This is the script fo this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show in the company of Mo Farah, Tamsin Greig, Robert Winston and Jamie Lawson:

I have a theory about children's books. It's not original: children's books are mainly read by adults. By adults, for adults. Remember when Harry Potter was just starting out on literary life and the publisher had to use two covers: one for kids and a different one for grown-ups … just so the latter wouldn't get embarrassed on a train?

I think part of the reason for this might be that loads of adults are learning that imagination is not just for the little ones, and words open up new worlds of wonder.

I remember being accused of using simple language in one of my books. Accused, I think, because the reviewer thought I should posh up a bit and be more academic. But, the genius of good communication is to make the complex simple, not the simple complex.

I am no stranger to this. Every time I open the gospels I am confronted by stories and images. This stuff isn't meant to hit you with some solid truth, but to get your imagination working – sneaking round the back of your mind when you're not expecting it, and scratching away at your memory. “Where God is,” says Jesus, “is like a mustard seed.”

What?! What's that supposed to mean? Use your imagination! Something tiny grows in unlikely places into a whacking big tree in whose branches the birds make their nests – and the tree doesn't get to choose which birds. Get it? God is to be found where there is hiddenness, outrageous growth, unlikely generosity, hospitality. You get the idea?

A couple of days ago I was in a primary school at Low Moor in Bradford. I was giving certificates to young leaders who, together, had made a difference to their local community in a variety of ways. They had learned to look for what others didn't see – like litter and the absence of birds – and did a rubbish collection and built bird boxes. They learned to be surprised by the difference they could make. Leading meant taking responsibility instead of waiting for others to do it for them. Brilliant.

And they were full of imagination at a world they are still discovering.

So, keep the books coming. Keep the stories rolling. Keep the imagination fired up – and try growing up into a child.

 

The headline doesn't sound too promising, does it? But, it brings together the last couple of days before I return to Bradford tomorrow for a week of work before having a scheduled holiday the following week.

Having finished Ben Quash's excellent Found Theology, I intended to just spend the last couple of days reading German frivolous stuff. But, I started on Imaginative Apologetics, edited by Andrew Davison instead and got hooked. Serendipitously, it hangs together very well with the Quash book, although written from a different perspective and toward a different end.

Imaginative Apologetics recognises that the current irrational obsession of the New Atheists with what they think of as 'pure reason' (as if it wasn't mediated by a person who brings to the task a tradition and unargued-for presuppositions about the world, the way it is, and why it is the way it is) and 'pure science' (see above) does not need to be responded to on its own redundant terms, but that the premises of the argument can be questioned. And, to cut a long argument short, people need to be appealed to at the level of imagination and emotion – finding a consistency with real lived experience … which is more (but never less than) than 'rational' – and the Christian tradition has a huge amount to offer in this respect.

In fact, Davison himself makes the case right at the outset for Christian confidence when he writes:

The Christian faith does not simply, or even mainly, propose a few additional facts about the world. Rather, belief in the Christian God invites a new way to understand everything. (p.xxv)

He also cursorily quotes Yale's Denys Turner's observation that “the best way to be an atheist is to avoid asking certain questions”. The purpose of this is not to dismiss atheism or atheists, but to ask robust questions about the assumptions and presuppositions that lie before and behind assertions about reality and the absence of God. There is material here for good debate, if the theistic case is accorded some credibility and not simply dismissed prior to consideration. As Alison Milbank puts it, the apologetic task of the Christian is not to appeal to pure reason (as if there could be such a thing), but “to awaken in the reader this feeling of homesickness for the truth”. (p.33)

Each essay is worth reading in itself and I don't intend to go through the whole book here. However, the appeal to art, literature and the imaginative life of a human person (as well as communities) chimes in very well with the case being argued theologically by Ben Quash in his book. In other words, take culture seriously; explore and appeal to the imagination that takes reason seriously; be confident about the role of the imagination in comprehending reality.

Having read this stuff in a cafe in Basel yesterday, I then moved on to the Kunstmuseum Basel. I particularly wanted to see the Hans Holbein painting of the dead Christ (referred to by Ben Quash in his book) and the impressive Impressionist collection. There is nothing quite like an art gallery to make me feel ignorant and illiterate. I look at paintings and know that I don't know how to read them – I don't know the language. I had intended to scan the bulk of the collections and stay for longer with the stuff I knew a little about from my reading, but I found I had paid to see the special exhibition of James Ensor: The Surprised Masks.

I had never heard of James Ensor. I realised I had come across several of his works (The Fall of the Rebel Angels and The Entry of Christ into Brussels on Mardi Gras, for example) but I knew nothing about him or his art. It was stunning. The paintings were interesting, but it was the ink drawings that grabbed me. They explore death, dying, mortality and humanity – but with the sort of humour that had me laughing as I looked at them. It reminded me a little of how I felt when I read Robert Crumb's cartoon version of The Book of Genesis.

