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Posts from the ‘wealth’ Category

4
Jul
Washington Monument seen from its base with US Flag at half mast. June 2012 by VIPSuperDave (Wiki Commons)

All is not well … in the state of Denmark: George Packer’s THE UNWINDING (USA’s ‘inner history’)

Well, to all my American friends and family, Happy 4th July. I wish you a great day of celebration and fun. That is always a little strange coming from a Brit. After all, you did rebel against us. But I think we’ve kinda gotten over it now (as you might put it). But it’s well-meant. America is a country I’ve grown to love (or at least certainly the bits I’ve visited). And as Bono has said more than once (perhaps explaining why he’s never forsaken his Irish roots despite his love for the US): Ireland’s a great country, but America is a great idea. And that’s what the 4th is all about at its best. A great idea. Read more »

5
May
Toffs Toughs 1937 - border

Je Recuse! Privilege’s curse & why you should stop reading this blog (probably)

I’ve got a problem. But it’s not the sort of problem that you’re going to have much sympathy for. In fact, it’s not the sort of problem that you’re allowed to have much sympathy for. Because my problem is that i’m far too privileged – for my own good or for anyone else’s good. Which is why, in this day and age, anything I say or claim will be subject to greater suspicion than what practically anyone else on the planet will say or claim. If you don’t believe me, check this succinct quote out from Gene Veith: Read more »

24
Apr
Le Carré

Giving voice to the whistleblower: Le Carré on cracking form in A Delicate Truth

There’s a key moment when the oleaginous Foreign Office chameleon, Giles Oakley, goads his protegé and A Delicate Truth‘s protagonist, Toby Bell, about what he should do with his qualms about government policy in the run up to Iraq War.

You’re exactly what the Guardian needs: another lost voice bleating in the wilderness. If you don’t agree with government policy, don’t hang around trying to change it. Jump ship. Write the great novel you’re always dreaming about. (p51) Read more »

20
Jun
wired-surveillance

Google’s morality-free zone

In the most recent edition of Wired UK, Eli Pariser wrote a brief but insightful piece about the business ethics (or lack of them) of many of the huge internet companies. It’s worth a quick read. He starts by contacting the Google PR department to find out what their ethical policies are. And the answer is less than adequate: “we’re just trying to give people the most relevant information.”  Read more »

16
Feb

A plague on both their houses? Carl Trueman’s polemic Republocrat

I think it’s fair to say that remaining neutral about anything Carl Trueman writes or says is impossible. And that’s no bad thing! He’s always provocative, stimulating and often (but not always!) right on the button. In his recent short book, Republocrat – Confessions of a Liberal Conservative, he brings a trenchant and powerfully argued British/European perspective to the American political scene. More pertinently, after 10 years in the States, he writes as a Reformed theologian and church historian about the relationship between Christianity and American politics (especially, though not exclusively, about the Christian Right).

Mercutio strikes again?

In his discussion of the Republican and Democrat Parties, he actually does find himself, Mercutio-like, calling for ‘a plague on both your houses’. And it is easy to see why, after being propelled through his breathless polemic. Some would conclude from this that the only remaining course of action is to buy into a simplistic rejection of all things political, with a postmodern, shrugging updating of the 60s mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out”.

But Trueman is far too robust for such a course. And his appeal is a crucial one. For one of his concerns is that politics has become far too simplistic and Manichaean (ie dualism where everything is a matter of ‘us’ (the goodies) vs ‘them’ (the baddies)) – and that the church has significantly contributed to the problem. He is clear – life is much too complex for that.

I would suggest that all Christians should vote, as part of their civic duty, but they should also feel pain when they mark the relevant box, knowing the trade-offs they are having to make as they do so, and how their action belies the complexity of reality. (p83)

Whose side is he on?

The scope of the book (despite the main text being only 100 pages) is vast. He manages to include a sympathetic potted history of Marxism, perceptive analyses of the prosperity gospel, US hot button issues like gay rights and abortion, Rupert Murdoch and the impact of automobiles on American culture – and that’s before we even consider his helpful, expert observations about history writing and objectivity. This is in part what makes his writing so enjoyable – he draws links that one never sees coming.

