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.