Have been playing catch up with a few New Yorker back issues in the last couple of days – like buses, you get none, and then suddenly several arrive in the post in a pile. So I was stopped in my tracks by Japanese Maple, a new poem by Clive James. He’s a remarkable writer and commentator – his is a sizzling combination of high intelligence, unsnobbish cultural magpie-ism (if that’s not a thing, it jolly well should be) and laugh-out-loud-wit.
But he now has terminal cancer. As a result he knows he’ll never make it back to his native Australia before he dies. (Here is an interview he gave back in 2013) He is confined to Cambridge and the UK. So here he writes of the tree planted by his daughter in their garden. Read more
Church-planters probably never even consider factoring this in when they start. That was certainly the case for some friends of mine in Turkey. For who would have guessed that setting up a cemetery might have to become a key feature of their growth strategy? Read more
There’s really no need to fret about the timing of Easter being the result of the co-option of a pagan Spring festival (as some think is the case). So what, to be honest. And in fact, there is something entirely appropriate about this. Why? Because Spring is an almost magical time of year, when life bursts from the ground in verdant greens and brilliant yellows. Such a relief after the stark and bleak beauty or gloom of winter. Being an urbanite, it’s far too easy to forget the wonder of the seasons. But I’ll never forget how much I missed the seasons during our years 30 miles north of the Equator in Kampala.
If you listen to any BBC radio, it was hard to miss the big splash made a few months back by the Radio 4 serialisation of Vasily Grossman’s epic twentieth century masterpiece Life And Fate. So I endeavoured (rashly) to read it before listening to the programmes (which were issued as podcasts at the time). So I’ve started … and to be frank, it has taken a bit of work to get into – I wasn’t 100% sure I’d make it through the 850+ pages. Set around the time of the bloody battle for Stalingrad (Aug 1942-Feb 1943), Read more
I get restless if I don’t have something to read on the bus. So I grabbed the closest thing on my desk as I ran out yesterday – which had been a recently thumbed anthology of George Orwell’s Essays. (I’d been looking at it because of the seminal piece Why I Write, recently recommended to me by the Real Grasshopper). I found myself, somewhat incongruously, sitting upstairs in the front row motoring down Park Lane, and reading a short account of an experience Orwell had in the British Imperial Police in Burma – starkly entitled ‘A Hanging‘. Read more
Well, you’ve all been waiting for this with baited breath, I can tell. After the launch of what we called London’s Biggest Survey back in November, we’ve had around 18oo responses, which is fantastic.
The indomitable Candy Leung has been crunching numbers and surveying surveys for weeks. So the results are now in. Hugh Palmer will preach on the following questions, which easily came out on top, on the following days:
- Why does God allow suffering? (28 Feb am)
- What happens when I die? (7 Mar am)
- What is the meaning of life? (14 Mar am)
So now you know.
If you want more information, the details are here:
You wouldn’t expect John Stott to change his tune in his 89th year. And of course he hasn’t. The Radical Disciple is his 51st book – and while his thinking has developed and deepened over the decades, he has never changed direction. He’s always faced Jesus – and he does so all the more eagerly in the twilight years before the eternal dawn.
Vintage Prose and Pithy Clarity
If you’re familiar with his writing and speaking, then you won’t find anything surprisingly innovative or any marked departures – and much of what this book contains he’s said before in other places. But that’s not the point. What matters is that he has picked these characteristics of Christian discipleship to expound – despite calling them ‘selective’ and ‘somewhat arbitrary’ (p137). Each is touched on lightly and briefly, but with all the hallmarks of Stott’s vintage prose and pithy clarity of thought still firmly in place:
- Non-Conformity: “we are neither to seek to preserve our holiness by escaping from the world nor to sacrifice our holiness by conforming to the world” (p19)
- Christlikeness: “we are to be like Christ in his incarnation, in his service, in his love, in his endurance, and in his mission” (p38)
- Maturity: “may God give us such a full, clear vision of Jesus Christ, first that we may grow into maturity ourselves, and secondly that, by faithful proclamation of Christ in his fullness to others, we may present others mature as well.” (p53)
- Creation-Care: “God intends our care of the creation to reflect our love for the Creator” (p65)
- Simplicity: “All Christians claim to have received a new life from Jesus Christ. What lifestyle, then, is appropriate for them? If the life is new, the lifestyle should be new also” (p71)
- Balance: “We are both individual disciples and church members, both worshippers and witnesses, both pilgrims and citizens. Nearly all our failures stem from the ease with which we forget our comprehensive identity as disciples.” (p102)
- Dependence: “We are all designed to be a burden to others… The life of the family, including the life of the local church family, should be one of ‘mutual burdensomeness.‘” (p113)
- Death: “If we want to live we must die. And we will be willing to die only when we see the glories of the life to which death leads. This is the radical, paradoxical Christian perspective.” (p135)
He chooses these because, as he reflects on western (which I suppose primarily means UK & USA Christian culture), he is anxious about their dwindling importance. We’d be utter fools to ignore the observations of so wise an elder statesman. Their challenge is straightforward and unavoidable – not least because John practises what he preaches. It is quite something, is it not, for a man in his 9th decade to be making an appeal for people to be radical?! Retirement is usually the time for conservatism and comfortable ease, not the prickly and disturbing calls for Christ-like discipleship.
The chapters are not even, in the sense of being similarly structured or equally expository:
- the Christlikeness chapter takes a topical approach, touching on various aspects of Christ’s life and character we should emulate;
- the Non-Conformity and Creation-Care chapters are also topical, but show a sustained awareness of contemporary issues: hence his helpful articulation of 4 challenging trends in the former (pluralism, materialism, ethical relativism and narcissism) and 4 ingredients of the current ecological crisis (population growth, depletion of earth’s resources, waste disposal and climate change). Not bad going for someone who’s 89 in April.
