Author Archive

you are what you love (3)

Posted by on Tuesday, 21 March, 2017

Sorry for the delay in writing up this chapter! Hopefully now we’re back on track and I’m determined to blog once a week until the book is finished. If anyone is still listening, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

This chapter reinforces and underlines the claim that we can’t simply THINK our way to new hungers and desires. What really hit home for me was the image of the author “reading Wendell Berry in Costco.” This was uncomfortably close to the bone for me. Wendell Berry has been for a long time one of my favourite authors. His Port William novels are my first love, with their gentle reflections on community, place, belonging, membership, forgiveness and grace.

But I’ve also been inspired and challenged by Berry’s essays, which most often deal with issues relating to food, farming, and the land. I’ve read his words and been intellectually persuaded of their truth, their rightness. But they have made very little difference to my own eating habits. I’ve read Wendell Berry in McDonalds and in Starbucks, noting the irony in my mind but not changing my practice. And not only Berry – I’ve gone on to read Michael Pollan’s wonderful books examining the same issues, and Barbara Kingsolver’s delightful Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I’ve taken notes and underlined, and read quotations to my friends. My mind has been persuaded, my intellect converted… and my habits deeply and stubbornly unchanged.

So I’m fully in agreement with Smith’s claim: “You can’t just think your way to new hungers.” My hungers have been shaped and formed by years of (bad) habits and (unhealthy) practices. And they can only be reformed by new habits and practices. This is true in relation to my physical hungers, but also in relation to my spiritual hungers and desires.

Again, Smith is not dismissing the need for good and deep thinking. But “reflection should propel us into new practices that will reform our hungers.”

So once again I’m sitting in Starbucks nodding along to an author who has persuaded my mind and convinced my intellect. But if this book is going to have any deeper impact, my big question is this – what exactly are these practices and habits and disciplines which will retrain and renew my hungers and desires? I need him to be specific. I need this spelled out in small words. Pictures may help.

Well, I’m hoping later chapters will help to answer this question and paint a picture for me. But this chapter starts to answer the question first by insisting we shouldn’t look for the dramatic or sensational. The habits we will be formed by will be “the ordinary means of grace” – he mentions “Word and Table,” “the church’s worship,” “prayer and song, preaching and offering, baptism and communion.” These are the ordinary, undramatic places where God meets us and shapes us by his life-giving Spirit.

Now, I like this quite a lot. But I have a question – just as I’ve noticed that lots of intellectual knowledge of Scripture and theology doesn’t necessarily lead to deep heart-and-life-change, I’ve also noticed that many of us have repeated these ordinary practices faithfully and regularly, for years, for decades – and our desires and hungers have not necessarily been deeply transformed. So have we been doing them wrong?

Smith points to one way in which he thinks we have been approaching worship wrongly – we have placed our focus on our actions and on expressing ourselves in worship. This tends to lead to a straining for “authenticity” and freshness and novelty. Which can be exhausting. He suggests that we shift our posture so that our focus is on God’s actions as he forms us through these worship practices. Instead of striving to express ourselves, we come open and expectant to receive.

There’s something deeply encouraging and restful about this perspective. “Worship is not primarily a venue for innovative creativity but a place for discerning reception and faithful repetition.” I’m interested to see where Smith goes with this. Does this line of thinking lead naturally to a preference for old songs, written prayers, and traditional formats? He says his concern is not about “traditional” or “contemporary” but I still suspect his thoughts lean towards the former – “we inherit a form of worship that should be received as a gift” and which contains “the accumulated wisdom of the body of Christ.”

An observation – many of those I know from “low church” evangelical churches (myself included) often feel tired of the expressive paradigm, the constant straining for freshness and authenticity, the need to always find “our own words” – and we can feel very drawn to the liturgical. We are tired of paddling our own canoe and want to push into a current that is deep, and ancient, and let ourselves be carried. That sounds NICE. But many of those I know who come from “liturgical” traditions are also tired – they are tired of a repetition that came to feel dry, and formulaic, and constraining. They long for freshness, for freedom to express love for God in new ways, for variety and creativity. They feel their canoe has been drifting aimlessly, and they long for some energy and direction.

