More music for Good Friday

A picture may be worth 1000 words, but in my view a good piece of music can be worth a dozen pictures. Amusingly-named musicologist Chris Dingle goes further and posits that music is the language of God (and argues from there that no music can itself be evil, which I’m not sure about).

Now I don’t wish to run down contemporary worship music or the wider rock scene, both of which I like. But at times like Good Friday I reach for greater emotional depth available within the classical tradition.

I mentioned a couple of pieces last time which I tangentially associate with Good Friday. Here are a few more which I personally find helpful in reflecting on the cross – complete with handy YouTube links…

James MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross

Contemporary Scottish Catholic composer MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross is a string-accompanied choral setting of Jesus’ dying words (interwoven with liturgical texts) to haunting, haunted music. It is by turns (and sometimes simultaneously) beautiful, dissonant, disturbing, eerie, and full both of majesty and agony.

At times the melodies and harmonies are heart-stoppingly lovely (albeit tinged with poignancy and sorrow), as when Jesus says to the penitent thief ‘today you will be with me in paradise’. At other times they are brutal, harsh and frightening as a horror score.

For me Seven Last Words is a must for Good Friday. And unlike the Rodrigo and Gorecki pieces, while there is beauty there is little hint of the coming hope of Easter. It focuses unrelentingly on the cross, the agony and horror, as well as the compassion and self-giving of Jesus. It is Good Friday made meaningful, even at times beautiful, but without airbrushing out the brutality.

Olivier Messaien: Jesus accepte la Souffrance

Strictly this is meant as a Christmas piece, forming part of Messaien’s organ cycle La Nativité du Seigneur. The title translates as ‘Jesus accepts suffering’, which in the context of nativity could refer to the divine (or infant) Jesus accepting the suffering and indignity inherent in becoming human.

More deeply though it’s a foreshadowing of the ultimate suffering of his death, and the harsh discords and eerie atonalities certainly make this feel like a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday piece. It resolves in a majestic upward flight of simple chords which imply that Jesus has indeed accepted – and even transcended – his suffering.

Samuel Barber: Agnus Dei

Barber’s Adagio for Strings is one of the best-known instrumental expressions of lament of modern times, and of course it was used memorably as the closing music for the harrowing film Platoon. Perhaps less well-known is Barber’s choral version of the piece, using the music as a setting for the words of the Agnus Dei fromthe Eucharist. In English the words are: ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us; Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us your peace’.

As such it isn’t specifically a Good Friday piece, but it is a reflection on one aspect of the cross – focusing on Jesus as the sacrificial lamb who takes away our sins. (Which does not necessarily mean that the atonement can best be understood as penal substitution… but that’s another post.)

J.S. Bach: St Matthew Passion and St John Passion

I can appreciate the quality of workmanship in baroque music, but I have to admit it rarely moves me deeply. Nonetheless, these settings by Bach of the gospel ‘passion’ narratives are undeniably masterworks. But for those like me who prefer something more contemporary you could always try…

Krzyzstof Penderecki: St Luke Passion

Penderecki’s music is, to most ears, weird and not a little disturbing. To give you an idea, some of his work was used to chilling effect in the score of Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining. His St Luke Passion mixes (to great and unsettling effect) odd sounds, spoken words, strange sliding dissonances and huge sonic blares as a fitting soundscape to the drama of Christ’s trial and death. I can’t say I love it, and you won’t be humming any of the tunes, but it’s certainly powerful.

Arvo Pärt: St John Passion

Arvo Pärt’s St John Passion sits at the absolute opposite end of the musical spectrum from Penderecki. It’s 70 minutes of simple, repetitive, almost medieval-sounding choral chanting all based around a single minor key. Depending on your taste and mood it may either transport you to some heavenly dimension or just send you to sleep.

John Tavener: The Protecting Veil: Lament of the Mother of God at the Cross

The Protecting Veil is a musical journey through the stages of the life of Mary, mother of Jesus, from Annunciation through to her final rest. In this movement the solo cello effectively expresses Mary’s painful lament at the cross – a subject also picked up in a dozen Stabat Maters (e.g. by Dvorak and Pergolesi), not to mention Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. And the next section is Christ is Risen… but that’s getting ahead of ourselves…

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Music, sorrow and hope

This is kind of a Good Friday post, but I’m putting it up a bit early as I’ve got other things planned for Good Friday…

Tragedy transfigured – Concierto d’Aranjuez

One of my favourite childhood pieces of classical music was Joachim Rodrigo’s guitar concerto Concierto d’Aranjuez – though I thought it was called ‘Yuddadar’ (after the characteristic three-note motif of the slow central movement, which sounded to me like Yu-da-dar). And for some unknown reason I also associated that movement strongly with Good Friday and Christ’s crucifixion, and with an image of the three crosses on the horizon.

It strikes me now that this may not be such a daft connection to make after all. Rodrigo’s wife has (I understand) said that the central movement has a dual inspiration – happy memories of the couple’s honeymoon, but also sorrow at the miscarriage of their first child, a daughter. The deeply moving music contains both love and loss, and you can sense the father’s sorrow – a sorrow that words could never express, but music might just begin to.

Yet at the same time it is sorrow made beautiful, and therefore in a sense made meaningful. Which also strikes me as very Good-Friday-ish. But if so, it’s Good Friday viewed from the perspective of Easter – sorrow and loss viewed through the lens of resurrection, or hoped-for resurrection at least. There’s sadness but not despair, for death is not the end.