But this is primarily a book of political punditry. And so his politics matters and is explicit. He is what in Europe would be called left of centre (he openly confesses to be LibDem – though one wonders what difference the Coalition Government now would make to this) – which in the USA is regarded as practically communist. He is conservative theologically, and therefore conservative on some ethical issues – but definitely left on social issues like poverty. As the conservative Peter Lillback rightly notes in his foreword, this makes Carl more of the Old Left than new. This makes him an anomaly in his adopted country – he really doesn’t fit. He casts an outsider’s eye on contemporary US political realities; and so a real fear is that neither end of the political spectrum (Christian or otherwise) will listen to him – and therefore both will fail to heed what are some very important warnings.

So who’s side is he on? Well, he is someone who longs for truthfulness, integrity and genuine public service to mark public life (as illustrated by a powerful quotation from the amazing Vaclav Havel on the last page). And therefore all should take note.

The problems at both ends

Because he is no partisan, he is able to spot ironies and blind spots, and doesn’t pull punches in exposing them. Here is one fascinating example:

The most obvious is the way liberals and conservatives often flip-flop on whether big government is good or bad. It is a mantra of the Left that the federal government needs to take a larger role at home, where, apparently it can and should be trusted; but in foreign policy, the Left’s wisdom is that it can do almost nothing of any moral probity. On the Right, however, there is deep suspicion of the federal government in a domestic context; but invade somebody else’s country, and any criticism of the government is decried as unpatriotic and un-American. How can these things be? One plausible explanation is that the logic of Left and Right is shaped more by some form of story, which does not conform to the normal rules of logical analysis, but which nonetheless carries power for the true believer. (p89)

This comes in the context of a really helpful, though chilling, analysis of how narrative informs political discourse, rather than pesky things like facts and realities. It is interesting that only today, Nick Robinson’s BBC blog described the task of Cameron’s new Strategy guy at No10 as bringing much needed ‘narrative coherence’ to the Coalition after a choppy few months – though note how Ed Miliband’s Labour is equally attempting to dominate with their own ‘re-contaminate the Tory brand’ narrative.

Of course, politics, not to mention governing, is SO complex that communicating realities in a democracy is very hard. A story is much easier to tell – especially if it resonates with people who are hurting, struggling or confused. Stories rally troops, motivate action … ignore inconveniences. Ideal, then, if you want people to vote for you. Not so good if you value truth and integrity. And Trueman’s point is that Left and Right both play the same game (as Nick Robinson highlights).

It’s secularism – but not as we have it

One of the most helpful and powerful sections was Trueman’s identification of how secularism in the States has a religious face. I’m sure this is right – and it helps to understand that despite not really doing God in European politics, the US has much more in common culturally than it might care to admit.

Could it be that both Britain and America are both fairly secular, but that America expresses her secularity using religious idioms, while Britain expresses hers through the abandonment of such language? And could this create more problems for the American church than she typically likes to assume? (p23)

Somebody asked me recently whether Osteen and Hinn (2 key prosperity gospel preachers) were big in the UK. My answer was simple: no, not at all, nothing like they are in the USA. Why is that? came the follow-up to which I replied: They simply wouldn’t work in the UK, because the idiom is all wrong; the British do not respond to religious language the way many Americans do; thus, we have psychobabble self-help gurus, not prosperity preachers. Of course, both preach the same message: prosperity through realizing your own inner potential; but while the British equivalent is obviously secular, the American version has a veneer of orthodox religiosity. (p27)

This makes perfect sense to me – and simply alerts us to the insidiousness of the secular mindset.

It’s what we’ve got – but that doesn’t make it perfect

Another key theme to the book is the danger of (especially the Christian Right) buying into the idea that Capitalism is the most theologically appropriate system. I don’t know many, if any, in the UK who have bought into this line – but it is clearly a big deal in the USA. And while he is pretty sure that there is no real viable alternative in a globalised world (some will no doubt dispute that – I’m not really in a position to argue either way), his case for a more nuanced and discerning approach is undeniably strong. Capitalism simply does not lead inevitably to the characteristics commonly identified as Christian virtue. This is because it presents many underlying challenges to virtue – here is my potted summary of his list (in pp71-77):

