False Flags and Public Grief

Used under Creative Commons from https://www.flickr.com/photos/shauser/

Used under Creative Commons from https://www.flickr.com/photos/shauser/

On Wednesday evening nine men and women were murdered during a bible study at their church. No murder is normal, but this was less normal than most. It was the killing of nine black men and women by a white man, Dylann Roof, because of their race, and the church in which they were shot was of a denomination founded over 200 years ago when church officials pulled black people off their knees and stopped them praying. The shooting was about race, undertaken by a man who decided others shouldn’t live because of the colour of their skin – designed, the US Justice department said in a statement, ‘to strike fear and terror into this community’.

Many words have been written and many more will follow. I doubt any will carry the force of those spoken by the families of the victims who stood in the court on Friday and offered their forgiveness to Roof. Some of the words have been angry, some have been defensive, others dry, but most quenched in tears.

Twitter was ablaze with anger that two of America’s gravest indignities combined to orchestrate this horror. Gun crime in the United States is a travesty that should be indefensible. I don’t believe the framers of the constitution had in mind the liberal gun laws advocated by second amendment defenders, and if they did it’s high time that amendment was struck from the bill of rights. In the last 6 years Obama has come to the podium 6 times to give speeches following mass shootings.

The second scar on America’s conscience is the deep racial tensions that pervade across the country. Those words do not do justice to the pain suffered and that continues to haunt America and is endured by men and women because of their skin. As Jon Stewart put it: “I honestly have had nothing other than sadness that once again that we have to peer into the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal but we pretend does not exist.”

And as the words of forgiveness cut through the anger, one symbol continued to flutter and flaunt its obstinate recalcitrance in the face of fury.

Above the South Carolina State house flies three flags, the state flag, the US flag and the old Confederate flag. On Thursday the first two were lowered to half-mast out of respect.

First, the technicalities: unlike the other two flags which are on a pulley the Confederate flag is fixed and can therefore only be removed and not lowered, and the removal of any of the flags flying from the building requires a vote of the state legislature.

Second, what was always going to be about race and gun crime is now also about a flag.

For some that’s a distraction from the grief experienced by the families and close ones of those who died. Others say it’s politicising a tragedy.

Russell Moore, president of the ethic and religious liberty commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has written perhaps the most important post of the past few days. Important because of his role in one of the largest evangelical groups and one which has a significant public voice that is associated with religious and moral conservativism. Important because he is the descendant of a Confederate soldier. Important because it is unexpected. Important because it is timely, prophetic and unequivocal. And important because it recognises the importance of symbolism.

Others have been far more equivocal and refused to comment. I’m not asking everyone to have an opinion, but if you’re going to write this, then you deserve all the flak you get.

To say that this is a time for grief and a time to leave politics to one side is to sanitise grief and partition politics. When anger is burning it offers a clarion call, when pain is raw it exposes the wounds we might otherwise try to deny. When tears and fears are all we have to offer they etch deep a testimony that politics is always personal.

Because if it isn’t, what is politics about? Is it about the maintenance of faraway institutions or managing systems and structures? Because if we take people out of the equations – people who cry and shout, and experience joy and happiness, people who, this week, are asking not just ‘why’ but ‘why again’ – all we are left with is a faceless, soulless set of bodies that serve no one but the inertia of political gridlock.

Grief can make things happen. Aged 13 I walked into church one Sunday morning with my family, we were late and the announcements had begun. As we pieced together what the pastor was saying it became clear a member of the royal family had died, the Queen Mother we first supposed, then realised it was Princess Diana who had died in a crash in a Paris subway in the early hours of the morning.

On that occasion a flag mattered too. The royal family, and the Queen in particular, were away in Balmoral, and protocol until 1997 dictated that when the Queen was in residence the Royal Standard flew, when away no flag was displayed, and never was a flag flown at half-mast. Even when a monarch died the flag of the next most senior royal in residence at the palace is flown.

But combined with maintained distance and what the royals presumably considered dignified silence, the empty mast became the may-pole around which the British tabloid press strung the Queen. “Where is our Queen? Where is her flag?” cried the Sun, “Has the House of Windsor a heart?” proclaimed the Daily Mail.