Maybe I’m misjudging where Smith is going? I’m mostly with him, but I have plenty of unresolved questions and wonderings. What do you think? We’ll let Oscar Wilde have the last word:

Do you wish to love? Use Love’s Litany, and the words will create the yearning from which the world fancies they spring.

 

you are what you love (2)

Posted by on Friday, 3 February, 2017

Thanks to all who have joined the conversation so far – I know we are all reading at a different pace, so feel free to drop in whenever and wherever you want. Here are my random reflections on chapter 2:

I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want…

Smith begins chapter 2 with an illustration from a movie which has really got under my skin. It’s from Stalker by the Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky.

Three men are on a journey together towards a destination called the Zone. They are told that in the Zone is a Room where they will find their heart’s desire. Their dreams will come true. Anticipation grows as they walk through a strange post-apolcalyptic landscape. And then they arrive at the threshold of the Room.

This is the most important moment in your life, he says. Your innermost wish will be made true.

But now the men hesitate. Because it dawns on them that their “heart’s desire” may not be what they think it is. If the thing we most desire and long for is finally revealed, are we confident it will be something good and beautiful and true? As Smith asks, “would you want to step into the Room? Are you confident that what you think you love aligns with your innermost longings?” Now there’s a question that’s going to linger…

As Smith observes, we’re well trained to know what the answer is meant to be. In a Bible study, in our worship songs, we will confidently assert that what I most want is to know God better, to love God more, to love my neighbour more, to be holy, to be like Jesus. But the simple image of that Room unmasks our pretences, makes us hesitate.

A slight tangent, maybe. But this scene reminds me of my favourite part of C.S. Lewis’s strange and beautiful novel Til We Have Faces (his retelling of an old Greek myth). The main character has reached a kind of final courtroom scene where she stands before the gods, and for the first time speaks completely truthfully, speaks from the heart, about her own life. Then she adds these words:

Lightly men talk of saying what they mean… When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

Or as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 4:5 – “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.” How do I feel about that, honestly?

I also loved Smith’s other movie illustration, since it comes from my own personal “golden age of film.” American Beauty was one of a number of films over a three year period in the late 90’s that seemed to me to be trying to say something Big and Deep and True about our human predicament, the mess we are in, our woundedness and lostness.

They were not “nice” movies, and were sometimes brutal, shocking, vulgar, provocative. They only contained glimmers and whispers of hope, but I guess what they did for me was stir up longing and desire for something better. For those who are interested, the other movies of that golden age for me were The Ice Storm, Buffalo ’66, Magnolia, Fight Club and The Thin Red Line. I haven’t been as deeply moved by the movies since then – is that because of the age I was then (early 20s) or because they don’t make them like that any more?

Anyway, the American Beauty scene Smith points to is the one where Lester Burnam finally reaches his own threshold, and it seems he is going to gain the desire of his heart – by bedding his daughter’s teenage friend he has been lusting after. But at that moment his eyes are opened and he realises what he thought he wanted is not what he really, really wants. His desire turns to dust in his mouth and he realises “the disorder of his loves.”

Smith suggests that what we really, really want is often hidden from our own awareness. Our loves and desires influence and direct us all the time, without conscious thought and deliberate choice – they operate at the level of what psychologists call “the adaptive unconscious.”

But our loves and desires are revealed by our habits and practices, and also shaped by them. So by paying attention to our habits and practices, our daily liturgies, we can discover what we really want. And by making choices to change our habits and practices, we can retrain and recalibrate our loves. We need to wake up to the “secular liturgies” that are shaping us every day and (de)forming our lives – the example Smith explores is the liturgical influence of the shopping mall. We need a personal “apocalypse” to unmask these powerful background influences in our lives.

So the biggest practical question emerging from these chapters for me: what are the “secular liturgies” that are shaping my desires and loves every day? I’m going to start making an actual, physical list. I want to name these daily habits that are (de)forming my character and heart without my awareness. I’ll reveal my list in good time, but I’d also love to hear what this chapter has stirred up in you…

What I really, really, really want is zig-a-zig-ah

you are what you love (1)

Posted by on Monday, 23 January, 2017

Some reflections on chapter 1 of “You Are What You Love” by James K.A. Smith:

It seems like Smith’s basic starting point here is that we have been deeply shaped, without realising it, by the idea that to be human is primarily to be a “thinking thing” – Descartes gets the blame (“I think, therefore I am”).

