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:

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.”

 

This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 (following last night's Sandford St Martin Awards ceremony at Lambeth Palace):

If truth be told, I'm a bit on the tired side this morning. Last night I was presenting awards for excellence in religious broadcasting and my head is full of great stories. We had some brilliant examples of radio and telly that got under the skin of how people live – and why they live the way they do. After all, religion is about life, not a niche for weirdos.

And perhaps that's why when we get to anniversaries of momentous events, some sort of religious celebration stands at the heart of the remembering. This week is particularly poignant as it ends on the seventieth anniversary of D-Day – a day of triumph, but a day of blood.

But, this week also sees a musical anniversary. Today is the thirtieth birthday of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA. I can't believe it is thirty years since the Boss attacked my ears and got me hooked on music that gave words to memories and took seriously the importance of place for human beings. We need to know where we belong – that we belong somewhere.

I wasn't born in the USA – surprisingly. I was born in Liverpool when the Beatles were getting together and Merseybeat ruled the airwaves. I know where my cultural roots are and they partly tell me who I am. And what Springsteen did was to open up to everyone – wherever they come from – the need to remember. As a rabbi once pointed out, when a generation dies out, memory becomes history – and when that happens – inevitably – history becomes a commodity over which people fight.

The point is we need to know who we are. Way back in the Old Testament the people had to divide the year into rituals that compelled them to remember where they had come from – that when they prospered, they recalled that once they were slaves and had nothing. This was supposed to root within their consciousness a sense of humility and generosity that shaped their politics and economics as well as their culture.

Anyway, Bruce Springsteen isn't that old. But, Born in the USA invited us to do the same task: to remember who we are and that all of us were born somewhere.

 

 

One of my earliest memories of being bewildered goes back to my first reading of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at my comprehensive school in Liverpool. I didn’t understand a word, but later learned that poetry is not only about content, but also about rhythm and sound and evocation. And  day like today – warm sun shining and a cloudless blue sky ( also empty of aircraft because of the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland) – and it is Chaucer who springs to mind:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

The Canterbury pilgrims were moved by the promise of spring to walk to the Mother Church of England. But they started in the Tabard pub in Southwark.

I sometimes wonder where I was in the queue when the spirituality ‘genes’ were given out. I know many people today love spiritual pilgrimages and the mysticism of ‘holy sites’ and ‘holy journeys’. In my own experience the best pilgrimages (of mind and spirit) have begun in the open world of the pub and only ended (if they ever really did end) in the church – not usually the other way round. The best questions are raised in the common places of human discourse, even if they find their ‘home’ eventually in the place of worship and freedom.

But this spring is starting well as the blossom flourishes outside my study window and the trees are budding green. The Hillsborough Inquiry has begun this week under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Liverpool, Liverpool Football Club is finally on the market (and, hopefully, out of uncomprehending American hands), the Liberal Democrats have blown a hole in lazy British assumptions about two-party politics (and brought the election to life), and I’ve got Bruce Springsteen competing with Chaucer – maybe because he put a good tune to it:

And the girls in their summer clothes
In the cool of the evening light
The girls in their summer clothes
Pass me by.

Somehow that (and the music that goes with it) welcomes the spring and captures the optimism engendered by not having to wear loads of clothes.

Summer is coming…

I had an early start this morning as I had to be in Bristol by 9.30am to preach at the Valedictory Service for students leaving Trinity College ahead of their ordinations in the next few weeks. I think the job of the preacher at such a service is to encourage and to warn. Whether or not I hit the mark is not for me to judge, but I enjoyed the experience – and good to be back 22 years after I left the same college.

After the service and a good lunch I went to visit a friend and we sat talking for a couple of hours before I had to hit the road back to London again. Feeling tired, I had to choose between Bruce Cockburn, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello or Bruce Springsteen to keep me alert. Cockburn won.

I kept replaying Pacing the Cage – a wonderful song with wonderful poetry and wonderful guitar playing.

