Monday morning. Up in the darkness with my 3 year old grandson. I can't believe I was watching Shrek at 6.30am. But, I was.

Then I read one of the Psalms set for today in the lectionary (2) and it begins with a question:

Why are the nations in tumult, and why do the peoples devise a vain plot?

Good questions – especially when you have a look at the news headlines. It clearly isn't just in Far Far Away Land that characters have to negotiate their space and work out who their allies are in a contested place. Every people at every time has to deal with the particular realities of the people and places that have shaped them. Wishing the world was different might be a distraction, but it doesn't offer an escape.

But, things aren't always what they initially seem to be. Princess Fiona turns out to be a martial arts expert, Robin Hood and his Merry Men break into a spot of Riverdance. Dragons fall in love and princes turn out to be shallow. The powerful are driven by vanity and, when pressed, even the Gingerbread Man betrays the Muffin Man. We still need the capacity to be surprised – not simply locked in to the narrow world of our limited experience.

Apparently, Shrek is just a film.


I am in London all day for meetings. Meetings about all sorts of things: from social media, the Meissen Commission (work with the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland), European work, recording a script, communications, etc.

Yet, it is the death of James Gandolfini that haunts my mind amid the busyness.

The three great TV series of the last couple of decades are (in my humble opinion) The West Wing, The Wire, and The Sopranos. The writing in each is superlative. The characters are well developed and rounded. The acting is brilliant. And each one shines a light into America at a particular point and in a particular way.

I winced at the violence of The Sopranos. But, this was better than any psychology textbook on fleshing out the personal, psycho-social, emotional, intellectual, relational and ethical mess that stood at the centre of the drama. Tony Soprano – husband, father, son, colleague, brother, friend, enemy – was the Mafia boss who went for therapy. Talk about confusing the stereotypes.

And James Gandolfini explored this character so convincingly. Yeah, the scripts were great, the production wonderful and the cast superb. But, Gandolfini made it all work.

Dead at 51. Tragic.


I'm writing this before the QPR-Liverpool. Just in case all motivation has evaporated by the end of the game. I need Raheem Sterling to score a hatrick today, if my fantasy league team is to recover from its current despair.

Last night we watched the Julia Roberts film Eat, Pray, Love. Only because the film club thing sent it. Having watched over two hours of selfish psychobabble (how to find yourself by using other people), the DVD got stuck in the final scene – so, we still have no idea what great wisdom she articulated at the end of her search for herself. But, there were two good lines in it and I'll stick with them.

An at-the-end-of-her-tether Roberts decides to pray. Not being sure where or how to start, she suggests she might go with “I am a big fan of your work.” She could have chosen a worse opening line! She's actually summarised half the Psalmists with that line.

The second – and funnier – was when a bloke says to her: “When I look into your eyes I hear dolphins clapping…” Er… was that supposed to be romantic? I don't even know what it means. If you were a girl and a bloke said that to you, would you be flattered, swoony, seduced or what?

Mind you, I'm not sure what might be funnier. “When I look into your eyes I hear the Kop laughing at Everton…”? Or, “When I look into your eyes I hear cows fertilising the field…”? Or, “When I look into your eyes I hear Iron Maiden singing 'Only the good die young'…”? The mind boggles. However, I am open to alternatives.

I really should take lessons from the excellent blog of Stephen Cherry – this year's best find – and do something serious about looking ahead to the new year. Sitting here in the pub watching Liverpool beating QPR 2-0 (so far), my imagination isn't proving very fertile, but I'll venture the following quickies:

  • Liverpool to finish in the top six of the Premier League
  • Rowan Williams to enjoy his new post as Master of Magdalene, Cambridge, after a decade of ABC
  • Justin Welby to get a good start as ABC despite those who will either (a) chop his legs off while pleading 'mission', or (b) look for any weakness to exploit
  • West Yorkshire dioceses to have vision, courage and creativity when we vote for a creative and different future organisation in March
  • The safe arrival of a granddaughter in March
  • A useful visit to Sudan in January
  • Growing confidence in the churches
  • World peace and economic justice…

Oh, and Liverpool are now three up. I'm going while we're winning…


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.

I am preaching on Jonah in Altavista, Virginia, tomorrow morning. This afternoon we went out to the cinema in Roanoke to see The Artist (the must-see silent movie).

The similarities?

Pride. Prejudice. And an unwillingness to face change. Redemption (sort of). Unmerited grace to be received.

I loved the film. It was clever, funny, surprising, poignant, beautifully shot.

I love Jonah. Clever, funny, surprising, poignant, beautifully told.

And in both the film and the ancient text: love can’t be bought – but it can be rejected simply because we are too proud to acknowledge our need.


How do you tell a story in film in no more than three minutes and with a limit of six lines of ‘dialogue’?

