General


Apart from posting scripts and personal stuff, I haven't had time to get back to the sort of blogging that provokes or responds or interprets.

The latest personal news is today's receipt of an Honorary Fellowship awarded by Bradford College. Following on from an Honorary Doctorate from the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena last Tuesday (and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Bradford last December), this is a great honour, and the ceremony was very generous. I love seeing students getting their academic awards – the fruit of their labours emanating in pride and celebration. This college is doing excellent work in an excellent city, and it's new main building has to be seen – an icon of confidence.

But, here are three points about what is going on in the wider world:

1. Ukraine remains on the brink and the rouble is plummeting. But, Russia is made of people who are not afraid of sacrifice – indeed they see their history almost entirely in terms of suffering and sacrifice. I am not convinced they will cave in to material deprivation driven from the West.

2. Gordon Brown is standing down as an MP next May. Watching him has been like watching a Shakespeare drama: the prophetic moral courage of a brave man compromised by the sort of “vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself” (Macbeth). To hear him speak about poverty and international injustice was like listening to an Amos or Jeremiah: articulate passion, acute judgement. Parliament will be poorer without him.

3. When the media's attention moves on, the money also seems to dry up. 1.7 million Syrians face hunger because the UN funds are drying up. When the next photogenic massacres or horror stories hit the screens, no doubt we will all wake up again. (At least the base and dehumanising consumerism that was 'Black Friday' demonstrates that horribleness runs close to the surface of most human beings – wherever they are…)

OK, that's enough. Having just read Do No Harm (brilliant account of brain surgery) and Stasiland (brilliant account of life in and under the Stasi in the GDR), I am now reading Rochus Misch's account of his life as Hitler's telephonist, courier and body guard: Der letzte Zeuge (The Last Witness). And Neil MacGregor's Germany. And a million papers for work.

Goodnight.

 

This is the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show:

You know what it's like when you keep telling people some story about when you were younger, but after a while you begin to wonder if it every really happened? I have to admit that as I get older this does happen a bit.

One of my abiding memories of secondary school – a big comprehensive in Liverpool – was an English teacher called Mr Burrows passing a school exercise book around the class one day when I was about fourteen or fifteen. We just glanced at it, flipped the pages and passed it on. Old Mr Burrows kept telling us to keep scribbling, keep writing things down, keep doodling, keep being creative. I think we were just bored teenagers.

The reason it has stuck in my memory is that the book he passed round had belonged to John Lennon and was full of his scribblings. Mr Burrows had taught him English.

Now, I think I started to doubt whether this ever happened simply because nobody really believed me. But, then I read an epic biography of John Lennon and there it was in black and white. All true.

Of course, now I wish I'd paid more attention. Or, at least, nicked the book. But, Mr Burrows' point was well made and I never forgot it. Being creative is something some of us have to practise – it sort of doesn't come naturally.

And yet, we are born to be creative. This is partly what is meant way back in the book of Genesis in the Bible when, in that great poetic account of what made human beings be human, it says that we are “made in the image of God” – who can't help creating and to loving what is created.

This actually lies at the heart of a Christian response to things like the disappearance of the Malaysian aircraft and the human tragedy of it all. Every person matters because they are made this way and loved infinitely for no other reason.

So, I am with John Lennon and Mr Burrows. Keep on doodling. We're made for it.

 

Advent and Christmas are always a bit of a strain for clergy as they try to find new, fresh or creative ways of telling a traditional story. How do you help people who know the ending be surprised again by that with which they assume they are familiar? (And, for that matter, how do the clergy keep themselves fresh in the re-telling?)

As I found to my cost several years ago (when I published what I still think is a good and useful little book about Christmas, but which didn't sell because of the controversy it generated…), questioning people's perceptions is dangerous. Question the 'story' or vary a detail and you get a barrage of anger, complaint and abuse. OK, that's how we are as human beings who need a consistent narrative against which we shape our assumptions about life and the world.

But, it goes further than this. What if our assumptions are completely wrong, but we shape our society according to them?

We are constantly told that “the church is out of step with culture” – and this, clearly, is supposed to be a bad thing. Yet, the job of the church – its vocation, if you like – is not to reflect or mimic or 'baptise' the culture, but to hold a mirror up to it and question it. That is not the same as being negative towards it, but it is about engaging intelligently with the culture(s) with a confidence that transcends the immediate fashion or drift.

This is what lies at the heart of debates about sexuality. It sometimes feels as if the church is having the debates that wider society can't seem to articulate or frame. Yet, at the same time, the church has to have the questioning humility that is open to the possibility that wider culture might have something to teach a church culture that also finds it hard to question its own fundamental assumptions about God, the world and us.

What sparked this thinking was something I saw on Twitter this morning. It is a slide from an Ipsos MORI survey from 2011. It demonstrates just how wide is the gulf between reality and common perception amongst the great British public. Look at the slide:

And now ask what might be the implications for cultural drift, political decision-making and media reflection on the world (and what people think) of taking perceptions as unquestionably valid, true or accurate.

