Iain Banks (known as Iain M Banks when he’s writing science fiction) had the most extraordinarily fertile imagination. It was one of the reasons his books have been so loved and respected. His last SF book before he died of cancer in June at only 59 was The Hydrogen Sonata, in his Culture series. I’d not read any of his books before but was very struck by the way people talked about him over the summer, and so decided to make amends. Well, I certainly dived into the deep end.
It is rather a tired Christmas cliché for preachers to go on about how we need to get beyond the tinsel and trimmings to the heart of Christmas – but one that sadly needs repeating. And while I love what Christmas is all about it, perhaps even more now than ever, it is interesting how different aspects strike home amidst all the familiarity and form. There’s no predicting what it’s going to be, if anything. But this year, I’ve been struck by how often the tradition pierces through the vacuous, trite and superficially jolly to engage with even the deepest hurts and doubts. Read more
Well, this is a first: a Quaerentia competition with REAL prizes (rather than the virtual Crunchie bars which I’ve so generously offered in the past! But the lovely people at IVP have given me a few free downloads of the recently published e-book of Cross-Examined. VERY exciting. Just what you always wanted for Christmas I’m sure. I completely realise that it’s themes are more to do with Good Friday and Easter Day, but it seemed reasonable enough to give them away for Christmas. Read more
Many people wanted to know more about the short clip I played during my sermon this morning. So i’m posting it here. I only came across it this week, through twitter (needless to say), but it fitted perfectly with the passage I was speaking on: Luke 2:67-80 and Zechariah’s song.
We’re right in the midst of Advent now (i.e. it’s not officially Christmas yet): carol services by the tonne, twinkly lights passim (Oxford St lights brought to you courtesy of Marmite – you read that right – MARMITE = end of civilisation as we know it), consumerism at its peak. But we kicked off the month a few weeks back with an Advent carol service – taking the obvious theme of waiting. We tried to shake things up a little (in our somewhat amateurish way, trying various multimedia bits and bobs). Read more
We actually took Epiphany quite seriously at All Souls this year – by which I mean we spent the first 2 Sunday mornings in January looking at Matthew 2. It’s actually quite an unsettling chapter for all kinds of reasons. Quite apart from many of the historical challenges raised by some (though which I think are more than adequately engaged with in commentaries by the likes of Carson, France and Morris), there are some frankly bizarre or horrific elements to the narrative. Read more
Apparently, the BBC has received more positive feedback comments about the recent 4-part Nativity than any other broadcast in 2010.
And I’m not surprised at all. It was the best thing on at Christmas – and in fact all year. For the most surprising reasons.
If you’ve not listened to the extended interview with creator Tony Jordan, then you must – I did before watching any of the episodes and it certainly brought to life what he was seeking to do. (Alternatively, check out this interview in the Telegraph). What started out as a mickey-take evolved into the most theologically profound, provocative and moving piece of television I have seen in years. This was because he found himself swept up by the sheer drama of the narrative of the greatest story ever told. And he asked a dramatist’s (not a theologian’s, apologist’s or antagonist’s) questions of this all too familiar story. But he did it without iconoclasm or revisionism – he simply did it with a reverent curiosity.
As he says in the interview, it was hard to come up with 2 hours of television based on just a few lines of gospels’ text. Imagination was essential. But what was so stunning was that it never felt contrived. And I found myself reflecting on the theological significance of the drama all the more as the result.
Mary, as played by the wonderful Tatiana Maslany, is delightful, warm and loveable but never saccharine or goody-two-shoes. But most significantly, she’s just a girl. A teenager. And when Gabriel announces to her what God has in store for her, it’s hard not to imagine that God’s favour on her hardly seems a blessing to begin with.
Gabriel is in tears as he announces this news to her. Both, presumably, out of joy at what God is doing, but also deep sympathy at the great cost this will bring to Mary. For what Jordan’s screenplay does so powerfully is to show how isolated and vulnerable she was. A pregnant, unmarried but betrothed girl – whom nobody could possibly believe when she says she’s pregnant… by God. It’s highly plausible she’d be mobbed in the street as a whore. It’s highly plausible she’d be banned from Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem (it had never occurred to me before to ask why Joseph couldn’t find a room in his family town – Jordan’s speculation makes perfect sense). It’s highly plausible that the religious bigwigs in the Nazareth synagogue would shun her.