In Christian culture this idea is reflected in our common assumption that “right thinking” (i.e. right theology or understanding of the Bible) will lead automatically to good character and right living. We know from experience that this simply isn’t true. This observation really rings true for me.

As a little spin-off thought – the same assumption (that right thinking will lead to right living) seems to also be the basis of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) which is pretty hot right now. Some of you with training in psychotherapy etc may have some thoughts on this…?

Smith argues that we need to recover the biblical understanding that the centre of our humanity is the “heart” (or even the “guts”). By heart we don’t just mean the centre of emotions, but of deeper-rooted desires and longings. The heart is the place from which our lives are directed and orientated towards some kind of “vision” or telos. The most important thing about us is not what we think or believe – but what we love, what we want.

So the goal in all Christian discipleship is not simply to impart knowledge and information about God and the Bible – but nothing less than the re-orientation of our desires, the re-calibration of our loves.

Smith observes in passing that some parts of our Christian culture have somehow managed to be both anti-intellectual and focused on cognitive beliefs and right thinking rather than the heart. I recognise this as true of the evangelical circles I’ve mostly spent time in. Our sermons and Bible studies focus on correct doctrine and right thinking. But we also resist deep thinking about anything too complex, controversial, or confusing.

To stir the pot a little – it seems to me that the vibrant growth of some of the charismatic churches recently may be partly because they have rejected a purely cognitive form of faith, and recovered an emphasis on experience and emotion and the heart. But perhaps we also need some more deep thinking about our emotions and experiences? What I crave is a bringing together of head and heart in a C.S. Lewis kind of way. W.H Auden said that “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.” Maybe the same is true of great theology – we need to think deeply about all the complexity and ambiguity and messiness of the heart?

Smith also wants us to consider this – that what we love is expressed by, and also shaped and formed by, habits and practices.

This is part of what drew me to read this book. I’ve been thinking a lot over the past year about some of my own habits, especially in relation to technology, media, social media, etc. And I’ve been becoming more aware (and alarmed!) by how these daily habits are a kind of “liturgy” which is forming and shaping me. The book that really shook me up on this stuff is called “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr – exploring how the internet is changing the way we think, actually shaping our brains.

I reach for my devices to check email, Facebook, news, sports news – many times every day. It’s compulsive and habitual, woven into the fabric of my days. But I’m aware that it mostly doesn’t shape me in positive ways, but makes me anxious, angry, distracted, overwhelmed by just too much stuff to process (both trivial, frothy stuff and Big Serious Stuff).

To quote my current favourite song by Romantica – “It’s getting harder to hear my heart these days, harder to hear my heart – there’s so much culture in the way.” (You can listen to the song here).

I’m becoming aware of the need for a radical, intentional change in my daily habits. I’m hoping this book and conversation will help.

On the positive side – Smith suggests we need strong habits of worship in order to cultivate virtue – good character, well-oriented loves. So we can become the kind of people who will choose the good instinctively, since our instincts have been re-calibrated. This is not about trying to make ourselves good by obeying rules – law-keeping focuses on external behaviour, but this is about the re-orientation of our hearts and desires.

I’m aware I have some theological questions around this – I have believed (and taught) that we are changed and transformed by grace and by the Spirit – and not primarily by our best efforts. How does this fit with Smith’s emphasis on habits and practices, on intentionally choosing to do those things that will shape us and make us good? I don’t feel they are necessarily in contradiction – I hope not, since I’m drawn to both! But I may need your help to untangle my confused thoughts.

That’s enough from me. The floor is open…

you are what you love (intro)

Posted by on Monday, 23 January, 2017

So I’ve somehow managed to persuade a wonderful bunch of friends scattered around various parts of the UK and Ireland to join me in reading a book and entering into some conversation together. Thanks to all of you who have been so willing to join me on this little journey. We have friends reading along in Coleraine, Ballyclare, Belfast, Dublin, Maynooth, Galway, London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and maybe a few other places as well! If anyone else would like to jump aboard, the book is called “You Are What You Love” by James K.A. Smith. It’s available in some good bookshops and all evil online retailers.

