Remembrance in the shadow of the Berlin Wall

On the 9 November 1989 the Berlin Wall was breached. For the previous 28 years crossings had been made, and many more attempted and failed, with those fleeing from East to West shot as they sought freedom. The line that stood between East and West crumbled that night as guards looked on bewildered as their commands to fire never came, as families cleft apart for a generation were reunited.

IMG_6131.JPG
In the weeks and months leading up to that symbolic ending, the façade of the Cold War slipped and the decayed state of the Eastern Bloc became visible for the world to see. The Soviet Union refused to send tanks into Poland to support the communist government. The Hungarian leader told Soviet leader Gorbachev that his border with Austria would be neglected and unguarded if he didn’t get the funds to reinforce it.

Gorbachev was a communist but his actions and inaction hastened the decline of the Soviet empire and brought the Cold War to an end. It was an economic decision as much as anything, the cost of maintaining an empire was one that could not be afforded. Gorbachev reasoned that dispensing with the satellite states might give the Soviet Union scope to prosper. Instead it gave permission for collapse. Those countries that attempted to maintain a one party communist dictatorship soon fell, the crowds took impetus from the revolutions across the border, in Czechoslovakia peaceful protest led to the Velvet Revolution. In Romania Nicolae Ceausescu desperately tried to cling onto power but after his security forces fired on protestors violence erupted, he was ousted, charged with genocide and killed by a firing squad on Christmas Day, just six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I was five when the wall came down. All I have ever known is a world in the shadow of the Cold War. We did not watch the fall of Soviet states in Eastern Europe in my primary school classroom (but I do remember my year one teacher switching on the TV just two weeks later for the first televised parliamentary debate).Warsaw February 2013 141

I have been to Poland, Hungary, both the Czech Republic and Slovakia as well as the countries that used to make up Yugoslavia. The impact of the Cold War and Soviet domination is hard to miss. From the architecture to the culture, from the history shared to the secrets hidden. But it is only history, a curiosity, an interest, something to peruse as I walk around a castle in Bratislava and ponder how it was used in decades past.

By a quirk of diarisation this anniversary is also Remembrance Sunday in the centenary year of the outbreak of World War One. This week I took a visit to the Tower of London, I live only a couple of miles away and yet had not seen the ceramic poppies planted in the moat to represent the lives of British soldiers lost in Flanders fields.

20141106_181203780_iOS

It was dark and crowds huddled close to the railings to take their photos and look across the sea of red that swept around the ancient fortress. The rain came, the umbrellas went up and the people kept on coming. This weekend the masses will form in ever greater number, and the pressure to preserve this memorial gave way to a government announcement that parts will be preserved, tour the country and feature as a permanent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum.

There is something about remembering that is important. Not to glorify or to excuse but to look at the past and try to learn some lessons. The carefully crafted poppies, sold to raise money for military charities, sold on to line profiteers’ purses, can give an image of beauty that discords with the violence and horror of war. The souvenir hunters blurring into those commemorating fallen friends and family. A sober remembrance is also important, and a recollection that treaties are signed, walls are broken down, armies return to their home: but violence does not cease.

In the quarter of a century since the end of the Cold War I have grown up in peace. I was not instructed at school about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. I have never felt the fear that the way of life I enjoyed was fragile and could be thwarted on the back of Soviet invasion. Ten years after the Berlin Wall came down I wrote my GCSE history coursework on the Cuban Missile Crisis and I got a bit absorbed in it, taking it far more seriously than most other fifteen year olds would I wrote pages and pages looking at the brinkmanship that nearly brought catastrophe on the back of aggression and power plays.

In the early 1960s when the Wall went up this was the frontline in the conflict between East and West. A relic of the final days of the Second World War Berlin was divided into four zones, all within the area which was to become East Germany under Soviet control. Soon the British, French and American zones joined together and families worked in areas they did not live, had friends under other jurisdictions; Berlin was a city carved into pieces much like Africa was at the end of the nineteenth century at the strangely coincidentally titled Berlin Conference.

In 1948 the Soviet Union had tried to strangle Western control of its portions of Berlin by blockading the city. Airdrops relieved the mortal threat but the conflict did not dissipate. A little more than a decade later the division was cast in concrete.

I wish I could say I grew up relieved not to have global conflict hovering close by. But it was irrelevant. My fascination with history was just that, a study of the past. I look back at the terrorist attacks on 9/11 as in the present era neglecting to realise they are further away than the Cold War was when I was at school, or when those attacks took place. Even for someone with an abnormal interest in history and politics as I do, the Cold War was not relevant.

The years that have gone by faded the realities of the threat. They say that time is a great healer, it is also a good anaesthetic: it lets us forget and that is not always the best recourse. Sometimes remembrance matters, after all, that’s why each November poppies are worn, wreaths are laid and in cities, towns and villages across the country services will take place on this Sunday.

