Just about to pack up for the night and a last glance at the news websites messes it all up.

Tony Blair has written in the Observer today about the need for the world’s political leaders to recognise and address the religious roots and nature of this century’s big conflicts. Well, he isn’t the first to do this; but, his voice will instantly wind up all the usual suspects who can’t get beyond the demonic mention of his name to engage with the fundamental issue. Letting loose the Iraq debacle doesn’t mean that everything he says about anything must, by definition, be disingenuous.

What is interesting about his latest outing is not immediately obvious.

Yesterday morning (Saturday) I dedicated a new war memorial in Bradford. On it is engraved the names of those local men who have fallen since 1947 – including in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such concrete memorials are important not because they glamourise or romanticise war, but because they do the opposite. They bring us face to face (or hand to stone) with mortality: these names belong to young men who have mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers – and with loss, bereavement and pain.

We need such memorials in order to hold our cultural memory: we don’t know who we are (or why we are who we have become) if we don’t recognise where we have come from – for good and ill; and if we don’t know who we are or how we got here, we can’t shape our future or what we shall become. They don’t tell the whole story, of course; but, they rip the veneer of self-justification from our selective sensibilities and leave us naked before human fragility and failure.

And this is where we come back to Tony Blair’s reported observations. Conflict is always rooted in history; it always finds what William Blake called a ‘human dress’ – a cultural manifestation that gives flesh to wounds inflicted by ideologies and base human greed and cruelty. When people mock the Bible for being bloodthirsty, they don’t always turn the same judgement on media reportage: just today we see

  • The Syrian bloodshed
  • Egypt in turmoil
  • The Arab Spring hijacked by Islamist extremists
  • Revolt in the Ukraine now being fired by extreme right forces
  • South Sudan
  • Central African Republic
  • Pakistan

And so on.

If religion wasn’t the ‘dress’, something else would be. Human beings seem bent on violence and attestations of ‘progress’ seem exaggerated, to say the least. This is not pessimistic; it is realistic. It isn’t the final word, but the human propensity to do appalling things cannot simply be wished away.

If Blair’s argument is to be taken seriously – and the religious roots of conflict be addressed – religion must first be understood (which is what the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is working at)… and not simply sneered at by those who think they are above such things.

[Postscript: The sentencing in Pakistan of a mentally ill man also illustrates how not every culture buys into the self-evidently obvious assumptions some in the west make about the universal desirability of ‘democracy’. Pakistan needs to be seriously challenged about such legal processes/judgments as this one, but it is symptomatic of a deeper challenge that will not be addressed in any effective way by sneering or shouting.]

Holiday over. Back in the office. Back on my laptop where I can embed links in my posts. It’s also back to viewing the world from home (as opposed to ‘away’).

As the Libya endgame continues, there is a good deal of comment in the blogosphere about the role of the National Transitional Council, NATO, foreign governments, etc. Much of it involves urging caution and questioning NATO’s involvement – approving the end whilst worrying about the means… and the potential consequences. EthicalComment has some good post-holiday observations (as usual) and some useful links to, for example, Chatham House papers.

I was intrigued to catch up with Tony Blair’s reflections on the UK riots. I know too many people who would disagree with Blair on principle even if he said the sky was blue; but, I think he is absolutely right to question the reflex of British politicians, religious leaders and media commentators to blame some sort of generalised moral decline for the riots. Whilst agreeing with Michael White’s critique of the inadequacy of Blair’s critique, I still think he was right to assert (initially when Prime Minister) that specific problems need specific solutions – that the dysfunctionality of some families requires systematic, one-at-a-time, targeted investment of time, expertise and accompaniment to turn around those dysfunctionalities that are deeply embedded in family culture, experience or expectation.

The problem, of course, is that one of the most valuable resources to achieve that end – and one that was making a demonstrable difference to many families – is being severely cut back: Sure Start. Ask any health professional working with such families and they will almost universally tell the same story. David Cameron has trumpeted the percentage increase in health visitors (my wife is one), but the health visitors need resources such as Sure Start to which they can refer their people. There is surely an irony that financial investment in youth provision and resources for supporting families is being severely cut at the very time that the decision-makers are complaining about the dysfunctionality of some of our citizens.

