June 29, 2012
Yesterday the Telegraph published an article I had written about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for Jesus. Not his personal spiritual quest, of course, but the hunt for someone to play the character of Jesus in the stadium tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. The response was interesting!
I was careful not to endorse the TV series or the tour, but thought it raised interesting questions for how alert Christians might engage with it creatively. Let’s just say some of the response wasn’t… er… creative. But, I stand by the points I made and the questions I raised. Sometimes the church is landed with a creative and imaginative opportunity to speak a common language with popular culture… and can’t see it. Well, here’s the latest opportunity and I hope people will see it.
The basic question it raises is simple: if you were looking for Jesus, what would you expect to find? A manipulable wimp in a white nightie? A ‘muscular Christian’ figure? Someone charismatic? Someone you might normally just pass on the street? And what prejudiced images do we filter our expectations through?
The question is pertinent not only because of Superstar, but I have just got home from an hour with a group of teenage lads in an RE class where they were exploring through Mark’s Gospel what discipleship is – what it means to commit to what you believe. They made strong points, asked good and penetrating questions, and made it a privilege to be there with them.
I actually spent four hours today (after a meeting with Bradford business leaders over breakfast) in this local Church of England secondary school. This is a school that makes a mockery of current ideologues’ obsession with simplistic measurements of achievement. Brilliant leadership in a building that isn’t helpful has still attracted excellent teaching staff. I loved being there (for the second time this year). Some of what I saw and heard was inspirational. I came away feeling very thoughtful and challenged, too.
The Church of England is constantly slagged off for cherrypicking the best students in the best areas. When people like me counter this with examples such as the school I visited today – and I have visited many, many others – which takes kids from its immediate catchment, including ‘challenging’ areas, we get dismissed. I seriously wonder if some commentators ever visit schools like this and open their eyes to what is demanded of teachers – such as that they should be surrogate parents, extended family, social workers, psychologists, counsellors, spiritual directors, friends, mentors, etc.
Not every school starts from the same point, but some are deemed to be ‘satsifactory’ in terms of certain markers when the starting points are ignored. No wonder that so many teachers and headteachers express the view that the (particularly Westminster) politicians ought to get out more and immerse themselves in these realities before setting policy.
Anyway, Superstar is intriguing. So is being grilled by teenage lads about what commitment really means.
June 24, 2012
Oh no! The Archbishop of Canterbury has lost his inhibitions, thrown caution to the wind, and – in a massive scoop for the media – has slagged off the government in a book to come out after he has left office in 2013. It must be his considered revenge, mustn’t it?
Even the BBC website has him “dismiss[ing] David Cameron’s ‘big society’ initiative as ‘aspirational waffle’”.
The story broke with the Observer claiming to “have obtained” the book. Just how clever is that?
Has it occurred to any of these guys that the book is a collection of speeches and writings already given over the last few years? In other words, the scripts are all public anyway and have been for some time. The headline story about Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ was, I think, delivered before the last election.
So, why is this now puffed up into a sensation story? Why is it presented as if it was anything new? Why did any editor think this could possibly be a ‘story’ unless it was misleadingly represented as ‘new’?
Or, just like (a) when the riots hit England last year and we were constantly asked why the Archbishop of Canterbury was making no comments, and (b) when St Paul’s Cathedral steps were Occupied and we were constantly aksed why the Archbishop of Canterbury was making no comments, why did no journalist go back to their previous ‘scandal’ story and recall that the Archbishop of Canterbury had actually spoken very loudly about all these matters in articles and speeches – not least the New Statesman editorial that politicians and journalists castigated him for?
Is such amnesia deliberate? Or is there some other explanation?
[Note on 25 June: I notice that John Bingham got the story right in the Telegraph.]
June 22, 2012
OK, Europe is on tenterhooks regarding the future of the Greek economy as its (and other countries’) fate appears to sit in the pockets of the Germans. And then – can you believe it – Germany get Greece in the Euro 2012 quarter finals this evening.
