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making it up as we go along?

Posted by on Tuesday, 29 May, 2018

I guess I should begin with a warning. This is a personal reflection on public events, an attempt to make some sense of the complicated feelings that have been swirling in me since the results of the abortion referendum came to light last weekend. I’ve been aware of a deep disquiet in my spirit, of feeling profoundly sad and troubled, both by the result and by some of the reactions to it.

I’ve also been reluctant to speak about it, because the issues are complex, and the stories are heartbreaking, and the feelings run so deep and strong on all sides. But I’ve been aware of a need, at least for me, to think more deeply about my complicated feelings. And I find I can’t just think about this one issue without thinking about wider questions – about our culture at this moment in history, about the future of western civilisation, about what it means to be human…!

So I guess I’m saying if you want something short and snappy and tweetable, you won’t find it here. This may be a little rambling, and personal, and philosophical, and long! But maybe a few of you will find it helpful. And if it makes you mad, please feel free to share your thoughts below. At times like this we all need to listen more than we speak.

Where to begin? The first thing I’m really aware of as I listen to the conversation is this – people on this island are really, really angry with the Church. As someone who loves Jesus and his Church, this makes me sad. But I think it needs to be faced. Because a lot of the anger is understandable, and justified, and even righteous.

There are so many issues we could talk about here, from the sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups, to the children taken from their mothers without consent, to babies and children buried in umarked graves. And… while all of that was going on, the Church had the audacity to be lecturing people on sexual morality and making them feel bad for their own choices and mistakes. And… while the lecturing voices were all male, those who suffered most were often the women.

John Boyne’s recent novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, begins with a brutal scene – a young woman is brought to the front of a church in rural Ireland by the priest, and in front of her entire community of friends and family, she is denounced as a whore. She is unmarried and pregnant. Her family have reported her to the priest, and her packed bag is waiting for her at home. The priest asks the father of the child to identify himself – if he steps forward he can confess his sins and get on with his life. But for the young woman there is no possibility of grace. She is to leave the parish and never return. It’s a fictional account, but as I read it I found myself thinking – things like this happened, on this island, not that long ago. If we don’t face that, in all it’s ugliness, we can’t begin to understand the anger under the surface of these revolutions in our culture. People are saying “enough is enough.”

And there’s nothing to be said in defence of any of it. There’s nothing to be said except, in all sincerity, Jesus wept. Jesus weeps. And Jesus is angry. His words are as strong and blunt as any people are speaking today – you hypocrites, you blind guides, you brood of vipers. You keep the outside clean, but inside you are full of greed and self-indulgence. You are like white-washed tombs, which are beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead.

We have to feel the weight of that anger. The only possible response is to hold our hands up in sorrow, in humility, in repentance. And we can’t hide behind the idea that this is a Catholic problem – we have had more than our share of hypocrisy and graceless religion in our Protestant churches, and the anger is there in our communities too. If the debate is coming to Northern Ireland next, as many are predicting, we’ll see that soon enough.

These are not wounds that can be healed lightly. Rebuilding trust will take years. Generations. And it won’t be done with words and apologies and public statements (though those have their place). But through ordinary local churches, communities of faithful followers of Jesus, living the gospel with integrity among their neighbours, so the beauty of Jesus is seen and heard again.

Along with the anger, there’s a second note I can hear in this conversation. And that is optimism. There’s this wave of positive feeling that had people dancing in the streets, cheering people arriving in airports, announcing a new day and a new dawn. And I have to be honest – the optimism troubles me.

The talk was all about progress and being progressive. The choice was between being part of something old, and traditional, and backward, and patriarchal, and oppressive. Or being part of something young, modern, progressive, optimistic, liberating. It’s a powerful and effective narrative.

But increasingly the language of progressivism makes me queasy. It raises the biggest of questions about what, exactly, we are making progress towards. Leo Tolstoy wrote about a time in his life, as a member of the intellectual elite in Russia, when “progress” was his watchword:

Then I thought that this word meant something. Its utter meaninglessness I then could not understand. Here I was tormented, like every living soul, with the question, “How can I better my life?” and I answer, “Live in accordance with progress.” But this is exactly the answer of a man borne along by wind and tide in a boat. He puts the to him all-important question, “What direction must I steer for my safety?” and he receives in answer, “Oh, we are borne along somewither!”

Our generation has this deep desire to throw off the suffocating weight of “traditional morality.” But the question is, what exactly are we replacing it with? And the more I wonder about that, the more I start to suspect that we are, quite literally, making it up as we go along. We have no idea where we are going, or who is steering the ship, but we are optimistic that we are making progress.

