Monday, 30 December 2013

This is a local church....

I have recently managed to watch through the 3 series of "The League of Gentlemen", a black comedy series from the late 1990s, early 2000s. I know, I am a decade late, but they are still superb, and there are some striking thoughts that come from them. I have no idea if the ideas were in the writers heads or not, but they are worth pursuing, I think.

Firstly, the Local Shop strikes me as very like so many churches. Before you rule this out completely, let me draw a few comparisons:

1. It is a local shop, but actually stuck way out of the town.

2. It is for local people, and when strangers turn up, they are subjected to strange rituals, and finally disposed of, unless they chose to become local.

3. Despite being a shop, they are delighted when they have not sold a thing.

4. There are the precious things that people must not touch.

5. Tubbs is all very friendly at first, until someone upsets their local ways.

Of course, these are all taken to ridiculous levels for the sake of comedy, but that is the point - the image we see is what some people experience when they visit your church. And what other people expect will be the case. And in the end, visitors are just sport for Edward and Tubbs.

And then there are the Dentons - obsessively concerned with order, wanting Benjamin to feel at home, while making this impossible, because of their obsessions with things being done "properly". It is interesting that they argue, at one point, that all they are trying to do is make things straightforward and ordered, neat and tidy. If only others would just accept their system and structure, all would be OK.

Not forgetting, of course, Rev. Bernice, the vicar, whose role is generally to rant at and abuse her congregation. It is clear that her own faith is somewhat shattered, which drives her to this.

I could go on - I think there are many of the characters that are reflected in Christian society. What strikes me mostly, though, its that while it is funny watching this in a TV series, being subjected to it is not so much fun. Royston Vasey is not a place anyone would want to live.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

What would Mary Poppins do?

There are some fundamental truths in life, that are non-negotiable. One of them is that the answers to all questions of mystery, bafflement and confusion can be resolved by asking "What would Alice do?". The Alice books - Wonderland and Looking Glass, are the greatest writing of their kind in history, and should be mandatory reading for all. Given what Alice had to deal with, I think she might manage to cope with the more rudimentary questions and challenges that we have.

However that is not the question for this posting. The second truth is that Mary Poppins is one of the greatest musical films ever. Once again, there is truth and wisdom in this that all should be able to learn from. While it differs from the books, reading the books provides a level of depth that the film is unable to portray.

There are two main lessons that these great works can teach us. There is also the important point that Cockney accents are not as easy as some people think. But there are two main points that come out from the stories, that are important lessons for life:

1. Mary influences Mr Banks without seeming to. Her role and input was with the children, on paper, because she was the nanny. In many families the nanny is just a replaceable employee, and parents may not know who the latest one is. It is clear in the film that nannies have come and gone quite a bit, and their job was to keep themselves and the children out of the way.

Yet Mary manages to exert her influence of Mr Banks in a whole lot of subtle ways. She never directly undermines him, or tells him what to do. And yet she changes his attitude, for the better, while making him feel that it was his idea, his choice. He retains his position as the head of the family, his authority is not challenged, but he is completely turned around in his view, making a difference to the family.

It strikes me that this is the way that Jesus wants to do influence people. He is not about undermining people, demeaning them, or making them feel unworthy. But he is about changing people, influencing them to be better people. Sometimes, he wants us to just go and fly a kite.

2. Of course the big question is "What would Mary do?" The question is one that is addressed various times in the film, but addressed differently in the books, where Mary is a darker, more serious person. In fact, the fun, bright, magical person from the film is not the Mary of the books really.

The answer to the question is, so often, something magical. From the books, the reality is that she doesn't participate in the magic very much, the idea that "a respectable person like me, at the races?" is quite shocking, She is prim and proper, not doing anything "wrong", or against the social niceties of the time. The tales the children tell of what they did are dismissed by Mary, as being from their imagination.

What Mary does, quite critically, is enable people - the children especially - to see the magical in the ordinary. What they perceive as the magical, is what Mary enables them to see - they see the magical, despite the fact that the truth is the ordinary. That is the genius of Mary, that she enables this to happen, enables them to see something different.

In the difficult times of life, it is good to ask "What would Mary do?" The answer is, she enables you to see the magical in the ordinary. That is a wonder, that is part of the Christian message too - that there is magic, if we can see it. If we are prepared to be open, to let our minds see what is really there, there is magic, there is another reality, there is a baby who is God touching the world we know.

What would Mary do? She would enable us to see the truth. There is no greater gift.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Dazzling Darkness

For my Advent read this year, I took Rachel Manns book Dazzling Darkness. It is an exploration of her sexuality, and her grappling with the meaning of this to her, as a Christian.

In one sense, I cannot really criticise the book. It is her exploration and understanding of what she went through - because it is a personal journey, and not particularly similar to the one that I have traveled, I cannot really make too much comment: this is her experience. End of story. But the question I have to ask is this: what can I learn from this? With a radically different journey, a story that is currently is a very different place, what can I learn from it?

Well, the first thing is that she is sometimes rather too theological for her own good. There is within the book sometimes an attempt to theologise her experience, which - for me - is not necessary or helpful. I suppose from where I stand, I want to interpret the theology that appreciates where she is, where she comes from, in a way that I can understand - of course not everyone who reads it will be wanting to do that. I am not sure that the theology in the book will necessarily help. For me it is a distraction - I want to know here feelings and responses, not how she explains it. I am sure that for her, this is important, but as a reader, maybe not so.

But that is a minor issue. The journey she has taken - from boy to woman, from high-life student to priest - is a considerable one, and one that very few would be able to follow, whatever their hopes and intentions. The pain and anguish of this journey is clear in the writing - it has not been a simple route, plain direction.

There is one point that I do want to explore further. "Christianity has often given the impression of having a huge downer on the body" - so true, and not just in the way that Rachel has experienced it. There are those who so dislike their body that they undergo plastic surgery to "fix" it. There are those who frown upon those who "fix" their bodies, saying that bodies are not important. There are those who claim bodies are not important, while preferring to spend time with the better looking ones. All of these are broken body images.

The truth is that Jesus came to earth in a body. It was a dark-skinned, middle-eastern body. It had too much fat at times, and too little at times. He got blisters on his hands from working, and painful feet from walking. It was a real, genuine body, with all of the niggles and problems that a body has. He never grew old in it, but if he had, it would have suffered from age problems like any other body.

To deny the importance of the physical, of the body we inhabit, of the impact that this body has on our self, our humanity, is gnosticism in disguise. It is a denial of the real, physical incarnation of Jesus. To read Rachaels exploration of her spirituality along with her physical changes, and the mental and emotional development from who she was, to who she is, is to start to understand something more of the importance of the body, the physical, the touchable.

And, of course, part of this physical is the sexual. The long-term problem that he church has had with the sexual is also a part of the problem with the physical. The idea that Christianity deals with the spiritual not the physical is a big problem, because it then fails to relate to real, physical people. In fact, Christianity - because it is about God Incarnate - God in meat - is about us as physical, sexual, real people.

It is sad when we miss that, especially as we celebrate Christmas, the coming of God to a human, physical body.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Nuclear power

There was an announcement recently* that a contract has been signed for a new nuclear power plant. What really struck me was that the government has promised a price for the generated electricity that is twice the current cost. Which should worry everyone, because it implies that the cost to us of electricity in 2023, when it takes effect, will be twice what it currently is.

I have previously commented that nuclear power was intended to be so cheap that it would not be worth metering - an idea which was very quickly disproved because of the cost of building the plant. Nuclear power is expensive, not to produce, but to prepare for and decommission.

But the truth is that this is probably not an excessive price for energy. We will have to accept the truth that energy prices will be significantly higher than they are today, unless we find new sources. We will have to deal with the fact that the provision of energy for our modern western lives will become increasingly costly.

The problem I have with this is that building nuclear power plants is not a sustainable route to provision of energy. We need to reduce our energy consumption - use less energy, even if this means that we live a less comfortable lifestyle. Even if this means we have less convenience in our lives.

But we also need to work on better - sustainable - ways of generating energy. Building nuclear power plants every 20 years is not sustainable. If we are to survive another century as a species, then we need to find better ways of supplying our needs. The current policy is short-term, and very destructive. There are better solutions, and if we are not prepared to pursue them, then we should be looking at how we can survive without power at all. That seems like a rather bleak prospect - maybe we would then look back at a time with strange windmills around as a time of joy and plenty.

*It was recent when I started writing this.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Just Like Christmas

I have to say, I had concluded that there were absolutely no reasonable Christmas songs - not ever. I was even tired of Fairytale, which has been the best of the lot for a while. It frustrated me that nobody seemed able to produce something decent, without a whole lot of tacky happiness.

What is more, all of the usual Christmas songs are old - here is very little in the last 20 years, and even those that are more recent are no better, as a whole. Why can nobody contemporary write anything decent?

