Monday, 31 October 2011

St Paul's: A plea for theological humility?

I love my younger brother - he is intelligent, sensitive and cultured. However, among his many gifts, I have yet to discover any particular skill as a theologian. Thus, I realised that something was afoot when -via Twitter - he began to get involved in what might be called 'religious and theological commentary'. When my marvellous brother - secular and indifferent to church machinations - piles into a debate I sense something extraordianry is happening.

Indeed, one of the intriguing dimensions of the ongoing events around St Paul's (has anyone dubbed it StPaulsgate yet?!? Oh, Lord have mercy, have I just said it??) is the joyous abandon with which secular commentators and journos have plunged into telling the world what Jesus would be up to in the midst of confusion, ire and passion of OccupyLSX. In a move as old as the Crucifixion, much fun has been had on the part of commentators saying that right now, this moment, Jesus isn't hanging out in church but on the steps. Most agree that 'Jesus is a Socialist, innit?', and depending upon where one is on the political spectrum, this statement will guide your take on what's happening both inside and outside St Paul's.

It really will come as little surprise that as an old socialist and someone with an instinctive feel for liberative theological approaches I am inclined to go with a theological perspective that places Christ beyond the walls of establishment, class privilege and the warm halls of the powerful. The Jesus of the Gospels clearly was far more interested in the depredations of Mammon than the rather cheap modern debates Christians are inclined to have about what one does with one's private parts or what physical bits one must (or don't need to) have in order to be a Bishop. It strikes me that any attempt to turn Christ into the prophet of profitability and the bottom line is the very worst kind of idolatry.

Nonetheless, there is a need for nuance (and I pray to God that I am not buying into some lazy stereotype of Anglican compromise). 'Where is Christ in the midst of St Pauls and OccupyLSX?' is a subtler question than it at first appears to an instinctively uncompromising mind like my own. For my sense is that God is the one who resists our easy designations and our desire for ready consolation. What do I mean?

Let me give an example from my own case. For a socialist and radical like myself one of the 'ready consolations' of this situation is that it shows up just how compromised the Church of England is in the powers and principalities of mammon and power. It can lead me to almost delight in the fall of individuals and institutions I see as overly compromised by their connections with money and amoral power without responsibility. And there is part of me that feels precisely that way.

And yet there is a danger in this approach. For there is a danger of pretending that I - and my 'holy' perspective - is not compromised in any way. And I am always suspicious of the clarity and certainty that comes from being oversure and overconvinced of my perspective. A healthy dose of the hermeneutics of suspicion really is well worth while. For both me and pretty much all of us are people of unclean hands and unclean lips. We are the compromised and, if I'm honest, I know that I am caught up in exploitative capitalism and social advantage in ways in which I would often prefer not to acknowledge.

This - of course - is not an argument for a kind of quietism. I still think that the system I am caught up in is exploitative and unfair, etc, and I am committed to change, but a moments reflection makes me cautious about lording it over the fall of individuals and institutional structures. Or to put it another way: I am cautious about my instinct that says that Jesus is entirely outside the walls of St Paul's and hanging around in the protester's camp. That just feels too easy for me - it makes God too small.

God strikes me both as wanting to reveal and expose reality/truth and invite people to transformation. One massive dimension of this is surely the exposure of our current financial ways of going on as massively exploitative, privileging the few (of which I am one) over the many and the rich over the poor. Living out the Kingdom is surely about being the kind of person who works to transform that system. This god is found in the likes of Giles Fraser, many of the OccupyLSX and countless others regardless of faith or lack of it. But this God too also wants to expose fundamental human arrogance and pride, regardless of politics or perspective - the kind of pride, in my own case and many others, that makes me a little too sure about where God is and where God isn't.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Not Resigned: Giles Fraser and Establishment

I want to offer a very brief comment on Giles Fraser's resignation this morning.

I do not know Giles personally, but I know a goodly number of people who do. It is evident from both conversations with them over the years and from his public body of journalistic work that he is a very intelligent, gifted and committed priest. One friend of mine once commented on his Church Times work, 'I often disagree with him but I am always challenged by what he says.' When his appointment at St Paul's was announced I was one of many who was a little surprised - it was not clear to me how this turbulent priest would fit into one of the great Cathedrals (or is it Sepulchres??) of Establishment.

Nonetheless I took this bold appointment as an encouraging sign from a church that too readily makes cautious appointments. The events of the past couple of weeks have saddened many on the Left of the Church, including myself, for demonstrating that the magnificent and sometimes beautifully eccentric institution we love can be a little too comfortable with the powers and principalities.

Fraser's resignation comes as little surprise to many but it remains - for this old radical at least - deeply troubling. Giles - one suspects - will come out of this debacle with enormous credit and the Church with serious egg on its face. But there is another element to this which should trouble those who are - for their sins - passionate about what the Church of England can offer to the Polis and a world hungry for change and wisdom: what space for the eccentrics and the turbulent at the heart of Church?

