February 29, 2012
Tomorrow evening the first of two ‘reality TV’ programmes about Bradford will be screened on Channel 4: Make Bradford British. They have clearly earned their money in the media world by drumming up a lot of interest and – which I guess was the purpose – eliciting pre-emptive suspicion and resentment against the series… even before we have seen it. I have met two people who have seen it – I have not.
When it was first announced at the back end of last year there was an immediate outcry here in Bradford. The line is – and, given past experience, it is fully understandable – that Bradford keeps being visited by media types who give the place a kicking before departing and leaving the rest of us to pick up the pieces. So, we can understand why even the mere suggestion of yet another experimental programme will raise the hackles and provoke pre-emptive resentment locally.
But, I have not been part of this history – having only moved back to the city nine months ago when I took up my new responsibilities as the bishop here. All my media instincts tell me (a) not to preempt what I haven’t seen, (b) not to assume everything in such a genre must always be negative, and (c) to think that it is possible to take control of a thing like this, turn it, shine a different light on it, and shape the subsequent debate/response. So, although I fully understand the response of some to the prospect of these programmes, I want to see them before making any judgements about them.
Yes, I might be proved to be naive, over-generous and in a minority of one.
Ahead of the screening I would make the following points for consideration as we watch it:
1. All ‘reality’ programmes are always selective and mediated reality. In other words, it has been edited according to the story the programme makers want to be seen. So, it is not ‘neutral’. Therefore, we need to ask how far the mediated reality takes into account in its ‘messages’ the actual multifaceted realities on the ground.
2. Images of people getting on really well do not make for good television. The ‘story’ must involve danger, conflict, emotion and some sort of resolution. Otherwise no one would bother to watch it. So, we need to dig beneath the apparent story to ask deeper questions about what is going on in and between the characters presented to us. The trailers for the programme are irritating because they purport to highlight the conflicts – but, that is a ploy to get us to watch the thing. It is entirely possible that the brief conflicts depicted in the trailers represent the sum total of conflict in the mediated narrative. We will soon find out.
3. The title is crass. Bradford is British. But it raises a very good question about what it really means to be British in the first place. No one ever said Bradford was Irish, but it was the immigrants from the Emerald Isle who really got the place going. Jeremy Paxman in his interesting book The English illustrates how impossible it is to say what it is to be English… in a way that doesn’t apply to the Welsh, the Scots or the Irish. I am German, French, Norse, Celtic (Welsh, Irish and Manx) and probably related to Genghis Khan somewhere down the line. This is why the English Defence League is barking up a branchless tree in trying to defend something undefinable.
4. A confident city will not be afraid of a television programme. Bradford is big enough to look at what is portrayed, take seriously the questions it raises, challenge any misrepresentations or selective representations, hold the programme-makers to account, take control of the debate and move it on.
5. Bradford is a unique place and one that is compelled to address questions the rest of the UK will need to face at some point. Pioneers will always feel exposed. Yes, there are significant challenges, but there are also great resources, massive successes and huge opportunities. I might be wrong, but it seems to me so far that most of the challenges are fundamentally economic and rooted in confidence.
6. Check the language when you watch the programmes. Undefined (or ill-defined) shorthand can set hares running that either don’t live in the field or are not hares in the first place. For example, lazy use of the word ‘segregation’ does not help us to understand a complicated and complex set of social relationships. (For example, when wealthy Brits buy houses in Spain and, ignorant of all but a few holiday phrases in Spanish, choose to live close to and associate with other Brits, we don’t speak of segregation. When they then bring in British plumbers and builders, electricians and administrators, foodies and others, we don’t scream that this is unjust segregation, do we? What we say is: “Well, it’s natural for people to want to live with people like themselves, people who speak the same language and eat the same food, people who share a set of cultural experiences and expectations that do not (in this company, at least) have to be articulated or rehearsed.” So, when the same phenomenon happens in an English city – as it does in every English city – why do we change the rules?
There are ‘issues’ and challenges in Bradford and some of them are unique to Bradford. But, lazy and superficial readings of the situation are not helpful when it comes to tackling them on the ground.
As I said earlier, I haven’t seen the programmes. In fact, I won’t be able to see tomorrow’s at all. Why not? Because I will be licensing a new priest to a parish on a huge estate on the edge of Bradford where the previous vicar did 26 years of utterly committed and brilliant work. His successor is coming from the south of England to pick up the mantle and develop the work further. I will be out all evening with him, his wife, and loads of people from the churches who, rather than pass judgement on a telly programme, will be doing the real business with real people on the ground – not being voyeurs, but being committed. These guys have moved north with vision, faith and hope – all words which, in my time in Bradford so far, I have found in abundance in many of the communities here.
