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Sabbatical, Day 78: Susan Boyle

Let me be the last blogger in the world to comment on the Susan Boyle phenomenon. This is the famous YouTube clip, with now somewhere around thirty million viewings in a week:

Visible Measures has more detailed stats. That clip is more popular than the Iraqi journalist throwing shoes at George W Bush, Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama’s victory speech.

And here is the 1999 recording she made of ‘Cry Me A River’, uncovered by the Daily Record and thought to be her only CD recording so far:

She’s being reported on even across the Pond in the Huffington PostMashable speculates she might be the biggest YouTube sensation ever. And so on.

The core of the story is, of course, that she is a forty-seven-year-old single Christian woman who has ‘never been kissed’. Her appearance is not one that displays conventional beauty. Some have taken to calling her the ‘hairy angel’. Even the official website admits the judges had probably made up their minds negatively about her before she began singing. However, they were then blown away by her voice. Piers Morgan and Amanda Holden were on their feet before she finished her audition song. Simon Cowell added his imprimatur at the end. 

My thoughts? First of all, in my experience, the Christian church has got Susan Boyles tucked away all over the place. Whatever we have by way of cheesy worship bands or choirs filled with members who remember when they had strong voices, we also have a collection of people with Susan’s kind of talent. Not only in the sense of her singing ability, but also with their commitment – like her – to quiet community work that benefits not them but those they serve. Like Susan, it may be to elderly people who don’t matter in the demographics of the advertising world. But they are there, and as Christians we should celebrate these people – their talents used in the service of God, both directly in worship and through love of neighbour as expression of love for God. 

Secondly, the Huffington Post article linked above refers to her as an example of the meek inheriting the earth – so appropriate, considering her faith, and so pleasantly surprising from such a renowned secular liberal source. The writer and commenters celebrate the triumph of someone on the grounds of raw talent rather than image and physical beauty. So let’s think about that.

For one thing, yes, this is the way God sees people – God looks at the heart, not the outward appearance. How refreshing to see that the wider world is hungry and thirsty for such an approach.

For another, it ought to be grounds for repentance in the Christian music industry. View the CD sleeves from major stars in the Contemporary Christian Music field, especially from the States, and there’s little doubt good looks are required alongside the musical ability. Of course, they will be dressed modestly, because we wouldn’t want to think any of it was about lust, would we? That only happens when someone wears revealing or provocative clothes, doesn’t it? Yeah, right.

But I also wonder how long this will last. Britain’s Got Talent is the sort of TV show that works symbiotically with the tabloid newspapers of this country. Tabloid culture has got form in this area, and it’s not promising. It’s only sixyears since Michelle McManus won Pop Idol. Not being the conventional sylph, she was an outsider. However, she won. There was widespread public sympathy for a large woman. However, nineteen months after winning the contest, she parted with her management company, and said she believed it was to do with her weight. Not only that, sections of the popular media turned against her, and her weight became the reason to poke fun at her.

I think someone needs to be ready pastorally to support Susan Boyle whenever the populist tide turns against her. For knowing the cynical nature in some of our media, I fear it is inevitable. Once they have sold newspapers to those who love her, they will want to sell copies to the other camp and not lose them.

…………

Finally, how wrong can you be? A few weeks ago, I wrote about a family service in a church where a lot of long words were used. Today, one of the Sunday School teachers told me he had the same impression of that service. However, after reading my blog post, he asked every single child what they thought of that service. Every single one of them replied that they thought it was great. They were taking on board much more complex thoughts than either he or I had anticipated they could.

Let’s hope I’m wrong about the fate of Susan Boyle, too.

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Election

Not being American, it’s pointless to a degree my expressing a preference between John McCain and Barack Obama. Except that the winner will be so influential on the UK and the world that it matters.

So I was pleased to read this open letter from James Emery White to whoever the victor is. It is the measure of a Christian attitude. It is so different from what I have read elsewhere from some Christians. Take Focus On The Family Action’s hysteria-inducing hypothetical letter imagining what the USA would look like in 2012 after the first term of an Obama presidency. (One reaction has been a bipartisan Facebook group opposing it.) Or whole blogs like Ohnobama. Or the incredible nonsense that Sarah Palin prophetically is Esther.

Now I’m aware that all the stuff I’ve denounced above is from one particular camp – the religious right. I know that filth exists on the left, too. Certainly Palin (while she cannot be a modern-day Esther – who was the king and who were the other concubines? :)) has been the victim of misrepresentation of her faith. One article on Huffington Post comes to mind. It is a mixture of genuine research and tangential ‘guilt by association’ insinuation.

