Like G. K. Chesterton (as I noted in my blog a few years ago), I feel a little like the intrepid explorer who, with a boat full of supplies and arms, sailed bravely into the unknown in order to discover new lands and riches for the Crown. After battling on the high seas for many a month, he espies land on the horizon. Dragging his boat onto the beach, and armed to the teeth, he intends to plant the British flag on this new territory, but soon discovers the natives already speak English. About an hour later—having realised he has landed on the south coast of England—he is sheepishly enjoying a pint of best bitter in the Ship Inn and, frankly, enjoying being back at home and having a good laugh.
OK, a slightly pretentious title, but all will become clear…
In 1945, in the aftermath of the second world war, the victorious allies represented by the likes of Harry S. Truman, Clement Attlee, and Joseph Stalin sat round a table and decided the future of Europe. Various lines were drawn on maps, and the land I now call home found itself behind what became known as the Iron Curtain. Prior to this — perhaps for many centuries — the Czech lands of Moravia and Bohemia were peopled by a mixed population speaking both Czech and German. There was rich intercultural cross-fertilisation and diversity.
But, as always happens when lines are drawn on maps by those who claim power, some people found themselves in the ‘wrong’ place at the wrong time. In Czech Silesia, for example, to the north of Moravia, many German-speakers — despite their families having centuries-old roots in the communities in which they lived — found themselves demonised and deported, often sent ‘back’ to Germany, a land unknown to many. And most troubling of all, Czechoslovakia, despite having fought bravely with Western allies, was betrayed and found itself on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.
When lines are drawn on maps by the powerful, a kind of osmosis occurs. In places where different ethnic and cultural groups had happily cohabited previously, there now emerges a them-and-us attitude. If one side of the line, for example, is ‘German’ and the other side ‘Czech’, a migration occurs. Those who find themselves on the wrong side of the line feel the need (or are made to feel the need) that it’s time to move to the other side: the line become a ‘membrane’ and the cultures on either side of it become increasingly separate and distinct. Where perhaps in the old days a language would slowly transition from one dialect to another during a day’s journey, now border posts and fences appear, and a few paces brings a world of cultural and linguistic difference.
Often (perhaps always when power is involved) lines drawn on maps are artificial. The straight lines drawn on the continent of Africa by colonial powers is testament to how little language or topography played a role. And those in power seldom ask the opinion of those on the ground; for the former, the lust to rule is the driver — the acquisition of assets and resources which will bring further riches… and the lust for even more power. Such is the nature of imperialism.
But what about religious imperialism?
I am troubled at the moment by an emerging narrative in the States, for example, by those who might be described as ‘alt-right Christians’. They see their ownership of certain Christian ‘lands’ — and by this I mean certain putatively incontrovertible truths — as theirs by right; that is, that their understanding of what truths make up the Christian faith is the only ‘true truth’. Such people (as, it has to be said, we all do) draw ethical lines on a kind of religious map according to what they (we) hold to be incontestable. This is the essence of fundamentalism: that ‘we’ know what is true and ‘you’ are wrong.
In New Testament times, for example, religious purity in Judaism was seen as paramount. To be labelled ‘unclean’ was to find oneself on the wrong side of a line and – potentially – alienated from God. This could be temporary and perhaps bearable (if, say, you were having your period), or it might have resulted in permanent exclusion (if you were a leper, for example). An elaborate religious scheme developed which was absolutely sure who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. Read in this light, the ministry of Jesus is seen to be radically subversive. For example, in a world where childminders (because they dealt with the messy business of interacting with children) were considered unclean, as were shepherds (ditto re sheep), and where women could not be witnesses in a court of law (one Pharisaic prayer was: ‘I thank you God I was not born a dog or a woman’), Jesus comes along and calls himself ‘the good shepherd’. Not only that, the angels announcing the Messiah’s birth appear first to shepherds, and the first witness to the resurrection of that Messiah was a woman. Furthermore, Jesus had many female disciples. Martha’s indignation at her sister Mary’s preference for ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus’ [Luke 10:38–42] concerns not Mary’s lack of service, but has more to do with the fact that Mary has pretensions to be a rabbi’s disciple — a theologian — in the same way, for example, that the Apostle Paul ‘sat at the feet of Gamaliel’ [Acts 22:3]. In other words, Mary is refusing social stereotyping, and it is this that upsets Martha — but not Jesus. Jesus’ ministry is characterised by the erasure of social boundaries (he eats, for example, with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ — the former political opportunists, the latter often associated with suspect sexual behaviour). He erases the lines artificially drawn on the religiously-motivated social ‘map’.
Today, a friend of mine is going to speak at a Christian LGBT community meeting here in Prague. A community that, it could be argued, exists primarily because ‘mainstream’ Christians have drawn lines on a modern religious ‘map’ based on the perception that the LGBT community are on the wrong side of acceptable Christian behaviour. Let’s explore this for a moment. Communities only exist because those in them have a sense of unique identity. This can come about in two ways: either through self-identification or imposition. In the former case, those with certain predilections, interests, or characteristics draw together in the interests of mutuality. They are not necessarily against ‘normal’ society, but have a unique identity within it. (Train-spotters come to mind, but I guess some would argue that they are not normal!) On the other hand, some (such as lepers in the ancient world) had their identity imposed on them by society, an identity forged by society’s sense of unacceptability, and that those so classified must be — for example, for health reasons, or from the felt need to maintain religious purity — excluded. Far right political movements have always tended towards the latter — that ‘they’ do not belong in ‘our’ world.