If I sound like the Grinch, I am sorry. I don't think I am asking too much, in all honesty - the sentimental drivel we listen to at Christmas would not pass muster most of the year. I also don't like most Christmas carols, because these are also dated, overdone, and not (on the whole) up to the standard we would insist on at any other time. I am not trying to be a Grinch, but I do want my music - even my Christmas music - to be decent, reasonable, listenable.

Then I rediscovered Just Like Christmas by Low. I would like to say that my cynicism was overturned, but it was not quite so much - it was a ray of light. It is a cheerful song, but not overdone. What is more, I think the lyrics say something of vital importance about Christmas.

The story of the song is about two people traveling in Scandinavia. It starts snowing, and one says "Isn't it like Christmas", to which the other thinks "No, it isn't like Christmas at all.". As they arrive at their destination, they find short beds and it reminds the second person of their childhood. Her response is that this is actually "Just like Christmas".

The thing is, the snow didn't make it like Christmas. Snowy weather, Christmas trees, decorations, lights don't make for Christmas. Nor does family, turkey, presents all the surface frippery does not make Christmas. All those people who want to "do things right" to make it a "proper Christmas" are missing the point. It may be pretty and lovely, it may help with the long dark nights, and short days when the sun seems as reluctant to get up as I am, and I have no problem with that. But it doesn't make it a real Christmas, any more than going to church on Christmas day does.

The thing that made the singer respond that it was "Just Like Christmas" was the reminder of childhood. "...we got lost. The beds were small but we felt so young" The real meaning of Christmas is, I think, the return to the mystery, the magic, the wonder of children at Christmas. I don't mean a nostalgic trip down memory lane, I mean an acknowledgement of the amazing, wonderful, magical story of God coming to the earth to engage with us, to deal with us, to save us.

We get inured to these stories - I have heard the story countless times, several times most years. We know them so well that we repeat them without thinking. They are part of our culture, in some usually twisted form, and we miss the story behind them. We miss that God came to us. We miss that God became us. We miss that God did not forget or leave us, even in our darkest times.

That is Just Like Christmas. And I would like to wish all of my readers a happy Christmas and a good new year - because this seems like a good post to put this on.

Thursday, 12 December 2013


Here's the thing: nobody in the UK is persecuted for their Christian religion or faith.

In fact, I doubt that anyone in the western world is persecuted for their Christian faith, but I cannot be certain that there are not parts of the west where some persecution happens.

What is more, there are very few occurrences of religious persecution of any religious faith in the UK.

Now, just to clarify, people are vilified for being bigots. Some of them are Christian, some of them are members of the EDL. That is not religious persecution - that is the fact that we don't actually like bigots. There is ridicule of people for the expression of aspects that they consider to be critical aspects of their faith. That is not persecution, that is highlighting ridiculous aspects of faith.

Let me take a recent example. There has been a lot of comment that this couple were being persecuted for their faith, whereas the truth is quite different. For the moment, I will reserve judgement on their attitude to gay couples - I might disagree, but I can accept that they consider this part of their faith.

Despite being Christian, they were allowed and supported in setting up and running their business, from their own house. That does not seem like persecution to me.

The case centred about an incident when they took a booking for two people, and when they turned up, they were both male and were expecting to share a room together, because they were partners. The owners turned them away, citing that they "regard any sex outside marriage as a 'sin'". They were taken to court, for damages, and lost the case.

This does not seem like persecution to me - their business was boycotted, not unsurprisingly, by gay couples and supporters of gay relationships, and has, I believe, folded. They were allowed to use the proper legal channels of the country. Nobody burned their house down, attacked or killed them, threw them into jail. They ran a business, there was a legal issue that came up and they pursued it through the courts. In the end they lost. But losing a legal argument is not persecution. It may be an indication that your position and belief is out of touch, and that should be a challenge to grow - I am not saying which side is right or wrong.

One comment they made stands out to me: "Our B&B is not just our business, it's our home. All we have ever tried to do is live according to our own values, under our own roof." This is the core of the problem, it seems. They have failed ot distinguish between their business and their private lives.

If they wanted to let people who agreed with their beliefs come and stay, they should have done this privately, not as a public business. They can charge, they can run it to earn money, but if they want to open their home up, and ensure people "live according to our own values" then they have a spare room, nothing more.

If it is a business, and they are advertising publicly, then they can expect to have people who might disagree with them involved. How do they know that all of the other couples that have stayed were married? Do they check? Are they sure that nobody has ever sneaked an extra person in for some holiday nookie?

The problem is, it seems, that they put their beliefs into the public domain, and found that they were not universally accepted. That is not persecution - that is life. Most people - at least those who work with me - express something about their belief system which gets ridiculed and dismissed. It is not persecution, it is the process of honing beliefs and ideas to understand them and understand what they mean.

There are places in the world where just admitting the label "Christian" means that you will suffer in society, be cut off from the community, and risk death. In a few cases, this is religious persecution - because the dominant religion accepts no alternatives. Mostly, it is a society and culture that does not tolerate the label, irrespective of what it actually represents. The persecution may be done under a religious label, but that doesn't mean it is based on religious differences or faith, any more than the B&B couples actions are religious persecution just because their actions are driven by their faith.

In my experience, most religious intolerance - which is not persecution, but can lead to it - happens in the churches, where people are judged and sidelined based on their conformity to the accepted belief system. Society in the west is actually very tolerant of faith. If you want to stop experiencing "persecution", then I would suggest getting out of the church and engaging with society instead.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Safe places

Safe places - what are they, and where can we find them, if at all? I have seen enough people commenting that they want or need one.

I would define a safe place as somewhere that you can be accepted, talk about all sorts, and not be judged. Somewhere you can be accepted for who you are. At the least, somewhere that you can be honest about problems, doubts, concerns around a particular issue.

I am a member of two private discussion boards - private meaning that they are by invite only, and the conversations on them are not publicly visible or searchable. This provides something of a safe place - one is Waving not Drowning, part of the Ship of Fools discussion boards, where people who suffer from mental illnesses can be open and talk about their problems among others who understand at least partly. And people who know that they do not understand completely. This understanding - and understanding of a lack of understanding is critical to being a safe place.

The other one is The Lasting Supper, a discussion community for those deconstructing - and reconstructing - their faith. Once again, it is a place where all sorts come, and where members understand the pain of leaving a church, or needing to reassess their faith.

Both of these are reasonably safe places. But they are also online locations, with no physical connection - at least, I do occasionally meet with others from the Waving board, but many members do not, because they are physically too far away.

So are there any physical safe places? Well church should be a safe place, some say. I know that some people find church a safe place for them, which is good. However if you try to challenge or criticise the accepted theological position. Within any church, there are those who are safe, and those who do not feel safe, for whatever reason. Simplistically - and not critically - church is a safe place for those who fit, and not for those who don't.

And yet people like me - people who don't fit - need a safe place. Not a comfy place necessarily, not an easy place, but a place where I - and others like me - can be open and discuss doubts, problems, concerns. That is something I still long for. If anyone wants to explore such matters with me, please get in touch - my email.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

God Collar

I have recently been reading God Collar by Marcus Brigstocke. He is exploring his atheism, and why he cannot believe. The odd thing is that I agree with almost everything he says, but I just come to a different conclusion.

I thought it might be interesting to look at his arguments, and see where we might differ, and where we might agree. I realise that reducing 20 pages of carefully though out argument to a half sentence is unfair, and a few sentences of response is also not completely fair. But it might give you an insight into his discussions - and encourage you to buy the book to read more!

1. The church is crap. I tend to agree with this, and I think that, if Christianity is as shown by the church, it is crap. I think that Christianity is more than what is shown by the church.

2. Christians are crap. Yes, a whole lot of Christians are arrogant, stupid, idiots. A whole lot of the ones that are in the public eye are there because they are idiots. Yes, I know a lot of Christians who are not idiots, but they tend to be just getting on with their lives and not making a fuss. But a lot of those Marcus names are idiots.

3. Where are you looking for God? Some people say "praise God" for some success - however small - and "That is a result of sin/nature/the devil" when things - however big - go wrong. So God saves one person from a natural disaster, and praising God for them is appropriate, without asking why he inflicted the disaster in the first place. Looking for God in small goodnesses, and ignoring him in the big badnesses is wrong and deceitful. If God is in charge, he is in charge of the bad and the good - if he is not responsible for the bad stuff, he is not responsible for anything.

So what is my take on this? Well, natural disasters happen, and they cause pain and suffering. Occasionally, some people are saved from them - often by good fortune, and the work of talented and dedicated rescue workers. Where is God? Well I think he has a different sort of involvement, to inspire and drive people, to encourage them to do good things, to work in rescue services and, in some cases, to deal with the many deaths that they are involved with. It gives a sense of perspective to people which enables them to do good work. Looking for a "god of the gaps" - whatever the nature of the gaps - is always asking for trouble.