Now watch Make Bradford British with your media brain engaged.
February 29, 2012
I have just done this morning’s Pause for Thought on the BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans Show. I probably should have done something on ‘leap year’, but I did it on ‘stories’ instead.
Having been reading the Bible for a very long time now, I often wondered why Jesus chose to talk in images and with stories, rather than making points and telling people to agree with them. I used to think it was just a local cultural preference of his time, but I there’s actually something deeper going on – something that nagged away at me during the last week as we heard about Nelson Mandela and Marie Colvin.
Mandela went into hospital and the world waited to see what would happen. Clearly, there’s nothing unusual about an old man whose health is failing. But this isn’t just any old man. This one has become a global icon of selfless reconciliation – a man who suffered for three decades, but emerged as one of the strongest men in the world, enabling South Africa and other countries to look for radically new ways of behaving. Behind the name of the man is a story that moves us deeply in our hearts and our imaginations.
Then the Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin was killed in Syria whilst trying to tell a story – not of dry political arguments or power struggles, but illustrating these with stories of real women and children, real people being brutalised, defenceless people in an ordinary place being subjected to the merciless power of heavy weaponry… and those who control it.
As I have observed elsewhere, she is a fantastic example of good journalism. Marie Colvin put herself in danger in order that the wider world might see and hear how the decisions of others – the powermongers of this world – impact the lives of people like us. And it is that power of storytelling that gets into our heads and scratches away at our imagination.
Which is why, I think, Jesus taught with stories and parables and pictures. Words and statements just go in and get accepted or rejected. Stories scratch away and tease us until we grapple with what they are all about.
He once told a story about a man wanting to build a tower and asked if he would begin without first counting the cost. Mandela and Colvin certainly counted the cost of their commitment. And their stories just won’t let us go.
So, nothing too deep there. Something that will no doubt be appreciated by the Sunday Times which, pleasingly but surprisingly, highlighted my Lent address on BBC Radio 4 tonight as their ‘Pick of the Day’ for today. The caption praised me with faint damnation – something about the Lent talk showing more theological depth than is evident in my ‘inveterate blogging’. Interesting, then, that nothing in the Lent address has not appeared at some point in blog posts here. Maybe I should start using longer words…
February 27, 2012
I am not a fan of the Sun. I have never bought it and I never will. It partly goes back to Hillsborough and the utterly shameful – and never regretted – treatment of Liverpool fansafter 96 of them died. But, it goes deeper.
I was in Oxford last night and missed the Carling Cup Final – probably just as well, given the nerve-shredding result. However, I also missed the arguments in the Twittersphere about the Archbishop of York’s apparent endorsement of both the Sun and it’s new Sunday edition (which was launched yesterday).
In his article the Archbishop writes: “I know there will be those who will criticise me for writing in a newspaper which will be seen by many as filling the gap left by the News of the World. However I am always one for responding to change positively and embracing new beginnings – seeing the best in all people, especially in adversity.
Lent is not a time for pointing the finger at others. As Alexander Pope said: ‘To err is human, to forgive is divine.’ We should always remember that when we point the finger at other people, there are three other fingers pointing back at us! We should rejoice in new life, turning our back on what has gone before.”
Perfectly reasonable and I don’t question the Archbishop’s motive for writing his article and engaging with the paper in this way. His objection to the treatment of young people in the current market is strong and vital and I applaud it. I could not endorse the paper myself, not because I don’t applaud the attempt to bring jobs for journalists or new life out of the destructive awfulness of the phone-hacking (and related) scandals.
My problem is that people who ask for forgiveness as a way to avoid taking responsibility for their crimes need, for the sake of their own soul, to be ‘worked with’. Simply moving on is not a healthy option when (a) it helps the guilty avoid facing the reality and consequences of their crime, (b) it ignores the ongoing suffering or grievance of the victims of their crime, and (c) it has the potential to be a carefully worked con on the public.
It is important not to forget that News International not only allowed criminal behaviour to continue – with an arrogance that is still barely comprehensible – but also tried every way possible to intimidate and prevent investigation of its malpractices. Not only were the police corrupted and compromised, but also those attempting to get justice and transparency (Tom Watson MP, Nick Davies of the Guardian, etc) were repeatedly and deliberately maligned, subverted, misrepresented and fobbed off.
