Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Catching up

Off to see Editors at Brixton Academy this evening. They are one of the cream of last year's break-through bands - sharp riffs, intelligent lyrics, plangent guitars; wonderful.

I used them a dialogue partner in my thinking about Ecclesiastes. In their song All Sparks, they have the line 'you burn like a bouncing cigarette on the road/all sparks will burn out in the end' which I think perfectly captures Qoheleth's view that life is short but wonderfully beautiful. It also has great advice for people sharing their faith 'you're answering questions/that have not yet been asked...'

The Ecclesiastes series finished last Sunday and I think went pretty well (all things considered). Good conversations resulted and hopefully people will make use of the study guide which will be posted on the website at the end of the week.

I'm now focusing on getting ready to lecture in Sri Lanka. I think it's all taking shape. I have a month to create notes flexible enough to take account of every eventuality (at least the ones I can think of)

In my chill time earlier, I watched the first episode of Stephen Poliakoff's Shooting the Past - part of the box set that was a birthday gift earlier in the year. It's TV at its best. The story concerns a picture library about to be closed by an American multi-national. So it's really a meditation on the power of photographs. One of the strengths of the programme is that Poliakoff uses the pictures and his musical score to move the story on rather than conventional moving images and dialogue. It's truly mesmerising.

Pentecost on Sunday - a reminder that God speaks to us in fresh ways and often doesn't use words himself.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Decoding Da Vinci revisited

So on the afternoon after the evening before, did we decode Da Vinci?

We certainly had fun - many teams competing in our prize quiz. We had a good few texts raising interesting issues and asking sensible questions. And lots of people wanted to join in.

Concerns focused on two main areas. Firstly, the history - especially the Gnostic gospels and formation of the Christian canon. I've never been asked after a service to recommend quite so many history books!

Secondly, why the book is so popular. This is harder to answer but I suspect has something to do with Dan Brown capturing a mood. There have been lots of academic tomes questioning Christian origins - you have only to think Hugh Schonfield's The Passover Plot or john Allegro's book on scared mushrooms (I forget the title) or Barbara Tiering's Jesus the Man and a host of others. These came, caused a mild flutter and disappeared into the libraries only to emerge in footnotes in learned dissertations.

Brown's book landed in altogether different times. Institutions are no longer to be trusted so their version of events is automatically suspected. He capitalised on the success of the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and a host of other books bedecking the mysteries and mind, body and spirit sections of our bookshops. Our culture is looking for new myths from the cult of celebrity and big brother to the sacred feminine. The Da Vinci Code is just one more

Maybe it's just good marketing.

What I want to know, though, is why messers Baigent, Leigh, Lincoln, Brown and Teabing make no mention of the writings of the Apostle Paul in their reconstruction of Christian origins. While dating the gospels is tricky, dating Paul's letters - especially Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians - isn't. They all come from the fifties and sixties of the first century and they all affirm three things about Jesus - his humanity, his divinity and his resurrection from the dead.

So there you have it, 275 years before Constantine and the Council of Nicea, Paul told us that Jesus was God's Son, human and divine, raised from death for the salvation and re-creation of the world and that joining his Kingdom made us part of God's solution to human folly.

What we think about Jesus appears to matter a great deal after all, Sir Leigh...

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Decoding Da Vinci

Today we're devoting our cafe church to the Da Vinci Code phenomenon, so last night a group of us went to see the film.

I guess it's true to say that I had low expectations - and they weren't disappointed. The cast struggled with a leaden script and director Ron Howard's decision to play it absolutely straight rather than camping it up a bit. So the cardinals behaved like board members of dull multinational and all the policemen were plods who couldn't see what has happening in front of their eyes.

It all meant that Hanks and Tautou as the two leads spent the entire movie running, driving or catching their breath with a look of complete bafflement on their faces. I'm not sure if they were baffled by what was happening to them or why they were being asked to serve up such clunking dialogue.

Needless to say interest in the book and film has focused on what it alleges about Christian origins and in particular the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and the suppression of any reference to that relationship by the Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicea.

It's a theory so full of holes that one barely knows where to begin in refuting it. Many more intelligent Christians have done the job very well. The best things I've read are the two Grove booklets by Steve Hollingshurst and Tom Wright (available as ebooks from www.grovebooks.co.uk) and Robin Griffith-Jones The Da Vinci Code and the Secrets of the Temple. Griffith-Jones is master of the Temple Church in London, one of the locations of the book and film.

The book's power is undoubtedly rooted in our culture's taste for conspiracy, coupled with its distrust of institutions and their 'official' stories and explanations. The more the church defends its position, the more the conspiracy theorists argue 'they would say that wouldn't they; it's evidence that they've got something to hide.'

It's the laughable treatment of the history of the early church that really irks me, the suggestion that it was a powerful, all-conquering institution able to suppress documents and movements it disapproved of. The Roman church really wasn't in this position until the high Middle Ages - say from the 12th century.

The suggestion, for instance, that the council of Nicea settled the date of Easter is rot. It was an issue still being debated between various parts of the church in the early 7th century, at the synod of Whitby for example. It still wasn't really settled when the schism between the Western and Eastern Church happened in the 10th century which is why Orthodox countries celebrate Easter at a different date from Western Christians.

