December 2008

I am thinking of offering a daily prize for the most obvious and shameless media breach of the Ninth Commandment.

 Last  night I was watching Sky News and their coverage of the funerals of the Foster family who were killed by the father before all their property and possessions were burned. The funerals had been conducted by The Venerable Tony Sadler and he was interviewed by the news presenter. Despite what he had actually said in the sermon (the relevant parts of which were broadcast) and what he said in the interview, the ‘headlines’ repeated by the presenter claimed: ‘Priest says forgiveness would be a step too far’. So, the story is that a priest urges people not to forgive Mr Foster for killing his wife and daughter and then himself.

Now, that might be an understandable reaction. But it isn’t what Tony Sadler said and it could not be inferred from what he did say unless whoever wrote the headline was either deliberately misrepresenting the point or was so ignorant he/she should not be employed in a communications medium. Sadler actually said that Christians have to forgive and can do no other. However, for some people at this point, this might be step too far. In other words, he was recognising and giving voice to what some people might be feeling – but he wasn’t commending it or re-writing Christian theology. This is more than just a matter of semantic distinction. The priest did not say that ‘forgiveness would be a step too far’.

But, it seems to me, Sadler was recognising what is often misunderstood when it comes to the matter of forgiveness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young German pastor and theologian who was hanged at Flossenburg in April 1945 for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler, began his book The Cost of Discipleship with an excoriating rejection of what he called ‘billige Gnade’ (‘cheap grace’). In the context of forgiveness ‘cheap grace’ involves a form of religious behaviour that costs nothing – an easy theology that avoids the pain and the offence. Cheap forgiveness involves saying you forgive when you actually do not – or trying to forgive before you are ready to do so. Even worse, forgiveness must never be a form of escapism – a way of avoiding the pain of the offence by refusing to engage with it. This lay at the heart of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Surely the epitome of forgiveness is to be seen on the Cross. But here, at the place where the world’s violence is seen to be exacted on the innocent sufferer, forgiveness is not easy and is not sentimental – or simply a means to an end. Rather, forgiveness involves looking the offence (and the offender) in the eye and naming it for what it is. This is no escapism and it can’t be seen as cheap.

Forgiveness sets both the offender and the victim free – that is true. But it can’t be fabricated or played with. Forgiveness can only be offered when the offended is ready to do so honestly. That is what Tony Sadler was getting so right during his sensitive sermon. It is patently what the journalists at Sky News either did not understand or deliberately sacrificed for the sake of a more arresting headline.


So, which version of the great song is going to hit the Christmas number one spot tomorrow? In one sense, I don’t really care. Cohen goes to the bank and recovers some of the millions his finance bloke nicked and a brilliant example of song-writing gets heard by a generation growing up on pap.

Mark suggests that this is music for adolescents and I wonder how old he is. Why? Because I grew up in the seventies when Leonard Cohen’s songs were called ‘songs to slit your wrists to’ – dour, morose and ‘deep’. But, contrary to Mark’s perception, I have found Cohen’s lyrics still haunt me after all these years in a way that few others’ do. Cockburn is a poet, Dylan gets behind the safe places of the mind and scratches away, Clapton captures the blues in a way few others can – and Cohen is a craftsman who creates lyrics that work at lots of levels.

Whatever we conclude about taste, though, the powerful thing about ‘Hallelujah’ is the way he suffuses spirituality with physicality and vice versa. He refuses to allow the dichotomy that disembodies spirituality and tacitly embraces Plato. This is why I think it is so good that this Christmas we will have a song at number one in the charts that ‘gets’ the point of Christmas: God opting into a messy and complicated world – not helping people escape from it. That, it seems to me, is what the Incarnation is all about. The Word became flesh – and we shouldn’t try to reverse the process just because it is less complicated.

Anyway, I’m visiting my parents in Liverpool and will reflect in the next couple of days on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s interviews on the global financial crisis and the possibilities for disestablishment of the Church of England. I bet you can’t wait…

There is a load of stuff going on at the moment about the choice of Leonard Cohen’s great song ‘Hallelujah’ for the winner of television’s ‘X Factor’. I thought we had reached the nadir of song abuse when it was used in the film ‘Shrek’ as a sort of sentimental reflection on the love of the ogre and his (now) green princess. In that case it was performed by Rufus Wainwright – which is fine in so far as it was a good interpretation of the song. But, I mean, really… in ‘Shrek’?

