Every so often there appears an article lamenting the state of contemporary worship. One came across my desk last week with the usual complaints about trite songs, too much showmanship, a lack of congregational involvement, keys being too high, and so on. As a worship leader myself who recognises all these things, all such articles do is make us all feel more guilty—participants for not joining in more, leaders for doing a bad job.Continue reading “The problem of worship”
Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her. (Eph. 3:25)
Church-bashing is becoming a popular internet game. One recent article suggested that if Jesus was to return to earth, it would be the Christians who would want to crucify him again—particularly so-called ‘religious’ Christians from established church(es) who are, naturally, in league with the system etc. I find these articles both worrying and offensive.
An advent meditation on art
“Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
and he will prepare your way.
He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming! (Mk. 1.2-3.)
Last Sunday we lit the second advent candle at our church, a symbol of the light of the coming Christ, and Saša spoke about John the Baptist—the voice crying in the wilderness, heralding the coming King.
I believe such a voice had not been heard in Israel for some 400 years; the prophets had been silent. For 400 years the faithful had waited for the fulfilment of the words of Micah and Isaiah which Mark quotes here. This really is good news! The narrative begins, ‘This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.’ The silence is broken.
Mark records that the first voice to cry our after this long tacit is that of The Baptist, fulfilling those predictions of Micah and Isaiah; a voice calling in the desert, crying out the need for repentance—for turning back towards God.
John, an ascetic in the Essene tradition, is a liminal character inhabiting two points of transition. He lives both on the edge of society, the place where inhabitation ends and desert begins, and he lives on the borders of the land of the spirit. He is a bridge, reminding us that all may not be as it seems.
On Sunday, our speaker, Saša Flek, mentioned that art is also a voice crying in the wilderness, and this got me thinking. We normally associate the word ‘prophecy’ with foretelling the future, but the word really means ‘to speak forth the mind’, and in the religious context this means speaking out the things of God — revealing God’s ways (past, present or future). It is easy, perhaps, to fall into the error that Paul warned us about in his letter to the Thessalonians (5:20) — that of despising prophecy. In my past experience of charismatic Christianity I have come across many who have claimed to be God’s mouthpiece. Unfortunately their proclamations were often more to do with the desire to manipulate, or to be visible, or, frankly, just human nonsense. I have become a little more wary of the ‘prophetic’ voice having experience those who are quick to speak in God’s name, but slow to live a godly life.
We must be careful, however, not to judge the priesthood by the priest, for here we have a true prophet. The Baptist was a man of integrity, turning his back on the comforts of the society he judged, speaking out against political evil, and longing that the Christ would have more visibility than himself. It was a message that involved not just words, but his whole being. It was a message that cost him his life. His was a life and a message not to be despised.
The artist is also necessarily a prophet, for to be an artist is also to be a revealer of hidden things. The creation of true art, like prophecy, demands vulnerability: it involves taking risk, not only in revealing deep personal convictions (always risky), but in questioning the status quo. The artist is also a liminal voice, crying on the edge of society, calling for new perspectives, asking us to consider change. It is perhaps this synonymy which has resulted in the recent paucity of art in the Christian world, for if Christianity is in itself a prophetic voice which challenges society, is it any wonder that there are those who would want to silence this voice? To make us mute?
As psychologist Iain McGilchrist has persuasively argued, this is perhaps one of the unfortunate consequences of the Reformation, that in their quest to quell the abuse of art, the Reformers destroyed art itself instead of focusing on the abuse. In their zeal they destroyed the very means to bring renewal — they silenced the prophetic voice. Whether or not you concur with this somewhat bleak analysis, the fact remains that modern post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment society, both within and without the church, is deeply suspicious of the artist for the artist is dangerous, cannot be controlled, and often challenges the way things are.