Where does the optimism come from? It seems to be rooted in a confidence that “the people” can be trusted to choose what is good and right, once they are liberated from the oppressive control of tradition and religion. People are essentially good and we can trust their moral compass to guide us to some beautiful shore.

I don’t share this optimism. I think “we the people” are capable of astonishing kindness and generosity and goodness. And also capable of being self-deceived. We hide our darkest motivations and impulses behind our shiniest ones. And I fear that is a big part of the story of this referendum. On the surface, the Yes campaign was all about compassion for women, and justice, and equality, and freedom. And who can argue with beautiful ideas like that? I don’t mean to sound cynical either – I think all those beautiful motivations were really there.

But I also think there are other, less beautiful motivations. That have more to do with selfishness, and convenience, and avoiding discomfort. So much of the focus of the public debate was on the heart-breaking stories – of rape, and mother’s lives at risk, and fatal abnormalities in the child. But I don’t think anyone really believes Ireland is now going to develop abortion laws which only cover that tiny minority of cases. As a “modern, progressive, enlightened nation,” Ireland will go the same way as the other “progressive” nations. Abortion will be available as a lifestyle choice when the child is not wanted.

By calling it a lifestyle choice I don’t mean to suggest it is not often a painful, even excruciating choice. Or that the issues involved in the choice may not be complex. But still, it is a choice. And this is where I think some of our darker motivations get revealed.

Anna Quindlen’s novel Miller’s Valley tells the story of a young girl called Mimi, growing up in a traditional, rural community. Many of the women in her life don’t have many choices. Her mother is a smart woman who became a nurse because it wasn’t an option for her to become a doctor. Many of her friends are following the predictable path of college followed by early marriage and babies, and maybe a job in the local diner. Mimi is super-smart, and fascinated by science. She wants something more from life. And then disaster strikes. She gets pregnant. And so the novel presents her choice to go to the city for an abortion as the brave choice, the liberating choice.

But I found the way it described her thought-process very revealing. She says she never thought of what was in her womb as a person. She thought of it more as an anchor, a terrible weight that would drag her down, along with all her dreams for her future. Now I don’t think it’s hard to empathise with why she felt that way. But I still find the logic deeply disturbing. She doesn’t want the kind of future life she feels this child will bring, so she chooses not to think of it as a person, which allows her to make the choice she wants to make with a clear conscience. But the same logic would appall us if we applied it to other situations. A toddler with an autism diagnosis, a spouse with a degenerative illness, an elderly parent with dementia – all of them could be seen as “an anchor” on our future life, limiting our options and threatening some of our dreams. But we don’t follow the same path of logic, of thinking of them as “not a person” in order to justify ending their life, and thus releasing ourselves from the anchor.

I know I have desires and impulses and instincts which are good, and beautiful. And others which are dark and twisted and selfish, and which I do my best to keep hidden even from myself. So I don’t trust the herd instinct of “the people” to lead us infallibly to the beautiful shore.  I think the wind and tide of our current cultural mood is just as likely to lead us into shark-infested waters or submerged rocks. I think we need some Wisdom from outside ourselves, something given to us, something handed down.

So I’m not optimistic. But that doesn’t mean I’m not hopeful. I don’t actually think it was ever possible, or  even desirable, to enforce Christian values on the rest of our culture through the blunt instrument of the law.  We may be moving back towards the situation of the first generations of Christians, who were a small minority in a pagan culture that either ignored them or tried to kill them. But they were always people of hope. They understood their calling, not in terms of voting Christian values into law, but as living out the beautiful vision of God’s kingdom as an alternative culture, a city on a hill.

In the urban centres of the Roman empire it was common practice for unwanted babies to be left on the rubbish dumps outside the city. They were left to die, because they were physically sick or disabled, or illegitimate, or unwanted. Often it was because they were girls. The early Christians could do little to stop this practice in the wider culture – but they chose in their own lives to swim against the tide and tell a different story. They created a culture of life in the midst of a culture of death. They acted out their belief that every human person is made in God’s image and precious. They made costly and courageous choices. When it was possible they rescued the children from the rubbish dumps and raised them as their own.

I’m sure it didn’t seem like much. But they believed that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. They believed that all this darkness is a small and passing thing. They were people of hope. They planted their little seeds. They planted their flag of resistance and resurrection on the rubbish dumps of the culture. They shone like stars in the night sky, and many were drawn to their light. Let’s go and do likewise.

