November 2009

liverpool_one_logoI was in Liverpool for a few days this week to visit my family. On Monday evening I took my parents and my younger brother for dinner in the town centre and saw for the first time Liverpool One.

I remember this area as derelict and dangerous. I once had a holiday job (when I was about 15) in a warehouse just round the corner from the new shopping cathedral and well remember discovering the decaying rat under the denim jacket (later sold…) – as well as being wrapped up in cardboard boxes and sent down the chute into the basement to await rescue by the boss an hour later.

This is the area opposite the rejuvenated Albert Dock and it now connects the docks with the main shopping and entertainment area of the city centre. It is brilliant to see the confident redevelopment of this place that has been a derelict mess since the Second World War.

Everton Two logoBut the best bit was wandering through the deserted shopping centre after hours and coming across the Liverpool FC Shop. two doors further along was the Everton FC Shop. The Evertonians had the wit to call their shop ‘Everton Two’ – so that their address now reads: Everton Two, Liverpool One.

It shouldn’t be funny, but…

Further to the furore over the Sun‘s handling of the Jamie Janes hand-written (by the Prime Minister) letter saga, I can’t quite believe I have just heard what I think I have just heard.

I was driving down the M40 on my way back from Liverpool to Croydon this evening and listening to BBC Radio 4′s PM news programme. Tom Newton Dunn, the new Political Editor of the Sun, was being interviewed by Eddie Mair. In response to the statement that the Sun was trying to deter voters from voting for Gordon Brown in the next General Election, he said this:

I’m not sure we’ve ever said we don’t want people to vote for Gordon Brown. All we do is offer our readers an opinion. We don’t make or break governments. We simply report what happens and give them the benefit of our opinion, if they want to read it.

I propose a minute’s silence for (a) the death of journalistic integrity (at the Sun) and (b) the scornful mockery in this statement of the readers’/electorate’s intelligence.

I got into a lively debate over the Telegraph‘s handling of the MPs’ expenses business - a debate that ended up quite informative and helpful. One of the sticking points, however, was the difference in perception between the ‘reporter’ and the ‘reported on’. I then responded to James Murdoch’s outrageous speech to the Edinburgh Television Festival – especially his assumption that the ‘Market’ is the only god (especially if dominated by him and run in his interests). This latest stuff leads me to ask the following questions and I invite journalists (many of whom have my deep respect) to respond:

  1. Does anyone really still think that newspapers simply “report what happens” dispassionately?
  2. Is it even remotely credible that the Sun would waste a penny of its money publishing a word on anything if its owners and journalists thought they were doing nothing to shape the world, influence debate and change people’s thinking to the extent that they might vote differently?
  3. Would the Sun retain any journalists if all they did was to offer a casual opinion on the events of the day and not seek to change people’s behaviour?
  4. If the Political Editor is right, then why did the Sun go to such lengths to advertise its power of persuasion in previous elections and publicise its change of allegiance for the next election?

And an extra question – riding on the back of the Press Complaints Commission’s latest failure in respect of phone-tapping allegations against the News of the World: when will the profession take the lead from the reluctant MPs and propose outside regulation of the media? (In the ‘expenses’ debate on this blog one of the arguments against MPs was – rightly – that they set their own rules and regulate themselves and that this is intolerable. I asked why the same didn’t apply to journalists. I’m still waiting to hear a cry for justice here.)

Go anywhere outside Britain and ‘our’ red-top tabloids are a source of incredulity and embarrassment in media, political and other circles. Why do we tolerate this rubbish?

It is no secret that I am not a fan of the British tabloid newspaper, the Sun. Actually, that is an understatement. I have nothing but contempt for the way people are treated by the British tabloids: dehumanised fodder in ratings wars.

The SunThe big news yesterday was about the ‘scandal’ of the Prime Minister having written an inadequate letter to the mother of a young soldier who died in Afghanistan. Apparently, the Prime Minister wrote by hand a letter of condolence in poor handwriting – a letter that was then found to contain spelling errors. The outrage of the bereaved mother was then caught in newspaper print and in the broadcast media. Gordon Brown was put onto the defensive, having to explain to a watching world what should have been a private matter.