  • Economic prosperity can never necessarily be identified with divine blessing.
  • Capitalism requires a lack of contentment and degree of disaffection with the world in order to make it work. It also breeds a form of idolatry: “ascribing of divine power to things that in themselves do not possess such power, and, we might add, that can be done to systems such as capitalism just as easily as possessions such as golf clubs” (p74). Personal selfishness and acquisitiveness actually then morphs into a social virtue because you are upholding society and the system through your wallet (or credit).
  • What we could call financial Pelagianism: “the problem is not simply the gospel of salvation by consumption that they preach; it is also the idea that I am in control of my own destiny, that I hold the answer to my problems, that this lies in the creaturely realm… It is a form of Pelagianism, built on the idea that I am my own god who can work the miracle of my own happiness by what I do with my cash” (p74)
  • The fixation on rights of all kinds that a consumer mentality breeds (and this can be found on both Left (eg abortion rights) and Right (eg gun owners’ rights)) – and this is something that we see manifesting in church as well as society.
  • The market inevitably determines values and virtues: “Where consumer is king, ultimately taste and profit margins will triumph” (p75)

In summary of this point, then, Trueman states:

Christians must realize that capitalism has brought great goods in its wake; but it is not an unmixed blessing, and some of the things about which Christians become most hot under the collar, from the reshaping of the family to the ease of access to abortion, are not unconnected to the system that they often admire with so little critical reflection. (p77)

Well said… It seems so obvious – but so rarely articulated – perhaps because we have too many vested interests…

American in focus, but British in relevance

I suspect many on this side of the Atlantic will assume this has little relevance. But I would argue that it is of profound relevance over here – it is a very helpful analysis of what is happening in postmodern political discourse. But there is also another reason: some in UK Christian circles are finding themselves drawn to a US Christian Right culture-war mentality (this was particularly noticeable in the lead up to the 2010 UK General Election).

And that is something that, quite frankly, I find very scary. If ever there was a thought-through, theologically aware, warning not to go down that road, this is it. I suspect few if any will find themselves agreeing with everything he says (for all kinds of reasons). But that is all the more reason that thoughtful Christians should read this book. As he says

we are called to be good citizens in this world, and in a democratic society, that involves having as many well-thought-out and informed opinions on the things that really matter as time allows. It is incumbent on us not to surround ourselves with things that confirm our prejudices but to seek to listen to a variety of view points. (p58)

13
Jan

PLAY from the Conspiracy of Freedom

In case you  missed this from a few months ago, here is a fantastic video from the genii at Conspiracy of Freedom – I was reminded of it by the Simple Pastor – and it is definitely worth revisiting. Not sure where they got their graph stats from or on what basis they were drawn, but the general point is well made, entirely valid and utterly sobering.

20
Oct

Provocations and Grace from Tim Keller’s Generous Justice

I have been waiting for years for someone to write this book. And so I’m hugely grateful to Tim Keller. He’s clearly the man for the job – his years of ministerial experience, academic ability and personal integrity well qualify him to write of the crying need for Evangelicals to engage with issues of justice and poverty. He’s done it before in his celebrated Ministries of Mercy, but this book seems to have a greater apologetic edge.

And he knows his audience. Or rather his audiences. For he is well-aware, no doubt from heated interactions, that there are various groups out there who are profoundly sceptical of this passion. The problem is that they are coming from such conflicting starting positions; so it takes a masterly lightness of touch to engage each without alienating another.

A complex battleground

But part of the approach is to identify his interlocutors from the start (from page xi) and then interact with each as he goes along – I’ve tried summarise them like this:

  • The Instinctive Advocate: those Christians with the gut feeling that poverty and justice are important but who have never been able to integrate that with their faith. To them, Keller seeks to give a thought through, biblical rationale for why this instinct is god-given.
  • The Sceptical Evangelist: those who fear any journey down this road will inevitably lead to doctrinal compromise and the ‘social gospel’. We’re here just to evangelise, aren’t we? To which Keller challenges by articulating both Old & New Testament motivations and commands to love the poor, and to question what a reluctance to such love might indicate about their ministerial context and personal spirituality. He doesn’t think they are the same thing - and this is important to what he goes on to say – but he does argue that we can’t have one without the other:

… to consider deeds of mercy and justice to be identical to gospel proclamation is a fatal confusion. I propose a different way to understand evangelism and social justice. They should exist in an asymmetrical, inseparable relationship. (p139)