 

 

I don’t want to be cool, I don’t need to be right

Posted by on Monday, 1 January, 2018

It’s getting harder to hear my heart these days,

harder to hear my heart

there’s so much culture in the way…

Those lyrics from Romantica ring deep and true for me, at this moment in time. Our culture is noisy, and most of the voices I’m bombarded with every day are distracting and confusing and do me no good. And yet, when I’m paying attention, there are also always voices that enlighten my mind and nourish my heart. When I seek those voices, I find them. There’s treasure hidden in the junkyard of our culture.

And so, as usual, I’m celebrating the end of another year by making lists, of the best new things I’ve found in the world of music, books and movies. As usual, these are new to me in the past year (not necessarily released in 2017). And as usual, I’d love to hear about the treaures you have found too.

First, the novels:
1. “The Brothers K” (David James Duncan)
2. “My Name is Lucy Barton” (Elizabeth Strout)
3. “Days Without End” (Sebastian Barry)
4. “Remembering Laughter” (Wallace Stegner)
5. “The Underground Railroad” (Colson Whitehead)

Second, the non-fiction books:
1. “Liturgy of the Ordinary” (Tish Harrison Warren)
2. “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction” (Alan Jacobs)
3. “Dirty Glory” (Pete Greig)
4. “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” (Eugene Peterson)
5. “Life Essential” (George MacDonald)

Third, the movies:
1. Silence
2. Dunkirk
3. Arrival
4. Hell or High Water
5. La La Land

And finally, the music:
1. “Shadowlands” (Romantica)
2. “Gathering” (Josh Ritter)
3. “Treasure of the Broken Land” (Mark Heard tribute)
4. “Home” (Josh Garrels)
5. “The Burning Edge of Dawn” (Andrew Peterson)

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.

 

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.

 

the bleak will inherit the earth?

Posted by on Friday, 5 September, 2014

I’m going to just pretend it hasn’t been six months since I wrote anything on here, and just pick up where I left off with some more thoughts about sad movies…

Last weekend was a three-movie weekend, which is a rare and beautiful thing these days. I finally caught up with two I’ve been wanting to see since Oscar-season. Nebraska was lovely, the kind of slow, gentle, bitter-sweet story I love, full of flawed and foolish and utterly human characters, and beautiful black and white shots of rolling landscapes, big skies and time-lined faces. Inside Llewyn Davies was a delightful surprise. I’ll watch pretty much anything the Coen brothers make, because you can guarantee it will be crafted with such love and skill – but I’ve often come away feeling there’s something missing (emotional sincerity?). This one works on every level – it’s their funniest, saddest, warmest, most enjoyable film since Fargo.

But the movie that has lingered most in my mind was a Belgian drama called The Broken Circle Breakdown. In a time-fractured narrative which reminded me of Blue Valentine, it tells the story of a musician couple and their falling-in-love and the slow unravelling of their relationship under the strain of shared suffering. It features the kind of natural, effortless acting that is so rare in English-speaking cinema, and the best bluegrass soundtrack you’ll hear in a movie, all played by the actors themselves. But when Espero asked me how it was, I (sheepishly) admitted it was “a bit depressing, even for me.” There was something unrelenting about the misery that left me feeling slightly bludgeoned.

It got me thinking about a wonderful lecture I heard this summer, delivered by my old friend Sharon Jebb-Smith at the Abbey Summer School in Edinburgh. She talked about the tendency among critics of “serious literature” to praise writing which is full of “death, sorrow, uncertainty, anxiety,” and to dismiss anything hopeful or happy as naive, escapist, “not serious.” Sharon spent several years immersed in the works of Samuel Beckett, and found that over time his work had a depressing effect on her own mood. Beckett was someone who spoke unapologetically about the importance of facing despair unflinchingly. His was a deliberate “refusal of consolation.”

I suspect there’s a similar tendency in the world of “serious” cinema and film criticism. Happy endings are inherently suspect. Artistic integrity demands brutality and despair. As I wrote before, we need artists who will tell the truth about brokenness and heartache. But I’m struck by Sharon’s reflections on the possibility of deliberately refusing consolation and shutting our hearts to the possibility of hope. She contrasted Beckett’s nihilism with writers like Lewis and Tolkien, who wrote plenty about sorrow and death and struggle, but also believed in the possibility of “eucatastrophe” – a sudden turning towards hope, joy breaking into the story from “beyond the walls of the world.”