- the Simplicity chapter is essentially a publication of a statement issued after a Lausanne consultation led by John and Ron Sider in 1980. The whole statement plus commentary is online: An evangelical commitment to a simple lifestyle. I’d not come across it before and was profoundly challenged by it.
- the Balance chapter is somewhat unexpectedly an involved exposition of 1 Peter 2:1-17 – but I’d never quite seen before the way Peter mixes his metaphors in the chapter and this was illuminating (as newborn babies we are called to growth, as living stones to fellowship, as holy priests to worship, as God’s own people to witness, as aliens and strangers to holiness and as servants of God to citizenship).
Pastoral Reality with Personal Candour
But despite the chapters’ varieties of style or approach, they are always biblical and theological, and yet also pastoral and real. It is so helpful to have thumbnail sketches of people he’s been challenged or influenced by, some widely known, others not so, some British, most not. These ground the book.
What is new, perhaps, is that as the book draws to a close, Uncle John becomes increasingly candid. He’s always been an honest and humble man, but no one could remain unaffected by the poignancy of the last 2 chapters particularly. I well remember that Sunday morning in 2006 (described in chapter 7) when he was getting ready to preach at All Souls, but tripped in his flat and broke his hip, which resulted in an emergency hip replacement operation. We were involved in the All Souls week away down in Devon that weekend, but heard about it very quickly and we were all shocked. But it still didn’t prepare me to read his own agonising account of that morning:
I knew at once that I had broken or dislocated my hip, for I could not move, let alone get up. I was able, however, to push the panic button I was wearing and kind friends immediately came to my rescue…
… as this chapter progresses please do not forget my earlier experiences, spreadeagled on the floor, completely dependent on others. For this is where, from time to time, the radical disciple needs to be. I believe that dependence involved in these experiences can be used by God to bring about greater maturity in us.
…There is another aspect of the dependence which I experienced which was new to me, which I am tempted to gloss over, but which my trusted friends have urged me not to conceal. It is the emotional weakness which physical infirmity sometimes brings to the surface and which finds expression in weeping. (pp104-105)
There are few who would be prepared to turn so private and painful an experience into so public and challenging a lesson.
This really is John’s last book! His previous one – The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor – was heralded by some as his last but he seems to have known that he had one more in him. But there really are no more – and he concludes the Radical Disciple with a poignant farewell to his readers.
However, it is fitting, I think, to see these last two books as of a piece. They have a neat symmetry to them, as he concludes a long ministry.
- In The Living Church, he expounds the key hallmarks of what constitutes Church life, in all its diversity, challenges and joys.
- In The Radical Disciple, he expounds the key hallmarks of a Christian’s life, again in all its diversity, challenges and joys.
Of course, there will be things that people disagree with, no doubt. Some of the areas in the books are hot topics (e.g. Christians and the environment). And some have criticised what is seen as an obsession with balance when things are supposedly more complex or wrinkled. In neither of these books will we find in-depth analysis or argumentation to make his case.
But then why should we?! John has spent a lifetime doing just that, thinking, teaching and writing, often at great length and with great care (see this non-exhaustive bibliography). But these two books are more a summation, a last will and testament. They form a fitting conclusion to his legacy, one which it will probably take decades fully to appreciate.
It remains to be said that if this legacy is to be sustained and grow, then people need to give themselves to it deliberately. One way is for people to pray for and give to the Langham Partnership – for which he appeals at the end of the Radical Disciple – you can do that here.
But the best way is surely for us to live just as we are called to in these two books… just as, in fact, he himself has sought to live.
STOP PRESS: Note updated links for talks
This Sunday saw the 3rd in our occasional Christians Facing Issues services, and this time the topic was Assisted Suicide. It’s in the news a lot and one thing is certain – it seems it is impossible to have a careful rational discussion about it in the current climate. Christians too often are just as guilty of jumping onto hobby horses or launching into soundbites as anyone else – so this service gave a fantastic opportunity to avoid that by informing, challenging and offering a considered and constructive response.
It was particularly helpful to hear from both professionals in the field and those for whom it is a very close and difficult subjects. Fortunately, these are available as videos on the langhammedia youtube page. Here is the introduction that the indomitable John Wyatt (Prof of Ethics and Perinatology at UCH) gave (an excellent production again by Simon Green and co)
Particularly striking were the interviews with Baroness Campbell, Sarah Meagher and our dear friends and members of the church, Alan & Sheila Toogood (go to langhammedia for the full interviews)
Finally, Dimity Grant-Frost did a really helpful explanation of Palliative Care:
And then Frances Whitehead lead the prayers, concluding with this wonderful prayer attributed to St Augustine of Hippo:
Watch, O Lord, with those who wake,
or watch, or weep tonight,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend your sick ones, O Lord Christ.
Rest your weary ones.
Bless your dying ones.
Soothe your suffering ones.
Pity your afflicted ones.
Shield your joyous ones.
And for all your love’s sake. Amen.
I post this satirical blast for a number of reasons.
- it makes me cringe – because it could so easily have been made by a Christian in earnest… (in fact, there were awful moments when I really thought that it had been – I wouldn’t put it past someone out there…)
- it illustrates what many people assume – and shows the absurdity of many of the assumptions made by Christians about those who themselves make assumptions
- it is clever and well produced – but so full of logical leaps and flaws that it sent my brain into worldview overdrive.
Watch and learn!
I love TED – it’s a mine of great stuff. I downloaded this ages ago – but have only now got round to watching it. Brilliant. 10 years ago, Billy Graham spoke at TED – not exactly the natural environment for preachers. But despite even then being a bit doddery and not in the best of health, he grabbed the opportunity with both horns. And in so doing, provides a great model for how to speak truth and wisdom into any situation. Set aside 25 minutes for this gem. With wit and his trademark self-deprecation, he offers 3 challenges that human ingenuity has never found solutions for:
- Human evil – how do we change man’s heart? The problem is within us.
