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Cohabitation, Marriage And Fragile Relationships

How do we see cohabitation as Christians? I’d be interested in your thoughts. I have many Christian friends who adopt the ‘traditional’ view, but an increasing number who live together before marriage. Friends of both persuasions read this blog.

I’ve known for years that research that suggests those who cohabit are more likely to break up than those who don’t. I seem to recall figures that couples who cohabit and then marry are 60% more likely to divorce than couples who only move in together at marriage. Couples who cohabit but never marry are twice as likely to break up as couples who marry without cohabiting first. However, I’ve lost the references to that research, so my memory of it may be faulty.

I have, though, now come across some nuanced research from a Christian perspective that not only shows the greater likelihood of cohabiting couples to break up, but also goes into something I had long thought: that there are many reasons for cohabitation. While in some less bureaucratic societies a couple moving in together did constitute marriage, cohabitation in our society has a number of different reasons. Informal marriage, trial marriage, a rejection of marriage, a matter of convenience and so on. The report, ‘Cohabitation – an alternative to marriage?‘  comes from the Jubilee Centre. One of the researchers was interviewed by Cross Rhythms.

It can’t all be about statistics, of course. It must also be about what we believe to be the core principles of marriage and relationships. For example, is a sexual relationship covenantal or even sacramental?

So – over to you. How do you see this?

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Latest Music Reviews

A little sideline I have is to write a few music reviews for the Cross Rhythms website. I have just written reviews on another four, and thought I would take a moment to highlight two of them. Christian music gets slated in some circles for being inferior to the mainstream, and there is some justification for this criticism. Art gets reduced to propaganda, and an ‘it will do’ attitude sometimes has to prevail for budgetary reasons. However, the two releases I am about to mention stand worthy comparison with anything I have heard anywhere in the last year. No bones about it.

The Redemption Center‘s album Land Of Plenty is top-class Americana. It has joy and melancholy, personal devotion and social concern. If you like the Jayhawks, Steve Earle, the Vigilantes of Love or Lost Dogs, this is for you. Go to their listening room to hear the album.

The other album is vastly different – from The Redemption Center, from anything else I’ve ever heard. Jason Carter is a virtuoso guitarist, particularly known for playing a baroque instrument, the harp guitar. Along with his twin neck acoustic classical guitar, he adds looping and sampling from around the world. So his CD Falling has influences from Germany, Finland (professional female funeral singers), Afghanistan and the North Korean Military Orchestra and Choir. Yes, really. The more western stuff can sound a little like Phil Keaggy‘s instrumental albums, but it’s largely quite demanding stuff to listen to – I think one track had fourteen beats to the bar, for example. So it is very surprising when he ends with a reading of Abide With Me!

Here is the relatively conventional You Shine

and here is the more demanding Pühajärve

Enjoy!

Christian Books: Amazon Versus Christian Bookshops

I’ve decided to draft a few thoughts after Phil Groom‘s comment and pingback on the last post. Please pitch in with your own thoughts.

I write as a punter, not a professional in the booktrade. I am a ‘professional’ who needs to keep reading Christian theology.

What is in favour of Amazon and the online stores? First of all, price. Stipends for most ministers are OK but not great (I’m not moaning, I knew what to expect), and this means being careful financially. The discounts available online are broadly, although not always, better than is available in a typical Christian bookshop. It’s important to note, though, that discounts online are not necessarily about being able to afford that on high volume titles, because that is not usually the case with Christian books – unless you count The Shack, I suppose. I am sure that most of the religious hardbacks and paperbacks sold at Amazon would fall within the parameters of what some commentators call ‘the long tail’, that huge array of low-selling stock that they specialise in, rather like online CD and MP3 sites doing well on back catalogue. Furthermore, I can use a price comparison site like Bookbrain to check prices if something has been published in the UK. 

Second is range. Some Christian bookshops are very restricted in what they carry, not only as a function of only being able to afford small premises, but on theological grounds. And yes, I say that as an evangelical! The days may be gone when Michael Saward could caricature Christian Literature Crusade as Constricted Literature Crusade, but it’s not long since I discovered an evangelical bookshop that didn’t stock Eugene Peterson. I really don’t want Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer: I know they sell and realise there are economic necessities involved here. I think it’s a moot point why that tat sells: is it the advertising power of certain Christian companies, and/or is it pastors promoting nonsense in the pulpit? (That alone is worth a debate, I think.)

But this is not simply about theological narrowness: sometimes the work I want to read is not published in the UK, so the ability of an Amazon to get stock from, say, the States, is a distinct advantage to me. 