I have an ambivalence towards pacifism. I wish I could believe that war should never be the right response. But I also struggle to see why bullets and bombs are the answer to ‘how should we be bringers of peace?’ War is a tragedy, but I believe sometimes a tragic necessity. But that is an opinion formed from security and comfort, it is pontificating on what happens somewhere else.

That’s how I view the Berlin Wall, its erection, it’s separation and its fall. Not only did it happen in a different age, it happened somewhere else. And yet, these places which are somewhere else are not that far away. I am ashamed, for example, of how little I know about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Just yesterday one particular episode was referenced in something I was reading and I was shocked and appalled that this happened so close to home, and just as abruptly reminded of my ignorance of so much history.

As much as it saddens and frustrates me that many of my friends know nothing of the end of the Cold War, or the events that happened in its forty year span, I look first to see the plank of ignorance blinding my own vision.

My biggest concern with major public acts of remembrance is that they aid a voyeuristic style of remembrance. Compassion by proxy. If I’ve got a poppy pinned, or Instagrammed a photo of the red patchwork quilt around the Tower of London, I’ve done my bit to remember the fallen. Alternatively, if I’m passionate about my pacifism I could wear a white poppy to symbolise my dissent.

It worries me that is that. How can these points of remembrance, these anniversaries, be used to provoke better understanding of what went on and why we choose to remember? This photo of Berlin with illuminated balloons stretched along the line the wall defended has been tweeted again and again. It’s a poignant image and a striking visualisation of how a city was torn in two.

But it also places our attention on the past as another place, something that has happened which we remember but are also able to place in that box called history and seal it from relevance to today. Except we can’t, this recent photo from space shows the line still exists. Berlin is still a city divided. Not by a wall, and you or I could freely walk through the Brandenburg Gate, but the legacy of the past still casts a firm imprint.

The history of Northern Ireland is also part of the present, parades and flags still cause controversy and anger, and drags the past into the present and the future of the nation still struggles to find a way forward to peace and prosperity.

One reason why the Cold War seems so long ago is it was a relic before it ended. The leaders of the USA and the USSR would slip into Cold War thinking – and George Bush Snr was suspicious of Gorbachev’s motives – but by the time the wall came down the world was ready to move on. It was why when the Soviet Union cut loose its client states they did not stick to the script but found their own path. There was a pace to change that they could not deny. It’s why when we look, it is so far away, it’s why, when we remember, we place it in the category of history.

And the past is a different country. But it’s dangerous if we build the border fences too high. If we place quotas on the lessons that we will allow entry into the present. There’s something othering about describing an event as history.

Daniel Philpott, in his introduction to Just and Unjust Peace writes:

“Over the past generation all over the world, societies have sought to confront histories denominated in commas and zeroes. Rwandans face a genocide that killed some 1,000,000, Cambodians one that left 2,000,000 dead. Bosnians look back on a death toll of 100,000. South Africa’s truth commission documented some 38,000 human rights violations; Guatemala’s, 55,000. Even where death tolls are lower – Northern Ireland, the Arab-Israeli conflict – other injustices abound and conflict is all-consuming. Were they stood upright, the collected files that recorded East Germany’s surveillance of its citizens would stretch 121 miles. In the Jewish scriptures, the prophet Ezekiel describes a society overcome by evil as a valley of dry bones. Still today, chroniclers of enormities often select geographic images – rivers and lakes clogged with bodies in Rwanda, killing fields in Cambodia. The desolate aftermath of evil makes it difficult to talk about justice.”

IMG_7267 S21 PAINT

One thing stands out when considering the Cold War, the conflict that defined the second half of the twentieth century, whose end we look back at today, that thing is the absence of war. Proxy battles took place, most notably in Afghanistan, but the Cold War has been described – persuasively in my opinion – as the Long Peace. There was paranoia, authoritarian crack downs from the Stasi, but little loss of life in a clash of empires that had all the criteria for a third world war and one with nuclear weapons. That very capability is suggested as why the spark never lit. In Cuba it was the threat of battlefield nuclear weapons ninety miles from Florida that pushed Kennedy and Khrushchev to find a way out of the crisis. The bi-polar world of the Cold War collapsed and changed the shape of global order. It’s in the ashes of this reordering that governments have tried to work out what to do with global terrorism and the many interrelated issues in the Middle East.

The challenges of today are different to those of the past but it takes a while to learn new ways to respond. At the start of the First World War cavalry charges were attempted but cut down by machine guns. In the Second World War trenches were dug only for tanks to ride straight over them. History can teach us so much but it can also give us false assurance for the present. The more we know about how to win one battle might inoculate ourselves to how to win the one we are fighting.

But aside from learning how to win the war we’re fighting, remembrance should teach us how to stop fighting. The lessons of peace are rarely remembered as the heroes of war, but they are just as remarkable. In David & Goliath Malcolm Gladwell writes:

“Some religious movements have as their heroes great warriors or prophets. The Mennonites have Dirk Willems, who was arrested for his religious beliefs in the sixteenth century and held in a prison tower. With the aid of a rope made of knotted rags, he let himself down from the widow and escaped across the castle’s ice-covered moat. A guard gave chase. Willems made it safely to the other side, The guard did not, falling through the ice into the freezing water, and Willems stopped, went back, and pulled his pursuer to safety. For his act of compassion, he was taken back to prison, tortured, and then burned slowly at the stake as he repeated ‘Oh, my Lord, my God’ seventy times over.”

