I didn’t want to see news pictures of a soldier being murdered in Woolwich this week. I didn’t want to see film of violent brutality and, whilst being aware of the dilemma for news organisations and the moral questions about ‘facing reality’, was not sure that the coverage should have been so graphic. Try seeing it through the eyes of his family. It feels voyeuristic.

That said, however, while trying to flip over one photo in a newspaper, I noticed the road sign close to where the soldier’s body lay. It said: ‘signals timing changed’. Despite it referring to the traffic lights, it seemed perversely apposite.

Much of the reporting of this appalling crime rests on iconic images and language. This is what makes it so powerful: it creates associations in the mind of the viewer, not all of which might be healthy. Debate continues to rage over the radicalisation of young Muslim men in England – and a study of media articles between 2000-08 found only 2% framed Muslims positively. Just as newspapers’ use of ‘invasion’ to describe the arrival of around 150,000 Germans in London for last night’s Champions League Final between Germany and Bayern Munich (that’s a little joke for the Germans), so do images of and language about Muslims shape the way we see them.

Yes, the Muslim communities in England face some challenges – including addressing the poisonous rhetoric of some powerful preachers. But, they will not be helped by the perpetuation of purely negative associations.

I was at the Meissen Delegation Visit in Leicester this last few days. This brought a group of German bishops and church leaders to engage with us on how we do interfaith work in a multicultural city like Leicester. (Curiously, the English delegation, which I did not choose, served up three bishops – Bradford, Woolwich and Pontefract – who all served their time in the Diocese of Leicester.) Events in Woolwich, coupled with the long-planned visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Meissen group, brought a brutal relevance to our discussions and debates. In our discussions with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, we found no ducking the hard questions, no hiding behind a victim mentality, and only a little hiding the particular behind the general. We met openness and generosity.

This has been playing on my mind while waiting for flights today. I read a piece in the Wall Street Journal about the SPD (German Socialist opposition party) celebrating its 150th anniversary in Leipzig last Thursday in the surprising presence of Angela Merkel. The party is struggling ahead of the forthcoming general election in September this year and the commentators suggest that the problem lies in the lack of a clear alternative narrative for Germany’s future in the light of the current economic and fiscal challenges across Europe. So, they look to the past – and it’s reassuring glories – in the absence of a vision that might drive them into creating a different future.

The SPD is not alone in this. It sometimes feels as if Europe is paralysed. The sterile and increasingly febrile debate about Europe in the UK offers no escape. If Europe needs a new narrative – one that relies less on the dynamics derived from twentieth century wars and seeks to create a new narrative that will fire up a new generation of people who see something worth building – then so does England. Muddling through crisis after crisis, reacting to the stimulus provided by a cacophony of voices, lurching between ideological intuitions, making statements about terrorism and ‘our way of life’ – none of this can replace the need for leadership that knows who we are, what we are about and where we are going. As Jeremy Paxman once pointed out in his book The English, we don’t know who we are and, so, cannot know who we want to become.

Reactions to Lee Rigby’s murder have demonstrated again that we have no guiding narrative any longer. As Philip Blond argued on BBC Radio 4 this morning, a culture that obsesses about rights without a fundamental (I use the word advisedly) or radical (again, I use the word advisedly) anthropology that knows why it thinks people matter will simply end up as a victim to the loudest or most powerful ideological competitor. It is the lack of such an anthropology that is the problem.

To cut a long argument short, England’s Christian amnesia has left us with just this problem. The church has not helped promote the memory (partly by complaining about all the wrong things), but it will not have to go far to recover its basic driving narrative and hold it out as one worth recovering for the future. Why? Because at least we know why people matter, why morality matters, why loving your neighbour is not a mere option for the romantic, why losing your life is the only way to gain it, why the common good is worth serving, why “no man is an island, entire of itself”, and why failure is not the end.

The signals timing keeps changing. I think we need to pay attention to how it is changing and what it is saying.

It’s uncomfortable reading about (and watching) the riots in England from a distance. It feels wrong to be away when such violation is going on – especially when the violence of a relative few is damaging the lives of the many for a generation.

It’s also unsurprising to hear the riots being used to justify contradictory ways of ‘reading’ the world: blame Coalition cuts, the bankers, liberal spinelessness, right-wing ‘oppression’ of the poor, feminism, social inequalities, unemployment, poor education, wrong education, socialism, the Smurfs… There seems to be a justification for every ‘ism’.

Whenever we read a text we do so through the lens of our contemporary experience. On holiday (having already disposed of one novel) I have just started reading a section each day from a book I picked up at the Kirchentag in Dresden in May this year: Schöne Aussichten- Einlassungen auf biblische Texte, by Dr Fulbert Steffensky.

In his introduction Steffensky describes two ‘imprisonments’ from which people need to be released: (a) the tyranny of the text that authoritatively and self-evidently controls our understanding and experience of the world, regardless of the reality of our experience; and (b) the tyranny of ‘one’s own heart’, the textless individualism that rejects the need for a narrative, a group, a language that opens us up to the world. Both are dehumanising and both wreak havoc with people’s lives.

Steffensky goes on to suggest that ‘texts’ or ‘narratives’ are vital for individuals and groups. That is to say, we all need something beyond our own individual experience and emotion that opens us up to (or confronts us with) a wider, bigger, stranger world that goes beyond our immediate subjectivism. The lack of such a narrative creates people who are rootless and meaningless, casting around to create meaning out of self-interest.