4. The God Delusion. This book is not a good read. It distorts the scientific method, it is actually a bad advert for atheism. It is a good advert for the truth that extremism is not limited to traditional faith groups.

5. Sexism in faith. The thing is, most of the great religious books are products of their time, and so reflecting the fundamental misogyny of those times. It is dangerous to judge them by the standards of today, as such - I will look at this more below.

The real problem is that so many people today reflect this misogyny in faith groups - like the church. The problem is that the sexism in the church today is not fundamentally misogynist, it is theological too - based on theologies of people who were sexist at the least, and misogynist at the worst. What I mean by this is that, for example, someone opposing women bishops may not themselves be women hating, but they are accepting of a theology that is. Because the church system is, at root, very controlling, they cannot revisit their theological position without a whole lot of their world being turned upside down.

6. Rules. Are the biblical rules still relevant? Should the scriptures have a sell-by date on them? The Bible is a strange book in may ways. However, what it is not is a full set of instructions and examples on how to live your life. To take a random character and say "this is a person you should be like", or "this is a person you should not be like" is mistaken. The stories are there to be read as a whole set of people trying to find and understand God. Every one of them got it wrong at least some of the time. Some of them got it right occasionally. The point is to read them all, and understand that these people are trying to experience God.

So Joshua believed that Gods way involved killing off the people around him, in multiple acts of genocide. I believe he was sincere, and he was impacted by the culture around him - lets be clear, killing off a whole groups of people was not unknown - but he was wrong, and he failed to do it. However, in his attempts to seek God, I suspect he found God, just a little. And not in the genocide.

Are the rules still relevant? Yes, if you understand the context in which they were given. The detailed rules in the early books were, partly reflecting the situation of the people they were given too. We need the whole lot because we need to understand the context in order to understand what is appropriate today.

7. What was Jesus all about? The picture that Marcus points of the Jesus he reads about is much closer to the Jesus I read about than the versions I often head about. Jesus was a radical, a socialist, a disturber of the peace. And Jesus would have totally been into Radiohead. He didn't come to bring "Such a pretty house, and such a pretty garden".

8. A God shaped hole? Marcus does admit to having something of a hole in him - the famous "God-shaped hole". I do wonder if the hole is really the part of us that wants to ask questions, to explore to find out more. It is the part of us that should never be satisfied with simplistic answers, but always wants to question more, to find more. To acknowledge and accept the existence of a deity is one way of giving that yearning a new place to go, a new set of questions to explore. Filling it with a god who just stifles questions is tragic.

9. Children and the questions they ask. Children ask such fantastic questions. So often, in terms of faith, we shut them down because we don't know the answers, and that can be a disturbing place to be. We also trivialise the Christian stories into naive kids stories. Oh look, Noah and the ark - lets play a game where we pretend to be the animals. Or lest play a game where we play the hundreds and thousands of people who were drowned. Of course, these were bad people, so that's OK.

The truth is that some of the Bible is not intended to be historical. I am not wanting to fall into the trap Marcus identifies as saying "oh, that's just a metaphor" - it isn't, but some of Genesis is more kin to poetry than history. And the biblical writers did not write to the same level of historical accuracy as we would expect today. that is not to say that they lied, just that their methods and techniques were different. As in the sciences, techniques develop with time - there will come a point where our approaches will be considered primitive. We cannot use modern day assumptions about what was being written - it is far more appropriate to the biblical material to understand and interpret it for what it is, than to expect it to be like a scientific textbook.

10 Death. The great mystery. Actually, the core problem that Marcus sees with this is the promise of things beyond death taking a focus away from life. Faith as a comfort to the dying and the bereaved is, I believe, a good and valid use of it. Faith as a justification for suicide attacks is wrong and mistaken.

I do not believe that we are given any real indicators as to what lies in wait for us after we die. The Bible at least is primarily focused on doing the right things in this life, and in trusting God for everything else. It is not about working for heaven - it is about working for now, and accepting that there is a whole lot of stuff that we cannot understand never mind control.

I doubt whether I have covered everything that he has written about. As I said, I have tried to summarise his arguments into single sentences. While I agree with a lot of what he says, I come from a different starting point. I believe there is something more than science can encompass, something of a spiritual nature that is greater than us. I doubt whether I have it all right, but I keep an open mind, and I keep asking questions. I, like Marcus I think, am still seeking truth.

That is real faith.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

You're my person

I have been watching "Grays Anatomy" - the TV series, not a film of the medical book (that would be so boring). One of the comments that the characters often make is that someone is "my person", by which they mean the person they go to tell everything to, that they go to in times of difficulty, and who offers them advice. This is their "person".

I wonder if we all need a "person". Someone who can help us in difficult times. They are not our partner, because sometimes we need to talk about our partner. It cannot be your pastor, because you might need to talk about church. It needs to be someone who understands all that we do and go through, but is not in charge, is not intimately involved in any of it.

That is difficult - someone who has enough involvement, but not too much. but in truth, I think very few of us do have people who we can talk to like this, which is sad. I also think there are very few of us who are prepared to do this -- listen without judgement, being prepared to offer our advice without fuss, to support people whatever their decisions. To be there for people whatever their route in life. To be someones person.

And yet, the more I hear and see, the more I think this is very needed. A place to be, to talk unreservedly. A place to say ""I think my marriage is breaking up", or "I don't know if I believe anymore", or "I don't want to go on living". And a person who can offer thoughts and insights - not patronising drivel, but an honest consideration of your problems. Who will help you work through your problems and decide what to do. Who can make suggestions, tell you to stop being ridiculous - yes sometimes aggressive responses are needed - and most of all, someone who will say "Do what you have to do, and I am here for you, whatever."

My experience has largely been that most people who will say "We will help you through your problems" tend to include an "as long as ...." with this. So "We will help you work out your faith issues, as long as you stay in the church," or "I will talk to you, but you need to see a doctor, or I can do nothing." But we need people who will say "I think you should stay in the church, but I am here for you whatever," and "You should try and work our your relationships issues, and stop sleeping with your mistress, but I am with you however it turns out."

Non-judgemental friends. People who will talk and listen and suggest and cajole, but never leave you. That would be exceptional. That would be special. that would be Christian.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Are we all psychotic?

I have been watchign the excellent series "Bedlam" on Channel 4, which has proved a very interesting and challenging series. Some people have raised some (very valid) questions about consent issues, but I do think it has provided some very important insight into the reality of mental illness and treatment. The consent issues are significant because most of those filmed are seriously ill.

I think my response to the consent issues are that many of them are controlled well at some point usually at the end, and one presumes they are then able to give informed consent. However I do accept that for some, informed consent cannot really be clarified.

However, one aspect that is covered especially in the final episode is that of the elderly suffering significantly, in some cases because of some trauma. What struck me is that they often express a fear of some unreasonable issue, that they do not quite believe what is around them. One believed that the hospital and doctors were all fake - actors, stage sets - and that something terrible was going to happen to them.

Not unlike some of the entertainment shows we see. The Truman Show comes to mind, but there are others. There have been all sorts of shows like "Beadles About" (I would have said Candid Camera, but that is really before my time), where precisely this situation happens. We watch programs like "I'm A Celebrity" where people have horrible things happen to them. Then I used to watch Fort Boyard, where volunteers take on all sorts of challenges, usually drawing on their worst fears.

All of this makes me wonder if these sorts of entertainments actually drive the psychosis we see in these people (and others too). If you don't know a hospital, it might be a set-up. A cruel one, but them so much entertainment is cruel. The presence of the TV cameras might not have helped this problem.

So what did people do before the television? Well, I think the problems were the same, it is just that the fears were different. Thirty years ago, it might have been the possibility of nuclear war. A hundred years ago - and for centuries before that - the fear of hellfire and damnation, or the other similar images from the religious teaching. This was the language in which fear was instilled.

All of which makes me wonder if some important aspect of psychosis in the population is the instilling of fear in people. We spend so long making people dread something, that when the brain has a challenge, it latches onto these fears. We might dismiss them, but they stay there, in our subconscious.

Religion that works primarily on fear is, I suggest, damaging to people, leading some of them into serious mental problems. Entertainment that works primarily on fear is damaging. As the bible says "Love drives out all fear" - true faith, true Christianity is about love, not fear. If you cannot explore your faith to me without using fear, then I want nothing to do with your faith.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Women and feminism

Would I call myself a feminist?

There has been quite a bit of discussion over this of late, with some people rejecting it, and others trying to redefine it. So where do I stand?

Well I would call myself a feminist. I accept that, as with so many other labels that I would take for myself, that others would not agree with my assignation - others might consider that I am not really a feminist. So what do I mean by the term?