The church sadly so often strikes me as being very good at rewarding those who play the game and toe the party line and the church does need people who are committed and passionate about the mechanics and internal dynamics of being church. But I rejoice in the fact that the National Church can still attract people as interesting, turbulent and critical as Fraser at a time when so often we seem to be in retreat. That Fraser has now left St Paul's will - I hope - be both personally liberating for him and enable him to continue to bring challenge and vision to the church; but it is also something about which I weep.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The curious case of St Paul's and the blocked drains

Drains are hardly the world's most attractive things. Nonetheless they are essential to sanitary living and, as a rule, one doesn't notice them until they go wrong. Thankfully we have specialists to deal with them. This morning my drains (in WW2 parlance) 'went for a burton' and while I wait for Dynarod to come and save me from my own poisonous effluent I thought I'd take a moment to reflect upon the current impasse and debacle happening at St Paul's London in relation to the OccupyLSX movement.

St Paul's decision to close its doors has left many, including me, exasperating, bewildered and suspicious. The grounds that have been cited are 'health and safety'; however, friends and colleagues who have visited the site have (accepting that they are not health & safety professionals) failed to perceive on what particular grounds this claim is based. Equally, St Paul's has - insofar as I am aware - not provided evidence to the public which demonstrates, beyond peradventure, what those health and safety grounds are. This has left a vast media vacuum in which both speculation and anger has grown. Since Giles Fraser's dramatic intervention on the first Sunday of the protest, there seems to have been a lack of intelligent connection with the protesters - a failure of candour and engagement which (given the unique opportunity the church had in this situation) is both depressing and heartbreaking.

One dimension that has unavoidably been churned over is the gap between Giles Fraser's well received statement on that first Sunday of the protest and the subsequent statements bearing the Dean's imprimatur. It takes very little wit to speculate that there has been some difference of opinion within the leadership of St Paul's (The Chapter) and one suspects that Fraser - a very gifted theologian aand public intellectual - has felt placed in an extremely difficult position. The Dean-led change of position - which will probably be branded by St Paul's as a 'change of enphasis' - indicates that the Dean has given a top-down steer. At one level this is unsurprising - the Dean is primus inter pares. Nonetheless, surely Fraser has been left out in the cold. Fraser's statement of support for the protesters was clearly the example of priesthood being exercised in the midst of the polis' wrestling with its way forward; the corporate response has had the troubling whiff of power's sulphur.

The Church of England is in a curious and sometimes unenviable position: as National Church it is inevitable caught up in the manoevres and passions of Establishment and those who are drawn to it, but equally it has a unique position to speak into the things of the Nation's moment. Whatever is actually happening behind closed doors at St Paul's, the feel being given off is of a church too cautious and too compromised by its closeness to money and power. As someone who's been around the church for a long-time I find conspiracy theories unappealing  - we are too amateurish, too leaky and too confused as an organisation to achieve the level of sophistication for major conspiracies. The situation at St Paul's has the feel of giant mess up rather than giant conspiracy. And sadly an opportunity has been lost.

Whatever one feels about the Occupy LSX protest, the Church - as represented by St Paul's - has missed opportunities: opportunities to mediate, to discuss and dialogue, and to host and show hospitality. It has lost the opportunity to bring intelligent theological reflection into the protest movement and has risked the social and political capital (which I guess is more interesting and significant than the increasingly dodgy financial capital being thrown around the CIty) that may have accrued from sensitive and mature engagement with passionately felt human concern.

Many people - including myself in a contribution to a forthcoming book - have suggested that the church is part of the drainage/plumbing system of English Society. That is, that like many other things in our polity it is part of the essential, hidden pipework of the land and it runs so deep that one hardly notices it until something goes wrong. Who are the 'plumbers' who will sort out this situation at St Paul's? That remains to be seen. However, it seems likely that the time for a theological version of Dynarod has come.
Which reminds me. Back to those blocked drains!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Ad Spot: Saying stupid things about television (so you don't have to)

I find the current UK ADT advert fascinating. Yes, I really did say that. I want to be clear though - this advert is so dreadful it makes everything George Lucas has done in the past 30 odd years look like Tarkovsky.

If everything Lucas has done in 30 yrs was given life it would look like this
 Equally its premise - What means most to you? - is basically repellent, giving a number of irritating no-notes the chance to outline a mixture of the bleeding obvious and the tiresomely self-centred.

Nonetheless, the fascination of the ad derives not so much from its spectacular lack of poise, but the bewildering philosophical and intellectual puzzles it poses. (Yes, I may have drunk two bottles of jagermeister as I write this.)

Here is the puzzle: what we see is a bunch of people talking about 'what matters most to them'. Now we are all aware that we are watching them in an advert on television. We are - after all - not living in the 19th century.

'Moving pictures you say? Next you'll be saying every town will have its OWN telephone'
Nonetheless there is a question of trust. We are being invited to identify with these irritating people. We are being invited to think: 'Oh, he loves his surround sound more than his wife. He's just like me. He's a bum-wipe, but so am I. Therefore I must get a big yellow alarm box on the front of my house'. That sort of thing. But are we supposed to believe that these are real people rather than actors?