- Human suffering – science advances technology – but it never removes suffering.
- Human death – even the brightest sparks come to an end.
It had never occurred to me before. But then of course, I’d never stopped to ask the question before. But why is it that from the earliest days, Christians buried their dead in huge catacombs under the city, and then later built their church meeting places in buildings in the very heart of graveyards?
Well, it took a paragraph in Michael Jensen’s YOU:an introduction (mentioned on the Treasure Map 3 below) to show how radical that was in the context of either pagan superstition or Hebrew ritual. For the Christian gospel gives a hope that transcends both:
Interestingly, Christian burial practices became quite distinctive: they buried their dead in the catacombs – in the tunnels under the city – and many in Europe adopted the practice of building their churches in the midst of the tombstones – in other words, in the centre of what would be unclean for Israel and terrifying for pagans. In these buildings, Christians met in fellowship with those who had ‘fallen asleep’. (You: An Introduction, Matthias Media 2008, p127)
Death no longer has its terrifying hold over us. Because Jesus rose. Which is as apt a thing to think about during Advent as any, I’d have thought! Yet another deep-seated sociological custom which the gospel, and in particular Christ’s resurrection, completely subverted/overturned/transformed. Like the fact that the Christian day is Sunday, not Saturday.
It looked like Christmas Day this morning as All Souls was surrounded by what could only be described as a British blizzard (i.e. some relatively light snow flurries – see left!). But no matter – because it was a bright morning nevertheless. For today we remember that first Easter. And we do it in common with countless millions around the world (eg this Iraqi guard who is a member of the persecuted Christian minority in that country – from BBC Online). As the risen Christ said loud and clear to the persecuted Apostle John, because he is alive, we can have hope. Amen! Alleluia!
Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. Revelation 1:17-18
We sang Townend & Getty’s fantastic Easter song which frankly says it all.
SEE WHAT A MORNING, gloriously bright,
With the dawning of hope in Jerusalem;
Folded the grave-clothes,
Tomb filled with light,
As the angels announce Christ is risen!
See God’s salvation plan, wrought in love, Borne in pain, paid in sacrifice,
Fulfilled in Christ, the Man, for He lives:
Christ is risen from the dead!
See Mary weeping, ‘Where is He laid?’
As in sorrow she turns from the empty tomb;
Hears a voice speaking, calling her name;
It’s the Master, the Lord raised to life again!
The voice that spans the years,
Speaking life, stirring hope,
Bringing peace to us,
Will sound till He appears,
For He lives, Christ is risen from the dead!
One with the Father, Ancient of Days,
Through the Spirit
Who clothes faith with certainty,
Honour and blessing, glory and praise
To the King crowned
With power and authority!
And we are raised with Him,
Death is dead, love has won,
Christ has conquered;
And we shall reign with Him,
For He lives, Christ is risen from the dead!
Keith Getty & Stuart Townend
Copyright © 2003 Thankyou Music
Click here for a brief clip courtesy of Kingsway music!
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Many English phrases carry a world on their shoulders.
There is perhaps nothing more annoying than the words “PLEASE HOLD – YOUR CALL IS IMPORTANT TO US AND WILL BE ATTENDED TO SOON.”
- There is perhaps nothing more smug or priggish than the response “I TOLD YOU SO.”
- There is perhaps nothing more tragic than the words “TOO LATE.”
Now I certainly don’t want to come across all superior or smug. In fact, reading the obit of p*rn baron, Paul Raymond (sometimes described as the British Hugh Hefner), on BBC online, just made me incredibly sad: if only he’d listened to Ecclesiastes. For I feel that the Teacher would no doubt have said the last 2 of these phrases (but probably not the first). This is what the obit said:
Raymond, 82, the son of a Liverpool lorry driver, founded a huge pornographic empire which included magazines such as Mayfair and Men Only. He was once dubbed the King of Soho and in 1958 opened the only premises in the UK to stage live striptease shows. Raymond acquired property in London’s West End in the 1970s and was thought to be worth £650m when he died. Born Geoffrey Anthony Quinn in November 1925, Raymond left school at 15 to pursue a career in showbusiness and started with a mind-reading act on Clacton Pier. He soon discovered his real talent lay as a producer and went on to exploit not only the public’s fascination with sex and nudity, but also the gradual liberalisation of the 1950s, 60s and 70s…
But this is how it ended
…in later years competition to his porn empire from so-called “lads mags” stifled his fortunes. Raymond called himself a spiv and behaved like one, sporting fur coats, a Rolls Royce, a tiny moustache and a fake tan. But money did not buy him happiness. His marriage broke up acrimoniously after an affair with the model, Fiona Richmond. He was estranged from his son, and his daughter Debbie, who ran his empire for a time, died aged 36 from a drugs overdose in 1992. He ended his life a virtual recluse in a penthouse flat behind the Ritz Hotel.
What a tragic way to go. Not least because of the wisdom of what the Teacher said 3000 years ago (in Ecclesiastes 2). More even than Raymond could the Teacher say he’d been there, done that.
4 I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. 5 I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 6 I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. 8 I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well—the delights of the heart of man. 9 I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my work,
and this was the reward for all my labor.
And his conclusion:
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.
The Teacher did it all & he DID tell us so. But still people don’t believe him – they think it is still worth it, despite the wind-chasing misery of it all. (Check out Hugh Palmer’s great sermon on this passage from a recent Ecclesiastes series.)
However, as well as the venerable Teacher of old, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a more contemporary prophet, Steve Turner and his brilliant poem.
