Thursday, January 28, 2016

Broken News: Hey, Media, Leave Them Heads Alone

ITV are dangling some outrage bait this morning with another story based on a school newsletter. This follows a nearby school last week which hit first the local, then the national papers, and a story about pyjama-wearing parents at a school in the North-East. All 3 stories were based on newsletters for parents, sent home with children.

As a parent, communication with the school is key, in both directions. It would be a real problem if the school didn't feel it could talk honestly with me about our children, and the life of the school. Headteachers around the country will be looking at this latest media bandwagon and wondering if it's still possible to communicate with parents, without their words ending up quoted in the Daily Mail and fed to the social media outrage machine.

Parents with an issue over what a school has said need to take it up with the school, not leak it to the press. Using the media to settle scores undermines the parent-school relationship for everyone. School newsletters are for the school community, they are not press releases. If there is a serious problem, then there are proper channels to go through.

Local media have a responsibility here too - in the short term, you might get a bit more web traffic, but at what cost? Not every attention-grabbing headline needs to be published. It clearly suits ITV to sex the story up: head 'demands' - really? 'apparent bid to boost attendance' - nudge nudge! Conflict generates clicks, harmony doesn't. But web traffic and sales data aren't a reliable moral compass.

And for any complaint, Jesus has some good advice: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 'School and Parent work together' won't make any headlines in your local paper (more's the pity), but then that's not the point is it?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Wonderful Life

Sad to hear that Colin Vearncombe, aka Black, has died after a car accident earlier this month. Thankyou for the beautiful music.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Be like Bill? Be like Jesus.


These have been doing the rounds on Facebook in the last week, with a simple but clever take on social media etiquette. I couldn't think of anything clever to say, and we've just been looking at discipleship, so:
this is Jesus

be like Jesus.

to which a friend replied:

Amen to that.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Ofsted Sunday School Raids: Disappointing News

Schools inspectors will not be allowed to raid Sunday schools, Scouts' meetings or Christian summer camps, David Cameron has promised MPs. (source)

Awww, what a shame. Imagine the frisson it would add to the average Sunday school if it had the chance of being raided at any moment by besuited people with clipboards. 
Jesus radicalised his disciples: they left everything to follow him, and 10 out of the 12 died as a martyr, one other died in exile, because of Jesus. So I hope any inspector would detect signs of radicalisation, and be able to recognise that being radical comes in more than 1 form. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Repainting Blue Monday

On this supposedly most depressing day of the year (not if you're an England cricket fan), is there anything more we can do but wait for Turquoise Tuesday? Yes, says an upbeat psychologist: 

"Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves."

ouch: reading this felt like hopping barefoot along a bed of nails. A useful checklist to take to your next meeting or family gathering, see how many you can spot. Though the fact that you take it as a checklist probably means you're on it.

Source: PsychCentral.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Spirit-Filled Church

"All of us here need a body that is mutually supportive, that loves one another, that stoops to lift the fallen and kneels to bind the wounds of the injured. Without each other we are deeply weakened, because we have a mission that is only sustainable when we conform to the image of Christ, which is first to love one another.
The idea is often put forward that truth and unity are in conflict, or in tension. That is not true. Disunity presents to the world an untrue image of Jesus Christ. Lack of truth corrodes and destroys unity. They are bound together, but the binding is love. 
In a world of war, of rapid communications, of instant hearing and misunderstanding where the response is only hatred and separation, the Holy Spirit whose creative and sustaining gifting of the church is done in diversity, demands that diversity of history, culture, gift, vision be expressed in a unity of love. That is what a Spirit filled church looks like." (Justin Welby)
Or as George Bebawi, tutor at my theological college once put it 'if I disagree with you, I have to love you more'. Sounds great, but so, so challenging and hard.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Church of England Attendance - Downs and Ups

Earlier this week the CofE released its latest set of attendance figures. The general downward trend was picked up by the press, and the official press release marked a welcome departure from the standard positive spin, dealing directly with the fact that membership has fallen 12% in 10 years as part of a longer-term pattern of decline. However it rightly points out that within the overall picture, there are signs of growth, and plenty of good things going on.

