August 31, 2009
Having avoided the Notting Hill Carnival on a hot London day – by visiting the Richard Long exhibition at Tate Britain - I thought my questioning the worldview and values of James Murdoch might have lost some of its heat. (I have a theory that deserves a PhD thesis on whether the Reformation could ever have happened in southern Europe – or anywhere where people spend more time outside in the warm sun than in cold buildings where their tempers can get frayed.) And I thought a day in the sun might make me feel less cross about Murdoch. It didn’t work. I now feel even more perturbed.
The Guardian has superb coverage of the Edinburgh Television Festival. James Robinson and Maggie Brown report that Murdoch’s speech seemed to be reasonably undisturbing to many of the audience as he delivered it. There seems to be a consensus building that even if Murdoch’s remedy is mad, he is right in stating that the media systems need some serious overhauling in the new digital age. In fact, Robinson and Brown regret that Murdoch didn’t really suggest anything positive by way of better regulation, but merely fired a few bullets at regulation per se.
Well, let’s look at Murdoch’s conclusion:
Above all we must have genuine independence in news media. Genuine independence is a rare thing. No amount of governance in the form of committees, regulators, trusts or advisory bodies is truly sufficient as a guarantor of independence. In fact, they curb speech. On the contrary, independence is characterised by the absence of the apparatus of supervision and dependency. Independence of faction, industrial or political. Independence of subsidy, gift and patronage. Independence is sustained by true accountability – the accountability owed to customers. People who buy the newspapers, open the application, decide to take out the television subscription – people who deliberately and willingly choose a service which they value. And people value honest, fearless, and above all independent news coverage that challenges the consensus.
There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.
So, there we have it. But I simply pose a few questions:
1. Does ‘independence’ really mean the same as ‘unaccountable’ or ‘irresponsible’ (in the sense of having no obligations to anyone other than those who buy your product)?
2. Will Murdoch now explain why, if ‘subsidy’ is anathema to the independence he craves, cross subsidy between the various elements of News Corporation (with the anti-competitive and ultimately destructive price-slashing tactics of News International’s UK newspapers in the 1980-90s) has been used as a tool to try to eliminate competition?
3. Since when has the Murdoch empire rewarded anyone who challenged their own ‘consensus’? Would someone look at how Sky saw off its competitors?
4. A ‘better society’ is defined in terms of finance, profitability and prizes for the ‘winners’? No mention of anything to do with truth, art, substance or humanity?
You don’t have to love the mixed economy of private and public media in Britain to loathe the amoral pragmatism of Murdoch’s empire. God forbid we should follow Murdoch Junior’s lead and end up with a media like that of the USA.
August 30, 2009
The Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, retires this week after 15 years in post. He will now devote his time to supporting Christians facing persecution in some tough parts of the world. I have no idea what this will actually mean from day to day – or how this will be funded and Michael and his family supported – but he has made a brave decision to move on at this point and enter an unknown world for the last five or ten years of his ‘paid’ ministry.
As I have said before, I heard Michael speak when I was a curate in Kendal in the late 1980s and was astonished at his fluency, intelligence and memory. He didn’t once appear to refer to a note or script, he quoted theologians and thinkers I have trouble even remembering, and dealt with questions with a gracious eloquence that didn’t expose how silly some of them were. Michael has never lost that amazing ability and has used it to great effect for the sake of the Gospel and the Church. Being on the receiving end of his eloquence and forensic analysis is not always comfortable (which is an understatement), but his passion and integrity are unquestionable.
In yesterday’s Daily Telegraph he gave his final interview before moving on. Predictably, the thrust of the reported interview highlights the perceived concerns of the Telegraph itself, focusing on the need for the Church of England to “do more to counter twin threats of secularism and radical Islam”. Apparently, he warned us that “traditional British society is under threat from the rise of aggressive secularism and radical Islam”. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find the interview itself – only the report of it. So, it isn’t clear what else Michael might have talked about in the interview. (Update 3 September: Martin Beckford has very helpfully written up the interview.)
I agree with Michael that ”the Church of England, which is used to working with society, should speak up … to defend the country’s customs and institutions, most of which are based on Christian teaching”. But I do not agree with the bit I excluded from that quotation: “more often”.
