Freedom In The Unknown: Free Will, Questioning God (and an interactive film)

Freedom In The Unknown: Free Will, Questioning God (and an interactive film)

It’s interesting to speculate how things might have turned out differently. In late December 2011, British television aired a new show called Black Mirror. The publicity promised something dark, possibly comic, with a plot revolving around a pig. It was to be an anthology series – meaning that each episode was unconnected (narratively speaking) to others. When episode one aired, what unfolded was a story about a British Prime Minister blackmailed in to a sex act with a pig which was to be broadcast live on television, in order to save a popular member of the Royal Family who had been kidnapped. It’s had to watch, simultaneously horrifying and funny with a plot twist in the conclusion. The series gained some traction, and two short seasons were made. Then, in 2015, a story broke about real life British Prime Minister David Cameron allegedly doing something similar involving a pig’s head at university – and though there’s little in the way to establish the truth of the story, Black Mirror‘s prophetic legend was established. Netflix picked up the series, and now it’s a genuine cultural force; it’s become something of a tired cliché to wearily sigh that a news story is ‘like something out of Black Mirror‘; but the tiredness of the cliché doesn’t stop people saying it, of course.

So it was that a one-off new, 90 minute episode of the show arrived on Netflix over Christmas. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch has its own unique hook; it’s an interactive film. Throughout the narrative, the viewer is invited to choose one of two courses of action by clicking the trackpad. Technically it’s brilliant; there’s only occasionally a slightly discernible jump in the edit when the choice is made, and buffering never rears its head. The plot itself is, well, somewhat meta: it’s set in the mid-1980s. A young man is writing a computer game called Bandersnatch, based on an epic Choose Your Own Adventure book of the same name, a book which drove its author into dark, paranoid places. This being Black Mirror, the narrative doesn’t stint on shock value. Initially the choices the viewer is presented with seem insignificant  – what sort of breakfast cereal should he eat?; what music should he listen to?. By the time the central character starts holding a conversation with you and directly posing the viewer a question, you’re in a much stranger, more ostensibly troubling place.

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The performances are all fine; though slightly hindered by the format – it’s hard, after all, to act a scene when you don’t know how the scene is going to conclude. But that’s a small gripe, which the viewer learns to let slide; by the time you reach one of the five or so main endings, you’re given the choice of exiting to the credits or returning to certain points in the story to try again. It’s addictive, fun, and has obvious rewatch value. For me, though, despite its many strengths, it left me cold. Yes it’s fun; yes, I even tried to place myself in the narrative (by choosing my own favourite cereal or music or even express mental health issues the way I do in real life), but I still felt strangely distanced from it. This isn’t a unique problem for Black Mirror; for all the show’s cleverness, capacity to shock and undeniable entertainment value, it’s one of those shows that tries hard to be about something without actually having much to say about the thing it’s about. That thing often happens to be free will and/or the effect of technology on the user – but too often interesting ideas are left dangling like that wire behind the television that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Writer Charlie Brooker rarely seems able to make a coherent blend out of big themes and the desire to shock or horrify; the results are too often a stone-in-the-shoe sort of lack of satisfaction, for all the cleverness and gripping material that has gone before.

When it comes to the big question of free will, with which this episode is so clearly concerned, there is much that could have been said that wasn’t. Free will has always been a thorny issue for the Christian; are we puppets on God’s strings, and if so, is He kind or cruel? Do we have the capacity to say no to God? What does ‘predestined’ mean? Poles of interpretation  – as in so many areas – are rarely satisfying or logically coherent. To take the one view, God orders and wills and causes everything – in which case it’s almost a logical impossibility to see Him as good; and you end with such a delicately constructed theological system that if one part is troubled, the whole edifice shakes and threatens to fall apart. Surely God’s more intellectually secure than that? The other pole is to suggest that either we’re in charge of everything – which might explain the messes we’re always in, but rather makes a mockery of God’s wisdom and our need of Him at all; or He doesn’t know and can’t foresee everything. Which is certainly interesting, but makes him somewhat hard to trust.

