Thursday, March 31, 2011

The high art of collapsing into now

It's been a busy but productive week. I've been listening to the rather fine new long player from REM. Collapse into Now is one of the best records of the year, I reckon. It's certainly kept me sane

I also think that the reviews have been somewhat churlish. They tend to say that it's a good record but it's not as good as REM in their heyday. Poor REM, it seems, have to write tunes that are not only good as Losing my Religion, Night Swimming, Everyone Hurts, etc for every record but they also have to make reviewers feel as they did when they first heard those songs 15 or more years ago. This is too heavy a load to bear for any band - even one as exceptional as REM.

On its own merits Collapse into Now is a fine record, lively tunes, fabulously jangly guitars (even Peter Buck's mandolin) and intriguing lyrics. I'd say that in Blue - an extraordinary half-slurred, half sung duet with Patti Smith - Oh My Heart and It Happened Today, it boasts songs that would not be out of place on a greatest hits compilation that features the vintage tracks mentioned above.

In short it's good, so listen without prejudice (as some other singer once said).

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tweeting with Montaigne and Qohelet

I had an interesting time at Eltham College this morning. I tweeted that I was spending a few minutes with South East London's young elite and I have to say that I was impressed by the politeness of all the pupils (only boys in my lower group group as the girls don't join until sixth form).

I was given a good hearing and very polite round of applause at the end as I swept out in the wake of the gowned teachers (slightly surreal that!) I did roughly the same as I'd done a month ago at a fee-paying girls school. I'd say it went down better with the boys than the girls!

So, here's what I said....

It was a bit of a rush this morning….but I updated my facebook status: doing assembly at Eltham College……made sure my blog was prominently promoting my new book……and tweeted where I was going…off to Eltham College. (actually I tweeted from the college reception as I was a bit early). I am just so new, up-to-date and original! Just like the lovely Stephen Fry here, tweeter extraordinaire. But actually, you know, we’re not so modern….

Meet Michel de Montaigne. Last month he celebrated his 478 birthday – He’s not looking bad for his age is he? In 1572 he began writing essays – like many of you will have to do today! But unlike the philosophers who came before him, they were all about himself. They were status updates; accounts of what he’d been doing that day, what he was thinking about and maybe some useful tips for others about how to live.

But even Montaigne was not original. Not really…2000 years before him another philosopher put down his status updates on how he was trying to make sense of life. We don’t know his name but he was known as ‘the teacher’ and his thoughts are recorded in the book of Ecclesiastes that you can find somewhere in the middle of the Hebrew Bible, what we often call the Old Testament.

He looked at the world and his life in it and drew a lot of conclusions. Like this one – there’s time to do all that we need to do. So if we run out of time, maybe we’re trying to do too much? And this one… ‘what do workers get from all their toil?’ which probably boils down to ‘is what I’m doing worthwhile?’ Hopefully, you’ll gain good grades and a better understanding of the subjects you’re studying as a result of your hard work today.

And he also said this: ‘get in touch with your creator while you’re still young’ because he came to see after all his looking and trying things out that the world made a whole lot better sense when he was in touch with God than when he wasn’t. So looking back as an older man, his advice to the young – those he was teaching – was to look for God in what you’re doing and then what you’re doing will be so much more rewarding and fulfilling

It seems updating our status, tweeting our thoughts, blogging isn’t really as new as we think it is. And, as was true for Michel de Montaigne and for the teacher who wrote Ecclesiastes, it’s so much better to put finger to keyboard when we’ve got something to say that is really worth saying. So, let’s live well today; let’s get in touch with God, be a good friend, help out those who need it and then at the end of the day, when all our chores are done, we’ll have something worth tweeting and facebooking about…

Thursday, March 17, 2011

It's in the shops

Tomorrow is the official release date for The world of the Early Church but I have it on good authority that at least one eager customer has got his hands on a copy already and is looking for a smart coffee table on which to display it.

Grab one from wesley Owen in Bromley and if you really can't travel, you don't need to go to Amazon because wesley owen's website is giving 25% off all academic titles (mine included) with free shipping on orders over £5.

You know it makes sense!

The stories we tell and live by

'We have not shed what others call a Christendom imagination where the church is basically the centre of activity and conversation. Church questions are at the forefront of our thinking, so we default to questions about what the church should be doing and what the church should look like.' (p54).

Alan Roxburgh argues that he isn't church bashing; rather he is trying to free us from a picture that has held us captive for too long. Between parts 1 and 2 of Missional, there's a fascinating intermezzo called 'the Language House' that reflects on the stories we tell to make sense of our lives. Drawing on the ideas of Charles Taylor who speaks of 'social imaginaries', the 'unstructured and inarticulate understanding' that we have of our lives, Roxburgh explores what it means to live in a 'language house'.

