Monday, December 31, 2007
...but politics is not everything - as the Dutch theologian H. M. (Harry) Kuitert importantly argued in his book of the same name (published by SCM in Britain and Eerdmans in the USA in 1986-7. His Jesus: The Legacy of Christianity is another book worth reading). Indeed the danger, as Charles Peguy observed, is that the essential mystique at the heart of communal and inter-personal life gets reduced to an enervating kind of politique perpetuated by self-serving institutions (not least the church, which was his major concern). To flourish, the polis as well as the human spirit needs much more. That's roughly the concern of my column Seeking political hope beyond money and influence (Ekklesia), which started life as this month's Third Way Westminster comment column. But to be true to my word, I've made my last Guardian Comment-is-Free piece of the year about the glories and woes of football rather than either, heaven spare us, politics or religion. See: A dystopian league of its own December 31, 2007 2:30 PM.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is linking consumerism, environmental waste and disregard for human dignity in his New Year's message for 2008 - which will be broadcast on BBC1 this evening, though you can read some key bits here first. Rowan Williams declares: "A culture of vast material waste and emotional short-termism is a culture that is a lot more fragile than it knows. How much investment are we going to make in a safer and more balanced future?" In theological vein, he continues, inter alia: "[God] doesn't regard anyone as a 'waste of space', as not worth the time ... whether they are successful, articulate, productive or not... A life that communicates a bit of what God is like is a life that doesn't give up."
By this I mean not so much the disappearance of public consciousness of Christmas as the clock strikes midnight on 25 December (or, optimistically, Boxing Day, as we now know St Stephen's), but the regular allegations by some church leaders and frothing tabloid commentators that 'political correctness' is killing the festival. Well-meaning but over anxious council officials seeking to 'broaden' the event or 'avoid offence' are presumably easier targets than the rampaging commercialism from which Christmas's self-appointed defenders benefit too. And certainly a more comfortable target than... themselves (ourselves).
But the truth is that the alliance of Christianity with governing authority and dominant culture has inflicted the most damage on the subversiveness of Christ's birth. This is something Jonathan Bartley and I have been arguing in different ways over the past couple of weeks. See Jon's Church Times piece here, which roots the problem in our ongoing diagnosis of the ails of the Christendom mentality. Mine focuses on the biblical dynamic itself. We have also published provocations from Giles Fraser, from Methodist president Martyn Atkins (who I am delighted to see will be their general secretary shortly, and has a blog here) and from Rabbi Michael Lerner (mentioned below). Rowan Williams' BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day is worth reading, too.
As for the 'new atheists' and their "God is Santa for adults" jibe. Well, they have a point. The reduction of God to a projected fantasy of cosmic reward and punishment has gone on in all too many churches. What is revealed in the child of Bethlehem (more likely, Nazareth) is, of course, something of a different order, and not at all childish - the God who is nothing like the gods of our creation. And since you can't receive the former without deconstructing the latter, atheism is definitely on to something, even if, for some of us, it doesn't go far enough - because it can only reject what we make in our own image. More is needed. What what Merlod Westphal calls 'Divine Excess: The God Who Comes After'.
Sunday, December 30, 2007
"Christmas is so last week - now comes the real meaning of the Season, the January sales - starting in December!" Yup, the consumerthon continues. Debt crises, globally and locally, be damned! But there are sceptics around, and one of the most vocal is wonderful US actor and activist Bill Talen, a.k.a. 'The Rev Billy' of The Church of No Shopping. Recently, Talen and his wife Savitri Durkee discussed consumerism at a special Sojourners screening of 'What Would Jesus Buy?' (a YouTube film available here). See also A profit without honour? and Start Your Own Church: Retail Interventions. (By the way, Christmas goes on until 6 January... and in a non-consumable sense, isn't for 12 nights. It's for life. Er, read all about it.)
Pic: No, not satire - believe it or not. It's the cover of a "prosperity gospel" teaching CD. The hobby horse of the apocalypse, perhaps. This stuff sells millions, terrifyingly enough.
