Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Is what's good for Africa, good for us too?

We've had a good Christmas. The services went well, the family was all together and we feasted and laughed, shared and celebrated in a lovely relaxed way. All-in-all, it was a really refreshing time.

I'm catching up with a few things today - one of which was to finish an article for Ministry Today Magazine on ministering in exile. That's done and sent. I've also done a bit of sorting for our new teaching programme which kicks off on Sunday.

I also thought I'd draw your attention to an interesting article in last Saturday's Times (the London Times as Americans call it). It's by atheist Matthew Parris and it's well worth reading. you can do so here.

The headline says it all but leaves a substantial elephant in the room.

I can't fault his analysis of Africa's predicament or the contribution of the Christian church to the continent. 'In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good,' he says.

And he concludes his piece by saying: 'Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the know-how that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted. And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.'

The elephant in the room is that if the Christian faith causes such transformation in Africa, does it also in the UK? If Christianity is so essential to Africa's transformation, could it not also be essential to Britain's?

I wonder if Matthew Parris would like to tour Britain's difficult places and see what Christians are achieving there through good works and life-changing evangelism. I wonder if, as a result of looking, it might suggest that his firm atheism is as harmful to him and our culture as he suggests animist and witch doctor beliefs are to Africa.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Christmas

So, it'll be Leonard Cohen and Caravaggio who form the backdrop of the sermons this Christmas.

Cohen tonight, at our joint service with the URC, using the charting of Hallelujah (how surreal is that?) to allow me to talk about the second verse of Suzanne, the one that says of Jesus 'And when he knew for certain/only drowning men could see him/he said 'all men will be sailors then/until the sea shall free them.'

Caravaggio on Sunday: his wonderful nativity stolen from a Sicilian church 40 years ago that draws the eye to the light of the infant in the feeding trough. We'll be asking what difference does looking make?

Tomorrow it's why Christina Rossetti's In the Bleak mid-winter is my favourite carol.

And we're done. Another Christmas prepared for.

It just remains for me to say happy Christmas to all of you who pass this way - intentionally or by accident. Hopefully we'll talk soon.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ah, I love Christmas!

We had a fabulous pre-Christmas gathering with good friends last night.

We ate wonderful Portuguese food, enjoyed much laughter, sang songs and reflected on why Christmas is such a special time of year.

It was church as it should be: no more than can fit around a dining table, conversation that ranges from the serious to the hysterical, all wrapped in prayer and genuine concern for one another.

Such a gathering brings us close to how church was in the New Testament. Of course, the culture is very different and we cannot go back. But the domesticity, intimacy and hospitality of the meal table embodies something close to God's heart.

Christmas is often seen as a family affair, which is ok. But really the heart of the story is a community affair. All kinds of people - individually and in groups - are invited to gaze in wonder at the baby in a feeding trough in an over-crowded Bethlehem home, where all the generations were rallying round to do what they could to welcome the new arrival and anyone who turned up was drawn into the circle of praise at what God was and is doing among us.

Ah, I love Christmas!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pulling the crowds at Christmas

We had a good day yesterday. Carol services, it seems, still draw people in our predominantly secular society. Both ours yesterday were pretty full so we probably had in excess of 500 people through our doors over the day.

Lots of these were family of committed members, many of whom join us every year. Perhaps they come more out of family loyalty than any interest in the Christian Christmas story. But might it also be that there is a residual feeling in broad sections of the wider community that the Christmas story says something important? This is not to say that large swathes of the population are closet believers, just that this story of the baby, the family, the strange array of visitors, the fragility and wonder of it all, resonates with people in a way that other parts of the Christian message don't.

I guess churches up and down the land will be pulling in the crowds over the course of this week - especially the cathedrals. So my prayer is that some of these folk see something new in this familiar story.

