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?

Liebster award!

A very nice bloke gave me the Liebster award!

liebster award

As far as I can see, this award works like this- bloggers award this to other blogs that they feel have merit. If you accept the award, you agree to answer the questions set by the person who gave you the award, and to make some awards of your own. I think the rules have become a little diffuse as it has rattled around the blogosphere, but hey, it is always nice to be appreciated, so thanks very much Paul!

Paul (who nominated me) blogs at Red Setter Christian (which is a great name) and he attends the church I used to go to down near Preston- we met there for a memorable chat a year or so ago. You should check out his blog, which is full of lovely inventive things as well as restless adventuring faith.

So- here are my answers to Paul’s Questions;

What is the most beautiful thing you’ve seen?

Because the question said ‘thing’ I will not say my wife, or my kids. I could mention sunsets over the western Hebrides, waterfalls, the roll of mountain down to gentle valley. But I will say this- home after a long journey away. The stain on the carpet. The bit of skirting board I mended poorly. The place where I am most at peace.

Who is your favourite comedian, and why?

I am too melancholic to have a favourite comedian. Lots of people make me laugh though. My mate Simon does that more than most.

If you could nominate a current/recent TV show as a future classic, which one would you pick, and why?

Wallander, with Kenneth Branagh. Each shot a portrait. Superb acting. Imperfect genius as main character. Complex, dark and moving.

Politicians or Lawyers.  Who do you mistrust more?

Politicians have often been lawyers. If not they will certainly need one to cover stuff up for them. With that in mind, they are equally culpable.

Censorship – a good idea, or not?

Not. However we should be accountable for damage done.

What’s the best thing about where you live?

It is where my home is, where my family are. Or at least before they started to spread their wings. It is also very beautiful, on the edge of wild country.

Which book do you find yourself returning to the most, and what is it that keeps you coming back?

I am not sure I have returned to many repeatedly. Swallows and Amazons because it allows me to share my childhood dreams with my kids perhaps. And the Bible, because despite all the battering it has taken from systematic theology, it is still a rather good book.

Cats or Dogs?

It rains both in these parts. I choose chickens.

What has surprised you most (in a good/pleasant/not jumping out at you in a terrifying manner way) this week, and why?

Russel Brand with his cheeky chappy revolutionary wisdom, which really seems to have changed the political debate.

In the event of ‘First Contact’ with an alien race (who would, obviously speak perfect English like they do in outer space!) – which living person would you pick as our best representative?

Tony Benn. Wisdom, age, compassion, understanding of power.

Now for my own nominations;

I am going to nominate two blogs- simply because they post often, contain much wit and wisdom, and often make me smile as well as open me up a little. Strangely, both writers make a living as ministers of religion! Perhaps I love both because they give me a human window into established church, which despite finding myself outside, I still love. It is also because I have met both writers and have a deep respect for them.

The first is this one- Diggingalot. Most of the new music I listen to I have encountered here. There is usually something to make me laugh, to ponder on for a while.

Next, Danceswithmidges- a local blog to where I live. Honest, thoughtful, full of lovely pictures. I always get the impression that (like the best blogs) it is written as much for the writer to make sense of his own world as to impress anyone else.

So, should you choose to accept this award, here are my questions;

How do you relax? What is your favourite way to waste time?

How do you pray? No- honestly, how do you really pray?

Who has been the person who has influenced your journey most in the last 5 years?

What would you rescue first if your house was on fire (assuming all living things are safe.)

You are given power to change 3 things in our political/economic system. What would you do?

When was the last time that someone showed you great kindness?

When was the last time you cried, and why?

 

And there you have it.

Thanks Paul for opening up some new connections. The internet lives, despite Google and the NSA!

It does not matter what you believe…

theology

…or does it?

We had a lovely discussion tonight with some friends, sitting round a fire, talking about life and death (as you do.) The death bit because several folk were still in the midst of dealing with loss. The life bit turning on how we understood what our lives were drawing us to.

And because of our shared journeys, the meaning we have found has a lot to do with Jesus, although has been somewhat complicated by our experience of religion…

Some of us have done a lot of (perhaps even too much) unlearning/deconstructing/questioning what this religion has told us we have to believe. Not just the obvious stuff, but the sub-cultural subliminal stuff too that it even harder to come to terms with.

I found myself asking the question- does it really matter what you believe?

We kind of agreed that the religious context that we were familiar with made far too much of belief. We all knew exactly what we were supposed to believe. It was never really stated, but we all knew it was vital to get all your theological cards stacked right. This was what most ‘teaching’ was really aimed at after all.

Strange then that this did not seem to be Jesus’ preoccupation. He was not much interested in making sure that his disciples answered all those complex theological questions that we struggle with now. In fact, he seemed to take quite a lot of pleasure playing with people who came to him looking for absolute theological questions- sending them away with a parable or two- almost like he was saying ‘go and work it out for yourself’.

As I read the gospels, it seems to me that Jesus was much more interested with how faith (rather than belief) brought us to action- particularly how it turned us towards love. Those two commandments- love god and others as yourself.

My conviction is that the obsession with belief often gets in the way of active love. It does not encourage engagement with the world around us, but sits smugly on its own sense of rightness, pompously calling for others to join our club.

theology

At least that is what I believe.

As our discussion went forward we circled again towards death. We talked about the death of a God fearing man, whose passage from life was characterised by fear of God. How he was sure he would not be allowed into heaven as he had done too many bad things. And we began to wonder again about belief…

Our working conclusion was this- belief matters only as far as it becomes the means for us to move, to act, to live, to travel. Even if that journey is the last one.

The rest of it is children playing with marbles.