And I know too that none of this should be surprising. It exposes the gulf between claims that people want high office in order to serve others and the reality that it is a grab for power. If you want power for yourself or whoever you support, you’ll adopt a ‘by any means necessary’ approach. 

Nor is this about a Brit wanting to have a go at Americans. Whatever our more reserved characters, we know enough about aggressive politics. PMQ, anyone? And neither Biden nor Palin have ‘done a Prescott’:

And my complaint isn’t about wanting to treat politics as if it doesn’t matter. It does. Christians can’t disregard it. Just concentrating on evangelism and dismissing a so-called ‘social gospel’ is sub-biblical.

Surely as Christians we can model something different for the world, where we are passionate about what we believe, even when we differ among ourselves, yet do so with humility and love. It seems to me that James Emery White’s tone models such a spirit.

I can sympathise with some of the reservations about Obama. I find his stance on abortion awful. (Although if I am to be pro-life – and I am – then that extends after the womb and takes in issues such as war and poverty, too.) I also have concerns about McCain. His tax proposals appear to favour the wealthy. (Yet on the other hand I think his stance as a Republican on green issues is noteworthy.) So it’s easy to see why Christians with particular areas of concern gravitate strongly for or against a particular candidate.

What, then, has made many Christian voices so indistinct in tone from secular ones? We have a regular problem in the church of being squeezed into the world’s mould, as J B Phillips put it. But are there particular factors either causing or exacerbating the situation?

I suspect that at least as far as the religious right is concerned, we ought to take a look at the ‘prophetic movement’. It’s been in play for several years, and led to the view that George W Bush was God’s anointed, and woe betide any Christian who disagreed. A British Christian friend of mine who works in the States with a charity that is developing drug treatments for people with AIDS couldn’t believe just how true the picture was of evangelical alignment with the Republican Party.

Yet that wasn’t going on so much a few months ago in this campaign, if I understand correctly. Disgruntlement with how McCain viewed certain issues dear to the Christian right’s agenda meant was surely a major reason why evangelical and fundamentalist churches weren’t holding voter registration drives with such enthusiasm this time. My hunch, watching from a few thousand miles away, is that it all changed when McCain announced Sarah Palin has his running mate. Not seeing that McCain surely thought of her for pragmatic reasons: he needed to pull a rabbit out of the hat so as to bring a major Republican constituency into the voting booth, suddenly Palin was the person God had kept everyone waiting for. No wonder ‘prophetic words’ began to flow. (And, please note, I believe in prophetic words. But I also believe in testing them.)

Is it part of a lust to believe we are living in times that are comparable to biblical ones, and therefore they have to be graded as such by prophecies? Are these things some kind of sign taken to mean that we are in some sense more faithful to biblical spirituality? Are we just not content to get on with days of small things (Zecharaiah 4:10) and be faithful in a few things (Matthew 25:21, 23)?

Put this approach together with the ‘grab for power’ I mentioned earlier and we have a flammable combination that leads Christians to spend more time ‘praying against’ rather than the ‘praying for’ which White exemplifies.

I don’t wish to make it sound like White’s is the only sane voice around. That would be arrogant and ignorant. It didn’t take too long to find this sane post from Rob Harrison, a Christian Republican, arguing moderately in favour of the Grand Old Party, expressing deep reservations about Obama and explaining why he thinks Hillary Clinton would have been a better Democratic candidate. From a different stable comes Jim Wallis’ post, ‘My Personal ‘Faith Priorities’ for this Election‘. (Wallis has also called on James Dobson to apologise for the ‘2012 letter’.) I know Wallis is technically independent, but most of his faith priorities lean in Obama’s direction.

So it’s galling to keep hearing the nonsense when there are thoughtful voices in the debate. Somewhere a big section of us in the church has lost a grip on servant leadership and that we see through a glass darkly, not clearly.

There is something to be said for Derek Webb‘s view that you’ll never find ‘A Savior On Capitol Hill’

even if I don’t share what sounds like a cynicism in the lyrics towards all politicians. Nevertheless, it is a timely warning for all those who offer Barack Obama semi-messianic adulation or who see John McCain (but really Sarah Palin?) as God’s anointed.

Is it too late to hope for more Christlike tone as well as content to Christian contributions regarding the election, both in terms of an increase in quantity and a greater prominence to the careful voices that are in danger of being drowned out? It’s so close to the end of the campaign that for anyone to say this now is humanly a forlorn hope. I’d like to think it might be different in four years’ time. For that to happen, the church will have to have been chastened. That might mean a whole run of failed ‘prophecies’, but it would take a lot for even that to lead to repentance in some circles. My fear is that even something that goes against the grain will just lead to a reframing of them.

But you never know. We might learn humility one day.