(And, yes, Blair helped to develop the consumer-greedy society that Thatcher began; and, yes, that introduces a further debate about public morality and the shaping of our culture in the last thirty years. But, it doesn’t setract from the significance of the specific point about the so-called ‘hard to reach’.)

This is not just about financial investment and my observation is not about ideology – that somehow chucking money at problems solves the problem. But, it is crazy to cut funding of those resources that are designed to make a long-term difference, but have already made short-term improvements.

Which leads on to the third element of these post-holiday thoughts: the teaching of Religious Education in schools. Again, some commentators will automatically reach for their red ink at the mere mention of religious education having any value at all. They think that their own world view is neutral and that religous world views are somewhere up the loony scale, heading away from neutral. Such respondents should read David Bentley Hart‘s excoriating expose of such shallow thinking in The Atheist Delusions – an academically informed response to the assumptions and ill-informed sweeping assertions of the so-called New Atheists. (Obviously, it’s a bit of a shame to introduce fact and history into these debates…)

However, what is often ignored is that Religious Education does not start from the assumption that a particular religious ‘truth’ needs to be propagated, but, rather, that children and young people need to learn (a) how to think about what they think about the world, (b) how particular traditions have developed ways of doing this through particular histories, and (c) why understanding epistemology – how we know that we know what we know – matters. Surely, this should be indisputable in post-riot England. Yes, I believe that the Christian world view makes most sense of the world, human experience, morality, etc.; but, that is secondary to the importance of at least getting kids to (a) ask the right questions and (b) understand that asking these questions actually matters.

To that end I agree that the teaching of RE should continue to be a core subject in the school curriculum. If it isn’t, what will be saying to the riots of twenty years from now when faced with dysfunctional kids whose morality was allowed to be shaped by happenstance and serendipity rather than being shaped and informed to the extent that they can make their mind up?

It is unsurprising that the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians of Rome the way he did:

Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…

We continue to neglect the shaping of the mind at our future peril.

As we are about to begin the haunting journey through Holy Week (which needs to be lived as if we didn’t know the outcome), I have been doing two things: listening to the new Bruce Cockburn album and reading Tony Blair‘s A Journey.

Holy Week takes us with Jesus and his friends through places of apparent confusion to a place of dereliction and apparent abandonment. Some time ago Jesus ‘set his face to Jerusalem’ and knowingly entered the heart of political and religious power. This place in which God is blasphemed, his people exploited and political integrity compromised is the place you go to if you have a death-wish… or a point to make or a change to bring. The rubbish dump outside the city is riddled with the gallows used to humiliatingly execute those who dare to challenge Rome.

Read the Gospel accounts and it is clear that Jesus knew where he was going and what was likely to happen there; but, his friends travel with an optimistic misconception about their enterprise. And, ultimately, instead of their hero doing the stuff of religious vindication and political victory, he seems to walk directly into the trap set by the imperialists and their puppets. Why does he do this and why doesn’t he explain himself to his friends? Why doesn’t he avoid the personal pain and suffering and the radical disappointment and disillusionment of those who might now feel conned?

Well, part of the answer lies earlier in the Gospels when Jesus, immediately prior to his public ministry, faces up with ruthless honesty to the most fundamental questions of his character and motivation. In the desert, away from distraction, he cannot escape the questions: Are you in this for the power and glory? Are you really prepared to deny your own material needs in order to stick to your course? Do you really have to walk the way of pain and suffering – surely there must be another way? If you really are the Messiah, why must you walk this way and suffer such an apparently futile fate?

All of this goes against ‘normal’ assumptions about power, rights, purpose and value. Having faced it in the desert, now Jesus faces the reality as he walks towards the place where his commitments will be tested and he will discover whether or not he has been deluding himself.