And worst of all, she has the agony of a man she has grown to love (despite being an arranged marriage) unable to believe her. Why should he believe her, after all? It is extraordinary that almost the first words we hear her say in the first episode is ‘Joseph, please don’t hate me‘. This is not highfalutin Authorised version language, thank goodness – but it is real, mundane, recognisable. People talk like this. Which is one reason this worked.
Her suffering will not cease of course. The birth of this child, Jesus, as well as the complexities of raising a family with all Jesus’ brothers and sisters, long after being widowed, will create all kinds of heartache – not to mention the agony of seeing Jesus executed a criminal’s death. How extraordinary that God should choose to use what appears the worst to do the greatest. For it seems that Mary had to become pregnant before her marriage – otherwise everyone would have immediately assumed it was Joseph’s. In God’s strange purposes it had to happen like this. For Mary to be most favoured by God meant having to endure the most terrible anguish. Which is a reflection of the suffering her son himself would endure. The path to glory truly is marked by pain.
Joseph’s Agony of Confusion
In many ways, though, the epicentre of The Nativity’s narrative arc is Joseph. He is the one who starts with an arranged marriage, albeit one that he seems keen to have. He is enchanted by Mary – their love is touching and not too Mills&Boon-ish – so his shock, disappointment and anger when she returns from Elizabeth are total. We have to wait for all four episodes to find out how he comes to terms with it all – we know of course that he will, but such is the dramatist’s art that we are nevertheless on the edge of our seats. Jordan speculates that Joseph is still in two minds even after his dream from Gabriel – perhaps a speculation too far. But it’s not a problem. For it merely conveys how counter-intuitive it all was. And he seems to need every nudge in the book to accept this really is a divine plan.
It is not until all the pieces of the puzzle all fall into place at the end that he can join hands with his wife-to-be in the wonder of it all. It is a breathtaking moment, one that we’ve been yearning for. But this creative tension is important and entirely legitimate. For it brilliantly conveys how hard it was for Joseph to go through with the marriage, precisely because he was a righteous man (cf Matthew 1:18-20).
The Power of A Divine Plan
The first time we see the planets moving (and stunningly beautiful it all is), with a sound effect rather resembling heavy machinery manoeuvring in a steelworks, it’s rather a shock. But this motif serves to illustrate the extraordinary forces at work – and consequently the juxtaposition of planets, stars, wise-men and shepherds converging on a cowshed seems all the more remarkable. It’s striking to see how the wise-men leave Babylon months before the child is born, and perhaps even before his conception has occurred – which reinforces the point still further. So how extraordinary to have such creative expertise serving a theological purpose.
And then when the magi appear, their language (in the mouth of Wycliffe himself!) is pure Johannine Christology. For while John doesn’t have a birth narrative, his is the most extensive and profound theological reflection on the incarnation. And to have these words spoken to a newborn in a cowshed made it even more strange. And strangeness is surely precisely what we need to recover, for all the Christmas schmaltz of ‘snow falling on snow’.
For by using a powerful creative imagination within the bounds of being thoroughly faithful to the structure, theology and essence of the texts, Jordan has made something that goes far beyond the likes of Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth or the Jesus Film. He has made the people and world into which God’s son come thoroughly recognisable and normal – which in turn has made the miracle of the Incarnation seem far more wonderful and… well… miraculous.
Who’d have thought it on BBC 1 prime time?
A very happy Christmas to all Q’s readers
The people living in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
Matthew 4:16 (& Isaiah 9:1-2)
Q’s Transmission will be intermittent (to say the last) over the next week or so. Have a restful time offline…!
It doesn’t happen often but last Sunday, one of our church stalwarts, Robert Willcox, led our corporate prayers so well that I thought they were worth reproducing here. Great stuff. Wouldn’t have been out of place in The Valley of Vision.
We come together humbly to the Lord of Glory and the Prince of Peace.
Lord Jesus Christ, Creator, Author, and Redeemer, we pray that our few concentrated minutes consciously in your presence would please you and humble us.
