Thursday, 30 January 2014

Political deaths

Last year, two political leaders died. Both had been the subject of films of their life. Both were strong characters, evoking strong reactions. Both did things that earned them criticism. Both had an international role. I am talking about Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela of course.

The responses to their deaths were markedly different though. In truth, the outpouring of hatred against Mrs Thatcher was something I struggled with, but understood - I am a child of her time, and she is the one who turned me into a political person, because I saw the damage that she did. She made a difference to the country - and the world - by being firm and uncompromising.

And being wrong.

I am not going to go into the ways that she was wrong, but the present economic situation is one result of her type of argument. Her ideas only work if a) we have constant growth and b) wealth trickles down to everyone. Both are mistaken, and dangerously so. In the short term, it works, but it is unsustainable.

Mandela was not someone looking for a short-term quick fix. 30 years as a political prisoner is probably a good training for not wanting quick fixes. If the state had wanted a quick fix, it would have executed them all, rather than imprisoning them. Mandela wanted a real fix, a long-term solution to black rule in South Africa.

As has been pointed out, the problems of South Africa have not all been solved. His work has not finished, but then he knew that it wouldn't be. He had a view on life that was not just about what he would achieve in his time as president; not even what he would achieve in his lifetime. It was about what his long-term legacy would be.

So it is wrong to judge him on the basis of what he has already achieved, because he has simply started a process that has produced substantial benefits to many millions of South Africans, and will be seen, in time, as the turning point for that nation. The time when peace became a possibility.

Very few of us will ever have a hundredth of the influence that either of these people have had, and continue to have. But if we can take something from Mandela, and be prepared to look at the long term, beyond us and beyond out time, then we might find that our influence is greater and more substantial than we know. Forgoing the immediate gains for long term reward is a part of Christian teaching, traditionally. I think that forgoing immediate gains for other peoples longer term benefit is an even better approach. And even harder.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Twin Peaks

As many of you will know, I have been watching Twin Peaks of late - I know it is 24 years old, but I missed it the first time round. I think, in truth, I am probably enjoying it more now than I would have then.

When the title sequence starts, the music and the images indicate that this is a story of good ol' boys in some provincial American town. Sort of updated Waltons. It isn't of course, but it is against this backdrop that the story develops - and it is probably because of this timeless concept that it still works today.

Much has been written over the years on the influence of this series, and as I watch it, I can see the influence on pretty much all of the top drama produced since that point. The surrealism was reflected in Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes, which would not have been possible without Twin Peaks. The idea of alternative approaches to solving crimes is reflected in shows like the Mentalist, Perception, Lie to Me, Castle.

The concept of hallucinations or dreams or suchlike was seen again, to great effect in the Ally McBeal series - the use of the dancing baby becoming legendary. That level of oddity was only possible after Twin Peaks broke ground there.

The humour is also something that was not really seen previously. It is very dark humour, but not like in MASH or Catch 22, where the characters have a black sense of humour, it is very much the audience being encouraged to laugh at some of the characters. They are played deliberately for laughs, but it is not a comedy - the tone is serious. It is a cruel comedy, but funny nonetheless. Some of this comedy is seen in series like The Bridge, where Saga is, partly, a comic figure, because of her autistic tendencies. In truth, it is not her illness that is being laughed at, it is her lack of awareness of it - although the difference is subtle. Done well, it is not cruel, not callous, but it is making light of things that are normally taken too seriously.

It is also another series that was killed off by the TV executives (*cough cough* Firefly *cough cough*). In all honesty, it could have done another series, with the murderer being revealed at the end almost as a by line - the murder of Laura Palmer is the thread throughout the series, but her murderer is not actually that important. I would not have wanted it to go on like Lost (another series that would not have happened without Twin Peaks) beyond the point of acceptability, but it could have done more, and still left people wanting.

The story of an outsider brought in to investigate a murder, who has to, as part of the job, uncovers all sorts of secrets about the town - a storyline very familiar to fans of Broadchurch - is important. There is an idea here that I want to explore a little more.

One truth is that when you start to look into peoples lives, they are rarely as delightful and positive as they appear. Everyone has secrets, everyone lies. We can show disappointment when we find this out, or accept it as the way that humans are made, and get on with it. The point it shows is that, when you start to delve deeper, everyone - not just some people - everyone has hidden aspects. Nobody is perfect.

The other truth is, in proper Twin Peaks style, rather more obtuse. It is that you can start by looking for one thing - Laura's murderer - and find quick enough that this is not the real story, the real matter of importance. Truth is so often far more complex and obscure than it appears. We can search for one thing, and actually realise that we need to look at other things.

There is one more aspect that I think it worth considering - that we should not dismiss the supernatural, dreams, the obscure in providing guidance to us. One can argue that it is nothing more than our minds trying to express things to us that we already know, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't listen. However we get inspiration, embrace it, let it guide you. The truth is that the answers we need, might be in The Other Place. Wherever that is.

The series is excellent. If you get a chance to watch it, do. But don't expect it to be easy.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

That Salute

There has been quite some discussion over a salute made by a footballer, that was considered offensive - see the latest story I can find. It raises some interesting questions for me.

The argument that Anelka made was that he had used it as an anti-establishment gesture, not anti-semitic. There is a lot of debate over whether this was a valid interpretation of it. In the end, I have no idea whether this is a reasonable interpretation of the symbol. I also cannot comment on exactly what Anelka was really thinking at the time. These matters will, I am sure, be debated at length.

The point I want to make is that signs and symbols are very powerful, and yet their interpretation may not be the same for everyone. That is a lesson to learn from this.

