Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Bishops, The Poor And the TV Presenter

So the bishops in the House of Lords supported an amendment that defeated government plans that would have limited benefits in such a way as to penalise the children of poor families. Predictably, the government didn’t like this. It feels like 1985 again, with ministers briefing that the ‘Faith in the City‘ report is Marxist.

Into this debate weighs journalist, TV presenter and poker player Victoria Coren. In a passionate piece in today’s Observer called ‘Attacking the Church is a Cheap Shot‘ (subtitled ‘Has everyone forgotten these are men of God? It’s actually their job to stand up for the poor), she puts it like this:

It doesn’t matter whether I think they’re right or wrong; I think it’s their job to do what the Bible tells them to do, ie look out for the needy, like the innocent children on whose behalf they raised the amendment, who might otherwise get lost.

The right-wing press that is so angry with the bishops has been complaining for years that Christianity (for better or worse, our national religion) is too weak and small a voice, that its values are not fought for. Now it’s happening, they hate it.

And later:

Their hands are tied. The gospels say what they say. If their lordships wanted to support the idea that handing out bread and fish is bad for people because it demotivates them from doing their own baking and fishing, they’d really have to leave the pulpit and get a job on a tabloid.

And while the Stephen Hesters of this world, already paid 1.2 million loaves a year of arguably public bread, are being given fish factories as bonuses, the church can hardly join in with a move to reduce herring portions for the hungry. It would look ridiculous.

If this were X-Factor for journalists, Louis Walsh would be saying, “You nailed it.” The Bible calls us to be fair, but it calls us to a special concern for the poor. She therefore argues it’s unfair for the bishops to be criticised. They are only doing their job. Quite right, too.

However, it shouldn’t surprise us as Christians. Critique the powers that be and opposition will come. Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus – all suffered. While being on the receiving end of criticism isn’t a guarantee of doing a good job, it may be a sign that the bishops scored a bullseye.
More worrying for me was the criticism by my former college principal, George (Lord) Carey. In an article in (of course) the Daily Mail, he seems to stereotype almost all people on benefits as being part of a dependency culture. Yes, some are, but overall – surely not! He knows all about growing up poor in the 1940s, but the pride of poor people he knew then in Dagenham still exists in many quarters, whatever else has changed. And yes, the national debt of £1 trillion is a scandal, but it was a scandal caused by the reckless folly of big business and a culture devoted to consumerism – a consumerism heavily promoted by the government that nominated him to the Queen first for Bath and Wells and then for Canterbury.

So well done the bishops, keep it up, whatever is thrown at you.

Sermon: Jesus The Alarm Call

It’s been two or three weeks since I’ve posted a sermon. This weekend I’m not at one of my churches, and I’ve been asked to preach from the Lectionary. My study of this passage led me to what I found to be a surprising twist on the meaning I had always thought it had. See whether this sheds new light on a familiar story for you, too.

Mark 1:21-28

[Sermon begins with sound effect of an alarm clock.]

It’s OK, I’m not trying to wake you up before the sermon sends you to sleep. (Although I hope it won’t.) Were it not for copyright laws, I would have played you the beginning of the song ‘Time’ by Pink Floyd from ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’, which begins with a cacophony of alarm clocks.

But if I gave you an unwelcome foretaste of Monday morning, it was for a reason. You heard an alarm clock. And I want to suggest to you that in the synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus’ listeners heard a first century alarm clock – ringing in their hearts and minds.

How so? Robin read, ‘They were astounded at his teaching’ (verse 22). When we read passages like this one in the Gospels, we get a sense that the people are amazed and impressed by Jesus. Indeed, that’s how we tend to interpret the statement at the other end of the story in verse 27, ‘They were all amazed’.

And if the alarm clock makes me think of Pink Floyd, the sense of amazement takes me to Kate Bush and her old song ‘Wow’, with its chorus, ‘Wow, wow, wow, wow, unbelievable!’ That’s what we think the people are saying about Jesus: ‘Wow!’ ‘Unbelievable!’

But the bad news, is that here we side with Pink Floyd rather than Kate Bush. It’s alarm, not wow. Mark has six different words he uses for this sense of amazement, and the one he uses here means not ‘wonder’ and ‘amazement’ but ‘alarm’[1]. Strictly speaking, we should translate verse 22 as ‘The people were alarmed at his teaching’.