We acknowledge you as Creator, who precedes and sustains everything
- as Visitor in Bethlehem who is truly adorable
- as Author not of fairy tales but of reality
- as Redeemer who dies to make us whole
So, convince us that this Christmas news is the best news ever
- that though you are high yet you are lowly
- that though you are defined by eternity yet you are couched in humanity
- that though you are cramped in obscurity yet your glory is for all who have eyes to see
- that our freedom is born in a stable and secured at the Cross
- that all other supposed solutions are false avenues in the light of your beauty and grace
- that our very life depends on you
Refresh our hearts in wonder and loose our tongues in songs of joy
We worship you afresh
Lord of Glory and Prince of Peace
Our living God is not remote, uncaring or idle
but who is engaging, outgoing and active
We, His people are called to be like Him
Let’s pray that we may reflect Him more accurately
Lead us your people to shine in the mess of the world
Lead us in humble service
Lead us in courageous abandonment of life and reputation
Strengthen our mission partners all over the world
We pray for all in danger or hardship that they may be renewed in courage, faith and hope.
And we pray for the multifaceted nature of our church here in London,
that we might be filled with His energy, His love and His humility.
So make the stable our context and the real world our activity centre.
Lord of Glory, Prince of Peace
Hear our prayers
To some (especially Canadians), this is sacrilege. And I’ve definitely got issues about tampering with genius (as I hope you have). Christians especially waste far too much time aping the world’s creativity and consequently only produce derivative pap. I particularly struggle with the tendency to add holy words to populist melodies (eg the Eastenders or Match of the Day signature tunes). Grghghh.
However, every now and then something surprises. Leonard Cohen’s titanic Hallelujah should by rights be left totally alone (especially by Simon Cowell). And it does deal with some pretty interesting themes – David & Bathsheba, Samson & Delilah. They’re even biblical, after all.
But one of this year’s apprentices working with the youth at All Souls, Rhys Owens, came up with his own rewrite to tell the gospel story, a kind of contemporary Philippians 2. We had a fantastic time on Sunday at our All-Age Christmas service, which had the theme of Christmas Around the World. Accompanied by an all-age band, we sang or heard songs in Malay, German & Slovak, Luganda and Zulu as well as English, had readings in English and Mandarin, and Christmas greetings in the above languages plus Spanish, Russian and Welsh. But a highlight was Rhys singing his Hallelujah (photo above). It was a brilliant job – impressive for 9.30 in the morning.
Particularly powerful was the way Rhys clearly sensed the song’s musical progression, managing to match his words and themes to the effortless crescendos and dynamics of the music (the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, and the major lift). Sing it and you’ll get the idea…
It won’t be to everyone’s taste, of course. But that’s irrelevant. I give it 10/10 for effort and effectiveness.
For those who’ve not discovered her stuff, my sis-in-law, Miriam Jones‘ latest album (Fire-Lives) is a treat and a great way in to her music. Have listened to it loads in the last couple of weeks but it now comes out on general release this week – she and Jez and the guys have done a fabulous job on producing an intense, multi-layered and fascinating anthology. This album sampler hints at its joys…
But the single, Wondrous Mysterious (now available from iTunes), is one she gave last year as a ‘Christmas card’. I’ve loved it from the get-go – it’s a superb antidote to the grimly commercialised, schmaltzy, trimmings-laden but emasculated Christmas that we get bombarded with from around August 23rd.
I turned on the tv and it suddenly was Christmas and I hollered at the advert that they wouldn’t get my money and I could not believe they honestly were trying to take my heart for Christmas. The airwaves jammed with snowmen and with santa claus and angels, and I do believe in angels, but not the kind that do not scare you and I prayed some kind of holy fear would find its way to me this Christmas.
‘Cause my heart is dying to prepare for something wondrous, and mysterious, but this world is ringing in my ears and it’s thunderous and delirious.
I walked into town and it was red and gold and sparkling and while I waited for my watch I hovered round the shiny shops, oh you who have no money come and buy, and fill your hearts full up this Christmas. Steering down the sidewalk I could hear a conversation ‘bout a boy who had a head they’d like to push under a faucet and I wondered are we saving up all our loving hearts for Christmas.
Part way through December I pulled out the wooden figures from their boxes and I placed them and I looked into their faces, wondering what they all were looking at…
The lyrics are evocative and concise, full of suggestion. But my standout that I particularly love is line about not believing in ‘the kind of angels that do not scare you‘. A hole in one methinks…
Seems weird to start thinking about Christmas in July – but just received advance warning of an advert campaign for later this year – I quite like it, to be honest. Makes some pretty key points rather well, IMHO.