The point here is that art goes beyond pure reason (but entirely reasonably) into the imagination in a way that digs at 'truth' and pushes our perceptions of what we assume to be 'reality'.

And this, bizarrely, is what takes me on to immigration. If coming to Switzerland helped me escape some of the sterile immigration debates in England, I quickly got plunged back into them. Recently a referendum narrowly backed the view that restrictions should be imposed on immigration into Switzerland. This caused a huge storm both here and in the wider European Union: decisions have consequences. The political fall-out has been interesting to read whilst actually here in Switzerland. And 'imagination' – in the perverse, but common sense of 'fantasy' – has come powerfully into play in the rhetoric around the issue.

The friend I am staying with is employed by the Swiss Reformed Church to engage in industrial and economic matters (Pfarramt für Industrie und Wirtschaft). He was invited by the local newspaper, the bz Basel, to attend last week's opening night of a performance of Max Frisch's Biedermann und die Brandstifter and to be interviewed by the newspaper afterwards. You really have to know the play, but the performance had a twist in that the stories – in their own words – of immigrants to Switzerland were told to a surprised audience. The interview appeared today and Martin (Dürr) has been getting very supportive messages all day. In the interview – which is amusing as well as intelligent – he sharply calls into question the rhetoric propagated by the right wing that mass immigration is threatening the Swiss way of life. The right wing press (in some cases owned by the leader of the right wing party, the SVP) fan the flames of fear whilst simultaneously offering themselves as the saviours of the nation. Martin put it like this (my translation):

We have to draw a line. For many years the SVP has succeeded in building fears and resentments. The play exposes the mechanisms behind this. I believe there are some very respectable people in the SVP. But, the element that has the say has managed for years to present itself as both victim and saviour. This is a fascinating achievement… They present themselves as victims of the foreign masters in Brussels and of the Left and the Greens and even the remaining left wing press. These are doing terrible things to us and our Swiss identity is being destroyed – say the SVP. At the same time they get up and announce: “Comrades, don't be afraid! We offer you the antidote to this. We are the only ones to really fight to keep the Switzerland that has existed since 1291.”

Sound familiar? Create the spectre – regardless of facts and reality – and then offer a solution to the fear that you have created. It is an interesting and powerful example of political apologetics. It works on the imagination by conjuring a fantasy and then calling it reality.

We are not alone…

 

Following on from my last post – which was sparked by a visit to Sudan and the reading of Walter Brueggemann (again) – it is important to move on from the phenomenon of how we face potential change to addressing the content of those changes. Objections to change often appear in two forms: (a) a natural, but false, comparison between the status quo (arrived at after years of development) and the potential birth of something new (which, by definition, can only be imagined or envisaged) arising from it; and (b) a natural and right caution that we should never engage in change for the mere sake of change itself.

Since coming to Bradford in May 2011 I have deliberately not instigated any great change. I might be wrong, but it seemed silly to initiate necessary change in some areas when a greater, more wholesale, change might be coming down the line with the Dioceses Commission proposals – if agreed in March 2013 – kicking in relatively soon. So, I have paid attention to structural clarity, missional encouragement and confidence building among clergy and lay people. I cannot be the judge of whether that policy has been effective or not. Nevertheless, the point is that I do not believe in wasting time changing things that do not need to be changed. I seriously resist that old recourse of fantasists or the fearful: to avoid the serious challenge by simply re-engineering or re-ordering the furniture. At the heart of any change worth doing lies the fundamental question of vision: what is the end that this means is intended to achieve?

So, objections to the scheme before us are not trivial and, indeed, are necessary if we are to effectively (but realistically) stress-test the proposals for an alternative way of being. That is to say, any proposals for change need to be poked, pulled, prodded and stretched in order to identify where they are sound, where they lack, or where they open up potential that cannot yet be measured. Yet, going back to the point of my last post on this, objection should always be on the basis of an imaginative engagement with the proposals and not simply a reactive resistance arising from pique or fear.

A number of objections to the Dioceses Scheme are obvious and I will look at some of them in turn here.

'Big is not always beautiful'

The objection is that a larger diocese must be remote, unwieldy and unfamiliar – a far cry from the 'family-like' nature of the existing three smaller dioceses. Well, yes, a large diocese does feel different and brings certain challenges (as well as opportunities) not faced by smaller ones. But, sometimes big is beautiful – in the sense that it provides a wider canvas on which to paint a bigger picture.

