Thursday, March 22, 2012

Getting to the politics of Easter with the Boss

In keeping with tradition (well, doing what I've done for the past few months...) here is the piece that  wrote for the church magazine's Easter edition. I shall blog at greater length about both the albums featured here.

When the papers are awash with stories about how the Christian faith is being driven to the side lines of our culture, it is heartening to switch on the radio and hear that God has taken up residence in the charts. From Katy Perry asking who she is living for and declaring that she will be taking the road less travelled in a song awash with the South Baptist imagery of her childhood to the boss, Bruce Springsteen, whose latest album, Wrecking Ball, is full of Christian imagery.

Now 63 Springsteen sings with a world weary wisdom born of drinking deeply at the well of American protest – especially Woodie Guthrie – and the Catholic faith of his New Jersey upbringing. He also sings with a passionate anger about what is happening to the world and in particular what is happening to the ordinary working people of his country in a time of recession and economic hardship. But his anger is shot through with a hope that can only be accounted for by the Christian story still firing his imagination.

So the track, We are Alive, which closes the record, begins with the line

There is a cross up yonder up on calvary hill

It alerts us to the fact that what follows might be linked to the suffering of Christ. And that is indeed the case. But the suffering he calls our attention to is that of people who have walked the way of the cross and paid the highest price for it – the dead of the civil rights movement, the unsung heroes in the struggle for justice. And the chorus, washed in the tones and rhythms of slave spirituals, declares

we are alive
oh, and though we lie alone here in the dark
our souls will rise to carry the fire and light the spark
to fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart

Here’s a lot missing from Bruce’s Easter meditation, but he alerts his listener to the fact that the struggle for justice and equity in our world is rooted in something deeper and richer than a merely political ideology. It is rooted in God. And we are reminded that even though we die, we will rise in Christ; there is a future and it’s radiant with God’s justice and love.

Earlier in the year, 77 year old Leonard Cohen (it’s true what they say, you know, that pop music is wasted on the young!) released a long anticipated and truly wonderful album called Old Ideas. And among the old ideas that Cohen was reviving and redrawing to our attention was that of the incarnation and cross of Christ

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

Four lines that nail the story of Jesus that are being played on tens of thousands of iPhones and CD players across the planet.

Easter is the rumour that God is committed to the world he made, so committed that he came to rescue it from the mess that we have made of it. Easter is the call of God for us to be caught up in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, to become part of the band of story tellers who declare that God has triumphed over evil and death, that new life is possible, that justice is coming, that all things will be made new.

And we need to be telling that story wherever we go, to our friends and work colleagues, to our neighbours and people we meet at the gym, to those we stand next to on the terraces and those who share our taste in music.

Cohen captures the hope that Jesus brings in the song that opens Old Ideas, Going Home. It’s a song that opens with the conceit that God might be using Cohen to get his message out to the world and then reminds us what that message is about

going home without my sorrow
going home sometime tomorrow
to where it’s better than before
going home without my burden
going home behind the curtain
going home without the costume that I wore

That’s the best exposition, in six lines of poetry, of 2 Corinthians 4-5, a glorious declaration of our hope, that is based on the events of the first Easter, the cross and resurrection of our Lord Jesus.

Across the charts – not to mention in fiction of all kinds and a range of movies – the rumour of God keeps breaking out. Let’s be alert to it so that when we’re talking with our friends and neighbours we are able to help them make the connections between the pop culture they consume and the God who is calling them to new life.

And if we listen carefully, we hear God calling us to get on board with his mission of working for justice and peace, of pointing to the future where there’ll be no pain or crying and seeking to bring as much of it into the present as we can.

Jesus is risen. The tomb is empty. Death, darkness and the devil are defeated. Creation is made new. And we have tasted that it’s real. So happy Easter – pass it on…

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Reflecting on a great troubadour

Very excited to receive in yesterday's post a copy of Brian Walsh's Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination. Walsh is one of my favourite cultural theologians and Cockburn is probably the best troubadour of his generation - 31 albums in 40 years, a searing eye for justice and a heart open to the wonder and mystery of God's creation.

I'm really looking forward to digesting this volume. Expect to see many more references to Cockburn's output accompanied by Walsh's incisive reflection on it in coming weeks....

Having said that, I've just written my Easter perspective for our church magazine which is about the music of Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen (and I'll be posting something about their recent albums really soon).

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Handling the evidence

So, no sooner do I find out that a Dutch edition of my book is on the way than said edition arrives in my mail box. I am now holding De Wereld van de Vroege Kerk (pictured).

It's a slightly surreal experience because it looks identical to the English version until you get close up and realise that you cannot read any of the words on any given page. Until that is you turn to page 139 where one of the boxes is headed 'What's in a name?' Is that Dutch or a proof-reading error?