The attraction of peace traditions is unavoidable. The stories of those who refused to give into violence extraordinary. I cannot say I am a convert, I look at suffering and sometimes see the intervention of armies as the only response, I wish it wasn’t so.

Churchill spoke of an Iron Curtain descending across Europe, Dwight Eisenhower spoke of humanity hanging on a cross of Iron. The desire for peace and for the end of war is not enough. Speaking in 1953 not long after taking office he said:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. … We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. … This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Eisenhower served as president for eight years as the Cold War escalated. This speech, given in the brief moment of hope after Stalin’s death, was quickly forgotten. Today we all know the words of another president who spoke of hope, but is faced with wave of crises on wave of crises he cannot solve with words.

Peace is hard, but it is a promise we cannot ignore. Especially today as we remember those who have died in conflicts down the generations.

About these ads

A Baker, a Sign Maker and a Printer walked into court

A printer, a sign maker and a baker walk into a courtroom. And if this sounds like the start of a joke…

IMG_5607

The printer stands accused of refusing to print a leaflet backing the death penalty and therefore committing political discrimination against people who want the death penalty reintroduced. And presumably also discriminating against dead people.

The sign maker is charged with racial discrimination – he wouldn’t make a sign for a shop that wanted to put up a ‘no blacks allowed’ notice, and therefore is guilty of discriminating against people who are not black.

The third is a baker who wouldn’t bake a cake with a slogan supporting the introduction of gay marriage. This, apparently is discrimination based on sexual orientation, and religious because the bakery cited the religious beliefs of the owners as behind the refusal, and political discrimination, because they’re disadvantaging people with a particular political view.

And this is one big joke. But not the kind with a witty punch line, but the sort that leaves you hanging your head in despair. These three examples all surely exist in the category of ‘you couldn’t make it up’. For the first two I have made them up, but the bakery is a real example, and they are now being pushed to court by the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland.

First of all let us be clear what this is not. This is not a case of a Christian refusing to serve someone because they are gay. Those ‘no blacks allowed’ signs were taken down for a reason, and more recent equality legislation extended protection and you cannot refuse to a good or service to someone because of their sexual orientation (with protection also for age, gender, religion, marital status as well as race). There’s been controversy over this, and concern for what happens when these protections might come into conflict, but in Great Britain at least the legal situation is clear.

In this situation the sexuality of the customer is not relevant, the customer could have been gay or straight, the issue was not who the customer was but the cake they were ordering. If the cake was for a same sex wedding ceremony it would be a clear case of discrimination, that they made wedding cakes for straight couples, but not for a gay couple.

Secondly, I should clarify I have a very limited understanding of the law in Northern Ireland on this point. It differs from Great Britain and includes provisions relating to religious and political discrimination which I imagine were designed due to the particular history of the nation and the religious and political tensions that run through it.

As far as I understand the law in Great Britain (and of course it may be different in Northern Ireland) one is free to choose not to publish political campaign material if they disagree with it. So I can choose whether or not to print a poster advocating the death penalty, or cancelling international development, or I can refuse to print a sign for a political rally. Yes, this is a form of discrimination, in the same way a shop not serving alcohol to someone under 18 is discrimination, but it is legal.

As far as I can see the choice not to bake a cake with a campaign message in favour of gay marriage is part of this latter category, it is the choice not to endorse a political message, and not the discrimination against a person on the basis of a protected characteristic.

Who, exactly is being discriminated against here? The customer for not being served, the baker for being told their religious views should not be allowed into play, or the cake for not getting Bert and Ernie gracing its icing?

The bakers were not discriminating based on the sexuality of the customer because both gay and straight people campaign for the introduction of same sex marriage. This wasn’t religious discrimination because the religion of the customer had no bearing on whether or not they were served.

The provider’s beliefs did make a difference but is this now suggesting that people are unable to make decisions over what they do or don’t do based on religious belief? The most obvious example is whether the same approach in Great Britain could be taken to force a doctor who objects to abortion on religious grounds to carry out abortions because to not do so would be religious discrimination.

I suppose the logic of the Northern Ireland Equality Commission is that in refusing to make this cake on the basis of their religious beliefs Ashers bakery were discriminating against people who did not share their religious belief. A comparison to this logic would be to take a Christian newsagent to court for not selling pornography which they object to on grounds of their faith. The newsagent down the road who took the same decision but without any religious motivation would be free not to sell pornography. Absurdly, to apply the regulations in this manner would be discriminating against the Christian newsagent for taking action on account of their religious beliefs.