At one level this is an absurd question. Given that we know that this is a product of the mass media, we know that the ad is not real. It has been carefully edited to get its message across and so on. However, in an age when we expect so-called 'ordinary' people to appear in reality shows and such like, we have also come to expect a certain degree of verite in our ads. Why couldn't these people on screen be simply ordinary people talking about what really matters to them? In a post-modern age of complicity between producers (ad people, tv execs, etc) and punters (the human footballs like me who sit on the sofa, eating tacos and watching this bilge), things have got textually complex: actors or not-actors? That is the question.

However, I want to suggest that - in fact - the cunning people at ADT are playing with our simple minds at a whole new level. I want to suggest that this advert relies on a) us being invited to believe that the people yacking on about their businesses are real people but THEN b) our realization that they are actually minor actors pretending quite unconvincingly to be real people. In other words the advert want us to deliberately not suspend our wants us to recognise the actors as actors. And through doing so, it encourages us to trust the brand more than we might otherwise do.

Consider the woman who stands on the step of her house and, in a somewhat unconvincing British Indian accent, then tells us that what matters to her most is her independence and home security (and the occasional cameo in Holby City). There is something familiar about her face. Surely she was in a spate of shows in the 1970s & 1980s?  I'm not sure we're supposed to be more specific than that. But she has a distinctive face. And given that alarms are targeted at homeowners and the security minded - that is to an older audience - we are supposed to recognise her, even if we are not supposed to be too sure where we recognize her from. The recognition is actually meant to be reassure us in a way that a real person would not.

This is what happens when you give ordinary people the oxygen of publicity
The point is this: the advert makers want to expose the fact that this is 'make believe', in order (ironically) to encourage us to trust in the brand. For if these were simply unknown actors then we would be left unsure whether to trust them or not - for we would be left with the question as to whether they were actually merely ordinary people. But if they were simply ordinary people we would equally be unsure whether we can trust them  - for ordinary people are (by definition) unknown to us and would leave us wondering if they are offering glowing testimonies or talking about their lives simply to get on tv. But the actual situation provides the perfect solution: initially we're unsure whether these talking heads are actors or the public. We are intrigued.We are unsure. And then at the centre of the ad appears the lady who might have been in Mind Your Language or Eastenders or Ever Decreasing Circles or summat. Then we see a woman talking about her business who we're sure was in something like Casualty as 3rd bus-explosion victim and, in consequence, we are reassured. The advert is not real, but these are people we know from comforting tv shows so everything is ok. We can therefore trust the brand.

Trust me, I played '4th cadaver' in Waking the Dead

The bottom line is this: in order to trust this brand we want people who are like us, but not too like us or too different. We would be unhappy if the actors were too famous, because then the ad would be too unrealistic. Sean Connery or Bono talking about what matters to them would be too disconnected from our lives. But equally we don't want peope who are exactly like us - because that would be too realistic and annoying. Frankly, how we live our lives is too dull and frustrating and appalling to be shown on tv and it be appealing. So the semi-known actor is the perfect compromise. In a culture that is so readily mediated by screens and the visual we want people who are comfortable in that world, who are validated in that world and therefore are comfortable and real to us. But we don't want ourselves. That is why the ADT advert is simultaneously cheap, annoying and crap AND complete genius.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Will the real 21st Century stand up please?

Lots of things can blow a person’s mind: pistols, hand grenades, being a character in the film Scanners. Few realise that History should be added to that list. For it is not - as some ministers of education are inclined to believe - merely a list of dates of big events (usually battles) conveniently edited to tell the national story. This would tend to turn history into a large scale version of that scene in Damien: Omen 2, where the Son of Satan reels off a list of battle dates to the sweaty consternation of his teacher.

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was to learn every single battle date of the Peninsula War

Thus, historians can make extraordinary claims. Whereas most people suggest that the 20th Century started in 1900 or 1901, I remember reading in history class that some set the start point as 1914. Equally, the starting point for examining 19th Century political history was 1815. For a person as sheltered as me, these were the most shocking claims I encountered until I found out (look away now if you have a weak constitution) that Kelly's Heroes wasn't factually accurate (apparently they didn't actually take down the Tiger tanks with Shermans but with samurai swords).

Now that I am an old grizzard, I can appreciate the rhetorical power of these claims - the point of the claims is to draw attention to potent moments in history. That is, to political and social 'game changers' that have impact for decades and perhaps even define a 'century' (which we all know is an arbitrary, culturally defined concept anyway).

Talent is an arbitrary, culturally-defined concept, right? RIGHT?!?

Much as one might dispute flashy rhetorical claims about 'proper starting points' for studying historical 'eras', what if the 21st Century hasn’t quite started yet? That is to say, what if we are yet to experience the defining moments of this century?

