Monday, 29 June 2009

My Sunday's Viewing - Looking For God

So, the second show was Jon Ronson's documentary called 'Looking For God' and part of the new Channel 4 series 'Revelations'. I only discovered the programme was on at about 4.30 and that it clashed with church. Typically!

From that advert it wasn't clear which way the documentary was going to go. Would it be positive or negative? One shot of a guy talking about being repulsed, another calling the atmosphere moving and then shots of people being prayed for.

The premise was that Jon Ronson was going to follow a group of agnostics as they followed the Alpha Course at St Aldate's church in Oxford. In the end it clearly attempted to bring a balanced view to the story. It gave us a back story to some of them, highlighted those who had issues in their lives, where they stood with God and cut in shots of bowed heads in prayer, or being incredulous at what was happening or wrestling with the Bible.

However, as someone with 'inside' knowledge of Alpha as it were, it was interesting to see how the programme was cut, to see the vaguely comical way in which Nicky Gumbel and HTB were presented as sinister, calculating or indirectly manipulative - the splicing together for example of St Aldate's vicar giving the talk on 'Why Did Jesus Die' with footage of Nicky giving the same on the DVD was done to achieve the idea of a multinational organisation being copied at all levels with little independent thought. What Alpha attending non-Christians and Christians alike made of the film is anyone's guess although the initial comments from participants online has not given it a ringing endorsement.

Rather than engaging with the idea of grace, or salvation, or the claims that Jesus made, Jon Ronson was at pains to point out that the message was that Christians didn't like drunkenness, heard God speak in ways that could quite easily have been their imagination and of course he spent a good proportion of the film discussing tongues and the Toronto Blessing which is singularly the most likely topic to put people off (and a friend of mine has subsequently said that watching this programme has made him determined never to do Alpha).

What's true, in all those things, is that these are things the church believes. Jon Ronson's trouble with his material was attempting to condense 8 weeks into 48 minutes. And, unsurprisingly, he did that without discussing the Trinity. No conversation about tongues can work if there is no discussion of spritual giftings and there can be no discussion of the fruits of the spirit without engaging in some theology on Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Did Jon Ronson approach HTB? He approached 20 churches, 19 turned him down (I would love to know why those other churches did). Whether an interview with the St Aldate's vicar is on the cutting room floor or not he didn't look to raise any questions of theology or use his film to get to grips with what was being presented for discussion.

By the end of the programme two members of the 8 person group (who had been tracked in between weeks) had been absolutely repulsed by what they had experienced, and particularly the Holy Spirit weekend away. Some of the group were never interviewed, more of them found the idea of tongues objectionable and just one felt that something was stirring, due in part to someone's prophetic gifting (which I have seen today being labelled cold reading). He's going to do Alpha again, perhaps, but then he was the one with the Christian background.

Christine and I both found it slightly absurd in its reductionist approach to the course but what's interesting is the response it's getting online. The Christians, and those who have done Alpha themselves, seem to have found it quite a disappointing portrayal of what Alpha is. Although it is a disappointment tinged with weariness at knowing what to expect from Channel 4. Those in the middle are now wary of a course that has been 'exposed' in what it's really about. Whilst, on the other side of the fence there's a degree of crowing from the Athiest community who today also launched their summer camp (for the second time) and The Atheist's Guide to Christmas. There's a lot of people talking about how sinister Alpha is, how much it has confirmed their atheism and what a sterling job Jon Ronson has done.

And I think that's where my greatest sadness lies. It's not in an opportunity missed for the church to engage with the world - they tried, they gave full access and let Ronson get on with it. It's not in the fact that 48 minutes' worth of TV has presented Alpha in a way that might prevent people from seeking God themselves. It's not in the lives on that film for whom there was no meeting with God. It's more in the way Channel 4 continue to approach matters of faith.

What is clear, from his past work, from his twitter followers and followed, is that this was not an agnostic following a group of agnostics on a course for people wanting to explore the claims of Christianity. It was an atheist, embedded with some agnostics, flagging up 'questionable' aspects of Christianity. As Jon Ronson himself has tweeted he didn't pay any attention to the course, he was too busy with filming. There's a mind made up, a position formed and a decision made.