I think I am the only senior staff member of any of the three dioceses who has direct and long experience of such a large diocese working with an area system. I spent eleven years in the Diocese of Southwark, three as Archdeacon of Lambeth and eight as (area) Bishop of Croydon. I learned a huge amount about communication, coherence, 'brand identification', structural identity and effective use of resources. The particular model of an area system worked well, but was under constant review – as will any shape emerging, if approved, in West Yorkshire and the Dales.

The suggestion that the current scheme should put in place a structure that must work completely on day one and be guaranteed to remain successfully intact for the next ten years is a complete nonsense: any shape devised will need to be re-thought as time goes by and as change happens around us. What we have to focus on is the potential of a larger diocese, broken down into an area system, to enable a larger vision for the resourcing and encouragement of parish mission and ministry, better development potential for clergy, a more coherent engagement with the area covered by the new diocese (civic, political, social, economic, etc.), and clear profiling of the Church of England in its unique vocation (working with ecumenical partners, who, incidentally, support this scheme).

Ecclesiology and area bishops

The scheme proposes a diocesan bishop (who would also be the Area Bishop of Leeds – a mistake, in my view) and four other area bishops (Bradford, Ripon, Wakefield and Huddersfield). How would the diocesan bishop know and be known by the people in his parishes?

Well, that is an interesting one. Of course, it begs the question how well known are the diocesan bishops by the parishes in the existing dioceses – and the judges of this should not be the diocesan bishops themselves! If I have 165 churches in around 130 parishes and aim to be in at least one of them every week,… work it out. Yet, we speak of 'knowing' and 'being known'. We need a bit of realism here: the diocesan bishop needs to 'order' the diocese in such a way that (a) clergy are properly appointed and pastorally resourced – and let's not romanticise the limitations of that, (b) communicate effectively with all parts of the diocese, using all the resources available judiciously and adventurously, (c) be out and about in the parishes and institutions – listening, learning, questioning, encouraging, challenging, articulating the good news and inspiring (which comes down to more than just role, office and structure). This involves systematic and realistic prioritising – nothing new there, then.

Currently, the diocesan bishop cannot be everywhere and, so, exercises his episkope through colleagues such as suffragan bishops (except in Bradford where I don't have one), archdeacons, area deans, diocesan secretaries, and so on. Indeed, the parish system assumes that a 'vicar' is exercising in the particular parish the ministry that belongs essentially to the bishop. So, how would the area system proposed be any different in kind?

In a larger diocese the ordering of these matters is done through having smaller episcopal areas, each led by an area bishop (who is as much a bishop as the diocesan bishop!) working with a cathedral dean/minster vicar and an archdeacon. If the right people are appointed to these posts (and the same question applies if we retain three dioceses), this offers clergy and parishes a strategic and pastoral leadership team that is closer to the ground, oversees a smaller territory and number, can apply itself to the particularities of that (more homogeneous) area, offer more accessible pastoral care of clergy, and inspire mission at a more local level. In practice, this means that one episcopal area might drive initiatives that would not be as applicable or effective in others… but would bring that experience and drive to the wider diocese. Such cross-fertilisation is challenging and inspiring when you work in such a context.

Of course, this allows a larger diocese to deploy people in areas who bring to the diocese as a whole their particular expertise – thus allowing the whole diocese to benefit from the particular spread of gifts and experience deployed in the areas.

There are two other elements of an area system that are worth mentioning: (a) area bishops are not automatically on the General Synod, are not in the House of Bishops, do not find themselves committed to work beyond the diocese in the same way as diocesan bishops, and, can, therefore, be more present in their area and diocese. In other words, the clergy and parishes get a better deal; (b) the bishops work as an episcopal team, ensuring both stronger mutual support/challenge and imposing a check on wild ideas, plans or judgements.

So, parishes and civic areas get two bishops: one local and one 'regional' who gain an intimate and informed understanding of life on the ground. One can be a check on the other.

Of course, as I keep saying, no structure of itself achieves anything; it all depends on how the structure is populated, led and exploited… and that comes down to the nature and abilities of the people you appoint to do it. Which, of course, is no different from the challenge we have if we remain as three separate dioceses.

Practicalities

That said, a large diocese (and before thinking this proposal is dangerously radical and untested, we need to look at the dioceses of London, Southwark, Chelmsford, Lichfield, Oxford… to name a few) means further to travel for diocesan meetings, and so on. Well, potentially, yes, of course it might. But this is hardly unique and is an odd objection. People are different – some won't travel more than to the next-door parish for a deanery meeting and others will travel further because they believe in the importance of what they are doing. There seems to be an assumption around that all diocesan meetings would be held in Leeds – but it is unclear where that assumption comes from. In other dioceses with area systems, 'central' meetings move around – partly in order to acquaint the decision-makers, both clergy and lay, of the nature of the parts of the whole diocese.

