Movies that move me 2: Fire In Babylon

For two years or so, early in my life as ordained church minister, I was co-chaplain to Leyton Orient Football Club. This wasn’t a paid post – it was in the parish I was working in, and an opportunity arose to help out there as part of my day-to-day work. Leyton Orient isn’t a big club – outside of English-based football fans, it’s a club unlikely to be known. It sits in a diverse, bustling part of East London, at the heart of the community of Leyton from which it takes its name. It has a small stadium which I rarely saw full. It was during my time there that a chaplain at another club said to me words which explain much – both about the mentality of the professional athlete and that of the committed fan. “There are two crucial lessons you need to learn as a sports chaplain”, he said. “The first lesson is that it’s only a game. The second is that it’s never only a game. Learn those lessons and you’ll be alright”.

Those words came back to me when I first saw Fire In Babylon – a 2010 documentary film about the dominant West Indies test cricket  team of the 1980s. They were only a playing a game – but, as the film compellingly demonstrates, it was never only a game. The film simply, creatively tells the story of Test match cricket as the quintessentially English pursuit. A sport exported via colonialism to a select, but diverse collection of countries: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Caribbean Islands. It’s that last geographic destination that this film concentrates on. That’s because cricket is everything to that group. Everything in that they only exist as a collective for the purposes of international cricket. The West Indies national anthem is about cricket. The team plays home games on a variety of different islands. They unite, different cultures and passports and places, around this and this only.

So the team rediscovered something – aggressive, direct fast bowling. I say fast – a small, hard missile aimed at your head or ribcage, travelling at 90-95 mph. As team after team fell – literally fell – before them Test cricket was turned from a 5-day chess match to a full on contact sport. Equipment and rules changed, and the West Indies dominated.

But what this meant beyond the game was more important. A team of black players, finding their own voice and expression, defeating and humiliating the white colonial masters on their own soil. Wrestling with the decision to play – for money – in apartheid South Africa. Moving from loveable, but flawed entertainers to a beautiful, brilliant, at times flawless professional team. Bob Marley was the soundtrack, the West Indies team the visuals.

Fire In Babylon is the 90 minute explanation, with fantastic music, of why 5 day test cricket is way more than a sport. It’s a test of mind and body, heart and soul. It’s an expression of freedom and means of oppression. It is  – like all great sport – metaphor for many, many deeper things. It reminds me that when I can’t tear myself away from updates and coverage of an England Test match or Arsenal; that the emotions that bruise, batter, enrapture and enfold me as I follow are not really about the sport. They are about the family I grew up watching these sports in, learning about them in, going to the grounds as part of. These games aren’t games; they are a way of telling the story of our lives, our families, our countries and our communities. Ask South Africa about 1995; Liverpool Football Club about the number 96; or the American people why it’s important that a team of (then) no stars called the Patriots won the Superbowl in early 2002. If you want a book to read, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is as good as you’ll get on this – in that case from the point of view of a football fan.

There must always be perspective – we all know people, or are people who need to remember that sport is, just sport. But those tempted to criticise and sneer must also know that it’s never just that. Fire In Babylon shows and tells this, to stunning effect.

At the time, some said the West Indies team that was sweeping all before it was ruining Test cricket. In a way they were.

But sometimes you have to ruin something in order to discover it.

I rated this move 9/10 on imdb.com and 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Promising Change

We’re entering a season of promises. The Christian season of Advent – the 4 week build up to Christmas – is an opportunity to reflect on many things, not least that the Christian God is one who keeps His promises; even if to say that may seem counter-intuitive given only the shortest glance at the world around us. The story of the Bible is of God being faithful, His people being faithless. One of the most potentially scandalous passages of Old Testament scripture is of God telling one of His servants to take a prostitute for his wife and allowing her unfaithfulness to be a sermon illustration. Imagine a 21st century pastor getting that one past his accountability group.

Taking the long view, it’s easy to think ourselves into a place of greater faithfulness than the people of Scripture who are so fickle in their love for God. We mustn’t be too hard on them, though. For a while they were plunged into a period of prophetic silence with only ancient stories and promises to keep them going. When would God come? When would they be free? It’s no surprise, then, that many of God’s people missed God incarnate even when He was right in front of them. Besides, are we really good at believing God’s promises, and would we have been then?