I think it means - for me - someone who has respect for women, who does not discriminate against women by virtue of their gender, someone who believes that women have been badly treated throughout a lot of history, and there is a time to change this.

That is a somewhat philosophical approach to feminism, so what does it mean in practice - this is where some may disagree? I should point out that it does not mean treating women with kid gloves, refusing to engage with them in case I offend them. I think that is demeaning to women, and demeaning to myself.

I am a person who makes jokes. Sometimes they are funny, sometimes not. Sometimes I will make comments about people - to people - humourously, and sometimes jokes relating to their gender, but never demeaning, never dismissing. Actually, I will make similar remarks to men, relating to their gender too. You might not like it, but I do make these comments to the people, not behind their back.

I think that is important. I accept that a joking, humourous atmosphere has its risks, but I will make comments to everyone, not based on gender, and not behind their backs. And, when a comment is made that someone does find offensive, I apologise - because offense is never meant.

So feel free to dismiss me if you want.

I believe that for me to be a feminist means that I do not take into account a persons gender. I believe in taking into account their skills and talents, what they say, what they do. If someone is being stupid in what they say and do, I might be dismissive of them. But it is not related to their gender.

What is more, I believe that I have to acknowledge that women have historically been demeaned, oppressed, refused the opportunities that they deserve based purely on their gender. There is a need to make some changed to the system to counter this. There are times when women have to be given extra opportunities to make up for this, but not in terms of tokenism, but that women of appropriate ability need to be given chances. I am not in favour of explicit positive discrimination, I am in favour of women being treated equally, which may mean a little bias to counter a natural negative bias.

That might be all too subtle. You might want to dismiss me as a feminist if you want. That doesn't bother me.

So let me get less subtle. You can challenge me on my feminism, when we have no more page 3. You can challenge me on my feminism when the Church of England makes women equal, rather than having parishes where women priests cannot exercise their ministry, and where women can rise to the highest levels of the church. You can challenge me on my feminism when the institutionalisation of far more explicit sexism in the business world, in politics, in so many areas of life.

I am not a perfect feminist. I am not a perfect person, in many ways. But I do believe that people should be treated as human beings, irrespective of their gender. That means that don't treat them any worse, or any better than anyone else.

And I will continue to call myself a feminist.

--it also means that he demeaning page 3 stuff is broken.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

loneliness and faith

There was a report recently that indicated that people are more lonely than before, and that people who are members of a faith community are more lonely than others. I suspect that there are actually three reasons for this:

1. Lonely people will be attracted to faith communities. They present themselves as friendly, open groups, and so will attract people looking for friends.

2. People who become involved in church are likely to experience the problems of such a community, and therefore find that the surface community is not reflected right through. This means that many people within churches are still lonely, because they become alienated from others within the community.

3. There is a related aspect, that within most faith communities, the surface sense of community is so important, that from within admitting to being lonely is considered a failure, and so something that cannot be admitted to. So people don't admit within the community that they are struggling, so the community does nothing about it.

The truth is, I believe, that loneliness is a very serious problem in the West today (I cannot speak for other cultures), and yet one that is not talked about. I suspect that it is even more of a problem than this survey indicated - that people are, in truth, far more lonely than they are prepared to admit, even within communities, relationships, families.

So what is loneliness? It is not about having no friends. It is not about having no-one around you - it is quite possible to be lonely with a lot of people around, and with friends. There is something deeper than that. It is about not having people - someone - who accepts you, who can tease you and challenge you, but will accept your decisions whatever, and support you. It is about acceptance, not people. And acceptance is something that is, I think, less and less available. We all want to fit in, to be able to define ourselves by something.

Some people find the definition in a faith organisation, a church or similar. To be accepted in such places, it is necessary to conform to the standards and norms of that organisation. For some, this is fine, but for many people - maybe most people - fitting in is the contrary to true acceptance. If I want to fit in, I have to be the person that I am expected to be. Challenging the conformity means I do not get accepted.

Most critically, I have found, within any community, challenging the perception they have of themselves is always a way of putting yourself on the outside. Telling a community they they are not as accepting as they like to think they are is likely to be a good way to prove it. Telling a community that many people within it are still lonely is probably not going to win you friends.

Loneliness is at almost epidemic proportions. The faith communities, who are in a good place to address this issue, seem not to be. The disruption of other communities that we have experienced in the West over the last few decades does not give much hope for anything else to replace this. I cannot see an end to this epidemic. I cannot, therefore, see an end to the 14 people a day who take their own lives. This is a crisis, and we are not really addressing it.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Holy Machine

I recently finished a book The Holy Machine, by Chris Becket. It is a superb read, but raises some very interesting questions about faith, belief, religion.

In particular, what it showed was something I have argued for a while, that the scientific method has a core set of beliefs underneath it, just like religion. More, it is about the nature of relationship, the way that interaction can be programmed.

The real challenge it makes is to blur - or, in fact, cross - the lines of distinction between humans and machines. Critically, it makes the idea that our responses are "human" and that the responses from a computer are "non-human", and that these are fundamentally different. the truth is that they are not so different, that, in theory at least, a computer could interact in specific situations, provide human-like interactions.

This is not suggesting that the famous Turing test is no longer relevant - it is not suggesting that we can build a computer that could pass this today. In the 1970s there was a system called ELIZA, which was doing this for the very limited interaction of a psychological discussion. Within those parameters, it worked remarkably well.

The real challenge it provides, though, is to the idea of science as something concrete, something purely rational, purely intellectual, without any concept of "faith" or "belief". It isn't, its just that the beliefs are far harder to see, to identify as "belief" rather than "just how things are". It is a little like the Newbigin idea of a pair of glasses that everyone is wearing. The problem is that we all see the world through glasses - through the perspectives that we have learnt and grown up with. It is impossible to see our own glasses, but we can see others' glasses. His experience was that he saw his own glasses when he was in a different culture, a different society, where people had different glasses on. When he returned to the UK, he saw much more clearly that those around him were also wearing glasses - by leaving his culture, he saw the glasses. It is far harder to leave the rational, scientific society, and realise that they too are wearing glasses.

The truth is, they are - we are. the scientific culture is as much a culture, with it's own beliefs and principles, as any other culture. One of the problems today is that our societies have lost a lot of their differentiation - it is becoming hard to identify a particular culture because it has largely been influenced by other - western - cultures.

One of the messages - to me - of The Holy Machine is that a scientific worldview, a scientific set of beliefs and understanding is not enough. Nor is a religious one. Both are needed, and, they are not incompatible. In fact, without both, without the interaction between both, we are diminished, lessened.

But we should not assume that either is everything, or that they are that different. Not in reality. They are not.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Financial stimulus?

In all of the argument about the HS2 project, there is one argument - and only one - that I think has some virtue to it. I should point out that I still think the whole idea is a ridiculous waste of money. Interestingly, as I am writing this, some of these ideas are being ridiculed on HIGNFY - so I want to explore them in a little more depth.

The cost at this point is estimated at around £42Bn. Undoubtedly this figure will increase as time goes on - if it goes ahead, we should expect the figure to at least double. The argument that I do have some sympathy with is that this would be a massive injection of money into the economy.

Now this is true, it would be a major financial stimulus. However a significant single project like this will funnel a large portion of the money to rich financiers, businessmen and other friends of the Tories. In terms of wider financial incentive, I do not think that most of this money would boost the wider economy. I realise that this is partly my cynicism of the current government.

So what should we do instead? Well, on HIGNFY, Ian Hislop suggested "reversing all of Beechings rail cuts." I am not suggesting quite such a radical proposal, but if this £40Bn was invested in the railway infrastructure generally, and not just in one line, then I think it would prove a far better financial incentive.

So rather than one new line, provide overhauls to some of the existing lines. Possibly, where appropriate, bring lines back where they have been removed or allowed to fall into disuse. Maybe connect then up a little better, and provide good services on them.

It could be that in some areas, the existing lines just need some replacement work or repair, to reduce delays and holdups. That would improve the service, and - hopefully - encourage more people to use them. There are places where the money could be productively used to replace the existing train operator, and ensure a better and more cost-effective service.

Of course, these ideas are not big, flashy, high-profile glamour projects. They will not, if done properly, provide financial stimulus to the already-rich. They would provide real financial stimulus across the country, provide a lot of work to people, and give us a lasting legacy of an improved rail system.

Which, I suspect, is why this government will not do it.

Because I try to bring some theological insight into these musings, I think there is a church-related analogy. I know of churches that will focus on big glamour projects - buildings or youth workers or such like - and the congregation will be excited about these projects. But, in some cases at least, putting the same effort into the boring practicalities would produce better long-term results. Of course, when you focus on yourselves, to see what needs fixing, it can be very enlightening, and very disturbing.