I’m hoping to read a chapter a week over the next couple of months, and blog my responses here. I’m not going to try and write a well-structured and polished piece of dazzling prose each week, but just set down some of my gut-reactions to the chapter in a pretty simple and maybe scruffy way. That seems more honest and also more sustainable! Some of it may be just summarising some key points from the book, some of it may be questions I have, or thoughts that were set in motion by what I read.

I’m just getting the ball rolling here – what I would really love is for y’all to jump in and share your thoughts and reactions. You can do that below in the comments, or on your own blogs or some other corner of the internet – just share a link here so we can find it. Be as brief or as long-winded as you like. And you don’t have to like the book!

As a good place to start: in chapter one Smith quotes some verses from Philippians 1:9-11, which I find helpful in setting the tone for our conversation:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.

I’d love for us to have plenty of intellectually stimulating discussion – but our primary goal is not simply knowledge as an end in itself, but knowledge that helps us love well and live well. I’m aware I can get carried away by a love of words and ideas and debate – so I need this reminder often. What I most need is not more information, but formation of my heart and character and relationships and desires and habits.

With that in mind, let’s begin. My responses to chapter 1 will follow shortly…

up above my head, I hear music in the air

Posted by on Thursday, 29 December, 2016
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

By most measures, 2016 has been a strange and troubling year. In different ways the darkness seems to have been pressing in a little closer, and we’ve had to look harder for the flickers of light.

At times like this, we need artists and musicians and storytellers and poets more than ever, to tell us the truth about where we are, and also to give us glimpses of some kind of deeper truth, something truer and deeper than the darkness, some whispers of hope, some rumours of grace.

So without further ado, and without much comment, here are a few of my favourite things that I’ve discovered in 2016. First, the music:

  1. The Phosporescent Blues (Punch Brothers)
  2. The Longest Day in History (David C. Clements)
  3. Tomorrow is my Turn (Rhiannon Giddens)
  4. Real Midnight (Birds of Chicago)
  5. Sermon on the Rocks (Josh Ritter)

I really haven’t seen enough movies this year to make a meaningful list, but I can maybe just about muster a top 3:

  1. Brooklyn
  2. The BFG
  3. The Big Short

We have enjoyed a lot of great TV series, so I guess they can have their own list. I should add that my number 1 is miles ahead of the competition (as much as I enjoyed the others). We watched all 6 seasons this year and it has gone straight into my “special reserve” list of all time great TV shows, along with The West Wing, Friday Night Lights and Firefly. It has its sentimental moments for sure, but it stands out from a lot of trendier-but-shallower shows as a thoughtful, truthful, funny and very moving reflection on all the challenges and joys of family life. And yes, a tear or two may have been shed. (In every episode).

  1. Parenthood
  2. The Crown
  3. Stranger Things

As for books, these are the novels that have most amused and amazed me this year:

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
  2. Saint Maybe (Anne Tyler)
  3. We Are Not Ourselves (Matthew Thomas)
  4. The Spectator Bird (Wallace Stegner)
  5. Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)

And finally, three non-fiction books which have deeply impacted me this year:

  1. The Divine Conspiracy (Dallas Willard)
  2. A Time to Keep Silence (Patrick Leigh Fermor)
  3. Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought To Say) (Frederick Buechner)

Although if I’m being honest, the book that has had the deepest impact has been one which made my end of year list last year, and which I have been re-reading more slowly. If I can be allowed a little moment of evangelistic fervour- this is a book that I feel strongly should be read by every pastor and Christian leader. And every teacher or educator. And every parent. And every human being.

It’s called The Shallows, it’s by Nicholas Carr, and it’s about “how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember”. Although it doesn’t claim to be a book about spirituality, it made me pause and reflect, more than anything else I read this year, on the deepest questions we can ask: what kind of people do we want to be? who are we becoming? how are my ordinary daily habits shaping my mind (and soul)? It is currently leading me to consider making several semi-radical changes to my own habits as I go into a new year, especially in my relationship with technology and the internet. I imagine each person who reads it will come to different conclusions and make different choices, but I think we urgently need to pause and reflect and have this conversation.

