Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A thought for Jon Lord

Jon Lord - the great keyboard man from Deep Purple - died yesterday. So, here's his classic composition from Deep Purple in Rock, Child in Time, captured live in 1970. Lord was from my home town - Leicester - and the band was a back drop to my teen years. I was never a big fan but they do represent a certain musical moment.

Child in Time was that potent mix of riffs, wonderful keyboards, classical music motifs and portentous (not to say pretentious) lyrics that lifted Deep Purple above the slew of driving rock bands that flooded the concert halls in the early to mid-70s. So enjoy a nostalgic ten minutes (yes, it really is that long!) or, if you weren't born, roll your eyes and wonder what the fuss was about....

Monday, July 16, 2012

Discipleship is more than a fashion accessory

It's unlike me to commend anything in the Daily Mail. But this is by a good friend of mine who is an acute observer of the interface between faith and life. And I read it as I was midway through reflecting on the second half of Jeremiah 15 (we're part way through a series on this most acerbic of Old Testament prophets).

The thrust of the passage - one of those great 'complaints' or 'confessions' that are scattered through the early chapters of the book - is simple: until we are the message, our words will fall on deaf ears.

We often see Jeremiah as a great resource for living in exile - he is the prophet, after all, who told us to get over the fact of exile and get on with living our faith in it (chapter 29). We often apply this to where we are as a Christian community in the twenty-first century, a church living in exile in the ruins of Christendom. Some lament our position; others see the potential in the discomfort of it. Quite a few have yet to wake up to its reality.

But what I really hadn't realised until I read chapter 15 and thought about the task Jeremiah had been given is that the burden of his message was to preach against the Christendom of his day; indeed it is to announce the end of that world. His work is bookended by reference to the fact that Judah was heading for exile and thus its current way of life was being terminated by God (1:3, 52:27b-34). The settlement under which king and priest formed a cosy alliance was being judged by the God each thought they were serving. This is why Jeremiah was so unpopular.

It's also why in the complaint recorded in 15:15-21, Jeremiah speaks of his pain, what Bruce Cockburn so memorably calls 'bleeding wound that will not heal'. It is a wound the prophet has spoken about afflicting Judah in 8:11, 21-22, a wound at the heart of its national life. And though this wound is born of the nation's sin and failure, it still afflicts the prophet who is highlighting that very national failure. Indeed, in response to Jeremiah's complaint, God tells his prophet to repent of his deep complicity in the failure of the nation to be what God hoped it would be.

The trouble Jeremiah finds himself in is that his message and his instinct are out of sync. Peter Drucker, the management guru, tells us that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. He means that the way a company is will always determine what it does, whatever strategies it devises for growth and change. The same is true of the church. Have we for too long trusted our privileged position in the culture that’s given us a special place in the nation? Have we thought that church will always a part of things if we just keep on doing what we’ve always done? Judah did.

Sadly such trust has robbed the gospel of its power to challenge and change lives and ways of doing things. Jeremiah was called to tear down the Christendom of his day, the cosying up of church and state that led to God being neutered. He found it so hard to do because this was his culture, his way of seeing the world and understanding his place in it. He had to change his mind about that (the meaning of the word repent) so  that he would begin to see the world and his life in it as God does.

We live in times when Christendom is decaying and the question we have to ask ourselves is this: is it God sending us into exile precisely so that we can embody his message for our society in a new way that will give our words fresh credibility? Will we stop bleating about not being able to wear a cross and start reflecting God’s character and concerns to our neighbours? 

Which brings me to the trenchant and prescient observations of my mate George. Maybe on the margins we will learn how to love God and love our neighbour so that we and the communities to which we belong embody the good news of Jesus in such a way that we don't have to wear a fashion accessory to indicate that we're his followers.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Getting down with Dr Dee

Last Saturday evening we went to the opera. That's not a sentence I write very often! We went to the last night of Damon Albarn's Dr Dee at the ENO. And what a splendid evening it was.

Albarn, one of the most creative voices in modern music, has written a glorious and intriguing suite of songs about the weird and mysterious Dr John Dee, a founding fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, astronomer, astrologer, mystic and the man who planned Elizabeth I's coronation.

It was a dazzling show (I'm not sure it's an opera; more a concept album with opera singers singing some of the parts), wonderfully staged, making the most creative use of lights that I've ever seen in a theatre. The stage set was almost bare, scenery such as it was (a table, a bed, a few scientific instruments) came and went behind large curving cardboard books. It was illuminated (literally) by lights that created Dee's mathematical equations and horoscopes. The scene where he plotted the best day for Elizabeth's coronation was a dazzling amalgam of dancers with illuminated orbs coming into alignment behind the gauze curtain on which the lights drew the charts Dee worked on.