This song has been covered by hundreds of people and is now being murdered by buskers all over Europe. I heard a teenage girl in Lindau (Bavaria) killing it softly last summer. I gave her a couple of euros in the hope that she would go and get herself a drink, but also in order to encourage her – I used to busk around Germany and Paris when I was a teenager and I probably had the same effect on other people when I throttled their favourite songs. I understand it has been covered by around 120 people.

The song was written 25 years ago and it took Cohen five years to complete. During this time he wrote over 80 verses to it. Why? Because Leonard Cohen is one of the greatest poet-songwriters of our generation: he kept wanting to get it right. I recently contributed to a documentary on BBC Radio 2 (broadcast on 1 November 2008) in which Elbow’s Guy Garvey interviewed a load of singers about the song. I think (but I might be wrong) that he expected a bishop to deplore Cohen’s hijacking of religious language for ‘other’ ends, but I didn’t. I maintained that Cohen, in fact, had properly understood the Bible in a way that some Christians do not: that is to say, he understood that real human life – even that of the ‘heroes’ of the Bible like David and Samson – is deeply ambiguous. Whereas some Christians think that we must praise God at all times and tell him what we think he wants to hear from us, the biblical story actually portrays people as needing to bring the whole of their messy life to God. Cohen sings of the ‘broken and the holy hallelujah’.

Leonard Cohen is wonderful. He explores language and story in such a transparent way that he exposes the truth of the human condition in words that make you want to shout, ‘That’s what I feel/think/experience!’ And that is the power of the poet. Bruce Cockburn proposes in his song ‘Maybe the Poet’ that it is only the poets who can express the relaity of our lives and only the poets who can tease our imaginations in ways that keep the hope of heaven alive in desperate times. I haven’t got time to indulge in this, but read Walter Brueggemann and you’ll get my drift. Or listen to Cohen. Or Cockburn.

Isn’t it amazing? Christmas brings out the most facile stuff in the media. According to the newspapers today there is to be a rationalist/atheist celebration of non-Christmas by a load of British comedians and the venerable Richard Dawkins. Well, I’d quite like to go to it. It is bound to be funny, there will be lots of really creative thinking and there will be the sight of Dawkins getting all worked up attacking the wrong target again. If Christmas is about God coming into the world and eventually getting a reputation for partying with all the ‘wrong’ people, then I’m happy to keep the tradition going and have a laugh with the atheists at the Apollo.

So, if that isn’t what I meant by ‘facile’, what is? It’s another brief article in the Independent by Tom Sutcliffe. He has one of these clever-clever pokes at God from a keyboard which commits him to nothing and contributes nothing to the wider world of which he can poke his fun. He takes out of context the words of a South African bishop about the fate of Zimbabwe and the need for an end to Mugabe before going on to question where God has been for the last few years as the situation in Zimbabwe has got worse. It is the usual stuff about ‘if God is God then why hasn’t he done anything so far?. It only takes half a brain to realise that God is not a magic fairy who interferes in human existence at any inconvenient moment, but has always been, is and always will be a little more subtle than this fantasy.

I am in almost daily contact with Zimbabwe. I was due to go there last week and had to cancel at the last minute for security and health reasons. I would have been meeting people who are giving their lives every day to bring an end to oppression and alleviate the suffering of Zimbabwe’s people. There are also thousands of Christians here in England alone (to say nothing of other countries in the world) who are giving and working to support basic life and society in Zimbabwe – keeping teachers in jobs and schools open, trying to provide health care and tend the dying – while some people just show how cleverly they can write. This is done not out of some vague altruism, but as a direct response to the God who in Jesus Christ opted into the world and demands that people who dare to bear his name do the same – whatever the personal cost.

I guess this is where the truth about Christmas gets real. No fantasy and no sentimentality. Just people getting stuck in and opening themselves up to the laughter of the world. Well, laugh on – there’s more to come. (And if anyone fancies going to the atheist Christmas comedy bash, let me know and I’ll check my diary…)

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