Sermon over! As always, I would love to hear your highlights of the year, which will form the basis of my wishlists going into 2017. (Unless they look rubbish). Please let me know what you have loved this year. Grace and peace.

grace along the road less travelled

Posted by on Saturday, 2 January, 2016

A friend complained today that I had only posted my end of year “best of” lists on Facebook, therefore excluding my wisest and sanest friends (who are not on Facebook) from the conversation. So here they are, without comment (except to say these were all “new to me” this year, not necessarily released or published in 2015).

MUSIC:

1. “Didn’t He Ramble” (Glen Hansard)
2. “Carrie & Lowell” (Sufjan Stevens)
3. “Islands” (Bear’s Den)
4. “Something More Than Free” (Jason Isbell)
5. “Sleeping Operator” (The Barr Brothers)

I also enjoyed “Monterey” (The Milk Carton Kids), “Nashville Obsolete” (Dave Rawlings Machine) and “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” (The Decemberists). Biggest disappointment after all the rave reviews – “Lost in The Dream” (The War on Drugs).

MOVIES:

1. Inside Out
2. Birdman
3. Leviathan
4. My Neighbour Totoro
5. While We’re Young

Other movies I enjoyed this year: The Martian, Nightcrawler, Tomorrowland, Mockingjay 2, Foxcatcher, The Way Way Back, Back to the Future 2, and Cinderella (seriously). Worst movie I’ve seen this year: Serena. And no, I haven’t seen Star Wars yet.

BOOKS (NON-FICTION):

1. Visions of Vocation (Steven Garber)
2. The Pursuit of God (A.W. Tozer)
3. The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember (Nicholas Carr)
4. Why Work? (Dorothy Sayers)
5. A People’s History of the USA (Howard Zinn)

I also enjoyed Slow Church (Smith & Pattison), Reading for Preaching (Plantinga), Praying the Psalms (Brueggeman) and Finding God in the Psalms (Wright).

BOOKS (FICTION):

1. The Big Rock Candy Mountain (Wallace Stegner)
2. Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner)
3. The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Richard Flanagan)
4. History of the Rain (Niall Williams)
5. The Chosen (Chaim Potok)

I also really enjoyed A Spool of Blue Thread (Anne Tyler), A History of Loneliness (John Boyne), Nora Webster (Colm Toibin), Chidhood’s End (Arthur C Clarke) and The Book of Lights (Chaim Potok). Most infuriating waste of time and paper: The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt).

I’d love to hear about your favourite discoveries and recommendations too…

Happy New Year!

cake or death?

Posted by on Friday, 27 March, 2015

It’s the kind of story that makes people shake their head and roll their eyes. “It could only happen in Northern Ireland,” we say. “You couldn’t make it up.” And “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

We want to laugh because we’re all talking and arguing and going to court and having public meetings about… a cake. Or rather the absence of a cake. With Bert and Ernie (not) on it.

We want to cry because… Well, you know why. Raised voices, polarised and entrenched positions, simplistic arguments, very little listening – we’ve seen it all too many times before, over flags and parades… And now a cake. It’s hard to see how an argument like this has any winners.

I don’t actually want to write about the specifics of the Ashers case.  Plenty has been said already, though I wish there was more room in the public discussions for some nuanced views. I appreciated this article in the Belfast Telegraph because it breaks out of the predicatable polarised positions and talks a lot of sense. (It’s also maybe a good primer for those from saner parts of the world who have no idea what I’m talking about).

What has troubled me more and more as the story has rumbled on is the wider “campaign” or “movement” being stirred up in Christian circles in support of the bakery. I don’t doubt for a second that many of those joining that campaign are doing so for good and sincere reasons, but I wonder if we need to pause and take a breath.

Two and a half thousand Christians packed into the Waterfront Hall to show their solidarity with Ashers – the Telegraph ran a front page picture with the headline, “The Christians fight back.” A few weeks ago an event was held in a hotel round the corner from our house and our church, under the title, “Faith under Fire.” And people are taking to Facebook and other social media to publically show their support and call others to do the same.

Here’s the heart of my concern: there’s a story being told here, a wider narrative, about Christians being persecuted, faith being under pressure and under fire.  And I think that narrative is deeply, deeply unhelpful, and damaging to the cause of the gospel in our land.