In other words, the same owners and business leaders who ran a company that sanctioned criminal and deeply unethical behaviour have not changed. Those who sanctioned every means of obstructing truth and justice only played the humility card when they knew they had been found out and had no other option. It is hard to see that there has been any sort of ‘repentance’ other than a fundamentally pragmatic bit of business management.
As always, I might be wrong and be missing something fundamental here. But, all my instincts lead me to take a different view from that of the Archbishop of York on this one.
Paradoxically the same outfit employs journalists at the top of their game. The contrast between the criminality at News International and the massive respect for Marie Colvin, killed last week in Syria, is stark and poignant.
However, the Sun did once get me to write a couple of hundred words about (if I remember rightly) some awful ‘search for a husband’ programme on the telly. They published a picture of my smiling face right next to the naked pneumatic breast of the said model, Jodie Marsh. It made me laugh and found itself pinned on the notice boards of various ‘friends’…
February 22, 2012
I was doing Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2′s Chris Evans Show this morning and arrived while some fun was being had at the expense of ITV. I caught the last half an hour or so of the Brits last night and was astonished when Queen Adele was interrupted so James Corden could introduce Blur for their epic finale.
When a sports event over-runs, or the Eurovision Song Contest drags on a while, they simply re-align the schedule and cope with it. So, what was the thinking behind cutting Adele (who deserves every second of her glory) and not just adding a few minutes to the programme? I am not a media expert, but my jaw dropped at that disaster.
Anyway, that wasn’t my business – I just came into the studio on the back of it. I was there to talk about Lent. Just before I went in I was asked whether Lent actually includes the Sundays, or if we can have Sundays off and still do the forty days. The good Christian answer is that we can choose. Forty consecutive days from Ash Wednesday (today, of course) takes us to Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week which runs up to Easter. If you take out the Sundays, you can count Holy Week in. Wonderful flexibility. But, I did remark to Chris that taking Sundays for celebration is a recourse for wimps – and that his intention to start next Monday is a bit sad. (At least he’s starting, though!)
I began my script with a reference to my eighteen-month old grandson, Ben, who vomited all over me a couple of weeks ago. He was with us again last weekend. We live in a big house in Bradford and he loves to charge around the space that was just made for little kids to charge around. He is learning how to be naughty – a natural reflex – and has that look in his eye that says: “You’re not going to like this, but I’ll do it anyway and see how far I can push you.” I think it’s written into his job description. He is pushing the boundaries and unwittingly working out what he is about and how far he can go. (It should end when he is about 30…)
And this is where Lent comes in. The forty days of mirrors follow Jesus mirroring Israel centuries before and spending forty days and nights in the desert wondering what life was all about really. What happened to Jesus was that, stripped of all the distractions that even an Internet-free first century Palestine offered, he had to face himself, what really drove him, how far he would really go in taking seriously the vocation he believed was his. OK, he’s tired, cold and hungry. Then the voice in his head says: “So, you’re really not interested in the short cut to glory and fame? Really? Why go through all the suffering when you don’t need to?” It actually is really hard: “You – of all people – don’t need to go hungry! Just turn this stone into bread and get fed. Put your own material needs first. Come on – don’t be so hard on yourself!
I think Jesus knew this wasn’t the sort of stuff to prepare him for a cross.
But the connection here between him and us and Lent is simply that if we take the time and make the space to drill down deep into our own choices and motivations, we might find it both uncomfortably challenging… and extremely profitable.
Lent isn’t magic and it isn’t primarily about giving up chocolate as some form of narcissistic aecetism. It simply offers the space in which we can take the time to reflect more seriously and deeply on what is really going on deep within us – especially those bits that we are usually too busy to examine.
Which is a theme I treat from a different angle in the BBC Radio 4 Lent address going out at 2045 on Wednesday 29 February and at 0545 and 1445 on Sunday 4 March.
February 22, 2012
Posted by nickbaines under Bradford
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Lent is often associated with giving up and being miserable. So, I was amused to read that one of my clergy has found a typically positive and creative way to use this reflective time of year.
City Centre Priest, the Revd Chris Howson, who is committed to seeing the city of Bradford thrive again, attended a ‘Positive Bradford’ event in the Midland Hotel. He was so impressed by the hard work going on behind the scenes by different organisations in the city that he decided to make it his Lenten theme in the run up to Easter.