And this is where the Sun comes in. It appears that this ‘newspaper’ has generated a story in order to put political pressure on the Prime Minister and the Labour Government. In other words, this is a political maneouvre aimed at causing embarrassment to the party the paper has decided to oppose in the next election.

So, what happened next? Well, the Prime Minister phoned the bereaved mother – beyond the call of duty? The Sun had provided her with the means to record the private conversation – and now the recording has been made public, is being picked over in the media and yet might invoke sympathy for Brown.

Why do people buy a newspaper that so blatantly abuses a bereaved woman such as Mrs Janes? She is being cynically exploited for the Sun‘s gain. As another bereaved mother put it on the BBC news earlier: this is a private matter and bereaved people should be directing their anger where it is due – not by making political capital for a newspaper by allowing her privacy to be compromised by people you can’t trust.

Whatever you think of Gordon Brown or his Government or his policies in respect of Afghanistan, this behaviour cannot be condoned. The Prime Minister didn’t simply send out a standard letter of condolence with a brief hand-written sentence at the end to ‘personalise’ it; he writes an individual letter to each bereaved family. That should be recognised and applauded … and then left to the confidentiality it deserved.

No one will fail to sympathise with those bereaved through the horror and violence of this conflict. But the Sun is behaving exploitatively and with a dehumanising contempt for the people involved as well as for any notion of privacy or confidentiality.

Can’t the great British public see what is going on here – and how they/we are being manipulated by this stuff?

There is a place where the Sun don’t shine…

It has been fascinating listening (in the car on the drive from London to Liverpool) to all the stuff on Germany 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I did a 30 minute slot on a radio station this morning and was interested to listen to the memories of Germans from the east and west of that surprising and momentous day two decades ago.

GorbachevBut, amid all the memories, it has brought to my mind a different event.

Last year I was in Astana, Kazakhstan, for a conference and was seated at dinner one evening with the Chairman of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Tokayev is a very fluent English speaker and a politician of broad experience. I think there were seven or eight of us around the table and the conversation ranged widely over all sorts of political matters. Being a little opportunistic, I thought I’d grab the chance to ask questions I could never ask anyone else: Tokayev knew Gorbachev and Yeltsin and worked closely with both of them.

YeltsinI asked him why it was that Gorbachev is seen in the West as a great hero – the one who liberated the East and ended the Cold War – and Yeltsin is seen as an egotistic drunk who was an embarrassment to everyone who saw him. His response surprised me. He said that Gorbachev was a loser (my word) who sanctioned a massacre in Kazakhstan only several years before Glasnost kicked in and then oversaw the collapse of an empire; Yeltsin, on the other hand, was admired for his strength, political ability and his drinking. Apparently, in Russia a man who can hold huge quantities of alcohol is revered rather than resented.

This made me realise again that it is too easy to assume that everybody sees the world through the same lens. The way we judge ‘strength’ in the West might be totally different from how it is viewed in the East. It was fascinating listening to Tokayev telling stories of people who are legendary in my world, but for very different reasons and from very different perspectives.

It is a similar story in Germany today. Ostalgia (as it is being called) refers to the sort of romantic memories of the old German Democratic Republic. The world of the Berlin Wall was easier to understand: east and west, capitalist and communist, etc. But there were things of value in the east: universal health care, full employment (even though much of the work was not great), cheap travel, good education, etc. One German commentator I heard this morning noted that ‘you cannot put a price on freedom’, but that freedom comes at a price: freedom to fail, to be unemployed, to lose, to be poor, and so on.

The events of this night 20 years ago remind me that freedom must never be romanticised – but it must be highly valued. The fall of the Wall brought losses as well as gains. But life is like that. Isn’t it?

PoppyNovember is a sombre month – despite me having yet another birthday in it. The remembering of deceased family and friends at All Saints gives way to a weird celebration of the (failed) Gunpowder Plot (and its religious undertones) which in turn rolls us on to Remembrance Day.