Now back to Advent and Christmas (and preparing for BBC Radio 2's Good Morning Sunday with Clare Balding tomorrow).

 

1. Why is my fantasy league team rubbish and getting worse?

2. Why did Education Minister Michael Gove recently accuse education in Bradford of having been appalling for decades when (a) education in Bradford had been run by a government agency for the last ten years, and (b) the failed Kings Academy in Bradford is a free school – independent of the local authority, set up by Gove and accountable only to him?

3. Why did the ECB cricket selectors still send Jonathan Trott to play the Ashes series in Australia when they knew he was suffering from 'stress-related' problems?

4. Did the ECB not learn anything from the Marcus Trescothick saga?

5. What qualifications does one need to chair the board of a bank?

6. Why are some commentators incapable of understanding the difference between (a) the Church of England “voting for women bishops” (which it did years ago) and (b) the General Synod of the Church of England voting on the form of legislation to actually make it happen?

7. When will the Daily Mail accuse Ed Miliband of being behind the enslavement of three Maoist women for thirty years in Brixton?

8. Why has George Osborne suddenly changed his mind on capping pay-day lenders?

9. Who is right about the deal with Iran on nuclear development?

10. Is there a better 'live' gig than Bob Dylan (in Blackpool… last Saturday?

 

I have not had time to post on all the myriad of things going on in the world. I am writing this on the train back from London before heading off to lecture and preach at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena tomorrow (after a 3.30am wake up).

But, these are the questions I would ask anyway:

1. Why do newspaper editors want everyone else in the world to be regulated, scrutinised and accountable to outside agencies, but scream when it is proposed that they should be regulated, scrutinised and accountable? When did regulation become a synonym for censorship? How do you spell 'special pleading'?

2. What do members of the English Defence League think they achieved by coming to Bradford last Saturday and shouting to themsleves for an hour before going home again? Genuine question. Nobody was listening. It just seemed like a waste of time and money – to say nothing of the cost to Bradford and the police.

3. Are Manchester United fans not just the teeniest little bit embarrassed about bleating like babies after a couple of games where they didn't win? After laughing at everyone else for twenty five years?

4. Where was all this new Madeleine McCann stuff hiding before the UK police got going on it?

5. We already owned the Royal Mail; so, why were we asked to buy it?

6. Who decides whether Edward Snowden did the world a favour or played into the hands of the bad guys?

7. When is the Pakistani government going to start protecting all its citizens, particularly Christians who are being targeted with violence?

8. Which Americans are proud of their political system when it inhibits the working of government?

9. How do we get the balance between protection (intelligence agencies) and oppression (intelligence agencies)? And who decides what is appropriate secret service?

10. Are we nearly there yet?

 

1. What do governments (and the rest of us, for that matter) think intelligence/espionage services really do with their time… and is there a clue in the title?

2. Was there a sadder face at Wimbledon than Laura Robson's today?

3. Is Edward Snowden so desperate that he thinks for one minute that Russia – the mighty, ruthlessly pragmatic and politically unsentimental Bear – might be a safe place to seek asylum from the USA?

4. Why were some of us dismissed when, during the Arab Spring, we urged a longer-term view (before declaring, as a US President once did, “Mission Accomplished!”) and suggested that pulling an existing system down is quicker and easier than establishing a viable alternative one?

5. What is the point of setting up an independent review body to determine MPs' pay, only to diss it on grounds of populist ideology?

 

1. Kenny Ball died today. We got our first stereo before I was a teenager. One of the first records we got was a Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen album. I was just starting to play the trumpet and the two I tried to imitate (I failed) were Louis Armstrong and Kenny Ball. His jazz was fun and the you could never get bored with the songs. I eventually played in a couple of jazz groups as a teenager – I was rubbish, but I never lost the love of trad jazz.

2. Hugo Chavez is to be embalmed and put on display. I just think there is something weird about this. Is it a corporate inability to comprehend the finality of death? Or something more ghoulish? One of my great regrets is that I never got the chance (I wasn't allowed) to visit the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square – I worked professionally as a Russian linguist and was intrigued by Soviet history. But, it was to glimpse mortality and to note how fragile even the most powerful human beings are: Lenin stuffed. Chavez deserves better.

3. The programme for the 19th Bradford International Film Festival has been published. It looks brilliant. Running from 11-21 April, it makes Cannes look lightweight. Bradford is a very surprising place. Not all about curry and the relics of a textile industry, but inspiring people with cultural vision.

4. The cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church have arrived in Rome for the conclave that will conclude with the presentation of the new pope. Not a role many people would covet, surely? The rumours around and charges levelled at the church in the wake of Cardinal O'Brien's resignation and the unending abuse scandals must make being the top man something you would only wish on someone you didn't like. It will take remarkable courage, intellect and integrity to argue confidently for the credibility of both church and faith – but it might also commend a refreshed humility, rooted in a theology that speaks less of authority and more of mutuality.