The first question this begs is: who is the Church of England? Is it the bishops or the Archbishops’ Council or the clergy or…? The fact is that the Church of England – in its parochial clergy, its chaplaincies, its bishops, its synods, its reports, its bloggers, its representatives in the House of Lords, etc – is always ‘speaking up’ and questioning the drifts of society when they need to be questioned. But not everybody gets listened to as Michael does. I am constantly surprised to hear that the Archbishops of Canterbury or York have been silent on something when a cursory look at their speeches, sermons and writings tell a different story.
I regularly get asked why I have not ‘spoken out’ on something or other when I have preached, blogged and debated the matter openly. What is really meant is: ‘you weren’t reported as saying what I want to hear you say in my newspaper.’
The same can be said of : “I think it will need to be more visible and take more of a stand on moral and spiritual issues”. What would such a ‘stand’ look like? And which ‘moral and spiritual issues’ will be regarded as those most important for the Church to be heard on? We are accused of not ‘speaking out on moral issues’ when it has to do with sex or relationships, but not often when it is to do with climate change, banking/finance or media misrepresentation.
I think there’s a double jeopardy – on the one hand an aggressive secularism that seeks to undermine the traditional principles because it has its own project to foster. On the other is the extremist ideology of radical Islam, which moderate Muslims are also concerned about. This is why there must be a clear recognition of where Britain has come from, what the basis is for our society and how that can contribute to the common good.
Michael has been well-heard on these matters, but he is not and has not been alone in speaking on them – either at parochial, local, national or international level. (I raised questions about persecuted Christian – and other religious – minorities during the Congress of Leaders of World and Tradional Religions in Kazkahstan in July this year…) I hope he will continue to bring his unique perceptions and perspectives to bear on these and other issues, but I also hope that others will get heard when they do what he is asking for, but don’t have the same facility as he does for getting reported.
August 29, 2009
Peston, Murdoch and Marr sounds like a firm of dodgy solicitors, but they are, of course, the names of important prognosticators of our media future.
- Robert Peston, Business Editor for the BBC, delivered the Richard Dunn Memorial Lecture at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival today (Saturday 29 August 2009), looking at the future of news journalism.
- James Murdoch, son of Rupert and Chairman & Chief Executive of News Corporation in Europe and Asia, attacked the BBC in a question and answer session following Peston’s lecture, pleading for deregulation in the industry and removal of the BBC’s ‘dominance’.
- Andrew Marr, BBC journo and author of the excellent My Trade, makes some pertinent and prescient comments in defence of the BBC in his book (published in 2004).
Peston describes the current global recession in unromantic terms (several times) and explains the impact on news media in particular. His executive summary looks like this:
1. This is no ordinary recession – the traditional business model of traditional news providers is being wrecked and needs to be overhauled.
2. In a globalised, 24/7 digital world, individual news organisation may be less powerful than they were, but stories – and to an extent the journalists who own them – shout louder than ever.
3. The traditional distinctions between television journalists, radio journalists and print journalists are quite close to being obsolete. This has huge operational implications for all media companies and also for regulation of the industry.
4. The financial crisis we’re living through – and the end of an era of what I call financial paternalism – shows that more than ever we need a choice of high-quality news providers which are confident in their ability to explain complex important issues in a clear and accessible way. [Can we] be certain that the commercial news sector’s imminent revolution – in launching subscription or paid-for online news services – will meet that important need of any thriving democracy[?]
He then goes on to “raise the question of whether the BBC is the invaluable defender of impartial, public-service journalism, at a time of a massive squeeze on the resources of commercial news providers, or the monstrous squisher of private sector rivals.” But, as he developed his argument, he also recognised the pivotal role of journalists in reporting and making news. Referring to his own involvement in the Northern Rock saga and the subsequent earthquake in the banking world, he acknowledges that “the incident shows how loud a voice a journalist and a media organisation can have and what a heavy responsibility there is to get the facts and context right.” He then adds (rightly, in my view):
It was plainly in the public interest to disclose the weakness of our banks. And the primary justification – for me – of this kind of story is to democratise information that matters to all our livelihoods, which would otherwise be available simply to a few bankers, hedge funds and government officials. That said, no responsible journalist would fail to acknowledge that it would be wrong to weaken such important financial institutions through an exaggerated account of their vulnerability.