Yet, his friends just don’t get it. He doesn’t try to tell them what they won’t understand. He knows that they will have to learn their own way – that there is no short-cut to re-shaping their world view or their fundamental assumptions about who and how God is. He has to let them do this in their way and in their time – and he can’t spare them the pain of it all. No short-cuts, no easy explanations, no false comforts, no escapism. (And we must resist the urge to leap too quickly from Good Friday to Easter Day without living – and enabling others to live – through the sheer bewildering emptiness and horror of Saturday. Sunday makes no sense without the experience of that desolation and sense of deep disappointment.

But, where do Tony Blair and Bruce Cockburn fit into this? The answer is: indirectly and tangentially, but interestingly.

I deliberately waited to read Blair’s book until the rather tedious and predictable judgements on it and him had gone away. There was little in the immediate criticism of the book that was enlightening. As Blair himself recognises (repeatedly) in the book, prejudices about him – his motives and the nature of particular events – are not going to be changed by Blair’s own account. Views are too entrenched. However, the best he can hope for is that people will understand why he took the decisions he did – particularly in relation to Afghanistan and Iraq – and on the basis of what information. He asks for comprehension, not agreement.

What has surprised me in the book is Blair’s honesty about the failures and his generosity to those who made his life and work difficult. And I now wonder whether my resistance to his defence of George Bush’s intelligence and integrity actually says more about me than it does either of them.

However, what I have found most intriguing is the way Blair draws lessons of leadership from his experience – albeit with the benefit of hindsight. The most explicit discourse on this comes in the chapter on the Northern Ireland conflict and the Good Friday Agreement. But, he illustrates well the loneliness of leadership and the agonising nature of decison-making when the loud voices around you want you to decide differently. Even if a million people march against you and accuse you of lying, how do you do what you believe to be right rather than what is either popular or expedient?

Now, I am not defending his decisions regarding Iraq; that’s for him to do. (And just to nobble those who might selectively quote me and accuse me of associating Blair with Jesus… it is the phenomenon of leadership demands that I am thinking about, not the nature of the messianic!) What I am interested in here is the matter of authentic leadership when the heat is on. What sort of leadership is it that prefers not to face the challenges of action (as opposed to loud words and empty threats) and looks to political expediency or electoral popularity as their principal guide when taking far-reaching decisions? In Blair’s case, he recognises the charge of the ‘messiah complex’ and does seem very sure of his own rightness. But, that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t right to make some of the decisions he did. As he states, only he could make them and make them he did.

I don’t know Tony Blair. I only met him once and our conversation got interrupted before it had got going. But, I feel more intrigued now to understand more about his motivation than I did before reading the book. I am not sure I have changed my mind on key elements of the decisions made, but I understand better why he made them. And, ultimately, regardless of whether or not those around him agree or understand, he still had to decide what he thought was right and not what might be merely expedient in the short-term.

And Bruce Cockburn? Back in 2004 he wrote a song called This is Baghdad. On the Life Short Call Now album, he rails against the misery and destruction in Iraq:

Everything’s broken in the birthplace of law / As Generation Two tries on his magic flaw

Carbombed and carjacked and kidnapped and shot / How do you like it, this freedom we brought? / We packed all the ordnance but the thing we forgot / Was a plan in case it didn’t turn out quite like we thought. / This is Baghdad…

It is angry and horrified and yet offers no solutions. Fair enough. The poet’s job is to illuminate, not resolve.

But, in his wonderful new acoustic studio album Small Source of Comfort he has two songs about Afghanistan. One – The Comets of Kandahar – is a guitar piece about the sight of jet fighters taking off after dark, invisisble apart from the purple flame from the tailpipe. The second is a powerfully moving elegy to dead soldiers. He was about to board a plane at Camp Mirage, a Canadian staging post in the Middle East, when he found himself part of a Ramp Ceremony in which the remains of two Canadian casualties were honoured before being repatriated. He says in the sleeve notes: “One of the saddest and most moving scenes I’ve been privileged to witness… this song is dedicated to the memory of Major Yannick Pepin and Corporal Jean-Francois Drouin”.