... is the name of BBC1's topical TV discussion programme on public life and religion. The crisis in Pakistan, human responsibility and the nature of evil, astrology, the regulation of alcohol... these are some of the topics that will be discussed by my Ekklesia colleague Jonathan Bartley and panellists Diane Abbott MP and the Rev Joanna Jepson on today's programme, which runs at 9.15am.
Saturday, December 29, 2007
This from the irrepressible Rabbi Michael Lerner (pictured), author of The Left Hand of God, urging us to see "the holiday season" in terms of hope and resistance, rather than lethargy and consumption: "Jews and Christians have much in common in celebrating at this time of year. We certainly want to use this holiday season to once again affirm our commitment to end the war in Iraq, to end global poverty and hunger ... and to save the world from ecological destruction. We live in dark times—but these holidays help us reaffirm our hope for a fundamentally different reality that we can help bring about in the coming years.
"And yet, there are reasons to not mush together these separate holidays. The tremendous pressure of the capitalist marketplace has been to take these holidays, eliminate their actual revolutionary messages, and instead turn them into a ... focus whose only command is 'Be Happy and Buy.' The huge pressure to be happy and the media’s ability to portray others as beaming with joy makes a huge number of people despondent because they actually don’t feel that kind of joy, and imagine that they are the only ones who don’t, and hence feel terrible about themselves, something they seek to repair by buying, drugging or drinking themselves into happiness. And when that too doesn’t work for very long, they become all the more unhappy with themselves or with others. The pressure to buy as a way of showing that you really care about others puts many people into the position of spending more than they have, putting themselves into further debt, and then feeling depressed about that. Still others have no way to buy 'enough' on credit, and then their children, saturated by a media specially attuned to the best ways to market to toddlers and everyone older through their teen years, make their parents or others feel inadequate because they have not bought what the media portrays as the standard for what a “normal family” buys for the holidays."Jews, seeking to fit into American society, grabbed onto this path of the holidays 'not really being religious but only a time to celebrate,' and thus many embraced Christmas in the one way they could—buying presents for their non-Jewish friends and neighbours and celebrating Christmas as a 'non-sectarian, American holiday.' But this well-intentioned move to fit into American society only helped the capitalist secularists, and unintentionally further undermined the ability of Christians to hold on to the religious and spiritual intent of their holiday. This is why spiritual progressives of the Christian faith have urged Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives to not celebrate the holiday as one undifferentiated 'holiday season' but to ... affirm the specific message of each one." Full article here.
Friday, December 28, 2007
"Make my death a canticle for peace.
Evil has no greater friend than anger,
Making ready converts to its cause." (Nicholas Gordon)
Plus a very good article by Tariq Ali, who knew her well, remained highly sceptical of her politics, yet reflects the appalling tragedy, sadness, injustice and poignancy of what is going on in Pakistan so effectively. See: A tragedy born of military despotism and anarchy (Guardian) and also Jason Burke's obituary.
This, courtesy of Jane Stranz, is from Julia Esquivel's Threatened with resurrection - with further acknowledgments to WSCF who featured part of it on their Christmas card this year. It is among the inspirations for my forthcoming book on the theology of peace in a conflicted world. The poetic sensibility works far better in Spanish than in English, I should add. But you will get the idea...
The Word, for our sake, became poverty clothed as the poor who live off the refuse heap.
The Word, for our sake, became a sob a thousand times stifled in the immovable mouth of the child who died from hunger.
The Word, for our sake, became danger in the anguish of the mother who worries about her child growing into adulthood.
The Word cut us deeply in that place of shame: the painful reality of the poor.
The Word blew its spirit over the dried bones of the churches, guardians of silence.
The Word awoke us from the lethargy which had robbed us of our hope.
The Word became a path in the jungle, a decision on the farm, love in women, unity among workers, and a Star for those few who can inspire dreams.
The Word became Light,
The Word became History,
The Word became Conflict,
The Word became indomitable Spirit, and sowed its seeds upon the mountain, near the river and in the valley,
and those of good will heard the angels sing.
Tired knees were strengthened, trembling hands were stilled, and the people who wandered in darkness saw the light...
The Word became the seed of justice and we conceived peace...