So I have a question. What if we as Christians stopped drawing so many lines on the religious map? If, for example, LGBT people were accepted instead of stigmatised, would there even be an ‘LGBT Christian community’ here in Prague? And if there were, surely it would be a much more positive community for it would be based primarily on mutuality rather than exclusion?
I suppose the issue is that deep down I am troubled by those who seem so certain about the mysteries of God, and that when it comes to moral judgements, they are ‘right’. Of course, a brief discussion such as this can only begin to unearth the complex issues to do with the acceptable limits of moral behaviour, but it seems to me — to put it crudely — that the more lines we draw on the ‘map’, the more people will be forced to migrate away from one side to find refuge in the other, and before long, fences and border posts will be put up in order to prevent the ‘lepers’ from infecting ‘us’. Perhaps we should follow more closely the example of our Saviour who socialised regularly with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ and gave himself for them. As the Pope recently remarked, true Christians build bridges, not walls.
Dealing with corrosive power-structures in a post-truth world
I feel like apologising for this post. It is too wordy and, at times, a bit pretentious. I’ve left it here as it represents another milestone on the journey. There is some good stuff!
Even the most naive political observer cannot help but notice the rise of populism worldwide. Self-appointed saviours declare that they will save their people from oppressive overlords and lead them towards new promised lands — a misguided response to the cry of those who feel oppressed. I would like to offer a theological perspective.
We all live in ‘villages’—places defined by their boundaries, prejudices, preconceptions, and traditions. Jesus’s ministry was characterised by a fundamental opposition to these restrictive forces. Here we consider what it means to be set free by Christ.
They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”
He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”
Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village” (Mark 8:22–26).
Sight — correct vision — is Christ’s gift to his children. Since the first words of God — ‘let there be light’ — God has been working to give his children sight. These words were spoken by Christ at the dawn of time, for John in his gospel insists that ‘through him all things were made’ and furthermore, John also says that when Jesus came into the world, he was light incarnate – ‘the true light that gives light to everyone’. In a world of darkness — especially religious darkness — John’s first-hand witness statement declares that Jesus’s primary message was ‘God is light; in him there is no darkness at all’. Welcome news in a religious world that saw God as primarily judge and law-giver. ‘This vision of God as darkness,’ John is saying, ‘is wrong. You are seeing badly: God is light.’ Human vision regularly distorts reality. God gets the blame for all sorts of things, not least the mystery of evil — especially so when so many who claim to be representatives of ‘God’ walk in such evil and darkness. It seems to me that in these dark days we need to pray for the gift of sight, and this passage of Mark is worth exploring for it holds the key to new vision — 20/20 vision of reality. When Mark edited his gospel, it seems to me that like John — who included seven acts of Christ in his account, calling them ‘signs’, Mark included this incident for the deeper truth of which it speaks. I would like to consider this.
This blind man lived in a village. We all live in villages: those places where familiarity and predictability insulate us from the true nature of the world. Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it tends to breed complacency. Villages also breed preconceptions and prejudices as we tend to absorb the values of those around us, where through osmosis we unconsciously adopt the zeitgeist of our age. They are places where we cease to truly think, where ‘that’s how things are’. The unchanging familiarity of a village gives us comfort in a fast-changing world. But Jesus wants to take us by the hand and lead us out of our villages.
The problem is that we build up a false picture of reality. If one lives in a ‘communication village’ — only speaking to, and living with, people who are the same as oneself who share the same interests, beliefs, and values — sight soon becomes distorted. Eventually, as evidenced by those who would shoot a child in the head for wanting to go to school, blindness results. Blindness comes from assuming that our view of reality is true vision — even (perhaps especially) our particularly religious view of truth. As Coleridge once sagely remarked:
He who begins by loving Christianity more than Truth, will proceed by loving his sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all.
Like this blind man, we need to allow Jesus to take us by the hand and lead us out of the village. It is a conscious decision to allow God to lead us beyond the walls of comfort, beyond the false security of perishable props and untruths, beyond mediocrity. Without these first steps towards sight we will be forever blind.
But Jesus then does a strange thing. I find it curious that he spits on the man’s eyes and ‘puts his hands on him’ — presumably on his eyes. There is both revulsion and vulnerability here. Revulsion for obvious reasons — I wonder what the man was thinking when Jesus spat into his face — and vulnerability as no-one particularly likes having their eyes touched by someone else. To allow this, like having a cataract removed, requires significant trust. I find this hard to express, but it brings to mind the cross.