Christians are incorporated into a narrative that is both God’s and ours: “This is his story, this is our song” as the Eucharistic prayer has it. We live in and into the story of God’s generosity we read about in the biblical text – the point being that God’s people should increasingly reflect the nature of the God who gives himself for the world. Hence the injunction by Paul to ‘imitate Christ’.

Other groups and societies have taken other narratives and tried to live within and from them: for example, Communists, existentialists, anarchists, secularists, etc. The point is that we all need some narrative or other which gives a language for and a meaningful shape to our individual and collective lives.

Which brings me to the question through which I am reading Steffensky’s book: which narrative(s) are driving the people now rioting in England? To what stories or accounts of the world do they consciously or unconsciously appeal when burning cars or looting shops? Or do they not have one that transcends the purely functional one of power, narcissism or ‘respect’ – the questioning of which may justify any form of bad behaviour?

We can blame the churches for failing to establish the Christian narrative in our younger people, if we wish, but that won’t offer a solution. Churches cannot compel people to ‘come in’ or ‘own’ a story that is regularly dismissed in public as either irrelevant or embarrassing (usually by people who have never really encountered it). We can blame schools or the media or the shameless individualism of Margaret Thatcher, but none of that will help us repair the damage. Whatever we decide to throw at other people, the urgent need is to discover which narratives dominate and motivate our young people… and then learn to find a language with which to offer a better alternative.

It is no good to condemn what has gone wrong unless we can offer a realistic alternative that makes sense of the world, of our own experience, and links us to a greater community of human lives. Whichever narrative this might be, it will require (in Steffensky’s terms) a text that takes us beyond ourselves. In short, I believe (along with Steffensky) that we need to recover the Bible – not as an incontrovertible text of rules for keeping God happy and us in our place, but as a text to be taken seriously for intellectual curiosity, engagement, argument, imagination, poetic resonance, prophetic power: to offer a narrative in an against which the world might best be understood and lived.

And it needs to have big room for failure.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Philadelphia, USA

I was out this morning doing a Confirmation Service at St John, Shirley, and will be out again this evening at a village called Woodmansterne. The Gospel reading for the day is the latter part of John 2 and I tried in the sermon to explain how John’s Gospel works. I did so by explaining how, when you think you’ve got God and the Bible in your grasp, they have a knack of slicing through your defences like Gerrard past Vidic. Just when you think everything is settled, something gets lobbed over your head… as Van der Sar found out when Dossena volleyed neatly into the net for Liverpool’s fourth goal against Manchester United yesterday. And sometimes, even when you know you’ve been found out, you still hold to your original thesis (like Alex Ferguson calling his guys ‘the better team’ after a 4-1 home defeat to the team you resent most) because letting go of it would simply be too threatening.

5757510GYI0000531890.jpgIn his book Flat Earth News Nick Davies writes about a study of how reporters tried to cover a story of prisoner abuse in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo. They could not get it published for eighteen months until pictures emerged from Abu Ghraib. The primary story related to some research following up an official announcement that a prisoner had died in custody because he had a weak heart. His death certificate, once tracked down, gave his cause of death as ‘homicide’. The story was filed in February 2003, ‘but the New York Times would not run it.’

No one seems quite sure why the story couldn’t get printed, but Davies comments that ‘the most senior people on the paper insisted that it was improbable’ – that ‘the story didn’t fit the running narrative of the US as a force for good’ (p. 148). In other words, the mental wallpaper of the people in charge did not have a pattern for this possibility, so it got filtered out. If the fact didn’t fit the worldview, it was the fact that had to change (or, at least, get parked out of view for a while).

I think this is what happens to us when we read the Bible – especially when we take it with the utmost seriousness and see it as ‘God’s Word’. We read the particular texts through a particular hermeneutical filter and then try to make sense of all the pieces insofar as they fit into that framework. The problem, however, is that the frameworks never quite work and we find ourselves ‘blanking’ the bits that don’t fit the picture we have been given. We can’t let God be horrible in the same way that Ferguson can’t let Liverpool be a better team than his.

the-holy-bibleThis is where the dominant narrative (or metanarrative) comes in. In my view (and I put this forward for argument) the ‘big picture’ needs to be kept open and big and under scrutiny. That’s why a credo such as that by David Jenkins is helpful in keeping the broad framework simple enough for the complicated stuff to fit it: ‘God is. God is as he is in Jesus. So, there is hope.’ Defending at all costs the filter through which I read the text is an action based on fear: fear that if one card is removed, the whole building will collapse. I think we should lose the fear and trust in the God the Bible speaks about – whose presence is to be seen ultimately on a cross.

I realise this also is too brief and the bald statements are open to argument. But, unless we are prepared to risk our ‘reading’ of Scripture by looking at it from other perspectives, it will always be a closed book of static dogmas based on stories that (unlike every other story in the world) allow for only a single interpretation or narration.

Which brings me back to the assertion that if God has indeed chosen to speak through texts, he must have known how texts work and intended for us to explore them accordingly. That’s what makes reading the Bible such an unendingly fascinating and challenging task: there is always the possibility of learning something new that subverts what I had previously thought was fixed. It is one’s openness to that possibility that makes reading the Bible something to be commended.