Comparisons are frequently made between LGBT rights and the civil rights, some of which are fair, others are questionable. In this case, the comparison would be for someone who refused to print a ‘no blacks allowed’ sign to be guilty of discrimination. This is ludicrous, nonsensical and of course shouldn’t be allowed.

Neither should this current action against the bakers. If it is allowed to continue it is shutting down public debate, and a supposedly independent equality commission is acting as a coercive force stopping those who disagree with changing the law from the freedom to stand by that political opinion.

This is not about gay rights, it is not about homophobia. It is not even just about religious freedom (although it certainly is about that), it is about ensuring that fundamental freedoms of political disagreement and debate are not undermined and dissenting voices protected and not prosecuted.

______

Read more:

My colleague in Northern Ireland has also posted on his blog ‘Are the Equality Commission baking mad?’

Peter Ould posted similar thoughts to mine on facebook

Can we crowdsource theology?

This is more or less what I said in my session on social media and theology at the Christian New Media Conference:

IMG_6037.JPG

This week the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the American Southern Baptists held a large conference on the subject of marriage.

This commission isn’t some minor technical meeting but one of the most significant Christian pressure groups in the states – their endorsement can make or break the fortunes of political candidates.

And as is the norm with most conferences these days many outside the room were following along through the hashtag, and on this occasion able to watch a livestream as well.

There were two different conversations going on. What was spoken on the stage and received by the audience. And what was being discussed on twitter. The conversations were different, and often seem detached from one another.

The ERLC takes a position on marriage which angered many viewing online, who made clear their dissent and opposition. This was not a discussion nor a debate of the position, it was a broadcast of one position from the stage, and the broadcast of opposition from the internet.

This is not to comment on the validity of either position, but to point out that debating points of theology and doctrine via social media is rarely a productive exercise and more often an excuse for restating entrenched positions to those who view things differently.

Even when the lines of opposition are less clear cut social media can still aggravate rather than unify. On Sunday the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke at my church, he was funny and winsome, and at one point quoted from Edward Gibbon’s decline and fall of the Roman Empire, reflecting on the comment that all religions are equally useful he stated that “we’re not to be useful, we’re to be transformed and transforming”.

Someone tweeted that, and almost immediately got the response: “hashtag false dichotomy patrol”. To his credit, upon clarification the reply was removed.

In reducing the comment, and removing the context of the sermon the archbishop’s words were easy to misunderstand.

Too often social media stimulates dissent as if it was the oxygen that gives it breath.

Dissent is healthy, it is essential, and in social media we find opportunities to explore different views and opinions that were never previously open. Where previously ideas were not questioned, they are now relentlessly scrutinised. There has been a democratisation of ideas that enables new voices to be heard.

This has transformed the context in which we talk about theology, and that’s what I want to explore briefly.

There is a responsibility upon Christians to understand what they believe and why they believe it, and breaking down the walls of traditional authority enable an exploration of theology and the doctrine of the Church.

Social media offers a opportunities for new voices to examine beliefs, and to do so in new contexts without the traditions and orthodoxies that can sometimes silence questions.

My concern is that we run the risk of moving from a priesthood of all believers to a priesthood of the loudest voices. And we end up having conversations, debates and arguments online about theology without thinking about the framework that we’re working within, or that those we’re talking to are working from.

There’s something in Christian identity that sees opposition as a validation of belief: if people are disagreeing with me, it means I’m standing for something worth standing for. This entrenches disagreement where it doesn’t need to be entrenched and it builds walls between Christians and everyone else, and between different groups of Christians,

The problem with the democratisation of ideas on the internet is that someone somewhere will take just about every possible position. It means that if you want support for a point of view you will find it. If you want to go into bat on one side of an argument you can find reinforcements. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

As Thorin says in The Hobbit: “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”

Christians cannot isolate themselves from critics, or people who think differently, but we should think about the frame within which we’re having a conversation. If I’m going to debate theology online first of all the ground rules need establishing. Are we talking about the meaning of scripture, or its pastoral implications, are we trying to work out what our sources of authority are in the first place?

These questions matter, because while there is nothing intrinsically valuable in being opposed there can also be a false goal of seeking agreement where that just isn’t possible. Sometimes we will disagree.

Because there are opportunities for new voices on the internet does not mean all new voices are equal. There are gatekeepers on the internet, and they marshal their authority very differently than traditional sources of church teaching, but they are still powerful.

In the online discussion surrounding the ERLC’s conference two key gatekeepers were Rachel Held Evans and Justin Lee. They both strongly disagreed with what was being spoken and curated a lot of the opposition being voiced. But their postures were different. Justin Lee was at the conference, and while tweeting comments was also having conversations. He was trying to move beyond the broadcast opposition.

Just this week Philip Yancey wrote in an article on the Huffington Post: “Writing for the Internet, I’ve learned, is a bit like taking on the hecklers at the Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park. The normal rules of civil dialogue do not apply. Especially if the topic is religion – any religion – you’ll likely provoke a reflexive verbal blast.”