The song needs to be heard rather than the lyrics simply read. Like a good Psalm of lament, it is drawn beautifully and tragically from the bowels of the poet:

Each one lost is everyone’s loss, you see / each one lost is a vital part of you and me.

Cockburn’s anger about the conflict is not enough to prevent him seeing beauty in the darkness or compassion in the particular. He also allows prejudice to be challenged by experience.

Discuss…

There’s no escape. Tony Blair’s memoirs were published this morning and they have dominated the headlines all day. I’ve just been with my son for a curry at the best curry house in the world, the Mirch Masala in Norbury, and even there I could see a billboard with Blair on it.

Those who are convinced Blair is the devil incarnate will not have their view shifted, whatever he might say in his book. And those who think Brown was a disaster won’t have their view changed byanything that doesn’t confirm that judgement. Those to-be-pitied Americans on the telly yesterday who are convinced Obama is both a Muslim and a Communist are not alone in not letting inconvenient facts colour their view of reality.

What interests me about the Blair memoirs, as reported and quoted today, is not all the obvous stuff about Iraq or Gordon Brown or New Labour – was there really anything surprising there at all? – but the question of leadership. He had the chance to fire Gordon Brown some years ago, but, having weighed up the pros and cons for the party, decided  not to do so. It is easy in retrospect to say what a mistake that was – a bit like Gordon Brown’s hesitation over whether to call an election shortly after his accession while he was riding high in the polls. Retrospect is easy when you never had to make a decision under pressure in your life.

Anyone who has exercised leadership of any difficult institution or ‘body’ will know that some decisions cannot be taken after the moment has passed. The circumstances – as well as the phenomenological fact that the indecision or decision not to do something (like fire a key colleague) now becomes a factor in the equation and changes the criteria which now render at worst impossible and at best more difficult the action previously denied – mean that the moment has passed and cannot be reclaimed. This is usually obvious afterwards, but it is never absolutely clear at the time. We don’t know how damaging it might have been had Blair fired Brown early on in his premiership – we can only guess.

Leadership is difficult. Not least because many of the people who comment on your leadership have never led anything in their life, have no understanding of the human reality of the experience, and have no comprehension of the personal cost. Judgement is easy from a distance where the decision of a leader can be sneered at without a shred of understanding of how that decision was made. Any leader will affirm that decisions are often made under pressure, with limited information and limited criteria – often without certainty that the decision is the right one.

Blair is a reasonable target for scrutiny – after all, he was elected by people and should be held to account by the people to whom he is accountable. But he was not elected alone or in isolation for others who bear equal responsibility. Iraq was a disaster and based (at worst) on a fabrication. Blair should have fired Brown early on. Easy to say from here and now. As Blair acknowledges, a leader is held to account for decisions made, even if they were made for reasons rooted in integrity. But the judgements from outside should also be made with the reservation that knowledge of one’s own limitations brings. It’s not my job to defend Blair or Brown or anyone else; but, I am loathe to attack them on some grounds from the safety of my study. That would be like the armchair generals from a safe distance sending their troops blindly into battle .

History will tell, but it can’t be written with any confidence just yet.

That said, can anyone tell me why Cherie Blair has had to put up for years with the sheer sneery personal vilification at the hands of the press? And why, oh why, does William Hague have to broadcast the intimate details of his marriage as if it were a public consumer item? Do none of these shabby whisperers and commentators see this through the eyes of his wife? Or is that just too ‘human’? I feel shabby for being part of a culture that makes this sort of thing to be considered necessary.

There is a lot of talk about Anglicans becoming Roman Catholic, but we rarely talk about those who cross the Tiber in the opposite direction.