This of all other practical objections is the one that seems to me to be clutching at 'resistance straws'. How these things will work out will depend simply on the breadth of vision, sense of adventure, creative imagination and visionary energy of those who lead the new diocese. And that can't be laid down in detail before the thing comes to be.

Enough now. Change is inevitable. If the scheme does not go through, it will not be 'business as usual' in any of the three dioceses. And the (in some people's minds)'reserve option' of Bradford and Ripon& Leeds going ahead together without Wakefield is a non-starter – it does not answer in any way the question addressed by the Dioceses Commission in bringing their proposals in the first place. Going forward the questions will not go away and the need for change will not evaporate in a cloud of safety, imagined certainty or wishful thinking.

As I have kept saying, we either see ourselves as victims of change (compelled by the decisions of other people) or we shape our future by choosing change. And that means having the sort of courage to recognise that choosing anything new will bring problems, challenges, unforeseen difficulties and the perpetual pain of those people who look for opportunities to say “I told you so”. But, courageous leadership arising from vision has to be big enough to handle all that, bracket the personal stuff, press on, take responsibility… and take the incalculable risk of inspiring both church and society that we can do what Jesus always invited people to do: leave something behind in order to walk in a different direction in order to go somewhere unpredicted… and to do it all with some sense of adventure as well s attention to detail.

More anon.

Being in a place of scarcity and threat compels us to look through different eyes at our own situation and life. Gaining a first-hand acquaintance with the church in Sudan last week (as I had previously done for eleven years with the church in Zimbabwe) shone a different light not only on who we are as an Anglican church in West Yorkshire, but also how we are in our attempt to fulfil our unique calling.

Add to that a reading of Walter Brueggemann's excellent book The Practice of Prophetic Imagination and the choice before the Dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield takes on a different (and more radical) complexion. On 2 March the three diocesan synods will vote on whether or not to choose dissolution and the creation of a single new diocese for West Yorkshire and the Dales. During the last two years we have lived with uncertainty as, first, the initial proposals were debated; second, the amended draft scheme was debated; then, third, the final scheme was presented for acceptance or rejection.

So far, no problem. The whole world lives with uncertainty and sometimes the Church needs to grow up and get real when faced with challenges or bewilderments. Uncertainty is one of the facts of life and we, of all people, should learn to live confidently with it. However, how the process has been handled during the last two years raises some important questions that precede the detailed matters of the scheme's content: they have to do with identity, vocation and vision.

Identity

Who is the church? The church must take as its narrative the sweep of the biblical story, read in the light of its experience throughout history. What we learn is that the church's institutional shape must serve its vocation and not have its vocation shaped by its inherited institutional form(s). If the church aims “to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God” – and to do this by learning the (constantly changing, moving) 'languages' of a culture that never stands still, then it must constantly be willing to sacrifice its inheritance for the sake of its mission. Indeed, this was the motivation behind the creation by the Church of England of new dioceses in the twentieth century, aimed at re-shaping the church to serve new urban communities that hadn't really been there a century before.

The proposals for West Yorkshire do the same for the twenty first century, both responding to the changes in demography, culture and communications and anticipating further changes in the century to come. It would be interesting to see what arguments were used at the time when Wakefield and Bradford were established as separate dioceses by those who thought the change would be negative, retrograde, trendy, unnecessary, unmissional, and so on. I guess they would represent a re-run of some of the 'denial rhetoric' that is being articulated now.

However, these proposals invite the Church of England in West Yorkshire (and beyond – because this could still be put to the General Synod for acceptance even if one of our dioceses votes against it on 2 March), for the first time in several generations, to do what the Church of England used to do in re-shaping itself for the sake of its declared mission.

Vocation

Who is the church for? The church's vocation is a tough one: it essentially asks us to be 'prophetic', not only in word, but in action. By 'prophetic' I mean offering the world the possibility of a different way of seeing and being… even while the old world continues and appears dominant. This is the invitation of the Old Testament prophets: to see a new world whilst the current reality was exile under a powerful empire. Not only do the prophets speak truth about now, but they use language to fire a daring imagination about a different future… a future rooted in hope. At the beginning of his public ministry Jesus poses the same challenge: you can't see how the pure God can come among you again while the unholy pagans (the Roman occupying forces) remain in your land, compromising your worship and blaspheming your faith; but, dare you 'repent' (literally, 'change your mind' – see through a re-ground lens) and begin to live now as if God were present, contaminating the unholy with grace rather than being afraid of being contaminated by the bad stuff? (This is what is going on in Mark's summary of Jesus's message, mission and ministry in Mark 1:14-15.)