Many of the conversations we have online about theology and doctrine aren’t new. That’s why although I think it’s transformed the context in which we discuss it I don’t think it transforms our doctrine. When we wade into an argument about how we read the Bible think about the arguments that have gone on throughout history on this very point. Most of the internet’s controversialists are not original.

Christian doctrine may not have been formed in the crucible of social media, but the arguments have frequently been battled through time and time again. In the novelty of fresh discussion we cannot forget the centuries of conversation the church has gone through.

When we talk about theology online what do we take our cue from? Are we looking to the Bible, are we looking to creeds and church leaders, to favourite bloggers and authors, are we weighing what they say carefully?

And are there some things we opt not to write about? Are some topics too controversial, too likely to be opposed or misunderstood? When thinking about theology and the internet we often look to the States and see the debates that take place online there. We forget that our context is different even if we read their posts and they read ours.

The internet is open and accessible it also operates in circles. I can write something popular and approved of because of who is reading what I write. Someone else can write the very same words and it is viewed as outrageous.

A couple of years ago when the General Synod didn’t vote for women bishops I asked a friend to write a piece for Threads about the vote. She takes a traditional complementarian position and views church leadership as reserved for men. Her article wasn’t inflammatory, and the comments were fairly kind even if mostly disagreeing. But it was a bruising experience. A school of thought held by many in the church had become hard to speak in support of online.

I don’t want everyone to agree with her, I don’t myself and she knows that. But when the internet is a hard place to talk about certain issues we have to question its value as a forum for debating and determining church doctrine.

That’s because we simply don’t know the perspective and background that many we discuss with come from. We don’t know the frame from which they’re arguing, and we very rarely are able to take time to establish some ground rules.

If I’m going to talk about the role of women in church leadership I not inclined to do it with someone who takes David Cameron’s view that the church simply needs to get with the programme.

I’ll do my best to articulate a biblical position for those who don’t hold to the authority of scripture but I’m not going to get too worried about trying to convince them to come over to my side, our frameworks are different.

And this is the problem with the priesthood of all. And it means we can’t just crowd source our doctrine. Or at least we can’t unless we’re able to agree the ground rules first. And that raises the question of who gets to decide what those ground rules are. There’s an infinite loop of complexity here that ends up with someone always having authority, power and influence over other people.

There’s an important caveat to all this. When we talk about doctrine I want scripture to be central, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing we should listen to. I want to use my reason, I want to see what it means in real life, and I want to hear from people’s experience.

The church has to have its eyes open to the world it is walking through, it does not exist in isolation. It is also the reality of our situation that discussion about doctrine and theology take place in the open – just look at the Catholic Church’s recent synod on the family. Even a meeting that was supposedly taking place behind closed doors had the full glare of the media exposing its twists and turns.

The daylight built into our social media infused world is healthy, it gives us a scepticism that causes us to re-evaluate and debate the things we believe. That’s a good thing. But it can also lead to a level of doubt and uncertainty that means everything is always up for grabs. And that’s not a healthy thing. We can be so bewildered by alternatives that we end up not having a clue what we believe.

I firmly believe that some things are true and other things are not. Some of those things we can know clearly, others we will struggle with, and yet more we will know but find difficult to apply.

Christian doctrine isn’t easy. It’s not the conclusion of what’s popular at any point in time. It’s determined neither by what’s trending, nor what we’ve always believed. Doctrine shouldn’t be inflexible, but social media increases the complexities of how it flexes.

Social media prioritises polarisation, and when it comes to working through doctrine we need less polarisation and more patience. And social media isn’t very good at patience.

Pulling the plug on Christian reviewing

IMG_5911.JPG
Last night I watched Grace Unplugged. It was suggested to me, I would say recommended but that might be putting it a bit strong. The Netflix introduction warned me what I was getting: “Every Sunday Grace performs at church with her ex-rock star father, but she longs to share her talent with the rest of the world”. Despite this preview I was still surprised to hear the film start with the familiar chords of Matt Redman’s Never Let Go. It was going to be one of those films.

I wish it wasn’t. I wish a mainstream film started with a typical church worship service, but this was a Christian film. Quite what makes a film Christian is open for dispute, but this certainly was one, the content was explicitly Christian, and it was squarely targeted at the fellow brethren.

I’m going to spoil it for anyone planning on watching, so if you’d rather not read on, head over to Netflix and then come back.

The plot is predictable, and even in that predictability it is disappointing. It’s a prodigal story with a girl rebelling against her parents and heading off to the big wide world (LA I think) to seek stardom. She’s encouraged to do things that go against her faith, has a shock when she’s set up with a TV star to gain her some publicity – who’s just trying to get her into bed. She fails to write a song she needs to prove she’s not a one hit wonder (she rerecorded her father’s hit song). There’s the requisite good outside influence in the form of an intern who was at a church service she and her father played at some time before, and is surprised at her presence in the secular music industry. When things come crashing down she goes to dinner with his family, and in one of many montage scenes we see her gloom lift and she gradually becomes happier. This leads to her returning to her room, picking up the guitar, writing a great song, and returning home and to church to play before the congregation. The film ends with her and her father playing with Chris Tomlin and engaged to the good intern.