Which, I suspect, is why so many churches do not do it.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Educating Yorkshire

This TV series has been an excellent insight into modern schooling, and a challenging insight into modern youth. There are a few points that I think are important to draw from it. What is more, I want to draw some parallels with the Christian community.

"If we cannot send them out as decent human beings, we have failed" This is part of the opening sequence, and is said by the headmaster. It is a vital insight into what the role of the school is - it is not to pass exams, achieve well on league tables, attract the brightest pupils. It is to EDUCATE our young people, and that means sending them out as decent human being into the world.

That doesn't mean that exams are unimportant. It doesn't mean that the learning that takes place is merely co-incidental - I think it is important for people to be educated to the highest level that they can be, because this helps them to be decent human beings. But the scoring system is not all there is.

For churches and other such communities of faith, I think this is also a good aim - that they should produce decent human beings. Not that they should grow, or produce lots of next generation ministers or missionaries or any of this stuff. It is that they should produce decent people. It is a sad reflection on many churches that, whatever else they might achieve, their members are not decent human beings.

The second thing I have noticed is the level of pastoral support that the pupils have within the school. I know some people think they are being mollycoddled by all of this, and that it is a waste of money and effort. If the purpose of the school is to educate, then leave the pastoral care to families and churches.

And yet, I know that if this level of support and help had been available to me, it would have made a big difference. I know that some of my issues with depression started while I was at school. I know that my behaviour at school was not particularly good, and I was most definitely showing signs that I would now recognise as mental illness. I know that if the level of pastoral support available in Thornhill Community Academy had been around for me, they would have identified an issue, and I might have been able to get some help. So no, the pastoral support they give is not meaningless, not a waste of money. In some cases, it is helping the pupils find their way in life, and so saving them from being a police problem down the line. In others, it is helping them get help for their issues, and so enabling them to be long-term, productive members of society.

Faith communities should be places that provide all sorts of pastoral care, and yet this report suggests that loneliness - a key pastoral issue - is higher in those within faith communities as those not. There may be all sorts of reasons for this, not least that the lonely may seek out faith communities, but this is one indication that so often, church groups do not provide help and support, especially not when members are having doubts and questions about their faith and belief.

The next thing that is significant in this series, and is unusual in Thornhill, is that the teachers and pastoral staff especially talk the language of the pupils. When one of the pupils is being asked if they called another pupil a "paki", the teachers investigating use these words, rather than avoiding them. It takes the threat out of them, and it makes it much easier to admit that they did. Or didn't, as would seem to have been the case here.

Against from the opening sequence, one of the staff tells a pupil "Stop crying you mardy bugger", which is good Yorkshire language. Being prepared to be accept the language they use makes for easier communication. You get the sense that none of the staff are going to be shocked or personally offended by anything that the pupils say. This means that when they are feeling passionate, intense, whatever, they can talk and express themselves.

Faith communities are so often speaking a language that outsiders do not use. It has all sorts of extra words in, that have no real meaning outside the community. And there are all sorts of words and expression that are not expected to be used, because they are "course" or "vulgar". It can so often get to the point where certain subjects are off limits - sex, drinking, swearing - giving an impression that certain areas of life are not part of the "spiritual" self. I mean, when was the last time you heard a sermon on Lev 15?

The truth is that God is present when you masturbate, God is present when you decide to have that one extra drink, God is present when you tell someone to "F*** off" - or they tell you to do the same. God is not "nice". He is not just with us when we are being "nice". Talking the same language as people outside the church might be a shock, but it enables communication far better.

The third aspect that I get from the series is that being a teacher in a school today is Extremely Hard Work. The government have been very quick to denigrate teachers, making implications that they need to work harder and do more. This program does show that at least some teachers are working unbelievably hard. Of course, there are some poor teachers. There are some poor MPs, some poor bankers, some poor software developers..... that in itself does not mean that the entire profession is poor or incapable. It means that there are some bad examples, as there are in all professions, all job types.

There was one teacher in particular who took my attention - Mr Steer. He was reduced to tears at one point, by the pressure of the work he had to do - managing the GSCE year who were exceptionally stroppy this year. He was also so dedicated to his pupils that he came in limping with a bad leg, brought on by stress, it would seem. He was in because his pupils had an exam, and he put their needs above his own - the head did, eventually, send him to get checked out. In truth, he looks like he is heading for a breakdown, not because he is weak, but because he is dedicated.

I don't see that level of dedication from the MPs who are so quick to criticise, so quick to add more to their workload.

Does this relate to the church? Well being a pastor is also a very tough job. This is especially true when pastors are trained theologically,  but the work is mostly administrative and functional - running the church organisation. In truth, some of the problems I have with churches and clergy is that they are so often in the wrong job. They are doing administration, not theology, and the administrative load is increasing. They may be pastoral, but be put into impossible pastoral positions. The role of "pastor" or "vicar" is a ridiculous one - at its core, that it why I believe we should get rid of our church structures and clergy, because that would free people to do what they should be doing, not managing a system.

Finally - being a teenager is a very tough place to be today. In some ways, this is one of the great insights the program shows, that our young people are often stroppy, miserable, disruptive, rude and unpleasant. That is the nature of young people under the sort of stresses that they are under today. When I was a teenager, there were many stresses and problems in life, most of which have got worse since that time.

I don't think the church today is particularly good at dealing with teenagers or young people as a whole. So often I hear either patronising comments or instructive comments - that is "do this and you will be OK". Neither of these is appropriate, in fact. The staff at Thornhill show that they look at each child and try to understand what their particular problems are, and how they can be assisted (not resolved - most of the time, they cannot be "sorted"). Often I hear a staff member asking a pupil "what can we do to help you?" which is a far better approach.

So Educating Yorkshire is also, it seems, about educating everyone. One more thing - there is also lighter moments, enough humour to make it seem possible and real. Like any job, there are good an bad times. But at the end of the day, their task is to produce decent human beings. Large portions of our education system is exceptionally good at doing just that.

Friday, 18 October 2013


I have been accused of not liking cyclists. This is odd, because a) I have been a cyclist and b) I know lots of cyclists, and they are all lovely people. And yet, what I have seen from them, from their experiences of cycling (especially in London), I think cyclists are very poorly treated overall.

I should point out, for the record, that I used to cycle to work each day, and I did that for a couple of years. In London, in the peak hours.

I should also point out that I do try to give cyclists room and consideration when I am driving. I try to give them space to pass and when I pass them.

Cycling in London is very difficult. There is a lot of traffic all busy, some of it fast, and it is traveling on roads that are not always wide enough for the load. It requires a lot of bravery (or something). There are cycle paths in some places, but the system is woefully inadequate, and, as the news reports have shown of late, they are not safe cycling routes. Sometimes they seem just to direct cyclists into busy junctions, and abandon them there - the Bow roundabout being one example.

When traffic systems are being looked at, development made, most of the time the cyclists are not given priority, and any provision is often a last-minute hack to stave off criticism. Even outside London, where some of the problems are eased, cycling provision on some of the major commuting routes is inadequate, making cycling along these (usually busy) roads dangerous.

Of course, the other side to this is that cyclists do not always do themselves any favours. I see cyclists running red lights, cycling across pavements, ignoring zebra crossings, using pedestrian lights while still on their bikes. These are all dangerous. Now people point out to me that cyclists jumping red lights is not as dangerous as a car jumping a red light - as if that made it acceptable. It is true, and it is also the case that cars jump red lights sometimes. However as a pedestrian, a bike jumping a red light is usually harder to see than a car doing the same. I can see a car from some distance away, but a bike may have just been weaving its way through the cars, and might charge into me suddenly. And usually with some disdain that I am getting in their way.

The injuries that a bike hitting a pedestrian can cause should not be underestimated. They can be serious and even fatal. I have been at the top of Greys Inn Road in London, as a busy crossroads, when the lights have gone red for traffic, and seen dozens of bikes zipping across the junction in all directions. We are not talking about a very few bad eggs, but a significant number of cyclists, especially in London, but not exclusively.

So not I don't hate cyclists. I have a lot of sympathy for them, and do not envy anyone who cycles in London. But they must accept that they are part of the road traffic, and should follow the accepted rules of the road (not precisely the same as the written rules). I don't mind when they pass me to move to the front of a queue at the lights - it is the safest place for them, and they are narrow enough to pass other vehicles. I do object when they them cycle straight through the lights when they are on red. And yes, cars should abide by the accepted rules of the road too. But just because some members of one group break the rules is no excuse for members of another group to also break the rules. That is madness.

Can I find some spiritual or Christian message in this? Not a great one, just that rules are there for a purpose. The purpose is not that we should not break them under any circumstances - that is the pharasitical approach. They are there to guide us, to point out the way, to indicate the direction.

If we break the rules there are consequences. That does not mean we should not break the rules, just that we should accept the consequences.

