(Not so) happy-clappies

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people who express their Christian worship with the musical accompaniment of a young male guitar-player, drums and a female backing singer (all the people being beautiful) are covering up their darker emotions and experiences with forced happiness and manufactured positive emotions.

Like many universally acknowledged truths there is, well, much truth in it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in large happy-clappy meetings and found myself engaged in conversation afterwards with people who felt like they were the odd one out in the room; that there a sense of exclusion from the exultation for people like them.

If only all the odd ones out could meet each other…

Anyway. The other side of universally acknowledged truths is that they are often generalisations which don’t bear the weight of the meaning read into them. I’ve been a Christian for a long time and I’ve been paid to work in and for churches for 11 years. Much of that time has been in and around the Charismatic movement so often characterised as happy-clappy. In that time I’ve also been one who has struggled with depression, as well as living with a long-term chronic illness with no sign of cure that affects my quality of life (ankylosing spondylitis, thanks for asking) and a learning disability (dysgraphia, which you probably haven’t heard of). Those things mean many things. For now what’s in my mind is that I am acutely aware of my own brokenness and fragility. People who mock Christianity say that it’s a crutch for the weak. To misquote a West Wing character, what you use as a badge of shame, I’ll take as a badge of honour. I need a crutch. It’s the ones who don’t realise they need crutch whom I pity.

Now many would say to that to live with that sense of brokenness, incompleteness, as I do is incompatible with being a charismatic Christian. Sometimes that’s felt true. I’ve sat in meetings, church services and conferences in which you’d swear no one had ever had a bad day, let alone a sense of weakness now that they’d signed on the eternal dotted line. I’ve heard charismatic Christian speakers say some stupid, ignorant, insensitive things. Many times I’ve said and hoped and prayed that the songwriters of the movement would write about a broader range of emotions and experiences.

And they have. As some of them have grown older, they have grown wiser. Songs have started to take on subtler shades. Emotions of different types are starting to find a place in worship: “You are good, you are good, when there’s nothing good in me”; “scars and struggles on the way…”; “..the road marked with suffering, though there’s pain in the offering..”.

So, then. Whilst I’ve yet to have an experience in corporate sung worship as emotionally rich as a Radiohead album or gig, for me it makes emotional (as well as theological) sense to live with the label of ‘charismatic’ Christian, even if I don’t buy the whole package of subculture and marketing. For me – and recognising that some will not find this – at least in this way my good and bad days have emotional expression in worship. At least I find there that my emotions are allowed in the door of the worship experience.

I lead one church community, and on Sunday evenings attend another. The latter would wear the label of charismatic Christan. My experience of it, where I’ve preached a few times, is of an increasing emotional depth and maturity. People talk from the front and in conversation about dark times and difficult days, of mental illness and suicide. Recently one young man stood in front of that congregation, talking of his recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and how he had learned in this community, this charismatic Christian group, that it’s OK for him to have very bad days, to be barely able to see Jesus in the distance. Among the many things I pray for the community I lead is that we will become a place where that kind of thing can be said.

At the worst this expression of Christianity, like anything led by people, can be hard and painful and make you feel crushed into a mould. At the best it gives you a space to make emotional sense of your brokenness before God and with people. The Bible refers to this as the experience of having ‘this treasure in jars of clay’ (2 Corinthians 4:7). It’s a way of saying we’re prone to being broken, chipped and cracked vessels of something we are not worthy of carrying, but find ourselves carrying anyway. It means that what may sometimes be, or seen to be, an emotionally toxic brand of forced happiness is in fact what Christians call joy. That, as the hymn writer says, though things may get very, very dark, it is still well with my soul.

Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Reactions to books like this can go in a number of different directions. They can be dismissed as money-making exercises in stating the obvious; they can be patronised as tacky self-help which takes no account of reality; or they can be the rather more dramatic ‘Oh. My. God. You have to read this. It changed my life!’.

The first is sometimes fair, but usually isn’t; the second likewise. The third is almost bound to result in one’s experience of the book collapsing under the weight of expectation. One’s also tempted, in such a case, to say ‘Come back and see me in 10 years. Then we’ll know if it really has changed your life’.

None of these reactions would be fair on ‘Quiet’, one of the more loudly trumpeted (if that’s not one level of irony too far) additions to a burgeoning literature on the perils of living as an introvert in an extroverted world. Step back from the extreme reactions that might tempt us, and we’ll see in Susan Cain’s book something with much wisdom, not a little generosity of spirit and perceptive cultural analysis. For instance her brief critique of evangelical Christianity is so on the mark that it leaves you begging for a whole book on that alone. Talking to one introverted pastor in the midst of an evangelical mega-church mall, she draws this conclusion: ‘…many evangelicals [have] come to associate godliness with sociability’. I’m a pastor and been around churches a long time. There’s more truth in that one sentence of Susan Cain’s then in many sermons I’ve heard or preached.