Two other things caught my eye. One was a report - sponsored by St Helen's Bishopgate, I think - that suggested fewer people than ever knew what the Christmas story says. This could be true given the nonsense on this morning's Today Programme featuring a BBC reporter trying to get a donkey to travel the journey Mary and Joseph made. Just where in the gospels is there a reference to a donkey being involved at all? How on earth could a poor carpenter afford the transport of the aristocracy? And given everything else that's going on in this part of the world at the moment, how does this constitute news?

The other was that I got a Christmas card from an Imam in London wishing me a merry Christmas and pointing out that the Christmas story appears in the Koran and that 1.5 billion Muslims around the world believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, his miracles, ascension and second coming to rule in peace and justice to establish submission to the one true God. Interestingly, there is no reference to the cross and resurrection without which Christmas is just an amazing story that leads to nothing much in particular.

This week I shall be mostly preparing for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the Sunday after Christmas. What is so amazing is that even after so many years and even having to think of so many angles on this familiar story each year, I still haven't come close to exhausting the wonder of it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

On the buses with 007

At the risk of sounding trivial (though I hope not trite), which will irk Anonymous who thinks I have to be serious and world-changing all the time, I've been amused by Boris' buses today.

It's been pretty full on over the past couple of days with people and preparation, so light relief is welcome. And Boris has provided it. Now I'm all for public spending in a crisis but I'm not sure £9bn on Boris' vanity bus project represents value for money.

One of the prize winning designs for his 'let's replace the Routemaster because we don't like bendy buses' bus is by Aston Martin. James Bond meets Reg Varney - it's priceless.

He also let slip at the press conference that he might not be able to put conductors on all the new buses so thinks he might use community support officers. That's clearly why people become PCSOs, so they can collect on the upper deck of an Aston Martin.

Well, it made me chuckle.

Now, I've got to get back to saving the world (though I thought that was Gordon Brown's job at the moment!)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Little Dorrit and the credit crunch

We watched the final episode of the BBC's wonderful adaptation of Little Dorrit last night. It's made me want to read the book - like all good adaptations do.

I was struck by the fact that the news was full of the implications of the $50bn Bernard Madoff fraud and the episode opens with the fall-out from Merdle's suicide with all the ramifications for families and businesses being ruined by his fraud.

It just showed how prescient Dickens was. He writes about how moral infection flows from the greed and financial sharp practice of those who ought to set an example in society. And he suggests the humble can point the way to salvation - though even the humble need to be redeemed in some way. Shaw said Little Dorrit was more seditious than Marx's Das Kapital! Maybe he was right.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Things to do, places to be...

I've just iced the cake - so Christmas is really beginning in earnest (actually, my icing this year was a little sloppy and I had to spend the best part of half an hour keeping it on the cake while it set a bit - but I think it's ok now; we'll see how ok when we cut it on Christmas Eve!)

So, now just five services to prepare for - I'm singing at one of them and the other four do not require full-blown sermons (except Carols by Candlelight), but even so finding an angle on the Christmas story and how it intersects with the world we all live in is always a challenge.

I received confirmation this morning of the two courses I'll be teaching in Sri Lanka next summer. In Colombo, I'm doing aspects of NT social history (similar to the course I taught last time in Kandy) and in Kandy I'm tackling NT theology. This latter course will be a challenge - mainly knowing what to include as I've not done it before (any hints gratefully received). I'll be using Howard Marshall's Concise NT Theology as the text book and trying to cover the waterfront of issues without spreading the material too thinly.

I'm still awaiting confirmation of my book deal to write about aspects of NT social history in a lavishly illustrated coffee table volume. Hopefully soon - the recession is slowing people down as book sales are exploring levels somewhere three floors below the basement.

Part of my preparation for Sri Lanka is writing a Christian basics course for church based on what the NT says. We'll be teaching it at the morning services from January to March and then having hosted lunchtime discussions to talk through the material. The aim is to help our folk get a firmer grasp on the basics but also give them a vehicle to bring their friends along to. It's an approach I've never tried before, so I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Exploring Christianity's forgotten history

I've started reading Philip Jenkins' new work, The Lost History of Christianity: The thousand year golden age of the church in the Middle east, Africa and Asia - and how it died (Harper One 2008).