And mostly, the message I get is that when I was cycling, it was then that I most contemplated my eternal future, because, many times, I felt that it was due to begin shortly. Cycling does wonders for your prayer life. But rather less for your nerves.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

How do we think?

Some time ago, there was a report about the way we think. I have searched for it, but could not find anything for a link, so I will have to explain what it said.

Traditional thinking says that there are two types of thinking: intuitive and rational.

Rational thinking involves putting a logical set of ideas and reasons for the actions we take, the decisions we make. If someone asks rational people why they have made a certain decisions, they will give you the logical set of steps they have taken to reach their decision. Therefore they can justify it.

Intuitive thinking involves just finding a decision, without a process as to how you got there. If you ask an intuitive person why they made a certain decision, they will not be able to tell you - it just makes sense.

Given that me and my wife have very opposite approaches to this, I know from personal experience that it can be very difficult to mix these two - at the extremes, both sides seem unreasonable to the other. In particular, because of the dominance in western thought of the rational and logical, it can be very hard to explain rationally when an intuitive has made a decision.

The report I referred to challenged this approach. What it argued was that everyone thinks in the same way - intuitively. When you make a decision, you simply reach out and find the answer within you mind.

Then most people put a post-hoc rationalisation on this decision. That is, logical thinkers put the logic and rationalisation onto the decision after they have made it. Intuitive thinkers don't bother. But they both reach their decisions by the same approach - a pseudo-random leap of imagination.

What is significant about this is that the Western dominance of logical, rational thinking processes is suddenly turned upside down. It doesn't mean that logic is irrelevant. It doesn't mean that the logical method or the scientific method is wrong. This post-hoc rationalisation is the important thing for scientific research.

What it does mean is that those who jump to their conclusions, those who cannot provide the logical reason, those who "feel" what the right way is, rather than arguing it logically, are merely reflecting the way that everyone actually makes their decisions.

By rejecting the precedence of rationalism, I think this makes for a stronger role for the paradoxical, for the irrational, for the odd. Because faith is not logical or rational. There are logical and rational reasons for believing, for faith, but somewhere there is also something beyond the rational.

Maybe it is that part that is reflecting the true human nature, the real way we are. I like that idea.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

This government.

I don't often do explicitly political posts, but I have been driven to post something about the current government, their actions, and the effects on people.

There are a number of statements that David Cameron - and other members of his cabinet - have made that are typical of a manipulative leader - of which I have met a few, usually in churches. He makes statements that everyone can agree with, and then interprets them is ways that most people would disagree with. Then, if you disagree, the response is "so you don't really think that xxx" where xxx is the broad statement that everyone would agree with.

Let me take an example. One of the recent ones is "nobody should get something for nothing". Now in truth, I would totally agree with this, as it stands. People should not get something for nothing - some of us work to earn a living, to have to pay for all the stuff I want. So yes, it does seem unfair if some people get stuff they want without having to work for it.

Then he does something ridiculous by applying this to those on welfare payments. The vast majority of whom have made their national insurance contributions, which are the payments that they have made for the benefits they should be receiving. While it is true that they may receive more than they have paid in, that is the nature of insurance. The idea is to give people a safety net when things are difficult - and at the moment, the economic situation means that jobs are hard to find and easy to lose. This is the time when we should be increasing the welfare bill, because there are more and more people in need of this.

This actually leads to another of the mis-information that this government constantly gives out, which is that the welfare budget is a major part of the government expenditure. The truth is, it isn't. Yes, it sounds a lot when you see the total figures, but it is not that much in real terms. There are other ways in which the government could find this money, that would impact far fewer people in far less severe ways. In fact, if everyone were to claim all the benefits that they were entitled to, and all those who fiddle the system were stopped, the welfare bill would go up. Benefits are actually underclaimed, not overclaimed.

Of course the other side of this is that this statement came from a cabinet populated by millionaires who have inherited their wealth, who have received expensive education from this money, and have therefore received something for nothing. This is the most astounding hypocrisy. For then to say this and not realise why this is so hypocritical indicates to me some serious lack of appreciation of most peoples situation.

"We are all in this together" - that was one of Camerons first great statements. What we understood was that everyone would be contributing to the recovery, which is perfectly right. Of course what meant was that he was going to implement the most aggressive, right-wing, anti-poor policies ever, while pandering to the rich. In fact, everyone has paid and contributed, however the poor have been squeezed significantly more than the rich. That is completely upside down - the people who should be contributing most are the richest, and in particular those who got us into the mess in the first place. that is not the welfare claimants.

"The taxpayer should not fund people living beyond their means" - once again, this is a statement that it seems everyone can agree with. Of course our taxes should not be funding people to live lavish and expensive lifestyles. Cameron meant that taxpayers should not be finding expensive benefits claimants lifestyles. Once again, of course, the truth is not as it is presented to us. One or two people scam the benefits system to live an extravagant lifestyle. It is perfectly right that they should be caught and stopped. The vast majority of claimants are not living extravagant lives, and should not be unnecessarily punished.

Any yet there are some 600 people in Westminster who are living beyond their incomes, on very high levels of expenses (the sorts of levels that many people even in business would be appalled by), who are clearly living "beyond their means", and getting money from the taxpayers to fund it. It is also the case that tax system tends to favour the wealthy and rich businesses, enabling them to profit from not paying as much tax as they should. So many of the richest people are having their lifestyles supported by the taxpayer. If you have not seen JK Rowlings excellent comments on paying tax, she is awesome, and the only one of the top 10 richest people in the UK to take this attitude to tax. So yes, the taxpayer should not fund people living beyond their means. Especially those whose means are significant.

A more recent policy statement continues this direction. The idea that young people under 25 should not receive benefits is preposterous. It may be perfectly OK in nice safe middle-class families, where young people can stay at home without problems, because there are plenty of rooms in the house, and plenty of money to look after them, whether they have a job or not. However this is a strange and privileged view of society, and one that very few people see around them. What about the family who have no spare room, because the bedroom tax has taken it from them, and who have no jobs in the household, because they have all vanished.

Once again, the idea that people on benefits should do work "like picking up litter" is another example of a lack of appreciation of the reality of the situation. Who do they think picks up litter at the moment? In fact, any of this work will take jobs and money from people who may be doing these jobs because it is all they are able to get these days. When the job market is so squeezed, the answer is not to demean those on the more menial jobs, and try to take them away by giving them as unpaid forced labour to those who are unable to obtain a job.

It struck me that the capitalist approach is, on the whole, that if you want things, you should pay for them. And yet, it seems that the policies of this Tory government is precisely the opposite, whereby those in privileged positions seem to expect those who are unemployed to do work on their behalf for free. The workfare schemes were similarly un-capitalist in principle.

The policies of this government have been very damaging to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. That is a abdication of the purpose of government, which is to look after everyone in society, from the rich to the poor, irrespective of whether they like or agree with them.

As I alluded to earlier, I have seen some of these tactics in the church, where manipulative leaders abuse those they are supposed to lead, and fail to support those they disagree with. They also fail to support those who are most vulnerable, those most in need of help and support, those most in need of the church. This is a disgrace, a failure of leadership, a failure of responsibility. Whether in church or nation, all good people should stand against this.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Back to Church Sunday

Some time ago, when I said that I believed that I wanted to focus on those who were leaving the church, or had left, I was told that "We don't want to be seen as poaching from others churches - we want to focus on bringing new people into the church". I was - and remain - unconvinced.

Of course, focusing on bringing new people in, rather than working with those who might want to leave, is much easier. You don't have to deal with the reasons that people leave, the problems that people have with church. "New" people don't have all the knowledge and hangups of people who are dissatisfied with church.

And then we have "Back to Church Sunday", a concept that is misguided in several ways. Firstly, there is the idea that people who have stopped going to church might want to try it again. By naming it a Sunday, of course, it removes any need to consider why people might have stopped going. Yes, some people leave because they just drift away, but many people these days leave through deliberate choice. And if people just drift away, that itself is an indication that they no longer find anything to keep them there.

Of course, having a single Sunday with a name means that all of this can be ignored.

 There is also a strange focus on church, not on God or faith. The fact that people may be engaging with God more outside church is ignored. The fact that people may wish to focus on a relationship with God rather than going to church is ignored.

I have heard that it should be called "Back to God Sunday", but, of course, for so many, this is considered the same thing. For many people, returning to God is not something that is done on a random, nominated Sunday. for many, the church has so hurt and damaged them, has so destroyed their relationship with God, that it will take years to find that and build it again.

Naming a single Sunday like this trivialises the pain and anguish that so many people have in leaving the church, and that the church had done to them. It makes an assumption that returning to church is like returning to a social club, or a knitting circle. It puts church - and a relationship with God - on a level with a book club.

And that is wrong.