It was clarified for me when I heard a member of the baking family refer to the court case as “David against Goliath.” Now, that analogy might work if it’s just a matter of a family business against the Equality Commission. But once you pack thousands of Christians into the Waterfont and stir up a wider campaign of war, the analogy becomes embarrassingly, painfully inappropriate.

Because evangelical Christians in Northern Ireland are not David. We are Goliath.

Christians have been in a position of privilege and power in western Europe since the time of Constantine. That privileged position has been waning over the last century, but for various complex reasons it has taken a lot longer to fade here in our wee country. It is now undoubtedly fading. But this is what we need to pause and think about – the loss of privilege and power is not the same thing as persecution. It can feel like it, and it can certainly be uncomfortable. But it’s not persecution, and claiming it is makes us look ridiculous, and thin-skinned, and hypocritical. (Especially since, when we held that position of power, we didn’t always have a great track record of using it to defend and protect the rights of minorities and those who disagreed with us).

Here’s a quote I find tremendously helpful (from Simon Barrow at the Christian think-tank Ekklesia):

We need to be theologically clear amidst the siren voices of alarm. That Christians do not rule others in the way they once did, does not amount to ‘persecution.’ Instead, it is an invitation to rediscover patterns of church life in a plural society which show the heart of the Christian message to be about embracing others, not isolating ourselves; multiplying hope, not spreading fear; developing peacableness, not resorting to aggression; and advancing compassion, rather than retreating into defensiveness.

In the middle of thinking about the whole mess this week, I received an email with a request to pray for a Christian leader in another corner of the world, who had found himself the object of an unprovoked media attack denouncing him and others as “a corrupter of young minds.” His response to this genuine persecution moved me to tears. “My biggest prayer request hasn’t changed since I moved here five years ago. May God make me invisible, but incredible. Invisible for the enemies of God’s mission, incredible for his kingdom and the church.”

Crying persecution too quickly or too lightly causes great damage to the public image of the church. And even when we are persecuted, Jesus made it pretty clear how we should respond. Not by manning the barricades, demanding our rights and launching a full-scale culture war. But this: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Maybe this is what I find saddest in all of this – there’s a thread running all through the biblical story that connects food with the heart of the gospel. Isaiah dreams of a feast which God will one day prepare for all people, “the best of meats and the finest of wines.” Jesus eats with notorious sinners and scandalises the religious establishment. He says the kingdom of God is like a wedding feast to which everyone is invited – the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. He gives us a meal of bread and wine which speaks of the grace and generosity and hospitality of God extended to the world in his broken body and poured out blood.

And right now, Christians in Northern Ireland are being associated in the public mind with a refusal to make a cake for our neighbours. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, that image as an outcome is tragic. There’s every chance we could win the arguments and win the legal cases, but lose the hearts and minds of our friends and neighbours.

So I think we need to pause, and breathe, and reflect, and pray. We need bucket-loads of grace and humility and wisdom. We need kindness and gentleness as well as courage. My friend Kevin wrote these words recently in talking about something else, and they seem a good place to finish:

The work of the people of God is quiet prayer and gentle hospitality and patient listening. Seeing, and hearing, and welcoming without wanting to win is the work we should be doing.

P.S. I know some of you will disagree with me on all this. And that’s OK. I would genuinely love to hear your thoughts. But can I make a small plea – can we try to engage with the wider issues I’ve raised here, rather than simply have another debate about the specifics of the Ashers case, or about homosexuality? There have been plenty of spaces for those debates, and my modest hope is that we could have a little space here for a slightly different discussion.

 

 

three books

Posted by on Wednesday, 31 December, 2014

I’m going to ignore all division into fiction and non-fiction, new and old, Christian and whatever, and just tell you about three books that have deeply impacted me this year by making me laugh or cry or think in some new way…

Lila (Marilynne Robinson): I only finished this one today but it would have made the list no matter when I read it. I’m hesitant to even try to describe it. I often found myself almost holding my breath as I read it. I found myself slowing down, not wanting it to end. The writing is just beautiful, a kind of miracle in itself, a gift, a means of grace. It struck me when I finished that this is a book about the most painful and difficult of themes – the story of someone who was neglected as a child, and then lived a life of bare survival, punctured by moments of horror and brutality, and about how hard it is for someone wounded in those ways to ever recover, to heal, to trust, to find peace. But unlike so many modern writers who like to rub our noses in the grime, Marilynne Robinson writes about these hard things with gentleness and grace, somehow writing a beautiful book about the hardness of life. Oh, and how many other novels contain profound reflections on the book of Ezekiel? Buy it quickly, read it slowly.