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

Henri Gorecki’s celebrated Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is another piece with this quality of sadness transformed and transfigured by hope. It is, as the name suggests, based around ideas and feelings of sorrow – three songs of deeply personal grief, mourning and loss. All three laments are based on the loss of children separated from their mothers by war, violence or death; the first and last from the mothers’ perspective, surrounding a central movement from a child’s eyes.

It’s very much then a Good Friday piece rather than an Easter one. Indeed the (extremely long) first movement centres upon a medieval Polish folk song written from the perspective of Jesus’ mother Mary at the crucifixion. Translated, its poignant words are: ‘O my son, beloved and chosen, Share your wounds with your mother’.

Yet despite the piercing grief, the symphony somehow seems to be shot through with a sense of hope, and so in some sense an anticipation of Easter (or a hint of an anticipation at least). The grief is real and present; Easter has definitely not yet happened, and perhaps there’s no absolute guarantee that it will. Yet somehow again there’s a sense that grief and loss can be given beauty and dignity and meaning, and in this there is hope, or at least the beginning of the possibility of hope.

This is perhaps most obvious in the central movement, based on an actual message written by am 18-year-old Polish girl incarcerated in a Gestapo camp: ‘O Mamma do not cry – Immaculate Queen of Heaven, support me always’. It is a profoundly moving message of comfort and compassion from a daughter to her despairing, grieving mother – though the mother of course cannot hear it.

Even the last movement, lamenting the loss of a ‘dear young son’ ends with a prayer of hope (of a kind):

O sing for him / God’s little song-birds / Since his mother cannot find him
And you, God’s little flowers / May you blossom all around / that my son may sleep a happy sleep.

The predominantly minor-key symphony resolves on a long drawn-out major chord, suggesting that loss, separation and even death are not without final hope.

Redemption before resurrection

Writing about the film The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I said that the film finishes at a Good Friday moment, with no hint of resurrection to follow. Yet somehow in the redemptive sacrifice there are already the seeds of hope. Even if Easter does not follow, the world is changed; we are changed. By dying for the beloved, love has already won over evil.

This is not to say that our grief can or should instantly be taken away and replaced by joy. I think we have to feel our griefs and losses fully and properly; that way lies healing. There’s a reason for Holy Saturday, for not rushing straight from Good Friday to Easter without passing Go.

But within our grief there can be hope of redemption, of a day when even this sorrow and loss will be transformed. And music can give us a glimpse of how this can be; of how even in the darkest discords of Good Friday there are hidden the notes of Easter’s song.

Posted in Dark night of the soul, Good Friday, Music, Suffering, Tragedy | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Why (not) to go to church

Having recently introduced Pete Rollins to you all, I feel at complete liberty to pinch his ideas (not that that ever stopped me before).

Expressed in Rollinsian terms, the idea of this post is: “Church is the one place where we should always be and to which we must stop going”.

Actually that’s not quite what I’m going to argue, but I thought it sounded good. ;)

Two conversations about churchgoing

The seed of this post was two recent conversations I’ve had about churchgoing. The first was on this blog, when a very lovely reader said they no longer attend any church precisely because of the dissatisfaction with organised Christianity I was expressing – the sense (to paraphrase and probably misrepresent!) that the life of the Kingdom is not primarily about church services, church politics, church rotas and all that stuff.

I have a lot of fellow-feeling with this – yet for myself I still feel the need to be part (however loosely) of some kind of community of faith.

The second was with a friend who’d just come back from a church small group feeling like an apostate for expressing the view that church attendance wasn’t the touchstone of faith, and that it might be okay for your teenage offspring not to attend church regularly. Which I wholeheartedly agree with.

So I’d like to explore this whole vexed question of going to church, belonging to church, and trying to get your children to go to church (or not).

Belonging vs. attending

I’ll say up-front that I don’t think that going to church is of absolute primary importance in the overall scheme of Christian faith. I certainly don’t think that’s what Christ came for – “Follow me, and make sure you attend a religious service once a week”. I’m not personally convinced that “Sing a few hymns and listen to a talk every Sunday” is quite up there with “Love one another” or “Feed my sheep”.

And nor do I think that it is the primary religious duty of Christian parents to force our children into regular church attendance. I don’t believe that our offspring’s souls are in mortal peril if they aren’t decorating paper plates with biblical scenes in Sunday School or comparing their Christian fashion in Youth Group. (To caricature unforgivably.)

I also suspect it may be deeply counter-productive to attempt to force attendance on our reluctant or rebellious teens. Surely better to live with integrity yourself, let them discover their own way and keep the lines of communication open.

Nonetheless, and despite all this, I do think that belonging to some kind of extended faith community is very important – both for us and for our fellow-belongers. This doesn’t necessarily have to be any kind of official church or formal gathering. It may be a bunch of friends you meet for coffee, and with whom you share some kind of common faith – though again, that doesn’t mean you all need to be signed up to the same (or indeed any) doctrinal statement.

Faith communities

Why do I think this is important? Simply because we’re interdependent, relational beings and we need community, or communities. We need to belong and to be belonged to (or belonged with). We need each other, not to bolster our belief or shore up our flagging faith, but to share our life.

I say this through slightly gritted teeth, because I’m not a naturally social being; I’m a loner by nature and a recluse by habit. I don’t find it easy to be part of groups, particularly not ones that require any degree of intimacy or self-disclosure.