Many folk will want to dispute such speculation – on any number of grounds. Some will want to say that we have already experienced a defining moment of this century – 9/11. 9/11 is seen by many as definitive because it de facto signalled the end of the American Century. Clearly, this event was significant for demonstrating the limits of a particular expression of American power. Equally, the movement of economic power away from the West towards the East may prove to be a definitive shift in what may become China and India’s Century.

However, there is another deeper emerging economic dimension that may yet prove to be a defining moment: the crisis of money. It may be that we are living through a series of events which prove definitive for the feel of the next thirty, fifty, even one hundred years.

There is simply no doubt that the globe is in the midst of a crisis of credit and money that is affecting all nations – rich and poor – and which has led governments and economic blocs to pump mind-boggling amounts of money into economies and markets. Thirty years of faith in uncontrolled market economics – which has essentially been faith in the techniques of the hardened gambler and a love of having things on tick – has led to a situation where nations are throwing ‘money’ into a system in the hope that the system can be saved; in the hope that this money won’t simply disappear and suck the whole economy down with it. 

Complex financial devices are my speciality, baby!

Clearly the hope of most nations and economists is that the current crisis in credit and money will all just settle down and we can all go back to our old ways of going on – living on credit, markets awash with complex monetary devices to keep the rich rich and the poor grateful. And perhaps this will be the case. But my sense is that the world is not going to easily get this financial problem back in the box – or if it does, the world will never quite be the same again. The age of cheap money, cheap credit and liberal economics may be coming to an end.

It is intriguing that we in the West have lived in a money economy for nigh on a thousand years now. But it is worth remembering that, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe existed on a different model for several hundreds of years – a gift based economy. This was not merely a barter economy – far from it – but one in which an item's value was as much dependent upon the quality of human relationships as anything else; this was a world in which something trivial might become significant simply because it was offered as a token of trust or as a gift. In a money economy, everything can be assigned a precise value. Money becomes effectively the measure of all things.

Oh goody, the future currency of the world.

We have lived in a culture that for nigh on 1000 years has allowed money – and recently credit – to become the measure of all things. In which all things can be assigned a value for exchange. Money will not be going away any time soon. But we may be living through a revolutionary time. The trust that, for countless generations, we have all placed in money’s power may be coming to an end. For there is only so much anyone can do with money and credit. It may be that we are on the verge of a return to the world of the gift - a world where other forms of value and exchange become viable again.

In short , we may yet be to enter a new world - a new world which may define the 21st century.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

From the Church Times Vaults: The Unavoidability of Social Media

Several folk who have no access to The Church Times have asked for this to be made available on the blog - so here it is!

‘Social Media’ has come a long way since a certain German monk, furious with abuses within the Church, nailed a list of complaints to a church door in Wittenberg in 1517. One supposes that a modern-day Martin Luther might choose a blog or Facebook or Twitter as a means of dissemination and public connection. And there are, indeed, an increasing number of clerics, theologians and would-be opinion formers – me included – who are embracing modern, high-speed means of communication. And some of the best of those – Bishop Alan Wilson, Lesley Crawley, David Cloake and Hayley Matthews – are both exploring what it means to be a Christian, a human and what the future shape of the church might be.

Martin was less than pleased when his tweet to the Pope (@pope I is just fighting da corruption, innit? megalolz) was met with stony silence.

Nonetheless, the Church – or at least sections of it - is not renowned for being what is known in modern technological jargon as an ‘early adopter’. Indeed, the Church – for all its radical beginnings – has often been seen as a key agent of conservatism.  At the risk of overstretching the point, if ‘paper’ represented cutting edge communication technology, one would expect many in the church to be arguing for the advantages of papyrus or parchment.

This is understandable. Many perceive the Media – in its various forms, including social – to be hostile towards Christianity. Equally, our Episcopal leaders (and those who manage their media profiles), recognizing the way media can go global at the click of a button, are understandably afraid of misrepresentation and parody. Perhaps, then, it is safer for the church to pursue the routes that it has become comfortable with: books, monographs, sermons, and letters. Basically anything that is commonly committed to paper.

But, love it or loathe it, Social Media will not be going away any time soon. As the recent film about Facebook, ‘The Social Network’, demonstrates, in a few years Facebook has gone from being a resource for Harvard students to one of the largest companies in the world and a central means that people use to communicate and organise their lives. In the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen the dark side of that as two misguided men tried to use Facebook to incite riots and have received custodial sentences. The micro-blogging site, Twitter – in which users are limited to messages of 140 characters – has become a key place for news to break and where super-injunctions are challenged. It too – in the febrile moral environment which followed the riots – has been criticized as a focal point for organizing violence. And then there are countless bloggers: individuals who express opinions, more or less well-informed, on myriad topics and whose presence has, in some cases, been taken as superceding the work of traditional print journalism. Their success is reflected in the fact that almost all traditional print media now have blogs, many of which use bloggers’ work to supplement their own output.