Two things appalled me about this film. Firstly, that the definition of doing the good Christian thing was returning to lead worship and not playing secular music, despite her being good enough to do so (a point well made in the Christianity Today review). This is bad theology, the only glimpse of a better perspective was a comment from the good intern that he guessed there needed to be light in this kind of place. This felt like a self-justification of the genre this film belonged to, Christian art for Christian audiences. The idea of the sacred and the secular that such films play into and feed off is nonsense.

Secondly, her descent into darkness was really not that much of a descent. One scene of her being drunk while on a date, and another empting a bottle of non-descript alcohol while trying desperately to write a song of her own. It meant that her dramatic return to her family and the church was lacking the pathos it needed. One caveat to this point, I don’t think it’s necessary to portray sin in specific defined ways to need redemption, in fact I think it would be interesting to explore what it looks like in the absences of sex, drink, and drugs. But this film doesn’t offer an interesting alternative tale of rebellion it just weakly and unconvincingly hints at the conventional narrative.

Most reviews from Christian websites I browsed raved about its wholesome content and positive Christian storyline. In fact, one complained that it showed her return to the family fold in too simplistic terms, pointedly stating that for many they never return from heathen nirvanas such as Hollywood or Nashville. This is why I really valued the review that Christianity Today produced. Recently they wrote an incredibly scathing review of the new Left Behind film, and then followed it up with a piece explaining how and why they write reviews. Their review included the memorable conclusion: “We tried to give the film zero stars, but our tech system won’t allow it.”

I value it because I trust them not to write puff pieces and say something is good simply because it has the Christian tag on it. Whether a film, or a book, or an album, an artist or musical can be ‘Christian’ is a debate for another day, but sometimes it seems as though the moniker means that we leave our critical faculties at the door and give something five stars for effort regardless of the quality of what is produced. Or rate it positively simply because it doesn’t do the things mainstream films do (drink, drugs, and debauchery).

For many offerings the quality isn’t dreadful, it’s just not great, and doesn’t reach the hyperbole of those promoting it or those reviewing it (which can sometimes seem like one and the same). One recent example was the musical Love Beyond, which I went to see earlier a few weeks ago. To its credit the actors were good, the musicians and dancers talented and it was put on with great professionalism. But I didn’t think it was very good, I thought the script lacked inspiration and it failed to deliver a memorable song, which for a musical is a difficult failing to overcome. Taking the story of the Bible and condensing it into a single evening’s performance is quite a challenge and I credit the effort put into it, it condensed the Old Testament post fall into a single scene (probably the best of the whole show), but then refused to wrap things up succinctly with scene after scene that I thought, and hoped, would be the last. It told the story of the Bible, in parts very well, in others confusingly and uninspired, but as a result it wasn’t novel to Christians, nor accessible to those who weren’t.

IMG_5910.JPG

The bigger problem came the next day when I read a couple of reviews from others that had been there. They were relentlessly positive, and I felt they couldn’t possibly be from the same performance I had watched. I hesitated at the time and I hesitate now from publishing my verdict, I know (although not well) people involved in the show, and I don’t want my criticism to be seen as a rejection of their effort – it’s far easier to critique a film like Grace Unplugged that I don’t even have the faintest connection to.

In the same way that I don’t want to be unfair to the show I don’t want to be unfair to the two reviews linked above, they may have not found anything to fault in the show, and if they didn’t that’s their prerogative. But something I’ve noticed is that Christians tend to give soft reviews, and as a result this can create a culture where criticism is silently frowned upon.

I’m fortunate to work somewhere which gets sent review copies of Christian books on a fairly regular basis and I have the opportunity to write reviews of what I read. However, often after reading something I decline to write a review because I have insufficient positive things to say. Sometimes the books are bad, but more often they are formulaic and dull – the same book has been written with a different cover dozens of times before. Often the only basis for publication is that the author has a significant profile in the Christian world.

When I have reviewed something, and have the space for more than a very brief comment I usually have something to critique even if I have thoroughly enjoyed and valued it. Because I don’t think it does anyone a service to be unfailingly positive about something simply because it is written by a Christian. If books that are repetitious and full of jargon continue to get amazing reviews they will be bought and publishers will commission more of the same.

Of course, readers have the choice to read what they want, but I think there is also a duty for reviewers to maintain their integrity. Here’s where I make a baseless allegation, my fear is that reviewers hold off criticism because they want to get a book deal, or because they have one, or publications want to attract adverts from book publishers.

What’s ironic is that Christians aren’t known for their avoidance of disagreement. Just visit the internet. We’ll happily offer our opinion of someone else’s, we’ll argue with their point of view, debate the merits or foundation of their position. But something strange happens when it comes to what could be broadly described as Christian art, what Christians have produced we want to support and affirm. I want to do the same, I want Christians to create pieces of art, films, music, books that are remembered for centuries to come. I want us to be culture creators. And I want those pieces of culture created to be for all of society, not just for a warm fuzzy feeling for Christians.

