August 2009

In my last post (as it were) I offered a brief suggestion of what question it is that the Bible is answering. I did so in relation to an incarnational representation of political argument by giving that argument a character and placing it/him/her in a story. This is what, in a form of shorthand, I wrote:

Hence the simple (simplistic?) formula I have stated elsewhere for handling the Bible whose fundamental question is ‘What is God like?’: “If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. If you want to know what Jesus is like, read the Gospels … and then look at us (the Christian Church).”

Andrew Marr - My TradeI was provoked into thinking about this by a number of factors, one of which was an observation by Andrew Marr about newspaper columnists in his excellent book, My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism. Writing about the art of writing a good column, he says:

Every column is … an argument, a case, a piece of logic. In general, it needs to be about something that can be expressed in a single headline-sized phrase or sentence. If the columnist cannot say [it] concisely, … then it is likely that the column will be confused, and therefore dull. If it isn’t a statement, it’s a waste of time. (p.371)

What Marr says of good writing is also true of any good communication. The purpose of good communication is not to reveal how clever or well-informed the writer/speaker is, but to enable the reader/hearer to grasp simply and clearly the essential thrust of the argument. It isn’t about making complex matters simplistic, but making complex matters simply comprehensible. Which brings us back to the Bible and communicating what it and Christian faith are about in ways that can be understood without needing a dictionary, a degree or a thick book.

Rothley Parish ChurchIt seems to me that whenever we pick up any sort of book, we do so with an unspoken question at the back of our mind: whodunnit? who is this character? why did these events happen the way they did? When we come to the Bible, the basic question we should be asking of the text(s) is: who is this God and what is he like? At least, that is, I think, the fundamental question being addressed by the text. The answer given is: God looks like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. Look at Jesus of Nazareth and you see who and how God is in the world.

But – and here is the sticky bit – that same Jesus called his followers and friends to be like him, to look and sound and feel like him. The New Testament writers – particularly Paul – grasped this and called the body of Christians the ‘Body of Christ’. The logic is that the Christian body should reflect the Jesus we read about in the Gospels (that is, incarnate him) in the ways we live, the ways we speak, the ways we listen and hear, the priorities we set, the habits we cultivate and so on. Hence the ‘formula’ I offered in my last post.

I cannot see any other way of understanding what the church exists for.

Hymn singingYet, in saying this, I will probably be criticised for being selective. Yes, there may well be other ways of describing the role and purpose of the church in the world; but no single pithy phrasing will be all-encompassing. The fallibility of any ‘headline’ or metaphor should not, however, prevent us from trying to communicate who and why we are in ways that can be grasped simply and quickly by most people. After all, that is why Jesus spoke in parables and with images and stories. And it is why Paul used the picture of a human body.

The pithiest ‘headline’ I have come up with is: ‘the task of the church is to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God.’ And that is the beginning of the matter, not the end. I fear that too often in the church we go to the complicated end and forget that most people haven’t yet got as far as the beginning.


You can take the man out of Liverpool, but you can’t take Liverpool out of the man.

I left Liverpool to go to university in 1976 and never really went back to live there. My parents and younger brother still live there, my elder son and his wife live there and my younger son is at university there. I go back whenever I can, but that is not often these days.

FindingFaithWhen I do go back I am amazed at the transformation of the place in the last three decades – especially the almost tangible confidence about the city now. But, as I drive through to the centre from my parents’ home in Childwall I still remember the dereliction of the 1970s. There were still bomb sites that hadn’t been cleared since the end of the second world war. There was a sense of victimhood as any economic boom by-passed a city riven by mad politics which put winning cheap dogmatic ideological battles ahead of any sense of public good. (I have written about this in my book Finding Faith: Stories of Music and Life.)

One of the defining images of those years was Alan Bleasdale‘s epic BBC series, Boys from the Blackstuff. I think this was developed from a one-off TV play simply called The Blackstuff – but I might be making that up. Bleasdale created one of the most powerful screams against the realities of what became Thatcherite Britain as experienced in a northern city – as opposed, of course, to the ‘glorious’ experiences of the City (of London). This series portrayed characters that any Scouser would recognise and showed the human cost of policies that ruined the lives of a generation or more. Unemployment, lack of resources for ordinary living and the terrible compulsion (of Yosser particularly) to retain some human dignity (and hope) were the realities for many, many people. Community cohesion was more of a reality then – until dissolved in the acid of the selfish individualism that ultimately led to the hubristic and greed-based financial fiasco we have seen played out in the last year or so.