Here are the figures by Diocese for the last 5 years

The North-East leads the way: given that I left Durham Diocese in 2006, perhaps Bath and Wells will show the same pattern to 2020 if I hand in my notice now. 9 dioceses are growing, out of 43, and the overall pattern is still a drop of 1% a year. That's a slight improvement on the longer trends, but often what happens is that Dioceses will report better numbers over a short time frame, (Durham saw a big jump 2013-14). 16 Dioceses reported higher adult weekly attendance for the year 2013-14. But longer term these tend not to be sustained. You can see this volatility in the Diocesan charts on p44 onwards in the main report.  Also a concern is the big slowdown in growth in London.

Here's the picture in the 2 decades prior to 2020. 

 perhaps the rate of decline is slowing, but not by much. There are pockets of growth, and there's a welcome focus on the factors which make for a healthy, growing church. It will take time for this to get round, and even longer for it to be adopted. We don't have very long but at least we are now talking about this and addressing it, rather than hoping it will all go away if we do Evensong really well.

Meanwhile the ageing of the church continues to be a big issue. The CofE is failing in a key area where it needs to engage. We are seeing fewer children than ever - the table below is for Sunday attendance, if you include midweek services (which you'd expect to be better, given that adult attendance is moving towards weekdays), the drop is a staggering 29% (in the last 2 years services exclusively for schools have been excluded, which is the main reason for the drop. It takes over 100,000 off the headline figure). On the positive side, this gives the lie to anyone who claims that CofE schools indoctrinate children into the Christian faith. But that's clutching at straws.

Thinking Anglicans links to a few other pieces of commentary and analysis.Crunching the numbers (and every number is a person, but crunching people sounds like the bad giants in the BFG) in our own Diocese, there were 15-20 churches which had shown some sustained and significant growth at some stage in the last 10 years. What came as more of a surprise was that it was mainly the finance department who used the figures. We collect 'statistics for misson' but don't really look at them through mission eyes. The CofE is becoming more socially engaged - food banks, debt advice etc., but we still plough so much time, energy and effort into maintaining the buildings and the system that many small churches are too snowed under to engage well. A few other snippets from the stats: - the church continues to age, with children dropping from 16 to 14% of Sunday attenders. 29% of us are over 70.  - the 'average church' has 69 regulars, 171 people through the doors at Christmas, and carries out 10 funerals, 9 baptisms and 3 marriages a year. But hardly any churches are average - the smallest 5% have 8 members or fewer.   - about 15% of the stats are estimated, because not all the info has been collected from the 16000 churches involved - 84,000 people joined an Anglican church in 2014. 1/3 of these were worshipping for the first time, a further 1/3 had moved from another area. 15% had moved from another church (roughly the same as those who gave this reason for leaving), and 16% had returned to church after not being members for some time.  - there's been some attempt to break down the age profile of the worshipping community. In my own Diocese, over 40% of our members are aged 70+. Blackburn has the highest proportion of children (nearly 30%), London the most under-70s. With death and illness being the main factor in shrinking attendance, it's clear which Dioceses are going to face challenges in the near future. Sorry Lincoln, but it's not going to get any better.  - There's a breakdown of Christmas services - 2 1/4m people came to 'congregation and community' services, a further 2 1/2m to 'civic and school' services. - in general more rural/elderly Dioceses had higher proportions of the local population involved in church: places like Hereford, Gloucester, Bath and Wells and Carlisle. These are also the places where a higher proportion of people have church funerals, baptisms etc. London has the lowest proportion of population having a church wedding, baptism or funeral. - there's some data on relative sizes: the largest 5%  average 41 children and 178 adults involved, the smallest 5% average 8 adults and no children. Not a surprise, but neither is it an encouragement. The Church of England is at last changing, we are starting to learn from each other what makes for a thriving church, and we are starting to listen more to our communities, rather than assume folk will come to church when they work out what's good for them. That's not working for pubs - they are closing at a faster rate than churches - the way we meet and mix as a society is changing. We have to listen to that and adapt to it. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

I've got that Joy, Joy, Joy: Where? Feelings, Catharsis and a Monk

'Inside Out' takes us inside the head of an 11 year old girl, and the 5 emotions which direct her responses to the world. 'Joy' is in charge inside the girls head, but anger, fear, disgust and sadness all chip in.

