Couldn't have said it better myself...

"We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are."

Anais Nin

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sunday Psalm

It's been a while since I posted one of these, but here is an excerpt from the Psalm in the lectionary readings for tomorrow, adapted as a call to worship:

I will lift up the name of the Lord at all times;
Words of praise will constantly pour from my lips.
My soul swells in admiration of the Lord;
May all the oppressed and afflicted hear and be happy.
Come and glorify God with me:
let us lift up his name together.
Psalm 34:1-3


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Jackanory - Tell a Story

I loved Jackanory as a child - for those who are not from these shores or my generation, it was a piece of cheap TV for children where a "celebrity" read a story every afternoon for about 15 minutes, over a period of a week.
Well following on from my reflections on Brueggeman's "Prophetic Imagination" a couple of days ago, I've been prompted to think about the importance and power of story, not just for entertaining children, but to bring about change. Part of that was a result of another book I was reading "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett, which, for those who haven't read the book or seen the film, is about a young white woman in the early 1960s collating the stories of black maids in the epicentre of segregationism, Jackson, Mississippi. I've posted reviews of both the book and film on facebook recently (via Goodreads and Flixster respectively) and in the review of the film I explored, briefly, how the book was not only shortened but also simplified to put it on the screen, producing a film which was good enough in its own right, but which had lost a lot of it's texture and power. And the truth is that today, unless a story is ultimately told through the medium of film or TV it will not reach its maximum audience, yet neither of those have the potency of the written word... So this was a serious opportunity missed to address some of the post-segregationist issues that are still an open scar in the US, but which are taboo to discuss in polite society... Yet who doesn't think that some of the rhetoric concerning the re-election of the first coloured President of the US is actually racism in disguise? And who would dare to suggest that there is actually racism inherent in the black community? I believe that some of the plot changes in the film were made to remove the latter issue... And the avoidance of controversy will always be a factor in mainstream movie-making... Turn the story into a feelgood historical artefact with a healthy dose of humour and a sprinkling of sugar and you can make even the unpalatable into good box office (just like Minny's pie - read the book or watch the film to understand that allusion.)
But the greater skill is to tell stories, by whatever means, which do not allow you to sit as a spectator, but makes you take sides, and switch sides; which raise questions not only about our understanding of historical events, but makes us question how that understanding underpins our present positions; which prompt us to not only take positions on events far away and long ago, but apply them to our own circumstances and our own history. 
Paul Ricoeur, the philosopher talks about the "hermeneutical circle" where the reader or listener to a story gets drawn in to the story itself and has to re-evaluate their preconceptions... I think of it more as a spiral, particularly where we encounter stories which offer us different perceptions of the same events (as in the Help)... through this repeated engagement around a core event, we should not simply keep going round in circles but be drawn in and moved on, like a screw slowly working its way into the wood...
For years I have believed that telling stories will be fundamental to any healing in this province of ours... If we don't allow the stories from different perspectives to be told in a shared environment, then different people and communities will continue to tell them in environments where they cannot be challenged or challenge and so will develop in a skewed an simplistic fashion... catering for their limited audience in exactly the same way that mainstream movie makers seek to cater for their audiences in an unchallenging fashion.
And story-telling is fundamental to Judaeo-Christian faith... In recent years Christianity has tended to deliver the faith in propositional terms, offering a straightforward ABC123 of faith, with all the complexities ironed out... If we tell stories at all it is merely to illustrate the point we are making... But in the Bible the story was the point... scripture is fundamentally story... whilst we all know how much Jesus loved stories... Again commentators have tended to obscure this by insisting that Jesus' stories or parables were "earthly stories with heavenly meanings", ie. they were merely illustrative of his meaning... But most of the parables invite their hearers to take a side, to make a choice... and frequently Jesus subverts expectations in even the shortest of his stories... 
Story telling of this kind is not just entertainment to while away the cold dark night but to challenge norms and preconceptions... It was probably the loss of the sense of jeopardy in the film version of "The Help" that disappointed me more than anything else... These women were taking real risks in seeking to tell their story, but there was no real sense of that in the movie... But perhaps the very idea of risky story-telling is alien to mainstream movie makers (after all Chris Columbus was one of the producers - Was there ever a man so badly misnamed - had he been in charge of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, they'd have been used for pleasure cruises round the Med rather than finding the New World!)
But Jesus knew not only the power of story - but also the risks involved... Indeed Matthew, Mark and Luke all agree that his story of a vineyard and its rebellious tenants was one of the causes of his arrest and subsequent death...
Killed for telling stories...
Didn't think that when I watched Jackanory as a child...