Pier Head LiverpoolTwo things stand out for me as I prepare to watch this series again after three decades, having just picked up the boxed set this morning:

First, the arts convey human realities and portray the real effects of ‘dogmas’ on ordinary people far better than abstract arguments ever could. If you really want to persuade people of the power of your argument, put it into a story and give it flesh. Which brings me to …

Second, Yosser and co incarnate the experiences of a city and its people during dark days. I use the word ‘incarnate’ deliberately. If we want to know about the effects of a political or economic policy, put it into flesh and blood and let’s see what it looks, sounds and feels like. That is why this series was so powerful in the ‘depression-scarred 1980s’.

This has a theological edge to it, too. If we were to ask ourselves how we should best understand God, – and who and how he is – what would we need? Rather than simply offering us three-line definitions of the Kingdom of God (and somewhere to sign up to it so that others would know if we were ‘in’ or ‘out’), God comes among us as one of us – in Jesus of Nazareth. Hence the simple (simplistic?) formula I have stated elsewhere for handling the Bible whose fundamental question is ‘What is God like?’:

If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. If you want to know what Jesus is like, read the Gospels … and then look at us (the Christian Church).

That is scary.

It must still be the Silly Season in the UK. Apparently a row has broken out (again) about religious dissing (again) on the radio (again). Inevitably, it offers another opportunity to kick the BBC and exercise the anti-PC (‘politically correct’, not ‘police constable’ or ‘personal computer’) muscles.

The Independent reports the story as follows:

The BBC’s Asian Network was at the centre of a fresh race row last night after Sikhs accused the digital radio station of being insensitive towards their religion.BBC bosses were forced to remove a show by the popular Muslim presenter Adil Ray from their website after the morning show DJ received threats from angry Sikh listeners who accused him of denigrating an important religious symbol.

 Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has responded in forthright fashion in the same paper and concludes (almost):

Yasmin Alibhai-BrownSome of the best of British broadcasters are on the Asian Network – Nihal, Sonia Deol, Nikki Bedi – their programmes are as full of vitality and erudition as those presented by Nicky Campbell and Victoria Derbyshire. Nihal is also on Radio 1 and his shows are exceptional because he pulls in all the strands of his cultural life. On the whole, though, mainstream BBC radio is still too white, even though the brilliant Anita Anand (5 Live, Drive), Ritula Shah ( Radio 4, The World Tonight) and others have proved they can lead on national conversations using their complex identities to great effect.

Ignore the fact that it begins to read a bit like the Monty Python (Life of Brian) ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ and look at that last phrase. I would love YA-B to explain what she means by the term “using their complex identities to great effect”.

Life of BrianIt seems to me that every human being has a complex identity, shaped by genetics, nurture, race, and nurtured worldviews (the often/usually unconscious assumptions we are brought up with in looking at the world, human meaning, ethics, etc). I think YA-B is rightly pointing to the fact that British-born Asians bring to their work a unique and interesting mix of assumptions, perceptions and experiences informed by their having lived in several ‘worlds’ at once.

The same can be said of anyone who grows up speaking several languages – I go into primary schools in Croydon that have up to 46 first languages spoken among the 300 or so children. Anyone who speaks more than one language with any degree of proficiency knows that you don’t simply switch between parallel words, but you enter a mental, linguistic, cultural and philosophical framework that has depth and not just some sort of horizontal word equivalence.

But, to get back to the point, YA-B’s case would be strengthened by urging the white people she complains about (“Witnessing this latest spat, you wonder if it was not just a continuation of the divide and rule policies that served Britannia in the days of the Raj. Lock them in a studio, get the natives to fight each other, then they won’t come bothering those of us born to rule the airwaves.”) to accept the complexity of their own make-up and not simply point to those who look or sound a little more exotic. We are all complex and that is what makes living interesting: we can never simply categorise and think we have understood everyone who falls into that particular category.

This also has a bearing on comments added to my post on Stephen Bates’ road to agnosticism from yesterday’s Guardian. Every human story is unique and every individual person complex. There are those who try to categorise and make blanket judgements for all people and all time: we have to do this in order to be able to function as a society. But every time you get close to anyone’s real story/identity, you realise all the contradictions, nuances, peculiarities and complexities.

When I read the New Testament proscriptions on certian types of people or behaviours, I can only conclude that the Church would have no clergy at all as we all are compromised in one  way or another.

School signI had lunch today with the head teacher of a secondary school in Croydon. Among other things we were musing about how the debate about so-called ‘faith schools’ is being handled in the media. This was partly set off by an article in yesterday’s Guardian by Martin Wainwright about parental displeasure with a Portsmouth school’s decision to insist on a new school uniform for its students. The article, which seems to me to be entirely fair, begins as follows:

A comprehensive school has introduced a compulsory new uniform costing up to £97 a child, prompting fears that children from low-income households may be deterred from applying for a place.