Protocol be damned. The rules were changed. A nation was in grief. The Union Jack – which now flies whenever the Queen is not in residence – was flown at half-mast on the day of the funeral, an act now repeated when members of the royal family die or on significant moments of national mourning such as after the 5 July 2005 bombings.

I’m an outsider, and one who has already told Americans to rescind the second amendment. But the Confederate flag is more than historical memorabilia – if that was all it was it would be in a museum and not flying over a government building.

Like the empty pole on Buckingham Palace, the Confederate flag flying is like defiantly sticking a middle finger up at those in pain. It’s like revelling in the memory of wounds inflicted on others.

And it’s also just a flag, just a symbol, just a piece of cloth with colour, stripes and stars. But the arrangement of those colours, stars and stripes matter. Taking it down is not going to solve race relations in the United States but it would be a significant symbol, one which empathises with pain.

I’m a Brit who doesn’t get the obsession with flags. I don’t get why it’s such a matter of importance, I don’t get why churches drape their alters with flags. But I do get symbols, and Christians the world over should know better than most their role, after all at the centre of our faith is a symbol.

Symbols can become rallying points, in fact they often are. The Confederate flag is now a focal point and not a distraction. The question is, which way will it blow?

The 27 stages of Christian controversy on the internet

With huge thanks to Hannah Mudge, Raquelita and Stuartmwrites on twitter this evening…

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  1. Obscure Christian blogger writes a post on why girls wearing flip flops are acting immodestly and causing their Christian brothers to stumble by flagrantly displaying toe cleavage.
  2. One of his regular readers agrees and posts a comment, the other disagrees and says so.
  3. Several weeks later blogger who no-one actually knows, but is considered semi famous (in the Christian world, which means 17 people subscribe to their updates) finds anti-flip-flop tirade while searching for other bloggers to exchange guest posts with (because that’s what you do to build your platform). He quotes said obscure blogger suggesting that he’s actually got a reasonable point which is worth considering.
  4. Secondary blogger thinks this will be a good opportunity to generate discussion around healthy boundaries and respecting one another. And also get lots of hits. Tweets the most outrageous parts of the post he’s quoting.
  5. A Christian social media gatekeeper sees the post. Doesn’t realise it’s a quote, comments at length and starts tweeting (with the hashtag #flipflopfallacy) to get their followers to comment as well.
  6. Traffic hungry Christian organisation blog site hosts a piece entitled: ‘This girl wore flip-flops to the six o’clock service. You will not believe what happened next.’
  7. Secondary blogger (who has been at work all day) finds hundreds of notifications, and posts clarification piece explaining clearly that it wasn’t his comments, that he’s sorry if it caused any offense, and then goes onto say – in his own words – why flip flops are probably, on balance and for the sake of unity, best avoided.
  8. An American Christian tweeter with a book deal picks up on the attempt at justification and tweets their outrage. He follows this up with a post written in 10 minutes explaining all the reasons he is simply outraged. Outraged he says.
  9. Christian collective posts an investigative piece on whether flip flops and foot fetishes are the latest front in the flirt to convert battleground: ‘How beautiful ARE the feet of him that brings good news?’ The speed this is posted with makes one suspicious they’ve been waiting for such a scenario and may even have engineered this one.
  10. Original poster points out he never said people couldn’t wear flip flops, but just to be careful because they could cause people to stumble.
  11. Unknown tweeter, thinking he was being witty, said that flip flops always caused him to stumble (when he wore them). He was immediately pointed in the direction of an online accountability group by well-meaning but slightly dim follower.
  12. Prominent theologian posts extended comment (3000 words) below both blogs as well as on their own site explaining the theological significant of displaying feet and why it is likely to be important across all times and cultures for women to cover their feet. Something about the dust of a rabbi’s sandals.
  13. Response to the blog saying that if you can’t put it simply you’re obviously wrong. Refuses on those grounds to read theologian’s post.
  14. Lots of sub tweets issued. Mostly to avoid the attention of Secondary blogger, American celebrity, Christian collective or verbose theologian. But THEY STILL HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY ABOUT IT.
  15. Think piece written with a call for unity between those who wear flip flops and those who don’t, and why for the sake of the gospel we should learn to live and worship together.
  16. This does it for secondary blogger. He cannot believe the tenacity of think piece author to be willing to set aside theological principles for a weak unity where no one stands for anything.
  17. Various mainstays of the Christian twitter world unfollow him. Some ‘farewell’-ing him, others passive aggressively doing so silently and a few brave souls hitting the block button.
  18. Tweeters on the #flipflopfallacy hashtag start demanding big names say something about this, and if they haven’t wonder aloud ‘why so-and-so are strangely silent on this’ and if they perhaps are secret foes of the flip flop.
  19. Initial post mysteriously vanishes, suggestions abound that he came under pressure to take it down otherwise he wouldn’t be invited to live tweet next month’s conference. Contrite apology appears on his site (and never posts again).
  20. High profile blogger (without a book deal but after one) writes an open letter calling for everyone to accept the apology in a spirit of grace.
  21. Previously silent famous speaker takes to twitter for the first time in 7 months to express disappointment original blogger was forced to take post down, adding that he thought it important that where necessary Christians were able to speak boldly but in love the truth that they hold dear.
  22. Christian clothing brand (which includes flip flops) issue a press statement which has taken 17 people 4 and a half days to write. They say they like flip flops but think modesty is also important so people should be free to buy them if they want but for the sake of peace will be discontinuing current line.
  23. Boycott of clothing brand ensues (boycotters refuse to buy anything if they’re stopped from buying what they want) with placards carrying slogan ‘my feet, my flip-flops’.
  24. Church press cover boycott. Andrew Brown writes column for the Guardian on the politics of flip-flop gate. Christian Today sends reporter to Soul Survivor to count how many people are wearing flip flops.
  25. Secondary blogger declares that he’s going to take a break from social media to concentrate on his family and church. Shortly after new account appears which seems suspiciously like him.
  26. Weather takes a turn for the worse and everyone stops wearing flip flops and stops caring if they’re immodest. Also, Rob Bell has a new book out which they either have to staunchly defend or snarkily mock his departure from the mainstream.
  27. No one can ever look at their shoe rack quite the same again.