The highest calling of the artist is to be a prophetic voice. Like the Baptist, the present-day artist finds him- or herself in a desert: a world where music is controlled and recorded by computers, where visual imagery is untruthful, where The Word has been reduced to mere words, and where worship has become cliché. If this is you, this advent season, make a choice to speak the truth. But it must be said that, as an artist, as a believer, you only have the right to speak the truth if you are prepared, like the Baptist, to live truthfully.
Most of all, I pray that during this wonderful season of Advent the light of Jesus will shine on you and those you love.
I am reflecting today on the events of this weekend: on Friday evening Daniel Kyzlink and I attended the official ‘baptism’ ceremony of the new Rock Mass CD in Karlovy Vary as part of the programme marking the new spa season in the city. In front of the mayor and various other dignitaries and sponsors, spa water was officially poured over a CD and we all, of course, made speeches. During the evening French conductor Martin Lebel, without whose championing of the work it might never have seen the light of day, was made an honorary citizen of the city. After the ceremonies in the beautiful town theatre (pretty girls presenting flowers, more speeches, video presentations and awards, and the performance by the KSO of some beautiful music – including, naturally, Dvořák) we went to a nearby hotel with the orchestra, the mayor, sponsors and so on to suitably celebrate with the odd nibble and copious amounts of alcohol.
At one in the morning, Dan and I, with the director of the orchestra and the production assistant, walked through the centre of Karlovy Vary, alongside the river flanked by the steep-sided streets with beautiful Belle Époque architecture, through the majestic Romanesque colonnade where spa water pours into basins for (brave) tourists to drink. Eventually – after a brief pit-stop in a dubious-looking sandwich bar for baguettes and beer, passing a plastic beer glass around the four of us in an act of communion – we found sanctuary in an underground bar. We were slightly over-dressed for this establishment (me wearing my Sunday best and still carrying a bunch a yellow flowers, with Dan looking like my gay partner) but were nevertheless soon installed at the bar with a Tullamore Dew. Šimon unwrapped a CD and asked the girl behind the bar if she would be kind enough to play it. She declined. Instead, Dan chose some Metallica from the juke box.
The CD lay on the bar surrounded by smoke and another round of drinks. Feeling philosophical (as I always do at three in the morning) I was pondering the strange irony of a musical work representing the most profound and sacred centre of the Christian faith lying on a bar in what is said to be the most unbelieving nation in Europe. I recalled having played the first demos to a lady from California a few years ago, a believer involved in the media industry. ‘It’s a bit religious,’ she remarked: ‘it’ll never take off.’ And as I’ve worked on this project over the last six years I’ve noticed a curious thing, that people who do not claim to be believers (especially musicians) love it, while those who claim belief find it hard to swallow.
I could pontificate for hours on this subject; all I will say for now (you’ll be relieved to know) is that The Rock Mass is most certainly not religious but definitely Christian, and I’ll have to leave it to you to think more about that. As I sat there at the bar it occurred to me that this was the kind of place that Jesus would have brought his disciples to, and the CD lying on the bar was certainly symbolic of his presence.
Just one final philosophical though, if you will indulge me. Throughout this six-year journey, Dan and I have touted this work to many in the Christian music industry and in the religious world. Dan sold a keyboard in order to raise the air fare to go to Nashville, only to be told that the work, whilst wonderfully written etc., did not ‘fit’ within the established genres: it was too ‘rock’ for the classical world, too ‘classical’ for the rock world, and so on. We came to the conclusion that many Christians have simply become conventional, focused on cliché, and have lost the ability to be creative or to take risk, yet surely risk is at the heart of true creativity? Isn’t it also at the heart of faith?
Instead this work has been enthusiastically embraced by many who would not call themselves believers. The CD (which you really ought to get hold of!) features incredible performances from some of the top musicians and singers in the Czech Republic and the UK: the question Dan and I are constantly asked is: ‘When do we get to perform this again. It’s awesome!’.
At four thirty we decided we had duly celebrated the release of the CD and found a taxi to take us back to the hotel. The image of the CD lying on the bar stays with me, a prophetic image, I hope, of light shining in the darkness.
For more info about The Rock Mass visit our website where you can find extracts from the recording.
