Category Archives: Culture

Contrasting Amy Winehouse And Danniella Westbrook

Last night, my friend Dave Clemo made a contrast between Amy Winehouse and Danniella Westbrook on his Facebook page. Referring to Winehouse’ death and Westbrook’s conversion, he wrote:

Amy Winehouse & Daniella Westbrook. Both were young and famous. Both had serious drug addictions. One died, the other survived and has been clean for ten years. One is dead, the other is born again. That’s the reality of faith in the Lord Jesus.

While I share Christian faith with Dave I would put it slightly differently, since Westbrook had been clean for drugs for about eight years before she found faith in Christ. However, there is certainly a poignant contrast to be made between these two famous young women who consumed vast quantities of narcotics. In addition to Dave’s words, I received this afternoon the weekly email from The Word Magazine, in which the lead quote was from Winehouse:

I don’t need help because if I can’t help myself I can’t be helped.

How tragic is that? Westbrook sought help – first to be rid of her addiction, second in faith. Winehouse ruled out the possibility. Some criticise Christianity for being a ‘crutch’, but what if we all have broken legs, so to speak? While there are certain forms of dependency that are immature, to deny the need of dependence upon others is dangerously foolish, as Winehouse’s words show.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not writing this to join in some pious post-mortem condemnation of Winehouse. I hope and pray that whatever went on in her final hours and days, the God of mercy was reaching out to her. But perhaps an age that talks of either not needing help or only of self-help needs to hear again that a true mark of maturity is knowing when and where to seek help.

Life and eternity depends on it.

A Brucie Bonus

There is no new sermon for tomorrow. Having to give up time yesterday to help nurse a son who had to come home from school mid-morning, I never got the new sermon finished. I ended up abandoning ship and lightly revising last year’s Pentecost message. After all, I’m in a new location, and furthermore not even at one of my two churches in the morning.

However, I did find a wonderful video for Pentecost on the web, which I’ll be using in the morning. My Facebook friends have already seen this, but here it is (again):

You can download it free in HD format here.
Meanwhile, in other news, headlines have been made here in the UK today by the publication of the annual Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Topping the news has been the knighthood for beloved entertainer Bruce Forsyth. Seventy-three MPs had signed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons, calling for him to be knighted. (He was appointed CBE in 2005.) This honour is for ‘services to entertainment and to charity’.

Now, I have nothing against dear old Brucie, and indeed I have a tenuous claim-to-fame link with him: we grew up along the same road. Not at the same time: he is about the same age as my father. He was a local hero due to that fact, even if a little scathing in his autobiography about the way the town declined in latter years, in contrast to how nice it apparently was when he lived there. In his light entertainment career, he has put smiles on the faces of millions. And never more for me than the classic time he first hosted Have I Got News For You in 2008:


However, contrast this with the announcement that founder of The Message Trust Andy Hawthorne has also been awarded an honour, the OBE. He can’t beat Brucie’s sixty years in show business, but he has put nearly twenty years into work in some of the most deprived estates, with difficult young people and prisoners.

The question I ask is, who has given more to society? Because for me it’s Hawthorne. I have no problem with a nation having an honours system, even if ours contains some anachronisms mostly associated with the monarchy and some remembered feudalism. If a society wants to honour those who have made a positive difference to them, fine. And perhaps that will include entertainment, and even sport, given the gongs also awarded for our cricketers thrashing a poor Australian team last winter.

But make a difference? I’m sure Bruce has raised a lot of money for charity, but Andy Hawthorne has got his hands dirty. To me, in kingdom terms, Hawthorne deserves the higher honour, hands down. At least he awaits a reward in glory. In the meantime, this is an area of British life that only reflects God’s kingdom extremely imperfectly.

What do you think? What would you do with the Honours system?

Religion And The Entertainment Culture


Marshall Shelley
writes:

When entertainment is the air everyone breathes, it’s natural for people to respond to whatever worship media we use with either “I like that” or “I don’t like that”—even when liking it or not isn’t the point. That’s how you’re conditioned to respond in an entertainment-based culture.