One of the best things about the film is that 'Sadness' goes from being a marginal, misunderstood feeling to one that's indispensable, and there's a sense that maturity involves a more complicated mix of feelings than just being joyful all the time.

However there's also a missing ingredient: alongside the 5 emotions there's no role for reason, conscience, soul, or will. Character emerges from the interaction of the emotions. The emotions moderate each other, but the 'train of thought' only visits occasionally to take things into long-term memory, and 'abstract thought' is a hazardous and destructive zone hidden at the back of the mind.

On Sunday we used a clip from the movie in our cafe service, the following day I stumbled across this:

"there are seven principal affections that rise by turns form the one affective disposition of the soul: hope and fear, joy and grief, hatred, love and shame. All these can be ordered at one time, and disordered at another."

'Ordered' means directed towards the right thing - hating justice would be disordered, as would fear of something harmless. The writer? Richard of St. Victor a 12th century monk and theologian. Fear, joy, hatred (anger), shame (disgust) and grief (sadness). Together in Inside Out, the 5 characters all 'love our girl', so hope is the only one missing.

Richard writes of virtue being a state where our emotions are rightly ordered, and rightly moderated. I.e. directed towards the right thing, with the right intensity.

"one ought to keep cautious watch over all the virtues so that they are not only ordered but also moderated. For excessive fear often falls into despair; excessive grief into bitterness; immoderate hope into presumption; overabundant love into flattery; unnecessary joy into dissolution; intemperate anger into fury. And so in this way virtues are turned into vices if they are not moderated by discretion"

This makes a lot of sense, but can sound a bit uptight. I'm put in mind of the imam in Rev who occasionally declares 'too much humour'. Don't we need to let it all out at times? Digital Nun has this to say on the death of David Bowie:

A public figure many feel they knew personally, and who had attained some sort of iconic status, is publicly mourned in a way that may truly be called cathartic.
It is some time since I last read Aristotle’s Poetics, but I remember thinking how interesting it was that his notion of the purging of the emotions of pity and fear should be linked to the Greek word for purity, katharos. We are cleansed by the safe release of potentially destructive emotions. Isn’t that what we are seeing in the reaction to David Bowie’s death? Our own death and the feelings we have about it are somehow tied up with his. Add to that the power of the media to make us feel we have a personal connection with someone; its ability to scatter stardust over even the most ordinary activity or event; above all, the way in which it invites a sense of immediate engagement, all these contribute to the extraordinary scenes we have witnessed.
The counterpoint to this catharsis is that Bowie kept his illness a secret, something private, in one one commentator calls a revolutionary  avoidance of the private sphere in an age where more and more is done in public. Bowie himself predicted of the internet in 2000   "I think the potential of what the Internet is going to do to society both good and bad is unimaginable. I think we're on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying." In the few years I've been blogging, blogging itself has taken a back seat to the more immediate social media - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. We've moved from sharing our thoughts to sharing our lives. The more immediate the media, the more immediate the catharsis. 
What would Richard of St. Victor make of all this? What is the place of catharsis, and moderation? If we are a generation that 'hears with our eyes and thinks with our feelings', how do we make sure we become more emotionally intelligent, not just more emotional? Or am I overthinking this?

Monday, January 11, 2016

Poverty and Life Chances: Camerons Third Way?