A lot of the time we Christians are accused of being all about black and white, caring only about what the Bible says and not being open minded. Is there anything more prejudiced (a strong word but one that I think it deserves) of setting out to present a film about a group of people engaged with the concept of a personal relationship with God from a position that considers them all to be deluded? Engage with us, talk to us, let's explore what Christianity means in an atmosphere of grace. If both sides consider that maybe not one of us has got the definitive answer on a lot of issues then that would be far more interesting to everyone around the table. Let's see Christians and Atheists work together to do these films, to talk about the supposed tension between Science and God, to explore our histories, to ask big questions and put forward opinions.

Let us talk about the reasons for our faith instead of having them presented for us. It is, fundamentally, not because we've been manipulated, influenced, or coerced. It's because we met, and continue to meet with, Jesus Christ.

It will be interesting to see what the remaining 7 episodes of the Revelations series are made of...

My Sunday's Viewing - Celibacy

We caught a couple of programmes yesterday as our restful weekend drew to an end.

The first was The Big Questions, from Manor School in York. Discussions included the value of Armed Forces Day and whether people should be allowed to wear the Burqa but also on the agenda was the question of allowing Catholic priests to marry.

One of the main critiques was "how can celibates advise on marriage" and there was something deeply ironic in that coming from a group of people, many of whom were married, and some of whom not Christians, who were pouring forth their judgement on celibacy.

I'm not a Roman Catholic, and I'm very happily married so I'm not really qualified to comment on the debate. Except that I think celibacy is an awesome calling.

I think there's something incredibly powerful about celibacy. I think devoting your life, even to 'marriage', to Jesus is as valuable a commitment (if not greater) than the one I made to Christine. Paul is not wrong when he says that being single, realistically, allows you to serve the Kingdom far more readily than having family around you. To live a life in anticipation of glory rather than the temporal pleasures that Nicky Campbell was so keen to point out to the Fathers they were missing.

The truth is that both Christians and the world love pairing up. Celebrity breakups, and patchups sell thousands of glossy magazines a week whilst HTB isn't called Hunt The Bride for nothing. And in that context, what happens to those called to celibacy? To those facing "being left on the shelf"? It doesn't seem like it could be much fun, to feel like you're missing out on something glorious, or letting the side down by not being a couple.

Certainly, when the debate is pitched at a level where people can suggest that paedophilia is the result of celibacy (as one participant on Sunday suggested), it's difficult to approach the topic in an adult fashion that honours the commitment, that recognises different gifts and calls and that provides the scope for people to search after God's heart for the world totally unencumbered by other intimate relationships competing for attention.

It's a shame that no one stuck up for the Catholics, except the Catholics. Seems like the rest of the Body could learn to offer a bit more solidarity not just with our celibate clergymen but with our (temporarily or otherwise) celibate and single brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Please can we have our ball back?

So, someone has written a book called 'Killing God'. And to support its publication Penguin have surveyed 1000 13-18 year olds. The headlines? 50% of teenagers have never prayed and 16% never to church whilst 600 of them felt that religion 'has a negative influence on the world'.

It would be interesting to know the methodology of the surveying. Whether the questions provided scope to talk about the good as well as the bad. People sometimes hold positions that are contradictory, (cognitive polyphasia to give it its grand title) and nowhere is that more true than in what they believe about spirituality. So it may be they condemn the behaviours of 'the church' but concurrently see Jesus as the Son of God. Or they believe religion has a negative influence on the world because they hear simplistic reporting of 'faith based struggles' that are realistically only about politics and power. Nevertheless, I'm not the only Christian that could find grounds for suggesting the Body hasn't only ever acted as a source of light and hope.

Nevertheless, if two thirds of those surveyed don't believe in God that leaves 33%. Which is not grounds for dismay given that the media is often keen to point out how few people (I'm not sure in what other context 1m is referred to as a few) actively attend church. 1m out of 60m is less than a third. By quite a lot.

Of course that conflicts with the approximately 80% who said in the last census they considered themselves to be Christians. But I don't think we should be discouraged by the disparity between actual Christians and nominal believers. If we are 'the rump' then that's because we're committed to our faith. If we're active in our churches and communities, it's because we believe what we say we believe and have a relationship with God that releases us into our giftings and passions. And that's exciting.

What's also exciting is the challenge posed by public perception. The author of the book, Kevin Brooks said that he wrote it because he wanted to explore the personal attitudes of young people towards organised religion and traditional concepts of God. And certainly the synopsis of the book sounds like it's cashing in on a phenomenon of literature that questions old paradigms (as though that in itself was something new). Here's a book for parents who believe all religion to be false, dangerous and evil to give their children to ensure they can fight off the deceived. And that's a great piece of marketing. But I predict it will sell in both camps because in commissioning such a survey here's a marketing ploy to entice the church to pick it off the shelves. Clever, clever, clever.