There are moments in Bandersnatch when the central character is railing at whoever is controlling him, asking for a sign, questioning the choices he’s presented with and wrestling with the situations in which he finds himself. In that sense, he reminds me of Job; but unlike Job, the man at the heart of Bandersnatch can hardly be called blameless. What we can’t criticise him for – because God doesn’t rebuke Job for it either – is his raging or questioning. God seems to positively encourage that. The issue is what we do it when the raging is done; Bandersnatch offers few answers because the writer doesn’t seem able to – and as viewers, picking one of two options, we make for awfully limited gods. Ultimately this may lead to a new kind of visual storytelling; or it may go the way of Betamax video. Who can say yet what the divine storyteller has in mind for interactive film-making?

In the endings I came to in the film, the central character never seems to find peace; every ending leads to question, a self-doubt, a cause for anger or fear or guilt. That’s not how Job ends; at the end of Job’s questioning, he’s met with few answers. He’s not rebuked for asking them, but he is asked by God to accept his place, to learn who’s God and who’s man, and to understand that there are limits to his understandings. It’s not wrong to want to know why things are happening; but he must accept that in the end he will not know  – other than that he is known by the one who knows.

Bandersnatch is, for now, an example of a young art form, testing technology to see where it will bend or break; there may yet be much to come from this format, or there may not. But for now the choices it offers remain strictly binary; even that can send us down potentially mind-bending roads of multiple possibilities which soon fracture under our limited capacities. When we create, we create out of what already exists, with limited possibilities and conclusions available to us; even that is too . The God who invites our questions is big enough to hold our questions and allow us peace in both the asking and the lack of answering. There’s courage in our asking and freedom to be embraced in our unknowing; our divine storyteller comes to se us free, not to control, manipulate and abuse. Bandersnatch gives us a fun, pale imitation of our futile and cruel capacity to play at being god. We’d do well to address our questions to a better writer.

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It’s Time To Save Marriage – By Dethroning It From Its Place As An Idol

It’s tempting to think that we learn from history; we all like to think we’re wise and reflective and willing to learn. The truth is many of us don’t learn the lessons we need to; history repeats, as the poet Steve Turner wrote, because no one listens. It may not repeat with exactly the same words, but recognisable rhythms and cadences are there.

For example, there are Christian perspectives on sex, relationships, marriage and dating. In 1997 Christian writer and speaker Joshua Harris published the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a book which advocated not dating to preserve emotional purity before marriage and a variety of steps which he at the time believed would lead to good marriage and a good sex life within marriage. No one doubted his intentions – and the book sold in vast quantities, becoming hugely influential in (evangelical) Christian culture. The problem is that it didn’t work; people became paralysed be fear of making mistakes in their relationships and they found that taking the steps he prescribed didn’t always have the promised outcome. One size, it turns out, does not fit all. This has led to a two-year process of listening, thinking and reassessing from Joshua Harris, which has resulted in him apologising for hurt caused and the book being withdrawn from publication. There’s much else to say, of course; and whilst his diligence is to be applauded, it’s true that apologies don’t necessarily fix what’s broken. However it would be hoped that we – the church  – had learned something important here.

In the last week a high-profile pastor from a high-profile American church published a blog about why people ‘put off’ marriage, and what they should do about. He (of course, he’s a he; and of course, he’s married) will follow this up with “practical steps for catching your man or woman“. He promises “God’s power will deliver you from any pain” and puts masturbation in the same (no-doubt) sinful category as co-habiting. We are made for marriage he says, paying-lip service to the possibility of a ‘supernatural gift from God’ of singleness. It all boils down to this; do this, get that. Do this and you’ll get a (very good) marriage. Do this and you’ll get the partner you dream of.

Again, no one doubts the intentions here, but let’s attempt to examine where this leaves people. It leaves the single with a set of things to do in order to guarantee a good marriage; the post may be replete with Biblical references, but there’s precious little reference to the gracious gifts of grace (not in response to works) God gives. And none of how life just happens; life getting in the way. Sin, sickness, failure. None of that – even people’s ‘blemishes are beautiful’; which they may be, of course, but it’s a somewhat romanticised way of describing someone with an anger problem or who habitually spends too much money.