Even as a child I wondered why we had Remembrance Day on the day that the Armistice was signed: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. After all, it was the disaster of this – and the Treaty of Versailles – that led to the festering grievance of Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, feeding Hitler’s thirst for revenge on a Europe that had ‘stabbed Germany in the back’ by unjustly demanding of it an unconditional surrender and full admission of guilt. In other words, we celebrate the desire to end war on a day when the seeds of the Second World War were sown by an injustice the potential consequences of which were not imagined.

The point of making this observation, however, is that human beings very easily forget their history and only remember those bits that reinforce the prejudices we hold in our understanding of the contemporary world. The corruption of the Weimar Republic, coupled with weak government, provided the fertile breeding ground for a National Socialism that offered solutions to today’s ‘problems’ while allowing people to ignore the big pool in which Nazi ideology itself swam.

In other words, sort out the economy now (reduce unemployment, end inflation, restore order and build houses, roads and factories, etc) and we will ignore the unpleasant fact that the ‘ordering’ party has a world view that idealises and then privileges a particular race over against other races. Ignore the fact that this racial understanding of German identity was historical and scientific nonsense/romanticism: power was given away to the guys who would put cash in our pockets and food in our bellies.

Show me a fascist who has ever won an argument. Show me a fascist who didn’t grab power with violence, exploiting a weak democratic system by ‘restoring order’ to its people. History is always in danger of repeating itself wherever there is economic need, political weakness and people prepared to give power away in order to solve a different problem now.

I thought about this while at St Mary, Addington, this morning, knowing that the BNP would be wanting to lay a wreath at the War Memorial afterwards. I read a poem I wrote in Normandy in 1996 (and put on this blog) and told how I had been snubbed last year in Germany.

IMG_9504I had preached in Meissen Cathedral and after the service stood at the door and spoke with most of the 200 or so people there. Towards the end an elderly man came out and stood with his hands by his side and told me he could not bring himself to shake hands with an English bishop who had (wrongly) been invited to preach in this German Cathedral. I asked him why not. He replied that he came from Dresden and could not forgive what the Allies had done to that city during 13-15 February 1945 – he called it a ‘war crime’. I responded that I also think it was a war crime (for reasons too long to go into here), but that my grandparents had been bombed out (and their children evacuated) in Liverpool – a city devastated by German bombers and one that is still recovering even 60 years after the War ended. There are no winners in war, but there are many casualties. After a silence he extended his hand and wished me well before he walked off to his car.

IMG_9521Remembrance Day always reminds me that we don’t emerge from a historical vacuum. Tomorrow will see the 20th anniversary of the fall of part of Hitler’s legacy: the Berlin Wall as a symbol of a divided Germany and a divided world. Generations suffered the consequences of decisions made by powermongers who were having to sort out the problems of the moment as well as trying to prevent these solutions creating further (and often unanticipated) problems later.

Which is why I have asked elsewhere what a ‘won’ war would look like. It is never straightforward and time never stands still for us to declare that a ‘clean’ point has been reached.

Two passages from the Bible stand out for me today. In Deuteronomy 26 ‘God’s people’ are commanded to grow their crops (leaving the edges of their crop fields for the ‘aliens, strangers, asylum seekers, immigrant, powerless, poor, dispossessed, etc.’), bring the first ten per cent of their harvest to the priest and recite a creed. This creed is probably the oldest form of credal statement we find in the Hebrew Scriptures and it begins with the acknowledgement that “my father was a wandering Aramaean…”. In other words, when you bring the fruit of your hard work to the priest you must first acknowledge in word and action that we are all ‘pilgrims’ on a journey, that what we have is ‘gift’ and that we have obligations under God for the poor, the aliens/foreigners and the dispossessed. The lesson is powerful: ‘never ever forget your story – that once you too were aliens and dispossessed.’

The seocnd passage is from Mark 1 in which Jesus tells his people that God has good news for them. It is not (as they think it is) that the Romans are going and their problems are about to end, but, rather, that they are going to have to radically change the way they look, see and think about God, the world and us … and then live differently in the world in which we find ourselves. ‘Repent’ means ‘change your mind-set’ – which doesn’t sound like ‘comfortable news’ even if it ultimately is ‘good news’ for other people.