Take this one:

I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. “Never again will there be in it infants who live but a few days…” (Isaiah 65:19-20).

That would have seemed a poignant and ironic one in Bethlehem as Herod had weeks old baby boys put to death in a jealous rage (Matthew 2:13-18). It’s there nonetheless, though; when the Messiah finally comes, such a thing won’t happen. Really, sobs the desolate mother? Really, echoes the reply.

So goes the human temptation to judge God. Look at what happens around us? How are we supposed to believe you now? It’s time for you to show your power, we scream or sob.

Show your own, comes the chilling reply.

In 2000 the world’s leaders committed themselves to the Millenium Development Goals. These were a set of promises which said to the world’s poor ‘We see you. We see your situation. We commit ourselves to doing something about it.’ There has been some progress. That’s good.

Not everywhere, though. South Africa, where I live and work, hasn’t made forward progress on two of these promises – to reduce maternal mortality and infant mortality. In fact it’s got worse. Much worse. In most of South Africa’s communities the grieving of the young families of ancient Bethlehem still echoes.

The difference is that this isn’t murder. Something can be done about this. So with two years until these promises need to be made good on, some of us saying that the time is now. There’s a global movement of Christians called Micah Challenge, which takes a cue from God’s words to the prophet Micah (Micah 6:8). The expression of this in South Africa is for ordinary people to make their own promise, and to commit to them with simple photos taken of them with their promises. Children have promised to bake cookies for medical professionals. Adults have promised to do sponsored walks and donate the proceeds to NGOs Adults and children have promised to fast and pray. The end result will be to join these promises together and then present them to the country’s leaders as a reminder and a challenge to live up to the promises they made themselves.

We’re entering a season which invites us to trust that God’s promises mean something. Make that a challenge for yourself, and those who lead.

A big hat-tip to Craig Stewart of Micah Challenge SA for a lot of the input to this post. Find out more about Micah Challenge International and its expression in your country here. See some of the promises made by ordinary South Africans here, and learn more about the campaign including how to add your voice, promise and picture, here.

The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales by Peter Rollins

Peter Rollins website carries the banner ”to believe is human; to doubt, divine“. So you know doubt what territory you’re in with his books. He was the founder of Ikon, an Irish emerging/alternative church group with a creative line in blending music art and imagery in worship. I’d experienced some of their work at festivals in the UK – it was nothing if not daring. The music and the imagery and the ideas were all creative and clever, but I sometimes found it hard to work out what they were actually trying to do – and I found myself wondering if they knew themselves.

One of the features of their work was questioning an emerging Christian sub-culture of consumerism and celebrity; one of the things that I appreciated about my experiences of them was that I didn’t know who any of the people were and that didn’t matter. So it’s sightly ironic, then, that founder Peter Rollins is now living in the USA, speaking at conferences, festivals and mega-churches and describing himself on his website as ‘widely sought after’. Let the reader understand…

Such is the context for his little book ‘The Orthodox Heretic’; a collection of 33 short stories (no more than 3-5 pages in most cases) or parables attempting to explore a variety of spiritual themes. They purport to stand in the traditions of Jesus’ parables; short, punchy stories which provoke and divide an audience. In that sense, Rollins’ stories here are successful – these are bound to divide and challenge people. There are, though, a few problems.

One is that each story comes with an explanatory commentary from the author. That’s fine, but in more than a few cases the commentary is longer than the story. This suggests that the story is bearing too heavy a load of interpretation. Rollins doesn’t actually seem to trust a story to speak for itself – he wants to over-explain. Some of the commentaries are so convoluted and weighed down with philosophy and other references that you’ve forgotten what the story was actually about. A simple solution may have been to move the commentaries to a separate section at the end of the book as opposed to immediately after each story to encourage the reader to use them at her own pace; and escape the feeling which I’m sure Rollins was keen to avoid – that there’s one approved interpretation for each story.