God at War (Greg Boyd): This is a long book, and a serious one –  a sustained and systematic exploration of the theme of “spiritual conflict” in the Bible. I know that doesn’t sound like fun bedtime reading! But I found this to be, honestly, a thrilling page-turner of a book. I was carried along by the force of Boyd’s argument and his conviction that these things really matter. In a nutshell, his argument is that when we think about suffering only in relation to “providence” and “the will of God,” we end up creating an unsolvable moral and intellectual problem and tying ourselves in knots trying to resolve it. But when we remember that we live in a war-zone, in the midst of a cosmic war with real powers of darkness, a war which intersects with life here on earth – then suffering and evil become a practical problem to be overcome, not an intellectual problem to be solved. He’s a bold thinker and I didn’t agree with all of his conclusions, but I found his basic argument totally persuasive. I don’t want to learn to “accept” the evil in the world as part of a mysterious divine blueprint. I want to be part of the resistance and fight against it with every weapon God has given me – weapons of prayer and faith, as well as love and compassion and hard thinking and hard work. This is a book that has changed my thinking in a profound way about some of the biggest questions we can ask.

Crossing to Safety (Wallace Stegner): This autumn I read two novels, one after the other, which were both set mostly in the world of academics teaching at a small-town college – this one and Stoner by John Williams. While Stoner, like its name, was kind of hard and cold (though well written), Stegner’s novel was the very opposite. He takes us into a world most of us don’t know, and one that could easily seem dull or pretentious or too far removed from real life. And he makes us care about these people and their lives, their hopes and fears and failures and small victories. And that’s about as much as you can hope for in a good novel. Stegner is a classic American novelist with more than a dozen novels to his name, so discovering him now feels like finding a seam of gold I can spend the next few years excavating. Wonderful stuff.

Other books I really enjoyed this year included Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman), We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler), The Shock of the Fall (Nathan Filer), The Spinning Heart (Donal Ryan), Tinkers (Paul Harding), American Gods (Neil Gaiman) and lots of bits of Eugene Peterson.

I’d love to hear about your favourite reads from this year. We read to know we’re not alone.

three films

Posted by on Wednesday, 31 December, 2014

This has been a good year for movies, and I’ll mention a few I loved at the end. But first, I want to pick out three that delivered a deep impact on me and stirred my soul in some way:

Calvary: This one came right at the end of the year and if I’m honest, I’m still reeling. I sat in silence at the end, unsure how to respond. It’s not a comfortable watch, dealing head on with Ireland’s recent history of sexual abuse and the entanglement of the church in the worst of it. There’s a layer of dark comedy which makes it even more disconcerting to watch, making you unsure of the ground under your feet. But it’s not a film that simply targets the church as scapegoat – it makes you wonder, if we burned down every church and killed every priest, would any of us feel any better? Would we be any better? I carried away a sense of an emptiness at the heart of our culture, a cynicism and detachment covering up darker stories of addiction and violence and twisted desires. And a need for forgiveness. I felt like the only appropriate response at the end was to pray, “God forgive us all. And God help us all.” Which is quite a place for a movie to take us.

About Time: And now for something completely different! This one is a bit of a surprise. I’ve never been a fan of Richard Curtis movies, not so much because they are romantic comedies with plenty of schmaltz, but because I always picked up a layer of mean-spiritedness under the froth. So I have literally no idea where this came from. I loved everything about it. It’s goofy, daft, sweet, funny, moving and thought-provoking. It uses time-travel as time-travel should be used, not just to mess with your mind, but to make you think about, you know, the meaning of life, and time, and these days we’ve been given. It deals beautifully with fathers and their sons. I makes you want to live your days with wonder and gratitude. And the music is perfect, including lovely use of Nick Cave’s Into My Arms, The Waterboys’ How Long Will I Love You? and Ben Folds’ The Luckiest. Lay aside your cynicism and let yourself be delighted.

