Saturday, 28 January 2017

Acid reign

Dealing with corrosive power-structures in a post-truth world

Even the most naive political observer cannot help but notice the rise of populist rhetoric on the world stage. It is not only the speech of self-promoting saviours bent on leading their people away from their oppressive overlords towards new promised lands; it is also the cry of those who feel oppressed. I would like to offer a theological perspective.
One might begin by noting that by just mentioning the word ‘theology’ many readers have probably not got past the first paragraph. Since Kant’s move to locate certainty only in the phenomenological realm—in other words, we can only be sure of things that can be rationally deduced from sensed reality—theology has been treated with a degree of suspicion, and those who practice it are, in the eyes of the ‘enlightened’, generally to be pitied. Theology, after all, suggests that there is a transcendent reality beyond space-time that can nevertheless, in some sense, be evaluated. An idea that some find hard to swallow.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Learning to see again

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”
He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”
Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.” (Mark 8:22–26)

Sight—correct vision—is Christ’s gift to his children. Since the first words of God —‘let there be light’—God has been working to give his children sight. These words were spoken by Christ at the dawn of time, for John in his gospel insists that ‘through him all things were made’, and furthermore, John also says that when Jesus came into the world, he was light incarnate—‘the true light that gives light to everyone’. In a world of darkness—especially religious darkness—John’s first-hand witness statement declares that Jesus’ primary message was ‘God is light; in him there is no darkness at all’. Welcome news in a religious world that saw God as primarily judge and law-giver. ‘This vision of God as darkness,’ John is saying, ‘is wrong. You are seeing badly: God is light.’
Human vision regularly distorts reality. God gets the blame for all sorts of things, not least the mystery of evil—especially so when so many who claim to be representatives of ‘God’ walk in such evil and darkness. It seems to me that in these dark days we need to pray for the gift of sight, and this passage of Mark is worth exploring for it holds the key to new vision—20/20 vision of reality. When Mark edited his gospel, it seems to me that like John—who included seven acts of Christ in his account, calling them ‘signs’—Mark included this incident for the deeper truth of which it speaks. I would like to consider this.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The Problem of Worship

Was thinking a bit about worship this morning. Hope these thoughts are helpful! Your (also helpful) comments would be appreciated.

Every so often there appears an article lamenting the state of contemporary worship. One came across my desk last week with the usual complaints about trite songs, too much showmanship, a lack of congregational involvement, keys being too high, and so on. As a worship leader myself who recognises all these things, all such articles do is make us all feel more guilty—participants for not joining in more, leaders for doing a bad job.

To give some perspective: I have led worship at major events in the UK (with a couple of thousand people) as well as for small home groups. Here in the beautiful city of Prague I lead worship in a small church occasionally, and (for twenty years or more) have been teaching on the subject of worship and Christian creativity. I would like to suggest a few thoughts to ponder.
First, that shortcomings in corporate worship are not causal but symptomatic. In other words, high keys and trite lyrics etc. etc. no doubt contribute to the lack of buy-in from the congregation, but if the average church punter wanted to join in, there is nothing really to stop her. I suggest that rather the issue is ‘spiritual’, mental and, above all, cultural.

In some settings, getting people to sing together is like squeezing blood from a stone.  I sometimes lead from the floor, to one side, to ‘get out of the way’; I choose simple songs; I give people space to join in, and so on, but often people still sit there like lemons, somewhat—or so it seems—embarrassed at the whole exercise.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Loving the church

…Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her. (Eph.3:25) 

[This blog is a bit like waiting for a bus. You wait for ages, then two come along at once!  And this is a long post, too. Something that has been much on my mind. Hope you find it helpful.]
Church-bashing is becoming a popular internet game. One recent article suggested that if Jesus was to return to earth, it would be the Christians who would want to crucify him again—particularly so-called ‘religious’ Christians from established church(es) who are, naturally, in league with the system etc. I find these articles both worrying and offensive. Worrying because so many Christians give them oxygen by re-posting them on Facebook with comments like ‘Well, this really makes you think, doesn’t it. I don’t agree with everything, but there’s a lot of good stuff here.’ No there isn’t. Mostly there is very little ‘good stuff’, little engagement with real issues, but a lot of tabloid ranting from people who have been maybe hurt by a particular church situation, have failed to get over it, and who appear to have little understanding of wider issues. I find it offensive because I, like many, many other people, have devoted our lives to the cause of Christ and love Jesus deeply. Many I know have selflessly served their communities with little reward or recognition (many within churches that have been pigeon-holed by the critics as ‘religious’ or ‘conservative’) simply because they love Jesus. To suggest that they would be the first to crucify a returned Christ is, I repeat, deeply offensive. It is not thought-provoking in any meaningful sense.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Light in the darkness