Walter Brueggemann draws attention to this when he writes:

… prophetic preaching is the enactment of hope in contexts of loss and grief. It is the declaration that God can enact a novum in our very midst, even when we judge that to be impossible. (P.110)

More suggestively, perhaps, he goes on (p.130f) to expose the discrepancy between what we Christians say and sing, and how we then handle prophetic demands:

There is a tacit yearning in the church for the prophetic. And so the church sings about the prophetic with some vigor… The church sings that way with hope, all the while, in practice, mostly resisting anything prophetic and really wanting no more than a status quo pastorate or priesthood, mostly wanting apostolic faith that “tells” but does not summon too much.

In other words, we don't walk the talk. In relation to West Yorkshire all parties have agreed, articulated and rehearsed the view that change needs to happen and that we cannot just continue blindly into the future. Yet, when specific change is proposed – based on thorough consultation, research and testing alternatives – some of us resist even using our imagination to see how 'a different way' might potentially look, were we to have some courage as well as convictions. What lies before us is not simply a choice about specific proposals for a single diocese, but also (and perhaps more importantly) a challenge to the integrity of our vocation as a church. Given that so-called 'alternatives' have come too late in the process, been simple reactions to specific points that, once addressed and answered (see the 'threat' to funding three cathedrals, for example), are held onto regardless or quietly dismissed in the search for another objection.

Vision

I understand what lies behind the fear of change, loss and uncertainty. (After all, if this scheme goes through, I become the first diocesan bishop to be made redundant – a prospect I don't relish, but for which I am prepared.) But, this is what the church is called to model in every generation – for our rootedness is fundamentally not in our institutional shape (as if this were directly established by God in creation), but in our courageous and prophetic faithfulness to the mission God has entrusted to us.

I will come back again to some of the specifics involved in the proposals, but for now the big question has to do with something deeper, more integral to our identity and vocation, more theological and attitudinal. A new single diocese would bring huge challenges and opportunities. There will be errors, mismanagements and failures. Risk will be felt acutely. Structures – existing or potential – achieve nothing of themselves; all depends on how people lead, work them and creatively attend to their potential as media (parameters) for enabling the vocation to be fulfilled.

I think I am not alone in Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon & Leeds in wanting our decision to be driven by courage, vision, creative commitment, vocational conviction and missional invitation. We must not fail the church and the wider world by being driven by denial, fear, resentment, protectionism or self-interest.

More anon.

This morning we met with four of the bishops of Sudan. Each explained the situation in their own diocese and we had a very fruitful conversation about how we can best build on our relationship to mutual benefit. The talk was open, honest, trustful and opened several doors to future work together.

One bishop was missing. Andudu, Bishop of Kadugli, is in Juba, Southern Sudan, as he is unable to return to his own diocese for reasons of safety. In June 2011 he was in the USA for medical treatment when Sudanese forces started their attack on the Nuba Mountains. While there he made some comments – perhaps without on-the-ground direct knowledge – and the Sudanese government took exception, making it impossible for him to return without endangering his life. His family is in Uganda. He was represented at our meeting this morning by one of his Canons who has had to flee Kadugli and is being cared for by the Diocese of Khartoum.

The situation has confused me a little – the rhetoric in the UK sometimes attributing motive and consequence where convenient, but not making complete sense. I fully accept that this might be evidence of my stupidity rather than a comment on the people doing the reporting or commentating. I could not understand why the bishop (and others could not return, especially as it is more peaceful in some areas right now than it has been). Today I began to grasp it (although what follows is not intended to be a full analysis).

The Sudanese government is attacking supporters of the SPLA. Kadugli itself is under government control, but other areas of South Kordofan are controlled by the SPLA. Thousands of people have fled and the humanitarian cost is being paid for by neighbouring states which are absorbing them. However, the government does not want a repeat of Darfur and, so, has prohibited the erection of refugee camps. This means that people escaping have to find their way to relatives in other cities – leading to families of ten or twenty living in very tight accommodation that was already overcrowded with a single family.

The other dioceses are caring for the refugees who exited by the gateway of El Obeid en route to places like Khartoum. These people have nothing and the people looking to help them have little. More could be said, but suffice it to say here that the courage, tenacity and quiet commitment of the bishops and their people to care for these displaced people is admirable. Last year I launched a 'Kadugli Appeal' in Bradford and so far we have raised £100,000 to enable these people to feed and assist those displaced. Of course, the need goes further – for example, children being absorbed into church schools in Khartoum – but at least something useful is being done.

Each diocese in Sudan faces this need for care of displaced and often traumatised people at the same time as losing some of their leading people to the South. This is another matter to which I will attend when I return to Bradford next week. But, the challenge is enormous… and is being tackled by good people with quiet determination and a shed load of love. It is very humbling.

It is also clear that government attacks in South Kordofan cannot be reduced to simple categories of political allegiance, race or religion, but is shaped by various mixtures of all three. Any analysis that seems simple… is probably wrong.