At the heart of the Christian good news is the enigma of the cross — a violation of ‘decency’. We do not like to look at the cross: as Paul rightly notes, it is offensive — and this ‘offensive’ behaviour of Jesus also begs questions. The cross is often portrayed as God’s idea, some way of ‘satisfying’ God’s need for retribution for sin. I find this caricature of the cross offensive, for was it not fundamentally a Roman idea? — a cruel invention of empire? — a means to consolidate absolute power? The cross, it seems to me, is the ultimate symbol of God’s refusal to use power to achieve ‘selfish’ ends (if indeed any of God’s acts can be technically described as ‘selfish’, but that’s another discussion): it is God allowing sin to spit in his face. Jesus’s submission to brutality — his refusal to call down those legions of angels — destroyed, emasculated sin: Jesus cut off its balls. Sin, Paul insists, now has no power over us, and sin, as is evident in today’s turbulent world, is not at all happy about this.
I suggest that allowing Jesus to ‘spit’ in your face is not a bad deal, for he now has power over sin, the slave master. His submission to the ultimate offence means he has the power to destroy all evil embedded in human nature. But sin, the evil embedded in us, finds this offensive. Why? Because Jesus’s acts, whether on the cross or here is this short narrative, result in sin’s destruction. To rephrase this from a different perspective: allowing Jesus to lead us by the hand out of the village, to allow him to spit in our eyes (to attack the cause of blindness), and to allow him to touch our eyes, all speak of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable — to be submissive to Christ, to be re-centred on him. And this submission is the opposite of the myopic preoccupation with self that is the essence of sin — self-centredness. The choice to be submissive and vulnerable to the touch of Christ is the beginning of vision.
Sure enough, the man’s vision is restored, but it is a curious two-stage process. At first he sees falsely, ‘men like trees walking’. Sight does not necessarily result in vision: all humanity is living in the this world of light that God created, but clearly not everybody is seeing truly. As John says:
‘He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.
To understand the reason for this we have to look no further than the village. Villages are, as I have said, places of convention and familiarity. The curious thing is that we as human beings see much less than we think: the human brain is continually producing a composite image from fragmented information that it receives from the eyes. It calls this ‘reality’. Without getting too complex here, I simply want to note that what we call ‘reality’ may in fact be made up of a series of stills — images of village life—that we think form a true picture of reality.
Perhaps this blind man is the ultimate example of this: having no sight at all, his only reference point is imaginative images constructed from other sensory input. He has constructed an idea of what a man should look like. So when Jesus asks him ‘What do you see?’ his answer reveals that his visual vocabulary is still village-based: he is interpreting the visual cues using bad reference images. This is the main problem of village life: we can be deluded into thinking that our own little village, with its conventions and beliefs that we hold so dear, represent reality. I wonder often whether some of the things I think I see so clearly are really ‘men like trees walking’. So Jesus touches his eyes a second time. Jesus, it seems to me, is giving him true reference images. I do not think this was a question of optics, but of cognition — that, having never seen a man before he had no clue what a man looked like. Now he has vision, not just sight.
But this is not the end of the story. When I first read it, I though that the village was the man’s home, but Jesus’s final admonition is revealing. He ‘sent him home’ and then says specifically: ‘Don’t even go into the village’. In short, village and home are not the same place, or, to put it another way: your home is not in the village — you belong somewhere else.
The place where you and I belong, I suggest, is in the heart of God. What I mean by this rather clichéd expression is that ultimately human being finds fulfilment and identity by being united with its creator, but more profoundly, that sight — vision — does not inhere in seeing the ‘right’ things (which, as I hope my discussion has revealed, is more about what we believe is right than anything to do with vision) but in knowing the right person — Christ. This is why I wrote the song ‘Without Walls’ which is a prayer to move beyond convention — mere human wall-encompassed safety in religious (or other) dogma — to the place where ‘I will love you without walls’. The place where heart meets heart. I would argue strongly that it is only from this relational reference point that the idea of true vision — ‘truth’ — makes any sense at all.
We live at a strategic time in human history when there is a desperate need to connect truly with the God of light. So much of what we call ‘belief’ is simply second-hand. So many of us (myself included) believe things are true on the basis that other people have told us they are true, but in reality it is just the repetition of ‘village’ dogma: some idea (perhaps even an old wives’ tale) that someone at some time bothered to think through, and is now — although perhaps once a living truth — buried in a grave of convention.
I close with a final thought. I suspect that after some time the man did go back to the village, if only to thank his friends. One problem that the image of ‘leaving the village’ evokes is the danger of disengagement from the real world. A ‘relational theology’ such as I am advocating may, if naively applied, result in two dangers. The first is simply the tendency to go and find another village to live in. Enough said. The second is the danger of a kind of Platonic dualism: of seeing the material world in which we live as somehow inferior to the relational, mystical ‘spiritual’ realm. Well, as I say, I think the man — after he had become more confident, perhaps, in his gift of sight — went back to the village and with his new-found vision I am sure he saw village life in a new light and maybe even helped to bring about change. Materiality is not the issue, but the way we see it. It is the village that is illusory, not the real world in which we ‘live and move and have our being’. It is my hope that as I — we — allow Jesus to lead us out of our villages, touch our eyes, and give us new vision, that we will be able to make a real difference in this beautiful, but damaged, world of light.
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”