The term comes from Mark Lau Branson, a teaching colleague of Roxburgh on a course at Fuller, and grew out of reflections his congregation had on seeking to be community. They realised that while they thought they were being shaped by the Bible's story and teaching on how to be disciples in the modern world, they were actually being shaped by other stories.

Branson says we were 'formed during late modern consumerism...shaped by such priorities as individual choice, personal affectivity, and expectations (imaginations) that emphasised the pursuit of careers that should supply meaning and resources for our lives.' In the west we are all to a large measure shaped by this story of individualism, consumerism and careerism; that is the language house in which we live.

I found this idea richly explanatory for some of the things that have long puzzled about church in the UK, not just my current church but to a large extent, every church I've been involved with. And it's this: we are able to say one thing and believe it and yet find ourselves living as though we had said and believe a different thing. Roxburgh suggests, for instance, that we talk about community and how important it is that our churches are expressions of community while at the same time living lives that are shaped by the story of individualism that we have grown up with.

So, he suggests that we need to move. He argues that there is another language house that offers a different, better understanding of who we are and what stories should shape our lives. That language house is scripture, particularly in this book, Luke-Acts, which is where part 2 of Missional takes us (more to follow).

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Learning to ask the right question

Yesterday I started reading Alan Roxburgh's new book Missional: Joining God in the Neighbourhood. I've been a big fan of Roxburgh's since reading The Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality - the book that more than any other has given shape to my ministry. Everything he writes is excellent. But, 60 pages in, this new one is by far the best thing he has written.

If you've not read much on missional thinking or anything by Roxburgh, start here. For one thing the writing is really clear, the story telling is punchy and well focused and the story he tells is ruthlessly honest and richly informative.

And the clearest insight that I've got so far is that I've really been asking the wrong question over the past few years. I've been asking questions about how to do church better, about how to make my congregation more missional. Roxburgh has helped me ask this question. But in this book he points out that it's the wrong question. It's not that the book or his thinking is anti-church - far from it - it's just that church is not the place to start thinking missionally.

Contemporary missional thinking grew out of the ministry and searing insights of Lesslie Newbigin and going back to the source has helped Roxbugh see that Newbigin's concern was to investigate the matrix of gospel, scripture and culture. The church only entered Newbigin's thinking once he had thoroughly and fully explored how the gospel and culture informed and interacted with one another.

Church - or congregation in Newbigin's terminology - comes as a result of mission that has itself been born of the interaction of gospel and culture. So the key questions that Roxburgh begins to ask at the start of his book are ones such as 'what is the gospel?' not in general, but specifically for the community he is walking through on a given Sunday morning, discovering that most people are not in church. He does not ask - indeed he has stopped asking - 'how do we create the kind of spaces where people who are not in church on Sunday morning might feel safe to explore the Christian faith'? Such a question seems irrelevant. These people are not in church and are never likely to be given what they seem to enjoy doing on a Sunday morning. So the question is 'what is the gospel for them?' A supplementary question might be 'how will they see and hear that gospel'? but that is a little way down the track...

As I started reading this ahead of a leaders away day on Saturday, I have been given plenty to think and pray about. Indeed, one consequence of yesterday's reading is that I went walking in my neighbourhood prayerfully watching and asking 'what is the gospel for this place at this time?' And I came home with aching feet!

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Feeling the warmth of radiohead

Having been listening to it on and off for the past couple of weeks, I am really loving the new Radiohead album. Quite a few reviewers have described King of Limbs as chilly and inaccessible, but I am finding it lush and involving, full of quirky, edgy rhythms and great melodies.

I agree, though, with those who have asked why Thom Yorke sings since it is very difficult to make out what he is singing when you do, the lyrics are just fragments of ideas - a bit like T S Eliot (and I know that's probably the point) but without the structure!

But it's a really fine album.

I am looking forward to getting into the new Elbow record which at first blush seems to be more of what we expect from Elbow - finely crafted, poignant songs about something that matters.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Protesting the big society

I got an email from the Evangelical Alliance just as I was finishing preparing for Sunday evening. The email concerned the big society and how it was a great opportunity for churches - and asking for money to help make their version of the big society a reality. The sermon I'd just finished is about spurring one another in to love and good works and focuses on the fact that our faith is for the world and not just us. So, I should be putting two and two together and saying let's all leap on the big society bandwagon...

Well, no, I'm not doing that. I'm actually working on an email to send to Christians in the area asking if they'll support the youth charity I chair because local authority spending cuts have put its future in grave doubt. And that's the big society dilemma for me.

In good years, when government spending was available to forge real partnership between the statutory and voluntary sector, I'd have been pretty supportive of much of the thinking embodied by big society propaganda. I think local groups are better at shaping the services to be offered to their locality; I think voluntary sector organisations offer the flexibility and fleetness of foot that's needed to meet the real needs of people as they change over time. But that can only happen if there's statutory support in the form of funding, not to mention the flow of funds of grant making trusts. Sadly the savagery of the spending cuts means that not only is there no local authority grants but bids to grant making trusts - themselves seeing reduced assets because of the shenanigans of the bankers - outstripping supply of money.