TONIGHT WE WILL FAKE LOVE
by Steve Turner
Tonight, we will
fake love together.
You my love possess
all the essential qualities
as listed by Playboy.
You will last me for
as long as two weeks
or until such a time
as your face & figure
go out of fashion.
I will hold you close
to my Hollywood-standard body,
the smell of which
has been approved
by my ten best friends
and a representative
I will prop my paperback
on the dressing table
& like programmed seals
we will perform
& like human beings
we will grow tired
of our artificially sweetened
diluted & ready to drink
Tonight, we will fake love.
Tonight we will be both
quick & silent, our time limited,
measured out in distances
(from Up To Date, 1993 edition, p20)
And for good measure, it is worth throwing in a U2 song as well. For in this song, Bono & Edge brilliantly point us beyond Hefner’s Playboy mansion (where a welcome is available only to the ‘right’, ‘attractive’, ‘lucky’ kind of people) and offer hints of the hope of the great mansion, (in which there are many rooms prepared in advance for those who are not the beautiful or ‘perfect’ people). No – this is a mansion of grace – open to all who are not worthy but who recognise their unworthiness. And to seek after that is in no sense a seeking after the wind. Now I’ve no idea about Paul Raymond’s last few years – but the wonder of this mansion of grace is that ‘even’ he would be welcome there…
If coke is a mystery / Michael Jackson…history
If beauty is truth / And surgery the fountain of youth
What am I to do / Have I got the gift to get me through
The gates of that mansion
If oj is more than a drink / And a big mac bigger than you think
If perfume is an obsession / And talk shows, confession
What have we got to lose / Another push and we’ll be through
The gates of that mansion
I never bought a lotto ticket / I never parked in anyones space
The banks feel like cathedrals / I guess casinos took their place
Love, come on down / Don’t wake her, she’ll come around
Chance is a kind of religion / Where you’re damned for plain hard luck
I never did see that movie / I never did read that book
Love, come on down / Let my numbers come around
Don’t know if I can hold on / Don’t know if I’m that strong
Don’t know if I can wait that long / ’til the colours come flashing
And the lights go on
Then will there be no time for sorrow / Then will there be no time for shame
And though I can’t say why / I know I’ve got to believe
We’ll go driving in that pool / It’s who you know that gets you through
The gates of the playboy mansion / But they don’t mention…the pain
Then will there be no time for sorrow
Then will there be no time for shame
Then will there be no time for sorrow
Then will there be no time for shame
(from the too often overlooked 1993 album Pop)
This book has courted controversy in all quarters. It’s not hard to see why – read some of the different reviews linked here (which range from secular adulation to inevitable Islamist repudiation, via moderate Muslim dissatisfaction). The important thing is that it is a personal memoir by someone who escaped Islamist fanaticism by being drawn to the more individually ‘spiritual’ world of Sufism. He had been sucked in as an impressionable and rebellious teenager, only to see the error of his ways as acquaintances from Hizb ut-Tahrir were involved in the murder of a non-Muslim undergraduate.
As critics have therefore frequently noted (including this one from Hizb ut-Tahrir themselves), this makes for an inevitably partial and subjective account of developments from 15 years ago in London’s East End. It does not necessarily describe today’s realities. But that is to miss the point – not least because, while there may be various inaccuracies, this book helps one to understand the mental journey that leads people to descend into barbaric inhumanity. More than anything else I have read (which, frankly, is not very much at all), this has given insight and awareness to what has clearly been going on in significant quarters of Britain’s Muslim communities. It is about psyche and worldview, motivation and attitude. And as such, it has made me pause. Well, stopped me in my tracks, to be more precise. From 3 perspectives, really: as a human being; Briton; Christian.
reflections from a fellow Human Being
Ed Husain (picture courtesy of Penguin Press) seems like an approachable chap. And I’ve no doubt that writing this book took guts, since he more than many knew the sorts of reactions it would provoke (he has inevitably received death threats – which in itself seems to prove something about how little has perhaps changed since ‘his day’). But it is also Husain’s humanity that permeates the book. Human life matters – always. And it doesn’t matter whether that life is Muslim, Christian, Communist, prostitute, politician or terrorist. Life matters. Full stop. And that is what makes his frequent accounts of pervading attitudes within some extremist quarters so chilling. Even more chilling is when some of these quarters are heralded as moderate spokesmen for the British Muslim community and end up on Channel 4 news. The reluctance of some famous names to reject the fatwa on Salman Rushdie (however heinous his crime might have been) seems to be a case in point. If that’s moderate, well…
Of course, people are usually quick to point out that there are Christians who appear to speak in similar terms, even if jihad isn’t exactly part of their vocabulary. So what?! I would disagree with such positions as well! Despite having friends who are of a more dispensationalist predisposition, I find some of the pre-mill / Christian Zionist / Armageddon rhetoric very difficult to stomach as well. Surely we never win lives round to the truth by taking lives? It merely generates fear and a kowtowed resignation. Surely the truth stands unaided on its own two feet?
Husain describes how 9/11 exposed his own latent Islamist views, despite his own shifts in view:
Even though I had accepted Sufi Islam, and consciously tried to decontaminate my mind, there were still aspects of Islamist political strategies that I thought of as ‘normal’: an acceptance of terrorism, an unconscious belief that those who ‘opposed Islam’ were somehow less than human and thus expendable in the Islamist pursuit of political domination over palm and pine. (The Islamist, p202)
Scary also, are his findings on a return visit to the bookshop at East London Mosque in Whitechapel (a place that had played a role in his teenage years) in 2006.