Dresden 1945If we didn’t have Remembrance Day, we’d have to invent it. We need it to put the present in perspective and to remind us that solving today’s problems is not the only priority – that selective remembering or short-term thinking only leads to longer-term problems that might be worse. Of course, it also encourages us to cease romanticising the cost of conflict and recognise the pain of those who are bereaved … and those who bear the scars of their experience of conflict and find it hard to return ‘home’ to ‘safety’.

I have just seen the press notice for some new paper by ‘the religion and society think-tank’ Ekklesia on the BBC Thought for the Day debate. Basically it calls for ‘fairness’ in allocating slots to humanists and indeterminate ‘others’ on the grounds that “it would be entirely appropriate in a mixed-belief society to hear the values, beliefs and moral convictions of humanists and others – including the many who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’.” It goes on to assert that “both religious and non-religious listeners” are urging the BBC to change its ways, noting along the way that “Anglicans or those with direct links to Anglicanism still overwhelmingly dominate amongst those who contribute to TFTD.”

Ekklesia (which – unless I am mistaken –  is basically Jonathan Bartley and Simon Barrow) then asserts:

Religion does itself no favours by seeking maintain a privileged place in broadcasting. For many religions advantaging yourself against others goes against core teachings, which call for fairness and equality. There would be outrage if a BBC sports slot omitted to include coverage of several significant sports because they didn’t consider them ‘sporty’ enough. It is absurd that the exclusion of minor religions, humanists and others has continued unchallenged for so long.

It is difficult to know where to start with this – especially as the argument looks to have an element of personal pique to it: Jonathan Bartley was dropped from the Thought for the Day list and is clearly (and understandably) miffed. But let’s take it point by point:

bbc-logo1. As we pointed out in a debate last month, the argument is not about inclusiveness or ‘fairness’, but about distinctiveness. Appeals for fairness are usually empty and echo the cry of children in the school playground. TftD is a distinctive slot with presenters not doing yet another ‘opinion/comment’ piece, but interpreting the world from within their particular religious tradition. This is the only slot of its type through which this perspective might be gained.

2. I wholeheartedly agree that it is “entirely appropriate in a mixed-belief society to hear the values, beliefs and moral convictions of humanists and others – including the many who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’.” But we do hear these (particularly of humanists) in just about every other programme which assumes that humanism is the obviously and self-evidently ‘true’ world view. Should Christians (or religious people) be arguing for at least a single religious voice in every edition of In our Time, Start the Week, etc.? The question is not about the validity of such voices being heard; rather, it is whether those voices are to be heard in a distinctive slot such as TftD.

3. Who are the other ‘religious listeners’ backing Ekklesia’s view? I know of Ekklesia, but not any other grouping. I’d be interested to know.

4. Ekklesia obviously has a problem with Anglicanism generally. But they fial to recognise the distinctive rationale of the Church of England which is not congregational and which is organised to serve everybody in every parish regardless of their faith (even humanists), creed and state. The churches might fail a million times in this vocation, but it is a unique vocation and does mean that bishops and clergy are seriously well connected to grassroots communities all over the country. So, maybe the Anglican contribution should be welcomed and not discarded so easily. (More could be said, but…)

5. The weird argument about sport would suggest that Ekklesia thinks Match of the Day should have cricket and rounders in it too. After all, that is about ‘fairness and equality’. And, anyway, when did it become assumed that every religion calls for ‘fairness and equality’? Christianity calls for lots of things (including self-sacrifice and not misrepresenting your neighbour’s case), but ‘fairness and equality’?! The elder brother of the Prodigal Son will have his ears pricked up here!

MicrophoneThis is superficial nonsense. I used to hold to a similar view to Ekklesia until I started to think about it and debate it. If TftD is to be broadened, it will need better arguments than these. Especially as – as was pointed out by Giles Fraser in our recent debate – there are humanists represented already: such as the Christians like Giles who contribute. How absurd it was (during that debate) to hear Erasmus cited as an example of the secular humanist tradition when he was, in fact, a Christian!