An advent meditation on art
“Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    and he will prepare your way.
He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!
    Clear the road for him!’
Last Sunday we lit the second advent candle at our church, a symbol of the light of the coming Christ, and Saša spoke about John the Baptist—the voice crying in the wilderness, heralding the coming King.
I believe such a voice had not been heard in Israel for some 400 years; the prophets had been silent. For 400 years the faithful had waited for the fulfilment of the words of Micah and Isaiah which Mark quotes here at the beginning of the gospel that bears his name. And the word ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’, and this really is good news! The narrative begins, ‘This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.’ The silence is broken.
Mark records that the first voice to cry our after this long tacit is that of The Baptist, fulfilling those predictions of Micah and Isaiah; a voice calling in the desert, crying out the need for repentance—for turning back towards God.
John, an ascetic in the Essene tradition, is a liminal character inhabiting two points of transition. He lives both on the edge of society, the place where inhabitation ends and desert begins, and he lives on the borders of the land of the spirit. He is a bridge, reminding us that all may not be as it seems.
On Sunday, Saša mentioned that art is also a voice crying in the wilderness, and this got me thinking. We normally associate the word ‘prophecy’ with foretelling the future, but the word really means ‘to speak forth the mind’, and in the religious context, this means speaking out the things of God—revealing God’s ways (past, present or future). It is easy, perhaps, to fall into the error that Paul warned us about in his letter to the Thessalonians (5:20)—that of despising prophecy. In my past experience of charismatic Christianity I have come across many who have claimed to be God’s mouthpiece. Unfortunately their proclamations were often more to do with the desire to manipulate, or to be visible, or, frankly, just human nonsense. I have become a little more wary of the ‘prophetic’ voice having experience those who are quick to speak in God’s name, but slow to live a godly life.
We must be careful, however, not to judge the priesthood by the priest, for here we have a true prophet. The Baptist was a man of integrity, turning his back on the comforts of the society he judged, speaking out against political evil, and longing that the Christ would have more visibility than himself. It was a message that involved not just words, but his whole being. It was a message that cost him his life. His was a life and a message not to be despised.
The artist is also necessarily a prophet, for to be an artist is also to be a revealer of hidden things. The creation of true art, like prophecy, demands vulnerability: it involves taking risk, not only in revealing deep personal convictions (always risky), but in questioning the status quo. The artist is also a liminal voice, crying on the edge of society, calling for new perspectives, asking us to consider change. It is perhaps this synonymy which has resulted in the recent paucity of art in the Christian world, for if Christianity is in itself a prophetic voice which challenges society, is it any wonder that there are those who would want to silence this voice? To make us mute?
As Iain McGilchrist has persuasively argued, this is perhaps one of the unfortunate consequences of the Reformation, that in their quest to quell the abuse of art, the Reformers destroyed art itself, instead of focusing on the abuse. In their zeal they destroyed the very means to bring renewal—they silenced the prophetic voice. Whether you concur or not with this somewhat harsh analysis, the fact remains that modern post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment society, both within and without the church, is deeply suspicious of the artist for the artist is dangerous, cannot be controlled, and often challenges the way things are.
The highest calling of the artist is to be a prophetic voice. Like the Baptist, the present-day artist finds him- or herself in a desert: a world where music is controlled and recorded by computers, where visual imagery is untruthful, where The Word has been reduced to mere words, and where worship has become cliché. If this is you, this advent season make a choice to speak the truth. But it must be said that, as an artist, as a believer, you only have the right to speak the truth if you are prepared, like the Baptist, to live it.
Most of all, I pray that during this wonderful season of Advent the light of Jesus will shine on you and those you love.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Baptism of The Rock Mass