An eclectic review of 2014

Usually a mainstay of the few days between Christmas and New Year I’m getting in early with my review of 2014. I often intend to write about the year about to come to an end but writing time around Christmas is rather sparse. This is a slightly eclectic review of the year and some of the things that have stood out.

It might be considered the year of the #icebucketchallenge, or the rise of UKIP, or some celebrity doing something they shouldn’t. I’m not really covering any of that. Let’s start with food.

Best baked good

1010214_10153680690410364_1304191195_nFrom fairly early in the year these blueberry and cream choux buns are probably my favourite baked good of the year, although making focaccia for the first time was also a lot of fun.

Best newspaper column

Next year’s general election will be mired in disenchantment and discord. The public are unhappy with politicians and conflate that with a disdain toward politics. Minor parties are on the rise and the share of the vote going to the two major parties will likely be the lowest ever. Internet memes go crazy, whether it’s Ed Miliband pointing at things, airbrushed posters of David Cameron, or spoof UKIP twitter accounts. And they just add to the disconnect between politicians and the public.

At the heart of this is a paradox of what the public want, they want politicians to be special and they want them to be like them. Dan Hodges, a Marmite columnist, put this brilliantly in the summer in which he basically called for more boring politicians.

Dan Hodges: Want to rekindle faith in politics? Remember most MPs are like Annette Brooke

Best talk

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At the end of November I returned to Trent Vineyard – where I went to church while a student at Nottingham – for the national Vineyard Cause To Live For conference. One of the draws was Simon Ponsonby speaking. I’ve got his tome on Romans with me over Christmas and hope to get started on it. When he spoke at a student conference I went to in 2004 on ‘more of the Holy Spirit’ I was scribbling faster than I thought possible. This time I didn’t take any notes, I just sat and absorbed his 65 minute one point sermon on learning to love the bible. I had hoped to link to the talk but it’s not online yet – I’ll definitely be sharing it when it is.