Our conversation went beyond the diocesan situations to wider issues such as the influence of Saudi Arabia in Sudan and other parts of the region. I was reminded of the need for people like me (who are involved in global interfaith dialogue) sometimes to check the western liberal perspective and look through the lens of Christians in places like Sudan where Islamic rejection of conversion from Islam to Christianity is more than an academic matter. Enough said… for now.

It is salutary that I have just started reading Walter Brueggemann's 2012 book The Practice of Prophetic Imagination. His starting point is that Christians operate in the real world with a 'narrative' that refuses to accept the 'dominant narrative' of the world in which we live. Without ducking the challenges of this, he maintains that Christians must constantly rehearse their own narrative, with God at the centre… even though this God is rejected in the world's dominant narrative (which he later describes as 'self-invention, competitive productivity and self-sufficiency' resulting in 'military consumerism'). Against this, the Christian narrative has to do with 'wonder (instead of self-invention), emancipation (instead of the rat-race of production), nourishment (instead of labour for that which does not satisfy), covenantal dialogue instead of tyrannical monopoly or autonomous anxiety), a quid pro quo of accountability (instead of either abdicating submissiveness or autonomous self-assertion), waiting (instead of having or despair about not having)'.

His point – which (a) he draws out from both Old and New Testaments and (b) reflects the call to responsibility as the heart of freedom that Joachim Gauck speaks about in his little book Freiheit: Ein Plädoyer – is that the world's narrative does not prove adequate (see how an obsession with security leads to massive insecurity, for example), but that this is too often not recognised or appreciated… even by Christians who are supposed to sing from a different hymn sheet. You'll have to read the book to get the point, but Brueggemann bangs the drum he has been beating in almost all his writing and preaching: that Christians must refuse narratives of defeat, ending, destruction and loss by holding to one that affirms perseverance, newness, creation and hope. “Choose life,” is the challenge of the Deuteronomist – which assumes that choices must be made and responsibility taken for those choices. In other words, Christians cannot be escapists from the challenges of power in the world, but, rather, challenge that world's assumptions (and exertions of power) by choosing to live differently in it.

It is perhaps not surprising that this reads with particular power here in Sudan as the day draws towards its close and the Muezzin calls the people to prayer.

 

I did Pause for Thought on BBC's Radio 2 Chris Evans Show this morning.

I wanted to think about the importance of imagination – for good or ill. Having been in Eisenach, I wanted to contrast the imagination of Johann Sebastian Bach and Martin Luther with the horrors of Hitler's boys – birthed in the same place. But, the tone wasn't right for the particular medium of the Breakfast Show. S, I re-wrote it on the train to London yesterday evening. And this is how it ended up this morning:

Don't ask me why – cos I can't stand the thing – but I can't get John Lennon's Imagine out of my head. I have to forgive him a bit, though, because when Liverpool were rubbish at the beginning of last season, the line “Above us only sky” etched into his statue at John Lennon Airport was added to with the words “and below us only Wolves and West Ham”.

But, the reason I can't get the song out of my head has to do not with Lennon or his fantasies, but rather with the importance of imagination in shaping our lives and our society. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I've just got back from Germany where I was preaching in the church in Eisenach where Johann Sebastian Bach was baptised and where Martin Luther preached.

Now we're talking! Johann Sebastian was one of many Bachs, but his vision of God, the world and what human life is all about fired his creative imagination to write some of the most sublime music in history – he saw behind the mundane and the music soared.

Luther, too, rebelled against powers and authorities that turned people's eyes down into the muck of human failure instead of up into the sheer generous freedom of forgiveness and a new start. What's more, he did a bit of a Bach and wrote loads of songs to celebrate it all.

Of course, the place of Bach and Luther was later the place where unspeakable things took place – as happens when our imagination goes bad. Yet, with Bach and Luther, the Old Testament prophets provoke our imagination to see beyond the present reality and be held by a vision of a better, more just and merciful future. Jesus does the same by teasing our curiosity with images of a different way of being and loving and living.

I want to keep my imagination fired up. Like Bach and Luther. And even John Lennon.

I am coming to the end of a run on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. Picking Fridays was a good move: Chris has started getting guests in and, so, without any effort at all, I’ve managed to meet Elton John, Peter Kay, Rick Astley, David Walliams, Selina Scott and loads of others. And the production team is always generous, welcoming and open. It’s a good gig and gives me a window into a different world.

The problem with Pause for Thought is that the BBC won’t let me post the scripts on my own blog. They post them for seven days on the BBC website, but it’s not the same. So, I’ll paraphrase. The thing is, 320 words makes you think concisely about what is going on in the world (or, at least, in my head) and it’s a good discipline for someone like me who produces an awful lot of words (one way or another) during any day.