I am reflecting today on the events of this weekend: on Friday evening Daniel Kyzlink and I attended the official ‘baptism’ ceremony of the new Rock Mass CD in Karlovy Vary as part of the programme marking the new spa season in the city. In front of the mayor and various other dignitaries and sponsors, spa water was officially poured over a CD and we all, of course, made speeches. During the evening French conductor Martin Lebel, without whose championing of the work it might never have seen the light of day, was made an honorary citizen of the city. After the ceremonies in the beautiful town theatre (pretty girls presenting flowers, more speeches, video presentations and awards, and the performance by the KSO of some beautiful music – including, naturally, Dvořák) we went to a nearby hotel with the orchestra, the mayor, sponsors and so on to suitably celebrate with the odd nibble and copious amounts of alcohol.
At one in the morning, Dan and I, with the director of the orchestra and the production assistant, walked through the centre of Karlovy Vary, alongside the river flanked by the steep-sided streets with beautiful Belle Époque architecture, through the majestic Romanesque colonnade where spa water pours into basins for (brave) tourists to drink. Eventually – after a brief pit-stop in a dubious-looking sandwich bar for baguettes and beer, passing a plastic beer glass around the four of us in an act of communion – we found sanctuary in an underground bar. We were slightly over-dressed for this establishment (me wearing my Sunday best and still carrying a bunch a yellow flowers, with Dan looking like my gay partner) but were nevertheless soon installed at the bar with a Tullamore Dew. Šimon unwrapped a CD and asked the girl behind the bar if she would be kind enough to play it. She declined. Instead, Dan chose some Metallica from the juke box.
The CD lay on the bar surrounded by smoke and another round of drinks. Feeling philosophical (as I always do at three in the morning) I was pondering the strange irony of a musical work representing the most profound and sacred centre of the Christian faith lying on a bar in what is said to be the most unbelieving nation in Europe. I recalled having played the first demos to a lady from California a few years ago, a believer involved in the media industry. ‘It’s a bit religious,’ she remarked: ‘it’ll never take off.’ And as I’ve worked on this project over the last six years I’ve noticed a curious thing, that people who do not claim to be believers (especially musicians) love it, while those who claim belief find it hard to swallow.
I could pontificate for hours on this subject; all I will say for now (you’ll be relieved to know) is that The Rock Mass is most certainly not religious but definitely Christian, and I’ll have to leave it to you to think more about that. As I sat there at the bar (now on the third round) it occurred to me that this was the kind of place that Jesus would have brought his disciples to, and the CD lying on the bar was certainly symbolic of his presence.
Just one final philosophical though, if you will indulge me. Throughout this six-year journey, Dan and I have touted this work to many in the Christian music industry and in the religious world. Dan sold a keyboard in order to raise the air fare to go to Nashville, only to be told that the work, whilst wonderfully written etc., did not ‘fit’ within the established genres: it was too ‘rock’ for the classical world, too ‘classical’ for the rock world, and so on. We came to the conclusion that many Christians have simply become conventional, focused on cliché, and have lost the ability to be creative or to take risk, yet surely risk is at the heart of true creativity? Isn’t it also at the heart of faith?
Instead this work has been enthusiastically embraced by many who would not call themselves believers. The CD (which you really ought to get hold of!) features incredible performances from some of the top musicians and singers in the Czech Republic and the UK: the question Dan and I are constantly asked is: ‘When do we get to perform this again. It’s awesome!’.
At four thirty we decided we had duly celebrated the release of the CD and found a taxi to take us back to the hotel. The image of the CD lying on the bar stays with me, a prophetic image, I hope, of light shining in the darkness.
For more info about The Rock Mass, do visit ourwebsite where you can find extracts from the recording. Thanks for reading!

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Presence of God

I remember distinctly the day I was preparing to travel to speak at a conference, and was meditating on the prayer of Moses: ‘I will not go unless you go with me.’ [1] I began to pray – not the prayer of Moses, but a question: can I pray such a prayer? Would God’s presence go with me? What does that mean anyway? I’ve heard such nonsense spoken about the ‘presence of God’, not least in loud charismatic meetings where it seems to be equated either with a fuzzy warm feeling associated with overly-sentimental songs, or the amount of sweat generated. Anyway – isn’t God omnipresent?

About five minutes later my phone rang: it was a good friend of mine. She said: ‘I’ve just been praying for you – I felt I should tell you to read Joshua chapter one – especially verse five.’