I have certainly valued (even if a little painful to take) criticism of things I have worked on. If I ever write a book I’d love to get great reviews, but I want them to be on merit, I don’t want to get them simply because no one has the guts to say something true.

Leonard Cohen’s popular problem

COHEN_0811080303173_16x9_620x350

Just before his 80th birthday a couple of weeks ago Leonard Cohen released his thirteenth studio album, Popular Problems. Last year I perched near the rafters of the O2 to watch him perform a three hour set, complete with six song encore. It was phenomenal.

Cohen has never been the cheeriest of performers, but on that night, and I think in the past few years he has started to have fun again. I think he has started to enjoy being back on the road, and I think this new album is his best in a couple of decades and possibly more. There is material on here that stands shoulder to shoulder with the haunting lyrics of the late 60s and 70s when the poet first wound his graveling melodies round rhyming couplets.

He was infamously forced back onto the road by his partner who had made off with most of his life savings and needed to sing for his supper. But after paying off his debts and putting a little aside he kept on travelling. Two years ago he release Old Ideas which I skeptically purchased having thought very little of his only previous offerings during my music conscious lifetime – Ten New Songs and Dear Heather are better forgotten. But in Old Ideas was the emotion and lyrical artistry that helped him in those early years overcome a limited musical ability, but also a freshness that was reflected when I saw him perform live.

Popular Problems is a short album but stuffed full of brilliance. Several songs have stuck with me as I’ve listen through over the last couple of days, but one stands out: You Got Me Singing. The lyrics are below as is a video. This song would make it into my top ten Cohen songs of all time: it’s not got the strength of lyrics of The Stranger’s Song, the self deprecation of Chelsea Hotel No. 2; I doubt it will be covered ad nauseum like the Hallelujah hymn it references and nor does it shock the listener as Sing Another Song, Boys does in it’s closing stages. But it is beautiful. A

As with so much from Cohen’s pen one has to wonder at the possible theological meanings of every line. These meditations are not clear in You Got Me Singing, but unambiguous in others, in Samson in New Orleans and Born in Chains, it is impossible to avoid.

The test for the greatness of an album is not whether I enjoy it today but if I’ll still be selecting it in years to come. Nearly 50 years after Songs of Leonard Cohen was released I have high hopes for this 13th chapter of the canon.

You got me singing even though the news is bad
You got me singing the only song I’ve ever had
You got me singing ever since the river died
You got me thinking of all the places we could hide

You got me singing even though the world is gone
You got me thinking that I’d like to carry on
You got me singing even though it all looks grim
You got me singing the hallelujah hymn

Singing that hallelujah hymn

You got me singing like a prisoner in a jail
You got me singing like my pardon’s in the mail
You got me wishing our little love would last
You got me thinking like those people of the past

You got me singing even though the world is gone
You got me thinking that I’d like to carry on
You got me singing even though it all went wrong
You got me singing the hallelujah song

Singing that hallelujah song

Scotland: Henceforth forward the honour shall grow ever brighter

3026-Buchannan-Tartan-Web

If I owned a kilt today is the day I would wear it.

Today is a day for unity and solidarity. After a campaign designed to see the United Kingdom pulled asunder, in the wake of its failure is a never greater need for reconciliation.

Voting is sometimes easy and done with little thought, but this vote was not. Deciding the future of a nation is not a small step. I woke up in the early hours to follow the results as it soon became apparent that the surge in support for Yes, and for an independent Scotland, had shrunk slightly in the closing days.

The votes have been counted and the politicians leading the no campaign are reaching for their prepared lines or hastily redrafting speeches to express just the sufficient amount of pleasure without taking on a patronising tone. Or for those pushing for a yes, acknowledging the people of Scotland have spoken but trying to salvage scraps of victory to take away from the counting table.

In the days and weeks to come the pledges the party leaders cobbled together to give more powers to the Scottish Parliament will be tested. The yes campaign will want to squeeze all they can out of this defeat, well others will feel the promises lacked any mandate and will seek to back pedal on further constitutional change.

But I am sure change will come. It may not look exactly like what Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband promised, but it will come. It will also not just be about Scotland, as more powers go to Holyrood great the pressure becomes to revisit the powers of those MPs representing Scottish constituencies who have a vote over issues that do not affect their areas. This is not simple, you could exclude Scottish MPs from voting on these matters, but that would also need to apply to Welsh and Northern Irish MPs for the more limited areas of devolution there. You could also create an English Parliament meeting at Westminster to decide English only MPs, but once again, what about those votes affecting England, Wales and Northern Ireland? This would also be problematic, because what if the government has a majority for UK wide votes but not for English matters, or vice-versa?