In December 2006 I was in Paris, having been invited to preach at St George’s Church there. A few weeks before I went I was asked to confirm a young Frenchman called Régis Blain during the service. Since then we have kept in touch from time to time. Recently we were in email contact and I invited him to write something brief about why he decided to become an Anglican in France – several people here were intrigued, especially after Régis created a page for Common Worship on Facebook. This is what he wrote (in the form of a letter to the most famous Englishman to have converted to Roman Catholicism in recent years) – I thought it was an interesting ‘take’ on things I don’t often refer to:

A letter to Mr. Blair : a new French Anglican writes to a new British Roman-Catholic

Recently, Bishop Nick Baines, who confirmed me at the Anglican St Georges Church in Paris in December 2006,  told me that some of his colleagues were ‘intrigued’ by the fact that a French citizen would choose to be Anglican. I’d like to explain how this is possible by writing an imaginary letter to the former Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair.

Mr. Blair,

You are British Citizen and you have an Anglican background. You decided to become Roman Catholic 3 years ago. It’s your right and I respect it. I ‘m a French Citizen with a cultural Roman Catholic background, and I decided to become Anglican from the Church of England 4 years ago.  It’s my right too. 

Guardian journalist Andrew Brown reported (June 22,2007):

For the last decade at least he has made it plain that he prefers Catholic services, and perhaps Catholic priests, to Anglican ones.

I myself prefer William Temple, the ‘Anglican Churchill’ (who was in Normandy  in June 1944) or the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams to all the Popes of Rome (except John XXIII). I had the chance to meet different priests from the Episcopalian Church and the Church of England here in Paris, in the US and in Turkey and I find I like them perhaps better than the Roman-Catholics priests. 

I have to confess that I praise you for your honesty and consistency in becoming Roman Catholic. I become sceptical when the ‘extremes’ want to change the spiritual and liturgical history of the Church of England. I have always thought: if you are deeply evangelical, why don’t you join a true Protestant community? If you  feel more Catholic than everything, why don’t you join the Roman Catholic Church? There is no problem in the end.

So you did right and I’m sure I did right too.

I like the diversity of the Anglican Communion – from all the countries – and I do recognize that everybody can be ‘high’ or ‘low’ church. But people like me, and former Roman Catholics who were looking for freedom of thought and worship, have joined the Anglican Communion. I think we are strongly opposed to any form of intolerant orthodoxy (sorry for the pleonasm), but at the same time we need tradition, history, honesty and also freedom. 

I like also in your former church what it has taken from Catholicism, Protestantism and Latitudinarism. Therefore it seems to me that the Church of England is a proof of historical consensus and wisdom,  a moral and spiritual space for everybody, a pact between the community, the church and the state.

Anglicanism represents also, for those who know history, the memory of refuge in the 16 and 17th centuries. Some French pastors and lay people were integrated within the Church of England during this time. I guess you know this fact. For example, today the  old Huguenot Church Eglise du St Esprit in New York City belongs to the Episcopalian Church. To this day there is still a Huguenot Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral.

What I like above all about the Anglican Church is its modesty and tolerance.  Like Mr David Cameron, I don’t have any ‘direct line’ to God and I need – I guess like you and him – a priest and a prayer book.

I know there are good places for worship and good priests within the Roman Catholic Church. But in my case after attending so many services and talking to so many priests and pastors, I could not find better representatives of Christ than Anglican priests and in particular those I met from the Church of England.

From my perspective, the diversity, tolerance and creativity of my church offer the best means to win the fight for an updated and renewed Christianity, far from extremes and anomie. I also hope that all Anglicans, Catholics and Protestants can work together to keep the churches open and full and not open bars or galleries in them. We will try to keep honest in our thinking and behaviour as imperfect Christians with varying degrees of faith.

My wish is that your compatriots could really appreciate the religious patrimony they have and I’m sure you do.

Yours sincerely,

Régis Blain (France)

Millions of words will be banged out today following Tony Blair’s appearance before the Iraq Inquisition yesterday, so it is a bit silly to write too much here. I’ll limit it to three observations that have the virtue of being honest, but run the risk of running counter to everyone else.