The quinelle salute may be an acceptable anti-establishment sign, but that is not always how it is perceived, and if it is perceived differently - offensively - then that is what it means. It is acceptable to argue that the intention was different - that the meaning the person making the gesture intended it to have was different and not intended offensively. But to deny that others took it offensively is to miss the point.

In faith matters - for example Christianity - we use a lot of symbols, a lot of symbolism. We use them in a way that we understand, and we assume that everyone understands them in the same way. But they don't. In honesty, even Christians do not totally agree on their meaning. But we need to appreciate that the symbols, the signs, the images we use are not always clear - or not always giving the same message that we intend.

Imagery is everywhere - communion is imagery; the cross is imagery; the birth stories are imagery; our songs use imagery. This is not to say that these events did not occur, but that the way we use these images in our faith is important. They convey huge parts of what is important to us. But they don't always convey the same message to others.

In so many areas of our lives, the images and symbols that we use speak to us, and speak to others. But they might not say the same things. We need to remember that.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Everything I know about God....

Another of my Christmas reads - after Dazzling Darkness - was Everything I know about God I learned from being a Parent by Veronica Zundel. After the spiritual, challenging and insightful read from Rachael Mann, this was a different book.

Actually, this book title is a misnomer - in many ways, it doesn't talk about God. It is a book about the struggles of parenthood, especially parenting a "difficult" child. In terms of this, it is a good read, and a valuable insight into the struggles of parenting. As a parent of two boys, of a broadly similar age to Veronicas, I know that parenting is a very difficult and challenging job. I have no idea why anyone would take it on - except that it is also incredibly fulfilling.

But what about learning about God from this? In truth, Veronica has learned a lot about God from this experience, but that is almost irrelevant. From reading her struggles, and relating her difficulties to some of my own experiences, I can learn something about God. For me, it shows far more how I can learn from life experiences, from what I go through.

What is interesting is that the two books do have something in common. They are both telling individuals stories, about how they have experienced all sorts of difficulties and problems, and the message of how these individuals have found God through their experiences. In the end, there is an important lesson for everyone through these stories.

The truth is that we can all see more of God through those experiences that we go through. The difficult times in life are ones that can be times that we can see something new about God. As for Veronica, when we experience being a parent, we can get new insights into what God as a parent really means. With a child, we can understand more about what Jesus meant to the Father. As with Rachael, the challenges of living with a body that is wrong gives insights into what the body means, what an incarnated God is about.

In truth, everything I know about God I have learned from life - the good times and the difficult times, the parenting and the being parented, the times I have felt comfortable and the times I have felt out of place.

This is not a naive argument that minimise the difficulty of the challenging times. It is not about saying "oh look, a great learning experience". It means that when we look back at the difficult times, we might be able to see something new there.

But still, sometimes, life sucks.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Why I am still an evangelical

Ever since I have called myself a Christian, I have identified as an evangelical. However, this does not mean that I have not changed or modified my views over time - I have, quite significantly. The question is, how can I continue to identify as an evangelical, despite these changes?

The thing is, I take a number of labels, that others might not consider particularly compatible: Christian, Evangelical, Green, Anarchist, feminist. There are those who might object to me using these labels, mainly because they don't completely define me - none of them are complete, even all together , they are not a complete definition of me. Each provides insights into the others, where they differ, that is the point of growth and development.

So how do I still justify calling myself by the same label? The best definition I have found of Evangelicalism defines it by the four principles of Conversionism, Activism, Biblicism and Crucicentricity. I want to explore each of these, what they mean (I am aware that these are terms that need some explanation).

1. Conversionism. This means a belief in a conversion process, something that I still stand by. However, I am not and more so insistent that everyone must have a datable conversion experience. Actually, I probably never was, because for some people, the conversion process is a long and slow development. However I still think that for some people, this is sudden. And all people need to have a conversion - need to change from an old way of thinking to a new one. In most cases, this needs to be multiple times in their lives.

2. Activism. This is a belief that one part of Christianity is about doing something practical. It is not just about a spiritual way of life, but about putting this into action. This has changed in nature, but not in principle - I have always tried to be involved in activities or organisations outside the narrow definition of the church, and I am currently a member of the Green party, which is one part of my activism.

3. Biblicism. This is defined as "a strict following of the teachings of the bible". Now there is a loaded concept if ever I heard one: I still follow the teachings of the bible strictly, as I understand them. However, my understanding of what this means, of how the bible should be interpreted, of how the writings are properly understood, has changed significantly. It does not mean literalism - taking the words of a translated bible as the clear and defined words of God. Understanding and interpreting the meaning is a far more complex process, something that I have enjoyed exploring over the last 30 years. And through all of that, I still believe in doing my best to follow the teachings of the bible, as best I can.

4.Crucicentricity. This means that he cross - that is, the atoning act of Jesus on the cross - is at the centre of the our faith. Once again, the meaning of this act, the understanding of it, has changed and developed over time. I would at one time have accepted PSA as the only or core understanding of atonement.

PSA - Penal Substitutionary Atonement - is one theology of atonement. It has its points, and it has its problems. There are half a dozen other ways of understanding it, each of which has its own problems and positives, and some of them are contradictory. I do not believe that there is one simple answer or interpretation - all of them have some truth, none of them have all the truth.

So, I still hold to the core principles of evangelicalism. In fact, I would argue that these are even more important to me now than they were. But everything that I believe within these has changed - that is growth and development. the more I learn to understand the bible, the more I realise how big, diverse, complex and all-embracing is the Christian faith. If faith isn't growing, then it is probably dead.