The second book I have just read (see here for the first) from the imaginative Princeton University Press series Lives of Great Religious Books is John J. Collins’ The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography. Great stuff, again.

I have waited for a straightforward book about the Scrolls that not only introduced the contents and told the story, but opened up their implications and described the – often bizarre – academic controversies that have arisen around them. This book does it.

I haven’t the time or ability to deal with detailed academic scrutiny, important though that clearly is. I need something that gives me the big picture.

Towards the end of the book Collins concludes:

Despite sensationalist claims, [the Scrolls] are not Christian, and do not witness directly to Jesus of Nazareth and his followers. Nonetheless, they illuminate the context in which Jesus lived, and in which earliest Christianity took shape. (P.240)

Other works that do a similar job are (depending on whether you like film or book) Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Gerd Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilaean.

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OK, Europe is on tenterhooks regarding the future of the Greek economy as its (and other countries’) fate appears to sit in the pockets of the Germans. And then – can you believe it – Germany get Greece in the Euro 2012 quarter finals this evening.

Perhaps they should simply reprise the epic game between the two countries thirty-odd years ago. Here it is:

Not much time for blogging during a full London week. The General Synod kept me occupied during the day, other meetings (usually over a meal) in the evenings. The one morning I thought I could get some space I discovered I had agreed a breakfast meeting.

Leaving aside the fact that some media reporting of the women bishops business was bizarre (making the point that the Synod had ‘postponed’ making a decision until July – implying that the Synod was indecisive, procrastinating and deliberately spineless – when it was stated time and again in speech after speech that this debate would simply advise the House of Bishops prior to the bringing of the main debate in July), there wasn’t a huge amount to stimulate the imagination or fire the journalist’s critical faculties. We are against assisted dying, concerned about planned reform of he House of Lords, for the NHS and conflicted over fee levels for weddings and funerals – none of which evidences a shocking volte face.

So, the two things that are swimming around my own imagination as I ride the train back up north are tangential to the Synod’s preoccupations, but pertinent to what is going on elsewhere in the wider world.

First, reading coverage of Times editor James Harding‘s evidence at his second appearance before the Leveson Inquiry recalled to mind a conversation I had with a journalist recently. Discussing the impact of the phone hacking scandal on the nature and quality of journalism in the UK, the journalist expressed huge relief that at last the editors are in the firing line, unable to hide behind the frontline reporters. We have had a generation of newspaper editors demanding more and more – clearly sometimes exploiting both unjustifiably intrusive and actually criminal means of getting a story – from journalists who owed their jobs and future career to these tyrants. But, now it is the ‘generals’ in the dock and not just the troops in the trenches.

I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms – that many frontline reporters would be glad to see the exposure before Leveson of practices that are immoral and indefensible and that bring their profession into disrepute. The hope, as expressed to me, was that good, committed, intelligent and moral journalists would in future be able to work better and less fearfully for editors who now know they are likely to be held accountable. It might actually make journalism a better job and enable journalists to do better journalism.

The second thing on my mind comes from somewhere completely different, but involves another recent conversation. I was walking back from the BBC (where I had just done Pause for Thought on the excellent and never boring Chris Evans Show) to Church House, Westminster, and thinking about the Church’s apparent discomfort with popular culture (“We are more Radio 4 than Radio 2, bishop…”).

It occurred to me that Jesus went straight for popular culture in the villages and towns of Galilee. So, what do I think about the recently publicised ‘search for Jesus’, as in Andrew Lloyd-Webber‘s hunt for a singer to lead a stadium tour of Jesus Christ Superstar?

This has been called ‘tacky’ by some and ‘inappropriate’ by others. Inevitably it has led to screams of protest by the usual suspects (who have a loud voice, but little credibility) for whom any reference to Jesus has to be holy and disincarnate. But, I think the whole thing is pregnant with possibility.

Jesus used story and image to get into people’s imagination and tease them with a vision of how things could be in his ‘kingdom’. Like what the Germans call an ear-worm (Ohrwurm), these stories work their way into our head, re-shaping the lens behind our eyes through which we see God, the world and us. Far stronger than issuing statements with which we either agree or disagree.

In fact, the Archbishop of Canterbury picked up on a similar notion in a speech last night in London when he called for both the Church and the City to recover a moral imagination as we strive to reconnect finance and business with the moral ends to which they are the means (the common good). Imagination is not fantasy – imagination involves the power to conceive of something that isn’t yet apparent, but which might be gradually shaped.

Anyway, the ‘search for Jesus’, rather than being tacky or inappropriate, raises all sorts of really interesting questions. For example, the point of the gospels is that the reader is supposed to be shocked and surprised by (a) who Jesus is – and isn’t, and (b) who it was who received – or couldn’t receive – his invitation to look and see and think and live differently – discovering that grace is about God’s generosity and not our merit. So:

  • what sort of Jesus will be sought for this show?
  • will he be like the Mark Wallinger statue on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, simply human and vulnerable to what the world can throw at him, or a macho man? A wimp in a white nightie or an insensitive male chauvinist? A political revolutionary or a hapless victim?
  • how do you portray the sheer charisma that gets a bizarre collection of twelve people (with loads of other followers) to live a dream followed by a nightmare followed by a fraught life of new living that leads them all to an early death… and to change the world for ever?