I said that Sunday church attendance isn’t quite up there with “Love one another” or “Feed my sheep”. But of course, you could argue back that “Love one another” and “Feed my sheep” are precisely the whole point of church – and I’d agree. I just don’t think that Sunday morning services are generally the most conducive forums for the loving and feeding to take place in any practical or meaningful way. Sadly.

So, despite my reclusiveness, I do belong to a small group of men that’s part of our church – but that doesn’t really follow the rules of our church’s small groups. We meet on alternate Tuesday evenings (our unofficial name is ‘Every other week with Jesus’). And even if I don’t always want to go, I’m almost always glad I’ve been.

We play the guitar badly together, and pray stumblingly and slightly embarrassedly together. We’re mostly flippant and irreverent but occasionally deeply serious. To an admittedly small extent we share something of each other’s lives. There’s a sense of belonging. And it’s a group where I feel I can freely express my frequently heretical views without being rejected or ridiculed (or put on the prayer list for dangerous apostates).

Making space for the sceptic

And this, I think, is crucial. If churches want people to go on being part of them for the long haul, then they need to make room for the doubters and questioners, the heretics, the ‘stage-3-ers’, the ones who have troubling ideas, who won’t sing the Company Hymn or sign up to its doctrinal and mission statements.

Churches need the sceptics and cynics; these people are often uncomfortable truth-tellers and may even be unwitting prophets. And I suspect that the sceptics and cynics may just need the wider church as well, though we may not want to admit it.

So I do still attend our main church service, somewhat sporadically – maybe 2-3 times a month. (It’s ‘Every other week…’ again.) And that can sometimes be great and worthwhile, and sometimes not. But I don’t want to lose touch with the wider church community completely, because I do think that in strange ways I probably need them and maybe they need me.

Nonetheless, I’m still not convinced that regular church attendance is the be-all and end-all of Christian belonging-to-one-another. It can play a part, but it’s not the full thing.

Giving up church to find church

“Church is the one place where we should always be and to which we must stop going”.

So what on earth did I mean by this odd statement? Actually I’m not sure it benefits from explanation; probably better to leave it and let you make of it what you will.

But if you want what I think it might mean, it’s simply again that belonging is more important than attending. We can (and need to) belong to each other all the time, all of us – the doubters and the fundamentalists, the tired sceptics and the eager new converts, the ones who are sure what they believe and the ones who aren’t sure if they believe anything.

But we don’t necessarily need to go to a regular church service for this belonging to work. When I say we must stop going, I’m being provocative for the sake of paradox (or paradoxical for the sake of provoking); actually I think that in most cases it’s fine and good to go on going to church. Perhaps for some it may even be vital. But church as a building or an event may not always be the place where the true life of the church (the community of Christ) takes place.

In other words, we need to be church; we don’t necessarily always need to go to church.

Sometimes we may even need (in a sense) to give up church to find church, just as we may need to give up God (our ideas and conceptions of God) to find God.

Maybe. Perhaps. Or maybe not – for goodness’ sake don’t take my word for it. ;)

Posted in Stages of faith, The faith journey | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Uncertainties, and what to do with them

When I was a new Christian there were a lot of things I desperately wanted to know the answer to. And I thought that if I read lots of Christian books and listened to lots of sermons and talks, I’d get to the answers.

At first I imagined this was going to be possible. The books and talks did mostly try to give answers, and initially they seemed pretty plausible, convincing and well-argued. But I wasn’t always fully satisfied with those answers; they didn’t always quite ring true, or quite fill the gap I hoped they would.

And of course the more I read and listened, the more I found that different Christians believed different things, sometimes almost entirely opposite things, and all apparently for very good reasons. There didn’t seem to be the single set of definite, right answers I craved. Each group had its own orthodoxy, which it could defend rigorously, rationally and biblically (though some more convincingly than others).

Of course I turned to the Bible itself in search of the answers, but still they eluded me. The more I read the Bible, the less it seemed to present a single, clear voice on any of these issues; rather it offered multiple perspectives and nuances, and often couched in poetry or story that could be read in multiple ways.

Unanswered questions

So twenty years on I still have a list of questions about Christianity to which I’m far from certain of the answer. Here’s a selection:

  • Is the Bible in any sense the inspired, inerrant or infallible Word of God? What about all the discrepancies (and even possibly errors) in the gospels?
  • What are we to make of all the horrific passages in the Bible, where God appears to be a vengeful tyrant or even a genocidal monster? What are we to make of the inherent sexism and racism in much of the Old Testament?
  • Are only committed and practising Christians ‘saved’; or on the contrary are all saved by Christ’s love and his sacrifice?
  • What exactly does it mean to be ‘saved’? Can people lose their salvation?
  • Is there such a thing as hell and if so what is it?
  • Is there a real, personal devil and are there real, personal demons?
  • What happened on the cross, and what does it mean? How does atonement ‘work’?
  • Does God fully know the future?
  • Do miracles still happen, and should Christians expect to exercise charismatic spiritual gifts (prophecy, healing, tongues etc)?
  • Is it okay for Christian gay people to marry and adopt children?
  • Are abortion or assisted dying ever okay? What about divorce and remarriage?
  • Why is there suffering and is it ever ordained by God?
  • Is the biological theory of evolution basically true and if so what (if anything) does that say about God?
  • Was Jesus really born of a virgin and does it matter?