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The fundamental problem comes, it seems to me, with describing people (apart from the ‘supernaturally gifted for singleness’) as ‘made for marriage’. It sees marriage as something we have to do unless we have a clear calling otherwise. Amongst much else, it misunderstands the order of creation in the Genesis picture; God makes people, then He institutes marriage as a gift to them. Marriage is given by God to people, made to serve them; in that sense, it’s like the Sabbath, a similar misunderstanding of which Jesus had to tidy up. Marriage, like the Sabbath, is created by God to help and serve people in all manner of ways. It’s different from Sabbath in terms of where it stands in the 10 Commandments – Sabbath observance is a requirement from God (because we have a tendency to think work is ours to keep on doing and that our work earns us something from God); marriage is to be honoured by not committing adultery – but nowhere are we told we must get married. Just that if we’re married, we’re not to undermine it (through abuse, adultery or the like).

Two or three clicks away from the marriage blog post, I find a ministry founded by the author which seeks to be ” a company of radicals helping to define healthy sexuality”. It’s all well-intentioned; some of it may even contain good advice (I haven’t read anything like all the content on the site). The problem stems, though, from setting marriage as the goal we’re made for, and that we must have a special calling to not be married. This immediately suggests that the unmarried who have not received that ‘special calling’ are broken or in error or sinful in some way. The fault must lie with them; and God forbid they masturbate, or even think about sex in the mean time. It also says to the married couple struggling to keep the flame alive in the midst of children, bills to pay, ill-health or just the pressures of life that they too are broken and wrong, somehow short of God’s plan. The whole enterprise of human relationships and sexuality reduced to a slot-machine, a formula, a puzzle where you just have to put the right pieces in the right places.

Marriage (and the perfect, nuclear family) have become, in attitudes like these, the great evangelical Christian idol. I speak as a minister, much of whose theology might be defined as evangelical. I’m also married with (foster) children. Here’s the truth from that perspective. God doesn’t free us from all pain – I’m still chronically ill; my marriage is not perfect; every need can not be met by one relationship. I adore my wife and kids. But it’s very, very hard work. God will free us from all pain – in the new creation. For now, we all struggle and fight and sometimes get healed and sometimes don’t. I know from 19 years of pastoral ministry that many wonderful Christian people do all the things they’re told are ‘right’  – ‘guard the  heart’, keep a ‘pure thought life’, trust Jesus completely, do all the right things to catch a spouse. But they find it doesn’t work; unless they’re unusually well supported, loved and cared for, cynicism grows, love for God hardens and they drift away or tune out. Of course they do – wouldn’t you, if you gradually discover that the grace gift you thought you were looking at, made for, designed for, was in fact a carefully constructed golden calf?

To better preserve the gift of marriage and family that God has given us, it’s time for the church to dethrone it. To talk openly and freely about lust not being slaked by saying ‘I do’; by admitting that many who are married are lonely; that there’s no formula to finding the right person; that any area of our life is far more complex than the blueprint formula suggests. The longer I go on in this work, the more I find broken, hurt, saddened people fearing they are somehow incomplete without a spouse, fearing they are missing God’s ‘best for their lives’; laden with shame and fear for a sexual thought or deed because they are told that these are the worst possible sins (by men who consume far more than they need, lash out in angry words and thoughts, hold to casual racism or so much else – but remain curiously unchallenged).

Sin is sin. It’s a problem for us all; but in Jesus it’s dealt with. In Him there is no shame or guilt; yet our idolising of marriage and family and the sex we claim goes with it, leaves a trail of that shame and guilt that is rarely voiced and seldom heard. Let’s step away from the slot-machine systematisation of relationships with God and people; let’s listen to the still, small voice of God in and to those broken beneath the wheels of the Golden Calves the evangelical church loves to erect in the place of cross and empty tomb.

They Shall Not Grow Old: Remembering The Stories That Shape Us

Much of human life can be understood as an attempt to keep something alive in the face of the reality of death. It could be the memories of loved ones, having children, leaving something to our children, achievements that will ensure we are spoken of long after we have died. It could be anything. The older we get the more aware we are of our mortality and we turn attention to what we will leave behind us.