What has been running through my head during the last couple of weeks is how we explain what is going on in Tunisia, Egypt and the rest of the world. What is it that leads people to rebel now as opposed to three months ago or two years from now? Is it simply something to do with the confluence of events, economics and public mood?

I think that behind all that there is something about ‘imagination’.

I’m a great fan of John Lennon – an honest hypocrite, if ever there was one. (I have written more fully about him in my book Finding Faith: Stories of Music and Life.) But, Imagine is a load of nonsense: ‘Imagine no possessions’ he wrote on an expensive grand piano in a mansion worth millions. But, this doesn’t mean that the song doesn’t tell some truth.

What Lennon recognised is that it is the imagination that makes us human. We aren’t made simply to accept the status quo or to live fatalistically in the world as it presents itself. Rather, we are made to imagine a different way of being – a better way of shaping the world and its ways.

Imagination is not the same thing as fantasy. Imagination can become fantasy – especially if it doesn’t lead to action in any way. But, imagination can transcend fantasy and shape the way we see who and how we are in the world as it is and as it might become. Imagination shapes vision.

Without imagination – as I put it this morning:

The Berlin Wall would still be up. Tunisians and Egyptians would stay at home and make the tea. The corrupt and the powerful would rule the roost, hoping to anaesthetise people into believing that nothing can ever change.

But human beings are made with imagination. In the creation narratives of Genesis God has a ball imagining everything into being. The Old Testament prophets beg people to wake up and dare to believe that the powerful empires are transient. The poets and musicians awaken and keep alive the echoes of another world – ringing in the memory and minds of oppressed and depressed people. Jesus dares people to live now as if heaven were already here.

Jesus was no fantasist. His invitation to us to imagine, then inhabit and create a world that reflects God’s self-giving character, has never been a form of cheap seduction. Rather, it led him and his friends to a cross. It radically challenged (and continues to challenge) a world that believes that only the powerful can change things – usually in the interests of their hanging on to power. The naked man standing before the might of the violent Roman Empire might look absurd, but he messed with their heads and changed the world for ever.

Of course, the biggest challenge lies not with those who don’t ‘get’ Jesus and the Kingdom of God. It lies with those who claim his name, but show no sign of having been grasped by his imagination.

The Egyptians are demanding their own exodus. But, at the heart of all the brutality and uncertainty and sacrifice and struggle lies a battle for the imagination.

It’s been a busy week and there hasn’t been much time for hitting the keys.

I even managed to miss the 30th anniversary of the killing of John Lennon. Not that I forgot,  but just didn’t have time to say anything about it or reflect on the ongoing significance of Lennon’s life and music. I was going to ask Chris Evans about it when I stood in at the last minute to do Pause for Thought on his Radio 2 breakfast show yesterday morning (Friday) – he once expressed to me the irony of John Lennon writing ‘Imagine no possessions’ at a massively expensive piano in a massively expensive house on a massively expensive estate. But, he had Rick Astley (who neither gave us up nor let us down) and the very funny Peter Kay in the studio and there wasn’t time.

On the way to the BBC studios I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through the streets around Oxford Circus because of the violence of the previous night’s riots and destruction over education cuts and increased university fees. But, the roads were clear and all evidence of trouble had been cleared away. Anyway, I got there, did the broadcast and then carried on in a cafe with a meeting about interfaith work in Kazakhstan. Weird, I know.

The script I did on Friday was about Advent: Putting the waiting back into wanting. I nicked the phrase from a major credit card advert from some years ago which promised to ‘take the waiting out of wanting’ (while failing to point out that the ensuing unnecessary debt might eventually be bad for you). Advent beckons us to slow down and not rush the story: don’t get to Christmas before you’ve worked through the story that makes sense of it. After all, you can’t get to summer without going through spring.

These are not actually random thoughts about the last week. Each event is connected by at least one idea: imagination.

  • John Lennon, for all his absurdities, hypocrisies and contradictions (for which he is not exactly unique…) at least imagined a world that was different from the one he lived in. Yes, some of this was more fantasy than hope, but his restlessness with how things actually are compelled him to imagine a different world.
  • It looks like the genuine anger and frustration of students is being hijacked by the usual ‘let’s-spark-a-riot’ suspects. But, it also seems that underneath all this protesting lies a genuine frustration with the way things are and the apparent impotence of ordinary people to do anything about it. Put bluntly, I wonder if the (unarticulated?) root of this anger is that the generation that created – and benefitted from – the disastrous greed culture of the last couple of decades is now compelling the succeeding generations to pay the price for this massive miscalculation. A case of ‘the sins of the fathers (and grandfathers) being visited on succeeding generations of the innocent? Dissatisfaction with the way things are provokes a casting around for what might be.

This longing for a different future seems to be fundamental to human existence. It’s almost as if we are made that way. Augustine recognised it when he said that ‘Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in [God]’. Maybe it is the same impulse that makes us pursue the scientific, philosophical or anthropological project – the restless search for understanding why the world is the way it is and why it came to be this way.