Short Term 12: This is a small, low-budget movie made with a cast of mostly young people who are not professional actors. And it’s just wonderful. It’s set in a short-term care home for troubled teenagers, and it simply turns a compassionate and honest eye on the stories of these kids and those who care for them. It’s gritty enough to be truthful in facing the depth of the problems and the wounds some young people are carrying. But hopeful enough to leave you inspired and not in despair. And it makes it so clear that we’re all in this together, the kids and their helpers, those who hide their scars and those who show them to the world. We all need a little help. We all can give a little help. I wish movies like this got more attention – simple, powerful, beautiful, profound.

There were lots of other movies I really liked this year, including: Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Her, The Broken Circle Breakdown, 12 Years a Slave, The Past, Mud, Away from Her and Gone Girl.

And several weird and wonderful documentaries left me intrigued and wondering (and sometimes disturbed): The Imposter, The Act of Killing, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Stories We Tell.

I’d love to hear about the moving pictures that have fired your imagination this year…

three albums

Posted by on Monday, 29 December, 2014

I haven’t done a good job this year of keeping any kind of record of my listening, watching or reading over the year. So I’m not even going to pretend these will be definitive “best of 2014” lists, even if we agree that means “the best of the random and tiny selection of stuff that has crossed my path.” I’m inevitably going to forget something amazing I listened to in February.

A more modest goal this year: simply to make a note of three records, three movies and three books that have stayed with me and followed me around, that made some kind of lasting impact, that have lingered in my memory and my thoughts. You might like them too.

Southeastern (Jason Isbell): OK so if I was attempting a “best of” list this would undoubtedly top it. This has been far and away my favourite musical discovery of 2014. Musically, it reminds me of Whiskeytown’s Stranger’s Almanac (which is a very, very good thing) with the laid-back and world-weary vocals, the lovely touches of fiddle, the wonderfully crafted songs. It gets better every time I listen. And the lyrics get under your skin too – this is a man who has lived a rough life, and just about survived, and the songs are full of honest self-examination:

In a room
By myself
Looks like I’m here with a guy that I judge worse than anyone else
So I pace
And I pray
And I repeat the mantras that might keep me clean for the day

But they are also full of (dark) humour, delightful word-play, and a kind of bruised and unsentimental hope. Essential listening for anyone with a soul.

Borderland (John Mark McMillan): I’ve always been a little thrown when I see this guy’s name written down. It’s so similar to my own name, there’s a tiny moment where I almost wonder if maybe I wrote a song or recorded an album and forgot about it. I’ve also probably hesitated to explore his music because it’s categorised as some kind of (alternative) Christian worship, which is something I have an uneasy relationship with. But trustworthy friends encouraged me, and I’m glad. This is a wonderful album, musically inventive and full of great songs, with a kind of textured, atmospheric quality that makes it great late-night listening. The lyrics can be direct and full-blooded in their expression of faith, but at other times they “tell it slant” with surprising images and suggestive phrases: “we are fragile creatures on collision with our judgement days.” The guy can’t help his name – give him a chance. (You can read a great review of the album here).

Kiss the World Beautiful (Martyn Joseph): If I’m being honest I’m not really including this because of the record itself, but because of the live gig it will always remind me of. Going to see MJ has become a kind of annual pilgrimage for us, gathering with a familiar crowd in the Errigle Inn to hear familiar songs and few new ones. We’ve never been disappointed – this is a man who tears up his heart on stage every night, veins popping and sweat and spit flying as he tries to tell the truth about the world from where he’s standing, in songs full of anger and sadness and beauty and hope. But this year’s gig was something else. He was a man inspired. He sang about all the most ugly and broken and shameful things in our world, but still urged us to hang on to hope in a bigger love,  a possibility of healing, a coming dawn when things might just be made new and whole and well. ” We do not have the luxury of despair.” By the end of the gig I wanted to put my arms round my friends and hold them close, sing loud and proud that “there’s still a lot of love round here,” reach a hand out to those who are hurting or lonely or lost or afraid, raise a fist in the air in defiant hope.  Every now and then, music can do that. (Every penny from sales of this record go to MJ’s “Let Yourself Trust” which raises funds for small, local projects that are making a difference for good in different parts of the world.)

I’d love to hear about the music that has followed you around and reached the deepest parts of you this year.