More ambitious ideas, and you could sense the twinkle in the Liberal Democrats’ eyes, include a fuller federalisation of the United Kingdom. Voices have also risen up calling for regional devolution, whether for the North of England, or the Greater Manchester region.

My prediction is that the Government will attempt to give the Scottish Parliament more powers early next year, but this will be delayed and pushed beyond the election due to objections within the Conservative Party. In the Prime Minister’s statement this morning he announced that the changes would be agreed by November and draft legislation published in January, whether it gets further than that is dependent on the good will of his backbenchers. The broader constitutional questions will then become a key part of the electoral battleground at next May’s general election.

I don’t have a kilt to wear today – a checked shirt is as close as I can get. If I were to have a kilt, it would be the Buchanan kilt, as that’s the clan I can trace some roots to. Their motto seems particularly apt today: “Henceforth forward the honour shall grow ever brighter”.

It is my hope that Scotland and the United Kingdom will benefit from staying together. But if, for whatever reason times become hard, I am glad we get to find a way forward together.

Today is a day for celebrating unity, but also for acknowledging that unity does not simply happen, it is a task we have to give ourselves to, commit to, and persevere with. There are many months of hard work ahead, for the politicians as they seek to honour their promises. And for the Scottish people as they continue to live side by side with those whom they have disagreed so passionately and campaign against these past months and years. And it is here that the Church can play a role. It can bring people together, it work for the common good, it can help build a society rooted in values that are not restricted to vote winning manifestos or coalition compromises.

For Scotland the brave, please don’t leave

Facebook-20140914-124754Watching Braveheart won’t be the same, it won’t have the same sense of irrational patriotism – cheering the Scots to rebuff the English won’t feel quite the same. It’s illogical, it is borderline nonsense, but seeing the resistance against the invading armies and the defence of their nationhood seems more stirring knowing that three centuries later it was a Scottish king who took on the united crown of both countries.

When the Union came it was not an invasion, it was not the conquest of a marauding army, but the coming together of two countries.

I have a little Scottish blood in me, I occasionally consider getting a Buchanan tartan to mark that part of my heritage. I have never lived there, visited only a few times, but it is a connection I do not want to lose.

And this week I’m scared about what might happen. And I am saddened too. The idea of a United Kingdom without Scotland seems wrong, it’s like a wedding where the groom doesn’t show. This is no more than an emotional defence of why I want Scotland to stay as part of the United Kingdom. I have heard the arguments – I have seen them shift like the sand beneath tidal turns. I have watched the politicians make the case for independence, and the counter arguments against them. I have listened and tried to comprehend the financial, constitutional and political dimensions of the debate and in each there are reasons why Scotland might want independence, but they fall short against the logic, the romance and the attachment of the Union.

Scotland might be better off if they kept all the revenues from their oil, but they would have to deal with a national debt on their own. They may want to retain the pound, but no one is quite sure how that would work without leaving one union only to re-enter another straight away.

The devolution of powers to Scotland caused all sorts of constitutional niggles – not least the West Lothian Question whereby Scottish MPs have a vote in Westminster on matters that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and therefore have not impact on their constituencies. But what happens if they vote yes, do MPs stand in 2015 and hold their seats for a year, what if those seats are what ensures a governing majority?

There are certainly political issues at stake, the Conservatives have not fared well north of the border in recent years, their standing in Westminster would be much stronger without Scotland, the dynamics of politics in a Scotland-less-union would be very different. And yet they put aside short term political opportunism to stand for a Union that is more important than who governs it at any particular point.

And this is because this decision goes beyond the logistics and the politics, and the practicalities of how it would work. Maybe Scotland might suffer financially, maybe the rest of the UK might be changed politically, but while those are the battlefields the independence debate has be fought on, they are not the field upon which it will be decided.

Facebook-20140914-124801Despite all this I’ve not really engaged with the campaigns, and perhaps that is because I don’t have a vote. Or maybe it is because I have no doubt how I would vote. This is not a decision that rests on the tactics or strategies or the policy promises. It is not about the preening of the politicians or the caricatures of each other’s character. It is about the gut. I care more about the result of Thursday’s vote than I have about any election I’ve observed.

I have leafleted for local council candidates, I have canvassed for prospective parliamentary candidates and I have the wonderful record of never campaigning for the winning candidate. The disappointment of standing at the count and seeing the candidate for a council seat you have work with for weeks lose by a handful of votes fades into insignificance against the prospect of Scotland ceding from the Union.

Needing a passport to get into Scotland isn’t a big deal, if you fly you need it anyway. Even changing currency is a frustration that would be swiftly accommodated. The pain of this divorce would not be in the short term logistics, or the financial turmoil it may lead to. The pain is in the decades and centuries to come when the Union that stood through centuries, that brought peace and stability to these isles, that worked together, accommodated differences and thrived on unity, is only a relic in the history books.

And that is the thought that saddens me, that what made us strong, what helped us through strife, what stood against foes internal and abroad, has slipped away. That’s why I am hoping beyond all hope that Scotland votes no.