"Dawn's dad is a recovering substance abuser, a one-time child molester, and...a born-again Christian. Religion: That's his latest addiction. But as far as Dawn is concerned, the Man Upstairs has robbed her of the father she once loved--drugs, drinks, and all. Which is why Dawn's gone shopping for Bibles. For research. To know her enemy. Because, to get her old dad back, she's going to have to do away with this God guy. She'd just better pray that the fallout from her father's past life of crime doesn't catch up to her first."

So is this the God Delusion for kids? It's about a 15 year old who questions the existence of God but there's little to suggest what it ultimately concludes or information on Mr Brooks' own experience of faith or position on it. His background as a philosopher suggests he's wrestled with these ideas for some time but tragically, it seems he's never really grasped what it is that Christianity is all about. In an interview with the Telegraph, he poses the question of "how can the moralities of an ancient religion relate to the tragedies and disorders of today's broken world?"

As a Christian, I know, fundamentally, that the relevance and truth of God is timeless, absolute and personal meaning that such a question speaks of missed opportunity. When did we drop the ball and lose the discourse? How did the Body of Christ manage to create a situation where people not only see us as a negative influence on the world, but reduced to being about an ancient morality rather than an unconditional personal relationship of grace?

I don't think that clearing up that misconception is rocket science. I don't think that it's problematic to explain that until Jesus tore up the rules of neighbour there wasn't much generosity of spirit towards aliens. I can't help but find it easy to point to groups like the Clapham Sect as the absolute embodiment of transforming the world, for good, in Christ's name. If people see us as negative, it's because we've retreated from the world, no longer giving balance to an image that is often only partially presented. Leaving aside the untold good that the church is doing (Christians Against Poverty, I saw tweet, are helping people respond to a cumulative total of over £40m debt) it's our relevance that's questionable; not God's.

It's time we climbed over the fence (which we probably erected) and retrieved the ball. Though he probably didn't mean to Kevin Brooks has written a book for the church to engage young people with, to build youth work around. A survey on the back of it has said kids don't pray or go to church or even believe in God but at the same time here's a statistical sample that suggests teenagers are receptive to the idea of God in numbers that dwarf church attendance.

The key is always prayer. To pray that those kids don't end up in 30 years' time having never met with Jesus or experienced his body in action. To pray that they at least know what the church represents even if they reject faith. To pray that the church stops waiting for people to fall into church shaped holes in the ground but starts being community for the world, not ourselves. The alternative is nice and simple. We can carry on standing around, waiting for someone else to make the first move towards us, to emerge from our frightening next-door neighbour's overgrown garden clutching the initiative. Perhaps we should dismantle the fence, clear the garden and love our neighbour (who is still frightening, and a little bit crazy, and smells a bit).

And, when all is said and done, y'know we might not find that ball. But, would we need to?

Friday, 12 June 2009


At Pentecost the BBC broadcast a service from Kingsgate Community Church in Peterborough. I caught some of it and was very impressed that Pentecost in 2009 still looked like the fun times Acts suggests took place. But stylistically it wasn't a surprise to me. I've been around the church my entire life and I know that church isn't all BCP Morning Prayer (beautiful but a struggle to engage with if your discourse comes from post-modernity) and I know it isn't all the guilt and despondency which quite a lot of people reckon church is.

And in that situation it's no surprise that people could be led to believe that God is dead. Their experience of church seems to indicate a weekly mourning of his passing rather than a celebration of his living.

Anyway, I caught a bit of Chris Moyles and his breakfast show discussing this. I didn't really hear it but I subsequently saw a Facebook post shortly afterwards about how encouraging it was that Chris Moyles was hearing about God and telling the country about it. And earlier today it broke on Twitter and there's messages pinging about all over the place pointing to the YouTube video of it.

I don't know where Chris' local church is. I don't know who his vicar is, or whether there are any Christians at Radio 1 or amongst his circle of friends. Whilst it's great to be able to link to a very famous and influential person praising church going it's ultimately only interesting to Christians. Now, Chris meeting Jesus, that would be worth sending Twitter into meltdown. If all this enthusiasm is married to a slew of invitations that would be ace. I just hope that someone, or many, invite him along to Church, to Alpha, to something that's churchy (or not) but certainly something that might give him pause to consider why it is that a sizeable number of people, many of whom might even listen to his show, support Leeds, and drink beer, are worshipping God on a weekly basis.