He said: “So, over the next 40 days and nights I will: 1) support Bradford businesses by shopping locally 2) always challenge those who are negative about the city, and remind them why Bradford has so much going for it 3) do something positive, like a street clean or make something beautiful for others to enjoy 4) celebrate the city’s rich cultural and faith heritage by visiting places of worship, local museums, restaurants and beauty spots 5) give to local Bradford Charities that are really making a difference to people lives, such as Hope Housing, BEACON (Bradford Ecumenical Asylum Concern) and Bradford Nightstop.”
Bradford is a great place, but gets lots of knocks – from inside as well as outside. But a creative future demands a recovery of focus on the great resources and assets here already. As Chris Howson went on to say: “This is a great city, and we’ve a lot to be thankful for. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves of that. When we know there are problems, our duty is to challenge them and change them – not to just moan and talk our city down. Over the next 40 days, whether we have a faith or not, we can all do something to enjoy our city and make new friends from other cultures along the way.”
Given that C4 is about to run a two-part series called Making Bradford British, some positivity might be needed. It is widely assumed that this series will be negative and compound the negative image of the city. However, we haven’t yet seen it, so we don’t know and can’t know whether the story it ultimately tells is interesting, accurate, helpful, good or bad. What I do know is that we are looking at creative and engaging ways of using it to take a look at the issues we already know are here. But, apart from the crass title (Bradford is British already…), the use of provocative words like ‘segregation’ without further explanation or illustration is a bit wild and reckless.
Anyway, we’ll see what it throws up. A confident community is able to take the hits and turn them into something useful – something I will be interested to help with when the programmes go out in March. And if they present a travesty of reality, we will entertainingly tackle the programme makers. Watch this space.
PS. Another Lent idea comes from a great initiative with children in a tough area of Bradford: here’s the link to Kidz Klub.
February 21, 2012
Posted by nickbaines under religion
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Why are religious institutions apparently so inherently conservative and fearful of challenge or change?
Last night I delivered a lecture on ‘Questioning faith’ in the Faith and the City series at the University of Bradford. The lecture was followed by 45 minutes of questions and discussion. A lousy cold and sore throat didn’t help, but there was some interesting questioning and challenge.
Having set the scene from events during the last couple of weeks, I went on to acknowledge what is frustrating for some people: “Religion simply will not go away. Regardless of one’s personal world view and philosophical or religious convictions, religion as a phenomenon cannot be ignored. Which is why some of us keep banging on to the BBC that they need a Religion Editor as much as they need a Business, Economics or Sport Editor. In a world of fast news and instant communication, the need for understanding and interpretation of religion as a phenomenon, a motivator of individual and corporate behaviour, and a factor in both national and global political and economic events is greater than ever before.”
Having taken a pop at the ‘myth of neutrality’ that is prevalent among many observers who usually see religion as a problem rather than a solution, I went on to “challenge also the language of victimhood that too many religious people resort to when things don’t go their way. Religious people need to keep addressing the ignorance and motivation behind the myth-builders of ‘neutrality’ (and the consequences of all this stuff) with patience, confidence and better humour than we sometimes do.”
But the main thrust of my argument had to do with the challenge of change and how religious people and institutions address this.
One of the effects of the current atmosphere – in which some religious people feel under attack, marginalised or trivialised – is that religious communities then turn in on themselves. When, in the aftermath of 9/11, many western commentators and observers expected Muslims to try to hide their distinctiveness (for fear of attack, for example) and blend in to their environment, the wearing of distinctive Muslim clothing – especially among women – increased and intensified. When British Airways sacked a woman who insisted on wearing a cross over her uniform, many Christians started wearing a cross for the first time – as if they were fighting a battle or making a point. The real point here, however, is that religious communities and their behaviour and priorities were in fact being set not by themselves, but in reaction to the world outside.
Without copying the entire text here, I will just try to pick out the salient points.
1. Faith is not that reflex that kicks in when we don’t want to face the real world, but recoil into a defensive shell that circumscribes the world view that makes us feel we have place and meaning and significance. Faith is not credulity. Faith is not a vacuous clinging to a facile myth that helps us limp through life as if it were meaningful or worth living.