"....There are 4 vital, social insights that I believe must anchor our plan for extending life chances.
First, when neuroscience shows us the pivotal importance of the first few years of life in determining the adults we become, we must think much more radically about improving family life and the early years.
Second, when we know the importance not just acquiring knowledge, but also developing character and resilience there can be no let-up in our mission to create an education system that is genuinely fit for the 21st century.
Third, it’s now so clear that social connections and experiences are vitally important in helping people get on.
So when we know about the power of the informal mentors, the mixing of communities, the broadened horizons, the art and culture that adolescents are exposed to, it’s time to build a more level playing field with opportunity for everyone, regardless of their background.
And fourth, when we know that so many of those in poverty have specific, treatable problems such as alcoholism, drug addiction, poor mental health we’ve got to offer the right support, including to those in crisis.
This is what I would call a life cycle approach – one that takes people from their earliest years, through schooling, adolescence and adult life.
And I believe if we take the right action in each of these 4 areas combined, with all we are doing to bring our economy back to health, we can make a significant impact on poverty and on disadvantage in our country."
Once everyone has recovered from David Bowie's death, it might be worth paying a little more attention to another David, the Prime Minister, and his speech today. The remarks above were prefaced by a brief critique of left and right 'solutions' to poverty based on economics. I wouldn't be surprised if most of the speech & strategy was written by the Centre for Social Justice (beware, slow website). 
Some of the policy announcements include:
  • extension of relationship support
  • financial education in schools, expanding a pilot CofE scheme designed to help children develop a positive attitude to saving and a responsible attitude to debt. 
  • expanding the 'Troubled Families' programme to another 400,000 families
  • a stronger focus on parenting skills in early years, incentivising the take up of parenting classes and trying to make it a normal part of becoming a parent: "I believe if we are going to extend life chances in our country, it’s time to begin talking properly about parenting and babies and reinforcing what a huge choice having a child is in the first place, as well as what a big responsibility parents face in getting these early years right." (I remember being stunned that, on a parents ante-natal course lasting several weeks, there was not a single bit of input about parenting skills, it was all about the mechanics of late pregnancy, birth, feeding etc. Ante-natal classes and health visitors have a massive opportunity to support parents and to help us learn good habits very early on. Children are too precious and vulnerable to leave this to chance.)
  • a clearer focus on character development in education, alongside the acquisition of knowledge and skills
  • expand the National Citizens Service to cover 60% of 16 year olds
  • targetted mentoring for those most at risk of dropping out of GCSEs
  • the much trailed demolition of ugly housing estates (this is fraught with risk - it will be very easy for this not to serve the people who live there, if the estate is anywhere in or around London then developer can make more money by pricing the poor out of the replacement housing built on the site. Judging by the successive waves of housing built around Yeovil, we are getting worse at building low-crime aesthetically good environments, not better, and building regulations and pressure on housing density are driving this, alongside house prices and affordability)
  • mental health: continued promotion of an open culture around talking about mental illness, support for new mothers, mental health units in A&E, waiting targets for severe illness
  • funding for more research and programmes to treat addiction

If it's done well, this could be one of the most important things this government does. There's evidence here of more in-depth thinking about the causes of poverty than we've seen before. What's interesting is that it goes further than Labour ever dared, in terms of the state taking on more parenting functions (developing character, mentoring). 

The proof will be action, rather than words - mental health spending has fallen under the coalition, and Camerons Conservatives have a poor record on housing policy and the vulnerable. They have a life-threatening blind spot on food banks, and the planned cuts to tax credits would have been a punch in the face to anyone earning below £30,000, though thankfully these were reversed

Whatever the flaws, this policy at last reckons with one of the big social facts of modern Britain, that the family unit in many places no longer does the job it once did, of transmitting value, values, skills and role models from one generation to the next. We have been avoiding the uncomfortable truths for a while,  I hope there can be a new political consensus that we need a mixed economy of social and economic policy to tackle poverty, and some of this new thinking could be vital. But it will count for very little if Cameron continues to dismantle the welfare state.

update: good piece from Tim Montgomerie on what Cameron missed out

Adrian Chiles: God on the Med

'My Mediterranean With Adrian Chiles' - doesn't give you many clues to the subject matter. Football stadiums on the med? One Bloke in a Boat? 