Still, it's lovely to think that 2000 copies of this fine tome will be available to Dutch readers everywhere, though mainly in the Netherlands. I hope they enjoy it.

I'm certainly more chuffed to be holding it than I have any right to be!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

It's all Dutch to me!

Here is a link to the Dutch publisher who are publishing my book - The World of the Early Church - in Dutch. As my friend Pieter Lallerman who brought this event to my attention pointed out, I can at least recognise my own name!

Still it's lovely to see it coming - and all you Dutch readers out there, please buy it!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Responding to the Kony2012 phenomenon

There's been a huge reaction to a film about Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA in Northern Uganda, now operating in the killing fields of Eastern Congo. It's an amazing film that has garnered a quite mind-boggling response from the facebookers and tweeters.

A mate of mine, Jonathan Langley, has written this superb reflection on the film and the phenomenon. Jonathan knows what he's talking about and his piece is worth reflecting on. You can read it here

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Reflecting on faith in a secular Lent

As it's the beginning of the month, I thought I'd post the lent reflection that  wrote for my church magazine.

Lent offers us an opportunity to reflect on our lives in the run-up to Easter in two ways. One is to reflect on our personal, individual walk with Jesus and the other is to ask how we can be a witness to our faith in the communities in which we live. They are, of course, intimately connected.

There has been much press interest in recent weeks over the place of the Christian faith in our society. Before Christmas, David Cameron asserted that Britain is a Christian country, even if his own faith is sometimes not as strong as he wished it was. Then in February there was an explosion of stories about whether militant secularism was on the rise; stories that often generated more heat than light.

So in Lent, as we reflect on the events at the heart of our faith – namely the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – it is a good time to ask what we think and feel about the place of the faith that matters so much to us in the wider society in which we live.

Baptists have something original to contribute to this debate because Baptists can be seen as the group that first called for a secular society – if by that we mean a society in which everyone is free to decide what they will believe. Thomas Helwys, one of the two founders of our movement, was the first Englishman (probably the first person anywhere) to call on the ruling powers to allow freedom of conscience in matters of religion.

As Baptist minister and theologian Alec Gilmore reminded us a couple of years ago: ‘For Helwys, religious liberty was a right for everyone - heretics, Turks and Jews, whoever they were, whatever they did; even for Roman Catholics, when the memory of the Gunpowder Plot was still acute. Anything less was a loss to the community, as well as to the individual. No parliament could legislate against it. No monarch could overrule it. He reminded James I that he too was a mortal, "dust and ashes" like the rest of us, with no power over the immortal souls of his subjects. James responded by putting him in prison, where he remained until his death.’

So while Baptists are delighted that anyone wants to be a follower of Jesus, we are also committed to allowing people not to be. The state has no role in deciding people’s faith. So Baptists have always been somewhat ambivalent about whether Britain is a ‘Christian’ society and have tended to side with the secularists, arguing that the state’s role is create a framework and atmosphere where all people are free to believe what they want to. So the followers of all religions and those who choose to follow no religion are welcome to participate fully as citizens.

Such a view means that Baptists are iffy about prayers and bishops in Parliament, about state funding for Christian schools and about giving Christian ethics pride of place in the moral debates of the day. Of course, when Helwys was writing there wasn’t a strong and vocal atheist movement; most English people were default Christians and Helwys’ case was most sharply about how the state should not determine what kind of Christian they should be.

We are invited into this debate in every generation. And perhaps in this Lent, it’s a good time for us to defend people’s right to follow Jesus and not to (if that’s what they choose).

But Lent is also a time to reflect on what kind of Christian we are going to be. If the trappings of state support for our faith are removed, then our faith has to stand on its own two legs – and those legs belong to every person who claims to be a follower of Jesus.

So here’s a story from the Celtic Christian tradition and a meditation to help our Lenten reflection. Aidan, bishop of Lindisfarne, met a man on the road: ‘Are you a Christian,’ he asked him. ‘Of course I am,’ replied the man. ‘That’s good to hear’, said Aidan: ‘now, will you try to be a better one?’

To live rooted and grounded in Jesus
Is how to be a better Christian
To learn our faith
Is how to be a better Christian
To overflow with thankfulness for all God’s mercy
Is how to be a better Christian

It will not happen through
force of will,
following rules,
finding secret wisdom

It started in baptism
When we died and rose with Christ;
It continues in faith
As we walk with him

This Lent, will we reflect on our lives and seek through Cross and resurrection of Jesus, through the inspiration and in-filling of the Holy Spirit, to be those who radiate the glory of God to our friends and neighbours?