This (rather long) post explores the slippery concept of ‘the presence of God’ by meditating particularly on the narrative of Moses. Since humans, in some sense, carry God’s image, we consider how, as-image bearers, our role is to fill the earth with light and partner with God to ‘fill the earth with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea’. It’s a long read but (though I say it myself) well worth the effort. Continue reading “The presence of God”
An Advent walk through mediaeval Prague
It was a crisp, cold November evening yesterday as we walked with our Czech guide through the dark windswept streets of Prague. Most sensible people were passive-smoking in the warm, crowded bars; we headed for the Old Town, then across Charles Bridge. On the parapet of the almost deserted medieval bridge we found our first cross: bronze, and set into the stone of the parapet. ‘Place your hand on it,’ I was told, ‘any wish you make will come true.’ The location was where, in 1393, the tortured body of Jan Nepomucký (John of Nepomuk), confessor to the Queen, was thrown into the river on the orders of a suspicious Wenceslas IV for failing to divulge the confession of his wife. I placed my hand on the baroque cross with two horizontal bars: it was worn smooth by centuries of touch. I made a wish which will remain secret. Continue reading “Prague and the Cross”
The lack of blogging this year is not due to a lack of thought – perhaps too much! My personal Bildungsroman (autobiographical journey) has included leaving England to live in Prague – mirroring, perhaps, changing spiritual and intellectual perspectives too. (I hope so – only dead things never change.) I’ve also felt that this blog was a bit weighed down by some over-weighty discussion and I couldn’t work up the energy to re-start. But here we go.
Over the last few months I’ve been researching Romantic and Victorian attitudes to childhood, particularly as George MacDonald (the focus of my research) said that God was essentially childlike. Most useful has been Sally Shuttleworth’s book The Mind of the Child but I’ve also been reading Judith Plotz, Ann Weirda Rowland, and others, and trawling through Victorian texts. A picture of nineteenth century England emerges where the figure of the child is central to many social and religious narratives: most so in discussions about human nature, for the child is the adult in the making, carrying the potential (or the curse) of the race. Here I just want to focus on one issue – blind spots.
As the nineteenth century progressed, and particularly post Darwin’s publication of Origin, extraordinary claims were made by both religious people and the growing evolutionist/secularist camp. What is striking (with the benefit of hindsight) is the ludicrousness of the claims on both sides, with (apparently) little thought as to the context or the wider implications of what was being said. One thinks, for example, of Adolf Kussmaul’s unlikely declaration that infants are born deaf, or Dr. Louis Robinson’s experiments which consisted of suspending newborns from branches as evidence of simian ancestry (one three-week-old managing to hang on for 2 minutes and 35 seconds), or of George John Romanes’s claim that seven-week-old infants have the intelligence of a mollusc. It was even suggested that ‘rock a bye baby in the treetops’ offered evidence of our ‘arboreal ancestry’. On the Christian side, one wonders at the naivety (with, as I said, the luxury of hindsight) which led to Philip Gosse’s declaration that fossil evidence was placed in creation by God to give the appearance of age without, it appears, being at all troubled (as was Kingsley) by the questionable morality of such an act, but furthermore – as a consequence of his beliefs – keeping the young Edmund sequestered, forbidding any contact with other children for fear of contamination. There was, it appears, a stronger belief, among Evangelicals at least, in the devil’s power to corrupt than in God’s power to redeem.
It was quite hard to find a moderate voice in this very polarised and acrimonious debate. One of those, however, was physician Charles West, founder of Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London. He recounts having to attend the deathbed of numerous children who had been over-evangelised or over-catachised by well-meaning parents and friends and, as a result, were convinced they were going to hell. These, he writes, were ‘some of the most painful death-beds which I have ever witnessed’: ‘the dark grave is realised, or, at least, imagined more vividly than its conqueror; and the little child, driven to look within for the evil which it does not know, and cannot find, but vaguely dreads, and would be sorry for if it knew it…’ West, who late in life became a devout Catholic, campaigned for more compassionate and effective treatment for children, and – in his 1871 lecture to the Royal College of Physicians – dismissed such Evangelical zeal as entirely misguided, also criticising evolutionists for their equally misguided evangelism.