It is also impossible to separate word and deed ministry from each other in ministry because human beings are integrated wholes – body and soul. When some Christians say, ‘Caring for physical needs will detract from evangelism’, they must be thinking of only doing evangelism among people who are comfortable and well-off. (p141-142)

  • The Revisionist Campaigner: frustrated by evangelicals’ sluggish or avoided engagement, these go further than Instinctive Advocates and blame what they perceive as the ‘individualism’ of protestant orthodoxy. Their solution is to water down or distance themselves from it. To them, Keller is resounding in his appeal to evangelical orthodoxy – not just because he seeks to prove its biblical faithfulness, but also because he sees it as the fundamental bridge to a changed life and ethical behaviour, when it is properly understood. This quotation could serve as a summary of a point that he frequently returns to:

But as we have seen, doing justice is inseparably connected to preaching grace. This is true in two ways. One way is that the gospel produces a concern for the poor. The other is that deeds of justice gain credibility for the preaching of the gospel. In other words justification by faith leads to doing justice, and doing justice can make many seek to be justified by faith. (p140)

  • The Atheist Accuser: those who follow the likes of Christopher Hitchens by claiming that ‘religion poisons everything’. Keller has interacted with such issues before, most notably in The Reason for God. But the focus is narrower here. His approach is to question the ethical basis for human rights in the forbidding frigidity of a godless universe, and then to suggest that talk of human dignity is an inevitable corollary of divine creation and redemption. He even seems to have Derrida on his side on that point! (p167) It is a trenchant argument – proving that far from being poisonous, religion, and Christianity in particular, is pivotal for the protection of the vulnerable and the weak. This is, of course, why it is such an affront and scandal when Christians don’t do that.

I suppose for a number of years I fell very much into the first camp – troubled by the world’s injustices, but unable to articulate an integrated theological response. Many friends, whom I hugely respect, were in the second – and part of the problem, I think, is that they would not read or engage with many who think differently on this issue (because of their lack of orthodoxy in other areas). What is so refreshing therefore about Keller’s approach is that he is explicitly and deliberately approaching the question from the vantage point of the classic reformed doctrines of creation, substitutionary atonement, justification, sanctification and so on. Some attack him because his social involvement leads to suspicions that he has gone soft on these. But Keller retorts by saying that it is precisely this gospel that drives him to it. And he enjoys great precedents in reformed luminaries as diverse as Jonathan Edwards, Murray M’Cheyne and Abraham Kuyper (all of whom he quotes at various points).

Getting back to the Non-Question

Having lived in the two-thirds world for a number of years, it was impossible to ignore the  appalling conditions and social realities of people’s lives. It would have been callous to do so. That, in part, is why very few African friends understand the western church’s hang up on social action and evangelism. It’s a non-question for them. But in Generous Justice, Keller convincingly argues in a coherent, accessible and readable way why it should be non-question for us all. I sensed when we lived in Uganda, and I sense all the more strongly having read this book, that one mistake is to get lost in the intricacies of working out theoretical priorities (a necessary activity, of course). You start pitting this life against the next life and … well … it seems no contest.

But suppose we take the concern for justice out of the mission equation, just for a moment (don’t panic – I do think that it is an integral part of what God is doing on earth, which is why we should be involved. But bear with me just for a moment.) Instead, place justice and poverty in matters of holiness and discipleship and suddenly the landscape changes. It’s not then primarily a question of priorities. It’s a question of godliness. We don’t ask, ‘is it more important to be honest, humble or generous?’ That would be ludicrous. We shouldn’t expect to have to choose – we should strive after all three.

So it is with seeking justice and loving the poor. And as that is God’s heartbeat, so it should be ours. As Keller points out, it’s fascinating that God introduces himself as

‘a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows’ (Ps 68:4-5). This is one of the main things he does in the world. He identifies with the powerless, he takes up their cause. (p6)

To be like God is to do the same thing – to care for what has been called the “quartet of the vulnerable” (the widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor cf. Zech 7:10-11). (p4)

Grace changes everything

The thrust of this book’s argument is that grace is the heart of everything. And so Keller returns to the well-worn but crucial paths on the dangerous road to Jericho. His earlier book Ministries of Mercy was subtitled the Call of the Jericho Road. And here he is very clear why we should:

Before you can give this neighbour-love [e.g. as the Samaritan does], you need to receive it. Only if you see that you have been saved graciously by someone who owes you the opposite will you go out into the world looking to  help absolutely anyone in need. (p77)

This is why the gospel of grace is absolutely pivotal – both for motivating and modelling an all-round holistic ministry, and for reminding us of our own deep needs and equality with those we serve and love.