This is one of the unique aspects of being human. We live with a profound awareness of our own death, and with that comes a seemingly inbuilt desire to outlive it. If the Biblical author is right this is in part explained by the understanding that God has ‘set eternity in the hearts of people.’ Other traditions have different understandings of this; but few seem to deny its reality. Societies wrestle with this on a larger scale; a key question is how to ensure that future generations don’t lose sight of the lessons of the past and so repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. In South Africa, for example, as the ‘born free’ generation (the first generation born after apartheid officially fell) grows into adulthood there is an increasingly urgent discussion about what stories and monuments must be kept and which should fall. These are conversations replete with emotion and fear, a sense of the widening gap between generations. Older generations want their stories preserved and learned from; younger generations want their unique voices heard, freed from the shackles of having to do what they’re told by people still perceived to fighting yesterday’s battles.

Global conflicts are perhaps the biggest example of this. How we remember them and keep the stories alive, without glorifying immense suffering or sentimentalisation is an increasingly fraught debate. This year we have recently marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, a date that leads to acts of remembrance in many countries involved in that war. As the gap between 11/11/1918 and the present day has widened, so has the diversity of opinions in how to mark these anniversaries. Red poppies? White? None? On football shirts or not? A minute’s silence at sporting events? And so on.

If one’s own family was not – like mine, as far as I know –  directly affected by the conflict, it’s hard to connect with these events. With a Jewish heritage on one side of my family – my Grandmother’s family had a narrow escape from the death camps – I have a more natural connection with the 1939-45 conflict. It seems like part of my story; World War One feels like something more abstract and theoretical.

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Enter film-maker Peter Jackson The New Zealand Director (best know for the Lord Of The Rings films), was approached by London’s Imperial War Museum to create something out of their archive material to mark the anniversary. The result is hallmark Jackson – technologically groundbreaking and in many respects completely overwhelming. Film as old as 100 years often operates at a variety of different speeds – sometimes within the same reel – so first of all the selected material had to be altered to be of a universal speed; in itself no small task. Then the images, obscured and clouded over the years, were cleaned up. Then they were colourised. To cap it all, soundless images were given a soundtrack – be it birdsong, an explosion or an actor bringing words to silently moving lips through the work of forensic lip-readers, with regional accents appropriate to the soldiers on-screen. The finished product – which in other hands could have been tacky, laboured or too worthy – is truly remarkable. It is called They Shall Not Grow Old.

The story of the declaration of war, joining up and training is told in black and white, a small television-sized box in the middle of the screen; as throughout the whole 90 minutes, recordings taken of veterans in the 1960s tell the bulk of the story from their own point of view. Then, as the soldiers arrive in France, colour and contextual sound spread to fill the viewer’s senses; the overlaid storytelling continues, with the background noise occasionally breaking through to the foreground. All of a sudden distant black and white faces seem to be peering in the viewer’s eyes – and soul. As the story of attack after attack is told, we see images relating to what the narrators are describing – maimed bodies, stumbling survivors, soldiers puffing on a cigarette. As the loss resulting from one attack is described, the camera pans slowly over a large group shot of soldiers gathering, smiling in a mystified, excited and oh so alive way right back at you; at one point, one of them says something; “We’re going to be on film!” he says. Everyone on-screen laughs; so do you.

It’s not uncommon for a cinematic experience to be described in pseudo-religious terms. Transcendent, an epiphany. This films offers that, and in doing so it seems almost unfair to describe it like one would any other film; it sits apart, a unique act of artistic remembrance that has the capacity to change minds and hearts. To keep the dead alive.

We all want to do that – keep the dead alive. It’s impossible. The idea that an aged relative who served in a war – or experienced something equally unusual – can tell his stories to younger generations so they can understand may be worthy, but it is by nature dying off as the people do. So how do we do so? How do we remember? They Shall Not Grow Old gives us one way; it allows the voices themselves to speak, allowing us to hear and see them for ourselves. At no point are we lectured; we’re not told this is ‘good for us’ or that this is ‘important’. It is not ‘worthy’, in the worst sense of that word. The story is simply told in the first person, and we simply listen and watch.