It's a small point, I know. But it's indicative of a slipshod handling of history by Dan Brown and his sources - especially Baigent, Liegh and Lincoln in their hugely entertaining and in places hysterically funny The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail.

It struck me that the film - for obvious reasons - simplified the 'history' to the point of making it a strident and harsh-sounding propaganda for an anti-Jesus movement. Leigh Teabing, as played by Ian Mckellen, is a deeply unsympathetic character, motivated by a settled hatred for the stories of orthodox Christianity and prepared to do anything to bring down the church that preserves that story. He was more subtle and complex than that in the book - not that any of Brown's characters have much depth or complexity.

Comments are always welcome. I'll tell you how cafe church went tomorrow.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

In a glass darkly

Having managed to baffle a few people on Sunday evening with my second stab at Ecclesiastes, I thought I'd attempt clarification (probably a mistake!).

We were thinking about the nature of Qoheleth's faith (using U2's Zooropa as a dialogue partner). In particular, I drew attention to the writers understanding of God as maker and giver. And that this is the context in which we live and within with Qoheleth is trying to understand his life in this messy world.

So, the first response we make to this is fear (used six times of God in the short book). Fear is a key OT word of response to God that has something to do with faith and worship in the context of being held accountable by God for how we've lived. So, it's the perfect verb for Qoheleth - with his emphasis on death and judgment - to use to describe our relationship with God.

We see fear especially in 5:1-6 in relation to worship and what we do in the temple. Here Qoheleth is close to Isaiah and Amos in their denunciation of facile worship as a cover for unjust living (Isa 1:10-17; Am 5:21-24). And we see it in 3:11-14 where Qoheleth stares unnervingly at the mystery at the heart of the world - namely that God has put a longing in our hearts that our life in the world doesn't seem able to satisfy.

The way we live in the light of this is to enjoy our lives and acknowledge our creator (3:12-13; 5:18-19). Which brought us to 5:20 - a verse of tantalising ambiguity.

Is Qoheleth saying that some people are so full of living that they don't have time to reflect and so do nothing about the 'eternity' tugging at their hearts? This would certainly seem to fit with the recent report by Bob Mayo et al suggesting that young people are too busy getting on with life to have time to pause to think about their spiritual lives. Mayo describes teens and twenties inhabiting a 'happy midi-narrative' that suggests life is fine, the world is basically benevolent, all you see is all there is, so get and enjoy it. Ecclesiastes 5:20 suggests that God keeps these people busy with the here and now and so prevents them from thinking about the there and then.

Or is Qoheleth saying that people who receive everything in life as a gift from God don't restlessly reflect on the world, they just get on with living, grateful for all God gives them. In particular they don't exploit people to gain material advantage or political honour (in the way described in 5:8-17).

Or - and this is what threw some on sunday evening - is Qoheleth saying both these things and that how we hear this text is determined precisely by our answer to the question 'whose world is this?'

If we believe it's our world, that we make it, we decide what's right and wrong in it, then the first reading of the verse will tend to be true of us. If we believe it's God's world and that everything we have comes from his gracious hand and that we will be content to enjoy what he gives and not hanker for more, then the second reading of the verse will tend to be true of us.

Maybe, I'm reading too much into this, but I found this really helpful and have been continuing to so this week as I've continued to reflect on it and listen to Zooropa (and Editors The Back Room which I'm thinking would also be a good dialogue partner for Qoheleth).

Rocking with Hard Fi and Billy Bragg

Linda and I went to see the very excellent Hard Fi at Brixton Academy yesterday - the fourth of a five night stand by the band. They played most of the album plus a couple of new songs and a Big Audio Dynamite cover. They were loud and energetic, but still managed to hold the tunes - mostly.

Their stage presence was augmented by TV screens making good use of the CCTV image they've made their own and beaming an anti-war message to po-going fans.

The evening was made even better by the presence of Billy Bragg. The old red wedge rocker's back catalogue is appearing all digitally remastered, so he served up a 30 minute run-through his greatest hits. The songs stand up really well. He's not lost any of his old passion. He's even updated one or two songs - especially the wonderful Looking for the Great Leap Forward. It was stirring stuff.

He returned during Hard Fi's encore to do a spirited version of the Who's Won't Get Fooled Again - which I assume was aimed equally at the Blair Government and the British National Party.

One of the fascinating things about the evening was the emphasis on the old rock against racism themes (it was at a RAR gig that I first heard Bragg). The rise of the BNP is galvanising a section of the indie rock community to put its talents at the disposal of a campaign against racism. More power to 'em. Bragg said that it worked in the late 70s/early 80s and it can work again as cultures come together around shared love of music and common hatred of racism. We'll see...

Monday, May 15, 2006

A canon within a canon?

We're having a challenging time reading Ecclesiastes in our evening services at the moment. I know it's challenging when one of my members told me after last night's episode that she'd not got any of it!

It's certainly the case that ecclesiastes is a demanding read. That's why Christians don't read it much and churches don't teach it.