I’m not sure I’m any nearer to finding answers to most of these questions than when I first set out to follow Christ. In fact, in many cases I think I’m further from an answer; where I once had a fair degree of certainty, I now have far less. That’s not to say I don’t have reasonably informed opinions and working hypotheses on most of these questions (hence all the links above), but I’m far from sure that I’m right.

Two kinds of agnosticism

So you could call me an agnostic on many of these issues, and that would be a fair description. It seems to me though that there are two broad kinds of agnosticism.

There’s the ‘I don’t know and I don’t care’ variety – or to put it slightly differently ‘I probably won’t ever know and it doesn’t really matter anyway, so I’m not going to waste energy seeking the answer’.

And alternatively there’s the ‘I don’t know, and I may never know, but I still think it matters and I do care’.

On some of the questions I listed above, I think the ‘don’t know, don’t care’ response may be fine. It probably doesn’t really matter all that much whether God knows all the future, or whether Jesus was born of a virgin, or whether evolution is true (actually I do think these all matter a little, but not hugely.) I’m not even sure it matters all that much how the atonement works (so long as it works in some way); or whether or not the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.

However, in general I think that a ‘don’t know, do care’ attitude is the more helpful one. It’s quite probably true that we’ll never know the answers to most of these questions, and I’m not sure we actually need to know the answers. Nonetheless, I think we grow in faith and maturity by grappling and wrestling with these difficulties and uncertainties, rather than by either sweeping them under the carpet and ignoring them, or else just dismissing them as unimportant.

A positive uncertainty

Let me emphasise that I don’t think the point of this wrestling is to arrive finally at certainties; I’m pretty sure that’s not possible and I’m far from sure that it would be helpful. Rather it’s to arrive at a more mature and meaningful uncertainty; even a rich and creative uncertainty. Perhaps above all a humble, trusting and compassionate uncertainty.

Humble, because if we get to this point we have to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, and we may be wrong. Humble, because then we can start to see that it’s not all about our group being right and others wrong. We don’t need to defend our position against those who disagree; rather we need to listen, and keep learning. And humble, because it forces us to acknowledge our limitations – that we probably just can’t understand many things.

Trusting, because though we don’t (and can’t) know the answers we can still hold to Christ who alone does know. Indeed, our lack of ability to find the answers throws us more fully onto Christ, moving us away from self-reliance to trust.

And compassionate, because our greatest call is not to intellectually understand but to love. Some of these questions to which I don’t have answers are hugely personally significant and pastorally sensitive for many people – people who are struggling with their sexuality, or who have had an abortion, or who fear that their loved ones may be in hell. Whatever we believe on these issues, and however certain we are, for these people’s sake we cannot afford to be glib, dismissive or judgemental.

Contemplation, not comprehension

So if there are lots of things you’re still uncertain of after years of searching, that need not be a cause for either despair or resignation. It’s simply a sign that the truth – and reality, and God – is bigger and greater and more wonderful and complex and free and itself than we’re capable of fully comprehending or even imagining.

But if we can’t fully comprehend God’s great reality, we can nonetheless contemplate it. As G.K. Chesterton put it, the rationalist tries to fit the heavens into his head, and his head splits. The poet or mystic by contrast merely tries to put his head into the heavens, contemplating the wonder and mystery rather than seeking to contain or quantify or analyse it.

It might be fair then to call me an agnostic – but it would be what Leslie Wetherhead terms a Christian Agnostic, because perhaps the one thing I am absolutely convinced of is the reality and centrality of Christ. That’s not to say I understand exactly what that means (or even consider it to be fully understandable), but nonetheless it’s of the utmost importance to me.

So I affirm that Jesus is Lord, even if I can’t say exactly how that works or explain everything that it means. And it certainly doesn’t mean (to me) that people who call themselves atheists, or Buddhists, or Muslims or whatever are necessarily wrong, or are not ‘saved’, or are bound for some kind of post-mortem come-uppance.

As Pete Rollins would say, I can’t comment on whether anyone else’s religion or religious view is wrong. But what I can say with absolute certainty is that my own religious ideas and beliefs are wrong. That’s not to say they’re completely wrong or completely useless; far from it. But they certainly aren’t completely right. And they rightly aren’t completely certain.

Posted in Atheism/agnosticism, Bible, Contemplative, Orthodoxy, Scepticism and doubt, The faith journey | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

Books: ‘How (not) to speak of God’, by Peter Rollins

I started this review over 3 years ago. Perhaps the length of time I’ve taken to complete it is an indication of how difficult it is to sum up this book in words… or perhaps it’s just a sign of my inability to stick at things. But probably it’s because if you read Rollins’ book you’ll realise where I’ve got half my best ideas from. ;)

I’ve said on this blog that if I had to choose only one Christian book to take with me to a desert island, it would probably be Mike Riddell’s Godzone. But if I couldn’t take any Christian books with me to a desert island, How (not) to speak of God is the Christian book I’d take. Which is exactly the kind of apparently meaningless paradoxical statement that underpins and permeates Rollins’ fascinating and sometimes frustrating book.

Changing how (not what) we believe

How (not) to speak of God is probably the best and most profound theological/ philosophical work to come out of the Emerging Church, setting forth the new perspectives on belief that are arising from that movement. (I’m sure most readers of this blog are fully aware of the Emerging Church movement, but if not you may well want to look into it further. In many ways, this blog is an ‘emerging’ blog.)