In the next post, I’ll pick up some of the more practical and political aspects of Keller’s case.

8
Sep

What’s the difference between a house and a home?

Despite what Ikea will tell us, the answer to this question is not more of their maddening self-assembly furniture.

I’m really impressed with the Breathe network. Here’s one of their recent Conspiracy of Freedom videos – and it speaks very powerfully for itself:

Check out their other stuff here (HT Simple Pastor)

3
Mar

Rage, God and Brahms’ 4th Symphony

It’s been a bit of an experiment – but as part of our contribution to Passion 4 Life events at All Souls, 2 friends (pianists extraordinaire, Craig Hudson & Robin Stephenson) and I have put on a little evening’s package for people to hold in their homes. We’ve called it a Brahms Soirée, and the idea is that Craig & Robin play Brahms’ 4th Symphony arranged for 4 hands on 1 piano, and I give a short talk, introducing the piece and throwing out a few provocations to think about during the performance. We had our first last night, and we’re going to repeat it in one or two other places.

Never quite done a talk like this – so an experiment, as I say. But here it is, in case it is of interest. Also, in case you want to get a recording of it, here are the suggestions from Radio 3′s Building a Library (this symphony is at the bottom of the page).

___________________________________________

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) was one of the greats – his name has gone down in music history as one of the 3 B’s – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms – giants whose presence is impossible to ignore. Another thing these 3 men all had in common was that they were not necessarily easy to get on with. That’s often the way with geniuses. Karl Goldmark was a composer friend who said this:

Brahms was built on big lines and was absolutely truthful. He could not tell even the ordinary conventional fib. … But he was never accustomed to… holding his tongue. If he disliked anything he would say so frankly. This bluntness, combined with his rough manner, frequently made him appear very harsh. One evening, Brahms, on taking leave of his hostess at a party, said, ‘Kindly excuse me if by chance I have forgotten to offend one of your guests.’

At least he had a degree of self-awareness. But faults often have their positive flip sides – and Brahms equally faced life’s realities very truthfully and honestly. So one of the themes we’ll explore is the emotional honesty of his music.

The Fourth Symphony was published in 1885, and bar a concerto and a number of chamber pieces, it was his final large scale work. He was 52, and would live another 12 years. But the question I’m interested in is what is he communicating? For you don’t write a 40 minute piece of music unless you have something to say – even if it is hard to express it well in words. Well, it is not a word we use very much – but I want to suggest it is the word ‘Rage’.

Now, I lived and worked for 4 years in Kampala in Uganda before moving back to London in 2005 – I can tell you that on the roads of Kampala I discovered depths of road rage that I never knew I had. But that is not the rage we’re dealing with here. No – I’m thinking about the rage that seems to lie at the heart of the Fourth Symphony – which is a surprise when we remember that this is Brahms’ last really grand statement. Its rage has been noted by one or two writers – and as I’ve listened to it many times in the last few months, it comes across clearly.

So what provoked this rage? Now it’s notoriously difficult to pin down the emotional impact of any music, let alone something as monumental as a symphony. But there are some things to say. And I just wonder if we can hear resonances with something written almost 70 years later by the great welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. Written just 2 years before he died, Thomas raged against our mortality. Death: such an invasion, such an interruption, such an offence.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

But isn’t this just the way it is? That’s life – life ends. Does that explain the symphony’s rage? Well, it may well be part of it – but I think there’s more. For it’s not constantly full of rage – it plumbs the depths of emotion, from the jubilant through the melancholic and the tragic to the downright furious. But what is significant, is that the 1st and 4th movements (the bookends, if you like) both conclude with a mood that is hard to hear as anything but fury. And that is significant – that is what he leaves us with, his last grand statement.