2. Faith involves two things: first, clarity about the object of that faith; secondly, the courage to go out from our fundamental starting point and see what’s out there. Faith might need courage and a teasing curiosity, but it cannot grow from fear. Faith is always curious, daring, open and adventurous – because it always assumes that not everything has yet been nailed. If every question has been answered unequivocally by our faith system, then faith is the wrong word to use to describe what we think we have. Faith assumes that there is more to know, further to go. (Which is why one of the great early Christian theologians and philosophers, Anselm, described theology – or language about God and language in the light of God – as ‘faith seeking understanding.’)
3. We now face ethical questions that are new and a provoked by technological innovations. Our ethical judgements cannot be made on the basis of “it’s obvious, innit” assumptions.
4. Christianity has change at its very core. Christians together should be marked not by victimhood or fear, but by a curious, fearless, adventurous, confident and humble openness to change and learn and grow. This will mean vigorous debate, dissension, testing and disagreement.
5. So, why is it so hard for the institutions of the Christian faith to change? (And this is actually merely illustrative – it applies to any and all religious institutions.) I think we can identify three reasons in particular: (a) institutions become inherently conservative, sometimes losing sight of their fundamental raison d’etre and confusing means – the institutional forms and structures – with ends – worship of God, for instance, or the transformation of people and communities; (b) the people who run institutions find accumulated power and status hard to give up; (c) institutions take on a life in which people invest and from which people cannot divest without feeling that they are leaving the community the institution is intended to create. Put bluntly, does leaving the Roman Catholic Church mean leaving God, Christianity, the Kingdom of God or heaven behind?
6. Religious institutions are healthy (both internally and externally) only when they develop the courage to be reflective and honest. Passion and fundamentalism might reinforce the sense of ‘rightness’ of particular individuals or communities, but they run the danger of leaving no space for self-criticism. Indeed, self-criticism within the community can be seen as a weakness, a loss or lack of faith – when, in fact, it is the very evidence of genuine faith. Fundamentalist communities lack faith in anything other than their own fear, small vision and self-righteousness.
7. An encouraging example of Muslim openness: the Muslim Institute has published the first edition of a journal called Critical Muslim. Published as a book-length quarterly magazine and website, it appears to be ambitious in presenting Muslim perspectives on major contemporary issues and ideas in the world. Most significantly, it intends to challenge ‘traditionalist, modernist, fundamentalist and apologetic versions of Islam’.
From outside Islam it is encouraging to see within the Muslim community the development of a self-critical, bold, engaging and questioning approach to what is going on in the world. This, it seems to me, is a shining example of how genuine faith compels religious people to be confident in and open to the reality of the world and the challenges it throws up for the way we see God, the world and us. In a world of serious dangers and injustices – with human suffering not the simple or sole preserve of what used to be called ‘third world countries’ – it is only a confident and self-critical, faithful approach that can take seriously the challenge of poverty, injustice, terror, economic imbalance, food imperialism, and so on.
8. Religious communities need to be bold enough to expose themselves to the critique of each other and not to be afraid of such questioning or challenge. This is not a sign of weakness, but of confidence and strength. It represents what I often call ‘a confident humility’. It occupies a space that creates a mutual accountability, a recognition that we are ‘in it together’… and with something unique to offer. It assumes that faithful and confidently humble self-critique can only come from a community that is not afraid of relationship beyond itself, is unafraid of the wider world, is hopeful about a common future, and is open to changing and being changed as ‘truth’ becomes clearer.
9. As Rowan Williams takes from Dostoyevsky, language is not neutral, human beings use language to close down or open up relationship, language is the key to and fundamental expression of freedom… and when we reach the end of ‘having something more to say’, we have constrained genuine freedom and closed down the possibility of development or coexistence.
Now, from this we might derive the imperative (for human flourishing in a good society) of human beings and human communities learning the languages of ‘the other’, not as a virtuous end in itself, or even an altruistic means of keeping a relationship going, (or even for knowing which beer to order on holiday), but as a non-negotiable and essential feature of human freedom and dignity. We have to be multilingual (in the sense of paying attention to and learning to understand what is both being said and what is being heard) in order to survive, but also in order to thrive and enable ‘the other’ to thrive in a way that guarantees mutual flourishing. In other words, language at the very least provides the space in which relationship and responsibility can grow.
As Helmut Schmidt has observed, learning the language of another people or another culture demands humility (the admission of ignorance and limited vision), careful listening (in order to hear what is really being said), playful experimentation (trying out sounds that feel strange), courage (not always being sure that we make sense, but speaking anyway), and the paying of attention (rather than the cursory hope that communication is happening if I just open my mouth and hope what comes out isn’t incomprehensible gibberish). Learning the language of an ‘other’ takes us beyond the norm according to which language is a mere defensive delineator of identity, and leads us into the unknown territory of relationship vulnerability.
