. Marcel Berlins uses this as a starting point in his complaint about Wikipedia in the Guardian newspaper. Apparently several entries record the death of the senator despite the fact that he is still in the land of the living.
Writing nonsense about people is not the primary problem here – and not the issue Berlins is tackling. Most people who have found themselves written about in various media ask serious questions about accuracy. But Wikipedia is being used by many people as an authoritative encyclopaedic tool for gaining quick information or biographical data.
These days I dread being introduced at engagements where I am speaking. The host invariably draws out a piece of printed paper and the rumour of Wikipedia starts to waft in the direction of my suspicions.
Six months ago, after I had spent a morning addressing a couple of hundred people in the south-east of England at a day conference, the organiser told me that we had something in common: a Downs Syndrome son. This surprised me a little, but I quickly realised what was going on. She had drawn my biography from Wikipedia and found the final statement: ‘Baines married Linda in 1980 and they have three children: Richard …, Melanie … and Andrew … who has Down’s Syndrome.’
Andrew does not have Down’s Syndrome. Yet over the last five years my Wikipedia entry has had him variously described as ‘mentally retarded’, mentally sub-normal’ and ‘mentally handicapped’. I can only guess that one of his mates kept adding this to the entry. But, every time I removed it, it (or some variation on the theme) went back on. In the end I just gave up.
I guess this is inevitable, given the medium, but it is also both worrying and annoying. Clearly, people read this stuff and assume it is fact – a bit like me reading the Herald newspaper in Zimbabwe one day in 2007 only to find myself quoted on the front page being supportive of Mugabe and finding no problems in the country ‘Bishop slams UK media lies’).
I wonder what this sort of thing will do to people’s perceptions of reality and trust in what looks like ‘fact’. What worries me is that it can lead to the sort of misguided, but dangerous, misrepresentations that saw a paediatrician in Portsmouth attacked by ignorant hordes as a ‘paedophile’.
Truth matters. So does accuracy. If you think this is an over-reaction, then just wait until you find yourself the victim of this stuff and discover that the ‘orthodoxy’ about you contains this sort of nonsense. It is not for nothing that the ninth Commandment says: ‘Do not bear false witness against your neighbour.’
January 28, 2009
Yesterday morning I took the train into London for a series of meetings. Before chairing the second of the day – the excellent Sandford St Martin Trust (www.sandfordawards.org.uk/), I nipped out to the local Pret to get some breakfast. The other bloke at the counter when I was buying my coffee and croissant turned to me, noticed my clerical collar and asked me if I was from the Church of England. I said I was – and he promptly began to throw verbal abuse at me. I found it quite amusing and just let him get on with it, although I was annoyed when he started to get aggressive with the guy behind the counter.
When I got back to my meeting I had a quick look at the newspaper reports of an interview with the BBC legend that is Sir David Attenborough. He told of how much hate mail he gets from Christians who don’t like what he says about nature and science and evolution. It says something that the linking of the words ‘hate mail’ and ‘Christian’ in the same sentence does not any longer cause surprise.
Just before my book Finding Faith was published last October, an article based loosely around it appeared in the Sunday Telegraph. I wasn’t really prepared for all the mad people (mostly from the USA) who sent me abusive emails informing me that I would deservedly burn for ever in hell for saying something they didn’t agree with about the Bible. (I didn’t agree with it either – but, then, I hadn’t actually said it…) They stopped short of telling me the temperature of the fires I would endure, but only just. All of this was accompanied by lots of biblical references and quotations. I deleted most, but responded to one or two.
None of this worried me personally. But what did disturb me was the fact that some people must have such really sad lives to be so vitriolic and abusively hateful in the articulation of their faith. Maybe the instant nature of email makes people send things off before the filter of love, sanity or rational diplomacy has had a chance to kick in. Or, maybe, some people can only know that they are right by vilifying those they think are wrong.
Whatever the truth behind this sort of hate mail, it still beggars belief that those who bear the name of the crucified and raised Christ should not see the contradiction of using language that is so objectionable and violent.
Anyway, as no doubt David Attenborough has also found, the ‘delete’ button always bears the promise of catharsis as the offensive vitriol disappears into electronic Purgatory where - I think I am technically right in saying – it sort of hangs around somewhere on my hard disk: forgotten, but not gone.
January 28, 2009
Zimbabwe is a disaster: Mugabe and the South African ‘mediators’ claim a deal, but the MDC denies having agreed it and the sorry saga continues. It seems to me that the MDC must not compromise its position or it will be dismissed by Mugabe at his whim.