The moods in the middle are therefore like a struggle to overcome this sentiment, trying to find a resolution. But the rage wins out, and the last minutes of the 4th movement are overwhelming. One writer described the climax of the 4th movement as one of Brahms’ “most monumental fits of rage”. How do we get there?

1: Allegro non troppo

The opening doesn’t waste time – from the first bar we’re immersed in a sense of melancholy, a gentle elegy – but we’re not yet sure why. It is an achingly beautiful introduction – and there is just the hint of the tragedy to come. But the movement is long – around 12 or 13 minutes – and complex. There are surprises aplenty, there are joys and triumphs. But it’s as if we can’t escape the inevitable – by its conclusion, all the musical threads have come together, in a tragic, minor key. Yet we know there’s more (it’s only the 1st movement of 4 after all) – there’s a sense of something unresolved. What’s coming next? This is what one critic said:

We naturally crave an emotional resolution to what we have just heard. The three remaining parts of the symphony can thus be seen as different reactions to the events unfolding in the first movement. (Hurwitz, Brahms’ Symphonies, Continuum, p133)

2: Andante Moderato

This is slow, intense, and in fact, almost as long as the first. It contains rhythmical fanfares in the horns but also wonderfully rich, lyrical melodies, which the strings get to really milk for all they’re worth. I’m sure imagining all this won’t be a problem in Craig and Robin’s hands!

There is something pastoral, something almost fairy-tale about it. The fanfares are like archetypal calls of huntsmen in Viennese forests and the main theme seems to have echoes of folk music – so could this be a flight from the agonies of the first movement to the idylls of the countryside? Could it be escapism? The melody undergoes a number of variations, as if Brahms is holding onto the experience, achingly not wanting to leave. But he can’t stop – there is a relentlessness too here, as we’re propelled onto the climax, as intense as the first movement’s climax is tragic. Is this one possible response to the tragedy? To escape for the idyllic and pastoral, in the hope it will go away?

3: Allegro giocoso – Poco meno presto – Tempo 1

This is fast – and is even marked ‘giocoso’ meaning cheerful or jolly. Which is quite a surprise after what we’ve just heard. Yet more is going on. The joy feels a bit contrived – almost manic. It is a bit like an emotionally volatile person who is on a real high, a bit hyper. For their friends, there’s a relief that they’re out of the dumps, perhaps; but also a bit of wariness about what’s really going on underneath.

The 3rd movement is a bit of a barnstormer, fun, brilliant and exciting. But what is Brahms doing here? Is it a sense of trying to make the best of a bad job? I remember as a child going on long car journeys. And if the traffic was bad or whatever, and we were all feeling grim, my mother would do the honourable parent thing and say ‘let’s play a game’. Let’s do something fun – just to make it all go away. But of course, you still feel car sick, the traffic is still heavy, and you’re still on the road to that aged aunt you didn’t want to stay with in the first place.

The jollity of the 3rd movement still seems contrived and is haunted by dark clouds gathering on the horizon.

4: Allegro energico e passionato – Piu allegro

So we come at last to the glorious 4th- it is an overwhelming statement. And it is driven forward by the fact that it is a passacaglia – an Italian word derived from the Spanish pasar (to walk) and calle (street). This means that a recurring bass line holds it all together. Sometimes you might not be aware of it but it keeps coming back, like the relentlessness of fate, the inescapability of our mortality. It’s as if in the 2nd movement we tried to avoid it through escapism; in the 3rd through enforced jollity. But we can’t.

The bass line recurs with variations over the top, displaying a range of emotions – fear, anxiety, bravado. For instance, listen out for the beautiful quiet section before the momentum builds and builds until it can’t be contained. The rage overwhelms and rushes to form the mighty climax of the whole symphony.

Of course, it’s pure speculation as to what caused Brahms’ rage. Some have tried. But let me put it like this: if some aspects of our world didn’t cause you rage then I’d question your humanity: like earthquakes in Haiti or Chile, the corruption and dictatorships of Zimbabwe or Burma, the horrors of child abuse or human trafficking and so on. They provoke deep rage. They must!

But what do we do with that? Or more to the point, where do we take it? Brahms’ great friend Antonin Dvorak was a man of religious faith, and he sometimes despaired at Brahms’ total agnosticism. Dvorak said of him: “Such a man, such a soul – and he doesn’t believe in anything, he doesn’t believe in anything!”