What characterises interfaith dialogue is the importance of relationship and clarity of communication. Deep questioning of deep assumptions about God, the world and us can only be indulged if there is a relationship of mutual respect and trust. And such relationship-building takes time, a genuine and humble willingness to listen, and an ability on the part of all interlocutors to learn about themselves from the other. In one sense we are back to Helmut Schmidt: we need to dare to look at our own culture through the eyes of another, if we are to truly understand ourselves. This is not an easy task, but language is crucial to it.
Anyway, that’s the guts of the text – I have left out developmental stuff and all illustrations (which include Cain, Jacques Ellul, Lambeth Town Hall after 9/11, and some other stuff.
February 19, 2012
Following the US election marathon is always unnerving for Brits. Listening to some of the views of potential presidential candidates can be scary on this side of the Pond. But, aside from the strangely limited world view of some of the guys who clearly haven’t looked at an atlas recently, there is something more interesting and incomprehensible to many of us in Europe – something to do with religion (surprisingly).
According to news reports here, Rick Santorum thinks the ‘global warming’ warners have had too much space given to them. He seems to have the sort of understanding about science that makes not only Richard Dawkins shiver with incredulity. Add into the mix the whole fundamentalist view of creation and the Bible and the picture is complete. It’s also weird.
Let’s nail this one. If someone believes that (a) God is the creator of everything as it is and how it is, and (b) all truth is God’s truth, then why be afraid of whatever science might throw up? As someone once said (possibly CS Lewis, but I can’t remember while sitting in a Yorkshire Dales car park): “If Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it isn’t true because it is Christianity.” In other words, if you truly believe in God, there is nothing to be afraid of in scientific exploration – after all, and if you accept my logic, God must have known the truth about what is true and real anyway.
Sorry if all this sounds like a statement of the bleeding obvious, but it clearly isn’t obvious to some people who think that (a) God needs to be defended and (b) the science has to be bent to our assumptions rather than our understanding be re-shaped by the science. What is there to fear – other than that the whole house of cards might collapse if one card is removed. Such a faith isn’t worth having anyway.
As Operation Noah will make clear later this week, global warming isn’t a knock-down issue by itself. Whatever conclusions you draw about this particular phenomenon (and the interpretation of the science that undergirds it), it still exposes a bizarre, utilitarian, short-term selfishness insofar as we think it OK to gradually turn the earth into some sort of mineral-drained Swiss cheese that one day will have little or nothing for future generations. What sort of theology sanctions such blind exploitation?
Which brings us back to the Santorums of this world. What is often called the ‘cultural mandate’ of Genesis 1 & 2 says more about the exploration of reality, materiality, spirituality and existentiality than it does about the exploitation of the earth’s resources for short-term and selfish utilitarian expediency.
I guess this is where Richard Dawkins comes back into the picture. He is all over the news at the moment because of his attacks on religion in the last couple of weeks. (There is an interesting exchange between him and Will Hutton in today’s Observer newspaper.) My question is simply why Dawkins doesn’t take the best examples of religious expression rather than the worst when engaging in debate? This is a lesson that should go to the heart of tolerant liberal secularism: not misrepresenting your opponent’s case. Picking Christian loonies and ridiculing their credulity is not the best way to secure the sort of rational, respectful and intelligent debate he claims he wants. In fact, this is what annoys intelligent, rational Christians and other theists most about Dawkins and his polemical methodology.
This is something Christians have to learn in respect of Muslims, atheists, etc.: always measure yourself against the best of your opponent’s examples, not the worst. And, following the ninth Commandment, don’t misrepresent his case… or set up saw men simply in order to knock them down.
Will the debate improve? I don’t know. But there are lessons to be learned on all sides in how it should be pursued.
February 18, 2012
I remember the days when I could write blog posts almost every day. But there seems to be a limit to how much writing I can do in the time available. This weeks has seen me writing radio scripts, a lecture four sermons and more besides. So, with another week looming and a full day out tomorrow, I simply ask five questions provoked by the last week:
1. Does James Murdoch have a future? His dad did a messianic drop-in to News International this week without the boss-boy and with boss-boy’s previously disconnected brother. Is James leaving the building?