And this is where Advent comes in. Christmas is meaningless if it is just the pointless (if touching) story of a baby being born out of wedlock. Advent offers four weeks in which we can rehearse the story  – of people’s experience of God, the world and each other – which then make the Christmas events comprehensible and explicable. Four weeks in which we get to put the waiting (for God coming among us as one of us) back into wanting (the light we keep hoping, working and longing for).

We anticipate Christmas. But we won’t rush it. Because we need the time and space to allow our imagination to be re-shaped – beginning to see the way the world could be, the person I could become.

Imagination isn’t fantasy. Imagination is what some of us think God applied when he said, “Let it be” and smiled with pleasure at what emerged.

The white stuff came again in Langenargen today, but it couldn’t make up its mind whether to thicken into real snow or wimp its way into sleet. I think the sleet won.

I have been reflecting again on how my perception of people, events, places and ‘issues’ can be challenged by a new perspective. Yesterday I mentioned (again) Helmut Schmidt’s observation that politicians need ot be able to speak at least two foreign languages in order to be able to examine their own culture and assumptions from the perspective of an ‘outsider’. When you sit ‘inside’ another culture and look through its lenses (cultural, linguistic, philosophical, historical, political, etc.), you begin to relativise your own – or, at least, get them into some sort of proportion.

What is relatively crucial to one culture might be unimportant in another. Seeing it through the latter’s lens might leave me still thinking it is important, but at least I will have checked it out against the bigger picture of the world’s realities. For example, the state of the local scout hut might be a huge issue locally; but, in the light of the devastation in Haiti, it becomes a minor issue in the grand scheme of things.

This constant readjustment is vital in stopping us becoming obsessive about trivia. And it applies to more than just politics and scout huts.

I have just read Kenneth Bailey‘s excellent book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. I was first introduced to his writings 25 years ago when I read Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes. Bailey spent 40 years living among Middle Eastern people and tried to learn to read the Bible as it would be read through their eyes. After all, it is their book. He discovered that much of our western reading of (for example) the parables of Jesus is off the mark when put up against people who instinctively understand and ‘feel’ the cultural stuff underlying them.

The book is excellent and easy to read – with only a few bits that made me question his assumptions. It deserves a wide readership – especially among those who dare to preach this stuff. Its subtitle is Cultural Studies in the Gospels.

Reading this reminded me of an exercise John Bell (of the Iona Community) did with over 100 of my clergy about six years ago. I had become Bishop of Croydon and wanted to bring my clergy together for encouragement and fellowship. I wasn’t sure I was the person to do this, but asked John to do a ‘study day’ with us – at least I could make the thing happen. John agreed and led a stimulating, challenging and hugely encouraging day that sent many of us back to re-read our Bible afresh.

In the afternoon he handed out a white envelope to everyone. Each envelope had on it a letter: A, B, C or D. Before we were allowed to open the envelope John told four stories of characters in the Gospels: Mary at the wedding at Cana, the woman with the heamorrhage, the child Jesus ‘put among his disciples’, and one other (which age has removed from my memory).

Having told the stories, he then asked us to open our envelope and ask ourselves whether the person on the black & white postcard-photograph was what the character in the story might have looked like. There was a silence, followed by laughter. One person near me had a picture of a crabby-looking Middle Eastern woman in her fifties, with few teeth, but a determined look on her face. Another had a beautifully back-lit photo of a youngish woman in lingerie looking wistfully towards the camera.

The point was obvious. We bring to our reading of the Bible so many assumptions before we even get to the text. We grow up with images that colour our reading and (sometimes) prevent us properly understanding what the text is trying to say. For example:

  • Why do we see Mary as the perpetual 16 year-old, waif-like and dressed in lovely blue, when at the wedding in Cana she was clearly in her late forties or early fifties and had been widowed for a couple of decades or so?
  • Was the child a boy or a girl? Was he/she a clean-looking and well-clothed ten year-old or a scruffy three year-old urchin?
  • Why did I always assume that the woman who had been bleeding for almost a couple of decades was elderly and unattractive? Why couldn’t she have been young-ish and beautiful – sexy even?

My/our reading of these characters – and, therefore, the meanings we brought to the texts – had all been conditioned by unconsciously imbibed images and assumptions about them and what they were about. These ‘filtered’ images shape the way we read the text, think about their meaning, form our theology or reinforce our prejudices about what Jesus is all about.

This is why one of the Bible verses that really stands out and haunts me (as someone who takes the Bible with the utmost importance) is John 5.39:

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me…

In other words, those who think they stand closest to the Scriptures are in most danger of missing the point. It was true for the Pharisees and I think it remains true for me.