At the bookshop, I bought an updated copy of Qutb’s Milestones, published not in Riyadh but in Birmingham, England, in early 2006. It contains lengthy articles in the appendices from leading Wahhabis, chapter headings such as ‘The Virtues of Killing a Non-Believer’, and ideas such as ‘Attacking the non-believers in their territories is a collective and individual duty.’ Just as I had done as a sixteen-year-old, hundreds of young Muslims are buying these books from Islamist mosques in Britain and imbibing the idea that killing non-believers is not only acceptable, but the duty of a good Muslim. I showed the passages to a Muslim friend that evening and we shook our heads in disgust. From such messages are suicide bombers born. (The Islamist, p280)
One of the most poignant paragraphs was his note about the timing of the London 7/7 bombings – how ironic that they occurred precisely the same time as the Gleneagles G8 summit in Scotland which was debating issues of African poverty, Third World Debt Relief and Fair Trade (at the instigation of the likes of Blair, Bono & Geldof).
The fact that hundreds of children die in Africa every day would be of no relevance for a committed Islamist. In the extremist mind, the plight of the tiny Palestinian nation is more important than the deaths of millions of black Africans. Who in the Arab world cares that some 6000 people die each day in Africa from AIDS? Let them die, they’re not Muslims, would be the unspoken line of argument. As an Islamist, it was only the suffering of Muslims that had moved me, that provoked a reaction. Now, human suffering mattered to me, regardless of religion. (The Islamist, p256-7)
Amen to that. Isn’t that one of the lessons of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan?
reflections of a fellow Briton
The 7/7 bombings went off in a sort of ring around where we now live – on the day before we returned to London from 4 years in Uganda. I’ll never forget, watching the news in Entebbe, thinking that we had to be mad to be returning to London – Kampala was a far safer place to live. Husain and his wife Faye were actually watching the same reports while working for the British Council and living in Saudi Arabia, just a few days before their return to Britain. Like many ex-pats, being abroad made them feel more British. When in England he felt more Muslim. And yet London is his birthplace and home. Now, such tensions between faith and nationality are not unique. But his experiences of the quality of life in Saudi for Muslims, let alone non-Muslims, is certainly chilling (and they chime with plenty of other accounts) and the grass in Britain was made to look far greener.
Husain has been accused by some of being a Labour stooge for Blairite multiculturalism – and he certainly makes no secret of his political affiliations – especially because to play a part in the democratic process is regarded with deep suspicion if not hostility by key Islamist elements. This is not to say that he gives British society a clean bill of health – with its culture of ASBOs, high abortion rates, addictions, city centre pub crawls and happy slappers. I don’t know anyone who thinks that these anything but grounds for real shame. But what is clear that many people in the Islamist movements are quite prepared to bite the hand that feeds them: they take advantage of Britain’s freedoms and safety nets when they want to preach their ‘concepts’ or need protection or consular support when languishing in Middle Eastern jails. They’re wanted men in Syria or Egypt but free to hold fort in this country. Husain is understandably astonished by this – whether outright banning will achieve anything, I’ve no idea – but he is certainly highly (and rightly) critical of political correct spinelessness and a plain old fear of standing up to things. For tolerance of ideas MUST have boundaries (as the PC brigade are only too quick to mention when it comes to orthodox Christianity – they just can’t bring themselves to do it for Islam as well).
One of the things that most struck me was that many of the places mentioned in the East End are familiar, especially because my wife trained as a nurse-midwife at the London Hospital. Meeting rooms at the hospital itself as well as houses and streets around (including one or two where Rachel actually lived) were places where rabbles were roused, and at some points, weapons were stashed. We drive past the East London mosque very regularly. So this is not some far off conflict – this is on the streets of my home town, by people who share the same passport as me. As a British non-Muslim, i’m only grateful that people like Husain are willing to speak his mind.
reflections from a Christian friend
But I suppose I should say something about all this from a Christian perspective. There is much to admire and respect in this book. I was impressed by Husain’s honesty, charm and humility. And I certainly wouldn’t expect an apologia for why he is not a Christian – that would be absurd. Still there were a few moments where I was frustrated by the grounds for his rejection of the gospel (those old chestnuts of difficulties in understanding the Trinity, and of the apostle Paul’s so-called invention of Christology). But there is no hostility or aggression to his arguments, and he admits a curiosity about Jesus having been born on Christmas Day as well as a respect for other ‘people of the book’. Such aggression belongs to the attitudes of the Wahhabist/Islamist world from which he has escaped.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help spot a number of uncomfortable parallels with extremes of Christianity. And that is surely something to learn from?
Activism without piety – it was when Husain began to appreciate his total lack of spiritual vitality that he realised that his entire lifestyle revolved around a political agenda (largely but unconsciously derived from Marxism and western enlightenment philosophy and not ‘pure’ Islamic state or caliphate at all – oh irony of ironies!!). And that agenda was power and domination. How easy it is for us all to slide into such an attitude – both of activism and power-hunger. How elements of the US Christian right appear to have missed something here perhaps. But would we be prepared to learn lessons from an ex-Islamist who has learned the error of his ways?
Faith without context – Husain’s shift was in part the result of the discovery of the importance of culture. We are shaped by our cultural and historical contexts so much – and this is especially the case with those who claim to be able to restore a ‘pure’ form of belief system. Particularly telling were his discoveries that the hijab/veil originated and still are found amongst Arab Christians – there is nothing intrinsically Islamic about them. He also discovered first hand the dangers of selling one’s soul to the thought of one or two charismatic leaders as if they themselves were not the products of their age. Likewise, it would be foolish for Christians to think that Luther or Calvin had it all sussed. As a Christian I would say they are only ever right insofar as they are faithful to the ancient faith in the scriptures.
Devotion without grace – and this is the clinching difference between us, in the end. For all Husain’s piety and impressive dedication to rid himself of pride, in the end my fear is that it is beyond him. It is Pharisaic works righteousness of a classic kind. What we need is not law-keeping, but grace. And in the end, that is what Jesus brings. That is the good news of the gospel!