Jenkins is the author of the seminal The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity(Oxford 2002) and a number of other well-written studies.

His new one does exactly what it says in the subtitle, namely chart the largely forgotten history of the church in the non European world from the first to the eleventh century.

In the introduction I was set thinking by this simple fact. in 1050 in Asia Minor - the cities of the seven churches of Revelation and the church planting exploits of Paul and his team - there were 373 bishoprics and virtually the entire population were Christian.

By 1450, barely 10 to 15% of the population were Christian and there were just three bishops.

This is a collapse of allegiance to the Christian faith that mirrors the experience of Europe over the past 400 years but which can't be accounted for by the rise of science and rationalism. Most would put it down to the rise of Islam but as Jenkins has already said, the church in the East lived fairly comfortably in Muslim states - contributing much to Islamic learning (see p18)

I look forward to reading Jenkins' interpretation of this extraordinary fact.

Let's hear it for Neil Young

I've been having a bit of Neil Young fest over the past couple of days. This is partly because it's what I do from time-to-time (he's been such a fixture in my life for the past 30 years, narrating the changes we all go through, casting light and perspective on the world we navigate) and partly because I took delivery yesterday of the third of his archive concerts. Called Sugar Mountain (the title of one his greatest songs about growing up), it was recorded at Canterbury house somewhere in the States in 1968.

It's wonderful. Between songs he's funny and engaging and the songs are fragile, gossamer-light flights of wonder. With just a strummed acoustic guitar and his frail whine, he transports the listener to a different place and time.

He's probably one of the handful of truly great singer-songwriters of the rock era. And as last year's Chrome Dreams II indicated, he still retains some edge and flair after more than 40 years in the business. He defines the era in many ways, charting many of the social changes of the past half century - though he tends to have a longer historical range than that often engaging with key myths of American history in an attempt to understand the American present - and chronicling the cost of those changes in terms of relationships and personal dislocation.

He's always been something of a showman. He had his 1971 Massey Hall concert filmed and on the DVD accompanying the release of that seminal gig last year, he intercuts concert footage with contemporary film shot on the ranch he had just bought and to which he makes much self-deprecating reference in his between songs banter. He had an eye on posterity even then. As he narrates the American myth, he also creates one of his own.

Next year he embarks on one of the biggest projects an artist has ever attempted. Volume 1 of his Archive is due to be released. Spanning the decade from 1963 when he debuted with the Squires in Winnipeg, through the classic Harvest (which I'm listening to at the moment), it'll contain hundreds of songs - some not heard before; some played with Buffalo Springfield and CSN&Y. it was the decade that defined the era - and in some ways created the world in which we all live (as BBC Radio 4's recent sound archive series and accompanying programmes on 1968 showed).

Young sound-tracked many of the great changes. I still find myself deeply moved when I listen to Ohio as it brings up so many feelings about hopes of changing the world snuffed out by violence at home and abroad.

Young has never engaged the world with anything less than a fierce honesty - and he does it with wonderful tunes and searing guitars. What could be better than that?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

So, it's goodbye to Woolies

It appears to be the beginning of the end for Woolies. Its mega closing down sale begins today. It's a grim day for its staff - up to 25,000 could be out of work within a month.

What has struck me in all the news coverage this morning is the nostalgia of reporters and anchors who clearly have not been near a Woolworth store for the last decade and yet who are still mourning its passing. A number of my friends have told me how sad it is that the shop is closing but when I ask them when was the last time they entered the store, they fix me with one of those looks that says 'as if...' and then tell me they can't remember when it was.

The fact is that Woolies has long since lost its reason for being on our high streets. No one needs to shop there as the things it stocks can be found more cheaply and conveniently - and in more pleasant surroundings - at a host of other retailers.

