Religion as transformative event…

st-paul-conversion

My friend Pauline gave me this book recently and asked me to read it. Eckhart Tolle began his ‘spiritual journey’ after experiencing a transcendent experience; an awakening.  He thinks that this awakening is available to us all;

Christians have lauded such experiences (usually called ‘conversion’) for our whole history- from the beginning of our religion with St Paul on the Emmaus road. There was a time in my immersion in charismatic evangelicalism when people seemed to compete with one another to tell as dramatic a conversion experience as possible. Services were organised around ‘testimony’ which usually told how BAD someone used to be, until Jesus saved them and the Holy Spirit zapped them into sublime peace. I am forced to remember that the people who shared these transformations often seemed rather untransformed to me. But perhaps this is unkind- I am a work in slow progress, so who am I to criticise anyone else’s experience of faith?

Christians are often amazed to discover that these ecstatic conversion experiences- religions events- are not confined to the Christian faith.

Ekhart Tolle takes strands from all the world religions to point us towards a deeper, better life, not just for ourselves but for the planet. His language is laced with mysticism – much of what I find to be beautiful. However, I also find myself distanced from it all. I think this is because I am suspicious of quick fixes.

As a troubled child, struggling with an often abusive and emotionally deprived situation, I longed for some kind of tangibly unequivocal experience of the divine. This was less about ‘proving’ God, and more about proving me. It would mean that I was worth something, that I was somehow blessed, accepted. In my mind it also meant that the sinfulness that I knew I contained would be instantly dealt with- and I was hugely aware of how sinful and useless that I was. Ultimately I came to realise that this kind of spirituality was damaging for me- and exposed me and others to all sorts of potential abuse and manipulation.

Everyone is looking for a miracle cure. If only I take this drug, do this thing, follow this ritual, have this product, marry this girl/boy life will be OK. To be fair, Eckhart Tolle is not suggesting instant transformation for us all, but I suspect the wild popularity of his book is based on the fact that he offers a non-specific one- size-fits-all spiritual route to enlightenment within a modern consumer culture.

It feels like the difference between an Oprah Winfrey therapeutic TV event – in which we watch someone apparently deal with their past – and the reality of long term therapeutic engagement, in which two steps forward are often followed by three steps back. Over nearly half a century in and around Christians, my experience of spirituality fits far more with the latter than the former.

Having said all this, there seems no doubt that people are transformed by one off religions events. People are converted, changed, enlightened, filled with the Spirit. Some of these people are inspired to do wonderful things as the result.

Can this be replicated in the hearts of the hopeful, or are transformative events like this in themselves rare, precious? I have been in the presence of many Christian charismatic leaders that have promised ecstatic transformation to others as a matter of course. As I look back on these experiences now, then I am forced to conclude that the hundreds and thousands of people who prayed earnestly for such a transformation did not experience it, even if at times we pretended that we did. This might be about the need to conform to in group pressures, but it seems that it might also be related to a deeper yearning we have for a connection to the divine.

It is not surprising really- psychologists have been trying to understand these events for years;

Ultimately, despite the complex arguments about evolutionary group selection, religious experience is only ever fully understood from the inside. 

We of faith might also counter some of Jonathan Haidt’s points about evolutionary usefulness of cohesive religion by suggesting that we are skewed this way because we are body, mind and spirit. On other words, we all come into the world with that thing we used to call a God-shaped hole.

I have just come to value a spirituality that starts with an understanding of what is broken and what is beautiful in all of us. From there, we can start to learn again that word love, both for ourselves and more importantly, those all around us.

But let us continue to search for our staircase.

All scripture is useful…

new-dead-sea-scrolls-theory_24016_600x450

If you like your Scriptures crusty and ancient, then you will love the updated on line resource displaying the Dead Sea Scrolls.

These amazing documents contain fragments of include the earliest known surviving manuscripts of works later included in the Hebrew Bible canon- preserved for two thousand years by the hot, dry desert climate and the darkness of the caves where they were placed.