Through religion, classrooms, workplaces, marriages, friendships, media and more she highlights the elevation of extroversion as what’s desirable at the expense of ignoring, mocking or isolating the introverted amongst us. Thus her case is built, and guidelines offered – from hard personal experience of her own or clients she’s worked amongst.

Such books need to be built on something of a generalisation – and it’s those that provoke the extreme reactions noted earlier. Take these with the balance and qualifiers the author herself offers, though, and you’re left with an accessible, feet-on-the-ground piece of journalism which talks much sense. The closing chapters on romantic relationships and raising or teaching children will evoke nods of recognition as well as leaving you with applicable tools as opposed to easy steps to change your life.

So: read it, reflect on it, discuss it, apply it. It’s not a missive from eternity on which to build your life. It does, though, talk a lot of sense.

I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com

Watchmen

In director Zac Snyder’s head, this film is an epic superhero movie, part-Goodfellas or Godfather, part Shakespearean tragedy. Unfortunately that movie is still somewhere in his head.

Released in 2009, and recorded by myself nearly a year ago, I’ve finally summoned the will to watch the nearly 3 hours of this adaptation of one of the most revered graphic novels. I haven’t read it; I haven’t read any graphic novels. Not because I deem them unworthy of my attention – I’m just aware this a genre I’d need to get to grips with. That’s something I’ve never done.

The problem with adapting any loved source is the faithfulness/adaptation debate. This misses the point – it’s best to think of book and film is 2 separate incarnations of a third party – the story. Look at a film like Trainspotting to see it done to near perfection. The two media are different, and so should the interpretations of a story in those media. Zac Snyder’s film goes, I’m told for fidelity – trying to tell a story set inappropriate alternative 1985 where Nixon is still president, where superheroes are known to the public and where public opinion is on the turn. Then there’s some kind of murder story. And something to do with nuclear weapons. And, apparently, relationship stuff.

The plot doesn’t seem to flow; parts of the script would be returned to a high school film studies student to try harder. It a very, very long two and three quarter hours film.

It’s not all bad – some action scenes are ridiculous and aimless; some nicely handled and artfully directed. It’s at it’s best when it sticks to the detective story elements – sadly, that’s all too little, lost in all the apparently aimless meanderings.There’s probably a good film to be made from parts of this source; sadly, this one doesn’t make the appeal of the graphic novel apparent to anyone who’s not already on-side. A missed opportunity.

I rated this film 2/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 4/10 on imdb.com

The Newsroom and the death of Bin Laden

This series – the first one of West Wing creator’s Aaron Sorkin’s latest offering, The Newsroom – should probably have a post of its own. That will still happen when we’ve finished watching. But one episode I’ve  just seen really set me thinking.

The show is set in and around the production of a nightly news show on American TV station,  a show priding itself on its high news values and quest for the truth. It’s set in the recent past, against the backdrop of recent events – Tahir Square, for instance, and in this episode, the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

Two things surprised me about this episode. The first is that it received a largely negative reaction on airing in the USA. The mixed tone, of light comedy alongside the sober seriousness of the news event did not go down well. I thought it worked brilliantly – with all Sorkin’s trademark wit and drama. It was captivating and unforgettable television.

The other thing which surprised me was the extent to which the show didn’t get under the skin of  American jubilation at the news of Bin Laden’s death. It was presented almost unquestioningly; one character was less than warm in her reaction, due in part to an unconvincing family connection to 9/11 itself. The rest was all celebration and national pride – which seems at odds with the tone of Sorkin’s other work – in love with his country, but not without awareness of its faults. Not least, also, an implication of anti-death penalty stance.

It’s not that I can’t empathise with the release of emotion that accompanied the news of Bin Laden’s death – it’s just that I’m surprised and confused as to why Sorkin didn’t interrogate this more. I remember in the days following the event, the almost universal outpouring of joy from a spectrum of American political opinion – conservative and liberal agenda seemed to be forgotten in a rush to celebrate. The occasional voice of concern was there – but it was hard to hear in the din. I’m not sure there’s much else to say  – I’m noting, really, what for me was an odd and strangely incomplete emotion for such a good piece of drama. Maybe I expected too much – especially when Sorkin’s characters tend to prize being right at the expense of grace and forgiveness. Or maybe I’m missing the point. More when the series ends.