Meanwhile controversy rages around the UK in the light of the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the DEC appeal for Gaza. Protestors had to be removed from Broadcasting House and we had the bizarre sight of Director General, Mark Thompson, explaining on early morning TV his reasons for the refusal to broadcast the appeal while behind him was displayed a huge backdrop of the appeal poster and all the contact and donation details. This must have been deliberate as well as canny.
There are war crimes trials going on in international courts and Sri Lanka is in violent turmoil again. In other words, business as usual for a world full of hostility and bad news. The financial crisis rages on, four Peers are being accused of corruption and the economic wallpaper looks pretty grubby. So what?
I went to get the train into London this morning and, as usual, picked up the free Metro newspaper. Its front page headline ignored all of this and proclaimed that a bit of an aspirin taken every day can help your liver.
Is it too much to wonder who thought this was top news of the day? I’m not saying it shouldn’t be – just that I’d like to know why it was thought to be so.
Perhaps it is simply that in the midst of all the bad news, we still find refuge in something small, personal and achievable. It could be that it is sometimes easier to shut out the loud noise of all the ‘big stuff’ and focus attention on the stuff of ‘me’.
Well, whatever the reasons behind this odd choice of priority, the evening papers simply led with the remarkable birth of eight babies to one mother in California. Amid the gloom there is a nice story – though I pity the poor mother who has said she will breastfeed all eight of them. I am not sure whether to be full of admiration … or just avert my attention back to the ‘big stuff’.
January 25, 2009
Posted by nickbaines under Christian faith
| Tags: church
, St Paul
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In the Anglican calendar today is the celebration of the Conversion of St Paul. It also happens to be the climax of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I will be preaching at a service this evening (and, therefore, missing the end of the Liverpool-Everton FA Cup game…) and will be tackling the hard questions about Christian Unity. After all, Paul himself was not averse to alienating some Christians and giving a hard time to those whom he felt were wobbly in their faith and adherence to him.
What does go to the heart of Paul’s writing is the need for Christians to ‘repent’ – which literally means ‘change your mind’ (from the Greek ‘metanoia’). In Romans 12 he writes of the ‘renewal of your mind’ as part of the commitment of mind, body and spirit involved in being a Christian. It is blindingly obvious that Christians must lead the way in changing their mind in relation to other Christians (and God and the world) in order to demonstrate that conversion is an active process rather than a magic event.
This is particularly poignant when considering Christian unity in a world where such unity looks more like a remote fantasy than an achievable vision. But we could also see the diversity within the Christian Church as something to celebrate. As long as humanity exists there will be different (and developing) cultures, languages, traditions, stories, histories and understandings of identity – and that is not just obvious, it is also wonderful.
At a press conference in Kazakhstan in 2003 a young Russian television journalist asked me if I could foresee the day when there would be a single world religion and everybody would live in peace. I responded by saying that such a ‘totalitarian’ vision was not very attractive! The post-Soviet younger generation was still harbouring romantic notions of ‘unity’ without reflecting on what it might actually involve.
I cannot imagine what Christian unity might actually look like. Certainly not uniformity of culture, liturgy, language, governance, etc. I am not sure that I can even want to see a unity of hermeneutics – a single way of reading the Bible and interpreting it afresh in each new generation. What would that involve in practical terms and what would it look like to the watching world? (It seems to me that inspiration of the Bible must include a recognition of its hermeneutical difficulties and the ‘wide space’ it gives to difference; that is, form matters as well as content.)
But, like Paul in Romans 8, I can see unity being worked out in a guiding vision that is not fixated on the Church, but a plethora of Christian communities displaying enormous differences of culture, etc, but grasped by a common vision that the Church exists for the sake of the world and not for its own sake. Christian unity must surely be a means for the world to see what the character of God is about – reconciling love, rooted in costly forgiveness and joyful defiance of all that kills and destroys (resurrection by the God of our hope), and able to love one another despite difference as well as because of it.
Paul insists that Christians must model how to ‘repent’ and change our minds… in the humble pursuit of becoming Christlike. Christians who repel others who think differently may have to ask what ‘mind changes’ are necessary if the prayer for unity is to be answered. Of course the Christian Church has limits on what counts as Christian and argument should be robust and clear; but winning the argument should not be the ultimate goal and confident humility should describe the mode of debate.