Parents are protesting at a compulsory new uniform introduced by a comprehensive school which can cost £97 per child. The uniform for Oaklands Catholic school in Waterlooville, near Portsmouth, Hampshire, is available only from the school or one local retailer, giving parents no real opportunity to shop around. Government guidance on the issue is for schools to arrange a range of suppliers.

This is headed in the online version by:

Comprehensive defends new school uniform costing nearly £100.

The school is simply described in the article itself as a ‘comprehensive school’. However, the newspaper version had a different headline:

Parents angry over faith school’s compulsory £100 uniform.

Now, that tells a very different story. The nature of this school is actually irrelevant to the story being reported. The writer has done a good job at telling us the story, letting us hear the voices in the discussion and setting it in a wider financial, social and educational context. So, what was the agenda of the sub-editor who added that headline to the newspaper copy?

I will be writing more about so-called ‘faith schools’ in due course as this debate needs a new direction. For example, simply lumping Church of England schools in with Roman Catholic schools or Islamic academies (whatever view you take of their desirability) is just lazy, ignorant and misleading. They are different beasts and it is not good enough simply to stick them together under one convenient catch-all category as if the differences didn’t matter and the unique ethos of each was irrelevant.

In what other sphere of life would such treatment be deemed acceptable?

The Guardian might well have a ‘line’ to push on these matters, but we should at the very least be able to expect more care and accuracy with its headlines.

Stephen BatesStephen Bates of the Guardian is a man for whom I have great respect. During his time as Religious Affairs Correspondent for the paper – a post he held for seven years – he was intelligent, mostly fair, well informed and wrote as if the things he was covering actually mattered. He has spoken and written before now about the effects of his work on his own faith and it has not been comfortable reading. He also wrote several books, the most interesting (from my point of view being God’s Own Country, a seriously worrying analysis of some American Christianity.)

God's Own CountryNow he has published a brief account of his move towards agnosticism, motivated not so much by theological or philosophical conviction, but by the sheer horribleness and hypocrisy of those who claim to be Christian. He exposes the double-dealing in the Church in making provision for remarriage after divorce (Jesus said ‘no’) while vetoing homosexuality (Jesus didn’t mention it). More to the point, it is not the church’s view so much as the treatment by some in the church of those they regard as being ‘wrong’.

Jesus commanded those who bear his name to be like him, to look like him, to sound like him and to love like he did. To love like he did means loving those who nail you to a cross. The sheer lack of such love to those who are ‘wrong’ surely calls into question the ‘christian’ bit of Christianity.

It is worth reading Stephen’s piece and asking what must change if good people are to see in the Christian community some bit of a reflection of the Jesus we read about in the Gospels.

I thought this was a parody at first…

In the USA it is not only the health care system that needs some attention. If this example of ‘expert analysis is the level of serious reporting Americans have come to expect, then the education system is seriously in need of renewal, too.

Some things are simply beyond parody.

One of the things the Church often gets criticised for is being predictable in its responses to various social, moral or intellectual/philosophical challenges. Actually, we only grab the headlines when what we say or do was not predicted. For example, ‘Church opposes gambling’ is not big news, whereas ‘Church promotes pornography’ might be.

Sometimes it is good to be predictable: it allows people to know what we are about and where we stand. However, experience of the real world shows us that there are some matters of such complexity that the Church’s response (if honest) should be a hand-wringing and angst-ridden self-examination – on the grounds that if these matters are important, then we should wrestle with them and not simply give the predictable answer ‘because it keeps people happy’.

Daily_MailThis has come to mind simply because I picked up a brilliant website (from Twitter) yesterday which randomly generates Daily Mail headlines. It also offers the (New) Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project, the David Blunkett policy maker, Michael Howard sings the Smiths and Alastair Campbell’s Wheel of Retribution. Have a go – it is very funny.

chejesusRead the Gospels and what you find is that Jesus constantly surprised people. He surprised religious authorities with the bad news that God might not be enitrely on their side; and he surprised the ‘outsiders’ with the good news that God loved them, even if the religious authorities didn’t. He healed the ‘wrong’ people on the ‘wrong’ days (the Sabbath) and made people laugh with his surprising stories and images (camels through the eye of a needle, for example).

So, they crucified him.

It might be OK for politicians and newspapers to be predictable, but there are ways in which I hope the Church will always be unpredictable – bringing the laugh of surprise to the ‘right’ people even if that unpredictability brings scorn from the righteous.

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