It’s being run by ChurchAds.Net – I’m normally pretty sceptical of ‘christian advertising’ because it’s too often naff and derivative – and thus counter-productive.
But this is certainly breath of fresh air. It manages to be contemporary and simultaneously convey the extraordinary incongruity, and even scandal, of the ancient message of the incarnation.
Which is precisely as it should be and is Christmas is all about…
You can book bus-shelters etc to get it up near you by clicking here…
(HT ministry matters)
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Here are some great links to start the year with
- Grant Osborne gives a very helpful introduction to the divergent genealogies of Jesus in Matthew & Luke.
- He’s done it with a previous work, now follow the progress of Ally Gordon’s latest painting.
- Research suggests that using Dec 25th to celebrate Christ’s birth dates back to a time far earlier than the common assumption of it being merely a pagan festival adopted as Christianity moved into northern Europe. e.g. Augustine did in around AD400. (HT Beth Maynard)
- The extraordinary tale of the vicar’s wife who was a stripper – it’s not what you thought!
- A plea to defend the helpless and bring justice – was it Obama? Oprah? Bono?! No – it’s Proverbs 31! Very revealing! (HT Beth again)
- China deliberately wrecked the Copenhagen climate change talks – according to someone in the room… (HT John Naughton) The sign of things to come…?
- In case you missed it, Rwanda has become the first land-mine-free country. Alleluia. Now for everywhere else…
- Planet Slum – a moving if brief photo essay on the world’s slums (Nairobi, Caracas, Mumbai and Jakarta) by Norwegian photojournalist Jonas Bendiksen
- An interesting take on national wealth distribution:
- WHAT?!! Swindon twins with saccharine fake reality Walt Disney world?? Chalk and cheese, princess and pauper, De Vito & Swarzenegger. They must both be mad. Or perhaps EVERYBODY’s mad.
- Have you noticed how many movie posters use a blue and orange combination? Well you will after this bit of randomness…
- This is a combination of the quirky and the sacred – some artists (the Glue Society) imagine some biblical scenes as recorded through satellite photography!
A wondrous wander in a frozen Regent’s Park on Wednesday inspired these. Another magical winter’s walk…
But beware the Regent’s Park sharks…
Had some fun with my carol service talk last Sunday night. Was striving after the jaw-dropping, the point being that in the end there is nothing more jaw-dropping than Christmas itself… as alluded to when we trace the theme of glory from Isaiah 40:1-5, through Luke 2:8-14 to John 1:14-18
The service opened with great video UCCF have produced simply retelling the Christmas story:
Something bad that makes your jaw drop: check the first couple of minutes of this out:
Something amazing that makes your jaw drop. I only had time to show a few pictures of this on the night, but here is the Ukraine’s Got Talent 2009 winner Kseniya Simonova in action. You’ve never seen anything like this, as she narrates 20th Century Ukraine history through the medium of sand!
Christian humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less, as C. S. Lewis so memorably said. It is to be no longer always noticing yourself and how you are doing and how you are being treated. It is “blessed self-forgetfulness.”
So says Tim Keller in his article THE ADVENT OF HUMILITY. I’ve been waiting for it to come online for days, ever since reading it in this month’s CT. It’s vintage Keller – providing a very helpful distillation of his thinking on how the gospel impacts the worksy moral performers and the works-shy (if I can put it like that!). But by linking this all into the issue of humility, Keller comes out with this real pearl:
I do hope to clarify, or I wouldn’t have written on the topic at all. But there is no way to begin telling people how to become humble without destroying what fragments of humility they may already possess…
…So let us preach grace till humility just starts to grow in us.
Happy Christmas everyone – and may the wonder of the Incarnation thrill you afresh with that ground-breaking, life-changing, God-revealing Grace.
HT to Brie Barton - from the New York Times. Very sad but perhaps all too real for many. Click to see enlarged.
Well, it was inevitable I comment on this track, which U2 put out to launch (RED)Wire [back in 2008].
But it is stunningly beautiful and manages totally to avoid Christmas kitsch. In fact, it goes a lot further and actually communicates some surprises. Read more
full marks to St Helen’s Bishopsgate for producing this little number. Nice vox pops from around Covent Garden, and some helpful stuff from Paul Barnett. Good effort.