I simply don’t see that the Christian Church - in any of its dressings – has an ounce of credibility in the eyes of a suspicious world if it pretends to a gospel of reconciliation while treating its own brothers and sisters as if they were enemies. I don’t dare ask anyone else to ‘repent’ unless I first am willing to subject my own mind to a change. Which, actually, is exactly what Paul did in the three years after his conversion when his worldview underwent the most agonising transformation.
I remember the Archbishop of Canterbury saying that when people ask him to ‘lead’, they usually mean: ‘say very loudly what I want to hear you say’. The same is true of repentance and unity: we often unconsciously want everyone else to change their mind to conform to mine and want unity that has everyone doing it/believing it my way.
January 24, 2009
The BBC website makes interesting reading today. Although ITV, Channel Four and Five have decided to break ranks and show the Disaster Emergency Committee’s appeal for humanitarian relief in Gaza, the BBC is maintaining its refusal on the grounds that it might compromise its impartiality.
“After consultation with senior news editors, we concluded that to broadcast a free-standing appeal, no matter how carefully couched, ran the risk of calling into question the public’s confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in its coverage of the story as a whole.” That was the statement by Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC. He added: “We will continue to broadcast news about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and, if appropriate, to cover the work of the UK NGOs (non-governmental organisations) on the ground.”
I don’t know the answer to this question, so I’ll ask it directly: does the BBC only broadcast appeals when humanitarian aid is needed because of ‘natural disasters’ (the tsunami, for example) or also when the human need is caused by the political or military action of powerful people? Would the BBC broadcast an appeal for the suffering people of Zimbabwe or would that be considered anti-Mugabe and, therefore, not ‘impartial’. Did the BBC broadcast appeals for support after 9/11 – or would that have been considered ‘partial’?
What worries me about this is the understanding of ‘impartiality’ being held. BBC coverage of the war in Gaza was seriously limited by the exclusion of BBC journalists and cameras from Gaza itself. I cannot now remember if we heard disclaimers on news bulletins that the picture being given was bound to be ‘partial’ because access to Gaza was denied and ‘news’ was managed by the Israeli propaganda machine.
I realise that this is not the same issue as the BBC giving airtime for a humanitarian appeal. But it raises the question of whether the BBC, by denying such an appeal, is actually being partial to Israel and its view of the world.
It is perhaps not surprising that increasing numbers of journalists are questioning the possibility of impartiality on the part of journalists in any situation. The pictures they broadcast, the words they use, the worldview that shapes their perception of what is ‘normal’ (let alone what is seen to be deviating from the norm – which is what ‘news’ seems to be), the assumed criteria they use for editing material in or out (in order to create a meaningful narrative and inform an audience) – all these involve the journalist and editor as committed agents and not impartial observers.
The BBC’s dilemma is an uncomfortable one and it is not hard to see the problem they face. But I hope the BBC will broadcast the appeal along with other broadcasters. Not because sides should be taken with either Israel or Hamas, but because people are suffering enormously and no one can remain ‘impartial’ in the face of it, whatever its cause.
This matter is not unconnected to the myth of neutrality espoused by uncritical secular humanists whereby (a) there is a neutral/impartial way of seeing the world and events (which, of course, is where their own assumptions are – conveniently – thought to lie and (b) there is a dangerous loonyland where religious or other ‘committed’ people load the agenda and conspire to destroy. It is a philosophical battle that needs to be fought rationally in the public arena. It is a debate that is important because we see this nonsense working its way out when a film crew covers up a cross in a church when filming a soap opera ‘in case it causes offence’, when government departments see ‘community cohesion’ as the absence of tension between faith communities and their leaders, and when media people decide what is ‘news’ and what counts as ‘impartial’.
Some people clearly just don’t get it.
January 23, 2009
When Abba proclaimed that ‘it’s a rich man’s world’, they were simply repeating what has been complained about for thousands of year. The prophets of the Old Testament had less of a bias to the poor and more of a bias to telling the rich to use their wealth and power for the common good and the protection of the weak. The Psalmists constantly complained about the injustice of a world in which ‘the wicked prosper’ and the ‘godly’ just keep getting a bum deal. So, there’s nothing new in moaning about rich people running the world.
But it seems to me that it isn’t good enough simply to moan about the current recession and the global financial crisis, scapegoating ‘greedy bankers’ – even if they deserve it. It is all too easy to be wise after the event and there are loads of smug people slinging the dirt around at the moment.
