The months immediately after the close of the Second World War were confusing. One minute the Allies had been dropping bombs on Germany (as Col Lewis Morgan, the protagonist in Rhidian Brook‘s The Aftermath, points out, more bombs fell on Hamburg in one weekend than fell on the London in the entire war), the next they were dropping lifeline supplies in the Berlin Airlift of ’48-’49. The disorientation this must have brought for ordinary Germans is articulated by some so-called ferals (kids living in the ruins of the city): Read more
It’s been a germ of an idea for ages, but at last it’s finally come about. Q now has a podcast. Hurrah. I can just sense the infectious excitement simply oozing throughout cyberspace. But there are loads of fascinating people out there: hearing how a few live out their lives and passions ought to be fun. Doncha think?
Well, whatever you feel about the prospect of Q podcasts in general, the inaugural episode in particular is definitely exciting because last week, I had the chance to record a conversation with the very talented and thought-provoking Dutch filmmaker, Jaap van Heusden. Here is the link on iTunes (or if you don’t have that, direct through Jellycast) Read more
You’ve got to label food these days. It makes sense. In these days of pre-packaged, pre-cooked food, you naturally want to know what’s in the package. So it’s a bit of a shame when it tells you you’re eating cow when all the time it’s horse. The remedy is not to ditch the label; just make sure it’s telling the truth. Labels are essential for consumer confidence and even, at times, to stay alive. For let’s face it: nuts can kill.
I’d heard good things of this book: Rowan Williams’ surprisingly readable appreciation of CS Lewis’ Narnia, The Lion’s World. It seemed appropriate to move on to this having relished Francis Spufford’s recreation of his childhood delight in Narnia. And there are loads of good things about it for he is simply seeking to be an exegete of Lewis’ creativity. I especially appreciated this comment on how the whole experiment works (and thus why it is inappropriate to squeeze details too much into an allegorical mould).
Having spent the last four posts talking about childhood reading in general, it seems appropriate to move onto this. Those familiar with the Jesus Storybook Bible will know (and no doubt love) the style. That is easily the best of its kind for young children. Sally Lloyd-Jones and artist Jago have followed up with Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing. It’s ostensibly for children – though it mustn’t be reserved only for children. I found it thrilling – having expected just to dip and out, I found myself reading cover to cover.
I read Jenell Williams Paris’ remarkable book, The End of Sexual Identity (published by IVP US), over the summer, and have been cogitating on it ever since. It is a brave book, not least because it wouldn’t surprise me if it invites potshots (and worse) from all sides. It doesn’t take a degree in political science to gather that the cultural climate in the west has shifted significantly in recent years. Read more
Every now and then a book comes along which demands serious attention. Ted Turnau’s Popologetics is just such a book. I should be up front at this stage and declare that he is a friend, so perhaps some will merely assume this is a question of mutual back-scratching. I can assure you it’s not (I’ve received no commissions… as yet). But still, this is a great book. For a whole range of reasons: it is very readable and lucid; it makes its case with wit and self-deprecating humour; it is a model of how to handle disagreement (theological and otherwise) with great grace and generosity; and it demonstrates extensive appreciation of the field and offers a rich mine of treasure to any reader. Read more
The next section in our 2 Corinthians mini-series presented a particular challenge – because the whole section is about giving (in particular, Paul’s encouragement of the Corinthians’ gift to the famine-starved believers in Judaea). But how do you encourage giving as a good thing to do without it being an arm-twist or guilt trip? Especially when everyone in today’s financial climate is stressed about the future. Read more
Good Friday is a day for reflection.
What happened was wholly the result to Jesus’ remarkable but determined obedience. It was no tragic accident; it was no victory for wicked men, nor satanic powers; it was no disaster. It was the plan. That it was an act of obedience is clear from the night before in Gethsemane’s Garden, as Jesus couldn’t sleep for terror but still he prayed.
We’ve carried on wending our merry way though Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (from which I’ve posted before) where there have been gems and provocations aplenty. This week, we followed his unpacking of the problems of competitiveness and one-upmanship, as part of his reflections on Luke 9:46. He is entirely realistic. He warns that every single community will always be infected by concerns about ‘who is the greatest’ – even if the criteria by which we judge greatness differ widely. And this has got me thinking yet again about the problems of power and weakness, control and care in church (issues to which I find myself returning repeatedly on Q). Read more
One or two have asked for this, so here it is: the first of 3 talks given in the gaudy riot of Pugin-inspired colour that is Parliament’s Undercroft Chapel. This is a group that meets mostly weekly under Christians in Parliament. The next two are on 15th and 29th November. We’d decided to do 3 sessions from the opening chapters of Paul’s extraordinary and thoroughly contemporary first letter to the Corinthian church. Read more
I don’t cry in movies. Sometimes I’d quite like to. But that’s a different story. I just don’t. Usually. But one of the greatest films of recent years (and that is no hyperbole) made me weep: The Lives of Others. The scene in question is one that affected many other friends similarly. It is the moment when the Stasi agent, Gerd Wiesler, eavesdrops on the playwright Georg Dreyman playing a piano piece given to him by an old friend driven to suicide by being blackballed by the East German officialdom. Read more
OK, I realise that’s somewhat anachronistic, not to say speculative. But I’m in a staff small group that’s started reading an extraordinary book: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. It is dense, blunt but most of all, persuasive. And even though we’ve only been going at it for a week, it has already stimulated all kinds of interesting discussions. But one of the most challenging ideas from chapter one is his analysis of what he calls ‘visionary dreaming’. Read more
I’d never heard of Arthur Stace before a week ago. But that’s because I have never visited, let alone lived in, Sydney, Australia. But he left an extraordinary, even weird, but compelling legacy. For he was converted to Christianity as the result of walking into a Sydney church in 1930 and hearing a sermon by R. B. S. Hammond. Two years later he heard another sermon from John Ridley entitled “echoes of eternity”. Read more
Well, we made it to the end of Galatians on Sunday night. And quite a journey it’s been. Phew!