1. I think the war was wrong on every front: politically, militarily and morally. The premises as presented were false and it still appears that the Brits were too keen to be in Bush’s pocket. Nothing said so far in the Chilcot Inquiry has demanded a change of view on these matters.

2. The Inquiry is not a trial. Hectoring inquisition may satisfy the blood lust of would-be interrogators, but might also illicit less information than otherwise. Let someone talk: the more they say, the more words they use, the more holes they will potentially dig either by saying too much or too little. Shouting at people or questioning every detail is not necessarily the best way of getting to the truth. We must wait until the report is published to see what conclusions are being drawn.

3. Thank God the baying crowds or the foaming commentators don’t run the country. Blair’s appearance before the Inquiry Panel has been built up as a trial when it can be no such thing. The Inquiry is there to discover the truth – and they can only do this by looking at the matter from very different perspectives. This requires patience, attention and a willingness to hold judgement until all the evidence has been heard. Yet, already the Inquiry is being written off as a whitewash and a failure by the establishment to beat up one of its own.

I suspect (and in this I know I am not alone) that many observers will write the Inquiry off anyway, simply because it won’t say what they want to hear. For many people this appears not to be a search for the truth about Iraq, but a blood sacrifice on the altar of self-righteousness. Unless Blair is hanged, drawn and quartered, justice will not have been done. Unless someone pays, satisfaction will not have been engendered. Unless the baying crowds are given the corpse, they will never believe that the ‘truth’ has been identified.

I think the War was wrong and Blair’s government was wrong to pursue it the way it did. The consequences have been grim and a heavy price has been paid by people who aren’t well-protected western politicians. Blair has left a lot of questions unanswered – but the ‘unanswering’ has also given the ‘holes’ in the story a prominence they did not have before. There is time for this to be addressed, but the expectations of Blair yesterday were absurd.

Screaming – the way some are today – costs the comfortable commentators nothing. Some of those shouting the loudest have never had to make a decision of any broad import in their life – but obviously could have done better than Blair. And when the commenters on newspaper blogs (which make utterly depressing reading – self-righteousness and messianic belief in the unassailable infallibility of one’s own assumtions, prejudices, beliefs and opinions are clearly not the monopoly of Blair) resort to sneering about the comfort and affluence of Blair’s Saturday in a warm house (as many do), this just exposes the nasty face of envy.

Blair owes an apology. But I am not so sure that yesterday was the right time, the right context (an Inquiry) or that he was in the right role for that. But it is to be hoped that it will follow in time. In the meantime we will get more out of what happened yesterday from the forensic analysis of the engagement – and the patience to wait other pieces of the jigsaw.

I have just recorded an interview with the BBC about elements of the National Secular Society‘s campaigns against religion in general and the Church of England in particular. Then I was sent a copy of the press notice issued by the NSS yesterday in response to the announcement made by Southampton University Hospitals Trust that people will be asked whether they have “any faith needs that can be supported during their stay”.

secularismThe NSS responded thus: “This sounds like the chaplains touting for business. It is a gross misuse of scarce National Health Service resources and an intrusion into the privacy of individuals who are coming to hospital for medical treatment… How on earth have we reached the stage that you can’t even go to hospital for treatment without having religion foisted on you like this?”

Oh dear. Here we go again. I would love to be able to have a rational discussion in rational language with rational people, but this sort of stuff should make any decent secularist despair.

1. The description about ‘chaplains touting for business’ is just cheap and silly as well as ignorant.

2. Who decides what counts as ‘gross misuse’ of resources: the majority of the country’s people who claim some sort of religious belief or the little huddle of the NSS who try to speak for everyone?

3. Since when has asking a question been tantamount to ‘intrusion into privacy’? No one is required to answer and the question itself does not suggest it must be answered affirmatively. It appears from this that the hospital trust is mature enought to allow adults the freedom and dignity to make their own mind up whereas the NSS thinks people are inherently stupid and vulnerable and need to be protected from a question. How liberal/rational is that?