Part of their fame to Christians is the fact that the many fragments contain almost identical versions of OT scriptures that we still read today. This serves somehow to preserve the idea that the Bible is Gods Word, for all time, floated down intact as the ultimate instructional manual for life.

(As a matter of interest, there is a rather good discussion about how we might understand the phrase ‘The Word of God’ here.)

Most Christians I grew up with had no idea about how the library of books they knew as ‘The Word of God’ came to be gathered. They would have regarded such things as irrelevant, dangerous- trickery of those who would stain the purity of the the holy paper. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls give a window into how scripture was understood even before the wranglings over the Christian Canon.

Biblical scholars can not agree about when the Hebrew closed the book on their own collection of scriptures, but it was clear that those who put away the scrolls in the caves of Quran still experienced scripture as a work in progress.

They also used copies of the book of Enoch;

The book of Enoch was not included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. It tells of Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah, who lived for 365 years and “walked with God”. The displayed fragment describes the heavenly revolt of the fallen angels, and their descent to earth to cohabit with the daughters of men and to reveal secret knowledge to mankind, a story hinted at in Gen. 6.

The Apocryphon of Daniel (and other fragments of Apocrophal writings, whose significance is mostly lost to us.)

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain extensive apocalyptic literature relating to the final messianic battle at the End of Days. The Aramaic Apocryphon of Daniel describes either a messianic figure or a boastful ruler that will arise as “Son of God” or “Son of the Most High”, like the apocalyptic redeemer in the biblical book of Daniel. The text calls to mind the New Testament proclamation of the angel Gabriel concerning the new-born Jesus: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High… ” (Luke 1:32)

 

It is almost impossible to begin an adventure into trying to understand where these scriptures came from without having to set aside the idea that the ONLY relevant writings useful to Christians are contained within the book we know as The Bible. However we might also come to view these books as all the more remarkable.

The papers today are full of a blundering UKIP MEP who has published a charter that he wants Muslims in the UK to sign ‘rejecting violence’. He also has suggest that some Muslim texts need updating, claiming some say “kill Jews wherever you find them and various things like that”. “If that represents the thinking of modern people, there’s something wrong, in which case maybe they need to revise their thinking. If they say they can’t revise their thinking on those issues, then who’s got the problem – us or them?” he added.

The fool thinks you can re-write scriptures for other people’s religions. As if there are not enough blood thirsty bits in our own.

What we need is more understanding, and an open dialogue about how these still-incendiary ancient texts should rest on our post modern souls.

Alt worship, old school…

ohps

 

Aoradh met yesterday for our ‘family day’. We have one of these a month at the house of one or other of our members. Everyone brings something to eat and something to contribute to an act of worship- it was lovely.

Yesterday we sang, listened to music, watched a DVD and spoke about starting again, changing things up. Among all the lovely things we did, what stays most in my mind was something that Michaela encouraged us to do using old school technology in the form of acetates.

‘Alternative worship’ (if you have not come across the phrase before) could be understood as a creative democratisation of worship within the Christian tradition. It involves taking old and new rituals and reinventing them, finding renewal and making new community along the way. It might also sometimes veer towards the highly technical- the joke is often made that if the alt. worship scene has a patron saint, then this is likely to be St Jobs of Apple. Contrast this with when the movement started out, when we all dug out our parents slide projectors and borrowed the OHPs from our local schools. Having said all that, our family days have very little in the way of high end technology.

Michaela’s idea was to take a song – an old Vineyard song called Hungry; She took some of the words- the negative ones like hungry, weary, empty, dry, broken and wrote them on a sheet. She then placed an acetate over the original sheet with other words on – satisfy, restore, arms open wide. The words merged, but remained separate.

She then asked us to think of all the things that were weighing us down; all those hard situations, areas of pain and brokenness, and to write them down on a sheet of paper. We then were invited to take a sheet of acetate and write words of hope, with prayers and promises. Then place the acetate over the sheet of paper.

Simple, low tec, but done prayerfully, in the company of friends it was beautiful.

I have my sheers here now. Depression becomes paired with gentleness, with patience, with grace. Awkwardness becomes paired with creativity and love…

Who needs beats and 5 different projections?