A sensible government would have put the big society transition arrangements in place before local authorities took the ax to support of the voluntary sector. A sensible government would have established the big society bank on a sound financial footing - probably using the proceeds of a robin hood tax on the banks that would see £10bn+ a year flowing into its coffers - so it could fund the transformation of our communities. But it didn't. So we will see many good voluntary sector groups go to the wall as the funding dries up.

So the church has a dilemma. Government says join us in the big society and we want to say this is what we've always done, so of course we'll join you. And like the good Samaritan, we will bind up the wounds of those damaged by life, mugged by misfortune. The church has always done this. it will continue to do so. But in the coming months it might find itself expected to do vastly than its meagre resources will allow. Can we provide care for the vulnerable, training for NEETs, support for struggling families, food for the hungry, utilities to those priced out of the market, care for those struggling to live in the community with mental health problems...? In short, can we make good the effect of the most savage spending cuts ever envisaged in a single spending round? I doubt it.

Paul says that we should pay our taxes as a sign of love for our neighbours. This implies that government has a responsibility to the vulnerable. It implies that one of the ways in which we order the big society is through the election and action of good government, charged with gathering and distributing tax revenue fairly. So, yes, Mr Osbourne, close the VAT loophole on goods brought in from the Channel Islands (I will willingly pay the correct price for my Cd's and DVDs from Play or wherever), but also do something to claw back the £25bn lost each year to tax 'avoidance'.

So, I think we should help out where we can by bringing aid to the vulnerable and protest the fact that we have left in the mess we're in by a financial system that is still out of control (how can a bank that makes £1 in losses be paying out just shy of £1bn in bonuses to the incompetent?). I think a few occupations of the places that are still part of the problem would be a good way of churches showing that they are part of the solution. If the EA is raising money for such a campaign of protests, I'll donate to that.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Learning to break bread in the city

I had lunch at Le Pain Quotidien yesterday and it was wonderful. Bread and cheese to die for! Good company too.

The company's website (here) says this about its communal table: Friends and strangers alike come together around our communal table to break bread and linger for a while...Take a seat next to a neighbor, share the Brunette and be reminded that, even in the big city, we are a community.

Isn't that what we want church to be? Good food, a welcome for all, breaking bread together... Of course, we want to break bread and remember Jesus, so our eating and drinking together becomes a conscious reflection of his values and lifestyle. But it seems to me that we could a thing or two about our gatherings from a lunch or two at Le Pain Quotidien.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Taking the new perspective out of the classroom into the church

I've just finished preparing for tomorrow's Romans session at Spurgeon's tomorrow. We're looking at the new perspective and how we understand the term 'the righteousness of God'. The new perspective has now been around for so long that it really needs a different name. Yesterday evening I reread Krister Stendhal's essay 'The apostle Paul and the introspective conscience of the west' which first appeared in 1963. In many ways this was the spark that ignited the new perspective's fire - and it's still wonderfully fresh.

But it's Ed Sanders, whose book Paul and Palestinian Judaism, really opened a radical new way of reading Paul, dubbed 'the new perspective' by James Dunn in 1982. In fact, it wasn't so much a new way of reading Paul as a rereading of his Jewish context. If the Judaism in which Paul grew up was not the religion of works righteousness that Luther thought it was, then everything he says at the beginning of Romans needs to be reassessed. If Paul was not wracked with guilt as the young Luther was, then our understanding of justification needs to be rethought. That's basically what the new perspective is about.

It seems to me that it is a much more fruitful approach to Paul and, especially, to Romans, particularly in the way that it has been refined and fleshed out by Dunn, Tom Wright and even Francis Watson, whose Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles is the best book I've read on the New Testament this year.

But it leaves me with a huge question: if this approach is correct, how will we teach it in our churches? If it's correct, it calls into question a lot of what has been taught in evangelical and reformation tradition churches, in particular, because it shifts the focus of Paul's teaching from individual salvation to being the people of God.

As I've been tackling Romans in our church Bible studies over the past few months, I've lost count of the number of times that people have said 'this is so different from what I grew up with' and even 'am I supposed to regard all those teachers whose ministry I valued as wrong in the light of what you are saying?' I guess this applies to a lot of what is taught in theological colleges. there is always the temptation to leave the allegedly 'difficult' stuff behind and do what's always been done, say what's always been said. But are we robbing our people of the opportunity of hearing the fresh light and truth that God wants to bring forth from his word (something baptists have always thought important)? Answers on a post card, please...!

A good accompaniment to these musings has been Laura Veirs' Carbon Glacier album from 2004. Lovely stuff - like pretty much everything she's done.