August 26, 2012
Back from holiday on Arran, we finished off with a night in Liverpool and the Liverpool vs Manchester City game at Anfield this afternoon. Holidays are disorientating. My mind goes all over the place. I managed to read four novels in the week, but spent most time playing with my two year old grandson whose speech grew enormously. You can almost see the synapses joining up in the brain as he puts language together with self-consciousness.
But, that's all incidental. My mind has been, as I said, all over the place. The novels – all by Patrick Gale – made me think about family, church, ethics, storytelling, humanity, God and other interesting stuff. But, it was someone else whose words teased my imagination and made me muse on church, football and leadership. I haven't had time yet to read the full text of Elisabeth Murdoch's MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival at the end of last week, but one paragraph near the beginning did grab my attention:
A great creative organisation is like any successful community; it's a place of honesty, integrity, and an environment where curiosity and enthusiasm are the norm. It's a place that demands personal accountability, collective responsibility and true self-determination. It's a place where opportunity doesn't have to wait for a board meeting; a place that stimulates self-expression and encourages collaborative endeavour.
Here she is speaking about the culture of an independent creative media business. But, I wondered if the same could be said about the church – even if only thinking ideally. Even though people in the church are always complaining that if we were more like a business we would do things better, I also have experience of business and the rhetoric in business is not always matched by the reality.
But, whereas honesty and integrity should be fundamental to a church community, 'an environment where curiosity and enthusiasm are the norm' sounds strange. Yet – and I have often argued for this – curiosity is the 'key to the Kingdom' and something Jesus seemed always to be wanting to stimulate. If you don't believe me, just read the parables and use your imagination.
Perhaps if the church were characterised more by curiosity and enthusiasm (for its core purpose – as Murdoch seems to go on to suggest) it might become a more attractive and less intensely conflicted body. It might also bring into sharper relief the importance of 'personal accountability, collective responsibility and true self-determination', understood theologically as the purposeful driving motivators of those who claim any sort of allegiance to the church. Purpose puts conflict in its rightful place – which is not at the forefront of every conversation.
Move on from this to Anfield this afternoon. I know: this is weird.
I am always deeply moved to see, hear and join in with over 50,000 people singing 'You'll never walk alone'. I grew up with it. I don't often get to see Liverpool play these days, but when I do I get choked as the music starts when the teams come out. Why?
I have sometimes heard it said that if church were more like a football match more people would come. There is a common purpose (but also a common enemy – the opposition); there is a communal anthem (but not everybody joins in); the participatory event lasts for a limited time and the rules are clear (but some people, having paid a fortune to be there, still behave like morons); there is a measurable outcome at the end. So far, so good.
But, there are also loads of people who couldn't run down the garden path who scream indignantly, offering their advice to the athletes on the pitch and criticising their competence, credibility, intelligence, fitness for the job and parenthood. I heard one woman say she was bored with the match – despite it being fast, creative, draining on the nerves and frequently exciting. In other words, perhaps the footie experience is a bit like church in that the 'worship' brings together a broad range of people around a single event, allows expression of a wide range of emotional responses to what is being witnessed, is necessarily participatory, involves a shed load of activity aimed at claiming allegiance and commitment (financial as well as time and emotion), and makes space for whiners, moaners, hypocrites, the hard-to-please and the self-righteously arrogant. As well, of course, as the gloriously optimistic, the blindly proud, the wonderfully realistic and the hopefully celebratory.
I'm not staking my life on this stuff. I just thought about it on the way back from Liverpool to Bradford. I love Liverpool, I love the media, I love business, and I really love the church. No illusions about any of them and loads of fantasies about all of them. But, ultimately, I just love the fact that all of them involve real people with real lives, real contradictions, real glories and real stories. And – this might sound a bit obvious – I love the fact that when thinking about the church particularly, I refer to a narrative that presents a warts-and-all picture of a broad community of real people whose curiosity has been teased and who, despite all the other stuff, can't help being grasped by the wonder of it all or the enthusiasm of purpose which it excites.
(And Liverpool should have taken all three points. Scrappy defending for Man City's first goal and a terrible back pass for their second allowed a draw. But, Liverpool's passing game is getting better – and I would be more optimistic for Liverpool's season than City's on the evidence of today's game.)
August 21, 2012
When commenting recently on what I might have blogged about had I bothered to write anything at all, I mentioned a few issues, but avoided the Pussy Riot trial in Moscow. The reason I avoided it has nothing to do with the issues raised by the case itself. I'll come back to it later – after a couple of bland observations that I hesitate to make without developing them (for which there isn't time).
First, Pussy Riot would still be anonymous around the world if Putin's boys and girls hadn't lost perspective. Putin will do the opposite of anything the 'old enemy' wants him to do – it's almost a matter of principle. So, the riot of disgust and anger around the world at the eventual sentences handed down to the three women won't cause Putin to lose sleep.