Dr. Truman: I don’t want to go on. Can’t you see? I’m old. I have cancer. I’ve had enough. The only thing that is holding me back is that I am afraid. I am afraid of what comes next.
Julia: What do you think that is?
Dr. Truman: No, you tell me. Is atonement even possible? What does God want from me?
Julia: I think it’s up to each one of us to interpret what God wants.
Dr. Truman: So people can do anything? They can rape, murder, they can steal, all in the name of God, and it’s okay?
Julia: No. That’s not what I’m saying.
Dr. Truman: (voice rising to a shout) Well, what are you saying? Because all I’m hearing is some new age, God is love, one size fits all crap!
Dr. Truman: God tried to stop me from killing an innocent man, and I ignored the sign. How can I even hope for forgiveness?Julia: I think … sometimes it’s easier to feel guilty than forgiven.
Well there was an unnerving resonance with all these current political events with our new preaching programme at All Souls. We’re doing something a little different at the moment – a morning series with the title ‘HAS GOOD FAILED?’ and an evening series on the Book of Ecclesiastes. Hugh is doing the evening talks and I’m doing the first two of the morning series, and with a more topical series like this, there is greater scope for doing things slightly out of the box. The result was that i got to indulge my obsession with both U2 and the questions people are really asking. The talk was called WHERE IS THE PEACE ON EARTH? and I played (and got away with playing) not 1 but TWO U2 songs during the course of the talk which was quite a laugh. Some think I’m just a sad fan, but this is of course not the case – I’m a very happy fan.
PEACE ON EARTHHeaven on Earth, we need it now,
I’m sick of all of this hanging around
Sick of sorrow, sick of the pain,
I’m sick of hearing again and again
That there’s gonna be peace on EarthWhere I grew up there weren’t many trees,
where there was we’d tear them down and use them on our enemies
They say that what you mock will surely overtake you
And you become a monster, so the monster will not break you
And it’s already gone too far, you say that if you go in hard you won’t get hurtJesus can you take the time to throw a drowning man a line
Peace on Earth
Tell the ones who hear no sound whose sons are living in the ground
Peace on EarthNo whos or whys, no one cries like a mother cries for peace on Earth
She never got to say goodbye to see the colour in his eyes, now he’s in the dirt
Peace on EarthThey’re reading names out over the radio all the folks the rest of us won’t get to know
Sean and Julia, Gareth, Ann, and Breda, their lives are bigger than any big idea
Jesus can you take the time to throw a drowning man a line
Peace on Earth
Tell the ones who hear no sound whose sons are living in the ground
Peace on Earth
Jesus and the song you wrote, the words are sticking in my throat
Peace on Earth
Hear it every Christmas time but hope and history won’t rhyme
so what’s it worth – this peace on Earth? Peace on Earth…
I STILL HAVEN’T FOUND
I have climbed highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you, only to be with you
I have run; I have crawled; I have scaled these city walls
Only to be with you
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for (x2)
I have kissed honey lips felt my healing in her fingertips
It burned like fire, this burning desireI have spoke with the tongue of angels; I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night I was cold as a stone
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for (x2)
I believe in the kingdom come then all the colors will bleed into one
Well, yes I’m still running
You broke the bonds and you loosed the chains
Carried the cross, of my shame (of my shame)
You know I believed it
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…
This was posted back in September but I’ve only just come across an interesting observation from the distinguished military historian Sir Michael Howard (who is of course not to be confused with the former Tory Leader). He’s assessing what went wrong in Iraq from a military and political perspective – and is consequently very critical of the US/UK approach. But it was this comment which really struck me, and is thus worth quoting in full:
President Bush and his neo-con supporters are in the habit of saying that since the desire for freedom burns brightly in every human breast, it is the duty of the United States to spread democratic freedom throughout the world. He sent his army (and ours) into Iraq in order to do this; with the results we see today. Two centuries ago the leaders of the French Revolution did very much the same thing, and unleashed a quarter of a century of war on Europe.
In fact, what is hard-wired into every human being is the need, not to be ‘free’, but to belong: belong to a group, whether it be a family, a juvenile gang, a football crowd, a tribe, or a fully-fledged nation. This is the instinct that has inspired humanity throughout its history and been the cause of most of its wars. Very few of us have either the inclination or the courage to separate ourselves, form our own judgments and battle against the crowd. Those who do so are regarded at best as odd-balls, at worst as traitors – not least in the United States.
The concepts of ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’, as the West understands them, are the result of a long process of social, economic and political development in our own part of the world. Even here they can flourish only within a framework of security provided by a historic community that commands our instinctive loyalty. If they are brought by foreign troops, wrapped in a foreign flag, they will be seen as the ideology of an alien tribe and resisted accordingly. In their well-meaning effort to bring democracy to Iraq and the Middle East, President Bush and Tony Blair may have let us in for an even longer war than that which was unleashed by the French Revolution, two centuries ago.
Scary – but he must be spot on, surely? This need to belong is of course a classic motivation in the so-called honour- or shame-cultures (of the Middle East and Asia) – but I suspect that it is also prevalent in the west in different ways. It is what lies behind recent debates in Christian circles about how people initially come to Christian faith – through first believing in the proclamation and then joining a Christian community or the other way around. At one level, it doesn’t really matter if there is an authentic Christian community where proclamation is taking place. But we constantly need to take this need for belonging into account if we are to understand how to reach and help. Authentic Christian community has never been more crucial or relevant – for ours is a fragmenting society (often, ironically, as the result of our pursuit of personal freedom and autonomy). People are lost not so much because they are free, but because they no longer know where to belong. Hence the headlong dash into the virtual/DIY/fabricated communities in cyberspace. But these will never satisfy – because as the Christian poet so eloquently articulated centuries ago, we’re simply not wired up like that. We need one another.
