Last night Rory Butler did a lounge gig in my house. Around 20 of us knocked back the wine while listening to some wonderful guitar playing and great songs by the 22 year old Scot.

I have posted about him before – and can’t work out how to upload the video from my iPhone to this blog (yes, cos I am technologically challenged). So, here’s a link to the previous post; here’s a link to his website; and here’s a couple of badly lit photos of last night’s gig, followed by a YouTube clip recorded some time ago.

Rory Butler 1Rory Butler 2

If you like John Martyn, Nick Drake, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen (without the… er… ‘life experience’ in the voice), you’ll love Rory Butler.

If you fancy a lounge gig from him, contact him through his website. While you’re at it, tell him he needs to be on Twitter, too.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hn3L8GlTHHk

Here is a photo from last week of a young friend from Austria standing beside a road sign in Liverpool last week.

Penny Lane is famous the world over because the Beatles sang about it. But, when I was a kid, it was the place we went to the barber’s or the shops. The ordinary became the extraordinary. And, despite the Beatles tours, it still is a place ordinary people go to the bank, the barber’s, the shops… and engage in the stuff of ordinary life.

Why start with this? Partly because it formed the starting point for my book Finding Faith: Stories of music and life – in which I try to write about life and God and the world in ways ordinary people can understand. In other words, I am not writing for academics or people familiar with church. Secondly, however, is the reminder that there are two ways of addressing human questions: one is to start with God or the Bible or texts and go from them to our experience, the other is to start with human experience and then relate it to the other things. The former is OK for people already ‘in the club’, or who ‘speak the language’; the latter is where most people naturally start – with the experience they have, the questions they face, the life they live.

(In writing this I am reminded of my initial attempts as a vicar to write baptism preparation materials for our baptism preparation teams to use with the parents of those wanting their children baptised. The first materials failed – they began with biblical texts and were largely alien to those unfamiliar with them. I re-wrote them, with each session beginning with the experience of the parents, and then finding a biblical story or analogy that provided a vocabulary to express – or a framework in which to play around with – God, the world and us.)

Having watched the remarkable, soulful, poignant, funny, colourful, magnificent triumph that was last night’s Olympic Games Opening Ceremony (our Austrian friend was there), I turned to a book by Rosemary Lain-Priestley which she had kindly sent me, and which is called Does My Soul Look Big in This? I have a problem with books that look as if they will indulge in introspective narcissism and the title and cover didn’t encourage me. The reality was different.

Rosemary Lain-Priestley is a well-known broadcaster and writer, and I know her as a trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust which I currently chair. She begins where people are, uses her own experience as a springboard for ruminations on spiritual development that is rooted in the real stuff of life, relationships and society. Taking the whole person seriously, she muses around the things of life that make or break us, that build or demolish us. She starts with real human experiences, real questions, then digs down a bit and rummages around what is thrown up. She draws on biblical (and other) stories to illustrate or amplify, often bringing to life images that had become over-familiar.

En route she quotes from people like Richard Rohr, Andrew Rumsey, Purple Ronnie and others. She considers what feeds the soul when we endure or enjoy experiences such as change, loneliness, depression, pilgrimage, joy, connectedness and gift. It brought to my mind people such as Mike Riddell and evoked Leonard Cohen’s “there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”. Like Danny Boyle’s Olympic representation of Britain, it is self-deprecating and humane throughout.

Written by a woman, most illustrations are self-consciously female. But, as a bloke, it is always vital to be compelled (or invited) to look through the lens of someone ‘not like me’. The Church of England gets a kicking I would want to argue with, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I would commend the book to anyone – it offers a recognition of common experience and invitingly suggests a way of living in and from that experience.

Last week I interviewed fourteen ordinands prior to their ordination as priest (yesterday evening) or deacon (this morning) in Bradford Cathedral. Since Thursday they have been on retreat at the gorgeous Parcevall Hall.