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Poetry, Prose and the Prophetic Re-Imagining of Alternative Possibilities

OK... I'm back... My lack of blog output over recent months was partly by design (taking a break) and circumstances (requiring the prioritisation of other things in the real world). However, I'm back on the beat again, and fully intend getting back on the blog.
Those who are fortunate enough to be my friends on facebook or followers (makes me sound like some sort of guru) on twitter (which I still don't really understand), will probably have noticed the unending stream of complete rubbish that I have been reading over the summer. Generally on holiday I go for a blend of trash fiction, usually of the historical or detective-type, some biography and a bit of history with a single theological book thrown in there to allow me to keep my mind from going totally flabby.
Well this summer my theological work-out was Walter Brueggemann's "The Prophetic Imagination" a book which I first read 20 years ago as part of a 3rd year theology degree "Prophecy and Apocalyptic" reading list. At that time it wasn't much help as the issues Brueggemann covers are much bigger than those that could easily be addressed in a 30 minute essay question in an exam. The note on the back cover of this book suggests that Brueggeman writes in a “popular, conversational style” but there are not many conversations I have had that are as profound as the ideas discussed in this book… and indeed I would argue that Brueggemann’s prose has a poetic tone to it, reflecting the nature of the prophetic texts that he wrestles with in this brief but important book. 
He originally wrote this over 30 years ago, building his thesis on an academically rigorous, textual criticism approach to scripture, whilst still retaining a practical/pastoral emphasis – indeed this book in itself is a prophetic work, but sadly, as with most prophets, those at the heart of the prevailing culture of the western church have ignored his words.
My excuse for missing what he was saying 20 years ago was that I was so interested in the minutiae of the prophetic texts that I didn't really see the broader landscape they were describing. Nor was I fully aware that the terrain described by the prophets in the years before Christ, still describes the world in which people live today and in which I was being trained to pastor.
He speaks of a dual calling: to criticise and to energise:
  • Critiquing the Royal Consciousness which is based upon the politics of power and coercion. and giving voice to the voiceless - grieving for those who are crushed under the wheels of progress and find themselves buried beneath the pyramids of power and
  • Creating an Alternative (or Covenant) Consciousness of mutual, sacrificial service, rather than one where the poor and marginalised are made into sacrificial lambs, or even scapegoats, for the benefit of those further up the greasy pole; a new order where the church is freed from the compromises that the exercise of earthly political power involves in any age. 

The Contemporary Royal Consciousness takes different forms - western democracy, global capitalism, secular humanism - and the church consistently makes the mistake of either cosy-ing up to the prevailing mindset, acting as a tame chaplain to it, or taking it on on its own ground... standing toe to toe with the current King of the Castle, slugging it out in the public sphere. But to what end? So that the church (in whatever form) will be at the top table, the centre of power? Is that really the way of the Kingdom of God?
Is that not simply a revisiting of the failed models of Solomonic Kingship, or Christendom? Is the more authentic place not for the church to be speaking from the margins, for the marginalised? Yes there are those who manage to hold together, with integrity, their citizenship in God's Kingdom whilst walking the corridors of power in the kingdoms of this world. But they are not in the majority... You don't need to exercise absolute power to know the truth of Lord Acton's dictum that power tends to corrupt... And where we pursue power within the prevailing system, even for good ends, the very pursuit of power can warp our thinking and actions... 
This weekend I was reflecting on the nature of God's love with my congregation, and came across the following quote from the unlikely source of guitarist, Jimi Hendrix:

"When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace."
Jimi Hendrix 
The church, all too often has exhibited a love of power, rather than the power of love, leaving the promise of the angels on the birth of Christ unfulfilled.

As a church we need to speak and subsequently act prophetically... But for that to happen we need preachers and pastors who will preach and teach prophetically, shaping the imaginations of their people so that they can see a different set of possibilities to those touted by the powers that be. 
  • A world which doesn't take the myth of scientific progress and economic growth as a given - but which considers the possibility of resetting the clock in jubilee - or even more radically, with a new heaven and a new earth...
  • A world which doesn't buy into the mentality of survival of the fittest, or "devil take the hindmost" - but which articulates the revolutionary idea that the poor, meek and mourning might be blessed.
  • A world which doesn't ignore injustice and institutionalise division - but which challenges inequality, injustice and bigotry in whatever form it takes, affirming that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free...

I am not someone who is an ivory tower dreamer. I pride myself on knowing what is happening on the ground, and I am an activist by inclination. But re-reading this book has reminded me once more of my calling - to be a pastor, ordained to word and sacrament... shaping the hearts and minds of others... And to do that prophetically. It may seem pretentious and somewhat unrealistic, but it has made me want to be a pastor and preacher who paints pictures with brighter colours and stronger contrasts, sings songs with more memorable melodies and haunting harmonies and speaks prophetically in parables and poems of a world of possibilities that pure prose can never hope to capture. 
To proclaim the good news of the Kingdom...


(ps. I've only just come across Walter Breuggemann's more recent "The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word" - If any fellow preachers would like to do a "bookgroup" read on this I'd be delighted.)