But Brahms’ rage against fate, against our mortality, against human suffering – whatever it is, persisted. If there is no God, what do we do? Well our friend Richard Dawkins puts it starkly:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt. We cannot find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good; nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music. (‘The Evolution of the Darwin Man’, publ. in 2000 in The Sydney Morning Herald.)

Well, I don’t know what Brahms would have made of that – but he certainly shows no resignation to the music of the cosmos – his stand is one of resistance, and enraged resistance at that. Still – there is an inescapable logic to Dawkins. And if true, it renders even our rage futile.

But let me finish with a final thought – because I would argue that it is only if there IS a God that suffering is allowed to be a problem, or rather a question we can ask. Without a God, there is no one to ask. And the wonder of the Christian message is that there is a God to ask. And he does not give glib answers or pat solutions. I lived for a number of years in Africa – and I struggled to understand a lot of the agonies, especially as a Christian. But I do know this: the Christian God is one who knows first hand what this is about. His response was to come and get his hands dirty, to become one of us and to suffer the worst of us – at the cross. He is a God who knows – and who promises one day to wipe away every tear and every sorrow.

That is why I what to finish by referring to Edward Shillito’s famous poem Jesus of the Scars – he was a Christian pastor who had done his time years in the trenches of the 1st world war. The only thing that helped him through it was the God who was weak, who stumbled to his throne, who suffered wounds – Jesus of the scars, the only God to have been wounded thus.

Jesus of the Scars
(1918)

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow;
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars we claim Thy grace.

If when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know today what wounds are; have no fear;
Show us Thy Scars; we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong, but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

Rev Edward Shillito (1872-1948) (Quoted in John Stott, Cross of Christ, p337)

You see, we don’t have to end where Brahms 4th does – we don’t have to be left flailing in our doubt and confusion. Because of Christ, the answer to our rage is not the escapism of the 2nd movement or the enforced jollity of the 3rd. Instead it is by coming to the God who knows us and loves us, and above all gets angry at the same things too – how could he not? And more than that, he comes to do something about it – first at the cross, and finally at the end of it all. As someone once brilliantly put it, the cross of Christ is God’s only self-justification in a world such as ours (P T Forsyth, quoted in Stott p336). But what I love about this symphony is that it sweeps us up in these sorts of emotions and therefore the underlying questions. I hope it does that for you too.

Final thought – we might never have had this symphony. The conductor Hans von Bülow reproached Brahms for sending the manuscript of the Fourth Symphony, of which no copy existed, as an ordinary postal packet, not even registered.  “What would we have done had the packet gone astray?” The composer answered: “In that case, I would have had to write the symphony anew.” Thank goodness the postman did his stuff!

11
Dec

Compassion fatigue alert: Steve Turner’s TELEVISION NEWS

He’s a great poet – but hasn’t produced much recently. (Hint hint, Steve) This is a gem – nestled in one of his great children’s collections.

TELEVISION NEWS
by Steve Turner

While we take burgers, cokes and fries
The TV tells of hate and lies
Shows death beneath bright foreign skies
Can someone pass the salt?

The ground is parched, the river dies
The Red Cross camp has no supplies
The cold night air is cut with cries
Which ice-cream have you bought?

With bones stuck out like blunted knives
And bellies swollen twice the size
The people cling to fading lives
Who’s washing up tonight?

We see their pain in bulging eyes
And faces gaunt and thick with flies
The camera zooms as someone dies
What’s on the other side?

From The Day I Fell Down The Toilet (Lion, 1996) p67

7
Dec

Corporate culture vs Kingdom culture

The New Yorker is an unfailing source of insight and humour.

Just love Paul Noth’s cartoon from 30th Nov edition. It speaks for itself.

17
Jun

Annie Leonard’s The Story Of Stuff: a powerful consumerism critique

I know very little about Annie Leonard but she made this video about our rampant consumerism and it is a trenchant must-see. It first came out in 2007 – and is more relevant than ever. A very simple format: it’s essentially a 20 min animation/lecture about the nature of the global systems we thoughtlessly exploit and the realities of our dwindling global resources. I found the quotes from post-2 World War economists particularly chilling.

Here’s the first bit. Click on the banner (right) to get to the website and see the rest.