Does this explain a lot of comments ministers receive about worship or other aspects of church life? As well as those comments, I recall turning up at one church as the visiting preacher to lead an act of all-age worship. Before the service, somebody said, “I hope you’re going to entertain us this morning.”

I replied, “I thought we were here to worship God.”

So – thoughts, anyone?

What I do know is that it reminds me of something that happened to me once. I had applied to my bank for a loan to buy a new car. As the staff member took me through the interview in his office, he had to fill in various details about me on the computer. When it came to the question of my occupation, there was no option for ‘minister of religion’ or anything similar. After a lot of deliberation, eventually he said: “I know what I’ll classify you as: entertainer!”

The Poetry Of Steve Turner

If there was one subject I disdained at school, it was English Lit. Too girlie by half, it was. Especially for us scientists. What use was it? I never clicked that literature was a powerful way of communicating a message, despite my enjoying the (anti-)war poetry of Wilfred Owen. Eng Lit was the only O-Level for which I didn’t revise. For some reason, I failed it.

My views began to soften a few years after leaving school. An article in Buzz Magazine extolled the virtues of a Christian rock poet called Steve Turner. I sought out his first book ‘Tonight We Will Fake Love’. The edition I have sells for £45 today on the Internet. If only I had the original edition from Charisma! A few years later it was followed by ‘Nice And Nasty’ , which contains his famous poem ‘History Lesson’:

History
repeats itself.
Has to.
No-one listens.

And to drive home the point, that poem appears four times throughout the book.

Other collections followed, notably ‘King Of Twist’, and Turner also ventured into rock books (having started as a rock journalist). He wrote biographies of, or titles themed on, the Beatles, U2, Johnny Cash, Van Morrison and the rôle of religion in music. He also wrote a splendid book on a Christian vision for the arts entitled ‘Imagine‘.

But just lately I’ve come back to his books, and here’s how it happened. Recently I spoke at a midweek renewal meeting as a favour to the friend who runs it. He met me before the meeting and gave me an envelope. I protested.

“No, Mike, I’m doing this tonight because you are my friend. I don’t want a fee.”

But he insisted. “It’s not a fee, it’s a gift. Spend it on the children.”

I soon knew what I wanted to do with this gift. Since the mid-90s, Steve Turner has written collections of poetry for children. I have longed for the time when I could introduce our two to his work. Off I set on a virtual journey to [the] Amazon, and into my basket I placed ‘The Day I Fell Down The Toilet‘, ‘Dad You’re Not Funny‘, ‘I Was Only Asking‘, ‘Don’t Take Your Elephant To School‘ and ‘The Moon Has Got His Pants On‘.

They arrived this weekend. For the last two days there has been unbridled hilarity at our dining table as the children have either asked me to read another poem to them, or they have read some out loud. Sometimes the language needs a little explanation, but Steve Turner is giving my children a further introduction to the joys of language at a younger age than I ever had. What a gift.

Is Internet Access A Human Right?

Various websites are reporting a study for the BBC in which 79% of respondents (27,000 people around the world) say that Internet access is a fundamental human right. The BBC report itself is here, and the full report in PDF is here. Tech sites such as PC Pro report it, too.

Much as I love techie stuff, I think we have to be careful about our language. I find it interesting that the lively comments on the PC Pro report are not all fawning agreement. The idea of net access as a fundamental right is described as ‘hogwash’ by one commenter and ‘a privilege’ by another.

The point in the report is one about communication. Here is one extract from the BBC news report:

“The right to communicate cannot be ignored,” Dr Hamadoun Toure, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), told BBC News.

“The internet is the most powerful potential source of enlightenment ever created.”

He said that governments must “regard the internet as basic infrastructure – just like roads, waste and water”.

“We have entered the knowledge society and everyone must have access to participate.”

We need to communicate. The Internet is now fundamental to that. Ergo, internet access is a fundamental human right.

‘Rights language’ is all around us. Have you noticed how politicians, when they describe some improvement in welfare or health provision, say it is what people deserve? Gordon Brown certainly does. It’s on a par with the execrable ‘Because I’m worth it’ adverts.

