I know. I nicked the title from the late great Terry Pratchett. But, I also used it in the book I published last year for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany: Freedom is Coming. The phrase just summed up a chunk of what lies behind the musings of that great prophet of the eighth century BC, Isaiah. People, he suggests, have such small ambitions – they serve such small gods.

You have to read the text to get the point, but, basically, the story goes like this. The people know themselves to be God’s people, called to a particular vocation in the world. The problem is, that – just as they had been warned before they entered the land of promise – when things go well for us, we forget who we are and where we have come from. In the case of the Israelites, they forgot that once they had been slaves and that they had begun with nothing to their name. And now they thought the world belonged to them.

The prophets – who clearly knew their history, politics and economics three thousand years ago – saw through this. They also saw where this sort of living would inevitably lead. Injustice has a way of catching itself by the tail; inequalities sow the seeds of inequities, and this leads to conflict. A society in which particular people see their life’s work as holding onto power and accumulating stuff eventually find that it is all a bit disappointing. It is not what human beings are made for … even when we try hard to convince ourselves that it matters.

So, Isaiah mocks the small gods, the tribal deities, the idols made of wood and stone. He asks why the creator of the cosmos is ditched in favour of a bit of fluff. And the question that this framing of experience, from so long ago, hangs over us today is this: why do we settle for ‘death by entertainment’ (just look at what’s on telly) or anaesthetising by endless activity when a bit of space might just open up new possibilities? Isaiah is clear that the God who brings order out of chaos, but never exempts even himself from all the world can throw at him, made us for more than this.

The relevance to now is simple. I don’t know about you, but having to spend every day in the house would not have sounded like my idea of fun a week ago. But, now, thrust upon us by the worst of circumstances, the forced isolation could become an opportunity – to not run away from the challenge to live with the exile, the emptiness, but to stick with it, live through it, and contemplate what my life is for.

Isaiah suddenly seems to sound very contemporary. His questions are for every age, not just his in Babylon. On the other hand, I could just watch telly and keep my horizons close, my ambitions manageable, my gods small.

I was struck bythe great Sir Terry Pratchett‘s comment in today’s Guardian when speaking of the impact of Alzheimer’s on his sense of self:

I think I’m open to moments of joy… But then I think it’s also made me more… cynical.

The debilitation of such a creative and generous person as Pratchett is a tragedy equalled only by the dignity and eloquence with which he is handling it. He wouldn’t thank me for it, but I thank God for him and his huge creative output – even though I disagree with his views on assisted suicide.

However, I did also think that most of us combine joy with cynicism in one way or another. That’s how most of us experience life: bursts of joy at moments of light and the disbelieving protection against disappointment that cynicism – born of experience – shadows over us. It reminds me of Bret Easton-Ellis’s sad observation quoted in Guardian G2 on 26 July 2010:

Pain’s interesting. Depravity’s interesting. All of my books come from pain. What’s ever been interesting about joy?

Well, actually, most people would settle for joy – however uninteresting for Bret Easton-Ellis – over misery. Terry Eagleton recently mocked ‘exciting’ perceptions of evil, claiming that evil is usually banal, boring and lifeless. Joy is what fires the imagination, engenders hope and shines new light on what had previously looked ordinary.

Here in Hannover I was wondering what this might look like in a community rather than as an individual experience or an abstract concept. Unexpectedly, I caught a glimpse of an answer in a very unusual church.

My friend Silke collected me from the airport and drove me to my hotel. She then took me to visit a church on the site of the Expo 2000 on the outskirts of Hannover. This church was built to last the year of Expo and is shaped like a whale. It is known as the Expowal. Run by the Landesverein für Innere Mission, it is an exploratory community of Christians who want to offer a new way for people to encounter God. Silke and I were given a history and explanation of the ethos and vision of the church before having a look round the building itself.

Two things struck me (apart from the infectious curiosity of the guy who administers the place and engages with the businesses that rent the building when it is not being used as a church):

  1. Rather than point the congregation towards a wall in order to minimise distraction, here they look past the pastor and can see through the windows to the outside world. There are no walls, just windows. The congregation cannot hide within the safe confines of their secure ecclesiastical space because they are visible from the outside. Conversely, outsiders can look in and be curious about what is going on and why.
  2. The leaders are very focused on whom they are there for. If ‘insiders’ don’t like the music or how things are done, then that’s tough. It isn’t for them. Everything is designed to be accessible for and encouraging to those who are outside ‘normal’ church or who feel alienated by their experience of church elsewhere. Church is the means to a greater end: people encountering God in a community context.

The church’s strapline is: “Eine unglaubliche Kirche” (“An unbelievable church”). Given that 5-600 people drive out there each Sunday (two services) or on a Wednesday evening, it seems to be scratching where these people are itching. They simply want to enable people to find, in a  community with others, that God can be encountered and life enjoyed. The realities of life are faced and people of all sorts welcomed. And nothing happens without food, drink and hospitality.