 

The God-hoover is out of the cupboard again…

Check out the trailer for this film;

There have been other attempts to scare people into faith by dodgy theological interpretations of the wild meanderings of the Apocalypse of John. I have written before about my childhood experiences in this regard.

Popular culture reflects the zeitgeist in ways that are often interesting. What emerges on to the entertainment market often reflects all sorts of subliminal fears, preoccupations and prejudices. In the American heartland, still dominated by Conservative Evangelical Christianity, this film will do well. Guns, fundamentalism and fear- surely this has to sell well even if the film making itself is rubbish?

Naomi Klein makes some interesting points about what she describes as ‘Rapture Rescue’. I have posted this before- but it is worth watching again;

Western society, despite our peace, prosperity, security and excess, still seem to define itself in terms of fear of catastrophe- be this some kind of real or imagined terrorist threat, a fear of immigration, of civil unrest. We then imagine some kind of massive redemptive transforming event to solve the problem- a new saviour, a victorious war, a wonder technology.

Add religion into the mix and things can get, well just silly. Except that when so many people are caught up in it all it is not really a laughing matter.

Ideas are important. Naomi Klein said this;

“If we want the transformation, we can’t wait for it to happen in some massive jolt, we have to plan for it and model it…”

“Only a crisis, actual or perceived produces real change, and when that change occurs this depends on the ideas that are lying around. That is our function, to keep ideas alive until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

My concerns about films like the one above are partly theological (there is a discussion of some of the dispensational theology in this post) although correcting esoteric theological ideas is always a bit of a waste of time. Those who hold them do so as if to a branch out from a cliff. They will never let go.

The issue is more relevant when we consider the impact of this kind of theology on our engagement with the world. Christians have some of the best ‘ideas’. We have a story that can change whole cultures- that HAS changed whole cultures. Sadly ideas and stories like this can become the servants of culture, not part of a critical, vitalising commentary.

So if our religion takes us to a place where we believe that this world is doomed, that God is going to suck all the good people (measured according to whether or not they have said the ‘sinners prayer’) up with his great rapture hoover and the rest will get their just deserts- if this is our religion then how might this change the power of our story or the potency of our ideas? How might these ideas set us free to be engaged in works of salvation- not just for a narrow self elected few?

That is why we need to hear other voices of faith- like Tom Wright;

Faced with an apparent crisis in our ability to hope and believe for the future, we people of faith have a choice…

We can proclaim the end of it all, and offer only the hope of a few of us being sucked away from the stinking rotten corpse that is this world, or we can become hopeful critical collaborators in our culture- salting those things that have good flavour, and shining light where there is darkness that requires illumination.

Some days you just need to listen to some Gospel music…

… and when those days come, reach for something – anything – by Mahalia Jackson.

This extraordinary woman chose to sing Gospel all her life- she could have sung whatever she wanted, with her incredible powerful voice. She would stand there, dressed like someones grandmother complete with church-hat, and then let rip. It was a force of nature that could break hard men somewhere inside. When asked why she sang Gospel she said this;

I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free,” Jackson once said about her choice of gospel, adding, “It gives me hope. With the blues when you finish, you still have the blues.

She sang before Martin Luther King gave THAT speech (and at his funeral) and her voice has power and authority even now that successive musicians have tried to borrow from- and mostly failed.

Today I need some Gospel music. Thanks Mahalia.

 

The relationship between materialism, happiness and Christmas…

consumerism

There are some things that all the worlds religions kind of agree on- almost as if in the distillation of spiritual wisdom of the the millennia, certain concepts were inescapable. One of these is our attitude towards possessions. Quite simply, they are more often than not regarded as an obstacle to enlightenment, not a path towards it.

Perhaps the most hard core religious response to the accumulation of wealth and possessions was Jesus- we all know the biblical passages and the perenthetical BUT we have added on to each and every one of them. It remains one of the great human paradoxes as to how Consumer Capitalism has been able to grow in a western culture dominated by Christianity- not just in spite of our faith, but almost because of the way we live it out. We have come to believe that Jesus is at heart a white middle class respectable home owner.

visa cross

There was a brilliant article by George Monbiot in The Guardian yesterday that opened all this up again for me. He took a long look at consumerism, sharing some research about the impact of materialism on well being, sociability and mental health. He pulls no punches; Worldly ambition, material aspiration, perpetual growth: these are a formula for mass unhappiness.