Perhaps they should simply reprise the epic game between the two countries thirty-odd years ago. Here it is:
June 20, 2012
The last three weeks have seen me in Kazakhstan (interfaith conference), Brussels (round-table with Herman van Rompuy), then Dresden (preaching at the Frauenkirche). All good gigs, but all it does is build a backlog of work at home. It has also squeezed out any blogging – or any creative thought, for that matter. And I’ve missed almost all the football in Euro 2012. And I forgot to change my fantasy team in time and am now doing rubbish.
Of course, had I had the space to do so, I would have blogged about women bishops, Church of England PR, the Telegraph’s useless commenting on the C of E’s input to a consultation on Europe (don’t these guys bother to read the originals before launching their self-important second-hand opinions), Euro 2012, the poignancy of preaching in Dresden’s Frauenkirche (especially when the tourists leave in droves before the sermon), the Euro-crisis and Angela Merkel, the Greek elections, developments in Egypt, destruction of a church in Sudan, the future of the Diocese of Bradford (in the light of proposals to dissolve it), lots of other stuff, and the price of milk.
Actually, I really did want to write about the price of milk. I was shocked to hear further evidence recently of how the power of the supermarkets to control milk prices now makes a bottle of water more expensive than a pint of milk. And who gets screwed? The farmers. What do you make of this:
- Currently dairy contracts allow milk purchasers to make significant changes to the terms and conditions in the contract and lower the milk price paid, often with less than 30 days’ notice, whilst the producer is often locked in to the contract for the next 12 to 24 months. No wonder the National Farmers Union (NFU) is calling for (a) clear price determination, and (b) shorter break clauses / right to terminate. (The NFU believes this is not solely about milk price – it is about establishing a functional market place which has true liquidity and therefore incentivises milk purchasers to offer a competitive milk price.)
- The farmer should know at any time what their milk price is. Isn’t it rather shocking that they don’t? Shouldn’t the price be specified in the contract between purchaser and provider? Isn’t that rather obvious? At the moment many milk buyers have the ‘discretion’ to change the price a farmer receives at will and potentially retrospectively.
- Recently farmers in my neck of the woods were informed that the price they received for each litre of milk would be reduced by 2p. The average farmer around here works that out around a staggering sum of £20,000 per annum. One farmer in my diocese stands to lose £10,000 this year – from a small farm.
What I find amazing is that (a) this can happen without the farmer having any recourse to negotiation and (b) that most of us drink the white stuff without any recognition of where it comes from or who pays the real price for it.
I’m no expert, but I now understand why the General Synod of the Churhc of England has so often banged on about the power of supermarkets. I’m not against them – after all, I use them. But, there is an issue of economic and social justice here. And we can’t blame the cows.
June 14, 2012
I was doing Pause for Thought on the BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans Show this morning. It’s not always easy to know what to say about what, especially when you have to write he script a day or two ahead of the game. ‘Events’ might intrude in the interim…
Anyway, this morning it was a casual conversation that got me going:
A couple of days ago I had one of those conversations that leaves you confused – not about the content, but how the conversation itself ever happened in the first place.
I was having a chat with a woman in a shop and I remarked that I hoped we’d sort the Swedes out on Friday. She said the best way to deal with swedes is to chop them up, boil them, then roast them in the oven. At least, that’s what I think she said. The problem was, I was talking about Euro 2012 and England’s chances on Friday while she was thinking ‘vegetables’.
This reminded me of when I was a kid in Liverpool. Two neighbours were having a chat one day about the ants. It was only when Mrs Green went into detail about how, when even Nippon failed, she resorted to pouring boiling water down their hole, that Mrs Howard twigged that she wasn’t referring to the two elderly spinster ladies she had been talking about. In Liverpool we didn’t distinguish between ‘ant’ and ‘aunt’.
I remember this every time I find myself not listening to what someone is actually saying and jump to conclusions about what I think they are saying. And this happens a lot – not just to me, but to all of us. What we hear is not always what is really being said.
Remember the disciples mishearing Jesus in Monty Python’s Life of Brian? “Blessed are the cheese makers? Of course, he means producers of all dairy products…”
We do this with Jesus all the time – making him say what we want to hear him say, rather than what he actually said. We duck the hard stuff. We can confidently propagate the stuff about ‘loving your neighbour’ – even if we find it easier to say than to do – whilst quietly ignoring the embarrassing stuff like ‘deny yourself, pick up that cross and come with me’.
What we hear isn’t always what is being said. So, when I say I hope the Swedes get battered on Friday, you know what I mean.
June 14, 2012
I was sitting in a cafe waiting to do a radio gig and had the time to look back at the last couple of days’ news. Also scanned Twitter. Then thought about Harry Redknapp. That led me on to empires during the last few millennia. I know: weird.
The thing about Harry is that just a few months ago he was riding high. He won his tax court case, was a media star, was tipped by all the media and pundits as the only choice to replace Capello as England manager. Then Spurs dipped, Hodgson got England, Harry made demands, and yesterday he lost his job. And this morning’s media are even suggesting he is now finished in football.
Fickle old world, isn’t it? Yesterday’s media certainties are today’s embarrassing misjudgements. All this proves, of course, is that pundits and the commentariat should never be taken too seriously. They fill the page or the screen with today’s gobby ‘wisdom’, then, while others remember what they have said, they move on to the next one.
Empires come and go. That’s what history (and the Bible, actually) teaches us. What looks permanent today can be gone tomorrow. Like confidence in Spain’s economy or Holland’s Euro 2012 outlook. Anything said with confidence today should be taken with great scepticism – it might have changed by next week.
Interesting, then, that yesterday’s noise about the Church of England’s response to the government’s ludicrously inept consultation on gay marriage is followed this morning (apparently) by some vital stuff on church chairs. Despair is evident in the twittersphere about yet another example of C of E PR ineptitude. Maybe it is. But, just who decided to roll these two things together. How long has the ‘chairs’ item been in the diary can? Would it even have made it to the airwaves if we hadn’t had the earlier gay marriage stuff?
The other complaint is that while Iain Duncan Smith is doing his ‘poverty’ stuff, the Church is banging on about chairs and not poverty. OK, that’s how it looks. But, it’s a bit naive, even it does cause instant depression in many of us. The reality is that we spend most of our time tackling poverty at local, legislative and political levels – ‘church opposes poverty’ is not news.
What all this makes clear, however, is not that the substance of the church’s concerns is misguided or that the priorities are necessarily wrong. Rather, it just goes to prove that we are terrible at ‘spin’. The Church hasn’t exactly managed the news to its institutional advantage this week. Maybe it hasn’t tried…
Which brings us to the response to the Church of England’s response to the government’s consultation on ‘gay marriage’.
OK, picking out one statement about threats to the establishment (one paragraph out of something like twenty seven) offered the media the lead story and ensured it dominated the front pages. Actually, to my mind this is the least interesting or important or significant element of the statement. The Church’s response is not primarily about establishment or status – even if there might be consequences here. The Church’s concerns are primarily about what is usually called ‘the common good’.
Change our understanding of marriage and we are not doing something trivial or consequence-free. The Church cannot simply go with the flow of contemporary culture, blessing whatever is this era’s wisdom. Someone has to ask the hard questions and question the language and assumptions behind moves for social change. It might not be popular and it can be mishandled, but it has to be done.
The shoddy consultation (a) confuses ‘marriage’ with ‘wedding’, (b) assumes a lie – that British law distinguishes between ‘civil’ and ‘religious’ marriage, (c) fails to distinguish between ‘equality’ and ‘uniformity’, (d) fails to address why civil partnerships would continue for gay couples and not be open to heterosexuals – surely ‘unequal’ – if gay marriage comes in, and (e) clearly sees this ‘consultation’ as a mere preliminary to doing what it intends to do regardless of what the consultation throws up.
Does anyone seriously think the church – or any sentient body – should just ignore all this and roll over?
Yes, it looks like the Church is being a bit flouncy or scaremongering in relation to its status, but the substantial critique of the government’s assumptions, language and process also need a response. I look forward to it – it has to be a bit more intelligent and less emotively woolly than the tangent the response has led us on so far.
The Church in Wales has also responded similarly and with great frustration about the same issues. I haven’t yet caught up with any response to this.
This one will run and run. The best hope is that we get some answers to the substantial questions while continuing strongly to affirm committed relationships of any sort – for the common good.
(On the footie question, my UEFA 2012 fantasy team – Purple Haze in the Spain Sucks league – is doing OK. But, in the context of poverty issues, Cameron at the Leveson Inquiry, questions around marriage – but not church chairs – it doesn’t really matter.)
June 12, 2012
Too much travel and too many meetings make it hard to hit the keypad and write stuff here. But, today’s ridiculous preoccupation with David Cameron’s abandonment of his daughter in a pub forced the issue.
Apparently, the Prime Minister and his family went for a pub lunch with friends a couple of months ago. They got in separate cars to go home and only discovered when they got home that their daughter Nancy wasn’t with either of them. She had gone to the loo and got forgotten – being picked up 15 minutes later by a ‘distraught’ father.
I wonder if he was actually ‘distraught’ because he knew the media would get the story and make a meal of it?
Now, I can think of many reasons for criticising David Cameron. In fact, make that ‘many, many reasons’, starting with his policies, going though his values and continuing along the road of his leadership competence. But, to spend a whole day debating his parental competence is just absurd. If anything it exposes the pathetic lack of perspective offered by people who like to point a finger and sneer behind a hand. He didn’t abandon his daughter and she was totally safe while she waited to be picked up.
In other words, this is a non-story. Except, of course, in the hands of those who think it contributes to a growing picture of an incompetent man. Give the guy a break! I don’t ever remember losing my kids in a pub, but I do remember losing sight of my son on the beach once. Cue the media to rubbish my performance as a bishop and a human being.
While I’m at it, what’s all the nonsense about the PM relaxing too much? Haven’t we all complained that people in high-pressure jobs like his need to be counter-cultural and learn to get some space? You know, for weird stuff like thinking or dreaming or reflecting or reading or playing a game? Don’t we constantly hear of PMs from earlier days who used to read widely and write books while thinking about politics and the ways of the world? And don’t we constantly wish our PMs would think more deeply, act more wisely and live more healthily?
Maybe. But we also admire the French for having lunch breaks and sleeping properly at night. And we persist in this ridiculous notion that the PM must flog himself to death just to prove he isn’t slacking while there is so much to do in a tough old world out there. This all becomes a PR game in which too much energy, time and talk goes into creating images instead of dealing with reality.
Time to grow up, I think.
(I forgot to note that the ‘Nancy affair’ reminded me immediately of the episode in the gospels when Mary and Joseph forgot Jesus and left him in Jerusalem for several days. At least when Dave got back to the pub Nancy wasn’t having an argument with the local vicar…)
June 5, 2012
Having missed most of the Jubilee celebrations in the UK, two scripts have (for me, at least) gone to the heart of the matter.
The first is David Hare’s Guardian comment on the Queen “floating above the stink” of the rest of our disillusioned public life. He concludes:
The Queen is perceived today to be where we might all wish to be – floating some way above the stink. And for that reason the young woman who was phoned on safari in Kenya in 1952 and told to come home immediately is 60 years later overwhelmingly popular. We are grateful that there is one British citizen who is not at the mercy of market forces and shameless profiteering, nor of a government which lacks the philosophy, the intellectual equipment or the will to control them. What was in happier times the Queen’s greatest weakness – that she does not in the circumstances of her life resemble her subjects – has paradoxically, at this point in our history, come to be her greatest strength. Republicans who have recently been cowed into silence – “not a good year for us,” admitted their spokesperson – should take heart. The vestigial idealism which has recently settled on the Queen’s shoulders is a parallel instinct to that which demands television programmes not about rubbish and a publicly funded health service, where the fit pay cheerfully to help the sick. God knows, that public idealism has few enough other places to go.
The second is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral today – which I did not hear, but have just read. He asks for the recovery of a renewed vision of ‘dedicated’ public service – akin to what I posted earlier on the discussions in Brussels last night. He concludes:
This year has already seen a variety of Jubilee creations and projects. But its most lasting memorial would be the rebirth of an energetic, generous spirit of dedication to the common good and the public service, the rebirth of a recognition that we live less than human lives if we think just of our own individual good.
June 5, 2012
I came to Brussels to contribute to a round-table discussion last night with the President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, and four other guests from Sweden, Greece/France, Germany and Ireland. The theme was Bringing Hope and Solidarity into European Integration.
On arrival in Brussels I was very helpfully briefed on latest developments in the Euro crisis, European competitiveness, demographic movements, migration, energy, employment, and so on. After all, these are the issues that form the context in which any concepts of hope and solidarity have to be worked out.
Herman van Rompuy was embarrassingly excellent. I cannot imagine a senior British politician beginning such a discourse on social solidarity with an exposition of Martin Buber‘s ‘Ich und Du’ (I and Thou). The basic thesis is that people – individually and collectively – exist meaningfully only in relation to others and ‘the other’. Identity is shaped by relationship, and relationship (or encounter) lies at the root of any notion of solidarity. Although Buber speaks initially of ‘persons’, we can extrapolate from this to societies that must be ‘open to the world’. Such openness is integral to and inherent in what it means to be human beings together.
Van Rompuy then explored what this might mean for the European Union, belonging to which does not transcend or replace membership of other (smaller) groupings. It is easy to forget just how enormously important an achievement the European project has been – enabling European countries to build more than just a peaceful co-existence after 1500 years of wars, bloodshed, broken peace treaties, and so on. He concluded that “Europe will be what Europeans make it to be”.
Now, this was designed to start a debate – which it did. We explored whether (especially in the case of the Greeks) solidarity is the desire of the weak at the expense of the strong. Different perceptions of Europe’s future potential were articulated, but especially in the light of the Christian churches’ failures to engage in a meaningful or transformative way with some of Europe’s most pressing issues. I don’t have time to go into depth, but hope a text might be forthcoming at some point.
For my part, I tried simply to suggest that for ‘solidarity’ to mean anything, commitment had to emerge from some sort of shared vision… and a shared vision must emerge from some shared values. These shared values need in turn to arise from some articulated (and not merely assumed) narrative that provides a metaphorical lens through which the ‘project’ can be understood and appreciated. In other words, there needs to be some controlling ‘myth’ which gives meaning to what we are doing together. I went on later to question whether such an articulation was currently forthcoming in the United Kingdom in particular.
Contrast Europe with Kazakhstan, for example. One of the most striking things about any conversation with young Kazakhs is the energy and commitment they show to building their new country. They are only 20 years old and still trying to work out what their ‘backstory’ is. But, they are building something, shaping a future, proudly taking responsibility for their ‘project’. In Europe, however, we find tired cynicism – an attempt to recover a romanticised past or preserve some imagined glory, a sceptical apathy about anything and anyone who tries to identify or articulate a future. (See Nick Cohen’s Guardian destruction of Tony Blair – a journalist responsible for nothing other than expressing his opinion taking apart someone who, for all his failings, is engaged where it matters, trying to bring change.)
Europe has fought its wars and shed it’s blood. Europe’s future lies in a common vision, not in the fragmentation that gave us the last 1500 years of adventure.
Van Rompuy’s line is that we are ‘better together’ than ‘fighting together’. He rightly identifies individualism as a problem (which is where, at the level of national myth or narrative, Europe differs from the USA) if the focus of values is essentially identified in the individual and there is no sense of ‘society’ conceived of as anything more than the sum of individuals.