Why should the synagogue congregation be alarmed at Jesus’ teaching? We don’t know what Jesus taught on this occasion, but we do know from earlier verses in Mark 1 what the general tenor of his teaching at this time was. Take verses 14-15:

Now when John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Most of this should not cause alarm to his hearers. Good Jews were waiting for the time to be fulfilled. They longed for the kingdom of God. They wanted good news. They were being ruled over by Rome, whose emperor (‘king’) claimed to be the Son of God, and who claimed that the rule of Rome was good news. The announcement of a new emperor was called a ‘gospel’. The Jews don’t like this. Here is someone whom Mark calls in the first verse of his Gospel ‘the Son of God’, rather than Caesar. He is proclaiming that God, not Caesar, is King. Can you not imagine the cheering? This is good news to believe in!
But … there is one word hidden in the midst of all this that will alarm them. ‘Repent.’ God’s people weren’t meant to repent. It was pagan, Gentile sinners who were supposed to recognise their sin and change. God’s people were the oppressed. They were the ones who were going to be vindicated.

Yet no. Jesus comes and addresses them with the word ‘repent.’ “What? Us? You’re kidding! How dare you!” Sound the alarm. There’s good news, but to receive it you need to change. They didn’t expect that.

And maybe as a community that is a decreasing minority in a society that no longer understands us, a culture that is far less sympathetic to us, maybe we in the Western church want Jesus to ride into town with an angelic cavalry and vindicate us, too. However, what if he did show up here this morning and he made all sorts of gospel promises to us, but they are the bread around the filling of repentance?

Don’t get me wrong. I am sure God is concerned about the decline of the western church, just as I am convinced he cared about Israel suffering oppression. But his main concern may not be to come to us and say, “I’m OK, you’re OK.” He may need to challenge us.

The other day the BBC and various newspapers carried coverage of a report from the University of Essex which plotted the decline in honesty and integrity in our society over the last ten years. To take just one statistic from among many, a decade ago 70% of people agreed that extra-marital affairs were always wrong. Now, only 50% agree with that. In the comments that readers contributed on the BBC website about this story, one person asked, ‘Where is the church in this?’ An avalanche of replies said that the church had little credibility in the honesty stakes, given the way she had covered up child abuse by priests. Now I know that some people use the child abuse scandal as a stick with which to beat the church, and I also know that the vast majority of churchgoers are not culpable, but the fact remains that our claims to integrity are tarnished in the world and it therefore may well be that Jesus comes to us with a message of repentance.
If you remember the comedy series ‘Are You Being Served?’ you may recall the scenes where the elderly and doddery owner of Grace Brothers Department Store, the so-called Young Mr Grace, would turn up on the shop floor on the arms of his beautiful young nurse and tell the staff, “You’ve all done very well.” Sometimes I wonder whether that is the only message we are willing to hear from Christ, when he may have reason with us, like ancient Israel, to slip the word ‘repent’ in amidst all the good news.

We may hear the alarm call to repent, to change our minds about the way we are living, to do a u-turn in our direction. However much we would like to see churches growing numerically again and with a greater proportion of younger generations, one thing is sure: it is not going to happen while we keep on doing the same thing. Albert Einstein had a famous definition of insanity. For Einstein, insanity was to keep on doing the same things while expecting a different result. As someone else has said, what got us here is not what is going to get us out of here. It is going to require change. That won’t just be about techniques, methods and strategies: it will probably involve repentance as well.

If these are some of the implications of the initial observation that the people ‘were astounded’ [alarmed] at his teaching’ (verse 22), then we need secondly to think about the time they repeat their amazement after Jesus expels the demon from the afflicted man:

They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Verse 27)

Take those words – which I said we normally interpret as meaning, wow, what an amazing guy! He’s fantastic, so much better than the regular guys – and think about it again. If they were not so much impressed as alarmed, you see it in a new light. What if they were alarmed that Jesus taught with authority, and that even unclean spirits obey him? Let me illuminate it by sharing with you a strange pet theory I have.

It’s this: I think that secretly, a significant number of churchgoers actually prefer boring preachers. I know we hear plenty of complaints about boring sermons, a good deal of it with justification, but I think there is a group of people in many congregations who are clandestine supporters of the tedious preachers whose sermons lack considerable lustre.

Why? Not just so they can catch up on sleep after Saturday night. Not merely so they can get a good blood pressure reading at the doctor’s on Monday morning. No: if the preacher is mind-numbing, then they aren’t challenged. They don’t want to be confronted with the need to change, which a lively preacher might do, and so they can keep on with their own sweet way of life. Repentance and other ugly things that are really for those who are altogether too enthusiastic about religion can be side-stepped.

These people will be alarmed at a preacher who has authority, to whom people respond with changed lives (and even unclean spirits have to get up and leave the building). It gets a bit too close for comfort.
This manifests itself in other ways, too. Tom Wright has pointed out in his recent book ‘Simply Jesus’ that scepticism about the miraculous can be used by people precisely to avoid the challenge of Jesus. He says this:

In Jesus’ own day, there were plenty of people who didn’t want to believe his message, because it would have challenged their own power or influence. It would have upset their own agenda. For the last two hundred years that’s been the mood in Western society too. By all means, people think, let Jesus be a soul doctor, making people feel better inside. Let him be a rescuer, snatching people away from this world to “heaven.” But don’t let him tell us about a God who actually does things in the world. We might have to take that God seriously, just when we’re discovering how to run the world our way. Skepticism is no more “neutral” or “objective” than faith. It has thrived in the post-Enlightenment world, which didn’t want God (or, in many cases, anyone else either) to be king. (Pages 58-59)

The Jesus who teaches with authority is an alarm call. The Jesus whose authoritative teaching leads people to change their attitudes and actions is a subversive, if not a revolutionary. He unsettles the status quo.

The thing is, it’s not enough to tick all the boxes, follow the rules of the church culture, sing the right hymns and say the creeds. In our story, the unclean spirit knew who Jesus was. He is the Holy One of God, who has come to destroy evil (verse 24). But was that sufficient? Not in the slightest. Unless encounter with Jesus leads to the response of a changed life, it is worthless.

You see, Jesus’ fame spreads around Galilee after this incident (verse 28), but what do you do with the fame? You can offer adulation to a famous person, but big deal: look at the vacuous nature of celebrity culture in our day. But what practical, positive and healthy difference does celebrity worship make in the life of the fan? Little or none, I would suggest. You can become a Jesus fan, but still not be changed, and so not be aligned with the revolutionary project of his kingdom. You can’t around the alarm of having to follow Jesus by substituting the shallow veneration of a fan.

Ultimately, no manoeuvres are possible. We come face to face with Jesus, and we have to do something. We need to make a choice. Sitting on a fence is painful. Going down the middle of the road only gets you run over. It has to be one side or another. Either we stay with our alarm and our fear, and we end up joining the opponents of Jesus (and the opposition in Mark’s Gospel begins in the very next chapter). Or we recognise that the Jesus who claims to be the true king and Son of God rather than Caesar is one who claims our allegiance. His reign as king will turn upside-down the values of human empires. The poor, not the rich, will be blessed, and so on.

And as he turns human values upside-down (or right way up), so he will upend our lives. When we meet Jesus, the only constructive response is to repent.

Let us make no mistake. Let us not be imprisoned by the fear of our alarm that he calls us to repent as part of his good news.

Jesus is worth a complete change of mind.

[1] William L Lane, The Gospel of Mark, p72 n110.

Mark Driscoll And The Mars Hill Churches: When Discipline Becomes Control Becomes … ?

I am recently on record as having grave reservations about Mark Driscoll‘s teaching and attitudes to those he disagrees with. But as goes the man, so goes the church and group of churches he has founded. Here are some gruesome links. The stories are so consistent.
Matthew Paul Turner tells in two parts the story of a young man who confessed to sexual sin and sought help, but who was then placed under draconian discipline with a ‘contract’ that could be described as voyeuristic. When he deems it unfair, he is removed from Mars Hill’s social network and those in his home group are told not to associate with him and are even given a form of words to say, indicating their assent to Mars Hill’s decision. Frankly, the way they put words into the mouths of people could come from North Korea.

A couple separately tell of the pressures they were put under by church leaders when they decided to leave a Mars Hill church, even though they tried to do so diplomatically. Detailing Scripture just isn’t good enough in a church that likes to talk more about correct doctrine than Jesus.

Earlier, when another member queriedwhy he was being asked to shun a sacked staff member when he doesn’t see evidence of the kind of outright sin that would lead to ostracisation in the New Testament, he is told by an elder, “When dad and mom are having an argument the kids don’t need to know what’s going on.” The church member concludes,

So when dad and mom live off the tithe checks given by the children they don’t have to explain why dad decides to fire mom?

Later, his membership covenant (which has to be renewed every few years – a strange kind of covenant that, he observes) is voided by the elders.

Time and again, if you click on these links, you will see people are using words like ‘control’, ‘spiritual abuse’ and ‘cult’.

Bill Kinnon understandably asks why that bastion of the neo-Reformed movement, the Gospel Coalition, hasn’t spoken out against Mars Hill. Driscoll is one of their council members, and they have had resignations before on grounds of doctrinal controversy, as Bill points out. But what does Driscoll have to do for that to happen? Let’s suppose that actually it’s being addressed behind closed doors. If so, that would be a good start. But this has gone on for a long time now. The sacking of two key leaders (one of whom was the person to be ostracised in the last story above) happened in 2007. It’s unthinkable to consider that any such measures were still at the first level of New Testament discipline, the private stage.
Why, then, is there a conspicuous silence in the public arena? Could it be that Driscoll is the poster boy of the movement, untouchable due to the numbers he and his churches draw in? Could it be that he is regarded rather like a mercurial and talented footballer who is something of a rebel, when he might be more like a Paul Gascoigne character, out of control?

And if Driscoll’s friends can’t deal with this, who can? Is it surprising that in desperation some outside that camp (either always outside or, like those above, people who have left) raise strong voices?

Those of us who are critical nevertheless have the responsibility not to lower ourselves to the standards we find objectionable in Driscoll in the way we speak out. We have to be careful that the fear we have for the damage that we believe is being done to people and will be done to Christian witness does not make us act out of fear and hence just lash out. If we do, it just gives an excuse for Mars Hill/Driscoll to say, there you are, look at how our opponents behave. It is hard not to be cynical and sarcastic, though, but we must guard against it.

Yet on the other hand, to be too soft is to give in. What else would those who exercise control want than to make people fearful to criticise?

Then there is the question not only of tone, but of language. Are words like ‘cult’, ‘spiritual abuse’ and ‘control’ unfair? If the evidence above is at all reliable (and the consistency tells us something, I think) then certainly we’re talking about control issues, and that raises the issue of ‘why?’. You can’t help thinking about fear and power, maybe a combination of the two, a fear of power being undermined, perhaps. If the structure is hierarchical, with all vision and pronouncements coming down from on high as if Driscoll has descended from Sinai carrying two stone tablets, then anything that questions that approach is not an isolated problem, but an attack on the foundations. And jolly good, too, because no frail mortal can cope with that kind of elevation. Even Moses didn’t.
What about spiritual abuse? Fifteen years ago, near the end of a difficult phase in my life, I heard Marc Dupont speak on the subject, and I bought his book, ‘Walking Out of Spiritual Abuse‘. Helpfully – in my opinion – he draws lessons from King Saul. On the one hand, the people of Israel got the king they deserved, because they rejected seeking the face of God in favour of having a charismatic personality. If that doesn’t ring alarm bells in all sorts of ways on today’s church scene, I don’t know what does.

But on the other side was the character of Saul himself. He looked the part, but his fears and insecurities led him into control and manipulation. At the conference where I heard Dupont speak, he talked about the incident where Saul is picked out as king. You may recall how Samuel ‘drills down’ through tribes and families before finally picking him out. Dupont pointed out that it says that Saul was found ‘hiding in the baggage’, and while the ancients didn’t use the notion of ‘baggage’ metaphorically as we do and so this is strictly bad exegesis, we can say from painful experience that it often is people with ‘baggage’ who cause spiritual abuse. As he says in the first chapter of the book,

Most leaders who end up with a harsh and demanding style of leadership are not individuals who would deliberately hurt others. (Page 13, author’s emphasis)

Could it be that Mark Driscoll is a man with unresolved baggage? He has owned up to fair amounts of difficulties in his marriage. Is he a man who wants to see many people come to Christ? Might it therefore be that this is a man with deeply good intentions, but whose emotional pain has led to the founding of a chronically misshapen church, leading to the problems described in the testimonies cited at the beginning of this post? On this basis, the accusation of spiritual abuse is possible – religious power misused in a way that consistently harms others, and done so by a wounded person who has been elevated to the level of celebrity, one place where a Christian minister probably never should be.

The most contentious allegation, though, is that of ‘cult’. This is a loaded term for Christians. It is a term often applied to religious movements that are essentially heretical deviations from Christianity, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons or Christian Science. However, these should more properly be regarded as heretical sects, not cults. Or it is applied to heretical groups that engage in spiritual abuse – the Children of God, the Moonies and the like – and perhaps end in extreme dangerous devotion to the leader, such as David Koresh at Waco or Jim Jones at Jonestown.

On the surface, Mars Hill’s devotion to neo-Reformed theology still puts it in the Christian mainstream, which is why I can raise issues about whether the Gospel Coalition is doing anything about one of its Council members. But some cults began with orthodox Christian leaders who then deviated – David Berg of the Children of God could be a case in point here. Mars Hill cannot be regarded as unorthodox, and many of its currently contentious doctrines have been held by large numbers of Christians for a long time. Theologically, it would be wrong for Christians to call it a cult.

However, there are other definitions of ‘cult’ that operate not merely theologically but more sociologically. Is there intense devotion to a particular individual other than Christ? Are there behavioural patterns enforced which lead to, or are based on, a sense of superiority or exclusiveness? Exclusivity can be ruled out, due to associations with other Christian leaders such as John Piper and Terry Virgo (and, presumably, the Gospel Coalition leaders), even if they come from a fairly narrow field.
Even here, then, it is hard to justify using the word ‘cult’ of Mars Hill, but it must be admitted that the warning signs are there in the intimidatory and manipulative tactics to which those who have left testify. Authoritarianism certainly seems to be present, and if you read the ten signs of authoritarianism that Scot McKnight quotes from Wade Burleson, you will see a number of similarities.

But given these warning signs, the only right thing to do is to continue to raise the alarm. Today, much of that is going to mean doing so on the Internet.

I repeat: I do not think Mark Driscoll is evil. I think he has good intentions. He wants many to find Christ. He wants a disciplined church. He wants healthy relationships and for young men to be responsible. He wants to preserve the historic Gospel. All these things are honourable. I disagree with some of his emphases, as I do with some of what the Gospel Coalition stands for. I do not believe that Calvinism is the pure Gospel. Nor do I believe that the arc of Scripture points to a complementarian view of relationships, or to a view of hell as eternal conscious torment. I believe in substitutionary atonement, but I believe other images of the atonement also come into play in the New Testament. I also believe the Gospel Coalition intends well (I should point out that another of their council members is an old friend), although my expression of evangelical Christianity differs from theirs in almost exactly the same ways, and I have severe ideas with a sense that anything other than their exposition of the Christian message is unsound, just as Driscoll tends to label his detractors as automatically ‘liberal’.

Yet … for all the sincere intentions with which I believe Driscoll and Mars Hill started out, the combination of what looks like a possibly wounded (or maybe ‘undiscipled‘, using Bill Kinnon’s word) leader and a church celebrity culture makes for an explosive mixture. And when it does explode – quite regularly, it seems, because it is also volatile – great damage is caused. And for that reason, those of us who are concerned must keep raising our voices.

On Making The Most Of Your Life: A Lesson From Bill Gates And Steve Jobs

Bill Gates
was recently interviewed on the Nightline TV show in the USA. He had some interesting things to say about the effect Steve Jobs‘ death had on him. Here is an extract from one report:

Gates is now no longer the world’s richest man, having given much of his money away. Since 1994, the Gates Foundation has given grants totalling more than $26bn to various charities and projects. But Jobs’ death served as a reminder to Gates that he needed to push on with his philanthropic efforts, he said in the interview.

“Well, it’s very strange to have somebody who’s so vibrant and made such a huge difference and been kind of a constant presence, to have him die. It makes you feel like, ‘Wow, we’re getting old.’ I hope I still have quite a bit of time for the focus I have now, which is the philanthropic work.”

“And there’s drugs we’re investing in now that won’t be out for 15 years – malaria eradication, I need a couple of decades here to fulfill that opportunity. But, you know, it reminds you that you gotta pick important stuff, because you only have a limited time.”

Christians may have eternity, but we only have this life to make a difference. Do we need that sense of urgency and prioritisation that Gates outlines here? I was thinking about that recently when going through a few months’ worth of blog posts by Michael Hyatt. He talked one day about how to avoid the power of the drift. The next day he asked, are you living your own dream or someone else’s?

How easy it is to stop being intentional about our lives. He made me pause. Is my life just going by, because I just do the day-to-day stuff and don’t think about the longer term? It’s easy to do when you’re caught up in busyness and pressure. I realised I’d got as far as knowing some of the things I don’t want to achieve in ministry – most of which involve a distaste for climbing the greasy pole of the religious hierarchy. But I hadn’t fully explored the obverse. What are the positive things I want to do and to contribute? What gifts can I offer that will make a difference?

I realised that ‘ordinary’ circuit ministry only goes part of the way to answering that question. I enjoy it and I don’t disdain it, but I need something more on top. I’d still like it to be have an academic slant, but the doors aren’t open at present.
I can write, though, and if you’ve wondered why the number of blog posts has been increasing lately, that’s the reason. Some might think that writing is a poor relation to Gates’ philanthropy, but words have power to sway hearts and minds. And yes, I need to back up words with my own actions.

So I’ve been starting by trying to use the down time I’m allowed each day (our big bad rule book encourages us to spend up to an hour a day away from ordinary ministry) to research and write a blog post, such as this one. At the very least that will be good discipline. I’ve ordered a book that is recommended in some circles to help explore the more creative side of my personality – The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and happily that came in the post today. So let’s see how we go!

But it has to be a question for each of us: are we maximising the gifts we have been given and following our call to change some corner of the world? We may not have Gates’ billions, but in other ways we have all that and more.

So –  how are we making a difference? Have we started? Why not? Let’s drop the excuses.

Turning Down An Honour From The Queen

(No, not me: not much chance of that.)
After much resistance, the Cabinet Office has published a list of those who declined awards in either the Birthday Honours or the New Year’s Honours Lists between 1951 and 1999, and who are now dead. It’s not necessarily the usual suspects. Alongside John Lennon‘s famous returning of his MBE and the author J G Ballard who called the honours system a ‘preposterous charade’ are people like Eleanor Farjeon, author of ‘Morning has broken’ and C S Lewis.

What are the pros and cons of an honours system? Politically, presumably any nation wants to celebrate those who have made a significant contribution to that society, but certain questions arise about its current practice. Who is worthy of an honour? Do entertainers and sporting stars rank more highly than someone who has given quiet and dedicated service in a village for decades? (You should meet our children’s lollipop lady.) And is it really fitting still to have honours that take their name from the British Empire? Then there is the royalty question, but while we still have a constitutional monarch as the head of state, that’s not surprising.

From a Christian perspective, there are also questions. Is it right to accept an honour and be associated with (tainted by?) the powers that be? On the other hand, is it an opportunity for witness, and if so, how do we ensure the glory goes to God, not the recipient of the honour? How does it fit eschatologically, when Jesus refers to those who will be rewarded in the age to come and those who have had their reward already?

What do you think?

Dishonesty On The Increase In The UK

Academic research has found
that Britons are less honest than ten years ago. (Also reported in The Independent and the Daily Telegraph.) Here are some of the headline findings:

* Younger people are more likely to be dishonest than older people. Under 25s scored only 47 on an ‘integrity scale’, whereas over 65s averaged 54. The mean for all ages was 50.

* Ten years ago, 70% of people said having an affair was never justified. Now only 50% say that. The Faithfulness Matters campaign is timely, not only in highlighting the foul practices of a company like Global Personals in setting up sites that encourage affairs, but in standing against a worrying trend in our society (which doubtless Global Personals is exploiting).

* Women are slightly more honest than men. (Is this because women encourage a greater culture of openness?)

* Yet whereas ten years ago 78% of people disapproved of benefit fraud, now 85% do.

The Daily Mail has a graph showing the differences for ten different indicators.
It’s interesting to see why the academics are concerned. Professor Paul Whiteley said:

“If social capital is low and people are suspicious and don’t work together, those communities have worse health, worse educational performance, they are less happy and they are less economically developed and entrepreneurial. It really does have a profound effect,” he said.

