A musical time machine makes me ponder…

I watched some of one of those late night music compilation programmes last night- hits of the 80’s. Rather than flicking past as I would normally have done, I found myself back in Preston, as a student. Or slow dancing to Tears For Fears at parties in my earlier teens. Music does this to you- even music that may not have been a personal preference- it somehow becomes a powerful cue for memory.

One of the tracks that surprised me in this way last night was The Communards ‘Don’t leave me this way’- suddenly I was in the Student Union again, with my house mates Mark and Steve- and the electronic pulse of this track, combined with Jimmy Sommerville’s astonishing falsetto singing was carrying us along.

I was never really a fan of The Communards- I did not own any of their music. Partly this was because I was never into dance music, but also (to be honest) there was this sexuality thing, that made me uncomfortable. The band were openly gay- at the forefront of the campaign against homophobia. This was the time of AIDS- seen as a ‘Gay plague’ and ‘section 28’.

Listening to this song yesterday was more than just a nostalgia trip- it made me think again about how far my thinking- and that of wider society- has come since the 80’s in relation to homosexuality. Don’t get me wrong, I was never openly homophobic. I lived in a house with two other lads- one who was gay. I was a very left leaning student of sociology and social science.

But I was also from a Christian background- and always there was this conflict in me- because there were hard lines drawn here- homosexuality was sin. End of discussion. Sure, people like Tony Campolo proposed a path of grace in which we should accept that people were born gay (rather than the prevailing view that it was a debauched ‘lifestyle choice’, or perhaps the product of some kind of childhood damage or weakness of character.) Campolo’s view was that the way to resolve the issue was to accept people as gay, but to expect celibacy. This was not an argument that went well with my gay friends at the time- most of whom longed for companionship after desperately lonely and stigmatised early lives.

Watching The Communards yesterday made me feel ashamed of my rejection of their music on the basis of their sexuality. I have written before how I have come to believe that the Church will look back on it’s teaching on homosexuality in the same way that it does now on its previous teaching on other culturally based rights issues- on the basis of race, or gender for example. Another example is the change (over the last 30 years) in relation to divorce/remarriage in most of the Protestant church at least. The meat of this issue always comes back to how we understand the nature of Scripture of course- but I will not re-rehearse these arguments here.

I also discovered something about the other member of the band- Richard Coles– a classically trained musician who played most of the instruments. He has since presented programmes on Radio 4 and BBC 2, but the surprising thing about him is that he is now a Church of England vicar.

Coles talks about coming to faith after attending the funeral of a friend who died of AIDs. Which reminded me of this song- which I offer here as a lament for all of this faith based homophobia…


M and I are off work this week- we are experiencing the strange luxury of a holiday at home.

A strange kind of holiday- as we are working really hard. The list of tasks is long- gardening, painting the outside of the house, and if it rains, there is some plumbing and decorating inside.

An old house like ours always demands time money and energy- which always begs the question as to whether we might do something better with all three. Whether we really should be spending so much time creating a space to live in, rather than just getting on with living.

There is slightly more to this though- we are trying to create spaces for hospitality and retreat, both as a means of making our living, and as a means of living with simple integrity. Whether this might ever be a means to fully sustain our family is unclear, but it is a path we are set on. (See here for more information on what we are about.)

It is an interesting point to be asking these questions- as I am also in the middle of trying to create some poetry for a Greenbelt Festival installation- on the theme of ‘Dreams of Home’. So far I have written a few poems and rejected most of them for the project- which involves the broadcasting of poetry at different points around the festival site.

Here is one of the rejected ones- which I suppose is kind of apt-

Home is where the flowers grow

In neatly ordered style

Well betide the weed or slug

Who seeks to there defile


Home is castellated

All English men agree

From high suburban battlements

Old Empires can be seen


Home is lit by cathode rays

As the sofa eats the day

Home is when the door shuts tight

To keep the world away


Home is where we worship

The gods of DIY

With flat pack chipboard altars

Pastel paints to soothe the eye


Home is where the mortgage bill

Lands hard upon the soul

The shadow of satanic mills

Pulls us like a black holes


Home is where the children

Are heard but seldom seen

They play the X box all night long

Blasting aliens from the screen


Home is where the heart breaks

Where lies the empty bed

Home is where these memories

Are made but now lie dead


Home seems somewhere far away

We can’t get here from there

This pilgrim Diaspora

Are searching unaware


For home is like a twitch

In a phantom missing limb

Like a prophecy of silence

Before the birds begin to sing


Home is hidden low

By folding falling ground

It pulls me like a magnet

It’s a well I’m tumbling down

Tree of Life film…


We went to watch this film the other day. I had not heard of it, nor read any of the reviews- rather we had an opportunity to go and watch a’ grown up film’ for the first time in ages, and this one looked interesting.

The director, Terrence Malcik, appears to be using the film as an intimate exploration of the meaning of life and of faith.

Is it any good?

Well- the first thing to say is that it made us cry- several times. This might be because we do not get out much, but it is also because if it is full of tender lovely moments. The photography is stunning at times, and the acting (Penn, Pitt and the mesmeric Jessica Chastain) is brilliant.

Not to mention the performances of the young kids.

At times it is rambling, and certainly pretentious (although all good films need to be to a certain extent.) Then there is the rather overblown creation/evolution imagery- including a rather dodgy CGI dinosaur.