This simply made me wonder what blind spots we have in this twenty-first century? I’d be interested in your comments.
Shuttleworth, Sally. The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840-1900. Oxford: OUP, Oxford Scholarship Online, 2011.
West, Charles. On Some of the Disorders of the Nervous System in Childhood Being the Lumleian Lectures Delivered at the Royal College of Physicians of London in March 1871. London: Longman, Green and Co,, 1871.
I remember as a fifteen year old, on a trip to relatives in Holland, coming across the music of Tom Paxton. I felt like I had stumbled into heaven. Soon the likes of Tom’s successors – Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, Paul Simon and James Taylor – were giving me guitar lessons. Not that they knew it, of course: I simply played their LP’s on my merciless record player until they were irretrievably scratchy – but at least I could play some of the most difficult passages. My education was supplemented by weekly trips to the White Horse in Reading where I joined bearded guitar-wielding hippies and other fresh-faced lads like myself nursing under-age pints (which we made last the whole evening) as we worshipped the guitar. I could soon finger-pick with the best of them and blew all my savings on a wonderful instrument which cost me seven pounds and bore the label ‘Hi Spot, Foreign’. This was, of course, a marked contrast to Sundays where hymns and dreadful ‘choruses’ made me cringe with embarrassment. (Whoever penned the immortal lines ‘We’re in the great race to put rockets in space, but the needs of our souls we’re refusing to face’ should, in my humble opinion, be made to eat their own toenails. Some of the ‘choruses’ I’ve heard recently are little better.) There was no way I could take my White Horse friends to church. And so my life developed in two parallel universes whose paths never intersected.
In my teaching I find myself, occasionally, reminding my students that they are human beings, not human doings, for surely one of the consequences of the information age is a relentless doing? In London there are those who bring sleeping bags to work, who eat gazing at handhelds, who travel talking into mobile phones, and who do their deals ‘after’ work over a pint. I remind my students that at times it is good to take one’s foot off the accelerator — to simply be, for are we or are we not human beings? It has to be said that Christians are, on the whole, equally manic: great at doing things, not least some pretty exhausting services on the ‘sabbath’. Perhaps this is why within popular (I would use the term ‘unthinking’) Christianity there is a lot of talk about the afterlife, conceived in terms of clouds, interminable hymn-singing, gazing on divine glory, and, generally, taking a well-earned rest. Continue reading “The art of being human”
A response to Czech theologian Dan Drapel’s article, ‘Odpověď Johnu de Jongovi‘ (reply to John de Jong)
At the beginning of this year I wrote a short article called Reading the Bible Again which looked very briefly at some of the issues surrounding truth and the Bible. Czech theologian Dan Drapel responded by posting a lengthy article on his website (in Czech) accusing me of treating the whole Bible as a mythical work. This was not my intention, nor is it my belief. I therefore took the time to respond to Dan’s article, and this is reproduced below for those who are interested in such things! (I am sorry I cannot post Dan Drapel’s article here, but you will get a feel for the issues from my response.)
First of all, I would like to thank Dan for taking the time to respond to my article ‘Reading the Bible Again’. It is very healthy to have such discussions and debates, and I am glad that Dan and I are substantially agreed. As this response from Dan has been posted on his website, I would like to take a few moments to correct some misconceptions about my position and to make a few further comments.
A few preliminary words about motivation. The article I wrote – ‘Reading the Bible Again’ – was intended to encourage people to read the Bible, and was designed to provoke those who make truth claims about its literality, inerrancy or infallibility without proper reflection. Or those who use the term ‘The Word of God’ as if the book was a deity. If such views become foundational to faith there is a danger – and this is something I observe in the Czech Republic – that Christianity becomes more about believing the ‘right’ things than following Jesus.