The thing about Cockburn is the beautiful and raw honesty. He moves from describing the sunset to describing the experience of being worn out by an itinerant performing life:

Sunset is an angel weeping
Holding out a bloody sword
No matter how I squint I cannot
Make out what it’s pointing toward
Sometimes you feel like you live too long
Days drip slowly on the page
You catch yourself
Pacing the cage

I’ve proven who I am so many times
The magnetic strip’s worn thin
And each time I was someone else
And every one was taken in…

I wonder if it is only artists and performers who feel this. The danger of a ministry like mine (as a bishop) is that every day brings a different group of people (audience?) and it is possible to lose your self by becoming public property. This isn’t a complaint; rather, just a musing on the expression Cockburn brings to what might be a common experience for people who appear before ‘new’ audiences all the time. But the most poignant bit comes next:

Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend.

This morning we sang a popular worship song: ‘Strength will rise when we wait upon the Lord…’ I suggested that clergy will find as the years go by that ‘waiting on the Lord’ does not guarantee feelings of renewal or strength – that sometimes we are led into dark places and shouldn’t try to run from them. Cockburn reminded me that life is more complicated than we sometimes suggest and that the retreat into solitude/darkness can be welcome when you feel wrung out by people.

This is the song that runs around my mind when I get tired and long for space. But, like Cockburn, it doesn’t stop the next appointment coming…

I am just beginning to realise that I am a cultural dinosaur. When I went to see the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire on 17 January, soon after its release in the UK, I wrote a post in which I said I hadn’t enjoyed it. I objected to its billing as ‘feel-good film of the decade’ when all it did was portray vividly the misery of corruption, crime, poverty, conflict and brutality. Despite the wonderful artistry and acting, the great soundtrack and direction, I just wanted it to finish.

But yesterday it won eight Oscars. The whole world loves it and even I love the fact that an independently-made film has trounced the other megabuck productions. Yet still I feel isolated in a minority of one. I still don’t like it and don’t want to see it again.

On the train back from London this afternoon I was perusing the endless pages of Oscar-night fashions in the freebie newspapers you get handed to you at the station. I was just wondering how they manage to fill so many pages with photos of celebrities looking uncomfortable wrapped up in funny fabrics when, at last, something interesting took my eye: a review in London Lite of a new album by an American band called Lamb of God. The album is called Wrath and appears to be an epic expression of heavy metal irony that is, in the words of the reviewer ‘almost beyond parody’. (Please don’t confuse this with John Taverner’s wonderful Lamb of God; there are not-so-subtle differences…)

sacrament-coverI have never heard of them before, but that might be because they used to be called Burn the Priest and produce songs with titles like Fake Messiah and Broken Hands. Earlier albums bear titles such as New American Gospel, Walk with me in Hell and Sacrament. Now, forgive me for my naivete – I’ve never come across this band in church circles, but maybe I should get out more – but this sounds exciting, rebellious and dangerous material. Until you actually listen to it, that is.

working_4261‘Almost beyond parody’ it might be, but it is screamingly funny to listen to. The ‘larynx-shredding vocals, pummelling drums and machine-gun riffs’ just made me laugh. No doubt this is the sort of music that some over-sensitive Christians get all worried and upset about, but I think it is just funny. If this is the devil’s music, then I think it is no longer true that he has the best of it. If this is meant to be an example of ‘having a go at God’ (and I have no reason to think it is), it is marvellously hopeless. Despite this, it still got three star approval – on the day it was announced that the great Bruce Springsteen is to headline at Glastonbury this year for the lucky beggars who got tickets. Funny old world.

The other irony is that I was reading this on my way back from a meeting with people from the excellent Tony Blair Faith Foundation which is initiating some really innovative and excellent work in bringing people in grassroots faith communities together across the globe. I’ll write more another time, but I mention it here because they have projects running in the (not so) feel-good India and are working hard and creatively to dispel the caricatures that faith communities can easily build up about others.

Unlike the metalheads, they want to help people of diverse religious worldviews and commitments to understand each other – not an easy task in a world where it is more convenient to let prejudice justify anger and assume God is always on ‘my’ side. But it is also a world in which I also need to understand the worldview of the metalheads, even when it means listening to their music and trying so hard to take it seriously.