Transparency = Clarity = Trust?

At the heart of this furore about expenses is a breakdown in trust.

We think that our politicians have been shafting us and getting away with naughtiness for years. The activities of 20 to 30 of the 650 elected members in Westminster is provoking the kind of outrage and, at the same time, apathy, that has sent Nick Griffin ("RT @TiernanDouieb: In mythology, the Griffin is part lion, part bird. Yet Nick Griffin of the BNP is all cock") and his odious ideas to Brussels on behalf of the British.

The solution, we cry, is for political reform; for shining brighter lights onto the activity of government and scrutinising everything that our political leaders do. In the attempt to find a way of governing the nation that works, we want to ramp up and ramp up the organs of checking up on it.

Such a response says far more about the way in which Britain has been governed in the last 12 years. A competitive obsession with targets, inspection and league tables has clearly socialised the public into thinking if you 'research' things, inspect people and shame those who fail then that results in a better situation.

Maybe it does in schools and hospitals, although there's plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise, that people trick the system, or that 'satisfactory' becomes devalued because it means you aren't good or outstanding.

When it comes to the people who govern, and the relationships we have with those around us does transparency and scrutiny bring greater trust? No, what it brings is an ever increasing bar which we expect people to achieve. Oh, so you think you're squeaky clean do you? Well I've got news for you, I'm going to raise the bar even higher. It gives us a rod to beat people with. And we like nothing more than finding someone to be blameworthy.

There's been a lot of shady goings on but not even 10% of Westminster has been indicted by the Telegraph's campaign. And we forget that at the peril of political discourse and actually trying to make people's lives better. Shockingly (for the naysayers) it seems that Alistair Darling's over confident predictions might not be totally off the mark and that the decisive action taken by the government as the economy went into a tailspin may have been the right thing to do. But the electorate don't believe that.

And we don't believe that because we're obsessed with a belief that those in Westminster are trying to put one over us. So we quest for a transparency with the claim that it will rebuild our trust in politics but whose only goal is checking that people haven't tripped up. And that does nothing to build trust. Because it's built on a foundation of total disenchantment.

Humble accountability that demonstrates the reality of people's hopes, fears, mistakes and dreams is what you and I recognise in the flawed lives of ourselves and those around us. If we try to look at our leaders, and our peers, with x-ray vision or sight that wants to reduce everything to whether or not people are behaving then we get some kind of a warped idea of reality. Transparency supposedly breeds clarity. Actually all it does is cloud the glass with greater suspicion.

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."

It's easy to criticise and judge based on the image presented by the media; an image that is political in itself but is only ever enough to sell copy. We don't discuss anything that's going on because we can't move beyond a place of anger and blame. And if we stay obsessed with an idea of disappointing failure then all we will ever be is resounding gongs and clashing symbols.

1 Corinthians 13 is not just for when people get married; it's not just for church; it's not just for Christians. If as a nation we understood that what lies at the heart of relationships is the attitude contained in that then we might have some clarity, and we might have some trust. 2000 years later and I'm not sure there's ever been a better manifesto for relating to one another than this chapter...

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Lack of Ambition at Valley Parade

We're Bradford City fans. Next season is going to be depressing.

You might have missed the news in amongst the fanfare of Cristiano's obscene transfer to Real Madrid that Bradford City's Matt Clarke had signed a contract extension. Laughably the Bradford City website says that the 'giant' defender will now form part of the squad aiming for promotion to League 1 next season.

There's no aiming for League 1 next season.

And that's underscored by the other bit of transfer news. Nicky Law has gone to Rotherham. We had Nicky on loan from Sheffield United last season and then again this. And he's a fantastic prospect. There are Blades' fans who thought he was worth a shot in the Premiership and certainly good enough for the Championship. As it was it took Stuart McCall to nurse him back to his best.

At the end of last season after we failed to mount a serious promotion challenge it looked certain he would be coming back. Unfortunately something has caused him to choose the Don Valley running track over Valley Parade.

Ambition? Who wants to end up disappointed anyway. Not to write us off too early but I'm sure that the 2010/11 season will be our year...

Vital Bradford article on the subject here

Monday, 8 June 2009

Twitter Comedy

Much has happened in the two weeks since I last blogged. Life has been busy. Racists have been sent to Brussels. So a bit of light relief is in order...

If you don't check out all the artists make sure you do find @MitchBenn and @GaryDelaney.

Certainly made me laugh when I ought to have been writing an essay...