And the lovely music/image combinations-

Is this a great film? I think not- it is too flawed, too rambling, too indulgent.

Is it a great experience- yes.

What about the theology? Not sure what to say here- Malick’s conclusion after all his meanderings seem to be that life is beautiful, precious- but if we do not love it flashes by. He also finishes with a strange afterlife scene where everyone is united on some kind of beach at dusk.

Watch it- and enjoy the tender moments. You may forgive him the rest.

I have to say- on the way out of the cinema, a young attendant asked people if they enjoyed the film, and in front of us a very grumpy man barked- ‘Was it POSSIBLE to enjoy it?’ He had sat through the whole thing though…

So- having collected some of my own thoughts, I went to look at what the critics said about the film. It has certainly divided opinion- one critic pointed out that there was only one consonant between ‘comic’ and ‘cosmic’- whilst others called it a masterpiece. Some just said it was ‘Christian’ as if this was enough to sum up this film.

I find myself in full agreement of this review in the Guardian.

The Tree of Life may well come to be seen as this decade’s great Christian artwork. But I still prefer to think of it as something other than that. Just as Dietrich Bonhöffer called for a religionless Christianity, so the movie for me created a Christianityless metaphysics.

It is a magnificent, toweringly ambitious and visionary work – brilliantly shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, passionately felt, and deeply serious in its address to the audience. The Tree of Life is about the inner crisis of a tormented man in his middle years and the terrible unchangeability of the past. As this man briefly forces himself to consider his own negligible place in the universe, the film gestures at the unimaginable reaches of geological and stellar time, depicting nothing less than the origins of the cosmos and man himself in a colossal Kubrickian symphony of images.

Holiday photos…

We are back after a lovely few days in St Andrews- the sun shone and it was great to spend time together and to visit somewhere new.


Beach cricket (ours and watching a beach fixture played on Elie Beach.)

All those lovely little villages.

Sailing with Em and Will.

Slow days of sunshine and easy laughter.

Too much good food.



He sighed.

Off for a couple of weeks. We are heading over to the East Coast to do a bit of exploring- a bit of a new thing for us as the other side of Scotland is a bit of a mystery- we have been too addicted to mountains and lochs (and midges.) St Andrews here we come…

See you when we get back.


Good conversation yesterday evening about freedom.

In many ways it was a return to this quote-

 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

John 8:32

In a previous post I focused on the ‘truth’ thing- but there is also this word ‘freedom’. What does it mean to be free? What did Jesus mean by freedom?

The traditional evangelical view is that Jesus was meaning freedom from the consequences of our sin. Except that the context of the passage from John’s gospel seems to suggest that rather than trying to solve the ‘problem of sin’ Jesus was trying to solve the ‘problem of the sin police’. Check out the full passage- coming as it does in the wake of how he brilliantly turns aside the traps the Pharisees set for him- and how he focuses instead on the potential collateral damage of their theological/political debate- a woman who was accused of adultery.

So in this discussion, Jesus is interested in freeing people from the hard unyielding unloving religion. Freedom in the context then is- what? No religion? I think there is a strong argument for this- but certainly I think we can say a different kind of religion- one where the outer person is less important than the heart of the matter, and where the weak and poor are always to be preferred to the powerful and rich. A kind of religion that turns the tables on the easy assumptions and compromises made by the movers and shakers of our times.

In housegroup the other night we listened to Aung San Suu Kyi speaking about obtaining freedom (One of the Reith Lectures- you can listen again here.) This was an inspiring account of lives lived in the very face of oppression. For Suu Kyi and many of her colleagues, freedom is not an abstract concept (even though she speaks too about freedom of the Spirit) but is a real place of longing,  seen through Burmese prison bars. She described the courage of those who continue to work for freedom from oppression- how it was not the absence of fear that motivated them, but rather a sufficiency of courage in the presence of fear.

But we in the west, we take this kind of freedom for granted. We often move onto discussions about an extension of this freedom into all sorts of casual consumer choices- the right to a good holiday experience, or the freedom to chose what time our hospital appointment should be.

Which kind of leaves me wondering whether the kind of freedom we need is not physical- but spiritual.

Perhaps freedom is not just about the bringing down of a wall, or the overthrowing of a dictator- even though these events might be ones well worth working and hoping for.

Rather freedom is another one of these things that we discover on the journey- it is not an end in itself, but in seeking to live a life according to the rules of the New Kingdom, we find that the shackles tend to loosen and fall away.


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I hate words that are used as weapons.

Words that spit on people.

Words that are used to smear and to dehumanise.

Some of the words like this have been broken out of use- people have seen them for what they are. Or perhaps power that was withheld has now been taken, and the marginalised will no longer stay silent about the words we have used about them. So we no longer hear words like ‘nigger’ or ‘wog’ or ‘Jim Crow’ used in daily conversation.

Other words however remain. All those words for people from the Middle East, in the wake of another batch of imperialistic wars. Wars ‘against terror’. as if terror could  be fought by out-terrorising other people’s children. We make it OK by stripping the other of their humanity- and this is reflected in out use of language- ‘Towel heads’, ‘Rag Heads’…

One word that I have heard used by people who really should know better is this one- Pikey. It is a word that allows us to dismiss those remarkably resilient outsiders- the travelling folk.

Most words like this do not survive encounters with real people, with real stories. People in three dimensions. I have just watched this lovely film, which makes this point better than any more words of mine.