Clearly, given that Social Media is a human creation, it cannot be considered either cultural and ethically neutral or logically good in and of itself: Human artifacts are always compromised by the simple fact that we make them. They reflect our limitations and interests. However, one sometimes suspects that the church is excessively sceptical about them. The critique of Social Media is usually based on it being destructive towards proper relationships and communication. Thus, we end up sitting with our laptops sending each other messages and tweets rather than actually speaking to people face to face or via the telephone. We sit in isolated worlds.

There is no doubt that people use Social Media to be mean, banal, exhibitionist, self-important and to avoid face-to-face contact; equally, given that a medium like Twitter constrains its users’ word count there is a sense in which many tweets are mere cocktail party chatter. However, surely all of the above actually reflects the nature of human beings rather than anything necessarily pernicious. If we dismiss Social Media on the grounds that it generates a high proportion of nonsense and banality we shall, in effect, be dismissing some of the things which are simply part of being human.

Twitter is just one of many ways I use to meet girls
Aside from the high levels of throwaway nonsense – to which I, as a fun-loving human being, am an avid contributor – Social Media represents a remarkable Christian and human opportunity. The way in which this has been most explored is as an evangelistic or missionary tool. Given the almost global reach of Social Media, propagators of the faith have been quick to see the opportunities to place the Gospel message before new audiences. Intriguing as this effort may be it is not what most interests me.

Part of the fascination of Social Media lies in its role in societies which are increasingly ‘post-religious’ in any conventional sense; not only are church attendances declining but many folk are increasingly vocal in their disbelief in God. However, what is clear is that social media gives people a sense of participating in something much greater than themselves – one of the classic roles of traditional religion. Facebook enables folk to be friends with and communicate with people who they may never even have met. Twitter enables communication on another level: people are able to engage in conversation with not only like-minded others, but people they may traditionally have been very distant from – senior politicians, celebrities, musicians and so on. How deep this conversation goes is moot; however, many people are finding they have expanded rather than diminished senses of their identity – where their identity has cyber dimensions as well as conventional ones. I use Twitter as key networking tool, whether to discuss my journalistic, poetic or theological writing, a process made more difficult without its immediacy. Being a vicar and a woman ordinarily means that people have expectations about how I act and what matters to me; social media enables others to respond to me without making judgments based on my appearance, accent and profession. Clearly this has dangers: social media presents opportunities for fraudsters and the malicious to present false personalities, but (accepting that one must not be naive about who people claim to be) the simple fact remains: social media reflects an expansion of many people’s worlds rather than their diminishment.

The truth is that for very many of us – perhaps most – we will continue to live great swathes of our lives in conventional ways: we will still have the demands of ensuring that we pay the bills, the joy of going out with friends and so on. And thank goodness for that: Social Media can be addictive and placing it in its proper perspective is important. But the fact that many of us have a sense of reality which transcends the established patterns of our lives is genuinely exciting: Even if many people have abandoned religiously endorsed senses of the Transcendent, it is evident that in social media people are experiencing a world which takes them beyond traditional expectations and possibilities. This isn’t simply about ‘ordinary’ folk being able to talk to so-called celebrities. Nor is it simply about the ill, disabled or house-bound being able to connect, although this is significant to many, including myself. There is another possibility: In a society which many have suggested is increasingly divided and privatized, social media offers one way of helping people to connect. Clearly, it cannot offer the deep solutions to social malaise many are searching for, but I, for one, have been struck by the way social media has pushed my social networks. It can be uncomfortable to engage in fierce and immediate conversation with people from very different theological, political and cultural expectations to oneself, but it is both stretching and often rewarding.

Christian mission not only needs to come to terms with a social world less limited by location and cultural background, but – in its inclination to talk of the Transcendent – to find language which connects with people’s very practical, immanent experience of it. Even if that experience is tentative and fragile it is real. As lives are organised around the Internet, we find projects like ‘I-Church’ (a virtual church community), the Twurch of England (the Church of England on twitter) and Unvirtuous Abbey (internet monks wittily praying for a technologically complex world) which seeks to engage with it.

There is also, as I see it, something rather beautiful and striking about Social Media. This perception is drawn from the fact that social media is simultaneously ephemeral and permanent. Consider Twitter. Tweets are tiny parcels of words, thrown into cyberspace. Most get immediately lost and ignored. They are ephemera. And yet, because they are in cyberspace, they also have an odd permanence – they simply float in cyberspace for all time, like a tiny chip of an asteroid in space. And sometimes someone tweets something snappy, brilliant and clever. And, you see it for a moment. If you like it perhaps you ‘retweet’ it to your followers, and then it's gone into cyberspace. This odd combination of the permanent and the insubstantial mirrors key truths of our lives and of God. We are, as Shakespeare puts it, ‘such stuff as dreams are made on and our little lives are rounded with a sleep’ and yet, our fragile lives, are the stage for actions which potentially alter the world. This very fragility and solidity lies at the heart of God: in the fragile existence God chose to embrace in Jesus and in the permanence that extends that love across all time. The beauty lies in the interaction of both.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

A Hypothetical God

There is something liberating about ‘what if’ questions. Much of life – work, running a household and so on - happens in situations which act against imagination and creativity. This is just one reason why ITV1 continues to exist or Dave still gets an audience. It is also why many organizations, desperate to break out of ruts, have ‘vision days’ and (awful as this phrase is) talk of ‘Blue Sky Thinking’. Hypothetical thinking – precisely because it involves asking ‘What if ‘x’ was like this?’ – can generate new imaginative possibilities.