I am intrigued to see how we make the connection between the stage Jesus of the musical and the one we read about in the gospels and experience in our life and worship. After all, ‘popular culture’ involves ‘people where they are’. Call me common, but I am curious about what this latest search for a star might hold in terms of potential for conversation, debate, imagination, questioning and exploration – all in a medium that will engage more people than sit in all our churches put together each week.

En route we might even take a sideways look at how Jesus has been portrayed in film and theatre: Pasolini’s The Gospel of St Matthew, Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal, Monty Python’s Life of Brian (which, as the title suggests, is primarily about Brian and not Jesus…), Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ.

Count me in. My imagination has been awoken.

One of the more amusing elements to have come out of the last week’s ridiculous media frenzy about Christmas carols is the dawning realisation that I have a typing problem. Those who have commented in the media on press reports about my book Why Wish You a Merry Christmas? clearly have either a credulity problem or a literacy problem. But mine is a typo problem.

For some reason, every time I type the word ‘bishop’ it turns out as ‘bihsop’. ‘Which’ comes out invariably as ‘whihc’. But the best by far is that ‘brain’ keeps coming out as ‘brian’. During the last week or so I have repeatedly used the phrase ‘engage your brain’ (verbally and in writing) and only later realised that I have actually invited people in writing to ‘engage their brian’.

What on earth can this mean?

Last week I contributed to a BBC Radio 2 documentary celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Perhaps there is something deep down within my psyche that wants to identify with the misunderstood bloke who ends up being crucified despite proclaiming he is not who everyone thinks he is. In fact, the programme took as its title the wonderful line spoken by Terry Jones as Brian’s mother in the film: ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!’

So, what might it mean to ‘engage your (inner) Brian’?

It might mean:

  • telling the truth even though nobody wants to listen
  • seeing the Romans miss the point (correcting the grammar of your graffiti while ignoring the content of it)
  • belonging to fractious parties and learning that it has always been thus when human beings try to work together
  • learning that your mother was right…

I’m sure others could add more imaginatively to this, but I just thought it was funny.

We live in interesting times. While debates continue to rage about whose human rights trump those of others, it emerges that huge wads of money are currently being spent on religious films – or, more specifically, on films about Muhammad. One new biopic – by the Oscar-winning producer Barrie Osborne – has been budgeted to cost around $150m (£91.5m). (Another film is the planned re-make of  the controversial 1976 The Message – to be entitled The Messenger of Peace.)

Passion of the Christ posterApparently, Ahmed Abdullah Al-Mustafa (chairman of Qatar-based production company Al Noor Holdings) spotted what Mel Gibson ‘achieved’ with his Passion of the Christ and decided it was time to do something similar with the prophet of Islam. According to an article in the Guardian, he said:

The film will shed light on the Prophet’s life since before his birth to his death… It will highlight the humanity of Prophet Muhammad.

And, according to the producer Barrie Osborne (Matrix, Lord of the Rings, etc.), the film will be “an international epic production aimed at bridging cultures. The film will educate people about the true meaning of Islam”.

Of course the interesting thing about this is that the story of Muhammad will be told without actually showing the prophet himself – in accordance with Islamic law. So, any comparison with Gibson’s Passion of the Christ ends right there. I still haven’t seen Gibson’s bloody epic – partly because I don’t like watching violence and also because I hated the way many Christians who would normally oppose violence in the cinema excused this one because of the subject.

It will be interesting to see (a) how Osborne’s film, particularly, will handle the person of Muhammad without showing him and (b) how interested people will be in seeing it: after all, most people think they already know everything about Jesus (wrongly), but might be intrigued to have their ignorance of Muhammad corrected without having to read the Qur’an. It will also be interesting to see just how brave the critics are when it comes to pouring their scorn on the subject-matter – as they happily do with anything Christian.

Life of Brian posterBut, there is a sort of parallel in the Christian world. I often offer congregations two options for understanding the society and context in which Jesus lived and died (and was raised): Monty Python’s Life of Brian or Gerd Theissen’s Shadow of the Galilaean. The former is a film, the latter is a book by a German academic theologian who writes for ordinary people like me. (I was asked by a BBC interviewer recently whether I thought the Life of Brian was blasphemous and offensive; I responded that the clue is in the title and that the name is the give-away.)

Theissen tells the story of Jesus without ever bringing Jesus himself into the picture. We learn about Jesus from the impact he has on the people around him. It is a brilliant, evocative, challenging and moving book – and allows Theissen to play some games with academic approaches to biblical texts along the way.

Shadow of the Galilean coverIn the end the credibility of the Christian community depends on the extent to which that community resembles the person whose shadow falls across the real world – and Muslims might like to be the judges of that. Equally, the Muslim community only has credibility insofar as it reflects the person of Muhammad – and maybe Christians should be the judges of that. It is only from the outside that any community can be truly judged – ‘insiders’ rarely know what it feels like to be ‘outside’ the camp.

So, if Muslims are perceived as aggressive and violent, it will not be surprising if we assume Muhammad to have been aggressive and violent. And if Christians are perceived as thin-skinned wets, then it should not come as a surprise if Jesus is thought by ‘outsiders’ to have been a thin-skinned wet. But, perhaps if humility is allowed space in both communities, each might learn to regard the other through fresh eyes – generously allowing their own faith and the other to be judged by their best examples and not their worst.

Maybe the films might help?