The third problem is that church so often put on something special for this Sunday. Something that is intended to appeal to those returning for whatever reason. Now in my experience, churches are astoundingly bad at doing this. Actually, they are very good at doing the odd and peculiar things that church do, at performing the strange ceremonies that happen. What they are unbelievably bad at is making this in any way comprehensible or attractive to those outside.

What is more, should anyone decide to return to attending church on the basis of events put on for this Sunday, one presumes that they will return next Sunday, and remember all of the reasons that they stopped going.

Back to Church Sunday? A good candidate for worst idea from the church ever. And there are a lot of good competitors in this category.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Mental Illness

There has been an interesting flurry of activity in the last few days about mental illness. It was sparked off by Asda offering a fancy dress costume.

As someone who has a mental illness - depression - this was rather offensive. The image being given was that mental illness means psychopathic killer. We are not - some of us actually hold down proper jobs, live a full life, and control any urges we might have to kill other people, at least most of the time.

However, what has been more interesting is the response that has generated on twitter. Firstly, the outcry was sufficient to get Asda - and Tesco - to withdraw these costumes and apologise. But more importntly, today there has been a whole lot of responses using the #mentalpatient hashtag, with people posting pictures of themselves dressed as mental patients. That is, in their ordinary clothes, exactly as they normally are.

I have seen one question raised - why is it that getting kids to dress up as a mental patient promotes such ire, but dressing up as a serial killer is acceptable? Well actually I don't entirely think it is. Celebrating the mythological creatures of evil is one thing, and I know a lot of people have issues with this, but I do think that celebrating modern day killers, or celebrating outmoded stereotypes of mental illness is not acceptable.

There is a bigger problem here. The problem is one of perception of mental illness in our society. The mentally ill are seen as being dangerous - the image of the mentally ill as serial killers is subtly reflected in many peoples perceptions of the mentally ill. The truth is that one in three people will suffer from mental illness in their life. That means that everyone - every single person - will be affected by mental illness.

And yet many people are still scared of the phrase "mental illness", taking an assumption that those suffering from mental illness are dangerous to themselves and others. The reality is that a few are - although mostly this is only an issue when medication is failing. The mentally ill can be difficult or unpredictable at times, but then so can those without diagnosed problems. The vast majority of those with mental illnesses are quite capable of appearing to be perfectly normal people. As the #mentalpatient tag has shown.

The perception of mental illness has to change. Too many people are hurt by the negative image that it has in the public mind. I can only hope that the result of this is that we learn to see mental illness where it is - all around us, everywhere.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


The group at Greenbelt who I found most engagement with was a series of discussions by Serum. They are open discussions, on a variety of important topics and areas, without an expectation of the Christian faith as a starting point. In fact, they are discussions on faith-like issues without any assumptions to start from.

Which I found very refreshing.

This is one aspect of what I think church should be like. Open and frank discussions and explorations of spiritual matters, working though our faith with other people, challenging it, seeing how it works for other people. My faith is improved by being honed with others who don't agree with me.

Many people in churches - clergy included - seem to run scared at this sort of open and challenging discussion. There is an idea that by exposing our faith to challenge and critique, we will probably lose our faith - so it is far safer not to expose church people to this sort of thing. I have also heard, far too often, that "people may ask questions I don't know the answer to". That is the point, sort of - it is about exploring our faith, finding the areas we don't know about, and seeing if anyone else can help you work out a direction.

But I also ask, what are the churches doing, that people are so scared? How come these people can be in a church for 30 years, and still have absolutely no idea what they believe? How can you go to church for 30 years and not be able to discuss and explore the Christian faith with other people?

How come people go to church for 30 years and have no real faith? They have routine, they know what to do how to behave, they have process, but faith? If it cannot cope with some debate and discussion, is it faith, or just ritual?

Questions - which is what Serum is about - are the lifeblood of faith. Not answers, which is what so many church Q&A sessions are about, but questions, and the exploration of what they mean.

That is difficult, that is faith, that is fun!

Monday, 23 September 2013

The secret Diary of a Call Girl

I have been watching this on Lovefilm recently, and have been intrigued and surprised by it. I had caught clips and trailers for it when it was on TV, but only part of episodes, inconsistently.

I had expected it would be sleazy and sordid, but was pleasantly surprised - it is definitely justifying its 18 rating, but it is also humerous and insightful. In its way.

It is, for those who don't know, the televised version of the diaries of a genuine escort, who worked as a prostitute for a few years when she didn't really know what else to do. In honestly, it does rather glamourise the world, not least by staying in the high end market only. I am in no doubt that it does not entirely reflect the business, and it probably rather over-glamourises the top end of the market. But there are a couple of important aspects that it demonstrates.

Firstly, it identifies a distinction between sex and relationships. In fact, at least one series is all around this very issue. Can a prostitute have a relationship? Well, according to the story shown, the answer is yes, although it does require the right sort of man, one who can separate the relationship from the job. Yes, sex is part of the relationship, but, for some men at least, there is more to a relationship than this, so for Belle to be continuing to have sex for money is not a problem.

I think this is a rather more positive approach to both relationships and sex than the one normally taught by the church. I am not suggesting that prostitution should be a career of choice for Christians, but I do thing that the focus on "get married so that you can have sex" demeans both. A loving relationship, that might include marriage, will tend to include sex. But - and I am sorry if this is shocking to you - embarking on a life-long relationship just to have sex seems rather drastic. Embarking on a relationship because you want to stay together for life seems like a far better reason and justification.

Secondly, one of the recurring themes is loneliness. This is twofold - Belle is having lots of sex and enjoying her work, but is still very lonely - there are very few people she can talk to about her work, and about why she does not have a boyfriend. Despite being an outgoing, likeable person, she is desperately lonely. I think that this is probably not just about her particular line of work. I suspect that there are many people who cannot talk about their problems, their lives, their failures as Christians with anyone, because there is no-one who would understand.

How many Christians cannot talk about their doubts and worries, because they don't want to be seen as losing their faith? Or men (especially) about their work challenges, because they do not want to be seen as weak to their colleagues, the only people who might actually understand their problems? Or people struggling with mental illness, who cannot talk because so many people are scared or prejudiced about mental illness?

The other side, which is the same coin, is how many of Belles clients are lonely. In many cases, the sex is just the justification for the meeting. They are actually lonely, want someone they can talk to about anything - as Belle says a number of times, her clients can talk about anything, in complete confidence. Maybe high class escorts are the new confessional priests.

Maybe it it time that Christians stopped being so judgmental, and started behaving like Belle - being prepared to listen to people, and accept whatever they have to say. If anyone does want to talk, please get in touch (, because, while I may not be a prostitute, I try not to judge.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Links for my writing

I have published three works so far. This post is simply to provide a central place to contain all of the links for all of my writing. Note that I tend to write my science fiction under the name Schroedinger. They are usually available as both e-books and printed copies, published by Lulu, and so available from there as ePub and print, as well as on kindle from Amazon.

The ePub reader, if you do not already have one, is a simple download from the Lulu site. Alternatively, a kindle reader is available from Amazon to download onto a computer. Both of these readers are free. They are not available for the Nook, because of problems I have had with the Barnes and Noble site.

They will also be available in print format from Amazon, and iBookstore format should that be your preference. There are probably other places too, that they don't tell me about.

My first short story is called Bubbles, and is available across all of the platforms. It is a story about Michael, who wakes up to a nightmare beyond his wildest imaginings, and a whole lot of new possibilities and challenges.

 Available as ePub and as hard copy from Lulu, and on Kindle across the world - these are the links for the UK and the US.

My second story is Ideocide, a full length novel about - well, you will have to read it to find out. But it is about the death of ideas, the process of challenging and rediscovering beliefs. It is split into three parts - Deicide, Infanticide and Suicide. And yes, it is quite hard hitting in parts.

It is available as an ePub, and as a hard copy from Lulu. It is available in Kindle in your own country, including the US and the UK.

The latest work is the start of a collection of short stories, provided on kindle only - in the uk, but available in all countries. I wanted to make this free, but there is a problem with making kindle books free, so I am doing promotions on it instead, so it will be free each Saturday that I can make it so. I will add any other stories I produce to this collection.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Grace Petrie

One of my highlights and new discoveries at Greenbelt this year was the singer Grace Petrie. Her performance was excellent, and really enjoyable. But there was another reason why I was impressed.

She is a protest singer, in the style of Billy Bragg and the like. Well actually, there is no real "the like", which is the problem. We do not have any real political protest singers today, who are well known enough to get played and so get their message out to many people. Grace is not quite there yet, but nearly, having had some exposure on BBC 6 Music. Her message is one that we all need to hear, because music - like comedy - is a good way to spread a message.