I used my local Woolies as a short cut from the High street to the mall where my local Wesley Owen is located. Occasionally on passing through - sometimes with a colleague - we'd look for cheap CDs or DVDs and on a couple of occasions pick up a bargain.

I too think its demise is sad but since I rarely shopped there, I shan't be ringing my hands over its passing. That would be a tad hypocritical, I feel.

But let's pray for all the staff affected and look for other ways of helping them practically if we can.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

My fab festive fifteen for 2008

It's been a good year for music. So I thought I'd post my fab festive fifteen - in honour of the great John Peel (but I'm not running to 50!).

For my money the best 15 albums of the year - in no particular order - are:

Goldfrapp Seventh Tree - a wonderful mix of pastoral folk meets chill-out (apparently this was Uncut magazine's album of the year!)

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! - energetic and erudite rock, possibly the best thing he's done, though No More Shall we Part runs it close.

Fleet Foxes - the eponymous debut album is just sublime; CSN&Y for the Facebook generation (though the band has no Facebook or web presence to speak of)

The Cinematic Orchestra Live at the Royal Albert Hall - just plain lovely; music for every mood and all times of the day.

Sigur Ros With a buzz in our ears we play endlessly (it does have an unpronounceable Icelandic title!) - proving that the little island is far better at music than banking, this is an album of soaring anthems, borne aloft on waves of strings and shimmering guitars.

Portishead Third - plaintive, plangent, playful, poly-rhythmic, particularly praise-worthy.

Damon Albarn et al Monkey: journey to the West - like nothing he's ever done before nor anything I've ever bought before. it proves he has ambition and talent in spades.

Yeasayer All Hour Cymbals - cracking debut, full of wonderful rhythms and tunes, as playful as the title suggests it will be.

Toumani Diabate The Mande Variations - Mali's premier kora player with music to transport you to a restful place.

Buena Vista Social Club Live at Carnegie Hall - Cuba's peerless band at the height of its powers; one of those concerts one really wishes one had been at.

Joe Jackson Rain - stripped down (no guitar) to show off not only his fine piano playing but also the best crop of songs he's penned for years.

Nitin Sawney London Underground - the polymath attempts to get to grips with London post-7/7 in a set of intriguing, beguiling collaborations. And he pulls it off apparently effortlessly.

The Last Shadow Puppets The age of the Understatement - side project by Arctic Monkey's front man Alex Turner and Miles Kane that hijacked their lives because it is just so good. 60s flavoured, Walker brothers-infused love songs with bite and wit.

Elbow The Seldom Seen Kid - rightly festooned with praise and prizes (especially the Mercury), 12 near perfect pop songs penned by a lyricist coming to the peak of his powers. They just get better and better.

Amadou et Mariam Welcome to Mali - in which the blind duo from Africa's capital of music build on their wonderful Dimanche a Bamako, with a sublime collection of songs that feature some great guests (including Damon Albarn). So funky, you have to smile as you type when it's on.

David Byrne and Brian Eno Everything that Happens will Happen Today - 25 years after their ground-breaking My Life in The Bush of Ghosts (the album that gave rise to sampling and so much more that has enriched music over the past quarter century) comes an album of ordinary songs. On first listen you think is that it? but repeated listens reveals a depth and intensity to the song craft on display here. it's as near perfect as a pop album can be by two guys comfortable with their own genius.

Mercury Rev Snowflake at midnight - a truly original rock album, a soring journey exploring the possibility of transformation. It's a collection of songs and instrumentals that makes you feel good to be alive.

So, what about the best of the bunch. it's a difficult - and somewhat pointless - choice. But hey, what are end of year charts if not pointless?

I thought of having categories, such as best non-British act (Amadou et Mariam), best album inspired by the shadow of Scott Walker (Last Shadow Puppets), best collaboration (probably nitin Sawney), best live album (Buena Vista social Club), best re-invention of themselves (Goldfrapp), best return (portishead), best Chinese-inspired opera (Monkey), best album by two giant musical geniuses (Byrne & Eno)

But this way everyone wins and you might as just say, these are the best 15 albums I've heard this year (and they are)

but I have to pick a winner and it's Mercury Rev. The record displays such vaulting ambition both musically and lyrically that it transports the listener to a whole new world and makes you see and feel the world you inhabit everyday slightly differently. I love it.

If you're still looking for Christmas gifts for loved ones, you'll not go wrong with any of these. But don't blame me if you - or your loved one - hates them; after all, music is so personal, isn't it.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Is reading a political act?

There's an interesting post over on Robin Parry's excellent blog about using God to serve our social agendas.

In effect the post is about the politics of interpretation. He suggests that a particular feminist scholar does her theology backwards - namely that she knows the kind of God her politics will tolerate, so finds him (or her) in scripture.

This might or might not be true (I've never read the scholar in question) but it does raise a key question about hermeneutics, it seems to me. Recently, scholars have rediscovered that the New Testament was written in a time of empire and that there is possibly counter-imperial language in the documents.

Now is this because these scholars are politically liberal - some suggest their motives have to do with being anti-American - or because they put two and two together and make four. It seems pretty obvious that people who are used to hearing that Caesar is Lord and saviour, upon hearing that Jesus is Lord and saviour might question what that says about Caesar as well as Jesus. Or that when Mark talks about 'a gospel' (Mark 1:1) his original hearers would have wondered how it was related to the other gospel they heard regularly concerning Caesar (especially Augustus).

Are the scholars making such connections, seeking them for political reasons, because they want to create the faith in the image of their own political creed? Or are those who say these scholars are wrong, doing so because they want to ensure that God's politics mirror theirs.

Isn't politics a bit like culture. we are so used to our political attitudes, they are so second nature to us that we do not see them and their effect on how we read texts? Politics affects the paper we choose to read, how we respond to news events - just look at the storm of disagreement over the rights and wrongs in the arrest of Damien Green.

So Robin Parry is right when he says 'She decided what political goals she wanted to achieve, worked out what kind of God would be needed to support that agenda, and then reverse-engineered a doctrine of God that serves the pre-decided political agenda. It is the very self-conscious, and blatant crafting of a God to serve our political ends that is ... worrying.' But wrong to imply that we don't all do it; indeed that it is to some extent inevitable.

What we need is a community of scholarship - gatherings of Christians generally - that gently and lovingly holds one another to account for our interpretations, especially in sensitive areas that spill over into the way we live as disciples in the real world.

I'm just embarking on a study of Ched Myers' Binding the Strong Man, a self confessed political reading of Mark that seeks to close the gap between the text and our discipleship in every area of life in our world - including politics. Is this a more tendentious reading that William Lane's or Morna Hooker's that merely claim to engage in historical-critical-literary criticism of the text?

Let me know what you think...

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Clearing the decks

Now it's actually December, I feel able to say 'Christmas is coming'. Advent has started and we need to be getting ourselves ready to welcome the prince of peace. The trouble is that around this time of year, my life turns from peace to pandemonium - not that there's much peace through the autumn. But the Christmas rush presses in.

I am trying to finish an article reflecting on ministering in exile. I hope to get it done this week - but I daren't tell the editor that because I've got his hopes up so many times over the past few months!

However, the piece has a shape and some observations on Jeremiah 29 and 1 Peter filtered through my recent experience of ministry. The trouble with anything like this is that I'm not sure it will ever feel finished. I never had this trouble when I was a journalist!

Yesterday I was in Didcot for a meeting about the Baptist assembly and picked up a book to review for Mission Catalyst from the fresh expressions folk. Called Mission-shaped Questions: Defining Issues for today's Church, it's a collection of essays on the mixed economy church (an intriguing phrase which I see is also the title of the fresh expressions journal that hit my door mat this morning). It looks promising.

I'm listening to my top ten albums of the year trying to pick a winner for my festive feature that's coming soon. I might have to cop out and opt for category winners, so that each record wins a prize.