The Word made justice to rain and peace came forth from the furrows in the land.
And we saw its glory in the eyes of the poor transformed into real men and women.
And those who saw the Star opened up for us the path we now follow.
Thursday, December 27, 2007
A cheering note arrived in my email box today, regarding the decidedly less-than-positive responses to my Guardian piece, Literally speaking. "Bad luck, Mr Barrow, that's what you get for trying to make people think outside their narrow little boxes." That's kind. Of course, I could also be wrong or have expressed myself poorly. Then again, as is often the way with Comment-is-Free, when it comes to anything connected with 'religion', you are left wondering whether people read to understand or read simply to dismiss. I don't usually reply, as I feel it is fair that I have had my say and people have had their response. When the reactions are vitriolic, there is little chance of persuading people to think again. But when people want to engage, they will.
For the record, I don't think the Gospel nativity narratives are "just a nice story". Far from it. The whole point of my piece was to try to explain, briefly, why they cannot be reduced either to groundless legend (though they undoubtedly come in legendary wrapping) or to some naive attempt at forensic, empirical reduction. These stories invite us to go beyond those attempts to "package" the possibility of God in our midst, while leaving us free not to do so.
Similarly, I'm neither a postmodern relativist nor an uncritical realist, in philosophical terms. The intertwining of fact and value, cognition and language, is much more subtle and complex than that, and depends upon what is being examined and what we are trying to describe. Broadly, what something is shapes how you come to 'know' it, and sometimes vice versa. It may seem obvious to say that planes are not people and people are not God, but from the way many people proceed to argue, it appears that they have not noticed this and keep seeking (fruitlessly) to conform one kind of reality to another - or to dismiss something without further thought if it does not fit what they regard to be the epitome of 'the real', as with some Dawkinsites.
Trying to discuss the way we speak of what is at stake in the Christian narratives isn't easy or straightforward in a culture of many perspectives and varied levels of learning. But there is no workable alternative to struggling with meaning, other than simply shouting and dismissing, it seems to me. Of course that doesn't mean I do it well. But I hope that I do better than those who simply call others "idiots" when they don't appear to share a wavelength with them.
“In Mary God has grown small to make us great.” St Ephrem
"We do not eat alone, but in families, or sets of friends and comrades; and the table is the best centre of the friendships and of the domestic affections.” - Charles W. Elliot
"There are certainly many reasons why a feast is an appropriate image of God's Kingdom [kin-dom]: it is an event which necessarily requires community; it is an occasion of abundance, even extravagance; and it is also a time when the demands of daily existence are temporarily suspended, and one is given the opportunity to relax in the grace of the world. To feast is to be re-oriented. To feast is to experience simultaneously intimacy, community and divinity." - Michael Mills, Otherness in God's Kingdom
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Well, Christmas is winding down, and we move towards Epiphany (the festival of unexpected grace) and New Year (the time of fresh starts). So I am grateful to Peter Challen for sending me this piece of wisdom. Apparently, a few weeks before he was assassinated, Gandhi had a conversation with his grandson, Arun. He handed him a talisman upon which were engraved the 'Seven Blunders' out of which, said Gandhi, grows the violence that plagues the world.
Wealth without work
Pleasure without conscience
Knowledge without character
Commerce without morality
Science without humanity
Worship without sacrifice
Politics without principles
Practical steps to inject even a little of the latter into the former would be a good move, he suggested. But what or who can produce the change of heart and mind involved? That is the question Epiphany begins to address to us.