On my first evening at Greenbelt, I spoke to a couple of people and one question came up which was "why are there no controversial political speakers at Greenbelt? Which there were not really, although there have been in the past. As we discussed, one of the problems is finding the people who are making spiritual political statements - and there are none. After that discussion, it was good to hear that there are those making their political mark - and those who are prepared to appear at a spiritual gathering like Greenbelt.

She is an engaging person, someone who is clearly passionate about what she says and does. She also does love songs, but not lovely sweet ones, of course. She has her head screwed on, is not an idealist, which makes her protest songs even better, because they are not dreaming of a supposed ideal - she is quite realistic about life. But she is angry and hurt, and that comes over in her music.

Anyway - that is enough - check her out, listen to her, go and see her, support her, partly because we need her voice in this country, but also because she is good, entertaining and fun.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Today, it is comedians who speak the truth

This is another quote from Milton Jones at greenbelt, who was quoting someone else, and I am now going to try to remember this quote. Please, do not blame anyone else for this!

The quote was, roughly, that since Life of Brian, people have trusted comedians to bring them truth, not clergy or the church. I though this was an interesting idea, and one with a whole lot of truth.

I think this is actually a much older tradition, going back to the court jesters or fools. The fool had an important and complex role in court, which was not just to provide entertainment, but to say whatever needed to be said. Most rulers would have advisors who would all have political alliances and intentions, and would also be trying to curry favour with the ruler.

The role of the fool was to say those things that the ruler needed to hear, but no-one else would be prepared to say. The fool would be the one who could tell the ruler that one of his advisers was compromised, or not telling the truth, or tell the ruler that a plan of theirs was rubbish. In principle, the fool could not be punished for telling the truth - although it was a risky role, as truth telling is always risky.

Today, some of the comedians on the market serve a similar role - Have Got News For You is a prime example, when it does things well. There is nothing sacred, nothing that cannot have fun and ridicule poked at it. It is not the only one, of course - Mock the Week is another example. There are those who find these programs far too negative and critical, who have a problem that religion, for example, is not sacred, or God. But religion is just as in need of a jester as the political world.

On the one hand, we should celebrate that comedians are providing that role, that someone is able to hold the politicians to account, whether in Westminster or Lambeth.Comedians speak powerfully to people, and are respected, so their critiques of political actions are listened to, often more than other political commentators.

On the other hand, this does mean that is comedians are the ones speaking the truth, we should also work to see that they are held to account, that their critiques are as addressing the right topics, and all of the topics. And we should learn how to use comedy properly to convey a Christian critique of politics and religion. That does not mean telling jokes at the start of a sermon. It means acknowledging that that place that truth is heard is in the comedy clubs, not the churches.

And so we should be praying for Milton Jones and other Christians in the world of comedy, because they are front line prophets. They have a power over public opinion that politicians and clergy can only dream of. We should pray that they use that power well.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Science fiction

My proof-reader, @amyunchained told me that she doesn't normally read science fiction, but she quite enjoyed my stories. It made me think about the nature of science fiction, and about what I write. My writing is SF without a doubt, but it is in truth about real people. The core of good SF is that it asks the question "What If?" and explores this in some depth, dealing with the human implication of the change. This change can be small or it can be huge. A book like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel starts from the premise "what if magic was real?", and explores the implications in a historical setting. Iain M Banks Culture series starts from the premise that unlimited free energy is available, and scientific progress takes off. The novels then explore certain implications of this - in a universe that is radically different from ours.

There are, I think three main streams of science fiction work. A lot of people who are not familiar with the broader range may only see the first two, not least because these are the ones that get most of the film and TV time. That is unfortunate, because there is a whole lot of really good material that people would enjoy in the third category, people who do not normally like science fiction.

First category: fan-sci-fi. This is the broad area that covers anything Star Trek or Star Wars related, or draws from any other popular genre (Buffy is another core genre here - covering anything to do with vampires etc.). This is not to be critical of them, but just to acknowledge that they are not always original in concept, even if they are in execution. I would even include Firefly in this category, despite the fact that it was quite unique in concept, and is still the best SF series ever, cruelly cut short before it had a chance (not that I am bitter or anything). These stories have the advantage of being set in a universe that the reader or viewer already accepts, and so there is a lot that does not have to be defined or built. It means that the writers can explore new and challenging ideas - but it also means that they are restricted by the history of that particular genre.

Second category: apocalyptic sci-fi. This is the stuff that the sci-fi channel fills its days with - end-of-the-world scenario films. Personally, I enjoy them, even though they are usually very stylistic. In fact, I have sat at my desk at work, and realised that the group I work with is actually the cast of an apocalyptic film: The geek who is the first to die; the old embittered man who will eventually be reconcilled with his ex-wife; the underachieving manager, who will show what he is really made of, and get; the girl, who will start off being all girly, and end up showing how mentally and emotionally strong she is. They are all the same plot, they are all highly unlikely, they are usually shot on a budget rather less than my weekly fuel bill and they are fun and entertaining.

You are allowed to despise me for enjoying them. I am not by any means alone - this is why they are a staple of the sci-fi channel. I will fully acknowledge that they are not the best representation of sci-fi, but they are not intended to be. And one of the best sci-fi films ever - The Day the Earth Stood Still (the 1951 version, of course, not the appalling Keanu Reeves remake) - comes under an apocalyptic theme.

Third cateogry: human sci-fi. This includes my recent book Bubbles, and my next one Ideocide, out soon. It is the area of sci-fi that I find most engaging as far as stories go, because it is about real people, about our world, but with some change. The settings may be different (Ideocide is set in the future), but the real stories are asking "what if" about here on earth, today. John Wyndham - famous for the Triffids - wrote a lot in this sort of way, asking what if parallel universes existed; what if some people had telepathy or other curiosities; what if spiders were to organise themselves like ants (this is Web, a good example of this approach). The core point is that we can look at other people, in other situations, with some significant change, and apply the lessons and the insights to ourselves. They are people stories, just alike any other fiction, but are classified as "science fiction" because there is some technological abstraction.

Well that is science fiction for you. If you thought you might not enjoy it, then maybe you have been looking in the wrong categories. Maybe you need to read my books, my stories, and find something different.

Theological insight? Simply that stories are at the core of our  understanding of truth. We need to read good stories, including the ones in the bible, because good stories lead us to truth.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

How do we make liturgy fun for outsiders?

This question was raised on twitter a while back, around the discussion of the christening/baptism of Prince George. It raises a number of questions for me, wider than the original question.

There are some who argue that liturgy is meaningless to those outside the church, and so we should do away with it completely. I don't agree with this - you might be surprised to hear this, but I don't believe this is the answer. Oh and those churches which claim to be free from liturgy - this just means that you don't have a formal, written liturgy, not that you don't have one at all. The question of liturgy is far wider than this.

So what do we mean by liturgy? And can we make it "fun" for outsiders? More, should we?

Liturgy is, I think, simply "the way we do things here" - this means that it is not necessarily or only written. It can be very obtuse to outsiders - in fact, it can be very obtuse in insiders too, but if you are used to it, you tend to accept it. That is not necessarily a problem, because all groups have certain ways of doing things, and it is difficult if you don't know the rules and expectations of a group. I work in a range of different places, and in each one, there is a slightly different dress code. I have to learn this and fit in to work there successfully. I have to learn the terminology of their particular business to fit in. I have to learn each organisations liturgy.

So can we and should we make church liturgy "fun" for outsiders? A lot of the work I do has been about working on public web sites for clients. In these, the company needs to present what it is selling to those outside the business, and talk in the language of the customers, not using the jargon of the business. This does not mean that the business jargon is bad, just that it is not easily accessible to those outside, and customers should not have to understand it to buy from the site and the company.

The style and approach varies for different companies. Some need to be "fun", some need to be serious, but all - critically - need to be talking to and relating to the clients, not the company. This is a hard sell to many organisations, believe me, because they want to represent their company on the web site, and relate it to the organisation, not the clients.

The problems with the church are that the main church services are, to a large extent, the "public" presentation of the organisation, they are the web site made flesh, if you want. And so they should be represented in a way that is accessible to those outside, not to those inside.

Others might disagree with this perspective - the church, they will argue, is the community of believers, and so the liturgy should be appropriate for those inside, and not for those outside.

In honesty, which of these you follow probably indicate who you think the church is for.

But should it be "fun", even if it is for those outside? Is that the right image? I am not convinced that this is the primary aim. Accessible, yes - and so using whatever terms and phrases people want to use (the original comment was about confusion between "Christening" and "Baptism"), whatever they fell happy using. But it should also reflect the truth that Christianity is not just a fun game. At the same time, I think that Christianity does not suffer from the problem of seeming far too flippant. So making the image, the presentation of the faith, fun is unlikely to go too far.

The truth is, the church is far too often fussing about the trivial and minutiae of language and ideas, and far less often getting on with enjoying life. If by making liturgy more "fun" we mean taking our heads out of our behinds, I am all for it.