It raises an issue that scholars wrestle with, namely are some biblical texts more important and authoritative than others? Is there a canon within the canon? OT critics in particular argue over this one. Walter Brueggemann in his seminal Theology of the Old Testament talks in terms of Israel's core testimony and it's countertestimony and, just for good measure, Israel's unsolicited testimony. He doesn't use the language of canon within canon but this could be the outcome of his intriguing and suggestive division.

Ordinary church members do it by default. There are some parts of scripture they read and some they don't. And so their faith is based not on the whole counsel of God but on those parts they find convivial or at least comprehensible.

Ecclesiastes is a case in point. It's a difficult book, a demanding read - not just because the language and structure are tricky (though they are) but because it appears to be a challenge to orthodox understandings of God and the life of faith. But maybe that's precisely why it's in the canon.

Ecclesiastes was written late - maybe 350BC - and yet was included in the canon probably by the time of Jesus or soon after. It is one of the five books attached to the five Jewish festivals - ecclesiastes is read at the fabulously joyous feast of tabernacles.

It's inclusion and use indicates that it touches on something vital about faith, something believers need to take into account as they give shape to their faith in a world of contradictions and trouble. The danger of canons within canons is that it enables us to marginalise inspired texts - they are not quite as much the word of God as other texts that we take more seriously - and so our faith is distorted by default.

The challenge is to integrate this troublesome voice into our understanding of our faith. Otherwise we risk suggesting that Ecclesiastes is not as inspired as Deuteronomy or Romans, something evangelicals can't be comfortable with. But we also risk missing the insight and inspiration that Ecclesiastes brings to our faith and witness in the world. If we need help with this, U2's Zooropa album - opening with the title track exploring who makes the world we live in and ending with Johnny Cash singing the Wanderer, a song based on Ecclesiastes - is an excellent dialogue partner.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Penetrating life's absurdities

Qoheleth, the enigmatic writer of Ecclesiastes, would have a word for it. Apparently, Britain's young people prefer car boot sales to church. Now I could understand it if the research suggested they preferred trendy coffee shops or clothes shops, watching DVDs or chatting on MSN Messenger... But car boot sales?

Truly, I need to follow the advice of Ecclesiastes 2:3 (in the message version) - and it'll probably take a couple of bottles of decent vintage to help me get to the bottom of it.

According to this latest CofE findings, as reported in today's London Times, clubbing is not a spiritual experience, Buffy the vampire Slayer doesn't make teenagers think about alternative realities and September 11 doesn't seem to have led to any kind of religious musings.

The research was carried in part by Bob Mayo an excellent analyst of trends whose book Ambiguous Evangelism trailed some of these findings.

My immediate response was two-fold. First, I'm really pleased I'm not a youth worker! Though our church is in the throes of recruiting a minister for youth and young adults and it seems to me that he or she will have his/her work cut out if this research is true.

Second, I wonder how to square the findings with conversations I've had with young and youngish people over the past two weekends - in pubs in Brighton and outside pubs in Bromley. That experience suggests that young people - 18-35s - seem pretty clued up on the Christian Faith (and one or two other religions), happy to talk about it when confronted by obvious representatives of the churches (I was wearing a Street Pastors' uniform in Bromley and a Baptist Assembly lanyard in Brighton) and not hostile even if they did not believe.

Of course, I'd need to get hold of the report and read it from cover to cover to make sure that the lovely Ruth Gledhill of the Times is not leading me up the garden path. But then I'd need to get stuck into some serious thinking about what this means for our ministry as a church and individuals.

Oh, the Ecclesiates text says: ' With the help of a bottle of wine and all the wisdom I could muster, I tried my level best to penetrate the absurdity of life. I wanted to get a handle on anything useful we mortals might do during the years we spend on this earth.'

I suggest we all get down to Majestic and then get our thinking caps on (that's thinking with a 'th' at the beginning....)

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Life after prism

The Baptist Assembly went really well - possibly the best for a long time. Richard Foster was awesome on the last night. Kate Coleman - our new president - was truly inspirational on the home mission evening. It was good to catch up with people and see Brighton clubland close-up.

I was there to lead Prism - the first alternative strand at the assembly. And all things considered it went well. Good numbers, good atmosphere, people joining in and fantastic music. Both Krystaal, our house band on Saturday and Sunday, and Gareth Davies-Jones, who graced our programme on Friday evening, were brilliant.

If you've not checked out Gareth Davies-Jones you really should. He's made two albums of intelligent, beautifully-played folk (with a funky-ish feel). You can hear samples and order product at www.headingwestmusic.com

And what can you say about Krystaal? Three brothers from the Congo, forced to flee following the university masacre in the dying days of the Mbutu regime, reunited in Canada through the commitment and support of Baptist Christians, they are a tight, funky outfit producing music that exudes life, hope and joy. Check out their album Keep on Standing. Another CD is imminent.

I'm now picking up the pieces back home, seeing what's happened and what the week holds. I'll be reflecting further on Prism later in the week. If you were there post a comment - I'd be really interested to know what you thought (good or bad)