What works in favour of the conventional Christian bookshop? It may be a truism, but it’s worth restating: Christian bookshops can (or should) be a ministry, with a certain atmosphere and ambience, whereas Amazon and their ilk are businesses. (Not that I’m having a go at business.) A Christian bookshop can win me over by the personal qualities of the staff, not just the discounts. Some work hard on this, a few don’t.

A few examples from personal experience: when I trained for the ministry in Manchester, the local SPCK shop had a terrible reputation with theological students. It should have been our first port of call, but it had staff who were like the Christian version of Bernard Black in the TV show Black Books. Two disgruntled former employees left and set up a rival operation called St Denys. They knew they needed to reach students, and set about to do so. Good coffee was offered to every visitor. Students producing ID received 10% discount. The staff were theology graduates, and knew the field and gave good advice.

Similarly, my old friend Brenda Franklin at CLC in Chatham when I served in the Medway Towns was the exemplary Christian bookshop manager, and followed a difficult situation. She knew the trade and knew her faith. She always went the extra mile to trace a book. She was familiar with new titles, had read widely herself and could give an opinion. Most of all, she set up a specific scheme to reach out to local church leaders with monthly newsletters. While I didn’t often order expensive academic doorstops from her, I ordered more than I would have done if I had only wanted to save money. You could say that what she did wasn’t rocket science, but having come across the odd Basil Fawlty (as well as Bernard Black) in Christian bookshops, the Brendas of this world are a delight. 

My other example of excellence in the ministry of a Christian bookshop would be a current one: Jo Jones at the ‘Guy Harlings bookshop’ in the Chelmsford Diocesan Resources Centre. You’d expect Jo to have a good idea of what clergy are interested in, and she does. She knows it even more as one training for ordination herself, but I guess that means sadly for us we’ll lose her from the shop before too long. This is the first appointment in which I have ended up taking school assembiies. Jo has been brilliant for her knowledge of useful books. They would have been available online, but the advice couldn’t have been, notwithstanding the customer reviews on websites, which don’t count for as much in my eyes.

One last thing to mention before throwing this open is the rise of Christian online stores. I guess the most prominent one I know for books is Eden. They seem to have a wide knowledge of the church scene, across all sorts of traditions. They also sell CDs, DVDs and other resources. There is a reasonable discount, which I appreciate, although the postage costs are a disincentive and have driven me back at times either to Amazon or a local bookshop. I can’t get advice from them.

Wider than books, I should also mention Cross Rhythms Direct. Their main speciality is CDs, with some DVDs, and they have recently branched out into books but are far less confident there. CR began as a print music magazine for the Christian scene. The CD prices are the most competitive I know for Christian music, although you can opt out of your discount to give to a worthy cause. Many of the CDs have reviews, but that is where I need to make a disclosure: I am one of their CD reviewers!

Well, hopefully that’s enough to get a discussion going. What are your thoughts? Over to you!

Sabbatical, Day 87: A Nothing Day

It’s difficult to know what to report today. With both children off school, interruptions come thick and fast, especially from Rebekah our extreme extravert. She thinks the job description of parent is ‘professional entertainer’. 

Mark, on the other hand, can enjoy company providing he’s offering the entertainment. He has a developing line in cheeky humour, and few things please him more these days than making people laugh. That included the doctor yesterday. However, sustained periods of company drain him (yes, he’s an introvert like me), but the flip side of that is that he can enjoy his own company and occupy himself.

Last night proved rough, with him waking several times. We all slept in today, and I postponed going for my annual fasting blood test at the hospital. Mark was chirpier today when he woke up, but needed more sleep later and also complained of various headaches (which could underline the scarlet fever hypothesis) and other aches and pains. He went to sleep quickly tonight, but has already been awake coughing a couple of times.

So there has been little I could achieve today. The thought of concentrating on some serious reading is out of the question on days like today. Debbie gets behind on tasks she wants to accomplish, too.

We’ve also not heard back yet from the lady with the animal rescue clearing house about the two pairs of cats we’d like to consider.

Probably the main thing I finished today was my batch of Cross Rhythms CD reviews. The last one was not my normal taste in music, but highly commendable if you like hip-hop soul. He’s called Stanley Porter, he used to be a school teacher in the States and I think he deserves a deal with a major label.

Finally, on the music front, a very pleasing arrival in the post today. Lately on the MP3, I’ve been listening to new stuff by the wonderful Irish singer Juliet Turner. She is multi-platinum across the Irish Sea, but barely known here. Perhaps she is best known for her version of Julie Miller‘s ‘Broken Things’ that she played at the memorial service for the Omagh bombing victims in 1998:

She refused to release it as a single, although she did record it for the ‘Across the Bridge of Hope‘ CD that supported the cause.