He then goes on to admit that “the media did too little to challenge the consensus that the world had entered an era of continuous low-inflation growth – or at least not until it was too late.” Recalling the need to challenge orthodoxies, he states: “But although individual news organisations are probably in general weaker, facing both greater financial pressures and more competition than ever, the power of individual stories – and I suppose of journalists, from time to time – has increased.”
I quote at length because Peston, addressing the changing and increasingly complex world of news communication, sees the tension between the need for ”providers of high quality, authoritative news … enough competing groups with the resources to invest in news – because it is far from cheap to supply people with the information they need to take control of their lives and hold big institutions to account” and the dangers of losing quality (and accuracy?) in the heat of that same competition. In a damning indictment of the return to the status quo in the banking system, he says:
And what worries me is that we are trusting these unelected officials from regulators and the central banks – like the Financial Services Authority and the Bank of England – to take these decisions on our behalf all over again, without any serious popular debate about what kind of banking system we want. Unless media organisations are prepared to tackle these unsexy complicated issues, how on earth are we going to foment a national debate, how are people going to have a voice on issues that probably affect their prosperity more than whether the tax rate rises or falls by a few percentage points.
Peston then turns his attention to the demands of public service journalism, which he describes as “about informing and educating the public so that there is democratic participation in big decisions about the future of capitalism.” Whilst understanding the complaints of private sector operators like James Murdoch who are driving towards charging for online access, Peston puts his finger on why the BBC must be protected:
Will the new paid-for online model inform and educate on hard issues – financial matters, but also medicine, the environment, education and so on – that matter to us, or will it concentrate on the more sensationalist and titillating bangs for the buck? And even if paid-for online services do endeavour to fill the gap created by the death of financial paternalism, will millions on low incomes be excluded from access to this information? Should we be relaxed if ‘can’t pay’ means ‘can’t know’?
… having just lived through the greatest failure in history to distribute financial resources in an efficient and equitable way, we certainly shouldn’t assume that a commercial digital market in news will distribute information in a way that would support a healthy democracy. Walter Bagehot – as luck would have it the greatest ever writer on banking – defined democracy as government by discussion. But you can’t have a decent chinwag without having the facts. And the big question … is whether the incipient structure of our new digital news industry will promote or undermine the healthy discussion that is necessary for democracy to thrive.
James Murdoch is not a happy man and wants the BBC to have its licence fee cut in order to reduce its dominanceover independent media providers. But, Murdoch is arguing with the first element of Peston’s ‘fairnesses’ (“ensuring a level playing field for players in a commercial market”) and ignoring what Peston calls ”the fairness of the distribution of information and knowledge to all who need it, irrespective of their material circumstances. These are two different kinds of fairness.”
Look at Murdoch’s tabloid empire and the dogma, methodologies and output of his Fox News in the USA and you begin to realise why commercial arguments cannot be allowed to be the dominant ones in the current media debates. Content, truth, accuracy and a recognition of the democratic importance of honest media are quickly sacrificed on the altar of business empires run on amoral lines. And this is where Andrew Marr’s observations come in. Concluding a long descriptive argument about the history and nature of the BBC, he asks:
Would a Britain without the BBC have been bound together in the way we have been bound together? And if the BBC goes, won’t a whole way of feeling British vanish too?
This is not mere sentimentalism. The BBC is able to attend to more than winning commercial advantage by giving people what they want. The Corporation – particularly in its news coverage – is both driven and tormented by the need to inform and help people understand what is driving and influencing their lives. This exercise might never be popular, but it is essential to a mature or maturing democracy. God forbid that Murdoch’s bleatings should ever lead to us being fed by media channels such as the embarrassingly perverse Fox News.
August 28, 2009
One of the comments posted in response to my blog following the death of Ted Kennedy earlier this week made me stop and think. This is what Jim wrote (for which I am grateful):
I really do struggle with scripture, I think I have mentioned this before, and I cannot make too many definitive statements about God. What I do know though, is that there is a God who is responsible for the beginning of events, everything else has been a series of links in a chain of reactions. I consider myself to be a direct creation of ‘nature’, which I use in a very broad way of speaking. My mind is nature’s child, largely inflicted with all of nature’s imperfections. My soul is God’s alone, and it is not within the power of nature to ever posses it. I have learnt that if I love my soul, then God will find a common ground in the psychology of my physical mind, and this can be achieved through prayer and meditation which will nurture and strengthen the bond of mind, soul and faith.