Am I alone in being bothered by the use of ‘human rights’ language? By the looks of those PC Pro comments, I’m not. Just to raise a doubt about human rights language today is to risk being labelled as an oppressor, but from a Christian perspective it needs challenging. In fact, I would argue such terms are used recklessly and thoughtlessly by Christians.

Why? Because – as the late Lesslie Newbigin argued – the language of human rights is secular. It arises in a post-Enlightenment society where faith in God had been relegated to the private sphere. In the public, ‘secular’ discourse, humankind was the highest rank of creature and virtually deified. Rights language is about what belongs to deities, Newbigin said. Therefore, to speak of human rights is to talk in idolatrous terms.

To many ears, this will be shocking. How else do we protect some basics of human existence? But would it not be better from a Christian perspective to speak of human dignity (because we are made in the image of God) and human need? Welfare and health provision – to return to the example of politicians – are issues of dignity and need. The ability to communicate – as Dr Touré indicates – is pretty basic to human life. Whether we all need to communicate in every which way is debatable, of course, but the fundamental need is there. If society becomes so dependent upon information via the Internet, then Christians may perceive that the gap between the information-rich and the information-poor could be a moral issue.

However, we probably need to qualify the link between the Internet and information. Firstly, it isn’t entirely the case – surely we’re not going to dignify everything from Facebook status updates to pornography with the label of ‘information’. Secondly, ‘information’ is an insufficient category for Christians. What we value is ‘wisdom’, which is more than a pile of facts: it is what moral choices we are going to make and live with those facts, in the light of God. And that is even more basic to human flourishing than information.

Disneyland

I promised a post about our trip last week to Disneyland Paris. In order to be a man of my word, here it is. Three different rambles follow below.

Money
Any increase in British visitors will be matched by a reported increase in the number of mortgage applications. Make no mistake, it is every bit as expensive as you are warned it will be. More so, actually. It makes motorway service stations look like charity shops. How much should a lunch-time cheeseburger, fries and bottle of water cost you? Did I hear someone suggest ten of our finest British pounds? Why, you would be right, sir.

And the other costs are equally appalling, be it food, drink, ice cream, gifts or small necessities. The place is capitalism red in tooth and claw. With a captive audience (like the motorway service stations), they pick a number out and charge it. This is not a complete rant against capitalism, but marks what unrestrained sin can do. Not that laws can make people good, but if there is no competition present to rein things in, sometimes there need to be other constraints. Of course, there won’t be any restrictions on the Mickey Mouse Empire while it rakes in so many Euros for France. And yes, this is small fry compared with far more pressing needs in the world. It’s just one example of what happens when greed runs rampant. No jokes about bankers, please.

Behaviour
I also found the behaviour of the French interesting. Like any culture, the dominant characteristics were both good and bad. The hôtel staff couldn’t have been more obliging. On the other hand, many of the punters flouted the smoking bans and shoved anyone out of the way, children included, to get on a bus. I know it’s said that queuing is a peculiarly British thing, but to me it enshrines a value about fairness and equality. I know too you could  make similar credit and debit remarks about we Brits, and that none of these statements should be taken as blanket criticisms, as if one could stereotype everyone. However, it remains curious to me that certain positive and negative traits exhibit themselves within a culture. Maybe Pam BG could shed some Girardian light on this?

Story
In one park there is a statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse holding hands. Beneath it is a plaque with some words from Michael D Eisner, who was Chief Executive of Disney when the Paris operation was opened in 1992. Eisner says that the company wanted to set up a park in Europe, because it was European folk tales that had originally inspired Walt. It was therefore a ‘coming home’ of sorts.

That is at least to some extent true – think Pinocchio or Peter Pan, for example. I’m not sure how they justified their expansion to Japan, mind you!

However, one thing you inevitably can’t escape in Disneyland is the notion of story and narrative. In the Frontierland section, you realise how Disney used to tell a story of the Wild West that wasn’t sensitive to Native Americans. But it’s OK, because then they discovered Pocahontas. On the ride called ‘It’s A Small, Small World’, you travel on a boat past models of children from all around the world in their different costumes and cultures, all singing the song after which the ride is named. It becomes a narrative: everywhere, around the world, however different we are, we are really all the same underneath. (To which the Christian wants to answer both ‘yes’ and ‘no’, I think.)

