A few weeks ago I interviewed author Clinton Heylin on his new book Trouble in Mind in which he recounts Bob Dylan’s Gospel years (1979-81). Dylan produced three albums of varying quality: Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love.

As we discovered, you can’t speak of Dylan without speaking of mortality, humanity and the stuff of life and death.

And bishops don’t spend all their time in church.

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944136BD-7FC6-490E-8C9A-8A1AFEC2DF5COn 16 November I will be doing a gig at a pub in Pontefract with the acclaimed author of a new book on Bob Dylan. Clinton Heylin’s Trouble in Mind fills in all the gaps around Dylan’s three-year three-album Gospel phase. It is detailed, but without ever losing the thread of what was going on for Dylan and those around him at the time.

What comes out of the book very strongly is the discrepancy between the quality of Dylan’s music and the blind prejudice of critics in the media to take it seriously. This prejudice had little or nothing to do with music and everything to do with religion.

What are we to make of music journalists who decline to take seriously the musical or lyrical integrity of their subject simply because they happen not to agree with the musician’s experience or worldview? I found this element of the book (with some faded memories of the time and the three albums: Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot of Love) intriguing as well as shocking.

However, the phenomenon itself continues to have relevance. When university students decide to no-platform someone because they don’t agree with their stance on a particular matter, aren’t they simply prioritising their own prejudices over those of the person now barred from speaking? On what basis – intellectually or morally?

OK, the leap from Dylan in 1979-81 to free speech debates in 2017 is a bit of a big one. But, is it not surely incumbent on students and journalists to have an open (not empty) mind, to enjoy the adventure of provocative new thoughts/ideas, and to identify their own prejudices with the honesty they expect from everyone else?

And before anyone suggests that a Christian like me has no leg to stand on, let me just say this: (a) almost every act of Anglican worship begins with a collective “I seriously get stuff wrong” moment – no room for self-righteous arrogance here; (b) curiosity is the key to enjoying life, the universe and everything; and, (c) certainties should always be subject to challenge – as (I think) CS Lewis put it, “if Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity”.

No fear there. (more…)

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show.

It’s that time of year again. For me August slows everything down and I finally get some space. But, it’s also the time for long car journeys … and that means loads of time to listen to music. The great thing about your kids having grown up is that no one argues with your choice of CDs.

Well, what you’ll find in my car this morning – I have just checked – is a strange mix of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Richard Ashcroft, Elbow and the wonderful Imelda May. I got back from a trip the other day feeling that my emotions had been shredded, listening to songs that seem to have been dragged out from the depths.

And that’s the power of music. Words on their own can pack a punch, but add a good tune and some decent backing and your guts go on a different journey.

There’s nothing new about this. One of the other things I do during August is read all 150 Psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures. Why? Simply because I get immersed in a song book that doesn’t always reflect my mood or circumstances, but does provide a vocabulary for times yet to come. Whether howling with complaint about the injustices in life, or laughing with joy at the wonderful enormity of the cosmos, or weeping alongside those whose lives have been torn apart, or encouraging your mates to stick with it regardless of the hindrances … the whole of life is in there and there’s a song for everyone at every time and in every place.

Just over a week ago I was talking to child refugees in the countryside outside Khartoum in Sudan. Kids whose family have disappeared and who find themselves abandoned or orphaned through the violence of others. Yet, they still hear the echoes of a haunting melody that whispers of hope as they are taken in and cared for by strangers who meet them where they are. Lament is coloured by laughter; memory does not just belong to the past, but is being created for tomorrow.

So, in all the twists and turns of a fragile life, it is still possible to detect the sound of a plea uttered by Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn: “Love that fires the sun keep me burning.”

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in the wake of the UK’s political situation.

The Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan once wrote “the times they are a-changing”. I think he was probably thinking of the particular times in which he was living. But, it now sounds like a statement of the obvious. Time is always changing. That’s the point of it.

But, an equally famous hymn, often sung at Cup Finals and funerals, contains the miserable line: “Change and decay in all around I see,” implying that the two go together – that change is inevitably sad.

Well, events of the last few years should really put this into perspective. A week or two ago I was in Germany, taking part in events in what – not so long ago – was the Communist East. The bipolar post-war world I and my German friends grew up with seemed “just the way the world is”. Yet, now, Germany is united, the Soviet Union has gone, Donald Trump is in the White House, we are leaving the European Union, migration has changed everything, stability has become a fantasy for most people, and the future looks fragile and uncertain.
Which just shows that reality trumps certainty every time. And the promise of certainty often proves to be a fantasy.

I can never escape this. The starting point of Christian faith is a coming to terms with mortality. From dust we have come, and to dust we shall return. All life is like the grass that grows and gets blown away by the wind. Everything has its season, so don’t get caught up in the vain pursuit of … er … vanity. Faith is not an escapist holding on to a way of seeing the world that defies reality; rather, it can be described as a lens through which reality is recognised and faced – without fear.

In other words, we need to live with humility in the face of what might be possible – as what might be possible does not always coincide with what we might find desirable or convenient. Change is a constant, and an achievable vision has to be able to respond to it.

So, the hard question has to do with what roots us while we and everything around us changes? If my life is the relentless chasing after security or perpetuity – what someone called “gaining the world but losing one’s soul” – I might well be very disappointed. Jesus never seduced anyone into following him, but invited them to go with him on a journey that could lead anywhere – even to a cross.