One of the questions I asked them (apart from: “Why should we ordain you?”) was how they might summarise the gospel – or the biblical story – in a single sentence. It wasn't easy. But, I still remain convinced that if the church and its ministers are to communicate into a sound bite and visual culture, we must work harder at the words we use – especially when put on the spot by people who have no idea about Christian faith (even if they think they do).

One good one came after some discussion and is the sort of line that opens up, rather than shutting down, further inquisition: “You can't pin God down… but we did nail him.”

I still come back to something I once said on the radio when unexpectedly asked what was the point of the church. I simply blagged: “The job of the church is to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God.”

I am open to other creative suggestions! But the point is that we need to work hard at finding and shaping language, then using it repeatedly to see how it works and if it resonates.

In similar vein, I was watching a DVD of a film about the great Leonard Cohen – my daughter and son-in-law gave it to me recently. Towards the end Cohen said with a smile: “For many years I was known as a monk. I shaved my head and wore robes and got up very early. I hated everyone, but I acted generously and no one found me out.”

Discuss.

 

This is the text of the Radio Times article which caused a bit of irritated response in some quarters. It will be obvious that it is not critical of the BBC, but congratulatory and ‘encouraging’ of how things might develop constructively.

A couple of years ago, before X-Factor ‘popularised’ it, I contributed to a BBC Radio 2 documentary celebrating the 25th anniversary of Leonard Cohen’s great song Hallelujah. Covered by more than 120 artists, Cohen the Perfectionist ended up writing and re-writing around 80 verses or versions. The lyric, full of biblical allusions, breathes some human realism into a word that would normally be seen as purely religious (and, therefore, rather suspect).

During an interview with Guy Garvey, singer-songwriter with Elbow and presenter of the documentary, he put it to me that “Cohen had hijacked religious language”. “No,” I replied, “Cohen has understood it.” By this I meant that Cohen had liberated the word from some assumed compartment called ‘religion’ and given it back to real people living in the real world and with real stories to tell. The song speaks of the ‘holy and the broken hallelujah’ – a phrase that encapsulates the torn nature of human beings who long to be ‘holy’ but usually manage just to be ‘broken’. Cohen’s point is that God is not surprised by this.

Leonard Cohen refused to allow ‘religion’ to be stuck in a compartment from which everybody else is spared any engagement. Religion and its place in the public discourse are much misunderstood.

Mention ‘religious broadcasting’ in polite company and you might well be faced with finding someone else to talk to. Either that or it’s assumed you’re really wanting more Songs of Praise on the television to keep the Christians (who haven’t gone to church) happy.

Yet, this isn’t the case. Religious broadcasting simply takes seriously the indisputable fact that religion is a phenomenon that has to be acknowledged and understood, if we are to understand the world in which we live. This doesn’t presuppose a religious commitment, conviction, practice or adherence any more than doing a programme about Marxism demands that only Marxists produce it.

The BBC’s Easter programming looks increasingly imaginative, finding creative and engaging ways of telling the Easter story, questioning the implications of the Easter story, capturing the experience of Christians celebrating the Easter story. The Preston Passion follows on from the superb Manchester Passion of several years ago, taking Easter out of the church and onto the streets. This enables everyone to be part of it and be confronted by it. A bit like… er… the original Easter events.

However, go beyond the BBC (and the odd bit of Channel 4) and religion has been dropped as if it were a toxic contaminator of decent culture. This ideological knee-jerk sees religion as an embarrassing problem (for which there is obviously no audience) rather than part of a solution (one lens through which to tell stories and understand people, their lives and motivations). ITV sees no need to consider religion – despite the fact that more people shape their lives around religious conviction and practice than attend sporting events. Now look at the relative budgets given to sport and religion…

The point here is not that religion should be privileged or protected. It is not to argue that religious propaganda should find space in the schedules of broadcasters. But it is to maintain that we can’t understand people, events and the way the world is if we don’t take religion seriously.