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne (1572-1631)
As Donne explains, this makes the death of citizens caught up in Iraq my problem as much as it is their grieving relatives. We all belong to one another in a common humanity.
But there is a final irony in all this. The invasion of Iraq was a component of the strategies (so-called) of the War on Terror. In the light of western idealism about liberty, it was no surprise that the initial responses to the 9/11 attacks were grouped under the banner Operation Enduring Freedom. The irony is that enduring freedom is only ultimately attainable through belonging to an eternal community.
Well – I enjoyed it… but not perhaps as much as some of Douglas Coupland’s others. I have my favourites – Girlfriend in a Coma, Hey Nostradamus and of course the one that got everything going, Generation X.
The book starts relatively (frustratingly?) slowly – and is set in territory that is all too familiar to Coupland fans. This is suburban mall-land, the seemingly endless, soulless sprawl of North American retail parks (incidentally, I once started counting all the different UK chains that have imperialist pretensions by claiming the world. There are simply LOADS, ranging from: Eyeworld, Leatherworld, Petworld, Kitchenworld, Craftworld not to mention PC world and Phone world – if you have any others, post them here!!). The sprawl, like most of the rest of Couplandland, is populated by the high school dropouts and middle-aged losers still enslaved to McJobs – as illustrated by the setting of this book: a store in the stationery megachain, Staples.
Roger has lost so much in life – marriage, child, direction and purpose. His frustrated spiral even puts his job at Staples at risk. He doesn’t want to be an ‘aisles associate’ (!) overseeing the tidiness of the ballpoint pen display for the rest of his life – he wants to write. So he writes – a diary which bizarrely he leaves lying in the staff room – that is asking for trouble, especially as he writes about colleagues. He seems to understand them though – and puts words into the mouth of Bethany, the store’s resident Goth. When she reads an entry in her own name, she decides to add her own and thus begins a very peculiar relationship, about which they agree never actually to talk. It is only carried out on paper (hence is akin to the ‘friendships’ enjoyed by the Facebook generation). From the start, there is a slightly unnerving sense of reality though. For while we are told that Bethany’s second entry is from the ‘real’ Bethany, we are never subsequently told who is actually talking – the real or the figment. The lines of reality are blurred from the start. This all points to the book’s central conceit: the meaning of the written word (presumably the reason for the setting in a stationery store) and its (in?)ability to describe reality. More on that in a mo. But like all Coupland’s heroes, these people are troubled – troubled about their lives, their relationships, and even about God. That is what makes them so intriguing (especially to someone trying to understand our culture) because they purport to be representatives of the (post)modern everyman and everywoman.
Here is Roger, right at the start:
ROGER: A few years ago it dawned on me that everybody past a certain age – regardless of how they look on the outside – pretty much constantly dreams of being able to escape from their lives. They don’t want to be who they are any more. They want out. This list includes Thurston Howell the Third, Ann-Margaret, the cast members of Rent, Vaclav Havel, space shuttle astronauts and Snuffleupagus. It’s universal.
Do you want out? Do you often wish you could be somebody, anybody, other than who you are – the you who holds a job and feeds a family – the you who keeps a relatively okay place to live and who still tries to keep your friendships alive? In other words, the you who’s going to remain pretty much the same until the casket? (p1)
As ever in Coupland’s books, the Damocles sword of human mortality is ever present. However, as this next excerpt illustrates, that may well be preferable to the interminable drudgery of an aisles associate.
ROGER: The last while has been kind of rough and, yeah, I’m having trouble these days, but Joan [ex-wife] isn’t what you’d call a fountain of sympathy. I can make up all the excuses I want, but the fact is, I merely lie in my bed in the morning and don’t get out. Especially at this time of year. I ask you, why do we even bother having wakefulness? Dreams are way more interesting than real life, and in dreams you never have to get out of bed. For that matter, why does life bother going forward? No matter what organism you look at… an amoeba or an elk or whatever, it does everything it can to advance itself – it tries not to be killed, it tries to mate, it tries to not be eaten. What’s the nature of this divine computer program that drives everything to go forward? Why doesn’t DNA sometimes say to itself, ‘You know what? I’m tired of this survival shit. I think I’m going to pack it in. It ends here.’ (p187)
It is not just present circumstances or an unknown future that Roger yearns to escape. His searing, wry honesty gets to the heart of the matter: his own heart.
ROGER: It’s amazing how you can be a total shithead, and yet your soul still wants to hang out with you. Souls ought to have the legal right to bail once you cross certain behaviour thresholds: I draw the line at cheating at golf; I draw the line at theft over $100,000; I draw the line at bestiality. Imagine all the souls of the world, out on the sides of highways, all of them hitchhiking to try to find new places to live, all of them holding signs designed to lure you into selecting them as a passenger:
… I sing!
… I tell jokes.
… I know shiatsu.
… I know Katherine Hepburn.
I don’t deserve a soul, yet I still have one. I know because it hurts. (p22)
But Roger’s not alone – Bethany is similarly afflicted. Throughout her life, those closest to her have died – hence the Goth affectation and cosmetic obsession with death and the ‘dark side’. She eventually snaps out of that – but of course that doesn’t remove her core fears and anxieties.
BETHANY: Oh God, I’m sitting here and my inner voice won’t shut up. Do you ever get that? All you crave is silence, but instead you sit there and, against your wishes, nag yourself at full volume? Money! Loneliness! Failure! Sex! Body! Enemies! Regrets!