Rollins’ book is deeply post-modern; post-Christian even in some senses (which is one reason why I could take it to a desert island where no ‘Christian’ books were allowed). Yet it is also deeply rooted in historical Christianity and in the ideas of medieval mystics like Meister Eckhart and the earlier Gregory of Nyssa.

How (not) to speak of God is a profound and paradigm-shifting book, and its ideas are almost impossible to put into words because they play with, invert and deconstruct our usual understandings of words. Rollins sets out a revolution of our understanding that changes not so much the content of our beliefs as the way in which we believe them.

In a series of deliberately paradoxical statements, Rollins turns established conceptions of theology, orthodoxy, even Christianity and faith on their heads. So instead of theology being our speaking (logos) about God (theo), it becomes the space in which God speaks, transforming our understanding. Instead of orthodoxy meaning right or correct (ortho) belief (doxy), it becomes believing in the right way – the way of love and of Christ. So what we believe (our specific doctrines) becomes less important than the way (of love) in which we believe.

Rollins even presents the idea of giving up our beliefs for the sake of our beliefs, using the illustration of a Christian priest in Nazi Germany renouncing his Christianity and becoming a Jew in order to share the sufferings of the Jews for the sake of Christ.

Revealing and concealing

The book’s founding premise is that “That which we cannot speak of [i.e. God] is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking”. Hence the paradox of the title. We cannot speak of God for he is always ineffable, beyond our words and thought and ability to conceive of him; yet at the same time we must speak of him and to him.

Rollins starts by re-presenting the idea of revelation not as the opposite of concealment but as the place where we meet the mystery of God; so revelation has concealment built into its very heart. He further rejects a naive opposition of (Christian) meaning and nihilistic meaninglessness for an understanding that, though we can speak of truth, we can never fully avoid filtering it through our own perceptions and preconceptions.

Like a work of art or a parable, revelation has multiple possible readings and meanings (though these are ‘transfinite’ rather than infinite – in other words, they are only infinite within the particular parameters permitted by the revelation; it’s not a case of anything goes). God is always greater than our theology.

Rollins then further deconstructs theology, for though we cannot help speaking of God, “this speech fails to define God”. Furthermore, “God is not the object of our thought, but the absolute subject before whom we are the object… we do not name God but God’s name names us.”

He goes on to talk of God as ‘hyper-present’ and ‘hypernonymous’ – that God is so present and so infinitely named that it is this, rather than his absence or anonymity, which renders him beyond our capacity to fully know (‘un/knowable’ in Rollins’ terminology, signifying simultaneous knowledge and inability to know).

God cannot be contained in the mind, and we have to affirm our faith as at the same time both theistic and atheistic, orthodox and heretical, acknowledging that our view of God is always inadequate and in need of revision; that our understanding of God is not actually God.

Surrendering certainties

Rollins upturns the usual view of doubt, presenting it as the very quality that enables us to have faith – for without doubt, our faith is mere certainty, which allows neither freedom nor risk.

Rollins calls us to surrender of our power discourses of evangelism, attempting to force people into faith by the use of logically watertight rational argument or else undeniable supernatural miracle. Rather he advocates what he calls a ‘powerless dis-course’ whereby we  simply create space in which people can (if they wish) seek God for themselves:

“So in a sense, when it comes to God, we have nothing to say to others and must not be ashamed of saying it. Our approach must be a powerless one which employs words as a way of saying that we have been left utterly breathless by a beauty that surpasses all words.”

He also turns the classic Pascalian idea of the ‘God-shaped hole’ on its head (and precisely articulates what I was trying to say in my recent post I still haven’t found what I’m looking for):

“The believer, far from having a God-shaped hole in his or her being that is now filled, is one who has a God-shaped hole formed in the aftermath of God, a hole which compels them to seek after that which they already have.” (Elsewhere, in one of his talks, he expresses it as “God is not the sticking plaster we put over our wound; God is our wound”.)

Finally he challenges our notions of truth: “the emphasis [of truth] is not on description but on transformation… Truth is the ungraspable Real that transforms the individual”. Furthermore, for a Christian, truth is ultimately only seen and known in love: “To be a Christian is to be born of love, transformed by love and committed to transforming the world with love… by letting go and opening up to the transformative power of God”.

Talking (non)sense

With Rollins you quite often have to read a sentence more than once before it starts to make any sense; and even then it often eludes capture. But in some ways it doesn’t matter if you’ve ‘got it’ – just let yourself get carried along in the heady rush of language, and see where it takes you. Rollins is challenging and deconstructing our normal meanings and understandings, and our normal ways of deriving meaning and understanding. Maybe at the end it doesn’t make sense, at least not in the usual sense; but that’s okay.

As well as a fascinating writer, Rollins is an engaging (and very funny) speaker, and even if you don’t read anything by him, you can get most of the same ideas through listening to his excellent Greenbelt festival talks (several of which are available to download for free). Rollins has the Irish gift of the gab, and at times he appears to be free-wheeling, carried away by his own ideas and by the sheer joy of language and theology.

Or if you prefer parables to theology, try The Orthodox Heretic, the title of which was part of the inspiration for The Evangelical Liberal. But for my money How (not) to speak of God is his best, and it’s changed the way I think. Whether it’s a Christian book, a post-Christian book, or even an anti-Christian book I’ll leave to you to decide…

Posted in Book reviews, Emerging, Post-modernism, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…

As a new convert and good evangelical, the U2 song used to trouble me. It carried such a great Christian message: ‘You broke the bonds and you loosed the chains / Carried the cross of my shame, You know I believe it’. But then (as I saw it at the time) it went and undermined it with the line ‘but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’.