Second, the Moscow Patriarchate shows signs of being a little too close to Putin and his regime. This has clearly also led to a loss of theological perspective on its part. The ensuing global publicity about the Pussy Riot demo has simply drawn attention to questions the Church finds uncomfortable (or, at least, should do) and focused critical attention on its political allegiances and privileges.
Whichever way you look at it, Pussy Riot has managed to attract more attention to their cause than they could ever have dreamed of. And both the Putin regime and the Church look ridiculously self-regarding and over-sensitive. I wonder whose tables Jesus would have overturned…
Anyway, I am on an island holiday with almost no mobile signal and few places where I can get a wi-fi connection. I am also trying to avoid 'work'. So maybe this is the time to explain an unusual phenomenon that still surprises and amuses me.
Way back in 2009 I posted something entitled 'The rules of pizza'. It followed a bizarre experience in an Italian restaurant in London when the waiter, rather than asking me if everything was OK with the meal, instead observed that I “eat pizza funny”. The women on the next table were laughing. I said I wasn't aware there were any rules for how one should at pizza. So, I posted the piece and posed the question.
However, the odd thing is that I still get daily views of this particular post. Dozens every day – sometimes hundreds. I was amused early on after I had originally posted it that I was getting hundreds of referrals from a lesbian bondage website. This seems to be happening still. And I have no idea why or how.
So, you can understand why I hesitated before posting anything about Pussy Riot. Most referred viewers must have been really disappointed to find they got to a bishop discussing pizza. I dread to think what will happen to future referrals from exotic websites caught by the title of this post.
Or maybe they will all come from cat protection organisations…
August 21, 2012
I know I am on holiday and only get internet access if I nip into a local bar, but…
No sooner had Samira Ahmed lamented in the Guardian the decline of German language learning in England's schools, but then Viv Groskop did a similar job in the Independent. She broadens the lament into an exposé of English ineptitude when it comes to the learning of any language. Try this demystification of the art:
In reality, it's not so difficult to acquire a language. You learn a foreign language the same way you learn to speak as a child: it requires constant practice and voluntary humiliation. And you don't have to read Proust. You can just talk to people.
Which, after all, is how Johnny Foreigner manages to acquire an embarrassing facility with English:
… all over the world people speak all kinds of weird but perfectly understandable versions of 'Globish' (English as a second language). They do not beat themselves up for their mistakes nor consider themselves somehow magically gifted.
But, the Independent also had an example of excellent English in Julian Baggini's opinion piece about the 'right to die' debate. Forget the hysterical shouting of those such as Polly Toynbee, who just curse anyone who is stupid enough to disagree with their root assumptions. In his piece, Julian Baggini questions the very terms of the debate, particularly common assumptions about 'competing personal liberties'. Before patiently, intelligently and unpolemically offering an alternative 'narrative' against which to see the debate, he makes an appeal:
… if it is simply an issue of competing personal liberties, most, if not all, the arguments against [assisted dying] can be dealt with by the provision of appropriate safeguards. The real problem is that we do not employ a rich enough notion of what personal liberty means to see why assisted dying requires very sensitive handling.
Baggini then addresses the fundamental question of 'the common good' – the social nature of human beings. He observes:
The truth we need to deal with is that the common good is not arrived at simply by adding up individual goods. Rather, the common good is what enables individual lives to be nourished rather than degraded by the society they live in… The argument against assisted suicide on these grounds is not that your doing it directly harms others, but that your having the right to do it requires changing the social ecology in such a way as to diminish the ability of all individuals to thrive in it.
In drawing attention to this Baggini elucidates the fundamentally identical point made by Rowan Williams. He concludes by calling for an intelligent debate that moves away from a shockingly simplistic (and ignorantly lazy) rejection of 'outdated theology' and an equally simplistic deification of 'individual liberty' seen in isolation from the implications of the social nature of human beings.
I was struck by Baggini's article mainly because of the temperate and eirenic use of language to shine a different light into a very contentious debate. Instead of merely accepting the validity of the philosophical or anthropological terms of discussion, he challenges the fundamental assumptions underlying some of the strongly-held views and introduces a vital 'other' element to the discourse.
It is a model of how to argue, respecting the passions of the polemicists, but quietly challenging the terms of the debate. And it is something I am not alone in needing to learn from.
August 17, 2012
All has been quiet on the blogging front – again. No loss of interest, but just life being full and a lack of conviction that I have anything useful to say about anything. I might have commented on Mark Thompson's appointment in the USA or developments in Syria or the usual preoccupations of the Church of England or Robin van Persie's move to Manchester United or Bruce Cockburn's gig coming up in Selby on 6 September or several other matters. Even the post-Olympics funny stuff might have got a look in if I could have been bothered. I thought of reviewing a book I was sent over a year ago, but, having read it, a review would have been unkind, so I decided not to do it.
Feeble-hearted, I know.
But, then, last weekend our house got burgled and the culprit (who has been very clearly caught on CCTV) nicked my computer and my car. So far neither have been found. So, the first week of holiday has been taken up with police and the sheer hassle of trying to recover data. I'll come back later to the conundrum that really takes the pip.
Anyway, the burglary and it's associated inconveniences account for the 'loss' element of the title. The local newspaper did a piece in which I apparently 'condemned' as 'sick' the burglar. Just for the record: I didn't condemn anyone; I only said I 'felt sick' when I saw what had happened. But, the paper does a good job exposing such crimes.
So, before leaving home today for a break away (in a place where I am assured there is very poor mobile reception and no Internet connection… a bit like a planet without air), I noticed Samira Ahmed's Guardian article about the learning of German in the light of yesterday's A Level results. She highlights the very concerns I have been banging on about here for the last few years – that language learning (not 'teaching' – that's a different matter) in England is so poor and given such a low priority that our young people will eventually find themselves culturally impoverished, professionally disadvantaged and intellectually weakened by their monolingualism. As Ahmed points out, we Brits are missing a trick with German and Germany – but we will only really notice the cost in twenty or thirty years time.
So, here I am. In Liverpool watching our two year old grandson grow before my eyes. He and his mum are coming on holiday with us. And when we get back at the end of next week we will see Liverpool hammer Manchester City at Anfield before heading home. The new season begins, my fantasy league team is ready, optimism is high. And holiday will see me get stuck into four Patrick Gale novels before I tackle Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies.
And my query? My iPad was synced to my computer. The computer has been stolen. If I now try to sync my iPad to my new computer, it will only do it by erasing anything on the iPad that isn't on iCloud or wasn't bought from iTunes. Is it possible to sync what I have on my iPad onto my new computer (iMac) – so that I won't lose my apps, downloaded music and everything in iBooks? Or am I stuffed?
August 7, 2012
One of the remarkable things about the wonderful Olympics 2012 is how the humble champions speak of the journey to the podium. It is easy to hear them speak of “twelve years of training and preparation for this event” without realising that those twelve years were made up of over 4380 days. In some cases every single day involved rigorous dieting and training – come rain, snow or sunshine.
This is not the job of wusses. If many words could be used to describe what is involved in such athletic commitment, one of them might be ‘resilience’. And it is a word deserving of wider reference and application.
In a culture of what I have called elsewhere ‘consumerist narcissism’ (or ‘narcissistic consumerism’?) – in which self-fulfilment justifies any cost – resilience is not needed. And in a Christian church that looks for instant healings and panaceas for every bit of conflict or challenge, resilience is often underplayed. For resilience implies continued struggle, acceptance of adversity, re-direction into altruism.
So, it is timely that Justine Allain-Chapman has just published a book that addresses (far more intelligently than I could) the ‘role of adversity in healing and growth’: Resilient Pastors. In it she shines a helpfully critical light not only on the superficial ‘make it better’ default of many of us, but also on theologies of liberation that focus on the liberation at the expense of the adversity that cries out for it. There are both personal and pastoral implications for individuals and for those who exercise pastoral care unwisely or uncritically.
In a book that is realistic and compassionate, we also find helpful recapitulation. Although I had to fight the temptation to underline every use of the word ‘resilient’ in almost every sentence of the first chapter, the author recapitulates at every stage the argument and rationale thus far. Each chapter ends with a highlighted summary of what has gone before. Bigger brains might find this unnecessary, but I found it helpful.
Clearly, as anybody closely involved with pastors/clergy will recognise, we need resilient pastors in today’s church. Allain-Chapman rightly questions whether the contemporary “emphasis on the wounded healer motif is that it emphasises woundedness rather than healing”. (p.106) Surveying literature on ‘resilience theory’, she shines fresh and challenging light not only on our understanding of pastoral need, but also of pastoral practice. Moving from a look at the desert as a place of tough encounter, she takes a brief illustrative perspective from the Bible… and then from the Desert Fathers:
To go through the desert experience involuntarily can be both overwhelming and crushing. To embrace it can prove both constructive and liberating. (p.54)
Identifying three stages of the desert metaphor which promote resilience – embracing the desert; encountering God and the self; altruistic living and pastoral responsibility – she then explores how these work out when we choose to face up to the struggle and not simply look for a quick resolution to it. She invokes the theology of Rowan Williams in seeking a contemporary application of the early Christian experience of these things.
So, this is an excellent book for those who want to think seriously about real humanity, genuine Christian struggle, authentic pastoral engagement, and the dangers of what Bonhoeffer famously called ‘cheap grace’. The style isn’t always easy, but it is a book worth persevering with.
A bit like life and adversity, I guess. And, while we are at it, it reminded me of the disconnect between hugely admiring the commitment of the Jessica Ennises of this world while sitting in a comfortable chair drinking another beer…
August 4, 2012
Mention the word 'race' at the moment and all eyes turn to the Olympics in London. But, it is another form of race that preoccupies my mind today.
Yesterday the parents of Shafilea Ahmed were jailed for life for murdering their own daughter who had – by her westernised independence – offended their cultural and community sensibilities. The case has been well publicised and I don't need to go into detail here.
However, there is a very good and clear response to some of the issues raised by Sara Khan in the Guardian this morning. She might also have questioned whether the inhibition of social and health services to protect and advocate for vulnerable arises not from misguided racism, but rather from cultural ignorance and fear of 'getting it wrong'.
Yes, this is sensitive stuff. Muslim leaders in Bradford have no truck with religious or 'cultural' excuses for criminal or violent behaviour. No question – and I know because we speak openly, frankly and without inhibition about these and other matters. And it is not simply about race.
Today the English Defence League is due to demonstrate in West Yorkshire – Keighley, to be precise – and at the same time demonstrate its crassly simplistic (and selectively perverse) focus on missing the point. It is right that people should protest about the horror that is sex-grooming of vulnerable young girls. It is barely believable that men can do this in the first place and it demands condemnation and punishment. But – and this is the brutal point – it is not primarily a racial issue.
Sex-grooming of vulnerable girls is a male issue, not a race issue. It is an Asian male problem and it is a Muslim male issue… because it is a generic male issue. When white Anglo-Saxon men commit these crimes we don't write off 'white' 'non-Muslim' 'non-Asian' cultures as being inherently corrupt or dangerous. If this is an Asian problem, it is only so because it is a male problem. Of course, there will be factors peculiar to Asian culture and the Asian community – just as there will be factors unique to the phenomenon in other cultural communities – and these need to be addressed. But, to target Asians is misguided, to say the least.
In a conversation recently my Muslim interlocutors acknowledged straight up the fact that “this is our problem”; but, we followed this up with the recognition that it is also OUR problem. If the problem of such appalling criminality is to be properly addressed, we need to recognise the 'maleness' of the phenomenon and not simply target religious or cultural scapegoats whilst quietly ignoring the facts or the cultural ubiquity of the behaviour.
The best way to handle the EDL is simply to ignore them and not honour their case with attention.
August 2, 2012
Encouraged by the news this morning that the great BBC comedy series Rev is to have a third coming (in 2014), it seems unremarkable that it is such an account of ordinary life that struck such a chord with people. It is funny because it is real.
Yet, we are in the midst of that great celebration of extraordinary prowess and achievement that is the 2012 Olympics in London (and elsewhere). Every minute of the day we witness the best, the most powerful, the most excellent, the strongest, the most enduring, the most courageous. Sitting in the chair with a beer can’t help but make us feel a bit weak and feeble. A bit silly, really, as to compare oneself (in my case a 54 year old bloke who is off to the osteopath again in an hour) with the most physically fit and trained athletes of a generation is ridiculous. I wouldn’t dare to wear lycra – even for a laugh.
Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence, then, that the running down of workload for the ‘summer’ month is allowing the space to read a few books that have been sitting on my desk for months – or that one of them is about ordinariness in Ordinary Time.
Everyday God: The Spirit of the Ordinary is the latest publication by Dr Paula Gooder. Anything by Paula is worth getting and reading. She is one of those rare people who can do the academic stuff – and comfortably use the academic language – and also communicate with us ordinary mortals in ways that fire the mind and spirit. Not surprising, then, that she is in heavy demand as a speaker and lecturer around the world.
Everyday God simply reflects on biblical passages and episodes to draw out the importance and facility of living in the moment, embracing the ordinary, and not missing the obvious whilst searching for the spectacular. Paula points out early in the book the need to find (and work at) a rhythm for ordinary life – a way of shaping life rather than simply drifting through it. She writes (p.9):
The challenge for each one of us is to find a rhythm that works with our personality, our home life and our working pattern… When you have found the rhythm that works for you and you have done it for long enough, then the rhythm carries you… It is a little like steering into the current of a river. Once there the rhythm does the rest, pulling you closer and deeper into the presence of God. The problem is getting into the rhythm in the first place. It takes discipline, practice and sometimes pure grim determination to get over the hump of boredom, distraction and busyness into the rhythm beyond.
She goes on in the book to illustrate what it looks like to ‘see differently’, recognising that familiar biblical passages can be read afresh in ways that encourage and not simply challenge. The structure is simple and clear: ‘Ordinary people’, ‘Ordinary God’, ‘Living extraordinary ordinary lives’.
This is the third in a series of books that take us through the rhythm of the year: The Meaning is in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent and This Risen Existence: The Spirit of Easter are also excellent.