It's so much better than that:
“Jesus said, ‘The meek will inherit the earth.’ Well, they might do but they get no press along the way at all, they’re completely forgotten,” said Chiles. “And I’m not just talking about Christians, I’m talking about [all religions].”
The football presenter hosts a new religious series beginning tomorrow night on BBC2, for which the working title, Holy Med, has been replaced by the less religious-sounding My Mediterranean with Adrian Chiles. “The fourth word in it is ‘God’. It’s as though they think everyone will have lost their remote control,” the presenter said of a series which opens with him saying “I believe in God”, and in which he spends time with Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Judging by his interview, the BBC took any reference to religion out of the title. Here's a summary of what it's all about: a personal tour of the Med, meeting Christians, Muslims and Jews, and trying to deal with his own questions about God and faith along the way.
There were three striking things about last nights episode. I'll start with the most disconcerting. Chiles made his confession to a Catholic cardinal, speaking about his divorce in particular. Rather than offering grace, the cardinal suggested an annulment. I'm not surprised Chiles wasn't satisfied, it's an outrageous suggestion: the marriage happened, the divorce happened, but the idea that the solution is a paper technicality rather than the amazing grace of God is an insult to the gospel.
The second was the people Chiles sought out. The series was a deliberate antidote to religious fanaticism, profiling people from all 3 religions whose main goal is to do good and bless others. "I want to show that religion actually does more good than harm. I won’t be seeking out the religious zealots – they get quite enough airtime if you ask me. I just want to find the majority; the nice, normal, gentle people who happen to be religious.” It was a welcome counter-narrative to the extremists and atheists usually paraded by the media, and by radicalising groups: that we have more in common than we think, and less to be afraid of than we're told.
Which fed into the third striking thing, which was Chiles repeated argument that Jews, Muslims and Christians all worship the same God. There was a stress on the unknowability of God, and therefore the provisionality of our approach to him. Chiles said he has “more in common with a liberal Jew and a liberal Muslim than I have with even a conservative Roman Catholic”. He added: “Does it calm you down or fire you up? If it’s the latter, I think you are missing the point but who am I to judge? It’s [religious] fervour that frightens me more than anything else." Fervour was equated with wanting to convert people. 
There's more than one way to show religious fervour: you have to be highly committed to make religious vows, or to run a Catholic school with 80% of Muslim children that tries to build bridges. The peacemakers need to be just as zealous as everyone else. 
Adrian Chiles was a very engaging presenter, and last nights episode was refreshing, informative, well-paced and personal. It's a reminder that practice can often make more sense to people than theology (though the section where he tries to work out the prayer practices in a synagogue is hilarious). But the internal logic of each faith involves uniqueness: a chosen people, 'the prophet', the son of God. That didn't seem to fit with the narrative. I can understand that: Chiles (oddly for a football fan) is discomfited by passionate adherence, and wants to know that we can live together happily. But to be acceptable, we have to give up being missionary. What would Jesus do?  
Well done to Adrian Chiles for sticking his head above the parapet, more of this sort of thing please.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Coldplay: A Head Full of... What Exactly?

There are those who believe that looking for deeper meanings in Coldplay lyrics is like looking for a coherent philosophy from David Cameron, or a balanced argument in the Daily Mail. But hey, lets try anyway.

To the seasoned Coldplayer, all the familiar stuff is here on Head Full of Dreams: singalong 'whoa-oh-oh' sections, references to birds, etc. Lyrically it's more autobiographical than ever - it feels like a depressive trying to jolly himself along, with songs called 'Fun' and 'Up and Up', and lyrics about pain and parting. Oddly, at times I was reminded of the Smiths, and their ability to combine the most downbeat lyric with an uplifting tune (e.g. Bigmouth Strikes Again). There's a clear attempt to strike a happier tone than 'Ghost Stories', but Coldplay just don't do happy - their best stuff is mostly based on anguish (Fix You, Low, Trouble, The Scientist, Viva La Vida, Princess of China). Even the rousing title track, Head Full of Dreams, can only sustain upbeat for 45 seconds at a time before unplugging the drum machine and reaching for the handheld lighter. 

Spiritual themes have loomed large in most previous Coldplay offerings, so what do we have here? What to make of this, from the opening track:
Coldplay - A Head Full of Dreams.pngOh I think I landed
Where there are miracles at work
For the thirst and for the hunger
Come the conference of birds

Saying it’s true, it’s not what it seems
Leave your broken windows open
And in the light just streams
And you get a head, a head full of dreams
Into life I’ve just been spoken
With a head full, a head full of dreams

Is this a subtle and multilayered song of hope based on Genesis 1 ('into life I've just been spoken') Elijah (fed and watered by birds), Paul (treasure in jars of clay, walk by faith not by sight). Or none of the above? If this was a U2 song, I'd confidently go for the former answer, but as it's Chris Martin I'm still not so sure.