What was all that about? How could you so clearly believe in Christ and the gospel and yet not be satisfied, not have found what you’re looking for? It made no sense to me.

And I recall a Soul Survivor festival (UK youth charismatic event) where they, clearly feeling the same, changed the lyrics to ‘I’ve finally found what I’m looking for’.

The end of the journey?

For me at the time, becoming a Christian was the end of the journey, not the beginning. I’d been seeking something and now I’d found it. I’d been lost and now was found, had been blind and now could see. Conversion was the happy ending to the story. There might still be some things to learn and the rest of life to live, but in many ways I’d already made it (I thought); the rest would just be fine-tuning, and putting into practice what I’d received.

One of my favourite quotations at the time was Augustine’s ‘You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’. I’d experienced the restlessness and rootlessness, the feeling of being spiritually adrift in a troubled sea. My understanding was that I’d now come home to that place of perfect peace and rest in God. From this point on I might experience occasional difficulties, but I would never again feel that restlessness or alienation – or so I imagined.

After the wedding

We see a similar phenomenon in romantic books and films. There the story almost always ends at the wedding, or even just at the acceptance of the marriage proposal. Everything after this point is apparently mere postscript, with an implied happily-ever-after where everything’s going to be plain sailing.

But of course, in real life the wedding is just where the real challenges start. House-buying, careers, kids or not kids, money issues, sex, in-laws, psychological and emotional baggage… all of these and many more things crowd in and ensure that marriage is far from an uneventful happy-ever-after of blissfully gazing into one another’s eyes. (And of course in truth it would likely get pretty dull if it were.)

It’s the same with the Christian life. Getting to the point of conversion, of accepting Christ as Lord and saviour or however you want to describe it, is in many ways only the start. If we expect everything after this just to be a happy-ever-after of answered prayers and spiritual bliss – or even just of smooth-running Christian service – we’re in for a bit of a shock.

And if we think that once we’ve accepted the gospel then we’ve found everything we’re looking for, end of story, we’re also likely to get some surprises – not all of them pleasant. If we think that we’ll never feel restless or rootless again, we may need to think again.

The Protestant paradigm

I think this problem owes much to the paucity of the Protestant paradigm of salvation. It’s a simplistic before-and-after story of being lost in sin and then found and saved by God in an all-important one-off moment of conversion. After this you’re set firmly upon the straight and narrow path to heaven; the rest is simply an assured epilogue of growing in faith, understanding and good works as you’re sanctified by the Spirit.

But for many (perhaps most) the Christian path isn’t like this. Many have grown up in faith and cannot point to any particular moment or event of conversion. Others may have committed their lives to Christ, lapsed and then re-committed several times over the years. For some, there may be a long period of gradual conversion rather than a single event. And for many, their faith and beliefs have changed enormously over the years till they look back on their conversion beliefs as simplistic and even partly mistaken – though, like me, they may still hold on to Christ.

The evangelical gospel

I’d also suggest that the overly-simplistic Protestant paradigm derives in turn from an attenuated evangelical gospel. It’s a gospel which tends to focus solely on the twin events of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and largely ignores or sidelines the rest of his life. “Jesus died for your sins and rose again that you might have eternal life” – and that’s pretty much it.

But as I’ve written before, there’s so much more to Christ than just the cross. The cross is of huge importance of course. Without Good Friday and Easter there’d be no Christian faith. But Jesus’ life is so rich, so full, so important that we lose out tragically if we focus solely on one end of it to the exclusion of all else.

Above all we lose sight of Jesus himself – his fascinating, multi-faceted, vibrant, dynamic, category-defying character – if all we value are his death and coming back to life, two events in which he was largely a passive participant.

Evangelicals might argue that we can never get to the end of the wonder of the atonement, and in some ways they’re right – though I think that in reducing the atonement to the single dubious theory of penal substitution, they cut off most of the potential wonder.

But I think it’s yet even more true that we can never get to the end of Christ. We can follow him all our days – for all eternity – and still encounter fresh surprises (and fresh challenges).

Still haven’t found…

So these days I entirely understand how U2 can affirm the Christian creed yet append ‘but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’. Indeed, I think the former almost implies or requires the latter.

Accepting the gospel and receiving Christ is only the start. We’ve embarked on the journey of becoming fully human and fully alive, but we’re a long way off its fulfilment. We won’t finally find what we’re looking for this side of the River; every time we think we’ve found it we’ll be called on further and in deeper.

After all, what we’re looking for ultimately is nothing less than the full redemption of the entire cosmos, including the full redemption of our own selves.

I view the Augustine quotation slightly differently now too. Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in God; but the rest they find now is only partial. It comes and goes, glows and fades. It’s a foretaste but not the fulfilment. The perfect, unbroken peace is yet to come.

So if you’ve been a Christian just a short time, you have so much more ahead of you (including both joys and challenges, difficulties and fresh discoveries). And if you’ve been journeying for a long time and you’re feeling bored or restless or dissatisfied or just plain tired, that might not be a sign that you’re losing your way, but may rather be the stirring of grace.

Perhaps God is calling you out of wearying busyness to a deeper, truer rest for a time. Or perhaps he’s stirring you up from a place of boredom and constriction to a place where your soul can expand and breathe and flower again.