It reminded me of the importance of story. So many live by a big story, be it the ones told by capitalism, communism, Islam or Christianity. Others – fearing the postmodern suspicion that these stories are power-plays to include the privileged and exclude others – choose instead to populate their lives with little segments from here and there. But the privilege of the Christian witness or preacher is to help locate people in the story of God – the story of God’s redeeming, sacrificial love, which because it is sacrificial is not a power-play. God finds each one of us and places us in his dramatic, epic story of love. We then become facilitators, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to do the same. What a privilege.

Digital Britain, Analogue Church

The Evangelical Alliance recently published some statistics about what it calls Digital Britain. They make fascinating reading. Here are some highlights. You won’t find all of it surprising, but what is clear is just how much our culture is shifting in a digital direction.

* There is a trend away from social letter-writing in favour of email, texting and IM. Only 10% of letters now delivered by the Royal Mail are now ‘social mail’. Although 72% of over-70s write such letters, it decreases to 47% of over-50s, and there is a 1-3% annual shift.

* The use of landline telephones is in sharp decline, too. In 2007, we spent only an average of 5 minutes a month making calls from fixed lines, but a staggering 136 minutes on mobiles. (I know, I find that hard to believe.) In a population of 60 million there are 74 million mobile phones in use (how many people really need more than one?) and 89% of over-14s have at least one.

* The use of email is increasing. Although it was falling out of favour with younger generations, who preferred texting, the arrival of smartphones such as the iPhone and the Blackberry have rejuvenated email among the young. Perhaps it is the mobility and that the common theme to texting and the increase again in email is the use of the mobile phone.

* Social networking is extraordinarily popular. 25% of British adults use social networking sites – a higher percentage than the Germans, French and Italians.

* Yet it’s not an interest in technology per se that is driving these increases, at least among the young. Rather, it seems they use technology to continue doing the things they were always doing: listening to music, watching TV or films, and contacting friends. Technology becomes a supplementary way of carrying out these activities, not a replacement.

The contrast with anecdotal evidence in the typical traditional church is huge. You can’t send an email late at night to someone if you suddenly think of something, because they may not be online. They might have a mobile phone, but they may not use it often, so texting is less viable, too. As for a church website, well that’s nice and they may want the church to have one but it won’t be any practical use for them, even if they realise it is a good way of getting known today.

That we do certain things differently in the church is, in my opinion, both partly right and partly wrong. It is partly right because we need to minister to and with the digital poor. Sorry if that’s an ugly or patronising expression, I don’t mean it to be, but I need to make a contrast with the digital natives and digital immigrants who are comfortable learning and using new technology.

Yet it is also partly wrong, because it concentrates on maintenance rather than mission. It preserves existing ways but does not pioneer the Gospel into the ways in which our culture is developing. Therefore the church needs continually to find new ways into the digital culture.

In one respect, such a missionary thrust is tailored to introverts like me, who by nature are drawn to the written (or typed) word. Past models of evangelism have been throughly based around extraverted approaches – think about how the word ‘evangelism’ is conceived by many Christians and they think of crusade meetings and door-to-door work. I mean no disparagement of them, nor of the many other gifts extraverts offer, but might it just be that introverts could be on the cutting edge of new approaches to mission?

If so, that will mean a complete rethink of some of the attitudes and prejudices that prevail in many churches, alongside the ‘big ask’ of adjusting to the new digital culture.

Designer Nativity

Because the Virgin Mary wore pashmina. Really.

Interview With the Pakistani Spectator

I’ve been interviewed by a journalist from the Pakistani Spectator about my blogging. You can read it here. The journalist, Imran Haider, has faithfully reproduced my replies to his questions, so thank you Imran for your professionalism and integrity.

Clay Shirky: Social Media And The Communications Revolution

In a wonderful TED Talk recorded last month, Clay Shirky details why the arrival of social media on a massive scale is a true communications revolution. His talk is prescient at a time when Twitter has been seen to be the most immediate way of delivering news from the front line of the Iran election protests.

Much of what he says derives from his fine book ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ that I blogged earlier this year during my sabbatical. If you don’t have time to read the book, watch this video, which is only seventeen minutes long. It introduces you to some of his key thinking, and it is highly relevant. Here are a couple of salient points he makes in this talk.

It isn’t when tools are shiny and new that they are revolutionary; it is when they are familiar and boring – because then they are widely distributed and used.

Furthermore, the contemporary communications revolution works on a number of fronts. First of all, we are no longer passive consumers. We do not simply receive what the professionals and the powerful broadcast to us. The same tools that make us consumers also make us producers: computers are not just for looking at websites and receiving messages, we can send messages and create our own websites and blogs. Mobile phones are not only for telephone conversations, we can send SMS and MMS messages.

And not only can we reply to the powerful and the professionals, we can then network among ourselves. We are way beyond ‘one to one’ and ‘one to many’ conversations; we now have ‘many to many’ conversations, and their significance grows exponentially with each new participant.

When the last Chinese earthquake happened, Twitter was the first service to break the news, because eyewitness accounts could be uploaded immediately. The BBC learned of the quake from Twitter. The so-called ‘Great Firewall of China‘ which existed to censor unsuitable material from the rest of the world was facing the wrong way. It was a long time before the Chinese authorities reverted to their normal clampdown methods.

Ultimately, though, the nature of the new social tools is such that there is no point discussing whether we like them or not, professionalism versus citizen journalism and all that. The horse has bolted, and this is the new world. Not to operate in it is like refusing to have a printing press, a camera, a telephone, a radio and a television.

The Barack Obama presidential campaign understood the new world well when they set up the My Barack Obama site for supporters. When Obama announced his support for something unpopular, they formed a forum on the site to oppose him and lobby him. Obama had to reply, explaining he had considered the issue and come to a conclusion they did not like, and that he would take the hits for that. What the campaign never did was censor the supporters. It realised that in the new world they could only convene them, and that was their task on the website.

Where does this leave Christians? Firstly, ignoring the new world is not an option. Communications (in all directions) are key to our faith. While we shall want to beware any values that might be inimical to our core beliefs (for example, the ‘instant’ or ‘real time’ nature of this stuff cuts both ways, between news spreading fast – good – and stunted reflection – bad), we cannot opt out. Churches that just want to set up static websites and think they are hip are behind the times. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, Flickr (I simply name the ones where I happen to have a presence) are now critical. We need to be active there. They are about more than the popular stereotype of Facebook and Twitter updates of saying what we had for breakfast. It is heartening in my own denomination to see that this year for the first time the Methodist Conference (which happens in a couple of weeks’ time) will have a Twitter feed. It’s already up and running. It will be the primary way in which I stay up to date with debates and decisions. Why wait two weeks for a Methodist Recorder report? Our weekly newspaper has instantly been rendered even more moribund than it already was.

By virtue of where I am publishing this article, I am probably to a considerable extent typing to the converted. But the argument needs to be carried elsewhere. I am not suggesting that every ninety-year-old in our churches buys a laptop and sings up with Twitter (although plenty with lively minds certainly could). However, it is as essential for the church to embrace the life in this new world as it was for the Jewish exiles to embrace life in Babylon. Not everyone will like it, but it is where we are right now, and we need to be involved.

Secondly, we must recognise that these different forms of communication will affect our worldview. Rex Miller argued as much, if not more, in his book ‘The Millennium Matrix‘. He said that Marshall McLuhan‘s famous dictum that the medium is the message wasn’t radical enough: the medium is the worldview, Miller claimed. Social media moves us from one-way proclamation of the type I engage in when I preach on a Sunday to an interactive and conversational approach. This must affect how we do church and especially how we do mission.

Thirdly, while some will be bewildered and confused by the new world, I think it gives us cause for hope. If others can get their message out so quickly and broadly, then we can too. And we should be at the forefront of the revolution, not merely copying a new trend but innovating. We are the children of the Creator God. The Church’s history of arts patronage is something we could recover here, in that we could be leaders, not simply followers in the social media world. Why not?

Anyway, I said this was a conversation, and I’ve rattled on for a thousand words now. Over to you. What do you think?