The BBC has a sports editor, an economics editor, a political editor and editors for other areas of life. It has no religion editor. Yet, if an economics editor is needed to help explain and interpret economic decisions and events in order that the public should be responsible citizens in our democracy, why on earth isn’t there someone to explain, interpret and communicate the phenomenon of religion as it influences people, colours political and economic decisions, questions values and shapes both individual and corporate behaviour?

There are two issues here. First, how does the BBC fulfil its public service remit by challenging the ridiculous assumption that the ‘non-religious’ world view is neutral? Second, how do other broadcasters get beyond their own prejudices and see religion as an indispensable lens through which to see and understand the world?

There are some shining examples – despite the problems of encouraging imaginative commissioning – of good religious broadcasting. Some are on the Sandford St Martin Trust Radio Times Readers Award shortlist: the humanising Rev, the powerfully questioning Forgiveness, the affecting re-telling of the Life of Mohammed, to name but three. But, the need is for a change in assumption and perception of religion as phenomenon, motivator and shaper of human stories.

Good media need good stories. Religion is not primarily about mere ideas; it is about people, communities and the stuff of human existence. It is rich, ripe and fertile soil.

Several years ago I was at the Royal Albert Hall for the annual Jools Holland gig. Support acts are sometimes a bit hit and miss, but that year it was stunning.

I’d never heard of Imelda May, and this was her first performance on the big stage. From the moment she walked on she had the audience of 7,500 people eating out of her hand. Not only was the music fantastic and her voice immense, but she commanded the stage with a charisma that, I think, took everybody by surprise. It’s not every support act that you want to keep going at the expense of the main act, but in this case she could have done another hour.

I’ve just (finally, and after meaning to do it for a year) got her album Mayhem. It is superb. The songwriting ranges through love and loss to eternity and sadness via a psycho and a prayer. Even a waltz finds its way through the energetic rockabilly and her voice is perfect. But, what struck me (as it would) is the insight you get from one song into spirituality. Proud and humble is a prayer, a confession, one that stands in its simplicity with the openness of a Leonard Cohen. Here’s a stripped down studio version of it:

Like Cohen, she holds together the honest reality of human living in which we try to be godly, but get it wrong a million times. It’s Cohen’s ‘holy and broken hallelujah’ – the two held together in a confusing life that drives us through passion and prayer to some sort of muddle. But, again like Cohen, she doesn’t make excuses for ‘living’ and all that’s involved in milking life’s opportunities for love and laughter – even when they lead to pain and tears.

Oh, I made the most from what I knew then / But if I lived it over I’d do the same again / I try, I try for You to please / But you know I’m only human, You created me.

She recognises humility at failed attempts to be holy, but can look God in the eye and say, “But, at least I lived.” There’s something here about the parable of the talents in which the guys who risked losing their deposits got praised and the one who buried his in order to protect it from harm got damned. The song concludes:

Well I’m humbled by You and thankful oh Lord / Istudied Your life and Your holy word / But I hold my head just a little high / ‘Cos I’m proud that I got on with this given life.

That’s not arrogance; that’s honesty. Life is for living. And Imelda may have understood it better than some of us.

Whatever. The whole album is brilliant. Not one weak song. And Marc Almond’s Tainted Love is painted in fresh colours while Johnny got a Boom Boom just makes you want to dance.

All around the world is going mad. Regimes we have armed, funded and cosied up to are now being threatened with war crimes trials. The victors always implement the ‘justice’ and write the histories. So far, anyway. And the prophets warn that justice will one day be done.

Not for the first time, the epic lines of Leonard Cohen penetrate the fog of misery. Having growled his way through the list of drugs he had taken over the years, he concluded with a mischievous light in his eyes:

I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies and religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through… There ain’t no cure for love.

Like Cohen’s ‘cheerfulness’, beauty has a habit of breaking in when the darkness and ugliness of human cruelties seem to dominate our consciousness. Today, for me, it has come through two wonderful albums.

I once wrote of 19 year old Alexandra Burke‘s X Factor version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah that such a young person can’t possibly sing such a song. The depth of experience beneath the lyric and the haunting loveliness of the music demand the lived-in voice of someone more mature – someone who has lived and lost and loved and longed and languished. (Sorry!) I got heavily criticised for voicing such a heresy – mainly by 19 year olds. But today I have listened properly to Adele‘s 21.

Like with all the great poets, it is the agonies and losses that seem to produce the most beautiful art. Her acoustic performance at the Brits showed how exposed a musician can be – nowhere to hide and all the intimacy laid bare for all to see. I don’t know how she does it. But this stripped-back perfomance of one of her most moving songs just gives a hint of what lies in the rest of the album. And when you have listened to this, try Don’t You Remember.

The second album is categorised as ‘folk’, but it is more than that. Again, the lyrics are infused with the yearning for love and the pain of loss. Yet, they also reach out for the idea of ‘grace’. Like Leonard Cohen’s grasp of ‘true religion and virtue’ (Book of Common Prayer) – when he sings in Hallelujah:

Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…

Mumford & Sons depict the reality of life for most people who live and love and mess it up a million times, yet long for redemption – for the freedom to start again. They touch on the difficulty of being grasped by the notion of grace despite not being able to comprehend its scandalous generosity – a generosity that transcends even justice.

In the title track Sigh No More we hear (with a confident and defiant accompaniment):

My heart was never pure
And you know me
And man is a giddy thing
Oh man is a giddy thing
Love it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you,
It will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be.
There is a design, an alignment, a cry,
Of my heart to see
The beauty of love as it was made to be.

Later, in Roll Away Your Stone (with its obvious biblical associations), we hear:

Roll away your stone, I’ll roll away mine
Together we can see what we will find
Don’t leave me alone at this time
For I’m afraid of what I will discover inside

‘Cause you told me that I would find a hole
Within the fragile substance of my soul
And I have filled this void with things unreal
And all the while my character it steals

Darkness is a harsh term don’t you think
Yet it dominates the things I see

It seems that all my bridges have been burned
But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart
But the welcome I receive with the restart

This beautiful album shows that – again, in Leonard Cohen’s words – the cracks are where the light gets in. The well-armoured or self-righteous person is ignorant of grace; the cracks are covered up for fear and nothing will break in – not love, not light and not grace.

Adele and Mumford & Sons open the gaps in the darkness and let the shafts of unmerited beauty drift in.

There hasn’t been much time this week for posting. The return from Wittenberg landed me with a pile of work and appointments – all good and all encouraging in one way or another.

Apart from the total and unmitigated misery of Liverpool’s abysmal performance against Northampton Town – which silenced me for a couple of days simply because I couldn’t bear the mockery from my ‘friends’ – I have met great clergy, helped judge an interfaith award, read an excellent book and got up to date with correspondence of all forms.

However, I missed the 76th birthday of the great Leonard Cohen. How sad is that? If you follow the link, you get to a site from which you can download the Radio 2 documentary (in which I took part) on the 25th anniversary of Cohen’s song Hallelujah.

And my quote of the week? Terry Eagleton writing in the Preface to his wonderful and funny Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (which I will post on more fully when I get time):

Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology. I therefore have a good deal of sympathy with its rationalist and humanist critics. But it is also the case… that most such critics buy their rejection of religion on the cheap. When it comes to the New Testament, at least, what they usually write off is a worthless caricature of the real thing, rooted in a degree of ignorance and prejudice to match religion’s own. It is as though one were to dismiss feminism on the basis of Clint Eastwood’s opinion of it.

Eagleton goes on to challenge Dawkins, Hitchens et al, but is also profoundly challenging to the Christian churches. The language he uses is very funny as he penetrates through the superficialities of much of the contemporary debate. More anon.