Honourable mention: as I can’t share my top talk of the year, here’s one that deserves a mention. I’ve been away at weekends quite a lot this year so tend to listen to as many sermons as podcasts as sat in the comfortable theatre seats. One Saturday I set off to walk to a friend’s flat, fairly normal except this was seven miles away – which made it a three sermon walk. The last of these made me walk up and down the street before arriving to catch the last few minutes. Take a listen, it’s really quite brilliant and beautiful – especially as on a topic so often preached about.

Hannah Elwyn: Who is my neighbour?

Best Walk

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For the shear ridiculous nature of it’s endeavour attempting to climb Slieve Donard on a rainy Janury afternoon could grab this award. I wrote about what not to do when walking in the Mourne Mountains after that particular failure.

The prize, however, has to go to the Yorkshire 3 Peaks which I walked in July. Up and down Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough in 10 and a half hour, leaving me aching for the next couple of days, in love with the Yorkshire Dales and with an appetite to even more insane single day walks in 2015!

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Best film

I loved the latest instalment of the Hunger Games, I was unimpressed with the final Hobbit movie. I was moved by 12 Years A Slave, and I’ve watched Frozen more times than is appropriate to mention.

But a couple of weeks ago I watched The Imitation Game, which is definitely my film of the year. It’s a beautifully acted and shoot work and captured the haunted genius of Alan Turing in exquisite detail. He knew what he needed to do and couldn’t cope with the distractions and tangents others insisted on pursuing. A goal kept him focused.

Some have objected to the film for its use of the story to campaign and promote homosexuality. Yes, there is a campaigning edge to it, and I probably wouldn’t subscribe to all the associated goals of those who use it as a campaign tool. But in the midst of debates over sexuality and marriage the church often ties itself in knots. I think Christians, in an attempt to protect the view that marriage is only ever between a man and a woman, are sometimes passively coerced into supporting or opposing more than they should. The treatment of Alan Turing was shocking, and should never have happened, and Christians should not be afraid of denouncing cruel treatment wherever it occurs. What’s often lost in such debates is that the Church of England was one of the leading voices calling for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in the 1950s, insisting then (as it does now) that such a position can be consistent with not endorsing them.

There’s sometimes a spill over effect with beliefs and attitudes, if I believe this then I must also believe that. It happens in the United States where policy positions on taxation, gun control and the environment become rolled into a basket of political positions that become ever more tangentially  connected to their original beliefs. We have to be on guard for why we stand for or against certain things and not axiomatically assume one thing leads to another, or that because we oppose certain people on certain issues we should oppose them on other issues as well. That’s the way you end up with culture wars and Christians need to be more intelligent than that.

Best photo

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In March I was thrilled to go to Cambodia with Tearfund. As part of their bloggers trip I got to visit several projects close to Phnom Penh where they work with local organisations to mobilise churches and communities to deliver long lasting development. I was awed by what I saw. I saw people resilient even with the atrocities of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge still lingering – like the fragments of bone that occasionally surfaced at the Killing Fields, the destruction he caused was not far from view. The pastor who walked miles home after losing his parents. The guide to the torture and execution prison who as a teenager was a forced labourer and whose body still suffers because of it.

I saw land that was beautiful, people who were thriving, and opportunities that were being taken. As well as writing about what I saw I took a lot of photographs. For several of the pieces I wrote I offered a selection of photographs, this one was used quite a few times. If you want to support the work Tearfund do in Cambodia you can.

Best graph

That disenchantment with politics I mentioned above, well this graph shows all the polls of the past four years along with a 15 poll rolling average. It’s going to be an interesting election.

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Best new discovery

This was the year I discovered Alissa Wilkinson’s film reviews. She’s the chief film critic for Christianity Today, and writes about film and culture and its intersection with Christianity. As someone frequently frustrated with sycophantic Christian reviews, or kowtowing to movie studios by dancing to their tune and unquestioningly promoting films with a vague Christian link, her writing is a breath of fresh air.

This, in defence of the magazine’s one star review of Left Behind, is among her best. And this about the upcoming film Unbroken was a fascinating read as well.