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Warm wishes for Christmas to all readers of this blog, especially those who would reasonably have been expecting a card or personal greeting and haven't got one - for which, apologies. There are many issues to comment on at the moment - Tony Blair's reception into the Catholic Church, the ludicrous fuss over Rowan Williams' innocuous comments about the birth narratives in the Gospels, the plight of Bethlehem and much more. But like people, I've been caught out by the impending holiday, and as usual I haven't managed to get everything I planned to do finished. The world will cope, I'm sure. I did manage to write a piece for my Guardian Comment-is-Free column called 'Literally Speaking', reflecting on the way in which the biblical message is missed both by those who trap it in religious ideology, and by those who assume that it has nothing useful to say to the human condition - in both instances because they are looking for the kind of certainty signified by "literalism". It should be up on the Guardian CIF site sometime after 10.30am on Christmas Day, following on from my Advent reflection, Christ is an unwanted gift for the religious. [Pic: Van Eyck's Nativity, courtesy and (c) of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
Monday, December 24, 2007
Whether we love or hate Christmas as a festival, we know all about it. But the same may not be true of the coming of Jesus. In Christ, God radically disrupts religious 'business as usual' and the politics of endless consumption. But our celebrations have been domesticated to disguise this reality, and the shock of the Gospel texts has been dimmed by our apparent familiarity with them. See my new Ekklesia column Christ is an unwanted gift for the religious - which started life as the Advent 4 sermon (Sunday 23 December 2007) at St Matthew's Bethnal Green in London's East End.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Monday, December 17, 2007
"Not merely in the realm of commerce but in the world of ideas as well our age is organizing a regular clearance sale. Everything is to be had at such a bargain that it is questionable whether in the end there is anybody who will want to bid." - Soren Kierkegaard
Of course, Soren lived in blessed ignorance of the tabloid media, which these days extends to a number of 'broadsheets', not to mention the weird and wonderful world wide web...
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Thanks to Jane Stranz for reminding me about this prose-poem from Reinhold Niebuhr, which embodies the shape of Advent hope very well. It commits us to the impossible, but in the form of the demandingly possible; to God shaping a supremely human life; to the 'more' that stretches every 'enough' forward; to a transcendence which transcends its own infinitude by stooping into finitude, and so on. It also chimes with Oscar Romero's remarkable Prophets Of A Future Not Our Own prayer - one of my favourites.
"Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime, Therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; Therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. Therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; Therefore, we are saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness."
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
My prize discovery of the Advent season is this interesting website offering seasonal Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary: Understanding the Bible Anew Through the Mimetic Theory of René Girard. It's the work of Paul John Nuechterlein from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA, and it was nosed in my direction by Artur Rosman (Facebook link - registration required), who is also promoting Thinking in Values: The Tischner Institute Journal of Philosophy. I'll say something about that in the near future, as Artur has kindly sent me the first issue. But let me here set the scene for these Advent Girardian readings, which offer what, for many, will be different perspectives on well-known texts. (I haven't trawled too much of the site myself, but it comes well recommended.)
Rene Girard (pictured left), for those who don't know, is a cultural and anthropological historian and literary scholar who has explored 'the scapegoat mechanism' in ancient cultures, understanding it through mimetic theory (which looks at how human beings learn by behaviour reproduction and modification) in order to arrive at some highly innovative and useful theories about the relationship between violence and the sacred on a planetary scale. His work really should be studied by all those who are sounding off loudly in the media at the moment about religion and violence, since it probes well beyond the simplistic polarities that often pass for analysis in this area - from both 'secular' and 'religious' protagonists.
Unusually, Girard was brought back to his Christian (specifically, Catholic) faith in the light, especially, of his re-reading of the Hebrew prophets and parts of the New Testament, particularly the Passion narratives. He approached them assuming that they were likely to reinforce the scapegoating procedures common to ancient cultures -- which had adapted religion to maintain communal integrity by finding a way of identifying, externalising and expelling those who are made paradigmatically responsible for what the community perceives to be the force(s) undermining it. Instead, Girard discovered some surprisingly anti-sacrificial texts wrapped in superficially sacrificial garb. Texts which confound their own genesis, in certain respects. Jesus, in particular, is seen to be killed because he wholly refuses to play the scapegoating game, such that his own rejection of violence decisively exposes the manipulations of the powerful (both political and religious). For this reason he has to die from their point of view and to preserve their interests. The form of his vindication also confronts and undermines triumphalist strategies associated with 'victory' politics. This casts 'normal' religious understandings of atonement in a very different light.