I made two points which preoccupy me from time to time and which I think need addressing: (a) how can the churches (among others) use their prophetic vocation to offer a renewed or new vision of how Europe can identify hope and solidarity in its common life? and (b) how can the European institutions (and the churches) find a new narrative – and a language for expressing it – that captures both the intellectual commitment of (what I rudely and rather simplistically called) Europe’s Radio 4 and the popular imagination of Europe’s Radio 2 audiences.
Both the EU and European Christian ecumenism emerged from world wars and a determination not to go back to fighting. This fear and resolve forged the narrative that has driven both movements for over sixty years. But, this narrative no longer motivates people for whom the second world war is as remote as the French Revolution. Yes, our young people need to learn history, but they will also need to identify or create a new narrative (controlling myth) that commands positive commitment for the future and is not just driven by fear derived from a past of which they had no part.
Of course, I might be barking up the wrong tree. And we don’t have the luxury of simply thinking this through while everything stops for us. The answers to these demanding questions must be found while we work our way through the immediate crises in which we find ourselves.
Perhaps it would help if we in the UK recognised – despite the shallow disavowals of our politicians – that the Euro crisis is not happening somewhere else and is the result of ‘lazy Greeks versus efficient Germans’, but was largely caused by US and British banking recklessness and failures. ‘Solidarity’ means taking responsibility for one’s neighbour – especially where the neighbour’s circumstances were partly caused by our misbehaviour and hubris.
June 5, 2012
Having got back from Kazakhstan last Friday and spent Saturday and Sunday with family, I am now (supposed to be) on holiday and am in Brussels. I’ll explain in the next post. However, lack of wifi in Kazakhstan mean that I couldn’t do the usual business of blogging as I went along. So, here’s the last of this batch.
The Congress ended with an ‘Appeal’ which will not be widely read in the West. It still assumes that people do what their faith leaders tell them to do – which is a misguided assumption. Nevertheless, the engagement with each other can produce conversations of value and forge relationships that can be of benefit more widely. The event also provides an excellent opportunity to speak face to face with government leaders about matters of international concern – and this is an opportunity I took in relation to Kazakhstan’s unnecessary and restrictive new Religious Law. I am now following this up with a letter which will set out concerns in detail.
Anyway, back to the Congress itself. I was unable to give a speech at a Panel Session on ‘youth’ as the organisers had arranged for me to be in three places at the same time. I cannot trilocate. So, one of my English colleagues stepped in and pretended to be me. I gather he did an excellent job at condensing our ideas into a coherent and stimulating contribution to proceedings. But, here is the bulk (minus the usual greeting stuff) of what I would have said – just for the record and to give an idea of how direct we can be in introducing ideas that aren’t earth-shattering in the UK, but might be challenging elsewhere. (The complaining I heard about new media and how young people need to be taken away from computers and educated to accept the authority of their elders helped me realise how hopelessly out of touch some religious leaders can be – wishing the world could be now as it used to be…)
… Young people are not ‘the future’, they are ‘the present’ – the ‘now’. I will come back to this later. However, before doing so, we need to recognise that the themes before us in this Congress run along the fault lines of our global societies in the early decades of the twenty first century.
Sustainable development poses a massive challenge to a world in which some people prosper at the expense of those who have little – assumptions about inevitable universal economic growth have been called into question by the financial crashes since 2008. But sustainable development assumes sustainable societies that are sustained by values that are themselves sustainable in the longer term.
When people from diverse cultures live alongside each other we refer to multiculturalism. Allowing cultures to thrive is a rich gift, but in Europe serious questions are being asked about whether a blind acceptance of multiculturalism as a virtue has hindered integration of communities in a common society.
In many parts of the world traditional understandings of the role of women are being questioned. The trafficking and abuse of women by men is a serious and appallingly common feature of our world. An uncomfortable fact of life is that while men talk and fight, women get on with keeping families together, raising children, making society work, making local economies work and shaping communities.
But all of this comes together when we take a look at the future of our young people. The world in which I grew up is not the same world my own children have grown into. And this means that my children – now aged 30, 28 and 24 – look at the world through a different lens. For example:
- The nuclear threat of my childhood has been replaced by a profound concern for the environment, the creation, the tiny planet we all inhabit. Concern for the future of the planet, for sustainable development and for justice is a powerful and non-negotiable starting point for millions of young people.