Corporate Banking decided to hold a 'blue sky day' to rethink its image
I’d like to pose a hypothetical question in an area in which the church has got, at best, rather bewildered and, at worst, horribly divided and angry: human sexuality and specifically gay sexuality. I do this in the hope of opening up some imaginative space within this difficult and complex situation and of drawing some heat out of the traditional arguments.

I acknowledge that I do not do this as a neutral. I am gay or to use my preferred term queer. In some people’s eyes this disqualifies me from even attempting to move discussion forward. However, I’m not sure ‘neutrality’ is an option for any of us: our views, whatever they are, will always reflect our stories, interests, and history. Thus the value of the hypothetical situation: it does not require that you agree with me, only that you let your imagination play.

 My question is: What might the church look like if Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Trans (LGBT) people were a gift and a blessing? That is, if LGBT people were as much of a gift from God as anyone else; and as such something to give thanks for.

It is clear that LGBT people challenge some well established ideas and attitudes within the church community. Being ‘queer’ challenges the assumption that the nature of sexuality and gender is monochrome and obvious. For example, transgender people raise questions about how nuanced and complex gender actually is and the extent to which male and femaleness is a social construct; their experience of ‘gender dysphoria’ clearly unsettles preconceived notions of what it means to be human.

Suppose that LGBT people and the challenge we present to comfortable assumptions and ideas were embraced as a blessing or gift to the church. What might the church and our pictures of God and human beings look like? 

God during his 'trying to break into Battle Metal' phase

 The church – despite its many wonderful gifts – has often been rather zealous in patrolling its borders. Even a cursory examination of church history reveals the energy expended and, on occasions, violence perpetrated by those keen to ensure that doctrine or liturgy or morality or the 'purity' of the community remains unsullied. Even a cursory glance at history will demonstrate the extent to which the church - in authoritarian mode - has contributed to the formation of a persecuting society. Thankfully, the church has sought to become increasingly welcoming towards groups it has historically held sanctions against – for example, the divorced, the remarried, and single parents – but, in some quarters, that is not the case for queer people. If LGBT people were treated as a gift and a cause for celebration perhaps the church would look even more remarkable than it already is. It might be an even greater sign of hope – hope of acceptance and affirmation. It might be a sign that instead of erecting walls the church was seeking to bust them down and embrace difference.

Clearly there are already a goodly number of LGBT people within the church – a fair number of them clergy. Historically, we have shared our gifts while remaining silent about a significant part of our identity. If LGBT people were treated as a gift, a key part of their identity might be properly acknowledged and celebrated. LGBT people are as various and interesting as anyone else and do not deserve to be reduced to their sexuality, any more than a straight person. However, LGBT people potentially offer deeply needed gifts. For example, a common queer experience is of feeling silenced and, therefore, of having important aspects of their personhood denied. This experience - of being silenced – is more common than many people might assume. It is a common experience among women, the disabled and so on; LGBT ministers may bring rare sensitivity into complex pastoral situations. One thing is clear though: If LGBT people genuinely were a gift for the church there is a sense in which Church would become a bigger, more surprising and unexpected place – both for its members and those looking from the outside.

There really is nothing I can add...

At the same time, we would need to think more deeply about our pictures of human beings. Identity really matters to Christians: ‘Who we are’ is actually one starting point for our exploration of ‘Who is God’ (and vice versa). We are, as the famous formula has it, bearers of the Image of God and yet called into the Likeness of Christ. In the hypothetical picture I’ve sketched, queer people – as people who challenge certain conventional pictures of human identity, specifically around sexuality and gender – reveal new, thrilling dimensions of human possibility and thus of what the image of God might actually look like. That the very Image of God might include LGBT dimensions represents an expansive picture of being.

Equally, if our Image of God is enriched, then we have a picture of God who creates, sustains and celebrates a truly remarkable humanity – not just straight folk, but people whose stories are quite different. This would be a God who is radically simple – for in love and for love he has created all – and expansively graceful enough to embrace all.

I am prepared to admit that – as a hypothetical picture – this may be nothing more than a beguiling fantasy. It may, even if contains a glimmer of truth, be an overstatement. I am even prepared to admit – at the level of logical possibility - that I may be so entirely wrong about LGBT people that we are actually a curse on the church. But I would struggle to imagine what the church would look like if that were the case, let alone offer it my commitment.