One theologian wrote: “God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.” We don’t know what the future holds. It is uncertainty that is normal. We have to learn to embrace it.

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

It is said we live in interesting times. Europe is on an uncertain political trajectory, the Middle East is challenging, Russia is flexing its muscles, and the United States are about to choose a new president whose influence will reach far beyond their own shores. Who'd be a leader?

But, what is interesting about what the Nobel laureate Bob Dylan called 'Modern Times' is how the arts play around with the world's big issues, shining different lights onto what we see in the news. Jude Law's new film series in which he plays the fictional first American pope appears to be less interested in the power politics of the Vatican and more in what religious power does to the people who wield it. Bruce Springsteen uses music to express protest against the lot of ordinary people in parts of America that are remote from Washington's eyes. Gospel music itself was a creative expression of lament, hope and confidence on the part of people suffering human injustice for generations.

I mention this because I suspect the world needs more poets and artists. And possibly fewer lawyers – although the lawyers I know are wonderful.

Hymn-writer extraordinaire Charles Wesley maintained that we learn our theology not from what we hear from the pulpit, but from what we sing. Put a good tune to it and we'll happily sing anything – occasionally even nonsense. So, he wrote hymns and songs in order to help Christians find a vocabulary for their experiences of God, the world and each other.

Bruce Cockburn, the award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter does a similar thing with words and music, though not to be murdered by a congregation. One song he wrote thirty years ago suggests that the poets and musicians shine a different light on experience and dare us to look differently in order to see and think differently. The chorus goes like this: “Male female slave or free / Peaceful or disorderly / Maybe you and he will not agree / But you need him to show you new ways to see.”

The prophets of the Old Testament got it straight away: use words, images and stories to expose reality and prompt the questions that easily get overlooked by those with the power to preserve.

Jesus got it, too. He told stories and used images that don't just prod the intellect, but scratch away at the imagination.

But, perhaps what this shows us is simply that political vision needs more music and poetry if it is to haunt the imagination and capture hearts. Argument and shouting won't do it. Or, as Byron put it: “What is poetry? – The feeling of a former world and future.”

 

Before coming to Iraq I was asked to write a piece for the Radio Times. Picking up on the Kate Bottley programme on Good Friday, I thought I would start from there. However, the article was essentially about avoiding the pigeon-holing of religious broadcasting. Here is the text, but buy the Radio Times anyway – the biggest-selling magazine in the UK.

So, it's Easter again. And there's a programme about Judas on the telly.

When Bob Dylan decided to go electric some of his fans thought he had sold out. The infamous sound of a bloke in the audience shouting “Judas” said it all – one name pregnant with a hundred accusations.

I feel a bit sorry for Judas. He is not just another one of those characters in the well-known story of the crucifixion of Jesus; rather, he has gone down in history as the ultimate traitor, the cheap and nasty greed-merchant who sells his friend and his soul for a few quid. I wonder what his mother thought.

Well, it's a bit more complicated than that. Judas had invested himself in the revolutionary leadership of Jesus of Nazareth … only to find himself let down. Trying to force the hand of the messiah didn't work, and, instead of provoking the ultimate uprising against Roman rule, the glorious leader simply let himself get nailed without resistance. No wonder Judas got upset.

I guess it's up to the observer to decide what was really going on with Judas – whether he is a traitor or a scapegoat. Whatever conclusion you draw, he's has had a lousy press. Just call someone by his name…

It's actually all about betrayal. And faith. And disappointment. And hope and meaning and living and dying. All the stuff of life as we all know it, in every age and every culture.

It shouldn't be surprising, then, that the case for or against Judas should be re-opened on Good Friday. After all, what better opportunity can there be for taking a fresh look at a religious story than hanging it on an Easter peg?

That's fine in itself. But, it begs the question why such programming shouldn't be scheduled at other times of the year. Why lock 'faith' stuff into the predictable slots when 'people who like that sort of thing' can be indulged for an hour or so? If sport and politics, economics and science can be exposed to the searching eye of the camera and the probing ear of the microphone throughout the year, shouldn't 'religion' get the same treatment – and not get pigeon-holed at the predictable times of the calendar?

Well, I celebrate those broadcasters that spot the creative opportunities to tell the stories and ask the hard questions. Faith provides a lens through which the stuff of human living and dying, leaving and losing, laughing and weeping, searching and finding can be explored. Faith isn't a box whose lid can be lifted from time to time in order to keep one section of the audience happy. Faith is about the raw stuff of life – and the questions about what it all means. Not just at Christmas and Easter, but all year round.

And this is why the Sandford St Martin Trust joins with the Radio Times to celebrate and reward excellent religious broadcasting. That's not broadcasting about religion for religious people; rather, it is telling those – often surprising – stories about people whose lives and interests and failings and celebrations shine a light on those questions that face us all as human beings. They offer a sort of vocabulary for thinking and asking and wondering.

No shoving stuff down people's throat. But, capturing the imagination and offering images and narratives that keep scratching away at our mind and memory, possibly opening us up to new, and sometimes surprising, ways of thinking and seeing.

Whether it's Gogglebox or Grantchester, Call the Midwife or Rev, a documentary or drama, there are some great programmes to celebrate.

Cast your vote.

 

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…