Last summer Philips and director/producer Ridley Scott launched a global film-making competition called Tell It Your Way following its Cannes Lions
award-winning short-film project Parallel Lines. Entrants were given freedom of expression and could take up any theme they wanted. The following entry was a prize-winner, but all are worth looking at:

Like some of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation video shorts, these go to prove that you can tell alot with a little. Maybe preachers have something to learn about communication here – and that includes me.

Tonight saw the Faith Shorts 2010 Awards by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation at BAFTA in Central London. A very high-profile group of judges had shortlisted 26 short films in three categories. Young people around the world had bid for a video camera and the 50 winners had then submitted their films for judgement. The event was compered by the ubiquitous Adrian Chiles.

The judges included (among others) Tony Blair, Jonathan Caplan QC, Hugh Jackman, Anil Kapoor, Natalie Portman, Nik Powell, Queen Rania of Jordan and Deepak Verma.

The films were judged in three categories: (a) Under 18 Film Pitch, (b) 18-25 Film Pitch and (c) 18-25 Film Maker. The winners and runners-up were astonishingly good. Each film seemed to last up to five minutes, but they were totally engrossing. Awards went to:

Under 18 Film Pitch: Winner: ‘Forgiveness’ by Dolly Deeb from Jordan. Runner-up: ‘The Old Bridge’ by Rijad Guja from Bosnia Herzegovina (about the bridge at Mostar as a symbol)

18-25 Film Pitch: Winner: ‘The Guide’ by Shiv Tandan from India. Runner-up: ‘Under Cover’ by Sara Al Dayek from Lebanon.

18-25 Film Maker: Winner: ‘People I Know’ by Esteban Pedraza from the USA. Runners-up: ‘Let Us Show You How Our Faith Inspires Us’ by Tariq Chowdhury from the UK and ‘Self Realisation’ by Silvina Estevez from Argentina.

I intended to take some photos, but I found the whole thing engrossing and very evocative and only managed one. Here were young people of different faiths offering a new language for articulating faith with confidence in a complicated world. Some of the films were funny, others surprising, all powerful – especially having been made by such young people on such limited equipment.

One feature of the event was a panel discussion in which Lord David Puttnam observed that “the British media are self-referential” and Blair added his view that they are largely “religiously illiterate”. Being asked by a journalist prior to the event, “Is your faith important to you?” exemplifies this – a seemingly interesting question that assumes faith is some sort of odd consumer accessory, an add-on to an otherwise reasonable life. This led afterwards to a discussion about the assumption of neutrality on the part of our media, regardless of the fact that there is no such thing as a neutral worldview.

One of the young award winners made the point that the word ‘tolerant’ in relation to interfaith relations is inadequate. “Tolerance,” he said, ” is about simply bearing with people you don’t like – but love goes further than mere tolerance and it is love that is needed.” I was glad to hear this – a point I make repeatedly at the global interfaith conferences I attend and a point that is rarely understood (especially in the ex-Soviet bloc where ‘tolerance’ is heard as a stronger word than it is in the West where it is a lowest common denominator concept).

One problem of contemporary ‘public speak’ by government and local authorities is the use of the language of ‘tolerance’ without recognition that ‘peace’ is not simply ‘the absence of war’, ‘community cohesion’ is not simply ‘stopping people from hitting each other’, and ‘interfaith relations’ is about more than ‘reducing tension between faith communities’ (which usually doesn’t exist). Constructive love offers a better future than fearful ‘prevention’.

The problem with ‘tolerance’ is that the people who speak of it are often the same people who are totally intolerant of anyone who disagrees with their idea of ‘tolerance’. There is nothing more dangerous than an illiberal liberal – one who proclaims freedom for all who conform to his idea of freedom, but leaves no space for those whose idea is more limiting.

Funny old world.

Update 6 August 2010: Tony Blair has written about his reasons for launching the Faith Shorts initiative here.

One of the more amusing elements to have come out of the last week’s ridiculous media frenzy about Christmas carols is the dawning realisation that I have a typing problem. Those who have commented in the media on press reports about my book Why Wish You a Merry Christmas? clearly have either a credulity problem or a literacy problem. But mine is a typo problem.

For some reason, every time I type the word ‘bishop’ it turns out as ‘bihsop’. ‘Which’ comes out invariably as ‘whihc’. But the best by far is that ‘brain’ keeps coming out as ‘brian’. During the last week or so I have repeatedly used the phrase ‘engage your brain’ (verbally and in writing) and only later realised that I have actually invited people in writing to ‘engage their brian’.

What on earth can this mean?

Last week I contributed to a BBC Radio 2 documentary celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Perhaps there is something deep down within my psyche that wants to identify with the misunderstood bloke who ends up being crucified despite proclaiming he is not who everyone thinks he is. In fact, the programme took as its title the wonderful line spoken by Terry Jones as Brian’s mother in the film: ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!’