The Bible suggests that, through the Spirit, young and old will dream dreams and have visions. This picture of a church in which LGBT people are a blessing which opens us up to greater imaginative possibilities may ultimately be wrong. But if we are to be faithful to the God of abiding love and grace, I’m not sure we risk dreaming of anything less.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

What Hollywood teaches us: A Bankrupt Culture

Hans: Mr. Mystery Guest? Are you still there?
McClane: Yeah, I'm still here. Unless you wanna open the front door for me.
Hans: Uh, no I'm afraid not. But you have me at a loss. You know my name but who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne? Rambo? Marshall Dillon?
McClane: I was always kinda' partial to Roy Rogers actually. I really dig those sequined shirts.
Secretly I've always wanted to be in law enforcement -
one of the good guys like the Sheriff of Nottingham
One suspects that everyone's favourite designer villain, Hans Gruber, meant his remarks about 'a bankrupt culture' in a rather different sense to that which we face today. We live in a society and a financial culture which may actually 'go bankrupt'. And as the following interview shows there are cowboys in the mainstream who are more like Buford Tannen or Jack Palance's character in Shane ('pick up the gun...pick up the gun') than Marshall Dillon or Roy Rogers.
There are people who actually want 'the system' to fail so that they can make money out of it. For the essence of their behaviour is the desire to bet on failure and thus generate money for their self-interest. They have no interest in the human consequences of their actions, provided that the market is not totally pulled down or becomes completely unpredictable (and therefore unprofitable to bet on).
Now call me mad, but I remain convinced that the best guide to capitalism's cultural state is its cinema. And the film we should look at is not 'Wall Street' or its sequel, or the documentary work of the likes of Michael Moore. No it is 'Pretty Woman'.
'Pretty Woman' is a film about a double redemption: the redemption of a hooker from the life of the street through money and romantic love and the redemption of a ruthless capitalist through love and the liberal use of a heartwarming soundtrack from Roy Orbison.
Feminist analyses of this film are more common than me after two glasses of lambrini. I shall therefore leave them alone. But we should not ignore what 'Pretty Woman' has to say about Capitalism. Richard Gere's character is a selfish, money-bloated git who uses leveraged buy-out to make piles of cash for him and his buddies to writhe on. They are the early precursors of today's money bandits - using debts to make make money.
Me (with a bemused Chorlton) after 2 glasses of lambrini
But what saves him? Basically the hottest prostitute the world has ever known. Even in her cheap clothes, Julia Roberts looks hotter than a freakin' supermodel. Indeed, in some ways it would be better to describe her as a 'mannikin': for ultimately she is not a woman admired for her scintillating intellect or presence, but because of how she looks. Indeed, if memory serves, she gets access to the poshest hotel in Beverley hills because of the way she looks. She is given access to a limitless credit card account and, like Cinderella, is transformed by the simple addition of clothes.
You'd look like this too if you were storing
vast bundles of cash in one of your body cavities
Of course what really matters in the end is that she is (in that other great disparaging Western stereotype) 'a tart with a heart'; and with the combination of (one presumes) extremely skilled sexual practice, vast amounts of Puccini and champagne (well known working-class pleasures), Roy Orbison's quiff and a body to die for, she transforms the heart of her Prince Charming. And by the end he decides that screwing over companies for lucre is no substitute for working along side them and making them viable companies again.
Who would have thought it?
The true face of compassionate capitalism
And so we find a culturally bankrupt answer to a society that is rapidly going financially bankrupt: the financial sharks in this world just need to find an extraordinarily beautiful rough diamond of a girl, unafraid to work for a living, but whose only interest is in love. A woman who will stand up for herself until the platinum credit card comes out or her prince drops by in a Mercedes Guardian, a red rose in his mouth. This is all that is needed to turn a self-regarding fiend into a man whose prepared to care - not only for his gal but for a society who depends on him. That - Hollywood teaches us - is all we need to save society from ravenous unfettered capitalism. Of course, money always wins, but add a gorgeous, fun-loving girl into the mix and money - the great divider - will be used to make us all proud.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

From The Church Times Vault: Harry Potter & cultural theology

Theological college had many highlights: the chance to be formed in a creative way, the opportunity to test out wild ideas, and the experience of training in a lively and vibrant setting. However, the real highlight – for a film nut like me – was the opportunity, one Saturday, to turn the college common room into a cinema and watch all three ‘Lord of the Rings’ films back to back. It was fun, intense and emotionally draining. Now I am about to do something equally ridiculous and wonderful in a parish setting: on the weekend of the final film’s release, I shall be having a Harry Potter ‘octothon’: seven films back-to-back followed by an immediate trip to the cinema to watch the final adaptation.

There is no doubt that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has been a true international phenomenon. Whatever one feels about its literary merits, it has become a compelling series for children and adults alike. This was achieved on such a grand scale that books were marketed with both children’s and adult’s covers. The film adaptations – whilst of varying quality – have been so successful that they rank among the world’s biggest grossing films.

The series’ impact fascinates me. For its success with both kids and adults goes beyond literary or cinematic merit: In literary terms, Harry Potter might reasonably be called ‘Mallory Towers with Magic’ –  that is, a bunch of kids go off to boarding school and get to do exciting things with magic. And yet, as the critic Lev Grossman notes, its world has ‘... a freestanding internal integrity that makes you feel as if you should be able to buy real estate there’.