“If integrity continues to decline in the future, then it will be very difficult to mobilise volunteers to support the Big Society initiative,” he added.

He went on to say that a major reason behind dishonesty in younger generations was poor rôle models. Most of the examples he cites are those known from the media:

“If you think about it, you know, footballers that cheat on their wives; some journalists that hack into phones; behaviour in the City, where people are selling financial instruments they think are no good but do not say so. These kind of things,” he said.

So what do we make of this?

First of all, let’s leave aside whether we ideologically agree with the Big Society or not, the more important question Professor Whiteley brings out is about social capital. Effectively, individualism is destroying society. So I’ll pick up someone else’s money, I’ll have an affair, but woe betide people who cheat on social security, because that means I have to pay more tax and National Insurance. Margaret Thatcher said there was no such thing as society, and the rampant individualism of the 1980s when she was in power is now taking its vicious toll on society.

So given the fragmentation of society, it’s now everyone for themselves. There are honourable exceptions and good examples in places of people coming together for the common good, but the social forces (or should I perhaps say, anti-social forces) are against this. Instead of being with one another, we are more in competition with one another, and so – as some commenters on the BBC story noted – we will lie to gain a competitive advantage. If the only way to get a doctor’s appointment soon is to tell the receptionist it’s urgent when it isn’t, we’ll do that.

Second, one commenter asked where the church was in the debate. Several replied angrily that the church had lost all credibility in the honesty stakes due to child abuse cover-ups. While I think some people are likely to raise that case because they want the church excluded from public debate, it is clear that this issue is still substantially harming our witness in the civic arena.

How the church will recover credibility is a big question. We are as distrusted as other institutions. The child abuse scandal means that the postmodern suspicion of power has been applied to us. People think we are only ‘in it for ourselves’ – the same spirit that creates a lying culture.

It will take a long, sustained period to recover a public acceptance of our integrity. By the time it happens, many more churches will be gone. But I think it starts with a humble church, rather than a hectoring, lecturing church.

Facebook Makes You Sad

Apparently, the more time you spend on Facebook the unhappier you will be. According to this research,

Those who have used Facebook longer agreed more that others were happier, and agreed less that life is fair, and those spending more time on Facebook each week agreed more that others were happier and had better lives. Furthermore, those that included more people whom they did not personally know as their Facebook “friends” agreed more that others had better lives.”

And also,

An earlier study conducted last year by the American Academy of Pediatrics also found that children and teenagers can develop “Facebook Depression” when being overwhelmed with positive status updates and photos of happy friends.

It all seems to be down to the image we project on Facebook. We’re all shiny, happy people, apparently:

Why would this be? A few possibilities occur to me:

1. We like to play pretend, and portray a good image of ourselves.

2. Being honest is altogether too dangerous in some circles. “I’m fine.”

3. Despite all the trend towards openness encouraged on social networks (watch out if Facebook changes the privacy controls again), some of us are careful about posting negative things, even if we honestly believe or think them.

4. We’re prone to a ‘grass is always greener on the other side’ mentality, due to a lurking pre-existent sense of dissatisfaction with our lives.

Of course, none of this is true in the church …

Hope For ‘Failing’ Pastors

All sorts of jobs have particular pressures today. My work as a minister certainly has. There is all sorts of pressure against whatever might be regarded as failure:

* In the light of numerical church decline, many churches are looking for a hero to ride over the horizon and come to their rescue. I have seen Methodist profiles where circuits explicitly seek a minister ‘with a proven record of church growth’.

* In a culture where we are increasingly regarded as employees in principle, even if not (yet?) legally – appraisals and reviews, ‘letters of understanding’ about new appointments – people think they can have their say, and if they don’t think ministers are meeting their expectations – whether they are reasonable or not – they turn the screw.

* It is seen in other professions. Politicians think they can harvest extra votes by more quickly dismissing ‘failing’ teachers.

* Alongside the above reasons, there are cases where a minister has behaved in a manner unbecoming of their calling, and the church authorities have glossed it over.

* The opposite has happened: a congregation has been allowed to get away with bullying its minister, and the church hierarchy has been more interested in preserving a fictional facade of niceness that a wounded minister limps off elsewhere, or maybe is lost to the ministry.