Mark Prentice did a huge job of gathering the threads from the whole of Gal 5 the previous week, and it was left to me to do the same for Gal 6. As with so many of Paul’s letters, the last chapter can seem rather an afterthought and hotchpotch. Well, I certainly don’t think Gal 6 is either. This is his parting shot, including the words in his own hand instead of the usual dictation. FWIW, here is the talk, and the accompanying outline:
Incidentally, I’ve pulled together my various biblical tables into one place, in case it is of interest.
This one was a sweat, if I’m honest. But last sunday, we recommenced our Galatians series after a 2 month break (the result of that little inconvenience alternatively known as Christmas and New Year). And the passage felt a bit like a minefield because it includes Paul’s notorious figurative use of the 2 families descended from Abraham. I think too many come down far too hard on Paul’s OT handling here – for he is completely open about what he is doing and his points made are entirely valid.
It struck me forcibly again that, in his disputes with the Judaizers, the key issue is the relationship between Abraham and Moses. It was only after I started to build a passage summary table (below) that the full shock of Paul’s shocking (and even apparently mistaken) inclusion of Mount Sinai in the ‘red’ Hagar column became apparent. If Moses is a biological descendent of Sarah & Isaac’s line (which he was), the God-ordained leader of God’s people (which he was), and he received the God-given law on Mt Sinai (which he did), then surely Sinai should be in the green column.
But this is Paul’s point – being a child of Abraham depends not on bloodline and being descended by race (and figuratively, by depending on law); it depends on trusting God (having faith) and being dependent on grace (and thus figuratively, depending on promise). As he says earlier in the letter:
Consider Abraham: “He believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then that those who believe are children of Abraham. (Gal 3:6, quoting Genesis 15:6)
Anyway – here is the talk, such as it is. I was certainly glad to have it over with! Am posting the table because a number of people asked for it after seeing it on Sunday. Hope it’s of use to a few.
Our small groups are studying the book of Hosea this term and so last week I had the job of giving an overview and providing background for it.
In my prep, I was particularly struck by the effect of reading the relevant chapters of 2 Kings (ch 13-17) alongside Hosea, because these give the historian’s verdict on each of the Israelite kings who were Hosea’s contemporaries. I also found it very helpful having preached on the life of Solomon last term (see post last Dec) because that puts everything into perspective.
You can download the talk here (you may have to get a free login to get it – and beware – the sound quality is pretty rubbish for some reason). Here is the accompanying handout and talk outline.
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?
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.
Have managed to get round to reading Carson’s 2010 book Scandalous – to great profit and provocation. Will get round to fuller comments in due course. But for now, I was very struck by this section, in which he ponders the significance of some historical revisionism in James Cameron’s film Titanic. In expounding the divine love that is the foundation of the gospel, he says this:
It was not nails that held Jesus to that wretched cross; it was his unqualified resolution, out of love for his Father, to do his Father’s will – and within that framework, it was his love for sinners like me. He really could not save himself.
Perhaps part of our slowness to come to grips with this truth lies in the way the notion of moral imperative has dissipated in much recent Western thought. Did you see the film Titanic that was screened about a dozen years ago? The great ship is full of the richest people in the world, and, according to the film, as the ship sinks, the rich men start to scramble for the few and inadequate lifeboats. British sailors draw handguns and fire into the air, crying “stand back! Stand back! Women and children first!” In reality, of course, nothing like that happened.
The universal testimony of the witnesses who survived the disaster is that the men hung back and urged the women and children into the lifeboats. John Jacob Astor, was there, at the time the richest man on earth, the Bill Gates of 1912. He dragged his wife to a boat, shoved her on, and stepped back. Someone urged him to get in, too. He refused: the boats are to few, and must be for the women and children first. He stepped back, and drowned. The philanthropist Benjamin Guggenheim was present. He was traveling with his mistress, but when he perceived that it was unlikely he would survive, he told one of his servants, ‘Tell my wife tha Benjamin Guggenheim knows his duty” – and he hung back, and drowned. There is not a single report of some rich man displacing women and children in the mad rush for survival.
When the film was reviewed in the New York Times, the reviewer asked why the producer and director of the film had distorted history so flagrantly in this regard. The scene as they depicted it was implausible from the beginning. British sailors drawing handguns? Most British police officers do not carry handguns; British sailors certainly do not. So why this wilful distortion of history? And then the reviewer answered his own question: if the producer and director had told the truth, he said, no one would have believed them.
I have seldom read a more damning indictment of the development of Western culture, especially Anglo-Saxon culture, in the last century. One hundred years ago, there remained in our culture enough residue of the Christian virtue of self-sacrifice for the sake of others, of the moral imperative that seeks the other’s good at personal expense, that Christians and non-Christians alike thought it noble, if unremarkable, to choose death for the sake of others. A mere century later, such a course is judged so unbelievable that the history is distorted. (pp30-31)