Lewis wrote about some of the acclaimed modern writers of his day, that their work was “astringent, tough, unmerry,” and that it was “serious but not necessarily profound.” I wonder if that isn’t a fair description of some of the critically-adored movies and TV series of our time? And if so, what is the cumulative effect of sitting in the dark being immersed in that kind of “dark vision” for hours at a time?

On the flip side, what does it mean to deliberately choose to embrace consolation, and hope? Can there be a serious pursuit of joy and cheerfulness? And are there artists who can help us in that pursuit?

Two final quotes to finish. G.K. Chesterton reminds us, seriously and playfully, that Satan fell because of his gravity, while “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” Julian of Norwich writes, sternly and cheerfully, that “it is God’s will that we should hold on to gladness with all our might.”

stumbling towards something true

Posted by on Wednesday, 19 March, 2014

A confession: I’m kind of a snob when it somes to movies. Which means I’m also kind of a slave to reviews. I have my favourite reviewers in whose good taste I trust. Mark Kermode is king. Pete Bradshaw is eccentric but mostly helpful. Metacritic allows me to scan what the reviews have said and get a quick consensus. This is mostly not a bad thing – it helps me avoid wasting time and money on movies that are just “chewing gum for the eyes.”

The thing is, I’m becoming aware that I’m losing my ability to really think for myself. To know what I like and why, without someone with cultural authority endorsing my decision. And that’s a bit sad. I think I may need to wean myself off the reviews for a while.

Here’s an example that has me kind of confused. I recently watched three movies in quick succession which are all made by a young Canadian film-director called Sarah Polley. And I’m confused. I’m not sure what I think about them. Maybe you can help me.

First I watched a documentary she made called Stories We Tell. I’m pretty sure I loved this one. All of the Guardian’s film-critics had named it in their movies of the year for 2013, so I decided to check it out. It’s a film about Sarah Polley’s own family, especially her mother, who died when Sarah was a child. There has always been a rumour in her family that the man she called “dad” was not really her father – and so she goes searching for the truth. She just points her camera right into the heart of her family and its memories and stories of love and betrayal and lies and forgiveness. “Unflinching” and “uncompromising.” Those were the kind of words that came to mind as I watched. I was mesmerised. I think you should go and watch it too.

So then I went looking for other movies by this same bold, young director. And I watched Take This Waltz. This is a drama about the breakdown of a marriage, starring the wonderful Michelle Williams and (improbably) Seth Rogen. But here’s the thing. Before I watched it, I read this review by Pete Bradshaw, which is as scathing a demolition of a movie as I’ve ever read. (Only Mark Kermode on Transformers comes close). I mean, he hated this film. It’s not hard to see why they didn’t quote him on the poster – “unendurably precious” is not going to sell tickets.

And it coloured my watching of the movie. Because he’s partly right. There’s something a bit forced and contrived and clunky about the dialogue.It’s all trying a bit too hard to be profound. I nearly turned it off about five or six times. But something else was intriguing me. So I kept watching. And this movie has got under my skin more than anything else I’ve watched this year. I think it’s trying to say something about marriage and faithfulness and domesticity and novelty (and sex) that is really kind of genuinely true and profound.

And it’s all a bit awkward and imperfect, maybe even a bit embarrassing. I’m not sure it’s a good movie in the ways that brings praise from the guardians of cool and good taste. But it’s provoked me to think and wonder. I want to get a bunch of thoughtful people together to watch it together and then argue about it. I’m not sure if it’s “good” like Breaking Bad is good. But I think it might be stumbling towards something true. (And I think Pete Bradshaw was having a bad day and badly misread the whole movie).

Finally I got around to watching Sarah Polley’s most acclaimed movie. Away From Her  is a drama about a couple who have been married for 40 years, and are now dealing with the wife’s early symptoms of Alzheimers. It got rave reviews and a couple of Oscar nominations, and it deserved all the praise and more. As with Take This Waltz, there are moments that are a bit clunky, trying too hard, a bit “art-school” in their reaching for profundity. And there’s no doubt Polley’s movies are all on the depressing side. This is heartbreaking cinema. Unflinching, uncompromising, these are her hallmarks.

But as I argued in my last post, we need artists who will tell the truth. Even when the truth is painful and prickly, uncomfortable and embarrasing. I’m not sure if Sarah Polley’s movies are cool or tasteful or hipster-approved. But she is courageous and compelling and determined to try and tell the truth. And I think that’s something worth paying attention to.