2. Is Rupert serious about the Sun on Sunday? Probably. It all makes sense and was predicted when the News of the World shut down. But, the loin-girding bravado of Rupert’s presence and journalist-endorsing email might sound tough and supportive while being drowned in the swamp of arrests, suspicion and public outrage. Will the Sun survive?
3. Does anyone have any idea what is likely to happen with Iran as they send military ships through the Suez canal into the Mediterranean Sea for the first time since the revolution in 1979? Western policy in relation to Iran has not been… er… exactly inspiring during the Ahmadinejad years. In fact, Iran has been handled weirdly (in my humble opinion) ever since the revolution – especially when we backed Saddam Hussein’s ethical fight against Iran and in favour of democracy and human rights during the 1980s. What next for Iran – especially with Syria and the Falklands kicking off (in different ways, obviously)?
4. I am writing this while half-watching Keanu Reeves being persuaded to save the world in The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008). But, my real question is whether Arsenal can be saved – along with the career of Arsene Wenger. I find this hard to say (as a Scouser), but I like Arsenal and admire Wenger. They were hopeless against Martin O’Neill’s resurgent and exciting Sunderland in the FA Cup today. But, Wenger hasn’t suddenly turned into a bad manager. I hope, for football’s sake, that he survives. Am I a romantic optimist?
5. Will I make any sense at all of the need for religious institutions to be open to change and challenge when I do my ‘Faith and the City‘ lecture at the University of Bradford on Monday? Entitled Questioning Faith: Religion, change and challenge, I manage to get Rowan Williams, Dostoyevsky, Critical Muslim and the Church of England into a questioning of ends and means, language and fearlessness. I’ll let you know after Monday.
The Keanu Reeves film has just finished. It was rubbish.
February 15, 2012
Three stories penetrate the work-ridden last few days.
Yesterday Trevor Kavanagh, associate editor and former political editor of the Sun had the nerve to accuse the Metropolitan Police of wasting time and resources on their investigation of criminality at the heart of News International. He described police tactics as treating suspected journalists like “members of an organised crime gang”. He objected to dawn raids and intrusive searches of journalists’ homes.
Forgive my naïveté, but why does he think the police are doing this at all? Would he or his newspaper have had any patience with police ignoring criminality on an industrial scale in some other area of society? Did he consider the handling of the MPs’ expenses scandal as a waste of time and money – a gross overreaction? Does he really think that investigations into corruption and criminality at the Sun is ‘disproportionate’?
I usually find Trevor Kavanagh interesting, but this has left me staggered. Is he so out of touch that he still doesn’t get the public outrage at this enormous corruption? The irony of his choice of words is that the need for expensive and thorough police investigation arises directly from crime that looks distinctly ‘organised’. Or is it just that it is OK for ordinary mortals to have their lives intruded upon, shredded and dumped – their reputations rubbished and their families disturbed – but somehow wrong for journalists to suffer the same treatment? I am boggled.
Richard Dawkins is at it again – although Giles Fraser rattled him on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning. As Dawkins mocked respondents to his poll who couldn’t name the first gospel, Fraser embarrassed him by exposing his inability to remember the full title of Darwin’s Origin of Species. His latest evangelistic campaign is just silly. In danger of confusing atheism with secularism (they are not the same), he perpetuates the pretence that he occupies neutral space whereas religious people are somewhere up the loaded loony scale. What makes him think that his world view is to be privileged above all others is still unclear. Anyway, his survey proves little – and certainly not what he thinks it proves.
Baroness Warsi has complained to the Pope about rampant and aggressive secularism that is marginalising religion in general and Christianity in particular in Britain today. Not having had time today to read all the reports of this, I remain unclear why she needs to tell the Pope what he already thinks. But, the question is really whether or not she is right. I just hope she doesn’t slip into the language of ‘persecution’.
The most interesting two responses I have seen to Dawkins and Warsi are by Giles Fraser and Julian Baggini. Rational atheist argument is fine and secularist campaigning acceptable. But, where does the mindless aggression come from? Why the irrational evangelism that doesn’t even pretend to be tolerant of any world view that differs from it’s own fundamentalism?
February 10, 2012
Not much time for blogging during a full London week. The General Synod kept me occupied during the day, other meetings (usually over a meal) in the evenings. The one morning I thought I could get some space I discovered I had agreed a breakfast meeting.