Life is always going to be a battle between the nature of your mind and the time you give to your soul. This way of thinking has taught me to look at some of the more difficult scriptures in a new way. Instead of reading them like linear narrative, I have learnt to explore the emotions and reactions they provoke. Even two seemingly hypocritical statements Will take your mind on a journey through the possibilities. Maybe this is the intention for the mind, so it can find its soul.
I quoted that at length because it raises one or two interesting matters:
1. Jim struggles with Scripture. I struggle with Scripture. Anyone who says they don’t is lying. Scripture is there to be struggled with and fought with. Not to struggle and grapple with it is to be indifferent to it – or to play games with it. Struggling with Scripture means you take it seriously and think what it says (and doesn’t say) matters enormously.
2.I know what Jim is getting at about ‘mind’ and ‘soul’, but I am not sure I agree. Plato divided the person into body and mind/soul and this false dichotomy has caused us problems ever since. But Hebrew and Christian anthropology won’t release us from a body/mind/spirit unity. That’s why Romans 12:1-2 is so important: spirituality is seen in how we use our body and this is all shaped by the forming of our mind.
So, no anti-intellectualism here. And no anti-body stuff either. And don’t ‘spiritualise’ what can’t be cashed out in terms of body and mind.
But, Jim’s point is slightly different. I think what underlies his (pragmatic understanding of the self) is that, made in the image of God, there is something in us that is preciously and infinitely valuable. We are loved by God to death and beyond – as he has proved. But our mind (the way we see God, the world and us) is always vulnerable and limited as well as wonderful and full of potential. Being Christian (and struggling with the Scriptures is part of this) involves the re-grinding of the lens behind the eyes (as I have phrased it elsewhere) – a process of re-seeing the world and God and, therefore, learning to see, think and live differently.
I am with Jim in this. Constantly learning, open to being challenged that my vision is limited and my ‘mind’ not doing justice to my ‘soul’ – as Jim put it.
August 27, 2009
I was on a train when I heard of the death of Teddy Kennedy from brain cancer. It is clear that his death ends the dynasty that dominated American politics (and gossip/glamour) through the twentieth century and finally lays to rest the brothers whose lives were characterised by privilege, duty, public service and violence.
What has interested me particularly, though, is the juxtaposition of Kennedy’s chaotic personal life with his public service. OK, the Chappaquiddick incident was always going to be dragged up in any resume of his life, but there is an uneasy holding together here of the personal deficiencies with the impressive public service achievements. The Guardian put it like this:
‘There are no second acts in American lives’– this dour pronouncement of F Scott Fitzgerald has been many times refuted, and at no time more appropriately than in reference to the late Senator Ted Kennedy, whose death was announced yesterday. Indeed, it might be argued that Senator Kennedy’s career as one of the most influential of 20th-century Democratic politicians, an iconic figure as powerful, and as morally enigmatic, as President Bill Clinton, whom in many ways Kennedy resembled, was a consequence of his notorious behaviour at Chappaquiddick bridge in July 1969.
What is it about some people (usually men) that the drive that causes such chaos personally – and to those close to them – also seems to be the source of the energy that drives them in their public life? Flawed people who change the world. People who evoke disgust at one level, but demand respect at another.
There is a complexity to human nature that refuses to sanitise real life. One of my great heroes is Martin Niemoeller, the German pastor who survived concentration camps and emerged to help lead the post-War German Church out of its shamed Nazi collusion. He was a brave, visionary and wise man – but he also had advocated voting for Hitler in two elections on the grounds that he would clean things up in the seedy Weimar Republic.
We always seem to want perfection from our public servants. We indulge in hagiography when referring to our heroes. We sanitise the bits that aren’t helpful to the image we wish to propagate. And we do the opposite to our enemies – focusing on their shortcomings and contradictions at the expense of the rounded picture which includes their glories.
This is surprising, particularly when Christians do it. The Bible is full of unsanitised pictures and stories of deeply -flawed people who nevertheless become people who change the world in some way. I am fed up with hearing sermons about people like Abraham that ignore his trying to sell off his wife in order to save his own skin. Three times, I think.