2
Jun

Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 9 (June 09)

Sacred Treasure

Topical Treasure

Quirky Treasure

4
Apr

When a trillion really is worthless (or will be, sooner than you think)

1 trillion is a big number. And it’s making big news in G20 circles. Of course, we’re all very pleased and happy as it’s going to save the world, thanks to Messrs Brown and Obama. Hurrah for them. Trillions really are the new billions, it seems.

But spare a thought for ordinary Zimbabweans. Where a trillion really isn’t what it once was. Nor for that matter, is 100 trillion Zim dollars…

The exchange rate currently (but probably meaninglessly) stands at £1 = Z$55 million. So this not is in itself worth £1.8 million. But they’ve presumably printed them because they expect it to be enough to buy a loaf of bread next month.

Check out these ingenious adverts for The Zimbabwean newspaper (strapline: a voice for the voiceless) – they’re printed on actual Zim dollars – to show how worthless they have become. It’s cheaper to do that than buy printing paper. See other examples at their Flickr page. It is a courageous, but necessary stand – the injustices of the situation reinforced by the fact that Mugabe recently celebrated with another lavish birthday party.

3
Jan

Q marks the Spot – Treasure Map 4 (Jan 2009)

Sacred Treasure

Topical Treasure

  • Romeo Dallaire commanded the UN peacekeepers in Rwanda in 1994 – his is a truly chilling story. (HT to David Kim)
  • I’ve really got into the design site Visual Culture – it consistently has fascinating stuff on it. Check out these provocative ads from a French NGO called Stop the Cycle of Pain. Compelling and powerful.
  • Bankers are bonkers – official. Here is the evidence. A care worker wanted to increase her £200 overdraft by £50 to give her some spending money for Christmas, and ended up with an overdraft of £84,480,090, while being charged only £5 a month! No wonder there’s a credit crunch.
  • Old news now, but in case you missed it, see the British Prime Minister claim to have saved the world.
  • This is a work of genius – it shows that BOTH candidates for the US presidency were nothing if not consistent during the debates:

Quirky Treasure

  • Tag Gallery is a very cool way of searching for images and photos.
  • The Godfather Photo Album – here are a few excerpts. The 1st looks gruseome until you see how they did it in the 2nd!
  • It is human nature that we are never satisfied:

27
Nov

Some credit crunch virtual graffiti

I was in Canary Wharf (the heart of London capitalism) on Tuesday meeting up with a couple of guys from Church and couldn’t help a wry smile at the fact that the tube station was plastered in adverts for Citibank. So I’m afraid I have since indulged in a little virtual graffiti. At least you can’t get prosecuted for the virtual kind…

citi-nightmare

15
Oct

Confidence in a Credit Crisis

At our fortnightly prayer gathering last night, the boss, Hugh Palmer, gave some really helpful headlines from 1 Timothy, to help us put these troubled times into some sort of perspective. So for those who weren’t there, here are those headlines…

He started with a summary from somewhere of the cultural characteristics of the last decade or so, where we have been obsessed with the following:

  • Freedom of choice – we are presented with a huge array of choice, but we not only take that for granted, we assume it is our right.
  • Tolerance of choice – if life is just a matter of choice then we have no excuse not to tolerate the choices that other people make.
  • Hard work for choice – people sweat and strive to earn to enjoy the choices that their rights have enabled them to be free to make.

As the credit crisis kicks in to the street, with job losses, inflation and general recession, we will find that we have less freedom because there is less work. So how to put this into perspective:

17. Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1Timothy 6:17-19)

In the light of these verses we should aspire to and pray for 4 things (and they all begin with ‘Co’!):

  • Confession (v17): we must recognise the idolatry of wealth and repent of our wealth-obsession. After all this crisis was proof, if ever it were needed, that ‘wealth is so uncertain’.
  • Contentment (v17): Can we really trust God to be good and our provider God? Well because of Jesus, we can. We need to learn to trust that he really is enough…
  • Compassion (v18): a credit crunch is no excuse to stop being generous (even if the financial value of gifts goes down). We still need to be generous in good deeds and time, as well as our resources.
  • Confidence (v19): we should have a perspective that changes how we view everything. And that is found only through the one who came to bring us treasure that is not earthbound or primarily material.
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