- This owes something to the development of ubiquitous media, and especially in the last few years, of social media. The world is now connected in ways that were unimaginable even ten years ago. You can go into an African or South American jungle and find people without roads and transport, but everyone seems to have a mobile phone and an email address. Go into a cafe in an obscure town in a developing country and young people are sitting at computer screens updating their Facebook status. Electronic media – in their mere infancy when I was already working as a professional linguist – have by now revolutionised the world, creating new and surprising ways for people to relate, converse and plan together.
However, even though there is a massive uptake of older people using new technologies and the Internet, these older generations (that is, my generation) tend to see such technologies as a means of communicating or working, but not, as millions of young people do, part of their natural DNA. Social media are integral ways of communicating and relating for millions of young people – something most of us, even if we are adept at electronic media, cannot comprehend. Our children obtain their worldview-shaping perceptions and information about the world from these new ways of communicating. The days when our young people only knew a limited number of people in, or just beyond, their immediate geographical habitat have now gone. Children have ‘friends’ across the globe in communities completely alien to their own. (And it is significant that whereas some governments used to try to shut down inconvenient voices during elections or times of social unrest by closing newspapers or broadcasters, now they aim to shut down Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets.)
These two phenomena are clearly connected. The world our children are growing into is considerably smaller than the one most of us grew up in. News is instant, information is infinitely accessible (although ‘information’ is not to be confused with ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowledge’ should not be mistaken for ‘wisdom’), and what happens in a small forest in the Amazon becomes a motivating challenge for people living in London or Bradford. To ignore the revolutionary power of social media is simply to bury our heads in the sand of wilful ignorance. Trying to pretend that the world continues to be what it has always been will not change the fact that these developments have changed the way in which our young people organise, buy in to politics and protest, view authority and power, and suspect institutions.
This provides a radical challenge to religious leaders – and to politicians who need better to understand the place and role of religion as a motivator of people and a shaper of cultural identity. In the western world morality has frequently become disconnected from questions of ‘truth’ and is shaped by mere pragmatism – a worrying development for many reasons. But, complaining about it will not change anything. It is the responsibility of my generation to learn to look though the eyes of our young people and understand why they see what they see in the way they see it.
Crucial to this is the place of schools and education. One of the challenges faced by children of some of our religious communities in Britain is that of ‘compartmentalisation’. This is where children are taught by their religious institutions or communities to see the world in one way, whilst then being taught a different approach in school. For example, a scientific account of evolution is worked with in the classroom, but a non-scientific ‘belief’ held in the mosque or church. Such compartmentalism cannot be sustained by people who grow up to realise that there is only one reality, that something is true because it is true and not because we would like to believe it is true.
Perhaps this is why some observers predict a collapse in religious commitment by many young people where their experience of the world is rejected by religious authorities that occupy a different reality. (And, just for the record, I see no contradiction between accounts of why the world is the way it is and how the world came to be the way it is; we must just be careful not to confuse ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions.)
The hearts and minds of our young people will no longer be won by appeals to authority or loyalty, but by capturing the imagination of people who take the world seriously. Too often fundamentalists thrive because they know how to appeal to these base commitments in young people who want to shape the world differently. They see our failures, our conflicts and fragmentations, and are not impressed.
So, in conclusion, I want – as a Christian leader, committed to the truth of God in Jesus Christ – to encourage us to take young people seriously… on their own terms, knowing that our refusal or inability to hear their voice or look though their eyes or hear through their ears will not change what they say, what they see or how they hear. Religion that is confident will embrace the challenges that our young people bring – not simply conceding every inch of ground, but taking seriously the critique of what is and the potential for what might become.
The Hebrew prophet spoke of young men dreaming dreams. That is a dangerous thing to encourage. But, if the prophet sees here through God’s eyes, then religious leaders might need to wake up to both the reality and the potential.
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