Wherever we look, world-changers are flawed human beings. We should just get used to it. Perfection just is not out there. Kennedy’s legacy will now be picked over and his weaknesses shredded for public entertainment. His politics will be regarded by his enemies as forgettable or useless simply on the grounds of his personal flaws. And that will be convenient, if ridiculously stupid.
Perhaps the death of Kennedy might compel us to drop our sanctimonious guff and consider afresh the amazing mixture of raw humanity that, without excusing bad behaviour, at least understands that it doesn’t automatically cancel out the good stuff that emerges from the same source.
August 24, 2009
The debate about the release of the (only) man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, is gathering pace this morning. The Scottish Parliament has been recalled and there has been a serious appeal for a public inquiry into the decision to release the terminally-ill prisoner. All this will now take its course and, hopefully – this being a democracy, of course – we will find out what were the criteria for making the legal judgement to release him on compassionate grounds. In other words, we should discover if any deals were done (all denied) or any pressure applied.
However, to pick up on the theme of my last post and a good deal of Twitter traffic in the UK, there is a certain degree of what might be called ‘incredulity’ at the American political response (exploitation?) of this matter. Following the FBI Director’s bizarre letter to the Scottish Justice Minister, one correspondent wrote:
I don’t think I really get past the feeling of outrage that the director of the FBI presumes to talk about justice … I assume that Mueller well knows that Leonard Peltier, just denied parole after 33 years inside, was framed by the FBI … Also just in the news: a first apology for the My Lai massacre from the one man convicted for it – pardoned after 4.5 months! … What justice or compassion did the US show when the Vincennes shot down that Iranian airliner? … why do we still allow the US to define not only who are terrorists but also what is justice?
Not everyone will want to agree with this explosion of outrage, but the US needs to grasp that it isn’t always seen as the ‘Land of the Free’ outside of the USA itself. Continuing questions about Afghanistan, Iraq, the ‘War on Terror’, Guantanamo and the US practice of denying justice to ‘inconvenient’ people (only now giving details to the Red Cross of men held in secret captivity in Iraq and Afghanistan) cause many of us to listen with a certain degree of cynicism to proclamations from Washington. And that is not a healthy state of affairs.
Two reports in this morning’s media deserve comment:
1. The BBC website quotes ABC’s Radio Corrspondent in the UK, Tom Rivers, saying:
…it was “highly unusual” for the director of the FBI to talk about political issues … Mueller was an assistant Attorney General in the early 90s, looking at specifically the Lockerbie case, so it was very close and personal from his point of view … And that is being felt across the board in America. You’ve got American websites saying unless Britain does something there’s talk of a boycott of British and Scottish goods, and also urging people not to come to Britain on tourist trips.”
Now, that really is worrying. Since when was the Director of the FBI supposed to be motivated by ‘personal’ stuff? Isn’t ‘justice’ supposed to be impartial and exercised on the basis of more than emotion? (‘Compassion’ is actually more than ‘mere emotion’, is it not?) This may work in Hollywood, but it is disturbing in the context of politics or law. A boycott will expose more than the Americans might expect.
2. James Rubin, a policy adviser to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton said on the BBC this morning:
I think the cause of those who have seen criminal courts and the criminal process as a way to deal with terrorism has been greatly set back. There have been many who have emphasised how the court system and international law is the best tool to deal with the threat of international terrorism – often in criticising the US for its approach - I think that cause has been greatly set back.
Well, he is entitled to his opinion, but there is a worrying assumption here that is not shared by a huge number of people on this side of the Atlantic. Has not one of the problems in the last fifty years been that the US has tried to enforce on some countries of the world (by undemocratic and unlawful means?) a model of democracy that only creates cynicism on those being ‘helped’? Is Rubin really suggesting that we can encourage a world to take seriously the fundamental importance of the rule of law by threatening to abandon it when ‘convenient’ to the powerful?
These reactions need to be further unpacked – and, no doubt, they will be as the day goes on and the weeks roll by. But, I think I will just continue to think it through and see what happens in Scotland today as MSPs convene to debate the matter.
August 23, 2009
This is one of those days when you have to be glad you aren’t a government minister being asked to make lonely and hard decisions which, by definition, will elate some and enrage others. The release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber, from Scottish custody ‘on compassionate grounds’ has appalled many people in Britain and the United States and divided opinion worldwide.
The Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is adamant that he reached his conclusions on the basis of Scotland’s due process, clear evidence, and the recommendations from the parole board and prison governor. But, in an unprecedented move, Robert Mueller, chief of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, has written to Mr MacAskill and condemned his decision in extremely strong terms: “Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice…”, making a “mockery of the rule of law” that “gave comfort to terrorists”. (Mr Mueller is a former prosecutor who played a key role in investigating the 1988 Lockerbie bombing which killed 270 people.)
The anger and outrage are entirely understandable. The bombers did not show compassion to those who fell out of the sky in 1988 and their families cannot welcome home their long-lost loved ones. So, what does it mean to show compassion to a convicted mass-murderer while thereby showing a total lack of compassion to those who were so violently bereaved?
In this context it is important to read also the statement issued by Megrahi on his release and hear the anger of those who, because of the dropping of his second appeal, will now not be able (a) to challenge his conviction or (b) identify those who did organise, authorise and perpetrate this appalling crime. I guess that had he been tried and convicted in a US court, Megrahi would by now have been executed – regardless of doubts about his guilt.
But, put the fully-justified righteous anger to one side for a moment and pick away at the assumptions underlying the argument and the language. Mueller uses the word ‘compassion’ almost as a term of contempt.
I am outraged at your decision, blithely defended on the grounds of “compassion.” Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice. Indeed your action makes a mockery of the rule of law.Your action gives comfort to terrorists around the world who now believe that regardless of the quality of the investigation, the conviction by jury after the defendant is given all due process, and sentence appropriate to the crime, the terrorist will be freed by one man’s exercise of “compassion.”
Your action rewards a terrorist even though he never admitted to his role in this act of mass murder and even though neither he nor the government of Libya ever disclosed the names and roles of others who were responsible…
Although the FBI and Scottish police, and prosecutors in both countries, worked exceptionally closely to hold those responsible accountable, you never once sought our opinion, preferring to keep your own counsel and hiding behind opaque references to “the need for compassion.”
You have given the family members of those who died continued grief and frustration. You have given those who sought to assure that the persons responsible would be held accountable the back of your hand.
Strong stuff, indeed – and, I imagine, hard even for tough Scottish ministers to hear. But it also begs serious questions.
1. Why does Mueller see compassion as weak? Why does he see compassion as a concession – something that is only offered to ‘reward terrorists’?
2. Does Mueller see justice as always or inevitably devoid of compassion – being merely the imposition of a legal/penal response to a legal decision?
3. How does Mueller know that this ruling ‘gives comfort to terrorists’? And are we to continue to allow the USA to determine who is and who is not a terrorist? If we are to extrapolate from this particular event to others in recent history, then there will be a fair number of US politicians and military personnel who might also require dispassionate ‘justice’. Or do those who were shown no ‘compassion’ in Central America in the 1980s not deserve justice because US-backed aggression is somehow justifiable? That is, ‘terrorists’ are always and inevitably those who attack the US, but never the Americans who attack others?
4. There are bereaved family members who back the Scottish decision and who have not been caused ‘continued grief and frustration’. Jim Swire is one among a number who believe that Megrahi is a scapegoat and that the loss of this latest appeal prevents the real culprits from being identified and brought to justice.
Isn’t it conceivable that a mark of civilisation and moral maturity is the ability or willingness to transcend even justice (narrowly defined) and show those virtues we claim to espouse? Or, when the ‘nice stuff’ is stripped away, do we really believe that a tooth should always be extracted for a tooth and an eye blinded in recompense for an eye – which, as someone once pointed out, always leaves us all blind and toothless?
These are not easy questions and I don’t assume easy or obvious answers. Life is more complicated than that. But there are as many questions to be asked of the American response to Megrahi’s release as there are about the grounds for his release itself. And we might want to ask if there would now be peace in Northern Ireland if some people had not had the courage to go beyond the cry for mere justice towards an outrageously generous compassion for all who suffer and not just ‘our own’. The South African transition from apartheid might raise similar comparisons.
In the end, I do want to recover ‘compassion’ as something strong and costly, deserving of respect and honour – not to be spat out as a term of derision, implying weakness or cowardice.
Was Jesus being pathetic when from the gallows – he cried for forgiveness for those who had put him there?