Not having found what you’re looking for is not a sign of apostasy but a sign of faith. It means you’re still alive, still travelling, still growing, still learning. Keep looking and you’ll keep finding, and then finding that you still need to keep looking…

Posted in The faith journey | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Last night I burnt the Bible

Before we go any further I need to put some warnings and caveats on this post!

Firstly, it’s another poem, for which I apologise to all who understandably hate poetry. Secondly, it’s not a particularly good poem. It doesn’t rhyme (much), its only metaphor is a bit of a cliché, and it’s not much more than an event recounted and reflected on in patterned speech.

Thirdly and most importantly, it’s potentially quite offensive. Certainly an older (or rather younger) version of me would have been upset by it, and I apologise in advance for any offence caused. It contains no sex or bad language, but it does contain violence to a sacred object – or perhaps to a sacred idea.

Because the other night I burned the Bible. (Not really, but sort of, in a sense – as you’ll see.) And I’m still not sure whether that was a terrible and blasphemous thing, an important thing, or a meaningless thing. Perhaps all three. Hence this poem.

Last night I burnt the Bible

Last night I burnt the Bible -
Or strictly photocopied A4 sheets of given verses
Helpfully arranged to cover all of life’s eventualities
And difficulties, made simple by the application of God’s Word.

I’d thrown them out in the recycling
Along with pages showing how to give evangelistic presentations
And answers to the common questions and objections -
Answers that I genuinely needed once,
Which nonetheless hold little meaning for me now.

I wanted one last flare upon the bonfire
To delight my son,
So out of the recycling came newspaper
(Which seems so perfectly designed to burn)
And Bible verses.

I paused for just a moment,
Then reckless, ripped them up and threw them on
And watched them curl and catch,
And flare and char, be lifted up into the air
Becoming spirit in the flame once more
The black-and-white translated into light.

What did I feel?
A little guilty, little scared
As if daring the Fates;
Perhaps a little free as well.

Perhaps sometimes the Bible needs to burn
For it has burnt,
Destroyed the human image
(which is also the divine)
Branded like bonded slaves with its defining print.
The scourging bonfires of its hells
Have scorched too many searching souls.

Whereas the Bible needs to burn
Within our hearts
By nothing else but making Christ alive to us,
- In us, through us -
To set the dried-up husk of world alight with grace
The searing flame of all-consuming, all-transforming love
In incandescent incarnation.

Or else its pyre-pure pages and its perfect print
Are all already all but ashes in our mouths.

Posted in Bible, Heresy/blasphemy, Poems, The faith journey | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

On fasting – and slowing

Well, I hope you all enjoyed your pancakes last night. Because from here on in it’s Lent, meaning utter abstinence, abject penance, fasting and general misery for the next 6 weeks till we get to Easter and the Feast Day of the Sacred Chocolate Egg. Right?

Sorry, my mistake. Turns out we’re not in medieval times, when a measure of Lenten fasting was compulsory, in particular abstinence from meat (which Thomas Aquinas thought increased lust). Not to mention penance, a concept most non-Catholic moderns probably struggle with a little.

These days if we’re really dedicated we might give up chocolate, crisps, or Coronation Street for 40 days. Full-on fasting probably isn’t on the Lenten, er, menu for most of us.

The idea of Lent

Most readers of this blog probably know the basic premise of Lent better than I do. As I understand it, it’s a period of spiritual preparation for the commemoration of (and in some sense participation in) Christ’s passion – his suffering and death and ultimate resurrection.

It’s also a time of identification with Jesus’ trials, walking with him in the wilderness for the 40 days of fasting and testing at the start of his ministry.

The number 40 has all sorts of biblical resonances of course. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness consciously echo Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the desert before they made it to the Promised Land. In Jonah, Ninevah were given a Lenten 40 days to repent of their sins. And there’s a tradition that Jesus was in the tomb for 40 hours before his resurrection.

I think there’s great value in the symbolism of Lent, and also possibly in some of its practices, even if not all of the more medieval ones. For the rest of this post I’d like to look at two aspects of Lent that I do think can still be of benefit to us – fasting, and slowing.

Fasting

The Pharisees in Jesus’ day apparently saw fasting as a way of boosting one’s religious credentials, a marker of spiritual superiority and purity. I think it’s fairly clear that missed the point; but perhaps many of our modern approaches miss the point in other ways.

Some see fasting as a way of twisting God’s arm, or of getting his attention, or of beefing up your prayers with more power and clout. That’s not how I view it.

Similarly, some see fasting as a kind of payment to God, even a way of putting him in your debt so that he’s almost obliged to give you what you ask for, or else to let you off punishment. Again, that’s not my understanding.

Others see fasting as a way of ‘mortifying the flesh’, of bringing the physical body and its sinful, impulses and carnal lusts under control through the exercise of stern self-discipline. I don’t view the body in quite this way. And though I think fasting can maybe have some value as a practice of self-control and delaying gratification, I don’t think it’s all that effective, and anyway I’m not sure that’s its primary purpose.

Some use fasting as a means of identifying with those living in poverty and hunger. I think this can be a useful exercise, but I suspect that if we truly wish to identify with the poor there may be other more practical ways to do it.

Some see fasting as being about coming to God without distraction. I think this comes close – the problem though is that hunger itself can be very distracting!

Above all, many see fasting as something you do when you’re really serious about wanting something from God, or perhaps when you’re feeling really bad about something you’ve done. I can identify with this – I’ve certainly used it in this way – but I’m not sure that’s its main meaning or use.