Most annoying feature on a website

Having said that, the multipage articles on Christianity Today really frustrates me. Never do I just want to read the first few paragraphs of an article before changing page, or another couple before clicking again. Maybe sometimes I do only read a little but surely they should want readers to view the whole piece.

Band of the year

Not a new band, but another discovery. Over the Rhine have dominated my playlist this year – this was the track that first hooked me. They also have a new album out.

I’ve given up on…

Controversies. Whether it’s Mark Driscoll or Rob Bell, I’ve not had the energy nor the inclination to engage with them. I’m over trying to find a way to write strong enough words to make my disagreement heard, but in such a winsome way to command respect from those who I disagree with. Often I’ve thought about writing something only to be glad not to get around to it.

I’ve fallen in love with… 

The church. The local, known, accountable, seen body of Christ which I am a part of. The controversies that rage on twitter, fought out in vying blogposts have nothing on the long hard work of forming a community of disciples striving to make new disciples. In a time of celebrity commentators tied to nothing but their own appearances and likelihood of success it is reassuring to be known and to know others.

I was aware while in Cambodia that development agencies come and go but the church remains.

I’ve also thought quite a lot this year about authority. A verse in John 19, where Jesus before Pilate responds that Pilate only has authority because it has been given to him by the Father, has resonated with me time and time again. This is freeing, liberating and reassuring, especially at times when I most unsure of what I’m doing. But that freedom isn’t just an individual thing, it helps us in relationships, and helps us become part of the community of believers working out our faith. Being a part of a church is where that dance of freedom and authority works itself out – all with the realisation that we’re not going to get  it quite right just yet.

What I’m ready for

Peace. It’s Christmas, we talk about it as a time of harmony and joy when often it’s one of rushing and frustration. I’m ready to stop for the year and spend some time with my family. With four small children under four around it won’t be quiet, but I’m not entirely sure that’s all peace is about.

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But there’s a wider peace that I’m looking for, searching for, desperate for. The hurting of the world is manifold and impossible to ignore. Whether school children murdered in their classroom in Pakistan or families grieving for loved ones killed by a truck in Glasgow while Christmas shopping. There is pain in this world, sometimes almost too much to bear.

There’s war that refuses to cease, violence that does not end, and we can seem powerless in the face of its relentless advance. The most powerful of the Christmas words for me is Emmanuel: God with us. It’s not a panacea, it doesn’t remove pain, but it reminds us God became human, became known, came to earth and suffered. He doesn’t run from pain and hurting, from what we’ve done and been done to us, he stands with us and takes the pain.

While I’m ready for peace, I’m glad for the Prince of Peace while I wait.

What I’m waiting for

On New Year’s Eve I fly to New Zealand, actually to China before jumping on another plane. I’m away for most of January, a mix of work and holiday, about which I’m incredibly excited. In some ways it has distracted from the lead up to Christmas, only confirmed a fortnight ago I’ve not had time to enjoy the anticipation and put it to one side and get on with what I’m up to right now. Instead it dominates at the moment, and as much as I’m ready for the Christmas break, looking forward to the food and my family, and some much needed rest, I’ll be looking forward to New Zealand throughout.

And I wonder if there’s a bigger lesson in that. The excitement of the greater thing distracts from everything else. It’s there in Exodus 33 when Moses turns down a blessing from God if he doesn’t get his presence. It’s then that Moses is placed in the cleft of a rock as God passes by.

What I find myself constantly waiting for and reaching after is that overarching thing that dominates what I’m doing and gives me purpose in pursuing everything else. There are plenty of things that keep me occupied and excited but one thing gives way to the next and then the next.

In 2015 I’m looking forward to a year that will no doubt be busy when I want quiet, boring when I thirst for action, crowded with people when I want time alone, and without company when I am lonely. I am sure there will be excitement and frustration, joy and disappointment. But with it I hope it is also a year of purpose. Quite what that purpose is, I’m not quite sure.

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:

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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

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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.

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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

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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

How I found freedom from the prison of ego

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As a thirteen year old I dug the garden on a Saturday afternoon to earn a little extra pocket money to go and see Delirious (at that point transitioning from being known as Cutting Edge). I joined the masses queuing outside my church and then packed into the hall to hear the big new thing in the Christian world. A few years before in what was know as the Toronto Blessing I had stood awed in meetings and fallen prostrate. There was undoubtedly a little of me mimicking what those to my left and right were doing, but that was not the entirety.

Being ahead of Christian culture was what mattered.

When I got to university and people would go on about Delirious I would roll my eyes, it was no longer cool to be into them. When someone had the great idea to do a 24-7 prayer room, I said I could do that in my sleep.

I’d flippantly pontificate on whether DJ led worship was really suitable for a congregation. But also make sure people knew I’d done break dancing sessions in a disused and refashioned train station in Germany. When cell groups, small groups, D groups, life groups, connect groups, were being discussed I’d have a couple of handy mnemonics or aphorisms up my sleeve; I’d find a way to segue in that I’d done a seminar on cell group multiplication. I’d be one of those people who wouldn’t clap, or stand, or raise my hands, when the host or worship leader said to, because, you know, worship is about us choosing to worship.

I got Christian culture and I thought I was better than it. I would raise my eyes and sneeringly remark at the queues of people waiting to get a photo with Tim Hughes. Until someone else noted my own remark was designed to draw attention to myself. Continue reading

The art of faux vulnerability

I learnt a while ago that a certain sort of post works well, it gets attention, it is shared, liked, commented on. And I feel that I’ve done a good job.

It’s the posts where I’m vulnerable and honest. It became my thing.

I learnt how to bleed onto the screen, find the valve of my emotions, my thoughts, my fears; and spill into words the pain and anxiety I held captive. I hit publish and shared with the world.

I wrote naked and people stopped and stared.

Brené Brown shot to fame with a TEDx talk a few years ago. Four years on with over 15million views her talk on the power of vulnerability is one of the most watched videos on the site. I recently read her book, Daring Greatly. And it is possibly changing my life. In her talk she says, and you can watch the section here:

‘So I found a therapist. My first meeting with her, I brought in my list of how the whole hearted live and I sat down. And she said, “How are you?” And I said, “I’m great. I’m okay.” She said, “What’s going on?” And this is a therapist who sees therapists, because we have to go to those because their BS meters are good. And so I said, “Here’s the thing, I’m struggling.” And she said, “What’s the struggle?” And I said, “Well, I have a vulnerability issue. And I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love. And I think I have a problem and I need some help.” And I said, “But here’s the thing: no family stuff, no childhood S#*!. I just need some strategies.” So she goes like this. [you have to watch it to really get this!] And I said, “It’s bad, right? And she said, “It’s neither good nor bad. It just is what it is.” And I said, “Oh my God, this is going to suck.”

‘And it did, and it didn’t. And it took about a year. And you know how there are people that, when they realize vulnerability and tenderness are important, that they surrender and walk into it. A: that’s not me, and B: I don’t even hang out with people like that. For me it was a yearlong street fight. It was a slugfest. Vulnerability pushed, I pushed back. I lost the fight, but probably won my life back.’

And I thought that vulnerability was my thing. I thought I had a unique selling point beyond being a guy writing about relationships.

I wrote posts where I winced as they went live, those I agonised over for hours and those I wrote in breathless minutes. I wrote pieces which part of me wanted ignored and a lot more of me loved being noticed.

I tore open my heart and threw it onto the screen to get noticed.

I wrote posts I regret. Not because they were wrong, or offensive, or unhelpful. At least not unhelpful for others. That was my rationale, the one I gave myself. I told myself I was helping people address issues no one else was, I was saying out loud what others were thinking. I was facilitating conversation, helping others open up. I convinced myself I was helping, I think in a way I was.

But I wasn’t helping myself. I was using vulnerability.

Brené Brown says in Daring Greatly: “Vulnerability is bankrupt on its own terms when people move from being vulnerable to using vulnerability to deal with unmet needs, get attention, or engage in the shock-and-awe behaviours that are so common place in today’s culture.”

I had learnt the art of faux vulnerability and it was costing me dearly.

It was when someone I only know moderately well, but hold in great respect delicately expressed some concern about what I was sharing online that I paused to think. Initially I was defensive. It’s okay, I know what I’m doing, I regulate. I don’t overshare.

And I don’t. I know exactly how much to say online to have the affect I want it to have. I know the necessary emotions. The right amount of contrition, of personal reflection, the appropriate deflection and shift to abstraction from making something too much about me.

I was using vulnerability like a currency to get what I wanted. And like the Wizard of Oz, what stood beyond the curtain of my exposed vulnerability was where the wounds really lay.

I was using vulnerability as a strategy to avoid being vulnerable. I had corrupted the good and turned it inside out and put it to dubious use.

And yet. And yet, the answer is not to be less vulnerable. But to be truly vulnerable. In letting it all hang out, or being seen to do that while actually remaining resolutely in control I was numbing my emotions. I was manipulating them and putting them to use but I was not accepting and listening to them. I was pretending to be something other than that which I was.

In Brené Brown’s TEDx talk she talks about numbness. You can’t decide to just feel the happy thoughts and not the said. Numbness affects them all. It stops us experiencing joy, and kindness, and sorrow and grief.

Nor is the answer to never write publically about relationships, about emotions, about struggles with shame – yes shame, that great predator lying in wait to snatch vulnerability away – about what I don’t understand and what I do not know. But there are boundaries and boundaries are healthy.

In manufacturing vulnerability I made it harder to be vulnerable.

In Daring Greatly Brown talks about floodlight oversharing, and perhaps that’s partly what I’ve engaged in. It makes it hard for people to respond to, there is too much, too quickly, and without the foundation of relationship to digest it. When I share with a friend over dinner in a pub, or as we walk we take time to hear what each other is saying and doing. When we broadcast our vulnerabilities we are not looking for assistance or acceptance but affirmation.

Vulnerability is not one of those things where you can fake it until you make.

The sermon from about a month ago that got me thinking about this.

Should we mock David Cameron on twitter?

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David Cameron has done it again.

He’s tried to be nice to Christians and it went a bit wrong.

But this time my annoyance is not with him.

From time to time the Prime Minister makes comments in statements or interviews about his faith and the role of Christianity. He might compare his belief to being like listening to the radio in the Chilterns, fading in and out. He might suggest that the Bible is not a bad moral guide.

And we might pick holes in what he says, criticise the understanding of the Christian faith. I did.

On Wednesday various Christian leaders went to Number 10 for the Prime Minister’s Easter reception. There were church leaders, evangelists, anti-poverty campaigners, those working with the persecuted church and victims of trafficking.

Normally such events are little more than a PR exercise, they’re press released and managed to present the Prime Minister in as good a light as possible. This one feels a little different. There was no press release, no prepared speech, and only belatedly a transcript of the Prime Minister’s remarks.

Those there swiftly reported what David Cameron had said. A single news story led to many others and by the evening the Prime Minister was being mocked on twitter.

When I read the full version of what he said I squirmed slightly at how evangelism was expressed (as little more than doing good). And yet the words I read were an encouragement to the church across the world frequently persecuted for their beliefs, and to the church in the UK to be dynamic in bringing life to communities across the country. A boost for parish priests who canoed through villages during the storms earlier this year.

The words were warm, and Cranmer notes: “clearly coming from the heart, it reveals rather more about the Prime Minister’s spirituality and appreciation of the Church of England’s ministry than anything he has previously disclosed”.

Unfortunately David Cameron doesn’t make it hard to be mocked, comparing himself to Dyno-rod was an unusual analogy. But it was the Big Society (yes, with capitals) that got the ball rolling. Perhaps appropriately for an Easter message, the Big Society is a concept that refuses to die. As Christian Guy tweeted:

This is where my sympathy for David Cameron goes into overdrive. He was trying to give the church credit for their work and respond, as he has repeatedly done, that all his packaging did was take what the church has been doing for centuries, millennia, and get more people involved.

As reported in the Times, a No 10 spokesperson commented: “The Prime Minister has long made the point that he may have coined the catchphrase but he didn’t invent the concept. All sorts of organisations from different faith backgrounds have made a positive contribution to society, including schools and charities.”

When the Big Society was first announced, churches jumped up and down yelling that they’d be at it for ages. Now he agrees the response is: stop thinking you’re doing God’s work. He can’t win.

You might consider the Big Society to be a cover for cuts, you might think it is painfully hard electoral message to sell on the door steps.

But I think there is a challenge to us all in how we respond to politicians, how we engage with them, and how we judge their beliefs and actions. I am certain we should not sycophantically praise politicians to get an invite through the famous black door. I don’t think anyone there got there by doing that. I think there is a vital prophetic role for the church to speak truth to power, to tell when the least are forgotten, when the abandoned are cast away, when the stomachs of the hungry groan, when the shelter for the weak is not there.

There are many things we can criticise the government for. We can say their welfare changes are pernicious, we can say their changes to marriage undermine the family. We can criticise governments for taking us to war, for favouring business over caring for the environment.

The bible tells us in Psalm 146 to put critical distance between us and our leaders, to be reluctant to place too much trust in what they can do: “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.”

And we should remember that politicians are fallible, they are like you and me, they make mistakes, they have mixed motives, they put priorities in an order that fails to reconcile heaven and earth.

But maybe because of that, criticism should not be our only posture, in fact, I don’t think it should be our primary posture. It is useful, it is vital, we must critique what is unjust, but we shouldn’t start there.

Political leaders, like all other leaders, are taking responsibility, they are exercising authority, and as such, in a way that is always limited, never absolute, they are exercising God’s authority.

Jesus, before Pilate, asks where his authority comes from.

Jesus tells the challenger seeking to trap him, to give to Caesar what is his, knowing that the image of Caesar on a coin demanding fealty is itself an image reflecting Caesar’s creation in the image of God.

Paul writes to the Romans reminding them that the governing authorities only have authority because God has given it, and that those in authority are God’s servants.

In 1 Peter we are challenged to do good and honour our rulers: if that is a challenge today what must it have felt like to those under Roman oppression?

And in 1 Timothy asked to pray for those in authority – that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

This is not a weak prayer, a surrender, it is a challenge. It is a hard task.

There is a responsibility given to leaders that should provoke respect but not blind loyalty. There is an authority to rulers which we should live under but also challenge.

And when we turn to twitter (admittedly there were some funny tweets) to mock leaders who express gratitude to the church for the work they do, and stand with Christians persecuted for their beliefs across the world, I got annoyed. But more than that, I was also saddened because I think it undermines the prophetic voice we should have. A voice that respects, but is not cowed, by authority.

Watch the Prime Minister’s Easter message:

I got addicted… to 2048

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To 2048.

On Friday I saw someone playing it on the tube.

On Saturday I was introduced to the game and shown how it worked.

On Sunday I downloaded it and started playing.

On Monday I got 2048 and won.

On Tuesday I deleted the game from my phone.

In five day I went from never having heard of the latest craze game to removing it from my phone to cut off the addiction that had developed.

Addiction is a strong word. And the one the best fits.

I thought about the DSM screen for problem gambling, and reckoned I would answer positively to enough questions to be classified as a problem gambler. The lack of money traded and lost, and therefore the questions about getting money to play being inapplicable, only making the impact more marked in other areas.

From Sunday evening until Monday evening I played in virtually every spare moment. On Sunday evening I played for several hours straight. I went to bed with my head buzzing, unable to sleep. I woke and calculated how long I could play before I needed to catch the train to work. And of course I played on the train.

What’s crazier is that after work on Monday I hit the jackpot, I arranged the numbers to reach the elixir of 2048. And yet I went on. I wanted 4096.

Each time I lost I thought I could easily have not made the mistake that led my downfall.

Each time I thought the next time would be better. That if I got to the next milestone I would be satisfied.

On Monday evening I had watched Rev, but realised when reading the discussion the next day I had paid scant attention. Because I was playing 2048.

Sunday night when I want to relax I got more wound up as the numbers stacked up in unhelpful patterns.

A game, that thing intended as leisure, had become a point of stress.

I didn’t want to play for hours on end. And yet I was.

So I took drastic action. I deleted the game.

Sometimes that’s the only way to deal with something.

2048 is a brilliant game. I love it. And I also hate it. It is good, and yet it was damaging me. It had to stop.