Leaving aside the fact that some media reporting of the women bishops business was bizarre (making the point that the Synod had ‘postponed’ making a decision until July – implying that the Synod was indecisive, procrastinating and deliberately spineless – when it was stated time and again in speech after speech that this debate would simply advise the House of Bishops prior to the bringing of the main debate in July), there wasn’t a huge amount to stimulate the imagination or fire the journalist’s critical faculties. We are against assisted dying, concerned about planned reform of he House of Lords, for the NHS and conflicted over fee levels for weddings and funerals – none of which evidences a shocking volte face.
So, the two things that are swimming around my own imagination as I ride the train back up north are tangential to the Synod’s preoccupations, but pertinent to what is going on elsewhere in the wider world.
First, reading coverage of Times editor James Harding‘s evidence at his second appearance before the Leveson Inquiry recalled to mind a conversation I had with a journalist recently. Discussing the impact of the phone hacking scandal on the nature and quality of journalism in the UK, the journalist expressed huge relief that at last the editors are in the firing line, unable to hide behind the frontline reporters. We have had a generation of newspaper editors demanding more and more – clearly sometimes exploiting both unjustifiably intrusive and actually criminal means of getting a story – from journalists who owed their jobs and future career to these tyrants. But, now it is the ‘generals’ in the dock and not just the troops in the trenches.
I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms – that many frontline reporters would be glad to see the exposure before Leveson of practices that are immoral and indefensible and that bring their profession into disrepute. The hope, as expressed to me, was that good, committed, intelligent and moral journalists would in future be able to work better and less fearfully for editors who now know they are likely to be held accountable. It might actually make journalism a better job and enable journalists to do better journalism.
The second thing on my mind comes from somewhere completely different, but involves another recent conversation. I was walking back from the BBC (where I had just done Pause for Thought on the excellent and never boring Chris Evans Show) to Church House, Westminster, and thinking about the Church’s apparent discomfort with popular culture (“We are more Radio 4 than Radio 2, bishop…”).
It occurred to me that Jesus went straight for popular culture in the villages and towns of Galilee. So, what do I think about the recently publicised ‘search for Jesus’, as in Andrew Lloyd-Webber‘s hunt for a singer to lead a stadium tour of Jesus Christ Superstar?
This has been called ‘tacky’ by some and ‘inappropriate’ by others. Inevitably it has led to screams of protest by the usual suspects (who have a loud voice, but little credibility) for whom any reference to Jesus has to be holy and disincarnate. But, I think the whole thing is pregnant with possibility.
Jesus used story and image to get into people’s imagination and tease them with a vision of how things could be in his ‘kingdom’. Like what the Germans call an ear-worm (Ohrwurm), these stories work their way into our head, re-shaping the lens behind our eyes through which we see God, the world and us. Far stronger than issuing statements with which we either agree or disagree.
In fact, the Archbishop of Canterbury picked up on a similar notion in a speech last night in London when he called for both the Church and the City to recover a moral imagination as we strive to reconnect finance and business with the moral ends to which they are the means (the common good). Imagination is not fantasy – imagination involves the power to conceive of something that isn’t yet apparent, but which might be gradually shaped.
Anyway, the ‘search for Jesus’, rather than being tacky or inappropriate, raises all sorts of really interesting questions. For example, the point of the gospels is that the reader is supposed to be shocked and surprised by (a) who Jesus is – and isn’t, and (b) who it was who received – or couldn’t receive – his invitation to look and see and think and live differently – discovering that grace is about God’s generosity and not our merit. So:
- what sort of Jesus will be sought for this show?
- will he be like the Mark Wallinger statue on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, simply human and vulnerable to what the world can throw at him, or a macho man? A wimp in a white nightie or an insensitive male chauvinist? A political revolutionary or a hapless victim?
- how do you portray the sheer charisma that gets a bizarre collection of twelve people (with loads of other followers) to live a dream followed by a nightmare followed by a fraught life of new living that leads them all to an early death… and to change the world for ever?
I am intrigued to see how we make the connection between the stage Jesus of the musical and the one we read about in the gospels and experience in our life and worship. After all, ‘popular culture’ involves ‘people where they are’. Call me common, but I am curious about what this latest search for a star might hold in terms of potential for conversation, debate, imagination, questioning and exploration – all in a medium that will engage more people than sit in all our churches put together each week.
En route we might even take a sideways look at how Jesus has been portrayed in film and theatre: Pasolini’s The Gospel of St Matthew, Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal, Monty Python’s Life of Brian (which, as the title suggests, is primarily about Brian and not Jesus…), Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ.
Count me in. My imagination has been awoken.
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