So, what might it mean to ‘engage your (inner) Brian’?

It might mean:

  • telling the truth even though nobody wants to listen
  • seeing the Romans miss the point (correcting the grammar of your graffiti while ignoring the content of it)
  • belonging to fractious parties and learning that it has always been thus when human beings try to work together
  • learning that your mother was right…

I’m sure others could add more imaginatively to this, but I just thought it was funny.

We live in interesting times. While debates continue to rage about whose human rights trump those of others, it emerges that huge wads of money are currently being spent on religious films – or, more specifically, on films about Muhammad. One new biopic – by the Oscar-winning producer Barrie Osborne – has been budgeted to cost around $150m (£91.5m). (Another film is the planned re-make of  the controversial 1976 The Message – to be entitled The Messenger of Peace.)

Passion of the Christ posterApparently, Ahmed Abdullah Al-Mustafa (chairman of Qatar-based production company Al Noor Holdings) spotted what Mel Gibson ‘achieved’ with his Passion of the Christ and decided it was time to do something similar with the prophet of Islam. According to an article in the Guardian, he said:

The film will shed light on the Prophet’s life since before his birth to his death… It will highlight the humanity of Prophet Muhammad.

And, according to the producer Barrie Osborne (Matrix, Lord of the Rings, etc.), the film will be “an international epic production aimed at bridging cultures. The film will educate people about the true meaning of Islam”.

Of course the interesting thing about this is that the story of Muhammad will be told without actually showing the prophet himself – in accordance with Islamic law. So, any comparison with Gibson’s Passion of the Christ ends right there. I still haven’t seen Gibson’s bloody epic – partly because I don’t like watching violence and also because I hated the way many Christians who would normally oppose violence in the cinema excused this one because of the subject.

It will be interesting to see (a) how Osborne’s film, particularly, will handle the person of Muhammad without showing him and (b) how interested people will be in seeing it: after all, most people think they already know everything about Jesus (wrongly), but might be intrigued to have their ignorance of Muhammad corrected without having to read the Qur’an. It will also be interesting to see just how brave the critics are when it comes to pouring their scorn on the subject-matter – as they happily do with anything Christian.

Life of Brian posterBut, there is a sort of parallel in the Christian world. I often offer congregations two options for understanding the society and context in which Jesus lived and died (and was raised): Monty Python’s Life of Brian or Gerd Theissen’s Shadow of the Galilaean. The former is a film, the latter is a book by a German academic theologian who writes for ordinary people like me. (I was asked by a BBC interviewer recently whether I thought the Life of Brian was blasphemous and offensive; I responded that the clue is in the title and that the name is the give-away.)

Theissen tells the story of Jesus without ever bringing Jesus himself into the picture. We learn about Jesus from the impact he has on the people around him. It is a brilliant, evocative, challenging and moving book – and allows Theissen to play some games with academic approaches to biblical texts along the way.

Shadow of the Galilean coverIn the end the credibility of the Christian community depends on the extent to which that community resembles the person whose shadow falls across the real world – and Muslims might like to be the judges of that. Equally, the Muslim community only has credibility insofar as it reflects the person of Muhammad – and maybe Christians should be the judges of that. It is only from the outside that any community can be truly judged – ‘insiders’ rarely know what it feels like to be ‘outside’ the camp.

So, if Muslims are perceived as aggressive and violent, it will not be surprising if we assume Muhammad to have been aggressive and violent. And if Christians are perceived as thin-skinned wets, then it should not come as a surprise if Jesus is thought by ‘outsiders’ to have been a thin-skinned wet. But, perhaps if humility is allowed space in both communities, each might learn to regard the other through fresh eyes – generously allowing their own faith and the other to be judged by their best examples and not their worst.

Maybe the films might help?

Last night I went out to the cinema in Croydon to see the acclaimed film Slumdog Millionaire. The posters (as well as a number of critics) declare that this is the ‘feel-good film of the decade’. Based in the slums of Mumbai in India, it involves, ethnic and religious violence, abject poverty, horrific exploitation of orphaned or abandoned street children (including deliberate blinding to make begging children more appealing), dehumanising of already damaged people, gangs, corruption, torture and suspicion.

Now, maybe I am a little linguistically challenged here, but that doesn’t make me feel good at all. The film is supposed to depict the triumph of love over destruction and violence, but it left me thinking not of the young man and woman who triumph, but of the millions who don’t. Life is portrayed as cheap (apart from the two good-looking stars) and disposable.

The last time I went to the cinema it was to see Mamma Mia. Perhaps that was ‘feel-good’ becasue it was silly and contrived fantasy – also based on dodgy relationships and haunting pasts.

However, what both films have in common is a great soundtrack (I love the Bollywood stuff).