August 23, 2009
In my last post (as it were) I offered a brief suggestion of what question it is that the Bible is answering. I did so in relation to an incarnational representation of political argument by giving that argument a character and placing it/him/her in a story. This is what, in a form of shorthand, I wrote:
Hence the simple (simplistic?) formula I have stated elsewhere for handling the Bible whose fundamental question is ‘What is God like?’: “If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. If you want to know what Jesus is like, read the Gospels … and then look at us (the Christian Church).”
I was provoked into thinking about this by a number of factors, one of which was an observation by Andrew Marr about newspaper columnists in his excellent book, My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism. Writing about the art of writing a good column, he says:
Every column is … an argument, a case, a piece of logic. In general, it needs to be about something that can be expressed in a single headline-sized phrase or sentence. If the columnist cannot say [it] concisely, … then it is likely that the column will be confused, and therefore dull. If it isn’t a statement, it’s a waste of time. (p.371)
What Marr says of good writing is also true of any good communication. The purpose of good communication is not to reveal how clever or well-informed the writer/speaker is, but to enable the reader/hearer to grasp simply and clearly the essential thrust of the argument. It isn’t about making complex matters simplistic, but making complex matters simply comprehensible. Which brings us back to the Bible and communicating what it and Christian faith are about in ways that can be understood without needing a dictionary, a degree or a thick book.
It seems to me that whenever we pick up any sort of book, we do so with an unspoken question at the back of our mind: whodunnit? who is this character? why did these events happen the way they did? When we come to the Bible, the basic question we should be asking of the text(s) is: who is this God and what is he like? At least, that is, I think, the fundamental question being addressed by the text. The answer given is: God looks like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. Look at Jesus of Nazareth and you see who and how God is in the world.
But – and here is the sticky bit – that same Jesus called his followers and friends to be like him, to look and sound and feel like him. The New Testament writers – particularly Paul – grasped this and called the body of Christians the ‘Body of Christ’. The logic is that the Christian body should reflect the Jesus we read about in the Gospels (that is, incarnate him) in the ways we live, the ways we speak, the ways we listen and hear, the priorities we set, the habits we cultivate and so on. Hence the ‘formula’ I offered in my last post.
I cannot see any other way of understanding what the church exists for.
Yet, in saying this, I will probably be criticised for being selective. Yes, there may well be other ways of describing the role and purpose of the church in the world; but no single pithy phrasing will be all-encompassing. The fallibility of any ‘headline’ or metaphor should not, however, prevent us from trying to communicate who and why we are in ways that can be grasped simply and quickly by most people. After all, that is why Jesus spoke in parables and with images and stories. And it is why Paul used the picture of a human body.
The pithiest ‘headline’ I have come up with is: ‘the task of the church is to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God.’ And that is the beginning of the matter, not the end. I fear that too often in the church we go to the complicated end and forget that most people haven’t yet got as far as the beginning.
August 21, 2009
You can take the man out of Liverpool, but you can’t take Liverpool out of the man.
I left Liverpool to go to university in 1976 and never really went back to live there. My parents and younger brother still live there, my elder son and his wife live there and my younger son is at university there. I go back whenever I can, but that is not often these days.
When I do go back I am amazed at the transformation of the place in the last three decades – especially the almost tangible confidence about the city now. But, as I drive through to the centre from my parents’ home in Childwall I still remember the dereliction of the 1970s. There were still bomb sites that hadn’t been cleared since the end of the second world war. There was a sense of victimhood as any economic boom by-passed a city riven by mad politics which put winning cheap dogmatic ideological battles ahead of any sense of public good. (I have written about this in my book Finding Faith: Stories of Music and Life.)
One of the defining images of those years was Alan Bleasdale‘s epic BBC series, Boys from the Blackstuff. I think this was developed from a one-off TV play simply called The Blackstuff – but I might be making that up. Bleasdale created one of the most powerful screams against the realities of what became Thatcherite Britain as experienced in a northern city – as opposed, of course, to the ‘glorious’ experiences of the City (of London). This series portrayed characters that any Scouser would recognise and showed the human cost of policies that ruined the lives of a generation or more. Unemployment, lack of resources for ordinary living and the terrible compulsion (of Yosser particularly) to retain some human dignity (and hope) were the realities for many, many people. Community cohesion was more of a reality then – until dissolved in the acid of the selfish individualism that ultimately led to the hubristic and greed-based financial fiasco we have seen played out in the last year or so.