I haven’t the time to translate all their stuff on the website, but it is simple, clear… and joyful. “Auftauchen ins Leben” (“Emerge into life”) is their invitation and it is not a bland religious or merely ‘spiritual’ sentiment; rather, it is a welcome into a community that faces real life – with all its joy and cynicism – and starts where people are.

This church is run by one employee and dozens of committed volunteers. Their vision (from which they do not wish to be deflected) is simply:

We strive to be a New Testament-style community filled with the love of God and serving one another with joy; a community that expects everything from God and infects people who are distant from God with this hope.

Refreshing, encouraging and interesting – and surprising to find behind Ikea on the site of a trade fair miles from the town centre.

It’s almost Christmas and I had thought to desist from blogging for the duration of the celebrations. Then I caught a link on the Guardian website to a video of an interview with the great Sir Terry Pratchett. So, here we go again…

I will not hear a word against Terry Pratchett. His books (especially the Discworld series) have been holiday reading for me for years and he is one of the very few authors to make me laugh and think in equal measure. I still think Small Gods is wonderful and should be read by anyone who claims to be a theist. But, I am mystified at how such a bright man can make such elementary mistakes when it comes to writing off theism. That said, however, at least he does it with the charm and self-effacing humour that advocates such as Richard Dawkins singularly lack.

I don’t know who the audience is (in the Guardian video), but they are clearly on his side and haven’t engaged their critical faculties. Well, why should they? After all, this is entertainment and not the place for having your assumptions challenged, isn’t it? Well, let’s start with a few quotations:

We [human beings] are shaped by the universe to be its consciousness. We tell the universe what it is.

I’d love to see that unpacked. He hints at an unpacking a little later:

I’d much rather be a rising ape than a falling angel.

This statement follows a romp through evolution and the assertion that we are monkeys who have achieved rather a lot. But here is where the problems start. Pratchett is working with what used to be called ‘the conflict metaphor’ which assumes that science and faith are in a battle for either/or supremacy: we can either have religious faith or we can trust science. This false positioning is given away when he says (earlier):

In my religion the building of a telescope is the building of a cathedral.

He dismisses the Judeo-Christian tradition on the basis that he read the Old Testament through in one sitting, thought that God comes over as a maniac who sanctions genocide and rejected Genesis as anti-scientific nonsense. Oh dear…

First, humanity is neither ‘rising ape’ nor ‘fallen angel’, but (according to Judeo-Christian thought) what Bruce Cockburn called ‘the angel-beast’ – made in the image of God, yet as frail as strong, always needing to learn and grow and develop. Science is integral to this ‘project’, not antithetical to it. This is the bit that leaves me a bit boggled: why does someone as intelligent as Pratchett not allow himself to get beyond false alternatives such as ‘faith versus science’ – when (to put it crudely) science is addressing questions faith does not, and faith asks questions for which science has no remit?

Have you seen the latest Hubble photos? They are amazing – awe-inspiring. I don’t understand a lot of the science around this sort of work, but I do marvel at what it shows us of the universe(s). The cathedral and the telescope are not inimical to one another – they open us up to awe and understanding and faith and worship, but in different ways. Why does Pratchett think they must be alternatives or opposites?

Understanding the workings of the universe is no threat to Christian faith – rather, it is integral to it. We are made to explore the world and why it is the way it is and how it came to be the way it is. But, as the ethicists always insist, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ – so we need a different way of asking about meaning, values and significance in that universe. The creation-evolution divide is a false divide and most Christians got over it a long time ago.

Second, Sir Terry would be horrified (presumably) if we read his books as if they were scientific text books. The genre of the literature matters and shapes how we read what we read. So, couldn’t he show a little more literary respect to the material he dismisses and read it for what it is and not for what it isn’t? His assumptions underline for me the charge I continue to make: that many of the loud new atheists such as Richard Dawkins are not stupid, but they are illiterate. They want us to read every text as if there were only one genre of writing. (Fundamentalist creationists fall into the exact same trap…)

Third, the great man goes on to say:

God help me if I ever become a Christian. You lot would suffer, I’ll tell you…

It seems to me that there is nothing here that should stop him from becoming a Christian (even if he was just having a laugh). Evolution would become more interesting, reading ancient texts (with a different set of questions) would become enriching and challenging, and the world would become more colourful. And I’d love to see him using his amazing creative imagination and humour to expose the false contradictions and dichotomies he once espoused.

I am off for a few weeks of uninterrupted reading in January. You can bet your life there will be the odd Pratchett book in the bag. And I’ll be wondering if people like Sir Terry – justifiably popular and sadly now experiencing Alzheimer’s – ever get challenged, or if their fame and popularity simply make every statement they utter acceptable without question.