Or this, from 'Army of One'
Stare into darkness, staring at doom
You make my heart go boom, bo-boom boom
Superhero, a masterpiece
Been innocent but a sinner in me

...I just put my hands up to the sky, feeling like
I've got a rocket, eyes on the prize
I put my hands up to the sky, I'm gonna find
Wherever you are, I'll find that treasure

Again, is this a meditation on mortality and eternity, informed by Jesus (where your treasure is there is your heart), Paul (fixing our eyes on Jesus), and an appreciation of humanity as a fallen masterpiece, or is Martin just using transcendent language for effect (see links below), as he does elsewhere on HFOD?

In the bonus track, 'Miracles'
From up above I heard 
The angels sing to me these words
And sometimes in your eyes 
I see the beauty in the world

Oh, now I'm floating so high
I blossom and die
Send your storm and your lightning to strike
Me between the eyes

Believe in miracles
Because it's not clear who this is addressed to (God, or a lover), it's not clear what it's saying. Maybe that's deliberate. Pop lyrics are peppered with references to angels and heaven that aren't anything to do with real angels and real heaven, in post-Christian culture our spiritual language floats free of the original moorings. 'Believe' can mean everything on the lips of Jesus, and nothing on the lips of a marketing campaign. 

The overriding thread running through the CD, if there is one, is that life is to be lived to the full, with thankfulness, and that even pain and suffering can be redeemed 
under this pressure, under this weight
we are diamonds taking shape

And if we've only got this life
In this adventure, oh, then I

Want to share it with you (Adventure of a Lifetime)

This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival

A joy, a depression, a meanness
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor

Welcome and entertain them all!
Be grateful for whoever comes

Because each has been sent as a guide (Kaleidoscope, based on a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi)

And you can say what is, or fight for it
Close your mind or take a risk
You can say it’s mine and clench your fist
Or see each sunrise as a gift (Up and Up)

and if there are things to be thankful for, then....
And I asked
Can the birds in poetry chime?
Can there be breaks in the chaos sometimes?
Oh thanks God, must have heard when I prayed
Cause now I always want to feel this way
Amazing day,

Meister Eckhart, a 13th century monk, is reported to have said 'if the only prayer you ever say is 'thankyou', that would be enough'. So maybe Coldplay aren't too far off the mark. 

For previous Coldplay posts
Viva La Vida
Prospekts March
Mylo Xyloto
Ghost Stories

Monday, January 04, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Review

Stop me if you think this all sounds familiar:

  • Secret message hidden on cute robot finds its way onto desert planet.
  • Cute robot ends up in the care of orphaned young adult, struggling to make their way on planet.
  • Said adult ends up aboard the Millenium Falcon in the company of Han Solo & Chewbacca
  • Message/robot is also sought after by the evil empire.
  • Cue stormtroopers, war crimes, planet sized gun destroying things, X wing raid on planet sized gun, whilst at the same time there's a family standoff on the planet on a narrow gangway over a deep void...

Star Wars 7 is almost enough to atone for Star Wars 4-6, or 1-3 as we're supposed to call them. It ticks all the boxes for old timers like me who queued round the block in the late 1970s to catch the original. Most of the old gang are still here - Han, Chewie, Leia, R2D2, Luke (just), the Falcon. Most of the old scenes are still here too - the one in the bar, the one stumbling across the desert, the one where they escape from the imperial ship, the one where X-wings have a shootout with tie fighters, and so on.

This is one of the 2 main things that make SW7 work. Having the same characters, scenes, plot (secret message hidden in droid linked to reclusive Jedi master, baddies taking over the universe, destroy big gun before it destroys you) make the movie like the first episode of the UK blockbuster costume drama - you spend the whole time going 'oh look, it's them!' The other thing that makes it work are the 2 central characters, Rey and Finn, one an orphan child (cue speculation about who her parents are), the other a rogue stormtrooper who defies orders to commit genocide and runs away. They're both really good, and make a great onscreen partnership.

There were a few things that have been swirling around since the movie: (spoilers follow)
1. Failure. Two of the main characters from the original Star Wars have both failed. Han Solo's marriage to Leia has failed, partly around what's happened to their son, and he ends up back in his old trade of smuggling. Luke has failed as a Jedi trainer, with one of his disciples going rogue and killing the others, and gone into self-imposed exile. The message hidden on the cute robot is a map to help locate Luke, but it's only part of a map, the rest isn't discovered until much later in the movie. The film ends with Rey going to find him. Both Han and Luke have quit, and for both of them it takes the younger generation, with less baggage, to get them to re-engage: though with Luke it's left open about whether he will or not. There's a real Jesus and Peter on the beach thing going on: it's painful to go back to the place of failure and fail better, sometimes exile is easier. What do we do when we fail? Who do we need to come alongside us so that we stay in the battle against evil, rather than quit? Where do we find the necessary courage and forgiveness?

2. Teamwork. This sort of follows on. There are two loners in the movie, Luke has bailed out, the other is his rogue Jedi disciple, who has become a very dangerous person. Just about all the good stuff happens through people working together - Finn escapes from the empire (sorry First Order) ship with the help of a captured Resistance pilot, Finn and Rey escape from the desert planet by working together to fly the Falcon and fight off their pursuers, the Resistance tackle the planet sized gun with the familiar combo of a ground team disabling stuff whilst the pilots do the bombing raids (note: please do not base an anti-ISIS strategy on this movie). There is a short but really nice scene where Finn and Rey, both buzzing from a successful escape, do a short mutual admiration thing aboard the Falcon. It's this kind of thing that gives a heart to the movie.

And it's an interesting development: modernism had the lone superhero (from Clint Eastwood's lone gunman to the original Marvel comics), postmodernism had the flawed lone superhero (the 'dark' Batman, Neo in the Matrix, Tobey Maguire's black spiderman), the template now seems to be teamwork. That could be quite important: a society shaped by Christian faith, at the heart of which is a unique saviour doing something nobody else could do, fits well with stories about lone heroes. Questioning postmodernism, with scepticism about power, heroism and big stories give us flawed heroes and blurred lines between who's good and who isn't.  We now seem to like teams in the stories we tell ourselves: Avengers, X-Men, even Doctor Who is more reliant on his assistants than ever. That reflects back different gospel themes: a community of salvation where everyone contributes (Acts 2/1 Corinthians 12-14) rather than the sole visionary leader taking unquestioning followers over the hill. Our models of ministry, leadership and even faith sharing might have a bit of catching up to do.

3. Choice/Genes/Destiny: with the Force now a given (even the originally sceptic Han now says 'it's all true'), the key personal stuff orbits around the chief goodie and the chief baddie. Rey discovers the Force and what she's capable of. Kylo Ren, a wannabe Vader complete with unnecessary mask, turns out to be a Darth Vader's grandson (work it out), coached by Luke, turned to the dark side, but still struggling (at times) with whether he's made the right choice. It's clear by the end of the movie that his path is one that he's chosen - pedigree and environment may give you skills and abilities, but it's character which makes you, and it's choices which mould character.

One great mystery remains, how did they manage to clear the Skelligs of puffins for the final scene?

PS on the same topic, the current issue of Private Eye has an excellent cover.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Rubbing Shoulders

It was a nice surprise to crop up on a list of 'influential' Christians last week, I'm not really sure in what other context I'd rub shoulders with the Queen and Tyson Fury. The main virtue of the list is in showing the spectrum of Christian involvement in politics and society in the UK, as well as highlighting the very real persecution of Christian converts from Islam in the UK.

I'd happily swap with Katharine Welby Roberts, Tania Marlow, or the people behind Mind and Soul. There's only 1 out of the 100 who's making any noise about mental health (unless you count Tim Farron), and that's not enough. And for anyone, like myself or Stephen Croft, who is there because we have something to say about the CofE and church growth, Bob Jackson is the one who should get the credit.

Anyway, thankyou to whoever nominated me, not sure if I've struck the right balance of mild surprise and self-deprecation, or whether I should just give up and go around feeling a bit proud for a few days.  Mind you, the commendations clearly haven't been written by anyone in my parish - 'spiritual and discerning perspective on everything'? My family could set you right on that one.... The rest of the list is worth a look, and threw up a few names and ventures I'd never heard of, and which were good to read about.