I managed to miss Bonfire Night (5 November when we celebrate the burning of Catholics – although that bit is usually forgotten when we chuck the guy on top of the pyre) and the first instalment of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity on BBC4. Instead, I was enjoying a visit to a multi-ethnic parish in Thornton Heath (which has just planted a new Ugandan congregation as a ‘Fresh Expression’) and didn’t get home till 11pm.

A quick glance at the news made me pause. The Prime Minister is to make a statement today on the war in Afghanistan. This follows a number of deaths in the British camp and the growing unease in this country about why ‘we’ are there in the first place. Pity anyone who has to lead a country in circumstances such as these – even if they did lead us into it.

Afghanistan flagWhat worries me is this: what would it look like if the war in Afghanistan was ‘won’? Would there be a western-style democracy? Would tribalism be ended? Would there be an ‘uncorrupt’ leadership backed by highly-trained and well-equipped armed forces? Or would it be that children were attending schools and women were working openly in the professions? I could go on.

I think several things worry me about the campaign in Afghanistan:

1. I closely followed the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Paying no great attention to the demands of a human rights world, the Soviet armies went in and applied all the might they could to overpowering the ‘peasants’ from the mountians. Ten years later – and with a huge casualty list – they left with their tails between their legs. Huge firepower and determined violence failed. The arguments used by the West about that invasion/occupation then are now (ironically?) being used by the West to justify its own ongoing involvement. I am not sure that Afghanistan can be ‘re-ordered’ by outside powers to serve their own interests.

2. This campaign is struggling in Afghanistan itself and is clearly being lost in the pubs of Britain. I guess this is because of two things: (a) we see constant images of violence, death, repatriated coffins and weeping relatives of the casualties, and (b) it is hard to find anyone who can easily articulate the rationale behind our presence there. That is not to say there isn’t one; but if it can’t be clearly and simply articulated, then it can’t be communicated – and if it can’t be communicated, it can’t be owned by people who don’t have access to all the arguments and facts.

3. It is hard to know what ‘victory’ might look like, but it is equally hard to know if ‘defeat’ is the only other option. Is it not possible, having learned from the experience, to put armed support into bolstering the security of Pakistan, ring-fencing the Afghan opium trade and persuading more ‘acceptable’ forces to bring order within Afghanistan itself (such as other middle-eastern countries)? A peace-keeping force that was not made up of provocative western types might be possible and would call the bluff on the Taleban’s claim that they are only fighting to get the westerners out.

Afghan War

And isn’t it weird how Iraq has almost fallen off our screens and newspapers now that our troops have left? Aren’t we fickle when it comes to deciding what is important in the ‘news?

We live in interesting times. While debates continue to rage about whose human rights trump those of others, it emerges that huge wads of money are currently being spent on religious films – or, more specifically, on films about Muhammad. One new biopic – by the Oscar-winning producer Barrie Osborne – has been budgeted to cost around $150m (£91.5m). (Another film is the planned re-make of  the controversial 1976 The Message – to be entitled The Messenger of Peace.)

Passion of the Christ posterApparently, Ahmed Abdullah Al-Mustafa (chairman of Qatar-based production company Al Noor Holdings) spotted what Mel Gibson ‘achieved’ with his Passion of the Christ and decided it was time to do something similar with the prophet of Islam. According to an article in the Guardian, he said:

The film will shed light on the Prophet’s life since before his birth to his death… It will highlight the humanity of Prophet Muhammad.

And, according to the producer Barrie Osborne (Matrix, Lord of the Rings, etc.), the film will be “an international epic production aimed at bridging cultures. The film will educate people about the true meaning of Islam”.

Of course the interesting thing about this is that the story of Muhammad will be told without actually showing the prophet himself – in accordance with Islamic law. So, any comparison with Gibson’s Passion of the Christ ends right there. I still haven’t seen Gibson’s bloody epic – partly because I don’t like watching violence and also because I hated the way many Christians who would normally oppose violence in the cinema excused this one because of the subject.