The stories are sometimes wholly original, on occasions based on familiar texts; sometimes they invite you into Biblical passages in a new way from the point of view of a particular character. That’s helpful – it’s always good to revisit a Bible passage with fresh eyes in a new way. These often have Rollins’ trademark irreverence – some of these are daring steps, teetering deliberately on the boundary of heresy and orthodoxy to invite you into a new space. Sometimes that’s eye-opening and challenging; sometimes it’s frankly pretentious and annoying – leaving you wondring how much Rollins really loves his audience and how much he’s provoking for the sake of it.

Which leads onto another problem. Broadly the stories circle round the importance of ministry among the poor and the priority of love. Good stuff; but at no time, in the commentaries or the stories themselves, did I sense a warm, embracing heart from Rollins, inviting me on a journey with a wise guide. He wants me to think and change, yes; but to do that I need to be sure the invitation comes from a good and generous place. When one of your main points is the primacy of love in the God we serve, that’s a problem.

It’s not a bad book, but neither is it essential. It’s good to dip into and some of it will shake and challenge you. Do so, though, under the constant reminder of God’s love and gracious invitation. He, above all, IS love.

I rated this book 3/5 on goodreads.com

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The Church of England and women Bishops: hope’s terrible beauty

Hope should be a beautiful, simple word. Hope, the Bible tells us, does not disappoint. The Shawshank Redemption told us ‘Fear can hold you prisoner, hope can set you free’. That resonated with a lot of people.

There’s another side to hope, though. One that’s also true, and altogether more painful. It’s encapsulated in a saying that springs from British football culture. ‘It’s the hope that kills you’. It’s a way of saying that when you feel your team finally has a chance of achieving something unlikely or long dreamed of, it’s all the more painful and frustrating to have that hope dashed. That fits well today.

Yesterday the Church of England’s governing body, General Synod, voted down some legislation which if passed would have paved the way for women to become Bishops. Although Synod actually agreed to women Bishops some time ago, what was up for debate was how that would work legally – how to allow it to happen, but still allow space and provision for those English Anglicans who feel that in all conscience they cannot accept the ministry of a woman Bishop. There are 3 ‘houses’ at Synod; the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity (people who aren’t ordained). To pass, legislation needs a two-thirds majority in each house. This was achieved easily in the Houses of Bishops and Clergy. In the laity it fell short. If 5 laypeople had changed their votes, it would have gone through,

Pain was inevitable. If it had gone through, there would have been men and women feeling deep pain and anguish today about their future in the Church of England. This morning that pain is for those who long to see women allowed to be Bishops. There is hope, but it’s a hope that today hurts. Hope that women Bishops are effectively agreed to in theory, but the pain that this is not so in practice. Hope that this legislation was approved by most of the individual dioceses (a diocese is a Bishop’s geographical area of responsibility), hope that so many yesterday voted in favour, but pain that because of five the answer is still ‘not yet’. Hope that women are priests, but are not yet legally allowed to be Bishops.

Today it feels like never. I feel heart sore for those denied the possibility of what I and they believe is their God-given calling and right. There’s lots of hope, but this morning it’s precisely that hope which hurts. It’s the same hope which spurs us on and inspires as we wait for Jesus to return and remake creation to a place of no more pain, giving us glimpses now of what that will look like. It’s the same pain too – that causes us to carry on now, aware that pain and apparently unanswered prayer is also a reality.

I and many others are Anglicans partly because being one calls me to be part of something bigger, to challenge me to live in family and in relationship with those with whom I disagree. This morning some of us were always going to wrestle. Wrestle with what God is saying. Are we who advocate for women Bishops wrong? Was this the wrong legislation in the wrong way? Is it the right thing at the wrong time? What is the the Spirit saying to the church?

I don’t know, yet. I was born and raised in the Church of England. It frustrates me, but I also believe God has called me to serve from and within it. Currently I serve many miles away, in another expression of Anglicanism where women can be Bishops, where one was consecrated last week and another will be next year. But still I ache and cry and fear and pray for the Church of the England.

There is hope, but today it hurts, and threatens to kill.The time for discernment will come. It starts, though, with sitting in the dust awhile and feeling hope’s terrible beauty.