Two things stand out for me as I prepare to watch this series again after three decades, having just picked up the boxed set this morning:
First, the arts convey human realities and portray the real effects of ‘dogmas’ on ordinary people far better than abstract arguments ever could. If you really want to persuade people of the power of your argument, put it into a story and give it flesh. Which brings me to …
Second, Yosser and co incarnate the experiences of a city and its people during dark days. I use the word ‘incarnate’ deliberately. If we want to know about the effects of a political or economic policy, put it into flesh and blood and let’s see what it looks, sounds and feels like. That is why this series was so powerful in the ‘depression-scarred 1980s’.
This has a theological edge to it, too. If we were to ask ourselves how we should best understand God, – and who and how he is – what would we need? Rather than simply offering us three-line definitions of the Kingdom of God (and somewhere to sign up to it so that others would know if we were ‘in’ or ‘out’), God comes among us as one of us – in Jesus of Nazareth. Hence the simple (simplistic?) formula I have stated elsewhere for handling the Bible whose fundamental question is ‘What is God like?’:
If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. If you want to know what Jesus is like, read the Gospels … and then look at us (the Christian Church).
That is scary.
August 20, 2009
It must still be the Silly Season in the UK. Apparently a row has broken out (again) about religious dissing (again) on the radio (again). Inevitably, it offers another opportunity to kick the BBC and exercise the anti-PC (‘politically correct’, not ‘police constable’ or ‘personal computer’) muscles.
The Independent reports the story as follows:
The BBC’s Asian Network was at the centre of a fresh race row last night after Sikhs accused the digital radio station of being insensitive towards their religion.BBC bosses were forced to remove a show by the popular Muslim presenter Adil Ray from their website after the morning show DJ received threats from angry Sikh listeners who accused him of denigrating an important religious symbol.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has responded in forthright fashion in the same paper and concludes (almost):
Some of the best of British broadcasters are on the Asian Network – Nihal, Sonia Deol, Nikki Bedi – their programmes are as full of vitality and erudition as those presented by Nicky Campbell and Victoria Derbyshire. Nihal is also on Radio 1 and his shows are exceptional because he pulls in all the strands of his cultural life. On the whole, though, mainstream BBC radio is still too white, even though the brilliant Anita Anand (5 Live, Drive), Ritula Shah ( Radio 4, The World Tonight) and others have proved they can lead on national conversations using their complex identities to great effect.
Ignore the fact that it begins to read a bit like the Monty Python (Life of Brian) ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ and look at that last phrase. I would love YA-B to explain what she means by the term “using their complex identities to great effect”.
It seems to me that every human being has a complex identity, shaped by genetics, nurture, race, and nurtured worldviews (the often/usually unconscious assumptions we are brought up with in looking at the world, human meaning, ethics, etc). I think YA-B is rightly pointing to the fact that British-born Asians bring to their work a unique and interesting mix of assumptions, perceptions and experiences informed by their having lived in several ‘worlds’ at once.
The same can be said of anyone who grows up speaking several languages – I go into primary schools in Croydon that have up to 46 first languages spoken among the 300 or so children. Anyone who speaks more than one language with any degree of proficiency knows that you don’t simply switch between parallel words, but you enter a mental, linguistic, cultural and philosophical framework that has depth and not just some sort of horizontal word equivalence.
But, to get back to the point, YA-B’s case would be strengthened by urging the white people she complains about (“Witnessing this latest spat, you wonder if it was not just a continuation of the divide and rule policies that served Britannia in the days of the Raj. Lock them in a studio, get the natives to fight each other, then they won’t come bothering those of us born to rule the airwaves.”) to accept the complexity of their own make-up and not simply point to those who look or sound a little more exotic. We are all complex and that is what makes living interesting: we can never simply categorise and think we have understood everyone who falls into that particular category.
This also has a bearing on comments added to my post on Stephen Bates’ road to agnosticism from yesterday’s Guardian. Every human story is unique and every individual person complex. There are those who try to categorise and make blanket judgements for all people and all time: we have to do this in order to be able to function as a society. But every time you get close to anyone’s real story/identity, you realise all the contradictions, nuances, peculiarities and complexities.
When I read the New Testament proscriptions on certian types of people or behaviours, I can only conclude that the Church would have no clergy at all as we all are compromised in one way or another.
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