Remembering  – more helpfully understood as retelling a story – is part of our human identity. Which is why it lies at the heart of our religious worship. For Christians the retelling of the central narrative of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection  – Communion, Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, Mass – is the central act of thanksgiving. We retell the story, we take some of it tangibly in to us in the form of bread and wine, and our thankfulness is renewed. For some of us that is a weekly part of worship, a natural part of our life so familiar that as we grow old we may find that we no longer need a written text to help us say and hear the words; it has seeped in to the fabric our lives. Other Christian traditions see it as such a special occasion as to only mark it a few times a year. For some it is cloaked in ritual; for other it is clothed in profound but relaxed intimacy. Whatever it looks like, remembering is at the heart of our worship.

It would be too much to describe the remembering Peter Jackson’s film provokes in us in these religious terms. There is none of the elevation of the dead as perfect sacrificial heroes that can occasionally seem to accompany other acts of remembrance. Instead our narrators describe how they were lied to about the war, how they were considered “the refuse of the industrial system’; how they ‘weren’t to think for ourselves’. They signed up to heroically serve their country lest the women in their towns and cities adorn them with the white feather of cowardice; they ended up mercifully shooting dead fatally wounded men drowning a slow death in the mud and understanding themselves as ‘like rabbits, hunted by mankind’. There is no glory or heroism; instead individual tragedy is given a name and a face and a voice.

Simply put, the film is not an invitation to do something specific; it is an invitation to listen to a story, and let the story do the work it needs to do in you. As powerful an experience as it is, it will keep doing so days and weeks and months and years after you’ve seen it. In doing so, it has added mysterious layers to my awareness of what I am doing as I participate in the retelling of the 2000-year old story that stands as the pivot of history. It questions afresh the myth of redemptive violence and entices thankfulness that I, and my children, do not have to sign up to what these young men signed up to. It leads me to a rededication to retelling the story that shapes my life, that we all locate ourselves in that story.

In Praise Of The Beautifully Inessential

It began with a hushed conversation in a library. I was in my first year of theological study, preparing to enter ordained ministry in the Anglican church. I was talking to one of the more conservative students at our conservative college and said something along the lines of this: ‘My problem is that if theologians really believe that God is the most beautiful and significant being in the world, why is so much of what they write so boring?’. ‘Ah’, said the man listening to me. ‘You need to read some Eugene Peterson’. In my mind, up to then, Eugene Peterson was know only for The Message, a translation of the Bible in the language and idiom of the congregation he pastored in America. I hadn’t really considered that he might have written other things. That started a journey of discovery of theological and devotional writing that is characterised by clarity, deep theological thinking and an intoxicating love for words. It’s also true that unlike many theological writers, Peterson could write with a combination of economy and beauty.

It’s not essential for theology to be beautiful, of course. The Nicene Creed is generally accepted as a binding confessional statement for Christians; it’s full of good theological truth – but one could hardly call it beautiful. For its form, beauty is unnecessary. Beauty is unnecessary for objective truth to thrive, it seems.

All of which leads to me to a 10-year-old documentary film about a Canadian rock band. The film is Anvil: The Story Of Anvil. Back in the mid 1980s, Anvil was one of a series of rock/metal bands that appeared poised on the brink of massive global success. Whilst most of them went on to achieve that, Anvil got stuck. The majority of the film tells the story of Anvil, 30 years on, still writing, recording and performing with the band members in their 50s; only now they have ‘proper’ jobs on the side to pay (some of) the bills. The film bears many of the hallmarks of the rock documentary – backstage footage, gig footage, the writing/recording process, arguments between band members. What’s different here is that the band is not making money in the process; they’re not even in the ‘critically acclaimed, commercially under-appreciated’ sector.

There are many possible reasons for Anvil not becoming Metallica. Bad management and bad production stand out. To be blunt, they will never write a song as threatening and thrilling as Enter Sandman. That, however, is not really the point here. What matters for Anvil, and for us, is they glory in their process and output; although they dream of recognition and adulation, that’s not what they’re in this for. They want to make music and to play music. To them, that’s success.