It will be interesting to see (a) how Osborne’s film, particularly, will handle the person of Muhammad without showing him and (b) how interested people will be in seeing it: after all, most people think they already know everything about Jesus (wrongly), but might be intrigued to have their ignorance of Muhammad corrected without having to read the Qur’an. It will also be interesting to see just how brave the critics are when it comes to pouring their scorn on the subject-matter – as they happily do with anything Christian.

Life of Brian posterBut, there is a sort of parallel in the Christian world. I often offer congregations two options for understanding the society and context in which Jesus lived and died (and was raised): Monty Python’s Life of Brian or Gerd Theissen’s Shadow of the Galilaean. The former is a film, the latter is a book by a German academic theologian who writes for ordinary people like me. (I was asked by a BBC interviewer recently whether I thought the Life of Brian was blasphemous and offensive; I responded that the clue is in the title and that the name is the give-away.)

Theissen tells the story of Jesus without ever bringing Jesus himself into the picture. We learn about Jesus from the impact he has on the people around him. It is a brilliant, evocative, challenging and moving book – and allows Theissen to play some games with academic approaches to biblical texts along the way.

Shadow of the Galilean coverIn the end the credibility of the Christian community depends on the extent to which that community resembles the person whose shadow falls across the real world – and Muslims might like to be the judges of that. Equally, the Muslim community only has credibility insofar as it reflects the person of Muhammad – and maybe Christians should be the judges of that. It is only from the outside that any community can be truly judged – ‘insiders’ rarely know what it feels like to be ‘outside’ the camp.

So, if Muslims are perceived as aggressive and violent, it will not be surprising if we assume Muhammad to have been aggressive and violent. And if Christians are perceived as thin-skinned wets, then it should not come as a surprise if Jesus is thought by ‘outsiders’ to have been a thin-skinned wet. But, perhaps if humility is allowed space in both communities, each might learn to regard the other through fresh eyes – generously allowing their own faith and the other to be judged by their best examples and not their worst.

Maybe the films might help?

There is an interesting report in Ecumenical News International about Reformation Day celebrations in Wittenberg – where Martin Luther set in motion what became known as the Reformation. It shines an interesting light on the Pope’s recent venture into disaffected Anglicanism.

Cardinal Walter KasperCardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, joined other Christian leaders at a tree-planting ceremony ahead of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. He said:

It is possible for us today to together learn from Martin Luther… This newly planted tree reminds us that Martin Luther’s call for reform in the Church was a call of penitence that also affects us today.

Cardinal Kasper went on to say that he hoped the 500th anniversary of the Reformation would be marked jointly by Catholics and Protestants. The 16th-century events,

divided our people and divided the Church… It is a day we hold in common and for which we have a joint responsibility… Now again that which belongs together grows together.

Read the whole report and read in what you will.

aaqil-ahmedToday’s Media Guardian has a brief diary piece that reflects back on the unseemly row that surrounded the appointment of Aaqil Ahmed as Head of Religion & Ethics and Commissioning Editor for Religion TV (announced in May 2009). Naturally, lots of concerned Christians complained about the appointment of a Muslim to this post. They didn’t equally note the promotion of (Christian) Christine Morgan to Commissioning Editor for Religion Radio.

The Guardian notes:

As the BBC’s newish head of religion, Aaqil Ahmed is responsible for BBC4′s six-part A History of Christianity, which starts on Thursday; and earlier this year he oversaw the eight-part Christianity: A History while at Channel 4. So after all the huffing and puffing in May about a Muslim being appointed to the post, there’s a piquant outcome – he’s open to the charge of pumping out a surfeit of Christian telly.

Very amusing.

I upset Ahmed in a speech at the Awards Ceremony for the Sandford St Martin Trust at Lambeth Palace in June by ‘noting’ his appointment and looking forward to seeing how things turn out. I meant it positively – he took it negatively.

MacCulloch - ChristianityI doubt if he actually commissioned the new Christianity series on BBC4 – he is too new – but, given it is fronted by Diarmaid MacCulloch and based on his new book, it promises to be an excellent start. We need excellent religious broadcasting in order to help people see the world as religious people see it – whether they agree with the results or not.

Bring it on, Aaqil.

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