The song cycle contains some of Albarn's most haunting melodies and intriguing lyrics. It is a reflection on Englishness - Dee is credited with having invented the idea of a British empire to counter the might of Spain, a scene evocatively brought to life in the show with music and dancers holding the rigged masts of the ships that saw off the Armada. But is also a reflection on ambition and mortality, on the frailty of relationships and the fleeting nature of fame.

So I recommend the album but am hoping that a DVD of the show becomes available or at least a CD with all the songs featured on the night and not just the selection that appears on the album (lovely though that is). I would say 'go and see it' but I can't because it's finished its run and isn't scheduled to return any time soon.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

An album you can read as well as hear

If you're looking for some great music to accompany summer (supposing it ever arrives), then look no further than Patty Smith's new album Banga. Ruminations on identity, history and spirituality are sung and spoken over a lush soundtrack that contains some of the best tunes in her 40+ years' output.

It is particularly great to hear the peerless Tom Verlaine - him of Television, makers of one the greatest albums of all time, Marquee Moon - playing glorious guitar on two tracks.

I recommend shelling out a couple of quid extra for the special edition CD. Yes, I do recommend the CD and not the download. I know it's not cool to want to put your hands on a physical product, to think that albums have a beginning, a middle and an end, a dramatic and musical arc that if put together well is richly satisfying. Anyway, if you buy the deluxe packaged CD, it comes in a hard-back book full of great pictures, the story of the recording and writing process and all the lyrics. So, it's an album that you read in bed. Glorious.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Lancing the boil at Barclays and beyond

I left my house to a breakfast meeting this morning - before heading to Hayward (see below) - with a spring in my step on hearing the news, just breaking, that Bob Diamond had quit as chief executive of Barclays. Is it wrong to hope that a criminal conviction for fraud will follow?

And at lunchtime, his right hand man followed him. There's a need for clear-out at the top of a lot of the financial institutions that took the world to the brink five years ago and whose reckless actions have thrown millions into poverty and uncertainty.

It isn't just the criminal fixing of the Libor - a little known but crucial financial instrument - nor the miss-selling of payment protection or small business insurance, nor even the iniquitous bonuses these guys pay themselves. What is truly reprehensible about these investment banks is their role in jacking up commodity prices and throwing millions into food insecurity and worse just so they can enjoy another bottle of bolly.

There needs to be a root and branch enquiry into all this followed by wholesale reform. It needs to look at how these banks operate and how the regulators - both central bankers and politician - fell asleep as they lined their own pockets. It will be painful for politicians all the way back to Thatcher and her cabinet. It will be especially painful for New Labour and the present shadow cabinet. But without it, we will never lance the boil and clean the wound at the heart of our financial system and so never move out of the current recession.

More than meets the eye?

So I’ve just emerged from Invisible, the exhibition currently running at the Hayward. The central conceit of it – and it really is less than the sum of its parts – is that the viewer has a central role in ‘seeing’ art. So, if there’s a title and a space or a canvas, framed and hung on the wall, the viewer fills in the blanks. Of course, more is happening than that – though at times it’s hard to see exactly what. Warhol’s empty plinth is just that, an empty plinth.

But artist Song Dong’s photographs of his diary written in water on stone is remarkably effective and affecting in an albeit obvious sort of a way. The sense of insubstantiality conveyed is more moving than you expect it to be as you stand there nodding and saying to yourself (though the temptation to say things out loud is quite strong) ‘mmm, that’s clever’. It does touch somewhere quite deep that this is all our lives, events written in water on stone, left to evaporate moments after they are set on stone (but not in it). It had me musing on whether what we do adds up to a hill of beans and how we ensure we leave something beyond an impression of our existence when we’re gone.

And the final sound labyrinth was also surprisingly engaging. In an empty space at the centre of the gallery, you are given a headset that vibrates when you reach a ‘solid’ barrier that you have to walk round. There's a different labyrinth for each day, based on physical labyrinths from elsewhere (such as Chartres cathedral and the hedge maze from the film The Shining). At first you imagine this is what it must be like to be blind. But that patronising thought is soon replaced by a realisation that sound and touch/feel is really important for navigating our way through the world, what we listen out for, what we hear in passing… And as a Christian I found myself pondering what it means to be led by God’s voice and nothing else.

Of course, as an artist friend of mine said about the exhibition, ‘it’s a bit like what you do isn’t it; point to things that aren’t there, describe a God you can’t see and might not exist.’ Interesting thought…

It’s worth checking out. At the Hayward until the beginning of August