All that is probably inadequately put (mea culpa), but it suggests the contours and texture of Girard's work, which has gone on to embrace narration, history, mythology and social science in a critical but constructive theological framework that challenges what we understand to be both 'traditional' and 'contemporary' meanings. His readings of the biblical texts are often highly suggestive and faithfully creative, and have been developed further by those who greatly admire his work, but very much have their own voices and stances, like the British theologian and philosopher James Alison. (There are a number of legitimate critical questions one could pose about Girard, regarding both the totalising tendency of some of his theories and its alleged domestication within his subsequent Catholic trajectory, but I do not think these undermine its central contributions.)
Girard's work also provides possibilities of a powerful interface between what could be broadly characterised as 'secular' and 'theological' forms of reasoning. Perhaps he has been more eagerly received by rational theologians of various kinds, because the dominant assumption among some non-religious scholars is that religion is to be understood almost wholly as a problem. Girard certainly problematizes it; but in so doing, he also points to real and irreducible possibilities of redemption within it. That is a message which many involved in 'religion wars' (on both 'sides' of the debate) do not want to hear, because it messes with their attempts to 'win'. So they don't hear it. The conversation needs to be wider and deeper in order to admit a wider range of options for synergy and selection. Our survival and flourishing depends upon it.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Rather than complaining about the eclipse of Christian festivals, Advent Conspiracy is an initiative to build a positive alternative, "an international movement restoring the scandal of Christmas by substituting compassion for consumption." That's more like it. Advent Conspiracy has recruited many thousands of people on its Facebook [registration needed] and MySpace social networking offshoots alone. It has three main active ingredients: * Communicate the Vision - Worship More, Spend Less, Give More and Love All. (Pretty simple). * Educate Yourself - Read a little more about materialism, the local and global needs and what the meaning of Christmas is all about. Then, start talking about it. * Get Creative - Discover together how to live in a more relational way.
The distinctive element on this, it might be said, is deliberately counterposing worship to consumption. That is, the activity of receiving the world as creative gift for all in need, in contradistinction to turning the world into a sellable commodity for those with purchasing power. The problem, of course, is that 'religionism' (the word I am starting to use for ideologically inward-looking versions of faith) rapidly turns worship into yet another commodity: either by degutting it of those elements inimical to Mammon, or by construing it as spiritual massage for a 'god' conceived as a larger version of our own power-ego. (God, it should not need saying, but does, wholly transcends and contradicts our attempts to create the divine in our own image - and much more successfully than we mimetic creatures can.)
In contrast to self-legitimating religionism, the deceptively innocent-looking Christchild who we invite into our hearts and communities at this time of year turns out to be one who threatens all such 'religious' manipulations and illusions - by showing us that the God of cradle, kin-ship and cross is nurtured to new life among the poor, despised and outcast of this world, rather than the by the 'obvious' personas of domination and authority, whether sacred or secular. That, as they say, "takes some believing". The gospel is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. Which is why we need to belong to a community of imagination, resistance and hope in order to stand any realistic chance of staying the course...
For this reason, the advent of Christ is also the advent of Christ's Body, scarred and compromised, but also charged with insurrectionary anticipation of a new world coming.
Sunday, December 09, 2007
According to a recent public opinion questionnaire, a significant number of people in Britain know nothing of Advent - or if they do, think it is, er, something to do with the number of shopping days to Christmas... Depressing, maybe, but I hope this consumer-filled lacuna will not become an occasion for predictable Christian whingeing. In post-Christendom the inbuilt captivity of the wider social order to received Christian ideas is being steadily eroded, and the answer is not to reassert control (the Gospel is about gracious possibility, which is destroyed by compulsion), but to ask whether it is really much better in the church. Practices of hopeful waiting - spiritual, intellectual and subversively political - need to be rediscovered in such a way that they really can be seen to 'make a difference' in public life. It is the quality of compassionate living which communicates Advent hope, not rhetoric buttressed by guilt or divorced from costly engagement. By contrast, complaining about the loss of a 'Christian country' is the easy option: at best a distraction, at worst a trip in the wrong direction. [Pic: radical advent]
"Humility is attentive patience." - Simone Weil
"The contemplative life should liberate and purify the imagination which passively absorbs all kinds of things without our realizing it; liberate and purify it from the influence of so much violence done by the bombardment of social images.... The training of the imagination implies a certain freedom and this freedom implies a certain capacity to choose and to find its own appropriate nourishment. Thus in the interior life there should be moments of relaxation, freedom, and 'browsing'." - Thomas Merton
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
"When Jesus enjoined us to love our neighbours as ourselves, it was not just for our neighbours' sakes ... but for our own sakes as well. Not to help find some way to feed the children who are starving to death is to have some precious part of who we are starve to death with them. Not to give ourselves to the human beings we know who may be starving, not for food but for what we have in our hearts to nourish them with - this is to be, ourselves, diminished and crippled as human beings."