It is easy to dismiss Harry Potter’s appeal to adults as nostalgia fodder – nostalgia for the lost magic of childhood. And there is truth in this. Nostalgia for lost youth is an abiding motif of many adults’ lives. Equally, as the spiritual writer, Alan Jones, notes, there is, in the modern world, ‘an underlying and constant anxiety about the future’. In this context, it is unsurprising that adults might take flight into comforting fantasy and images of a lost, and fantastical, childhood.

However, something spiritually more significant is going on. In an age when, in the UK and Europe at least, most adults don’t go to church and most children aren’t significantly initiated into faith, Potter and its ilk act as both reminders of and initiators into big spiritual and moral ideas. For example, Harry Potter is famously both an orphan and the victim of child abuse at the hands of his horrific cousins, the Dursleys. His school, Hogwarts, becomes his home and his friends his family. For Harry, the magical world represents a kind of ‘homecoming’. We are invited to participate in and identify with this sense of ‘homecoming’ and ‘emergent identity’ as we read.

In a world which is genuinely fast-moving and complex – a world which many of us feel utterly caught up in and alienated from at the same time – the story arc of Harry Potter provides a kind of calm port. We want to climb in and live there. Clearly the Potter universe is imaginative fantasy and yet it feeds our alienated, orphaned minds with a vision of homecoming and belonging that, post-faith, many feel they have lost.

Understandably many will say that, if this is even half-true, it is desperately sad: if a children’s fantasy story is giving adults a sense of place and connection to something greater than themselves, we are very lost indeed. Once, religion fulfilled that role and any person of faith, including me, will want to open people’s hearts to the Christian reality.

Yet we – as people of faith - are dismissive at our peril. The imaginative power of Rowling’s work says something revealing about what our everyday religion can lack. And that, of course, is wonder and, in a very real sense, ‘magic’. This is not about childish fireworks (great as they are) but about a sense of living in a world thoroughly alive with the power of God’s Spirit – a world of possibilities in which our imaginations are dazzled and fed. Church life, with its over emphasis on keeping the show on the road, can so readily be stripped of imagination and wonder. If we are to offer folk a genuine sense of homecoming it needs to be one based not on getting folk to maintain the organisation, but on feeding their sense of possibility.

Equally, we risk losing sight of the imaginative complexity of Rowling’s world. Harry and his friends are presented with genuine and real decisions – decisions which are personally costly, risky and sometimes questionable. Harry’s friendship with his best friends is tested again and again, especially in the later books as adolescent hormones kick in and he deals with adult questions about exactly who he can trust. In other words, Rowling’s universe, fantastic as it may be, is very like our own. Clearly the author has a very real sense of good versus evil, but these are characters who are not acting out according to a set moral menu. They make real decisions which have difficult consequences. By the end of the Potter novels, several key characters lie dead, others are brought face to face with the dreadful consequences of their actions and Harry and his friends witness the effects of standing up to hatred and violence – death and pain.

When we combine that costliness with the work’s mythic sense of belonging and homecoming, it is not hard to see why adults and children alike find this a potent and easily accessible re-presentation of ethical and spiritual truths – sometimes more potent than those offered in our culture’s truly great book, The Bible. So, for example, the defining spiritual truth of the Bible is the transforming and saving power of sacrificial love. Yet Rowling’s story restates this truth in a way that is both moving and readily understandable and, for many, more comprehensible than the Bible: Harry’s very survival, as a baby, is due to his mother’s willingness to sacrifice herself for his sake. Indeed, it is constantly reiterated throughout the series that it is Harry’s capacity for love, and nothing else that will enable him to defeat the embodiment of evil, Voldemort.

And, ultimately, inscribed in the heart of the Potter books is the single greatest myth of Western culture: the willing sacrifice of the one for the salvation of the many. Given how potent the Christ story is, it is hardly surprising that Rowling found it unavoidable. Her writing gifts – sometimes simple, sometimes delightful and winsome (and occasionally long-winded) – bring that myth alive in ways which people who may never darken the door of a church can comprehend. Indeed, perhaps it is the very artlessness of her writing that makes her so successful. She is, in terms of craft, no match for the likes of Phillip Pullman, but skill is rarely a measure of impact. The simplicity of her sentence structure makes her novels accessible across a huge variety of age ranges and makes the novels a delight for adults to read to kids. Equally, her tendency to spell everything out in minute detail appeals to many children and adults who prefer not to have too much imaginative work to do. Crucially, her work has an ‘ageless’ quality: in an age when children’s fiction is carefully categorized into age groups, the Harry Potter series transcends easy categorization. The combination of this with a compelling story arc is seriously potent.

When the lights finally come up at the end of my Potter ‘octothon’, I know there will be tears in my eyes: not only because I will be saying goodbye to characters who have become part of my own story like friends, but because the myth of the one who dies and lives again will have been beautifully and simply re-presented once again.