Monbiot quotes a lot of research into the impact of materialism- here are a few examples;

There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, aseries of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. As they become less materialistic, it rises.

In one study, the researchers tested a group of 18-year-olds, then re-tested them 12 years later. They were asked to rank the importance of different goals – jobs, money and status on one side, and self-acceptance, fellow feeling and belonging on the other. They were then given a standard diagnostic test to identify mental health problems. At the ages of both 18 and 30, materialistic people were more susceptible to disorders. But if in that period they became less materialistic, they became happier.

In another study, the psychologists followed Icelanders weathering their country’s economic collapse. Some people became more focused on materialism, in the hope of regaining lost ground. Others responded by becoming less interested in money and turning their attention to family and community life. The first group reported lower levels of wellbeing, the second group higher levels.

shop window

These studies, while suggestive, demonstrate only correlation. But the researchers then put a group of adolescents through a church programme designed to steer children away from spending and towards sharing and saving. The self-esteem of materialistic children on the programme rose significantly, while that of materialistic children in the control group fell. Those who had little interest in materialism before the programme experienced no change in self-esteem.

Another paper, published in Psychological Science, found that people in a controlled experiment who were repeatedly exposed to images of luxury goods, to messages that cast them as consumers rather than citizens and to words associated with materialism (such as buy, status, asset and expensive), experienced immediate but temporary increases in material aspirations, anxiety and depression. They also became more competitive and more selfish, had a reduced sense of social responsibility and were less inclined to join in demanding social activities. The researchers point out that, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, these temporary effects could be triggered more or less continuously.

third paper, published (paradoxically) in the Journal of Consumer Research, studied 2,500 people for six years. It found a two-way relationship between materialism and loneliness: materialism fosters social isolation; isolation fosters materialism. People who are cut off from others attach themselves to possessions. This attachment in turn crowds out social relationships.

As we read these studies, we instinctively know them to be true; there are no surprises here. Perhaps this is because of some kind of spiritual residue left in our psyches from all those religious people who made these discoveries previously. Perhaps also each generation has to learn it anew.

However, we in the West are more than pilgrims who have wandered off into some consumer-bog, we have become hostages.

consumerism

A few years ago I read Pete Ward’s excellent book ‘Liquid Church’, in which he suggested that  ‘rather than condemn the shopper as materialist Liquid Church would take shopping seriously as a spiritual exercise.’ What Ward was seeking to do was to get the church to engage fully with the culture we are part of- to flow in its veins. I found this idea very helpful at the time- it enabled me to move from a fixed blinkered position which saw culture dominated by consumerism as universally bad (despite my full participation within it) towards a deliberate attempt to read culture through its patterns of acquisition. So if you look hard at lots of the advertisements we are bombarded with you will start to see the yearning behind the selling. What the advertisers are trying to do is to connect us with something beyond the physical aspect of the object, into the meaning it brings into our lives- so a car is not a good piece of engineering, it is a symbol of freedom, of self expression, of celebration of our lives.

Having understood this however; having looked again at our culture through its predominant consumer characteristics, where does this take us? I am more and more convinced that it takes us towards one thing only- the need to become engaged critics. Enraged critics even.

Let us turn over some tables in the temple.

Which brings us to Christmas again.

I know, I know, the calls to make Christmas less consumer-driven are getting a bit old. I have been banging on about it on this blog for years. Lighten up a little! Have some fun! There is nothing wrong with spending a bit more at Christmas after all.

Except, as our religious forefathers knew, and as Monbiot has underlined, let us not kid ourselves that any of this is making us happier. Let us not suggest that buying lots of stuff (even for others) is making us more sociable, more loving, more empathetic, more caring.

Rich and poor alike are caught up in this addictive destructive cycle. What would it mean to be clean?

What would it mean to be free?