* As implied in the last point, there is a culture of ‘pretend’, if not of outright dishonesty, that pervades too many churches, which makes it difficult for people, ministers especially, to be open and vulnerable about their fears.

In the light of all this and more, an American pastor called J R Briggs organised a conference last year called the Epic Fail Pastors’ Conference, and he’s doing the same again this year. It’s in the USA, so my expenses won’t quite stretch, so I won’t be there (although apparently last year one delegate flew from Australia). They are deliberately not meeting in a flash convention centre in a fashionable city. They aren’t announcing any big names. Much of the schedule is taken up with ‘time together’.

I nearly typed that I wished them a ‘successful’ conference, but that would open up an interesting conversation about what truly constitutes success. But I do wish all the participants healing, hope and peace.

Etta James, R.I.P.

Soul and blues singer Etta James has died at the age of 73. She was rarely in the pop charts, although her biggest success – her cover of Muddy Waters‘ ‘I just want to make love to you’ – reached number 5 in Britain in 1996, but that was on the back of its inclusion in a Diet Coke advertisement:

Various reports around the web (including the BBC one to which I link above) give accounts of her life and music, so I won’t repeat that here. Suffice to say that she was born into disadvantage, like many early soul stars she began singing in church, she was only intermittently successful in her career and she had to conquer a long addiction to heroin. Not all her music was as brassy, bold and lustful as ‘I just want to make love to you.’ The song that became a wedding favourite, ‘At last’, was lush and gentle, with supper club overtones:

‘I’d rather go blind’ was poignant and melancholy, in the Southern Soul tradition:

Etta James was one who never reached superstardom. She flew just under the radar for much of her career. Occasionally she was recognised. In the last few years that happened in the wake of Beyoncé‘s portrayal of her in the 2008 film ‘Cadillac Records‘.

Most of us spend our lives flying under the radar, barely or fleetingly recognised. Fame and fortune are no ways to sustain life and self-esteem, but lack of affirmation can destroy it, too. I guess when Etta James was singing in her grandparents’ Baptist church, she heard a message about a God who loved her dearly. In the end, there is nothing better to sustain any of us than the knowledge that we are loved with an everlasting love. Even Jesus evidently needed to hear that message at his baptism.

So rest in peace, Ms James. You had soul. We heard it. You were loved. We all are.

The Long, Slow Lingering Death Of Eastman Kodak

On a day when Eastman Kodak has filed for bankruptcy protection from its creditors, this seems like a poignant (if rather obvious) song:

Like Paul Simon, ‘I got a Nikon camera.’ But it doesn’t shoot Kodachrome. It’s digital.

I used to have a 35 mm Canon camera. Sometimes I shot Kodachrome, especially when I visited the Holy Land in 1989. I got through twenty-nine rolls of Kodachrome 25. The slow ISO was fine in the bright heat, and its pale to neutral colour bias was right for a dusty land. Back in the UK, I used to prefer the bold, green colours of Fuji Velvia, though.

But not any more. It’s SD cards and Adobe Photoshop Elements for me now.

Kodak was slow to adapt to the culture. It was there at the invention of digital photography, but they refused to bring out what would have been the first digital camera, for fear of damaging their income from roll film. Rather like the church not wanting to offend longstanding worshippers by finding new ways of reaching out to the unchurched, Kodak held back – and is now withering on the vine. The parallels are disturbing.

Today’s news reminds me of a story I read in the newsletter of the (ironically now defunct) organisation MARC in December 1990. On page 3 of that issue, Bryant Myers told this story:

There is a story of a company that manufactured drill bits for over forty years. It had been very successful, but the industry was maturing and profit margins were getting thin.

The son of the founder attended his first senior staff meeting after his father died.

“What business are we in?” he asked the older men, who had served alongside his father for many years.

“We make drill bits!” came the exasperated answer. “Our customers need drill bits.”

“No. Our customers need holes,” the young man quietly replied. Today the company is again successful. In addition to drill bits, it manufactures lasers that make very precise holes.

Kodak’s business was not film but images. We might not want to talk about the church’s business, because economic and consumerist metaphors can be dangerous for us. But we do need to ensure that we are concentrating on our core Gospel calling in a way that can speak to people today, and that almost certainly won’t be in the way it spoke to some of our senior remaining generations.