5. The Psalmists of the Old Testament constantly bemoan the fact that the wicked always seem to prosper while the just simply suffer. Then the prophets decry a society in which justice can be bought and the poor be trampled in the dirt – and all this be seen as 'normal' or 'acceptable'. And then comes Silvio Berlusconi.

Good grief…

 

Aong other things (like 'work'), this last week…

I read Francis Spufford's wonderful, funny, totally engaging and sweary Unapologetic – the best book on Christian faith I have read for ages.

I read Joachim Gauck's little book on Freiheit: Ein Plädoyer (Freedom: A Plea). The recently-appointed President of Germany was a Lutheran pastor in East Germany (Angela Merkel was the daughter of another). I heard him speak a couple of years ago in Hannover and he was brilliant. Intelligent, reflective and passionate, I can't think of a UK equivalent.

I listened (in the car) to Johann Sebastian Bach's gorgeous Weihnachtsoratorium – a 2-CD recording by the Thomanerchor from Leipzig which I bought at inflated price while visiting the Bachhaus in Eisenach a couple of weeks ago. Beautiful, inspiring and intricate, it takes you out of the present and into the eternal – Christmas being the irruption into history of the God who pours himself out for a world he loves infinitely.

I listened (in the car) to Mumford & Sons' new album Babel – great contemporary folk music, but very similar to their excellent debut album Sigh No More. Whack up the volume when alone and stuck on the motorway.

I listened (not in the car) to Bob Dylan's superb Tempest – as great as Modern Times and needing many re-listens. Let's hope it isn't – as rumoured – his last one.

I wondered about the sheer moralistic envy of us Brits who insist that anyone in a position of responsibility be cut down to size. I have no time for Chancellor George Osborne or his 'something for nothing' millionaire Cabinet colleagues, but it is quite absurd to prevent MPs and ministers from travelling first class on the trains. I travel on trains a lot – always cattle class… apart from getting on the wrong part of a German train from Eisenach to Frankfurt and being told to enjoy first class by the conductor – and use the time to read papers, catch up on briefings, draft writings, etc.. I also know how hard it can be to concentrate and get stuff done if penned in. If I want ministers and MPs to do the best for their constituents, why would I not want them to travel well and perform well when doing what they were travelling to or for? I suspect the sneering is simply envy or our obsession with pulling people down.

Liverpool won. At home. At last. Nuff said.

I preached (this morning at a service of baptism and confirmation in a parish church) on James, John and Bartimaeus from Mark 10: the 'seeing' are blind (obsession with power, status and personal kudos) while the blind sees. And those wonderful words spoken by the friends of Jesus (who clearly saw their job as to keep people like Bartimaeus away from Jesus): “Take heart. Get up. He is calling you.” Or: “Receive grace. Take responsibility. Don't duck the implications.”

I drove up to Ingleton to preach at an ecumenical service. Ingleton. Up in the Yorkshire Dales between the southern part of the Lake District to the north and the complex urban areas of Bradford and Keighley to the south. The sun shone, the sky was blue, the leaves gorgeously yellow-green-red-brown, the rivers sparklingly beautiful, the hills a reminder that they remain as we come and go.

Bring on this week…

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…

 

A couple of days ago I visited a microbrewery in Keighley. The Old Bear Brewery produces a variety of beers and the one I have tasted was very good.

However, I didn't go there to sample the goods. I went to see the Bottle Rescue scheme run by the brewery and employing a number of people with learning disabilities. It seems that this might be the only environmental charity project of its kind in the country – rescuing bottles from landfill or glass-recycling, with all the CO2 implications of such processes. This is a private company doing excellent work – at its own expense – for the good of wider society.

What is surprising about the project is that there isn't more support from a government that wants to reduce the welfare bill, but doesn't allow the sort of model that helps businesses like the Old Bear Brewery to make money from the project, pay the 'workers' a wage and make it work for everyone on a sustainable basis. But, that isn't the point of this post.

Bottle Rescue involves between 20-30 people who use Bradford and District NHS Care Trust services. Around 1.25 tonnes of glass is collected every week from across West Yorkshire. A quarter of the bottles are suitable for washing and processing for re-use by breweries, shops and drink manufacturers around the country. The national learning disability charity HFT runs the project with the brewery.

The reason I went there – and spent an enjoyable and informative hour and a half – was a bit odd. Ian Cowling, who runs the brewery, heard a Lent Lecture I did last March on BBC Radio 4, picked up on something I was saying about community projects. He emailed me to tell me about Bottle Rescue and I emailed back to ask if I could visit. It took a while to get it in the diary, but it was worth the wait (from my perspective, at least).

The story was written up in the Bradford Telegraph & Argus, but I can't find a link!

 

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