Last week, I spotted a bargain on Amazon Marketplace. Her debut CD from 1996, Let’s Hear It For Pizza, has become difficult to find. The website for the record company, Sticky Music, seems to have disappeared from the web, and new copies sell for around £20. But this used copy was £4.99. It came today.

If you like what you hear of her above, her Live CD is a good place to start.

Sabbatical, Day 38: Music And Search Engine News

Today has involved a fair bit more reading of Clay Shirky, including the chapter where he describes how the revolution in technology and social tools completely changed the ability of Catholic laity to protest against sexual abuse by priests in Boston. When I’ve finished reading Here Comes Everybody, I’ll blog it in a series.

Family-wise, we’ve been giving Rebekah a severe lecture for knots in her hair that we had to cut out. She seems more obsessed with twiddling her hair (or that of school friends) than concentrating on her work. Being the mean parents we are, we are sending the hair we cut to her teacher.

I’ve also done some more Cross Rhythms reviewing today. A special word for Welsh singer-songwriter Phil Lewis (Facebook page here). Highly recommended for lovers of 80s-influenced pop-rock. He doesn’t have the big budget some artists have, but if he did I think he’d make a big impact. And for something different, Native North American worship music from Waking The Sound. There’s no way I would have heard that without being a CR reviewer. Quite extraordinary.

In other music news, I was delighted to receive an email from Vineyard Music UK announcing the release of a new CD by bluesy American worship guy Chris Lizotte. Nothing sugary about his stuff, even when the lyrical content is conventional. Here he is, singing Brighter Day with Crystal Lewis:

In technology news, The Guardian has a piece on the latest potential Google-killer. Wolfram Alpha claims to have found the holy grail of computing with the intelligence to understand human questions. It launches in May. It’s confusing that it’s caused Alpha: it sounds like it hasn’t even reached beta status. However, you can apply to participate in the beta testing on the site. It only seems months since the last Google-killer was announced and hyped, only to be ruined by bloggers (including obscure ones like me) pointing out that it didn’t deliver good results. I wonder whether this will be any different.

Sabbatical, Day 34: Computer Troubles, The CT Scan, Christian Music And Animation

Recurring computer frustrations this morning. McAfee Security Center is trying my patience. Twice this week it has thrown up warnings, saying the PC isn’t protected. It invites you to click a button to fix the problems, and it doesn’t. Earlier in the week, it demanded uninstallation and an upgrade. That seemed a bit rich, given I was subscribed over a year in advance. That time and today, forcing a search for updates seemed to solve the problem. If it keeps misbehaving, I may write off what I’ve paid ahead of time and replace it with a  high quality free anti-virus offering such as Avast and the excellent if rather talkative firewall from Comodo.

The other sinner this week has been our Canon Pixma iP5200 printer. We keep getting documents printed without that rather crucial colour, black. And that’s a disadvantage with text! Each time, it’s the same fault. One of the two black cartridge nozzles needs cleaning. It has been an excellent workhorse, but I’m beginning to suspect built-in obsolescence. It’s three years old, and everyone knows manufacturers make little money from the printers themselves, cashing in on the inkjet cartridges. And in an economic model like that, the manufacturers are being pushed hard by the widespread availability of compatibles. What a ghastly parable of our whole creaking economic system.

…………

This afternoon began with the CT scan on my sinuses. Thanks to Olive for her lovely comment on yesterday’s post. It was a strange experience, different from what I was expecting. For a start, I was seen on time, so congratulations to the Radiology Department at Broomfield Hospital! I was taken from the main radiology waiting room to a separate CT scan waiting room.

Asked if I had any jewellery, I mentioned my watch and wedding ring, neither of which I had to remove anyway. And although they are both strictly jewellery, I never think of them that way. ‘Bling’ is not a word anyone who knows me would associate with me. The watch is a tool for a job, and the wedding ring is my visual aid to remind me wherever I am that I have the privilege of being married. 

The nurse also asked me if I had any questions, and I explained my main concern was with lying still on my back, given that’s the position in which I find it hardest to breathe – and ironically the reason why I was having the test. The appointment letter had said the procedure would last between ten and thirty minutes. However, if I was under the scanner for five minutes, that’s all it was. Sinuses are among their simpler cases, apparently – and thankfully!

Lying under the scanner, I had certain expectations of what would happen. I thought it would be one long, steady, slow pass through what the staff referred to as the ‘doughnut’. Actually, I went forward and backward two or three times in semi-jerky movements. The whirring, flashing ring reminded me of something from Star Trek, perhaps a glorified version of the sight gadget Geordi La Forge wore. (No, I’m not a Trekkie: I had to research the character’s name.) When it slowed down, it sounded like a tube train coming into a station. From Geordi La Forge to Underground Ernie, I guess. 