So what the heck is it about?

Challenging our dependencies

Firstly, fasting challenges our priorities and our dependencies – our idols if you like. It calls into question the things we think we need, that we can’t live without.

In Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, food and shelter are at the base. In the wilderness, Jesus went without both, demonstrating that we can live without for a time at least. Our most basic need, he seems to suggest, is for God. I don’t mean this in a pious sense; it’s not that our souls’ hunger is for church, or liturgy, or Bible study or whatever. Rather we have a deep need for soul-to-soul communion with the divine; with perfect goodness and complete love.

In fasting, you demonstrate your utter reliance on God – and demonstrate it to yourself as much as to God. Fasting says very loudly that God is your true source, your true food, your true nourishment. He is both the provider and the provision.

And sometimes when we have no words to say, fasting can be a prayer in itself. It’s an embodied prayer of lack, of need, of faith and dependence.

Self-emptying

But fasting isn’t just about going with food or luxuries. For me, more than anything else fasting is about self-emptying before God. In fasting we come to God just exactly as we are, effectively stripped bare before him, with nothing but ourselves and our hunger, our emptiness.

Fasting is a physical, enacted, embodied symbol of our utter need of God – our need to be filled with his grace, his presence, his power, his mercy. It’s a physical expression of our spiritual hunger, our hunger for God, for redemption, for love, for forgiveness and full acceptance.

Fasting is also a way of symbolising our empty-handedness. It says we have nothing to offer him except our true self – and at the same time paradoxically our true emptiness, the lack we need him to fill.

In true fasting, we come to God without pretence, without artifice, without any tricks or techniques or disguises – as far as that’s possible for us. Far from being about manipulating God to do your bidding, true fasting is about being utterly yourself before God and letting him be utterly himself to you. It’s about bringing all of your reality – warts and all – before all of his redeeming Reality. It’s no-holds-barred contact, and sometimes it may be more like all-in wrestling, and sometimes it may be more like the complete intimacy of sex.

Slow it down

So I think that fasting can be very important and helpful. But I won’t pretend that it’s easy. As someone quipped, ‘Why is it called fasting when it makes the time pass so slowly?’

The word Lent comes, I think, from the German word for the season of Spring, literally meaning lengthening, referring to the days getting longer. And in another sense, yes, the days do lengthen when you’re fasting. There’s also the French word ‘lente’ meaning slow.

And I wonder if the painful slowness is actually part of the point. I think fasting is partly about slowing; slowing down, stripping back, reclaiming precious time from the bonkers-crazy busyness of our daily lives. We live in a constant state of low-level anxiety, borderline stress and information overload. We desperately need to slow it down, simplify, take it back to the essentials.

We can live for a while without Facebook, email, mobile phones, TV, games, the internet, the car… go on, switch them all off for a season. I dare you. Step outside. Get out into the countryside and breathe in the air. Look up at the stars, and down at the grass. Turn off the noise and listen to the silence for a while.

Holy boredom

Of course, any form of fasting can be boring, and if we’re fasting from all our sources of entertainment and connection there’s almost definitely going to be a boredom barrier to push through. I don’t think this is a bad thing though. Some boredom is good, right, necessary and even creative.

I wrote recently about feeling bored with church and ‘Christian’ things. I don’t think that this is necessarily a sign of apostasy or a cause for concern. On the contrary, I believe there’s such a thing as ‘Holy Boredom’ – a grace-prompted dissatisfaction with business as usual, with the status quo of the world, of the church and of our own lives. This kind of boredom or dissatisfaction may just be the call of the Spirit to greater depth and reality.

So I encourage you to feel your hunger again, and your boredom, and to stay with it a while and see where it leads. I invite you to indulge in a bit of abstinence this Lent.

Damn, that means I might have to as well… ;)

Posted in Church calendar, Seasons, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The first of Spring

Well, here in the northern hemisphere it’s the first day of Spring – meteorologically speaking, if not astronomically. (If you’re interested in the ins and outs of the technical definitions, here’s a blog post I wrote for work a few years ago on the subject).

Spring is my favourite season – whether it’s because it’s the season of new life and light after the long cold dark of winter, or because it’s the season of Easter, or perhaps because that when my birthday happens to fall (quite often on Easter day or Good Friday, in fact).

Spring affects people in different ways. For me, I’m afraid, it makes me want to write poetry. So here you go – one I penned on this day a couple of years ago – when the weather was just slightly better than it is today…

On the first day of March

Some window in the sky flings open
And a new and lovely, holy light bursts in,
So heaven-heavy with pure glory I can hardly bear the weight,
And now the wait is over -

And in a thousand trees a thousand birds
Lift up their voice as one and sing,
Sing out their hearts into the still and shining air
Until the light-drenched silence rings with peals of bells proclaiming, Spring!
Like angels heralding the dawn -
The morning stars who sang the birth of time.

Thinnest swathing-wraps of cloud unveil a sky new-born
And life quickens in bud and vein,
And couples kissing in the park know love is something just invented.

The tired and clichéd world is made anew today,
Its scarred and wrinkled face alight with life,
Lit up with joy of being loved;
Everything and everyone is beautiful this moment,
Touched with surprising grace.

Other days will come
When no birds sing and clouds blot out the sun -
But this now day is real, it cannot be undone.
One day it will return and never end.

Posted in Grace, Love of God, Poems, Seasons, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments