Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Finding meaning in Advent

Blogging at Hopeful Imagination this morning (here)

The BBC's nativity got off to a good start last night. Available on iPlayer for those who missed it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas is about changing the world

'What has always frightened the rich and powerful has been the appearance from among the oppressed of self-confident leaders who prove their strength by organising in a way that could alter the balance of power.' (p39)

With that Tony Benn gets to the heart of Herod's panic. As we saw so well and wittily portrayed on this evening's first episode of the BBC's promising new Christmas drama, The Nativity, Jesus was born into a oppressed majority, ruled over by a greedy and paranoid client king.

'You must always ask yourselves whether it is possible to change the world in which you live,' Benn says. 'by accepting the world as it is you legitimise it and thereby become responsible in part for its iniquities.' (p38). What is noticeable about Benn is the way he stresses personal responsibility. He is not the kind of socialist who lazily attributes everything bad that happens to the mechanised forces of global capitalism. We each play our part, he says, in accepting injustice or battling to overcome it.

Jesus similarly calls each one of us to own our part in making the world what it is and to commit ourselves to his movement in changing it according to his agenda. Advent is the season when we get ready for this; when we examine ourselves, repent, receive forgiveness and immerse ourselves in the prophets whose vision of the coming Kingdom of Justice, joy, peace and equality is fulfilled in Jesus and passed on to us.

Tomorrow I'm blogging over at Hopeful Imagination and will be reflecting on Isaiah and the manger

Journalism's loss is ours too

Today's a bad day for journalism as the deaths of two of its towering figures have been announced. Anthony Howard and Brian Hanrahan have died relatively young and both at the height of their powers.

They represented all the best qualities of the noble art of journalism at a time when there's so much mediocrity in print and TV news. Both were masters of brevity and sound judgement; both knew how to hold the powerful to account for their actions.

Along with Hugo Young, Tony Howard was one of the greatest post-war political commentators, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the men (mostly) and women who have held the great offices of state since 1945, enabled him to put today's politicians in their proper context.

I will miss his clipped tones on the Today programme bringing sanity, wit and wisdom to the morning brawl.

Hanrahan is known for his 'I counted them all out and I counted them all back' report during the Falklands War. But his reporting from Tienanmen Square, Berlin as the wall came down, Russia in the Gorbachev years, offered huge insight into these world-changing events.

Even latterly presenting the World at One as a stand-in for the regulars, he brought insight and incision to interviews that most of his peers could only dream of.

It would be good to think that there are young reporters modelling their approach to their craft on these greats.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lessons in nail care from a master

James Taylor has long been one of my favourite singer/songwriters. He's written some classic songs and this year or late last year released an album of some of them recorded live with Carole King at the Troubadour in LA which is a lovely record.

I love his voice but I also love the way he plays guitar. He has a unique style that seems effortless in its brilliance. Well, I was overjoyed to receive a mailing from James Taylor's website this morning announcing that he is offering video guitar lessons, the first two of which are posted on line now. It will be interesting to see if I can pick some tips on playing better.

The second film shows him strengthening his nails using glass fibre tape and nail glue. Strong nails are a key to being able to finger pick consistently and well. It is the nail on the string - not the fleshy part of the finger which tends to be how I do it - that makes the string sing and resonate. It's great to see a man of his stature providing basic lessons in nail care!

You can check it all out at his website here - as well as listen to some classic music!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Advent fireworks

I am loving Tony Benn's Letters to My Grandchildren. He writes about things that matter with a disarming simplicity. And in advent it's good to be reminded of the things that really matter.

Benn says: 'Christianity provided me with a set of moral values and a series of comforting rituals.' (p34). While he has in mind hatching, matching and dispatching, it's clear from other places that those rituals include the seasons of the church, times when we reflect on aspects of our lives in relation to God.

He goes on, 'Christianity helped me answer some of the mysteries of life and death and provided me with the reassurance that there was someone who loved me despite my faults.' (p34).

As we await the birth of Jesus, it's good to reflect on the fact that God loves us despite our many faults; indeed that he sent his Son into the world to redeem us from those faults and to give us the power to overcome them and rise above them through his teaching and Spirit.

'If someone I love is in danger, I will naturally pray for them,' he says, 'in the hope and belief that it will be of some help in their trials.' (p35)

Benn has never slotted comfortably into institutional religion - he doesn't really do institutions of any kind, as the some in the Labour Party would no doubt happily tell you! But he does offer this wonderful insight into Jesus, the teacher, the one to follow, while being sceptical about those in authority in the church!

'Religious and political leaders shine a torch on the path they wish us to follow but teachers explode fireworks into the sky so that for a moment we can see the whole landscape, learn where we have come from, where we are and the paths ahead.' (p36-37)

That's a great description of what we are waiting for. As Jesus arrives, there is an explosion of fireworks, a lighting up of the landscape of our lives. We see ourselves as we are and as we could be. And we see Jesus as the one who has come to make the difference, come to lead us into God's future by showing us its landscape and the paths that we must travel together to get there.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hope, humility and holding on to Jesus - grandfatherly advice from Tony Benn

I've been on the look out for something to read during Advent. I know, I should have been doing this two months ago and been already to go when the season started. But nothing seemed to strike the right chord with me until yesterday when I came across Tony Benn's Letters to My Grandchildren: Thoughts on the Future.

It's an unlikely choice, I know; yet it's a book full of advent themes - hope, justice, peace, a new world order where people are free and there's equality. I was also drawn to it because I wondered what kind of letters would I write to my grandchildren - one already here and another arriving in the New Year.

Benn gets off to a belting start: 'people have always dreamed of a world of peace and plenty but it was beyond man's capacity to secure it,' he says (p2), adding 'I have made many mistakes, and I have also become aware as I have got older how little I know. I am much less sure than I was in my youth that I am right about anything and for these reasons I am reluctant to give advice to you.' (p3).

Hope and humility - those are two great advent themes; recognising our need for a world better than the one we have, but realising that we don't have the resources in and of ourselves to make it happen.

He continues by suggesting that advances in technology raise fundamental moral issues that we have to face, adding that 'the teachings of Jesus are more relevant now because the stakes are higher, and the violent anti-Christian atheists who denounce those who follow Jesus completely fail to appreciate that science and technology offer no moral guidance as to what should be done with them.'

Hope, humility and holding on to the values we find in Jesus - now those are great advent themes worth hearing again.

I'm beginning to wish Tony Benn was my granddad.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

the festive fifteen

It's that time of year again when I ponder what new music I've listened to this year and why - and which album should sit at the top of my Christmas tree. Unlike previous years, there's a clear, runaway winner this; and for the first time, more of this year's entries were acquired by download only than bought on CD.

The clear winner is Arcade Fire's The suburbs, an album of sublime tunes and lyrical brilliance. It's probably the album of the decade and seals Arcade Fire as the hottest band of the moment, worthy successors to Talking Heads in their ability to put a finger on what's happening and what it might add up to.

The rest of year's crop, in no particular order, are:

Tracey Thorn Love and its Opposites, a great collection of songs reflecting on growing up, even growing older, of being with same person for an adult life time and having kids who are growing up and flying the nest.

Laura Veirs July, a wonderful, lyrical, celebration of life

Laura Marling I speak because I can is clearly a good record by a hugely talented song writer. I reckon in a decade or so, she will produce a true masterpiece. When you listen to her songs against the likes of Veirs or Thorn, there's a sense of something lacking which I suspect is life experience. it's not surprising as Marling is only 20! It's a fine album none-the-less with great tunes and quirky instrumentation.

The Smoke Fairies debut album finally arrived in the autumn, after a couple of storming EPs. Through Low Light and Trees is full of heavenly harmonies, delta blues guitars and great tunes.

It's been a good year for women singers and in the late autumn the peerless Mavis Staples produced an album to get you marching for justice and worshipping Jesus. You are Not Alone is a stunning mixture of old gospel and new protest songs which doesn't put a foot wrong.

Cherry Ghost followed up 2007's Thirst for Romance with darker fare. Beneath this Burning Shoreline is full of chilly brilliance; great tunes and opaque lyrics that is technically wonderful but hasn't grabbed the emotions like the debut did. Maybe it will. It's definitely worth repeated listens, however.

Gorillaz Plastic Beach, the third outing from Damon Albarn's cartoon group is full of quirky, wonderfully realised pop. I'd love to see it live.

Delphic's Acolyte flowed out of Manchester on a wave of good will. Feeling like Soul Savers lite, it bounces along very tunefully. They sound like a youthful New Order.

This year's great find is undoubtedly the National. Their album High Violet is a fabulous concoction, though having snapped that up on its release, I then got Boxer having heard them on Glastonbury TV. Their music is dense and multi-layered, often in several time signatures simultaneously with Matt Berninger's rich baritone vocal musing on life and loss (mainly loss). I think Boxer has the slight edge over the new one but both are truly gorgeous.

Two bands that I discovered on line this year are Gungor whose Beautiful Things is the best worship music I have heard for years; and Evils that Never Came, a band that I know next to nothing about except that they have followed up their debut, 2004's June, with this year's Northerly Winds. They play what can best be described as indie power pop, waves of organ and choppy guitars over driving rhythms. And both albums are available free form their website.

And finally, Mr E (Eels) came storming back this year with not one but two wonderfully tuneful and thought-provoking albums. The spring brought us End Times, fourteen heartbreaking and witty songs about the end of a relationship and the autumn delivered Tomorrow Morning, fourteen life-affirming songs about the start of a new relationship and fresh starts generally. I'm not sure which album I prefer, though the latter has two of the best songs E has ever written, Oh So Lovely and That's Not Her Way

And at number 15 is a reissue which contains a first official release. It's David Bowie's Station to Station, in my opinion the grand dame's best ever record, released at the start of a flurry of creativity that included Low, Heroes, Lodger and Scary Monsters. But Station to Station with its stumbling after faith and geometric rhythms sees him at the peak of his form. This analogue mix - so much better than the remastered version that came out a few years ago - is packaged along with his storming 1976 gig at The Nassau Coliseum in New York. This has been available as a bootleg for years but this is its first kosher release and very welcome it is too: Bowie is fronting the best touring band he ever put together. They play tight and loud and his vocal performance is peerless. One of the truly great gigs of all time.

So, there you are, fifteen Christmas present ideas for you to give or ask for, each one a gem.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Faith in the City and losing my religion....

I'm reading a fascinating account of faith in England at the moment. Called Is God Still an Englishman: How we lost our faith (but found new soul), it's author Cole Moreton, tells the story of the last twenty to thirty years of English church life, trying to account to the collapse in attendance and emergence of a new English identity (Thanks to Glen Marshall for the tip about this book sometime ago).

Moreton writes as a player in these events, not just an observer. A self-confessed teenage fundamentalist, he marched for Jesus in the 1980s, working for a US-based youth organisation that sends young missionaries across the world to share their faith. He was evangelical, charismatic, committed, passionate. Now he is a sceptic.

Part of his book is an attempt to account to himself - and anyone else who's interested - what happened and why, and whether it matters. There are profoundly moving bits of this story and much to think about.

Last night I was reading his account of the publication of Faith in the City. I remember as a young journalist, buying my copy of the report from the book shop in Liberty's on Regent Street on my way to work. I remember talking about it with my editor, partly because we were wondering if there was a story in it for us (I was business editor on Marketing Week at the time, so it seemed unlikely) and partly because he was intrigued with the idea that the church still had something to say about the world we all lived in.

Last night this quote from the report stood out: 'it is the poor who have borne the brunt of the recession, yet it is the poor who are seen by some as "social security scroungers" or a burden on the country preventing economic recovery.' Plus ca change, hey?!

Faith in the City helped to cement my call to ministry - a year after its publication, I was beginning study at London Bible College, en route to ministry in Peckham, a community savaged by the 1980s recession and still suffering its effects when I arrived there in 1989.

Later, in the mid-1990s, I had the huge privilege and joy of working with David Sheppard, the Bishop of Liverpool, one of Faith in the City's authors, on the Churches' Enquiry into Unemployment and the Future of Work (I was representing the BUGB on the steering group of that investigation).

Faith in the City helped to shape my understanding of the relationship between the Christian faith and the world in which we live. it wasn't a perfect piece of work by any means. But it was a challenge to the followers of Jesus to take seriously their call to be a transforming presence in their communities.

For Moreton, it was one more fault line indicating that the church was losing its place as the moral conscience of our country. Its publication co-incided with Live Aid, a clear demonstration that you didn't have to faith to change the world. It was evidence that England's God was losing his grip on the English - in particular on him.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Football isn't coming home

So we're all gutted that England didn't succeed in its bid to host the world cup. Well, while I am gutted for football fans, I have to say that I didn't have a strong view either way about the merits of the bid - though it does raise an eyebrow or three that a country with a world class football infrastructure didn't get a chosen, while a country with a lot of sand and not much else was selected to host in 2022.

This morning it has emerged that FIFA shied away from England because of the media. If that is the reason that two only delegates voted for our bid, then it says everything we need to know about FIFA and nothing about the our ability to stage a world class football event. Here we have a hugely secretive, unaccountable body that is responsible for spending billions of dollars on sport choosing to stage its competitions in places where the media will not ask any awkward questions.

If we did lose the bid because of investigations by the Sunday Times and BBC, then let's raise a glass to a free media that is not afraid to lift the lid on murky goings on. It has to be better to lose than to win when there is a strong possibility that we would have won for reasons other than the quality of our bid. Media investigations of the IOC led to that body reforming itself and allowing the light in. FIFA needs to do the same and maybe we shouldn't be bidding to host anything it organises until it is so reformed.

Fire amid the winter snow

The big freeze did not keep us away from the O2 last night where we were treated to a magisterial set by the peerless Arcade Fire. Not only have they produced the best album of the year by far - the Suburbs - but they are a live act of such phenomenal energy and creativity.

There were some empty around us at the sold-out gig, suggesting the weather had defeated some fans, but there was still a great atmosphere. We were sitting up in the gods to the left of arena as you look from the stage and yet there was still a buzz as the band exploded into Ready to Start - Win having invited everyone (even those of us in seats) to get up and dance.

Dressed in the most amazingly sparkling gold dress, Regine stole the show, moving from drums to keys to accordion to hurdy-gurdy, dancing and fizzing with energy. Although Win sings the songs, she drives the band along.

There was an incredible moment as the band finished their set before coming back for an encore. As they were beginning to leave the stage, the audience all-but stopped clapping and sang back the chant chorus of the track the band had just played. They stopped, listened and started clapping back before leaving the stage. it was a moment of genuine connection you don't usually get at such a large gig.

They duly came back and did a storming encore and we all left singing.