…………

I’m tired tonight, so nothing intellectually demanding. I’m reviewing some CDs for Cross Rhythms. Every couple of months, they send me four releases to write up, and the musical styles can vary greatly.

First off tonight, a compilation from the now defunct American girl-pop trio Zoegirl. It’s highly professional yet very derivative of other teen pop. Like Andy Crouch, I believe Christians should be Culture Making rather than culture copying. However, it does have the merit of lyrics that attempt to boost the self-esteem of teenage girls. I suspect the members of Zoegirl are utterly sincere Christians, working within a less than entirely honourable industry. Hits: Greatest Zoegirl is their third compilation since 2005. It came out last year, and there’s another comp of them being released next month! It’s hard to have kind words for an industry that behaves like that.

Currently playing while I’m typing is Hold On For Life by the Arkansas Gospel Mass Choir. Right now, I’m only seven tracks out of ten through a first listen, so any opinions now are highly provisional. It doesn’t break any new ground in the black gospel genre, either musically or lyrically, and some annoying pseudo-live sounds are overdubbed, but you can’t get over the extraordinary power and quality of those voices, and a great brass section. 

…………

I’m signing off tonight with an amazing piece of animation. A friend just sent me the link to Animator Vs Animation by Alan Becker. It’s an amazing treat.

Goodnight!

Authenticity And Creativity

Having just quoted in the last post from An Hour On Sunday by Nancy Beach, there is a quote from that book I have been meaning to post for reflection for ages. She includes it in her chapter on authenticity. It would also fit with what she says about creativity.

She tells on page 186 of how a friend had drawn her attention to an article in GQ magazine that was painful reading for Christians. Walter Kim, not a Christian disciple, had chosen to immerse himself in the evangelical subculture for a week – music, videos, even an exercise régime. His words were damning:

‘[Evangelical Christianity] is mall Christianity. It’s been malled. It’s the upshot of some decision that to compete with them – to compete with ‘N Sync and Friends and Stephen King and Matt and Katie and Abercrombie and Fitch and Jackie Chan and AOL and Sesame Street – the faithful should turn from their centuries-old tradition of fashioning transcendent art and literature and passionate folk forms such as gospel music … and head down to Tower or Blockbuster and check out what’s selling, then try to rip it off, on a budget if possible and by employing artists who are either so devout or so plain desperate that they’ll work for scale. What makes the stuff so half-assed, so thin, so weak and cumulatively so demoralizing … has nothing to do with faith. The problem is lack of faith.’

(Walter Kim, “What Would Jesus Do?”, GQ magazine, September 2002, p 496.)

Well, where to begin? Mall Christianity? (Love that ‘It’s been malled’ pun, by the way.) Yes: so much evangelical Christianity is consumerist, and thus in denial of the Gospel. What a tragedy when you think where the contemporary Christian music scene started out from: the revolutionaries of the Jesus Movement around the late 1960s and early 1970s who were committed to a radical lifestyle. Now it only matters if it sells. No wonder the likes of Larry Norman never fitted in with it.

The quote is also the best piece of writing for making me reflect on why the wider world has despised contemporary Christian music. It’s easy to say that it doesn’t get played on grounds of prejudice, and I don’t doubt that is partly true – the deliberate snubbing by the media of bands like Delirious? is a case in point. But what Kim makes us forcefully see here is the sheer problem of a lack of originality. You can read reviews of Christian music and there is a need to compare the sound with something on the ‘secular’ scene that readers may be familiar with (I know that, I write reviews myself for Cross Rhythms) but sometimes it’s a sad expression of the paucity of artistry. Although too many of the American artists are certainly not working ‘for scale’: some command enormous fees. Material poverty isn’t absent from the US scene, but it’s far more common this side of the pond.

But what has stuck with me most since I first read this a few weeks ago is the way Kim latches on to the positive regard he and others have for our ‘centuries-old tradition of fashioning transcendent art and literature and passionate folk forms such as gospel music’. I knew ‘the world’ liked our ancient paintings, sculpture, stained glass windows and classical music, but I had assumed that was a spot of traditionalism. I knew there was a fondness for gospel music, but had assumed there was a certain stereotyping going on. (Think Kenny Everett and the large hands.) What Kim is saying here is that these art forms were original. Perhaps that’s why there is an innate respect today for U2, T-Bone Burnett, Bruce Cockburn, et al. Integrity and authenticity require honest creativity.

Kim’s writing leaves me wondering whether to label him what I have called elsewhere in a sermon on the arts and culture one of God’s unwitting prophets. We certainly need to hear his voice.