- Frederick Buechner
"In the early Christian communities, the character of the Jesus movement found expression in the abolition of social distinctions of class, religion, race, and gender."
- Mary John Mananzan
[Pic: the struggle for equality in the church]
Monday, December 03, 2007
I'm delighted that Mark Wallinger has won the Turner Prize this evening, for a number of reasons. First, his film 'Sleeper' (154 minutes of footage of the artist wandering around a deserted German gallery disguised as a bear) is a delightfully whimsical comment on the relationship between image, art, animality, humanity, commerce and culture. But above all, it's fun. I like to think there's a reference to Woody Allen in there, too. Plus the Hoffmeister bear. The awarding of the prize on the day that Gillian Gibbons was thankfully released from jail in Khartoum, Sudan, for the non-offence of allowing some 6 and 7-year-olds to call a teddy Muhammad added a further ironic twist.
Second, Wallinger, from an essentially non-dogmatic viewpoint, has intelligently - and good humouredly - explored the angular relationship between historic religion and contemporary society through his work. Principally through the statue Ecce Homo (see below, pictured above), a work with far more significant and wholesome theological resonance than most 'Christian' art; and earlier through Angel, in which he intriguingly ascended and descended the escalator at Angel Underground station, London, reciting parts of the Bible, forwards and backwards.
Third, of course, there is the honour the artist has paid to (as it happens, Christian) anti-Iraq war campaigner Brian Haw. The work that really won the Turner in 2007 was the one that effectively missed out before, namely 'State Britain', which faithfully recreated the peace activist's banned installation outside Westminster. Mark Wallinger said this evening: "Brian Haw is a remarkable man who has waged a tireless campaign against the folly and hubris of our government's foreign policy. For six-and-a-half years he has remained steadfast in Parliament Square, the last dissenting voice in Britain. Bring home the troops, give us back our rights, trust the people." The jury commended Wallinger, aged 48, for its "immediacy, visceral intensity and historic importance". They said: "The work combines a bold political statement with art's ability to articulate fundamental human truths." The picture on the left shows its most overtly religious sentiment.
Back in 2006 I mentioned Mark Wallinger a couple of times in this blog. In particular, the artist's "subversively simple Ecce Homo statue in Trafalgar Square. The church it faces (in an askance kind of way) is St Martin's-in-the-Field, a rather good example of transforming part of the Christendom legacy while embodying and emblemising it. The encounter between Jesus, whose sheer humanity takes us to the heart of God-beyond-'gods', and a building whose architectural freezing of divinity has become a service point for humanity, constitutes a visual parable with multiple meanings and no easy 'resolution'. Just as it should be."
"Be gentle with each person you meet, for each of them is conducting a great struggle." - St Ephrem the Syrian.
"I will not cease from mental fight..." - William Blake, from the preface to Milton: A Poem
"Not by power, not by might, but by my spirit says the Sovereign One" - Zechariah
Sunday, December 02, 2007
As well as preparing worship resources for World AIDS Day the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance. has this year put together an excellent Advent calendar of daily readings, pictures and meditations. Many of the meditations are written by people living with AIDS.
Click on one of the below thumbnails to view the day and reflection.December 2007 © 2007 Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance. Material may be photocopied or quoted as long as credit is given to the source (author and Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance "Keep the Promise" Advent Calendar).
Special hat tip to Jane Stranz and her fine blog - Of Life, laughter and liturgy.