Andreas Whittam-Smith brings some wisdom to the situation in today’s Independent (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/andreas-whittam-smith/andreas-whittam-smith-we-are-angry-so-tell-us-what-went-wrong-at-the-banks-1513373.html). The natural search for revenge (usually dressed up in the language of ‘accountability’) will get us nowhere and will solve nothing. But, as charity trustees in the UK would demand an inquiry into where the system had gone wrong with their charity, so ought the British Government establish an independent inquiry into how the world’s economic and financial systems were able to go so awry.
People like me will be able to offer a limited perspective. I have three adult children and all of them have been through university – indeed, one is still there. They emerged with massive debts and begin their working (and married) life with an assumption that living in debt is the only option – the norm. For those of us who have spent our lives trying to live within our means, this has always looked wrong. It was not rocket science to realise that the endless offers of credit cards, loans and debt-consolidation schemes from banks were unsustainable. Lending money indiscriminately to people without any scrutiny of their future ability to repay – also the problem with sub-prime mortgages – was always bound to end in tears. But, when everything is going well and the general standard of living is high, we all-too-easily assume that the experts must know what they are doing. Now we know they didn’t. Or, if they did, they were criminally selfish.
The point about an inquiry is that it would re-tell the story in the cold light of day and expose where the system and decision-making went wrong. And I suspect it would make the fantasyland activities of the banking sector look embarrassingly stupid. But at least it would help us to learn and learn and learn.
I suspect that we would end up questioning the values that have underpinned the economic and banking system in the past thirty years. I would not be the first to suggest that money doesn’t actually exist – that it merely represents an arbitrary system of relative values that only pertain if everyone agrees to the same assumptions about where ‘value’ lies. That is surely why the system, founded on trust and confidence, collapsed so quickly when trust and confidence evaporated. The uncritical assumption that economic growth is eternally sustainable and can only generate winners now looks like the Emperor’s new clothes.
But this situation now provides us with a unique opportunity not only to try to get the economy going again, but also to re-think the values and assumptions that underlie it. It enables us to ask (without embarrassment) for whom the economy and the banks exist – and whether the system is there to serve the people whose money it uses or if the people are merely there to serve the system and those who run it.
Coincidentally, the Independent today also has an interview with Jerome Kerviel, the French banker who lost Societe Generale in the region of five billion Euros. He describes the unreality of the gambling he was involved in and the lack of scrutiny by his superiors as long as he was making vast profits. His (and their) negligent hubris led to disaster. He describes his joy at making huge profits out of events such as the 7/7 Tube bombings in London and the 9/11 attacks in the USA, exposing the hard fact that some people love crises because they are able to make huge amounts of money from them.
Although I think I understand why Gordon Brown is taking us further into almost inconceivable amounts of deeper debt (to get the credit flow going so that we can gradually resume the lending and borrowing that allows businesses to function as well as grow), I have a possibly simplistic suspicion that it might not be good to sort out a debt problem by going further into debt. We cannot and must not simply try to resume ‘business as usual’, if that means returning to the same old fantasies that have dominated the last couple of decades and not learning that a fundamental review and repositioning of values is essential to the future construction of a fair economy.
Abba’s cynicism will always be there, whatever system is shaped in the future. But whatever happens next, the world cannot re-dress the Emperor in the same old new clothes.
January 21, 2009
I can’t believe what I have been reading in the newspapers today. The Times led on Obama’s inaugural speech, observing that it wasn’t his best. Apparently, he did not rise to the heights of rhetoric we have come to expect.
What sort of pompous irrelevant nonsense is this? I realise that journalists need to adopt observer status, but how detached do you have to be to think that judgement on the entertainment value of his speech is of the highest priority?
Obama faces some of the most difficult and testing crises of any US President in the last century and used his inaugural speech to issue a sobering reality check amid the euphoria surrounding his accession to power. He did the right thing in not winding people up with the inspiring cadences of rhetorical manipulation – had he done so, the same journalists would have criticised him for being triumphalistic or arrogant in the face of the challenges being faced by ordinary Americans and people around the world.
Obama got it right. He was sober and frank. He told people the situation is tough and will be both demanding and costly. He showed resolution and commitment. But he forced people to be realistic and to leave behind the fantasies that have driven the generalities propogated by his predecessor. The times are tough and the situation serious; this demanded a serious and measured initial statement. And that is what Obama gave the world.
Times journalists can think what they want about his speech. They can even give him stars or marks out of ten, if it makes them feel better. But – frankly – who cares what they think when the guy in question is doing the business. It costs the critics nothing to write their judgements on the speech of a man who has just assumed the mantle of overwhelming responsibility. Why don’t the journalists consider the relative poverty of their pontifications and let us make our own minds up?
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