4. Asking this question is, apparently, having ‘religion foisted on you’. Is not having the question asked tantamount to having secularist assumptions foisted on you? Do they really have such little regard for the integrity and intelligence of ordinary people?

5. There is an assumption that human beings are simply a body/mind duality – very platonic, but not how most people see themselves. Is it really the intention of the NSS to deny people the right to be treated as ‘whole’ beings – spirituality included – presumably on the grounds that the NSS knows better than the people concerned what is good for them? Isn’t that what we call ‘patronising’?

I draw attention to this simply because some of us are well up for a good rational debate about all sorts of things: the constitutional place of the C of E, the secular myth of neutrality, the role of bishops in the legislature, etc. But this will require a more rational language from the secularists of the NSS. I know they are a campaigning body, but issuing silly and patronising press notices does nothing to encourage a proper debate.

andrew-marrAndrew Marr, presenter of the BBC’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, has raised some of these questions very well in relation to Darwin. His basic point is that some secularists are behaving very religiously/evangelistically in relation to their atheism – and shouldn’t they see what they look like? (See also the interview with Tony Blair on the same subject.)

I am just beginning to realise that I am a cultural dinosaur. When I went to see the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire on 17 January, soon after its release in the UK, I wrote a post in which I said I hadn’t enjoyed it. I objected to its billing as ‘feel-good film of the decade’ when all it did was portray vividly the misery of corruption, crime, poverty, conflict and brutality. Despite the wonderful artistry and acting, the great soundtrack and direction, I just wanted it to finish.

But yesterday it won eight Oscars. The whole world loves it and even I love the fact that an independently-made film has trounced the other megabuck productions. Yet still I feel isolated in a minority of one. I still don’t like it and don’t want to see it again.

On the train back from London this afternoon I was perusing the endless pages of Oscar-night fashions in the freebie newspapers you get handed to you at the station. I was just wondering how they manage to fill so many pages with photos of celebrities looking uncomfortable wrapped up in funny fabrics when, at last, something interesting took my eye: a review in London Lite of a new album by an American band called Lamb of God. The album is called Wrath and appears to be an epic expression of heavy metal irony that is, in the words of the reviewer ‘almost beyond parody’. (Please don’t confuse this with John Taverner’s wonderful Lamb of God; there are not-so-subtle differences…)

sacrament-coverI have never heard of them before, but that might be because they used to be called Burn the Priest and produce songs with titles like Fake Messiah and Broken Hands. Earlier albums bear titles such as New American Gospel, Walk with me in Hell and Sacrament. Now, forgive me for my naivete – I’ve never come across this band in church circles, but maybe I should get out more – but this sounds exciting, rebellious and dangerous material. Until you actually listen to it, that is.

working_4261‘Almost beyond parody’ it might be, but it is screamingly funny to listen to. The ‘larynx-shredding vocals, pummelling drums and machine-gun riffs’ just made me laugh. No doubt this is the sort of music that some over-sensitive Christians get all worried and upset about, but I think it is just funny. If this is the devil’s music, then I think it is no longer true that he has the best of it. If this is meant to be an example of ‘having a go at God’ (and I have no reason to think it is), it is marvellously hopeless. Despite this, it still got three star approval – on the day it was announced that the great Bruce Springsteen is to headline at Glastonbury this year for the lucky beggars who got tickets. Funny old world.

The other irony is that I was reading this on my way back from a meeting with people from the excellent Tony Blair Faith Foundation which is initiating some really innovative and excellent work in bringing people in grassroots faith communities together across the globe. I’ll write more another time, but I mention it here because they have projects running in the (not so) feel-good India and are working hard and creatively to dispel the caricatures that faith communities can easily build up about others.

Unlike the metalheads, they want to help people of diverse religious worldviews and commitments to understand each other – not an easy task in a world where it is more convenient to let prejudice justify anger and assume God is always on ‘my’ side. But it is also a world in which I also need to understand the worldview of the metalheads, even when it means listening to their music and trying so hard to take it seriously.