And everybody’s doing the same thing – friends, family, that lady at the gas station till, your favourite movie star – everybody’s skull is buzzing with me, me, me, me, me, and nobody knows how to shut it off. We’re a planet of selfish me-robots. I hate it. I try to turn it off. The only thing that works is if I try to imagine what it’s like to be inside someone else’s head, try to imagine what their inner nagging is. It cools my brain…
…God, I’m so sick of myself.
Oh Roger, I truly wish I’d had religion growing up, because believing in something might shut off my inner voice – and maybe also so that I could feel like I shared something with my family, a common vision. All I got from my family is death, divorce and desertion. Please come up with ideas to share with Zoë [Roger’s daughter]. She’ll probably hate you until she’s twenty-one, but after that she’ll thank you forever. You’re so lucky to have the chance to not screw somebody up. (p248)
I’m probably blinded by my own presumptions, but isn’t that getting rather close to a biblical analysis of human nature? Sure it doesn’t cross any theological t’s, but it achingly seems to illustrate the yearning to overcome the sinful nature. I was really knocked back when I read that bit.
Within this bizarre paper-bound relationship, Beth & Roger share their own private universe: through Roger’s attempt at a novel, Glove Pond. Beth has her own attempts at creative writing too, all featuring the life of pieces of toast! But Glove Pond is the focus – and it is excruciatingly, but wonderfully, bad! A narrative about a drunken loser novelist, Steve, and his hopeless actress wife, Gloria. Another couple comes to dinner (successful writer Kyle Falconcrest and his medic wife Brittany) but there is a simmering rivalry and tension between them all. Part of Roger & Beth’s fun is that the characters’ names correspond to other workers at Staples. In Glove Pond, Steve & Gloria are living empty lives, with everything masked by not particularly convincing façades. This is especially apparent when the conversations turn to their son. Does he exist or not?
Coupland is playing games with our minds at this point. He is writing a book about Roger who is writing a diary; and including excerpts from the novel that he is writing about a writer called Steve who peeks jealously at Kyle’s latest manuscript about a loser called Norm! Yikes. Trying to clarify what is going on there hurts the brain. But I think that is precisely the point. It is a vortex of meanings and references – so complex that one completely loses ones sense of place and reality. What on earth is going on here?! And yet, despite our confusion, there is a real poignancy even here – because the character Kyle does see what could really be going on with Steve & Gloria. They are lost souls, covering profound grief (like Roger himself in ‘real life’):
KYLE (in Glove Pond): What, he wondered, could have happened to two people to damage them so badly? What sort of event could warp them, or any of us, to the point where they became mere cartoons of the real and whole people they once were?
This world of personality smoke and mirrors is reflected by Bethany’s view of the world. So what if you can’t tell what’s real or not? What’s real anyway? The Goth thing for her was just a certain fashionable lifestyle statement , which she can easily be discarded when it doesn’t suit. Hence her comic approach to a complex medical ethical issue like cloning:
BETHANY: Speaking of biology, I think cloning is great. I don’t understand why churchy people get so upset about it. God made the originals, and cloning is only making photocopies. Big woo. And how can people get upset about evolution? Someone had to start the ball rolling; it’s only natural to try to figure out the mechanics of how it got rolling. Relax! one theory doesn’t exclude the other. (p7)
Bethany is no fool though – while her approach might be pretty idiosyncratic, her perceptions of the absurdities of modern life are acute:
BETHANY: But what was the universe thinking when it came up with Christmas? Hey, let’s wreck six weeks of the year with guilt and loneliness and unnecessary cheesy crap! And then let’s invent office superstores where they can take everyday stuff like pens and glossy printer paper and commit an emotional travesty by suggesting these items as gift ideas for loved ones! (p233)
Coupland has the last laugh though in the book’s conclusion (which I won’t reveal!). I didn’t see it coming (but that’s probably because I’m a bit dense and read the book too quickly). But it certainly explains why so many of the book’s boundaries between ‘truth’ and fiction are so blurred, why the aches endured by so many of the characters were echoed or paralleled in their colleagues. Coupland thus even further distances the reader’s perception of reality. For who actually is Roger at all? We never really discover.
The book ended up being much more satisfying than I expected in the early pages – and throws up Coupland’s same old questions about truth, identity, hope and meaning, but in an innovative and provocative way. Still, this is Coupland’s 12th novel. I can’t help wondering whether or not he will ever find the answers he is looking for. If not, his characters will presumably have to endure their endless, and thus fruitless, search in the burb malls of North America. Heart-breaking when there are at least some answers out there, even if not all the answers.
[As a total aside, the aerial photo of Los Angeles above, comes from a revealing little essay about the american suburbs – click on the photo for more.]
Was repeating my Even Better Than The Real Thing study day on postmodernism on Saturday. (Depending on the quality of the recordings, we may upload this to replace the last one on iTunes – watch this space). But as part of the prep for this time around, I found myself getting really obsessed with Picasso (1881-1973) – arguably the uber-artist of the 20th Century. What particularly struck me was his series of self-portraits. But the reason for placing these here is that they strike me as a relevant follow-up to the previous post on General Dannatt. Picasso’s prodigious genius is clearly evident in the first few. But as his extraordinary life proceeded (with all its monstrosities and eccentricities), he grappled with all the horrors of the century (culminating in his most political, terrifying and fraught painting Guernica). As he did so, the old certainties of the previous centuries disintegrated, leaving only the residue of human phobias and terrors. And this is most starkly illustrated by his last self-portrait painted within months of his death (which, at the age of 91, he would of course have known was only a matter of time). Chilling.
1896 (aged 15); 1900 (aged 19); 1901 (aged 20, aka Yo, Picasso)
1901 (start of his Blue Period); 1906 (aged 25); 1906
1907 (aged 26); 1938 (aged 57, in unfixed charcoal); 1972 (aged 91)
(Click on pictures for their original context)
I have a funny feeling that there will be some more Picasso posts in due course…