There’s something here to think on. I often hear parents (and sometimes their children) talk of the need to get a qualification – and hence a job – that will produce something; that will contribute the economy and provide for all their current future needs. What the child must do is do some necessary, important and tangible; she must produce. Clearly we need lawyers and doctors and engineers and builders and the like. Sciences matter. I’m not denying that; but they are not the sum and total of what we need. The moment we think of ourselves as units of economic production we run in to trouble; we’ve allowed an un-critiqued version of capitalism to overwhelm our identity. I studied for a degree in English Literature, not a degree renowned for its job prospects. I jokingly refer it as ‘a degree in reading’. Stop, though, before laughing too hard: when was the last time you (or someone you know) seemed incapable of seeing the real meaning of Facebook post or an email? Why do so many people swallow fake news uncritically? Now do you want to tell me that a ‘degree in reading’, in truly understanding a text, is unimportant simply because it doesn’t lead to a tangible end-product?

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God has given us some clues here. God didn’t have to create; before creation, He was perfect within Himself. In his relationship with the 3 parts of Himself, he needed nothing. Yet create he did, an expression of love that wanted an outlet, a glorious,  indulgent extravagance. Seas, mountains, rivers, plains, plants, insects, animals, fish, plankton, stars, planets, sun, moon, woman, man, snow, rain. All so unnecessary, all pouring out of an abundant self-expression of light and sound.

Or think on music. Almost all religious expressions involve music and singing; it has often been where new musical expressions have taken root. But why? Do we need to sing? For the Christian the words of Be Thou My Vision or My Jesus, My Saviour remain just as true if they’re spoken aloud. The music isn’t necessary in that sense. But can you imagine a world in which congregations just said those words, to the backdrop of silence?

Music, and art in general, may not be objectively necessary but they do something to us. They speak to us in a form that’s more true than mere facts, deep calling to deep (in itself a Biblical metaphor that achieves a truth that is more than factual). Jesus and the prophets don’t just speak in objective statements of truth; also stories, metaphors, poetry, word pictures, dramatic actions.

Why, then, do we settle for less in our or our children’scareers? Only pursuing that which is productive? A nation consisting solely of tangible product may be economically booming, but it would be colourless.

Why, then, do our churches often seem to only use one form of music (whichever form is the preference of that one subset of the culture)? Is there space for new melodies, rhythms and harmonies alongside the established?  Why is so much Christian ‘art’ of recent years so plainly didactic? Why not take the poet’s eternal advice:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Emily Dickinson

The truth is that Anvil just aren’t that good a band; having seen this film I won’t be downloading their albums. But I am reminded with fresh energy that meaning matters more than material production; that fruitful labour may look different to that which is deemed apparently successful. I’m concerned that, within the church especially, we are uncritically accepting a fully capitalist worldview where even the pastor’s role must be described with precision and point towards outputs and markers. That church members must serve an ‘end product’ of a church machine geared to keep us busy and numerically growing, forgetting to allow the beauty of relationships and creativity in the image of an endlessly relational and creative God to flourish.

Do we, our life choices and communities, allow meaning and beauty and relationship to define us? Or are we too busy making and producing to simply be in the presence of God and each other, basking in the beauty God showers us with and invites us to co-labour with Him in creating? Do we want to build a society of units of production and end product, or a kingdom in which God-given gifts are allowed to flourish in response to One who delights in the unnecessary and inessential?

 

God In The Slow Lane

It’s often said that the urgent can drive out the important. From responding to emails to health issues and much in between, there’s evidence to suggest this is true. Our attention is automatically – and often necessarily  – diverted to that which is most pressing. If your house is on fire at the moment when you’d set aside time to work on your tax returns which are due in a month’s time, then you’d be a fool to do anything other than deal with the urgent, important as tax returns are.

How do we discern which is which? Rarely are faced with such a binary or obvious choice. The minister by whom I was trained told me many things which have lodged in mind: one of them was the importance of discerning the difference between a good idea and a God idea. It might be – for example – a good idea to introduce a church service led by the youth to the programme of services; but is it the right idea at the right time? Are the youth ready? Is the rest of the church ready? That’s the leadership decision; Victor Hugo is paraphrased as writing that no-can resist an idea whose time has come. There’s truth in that.

What makes this leadership decision so difficult much of the time is that people have very different ideas of what’s urgent and what’s important. I’m always hesitant to blame the still-new tool of social media, but certainly Facebook and the like can amplify this tendency – the louder you shout or the more dramatic the news or the tighter the deadline, then the more likely you are to get heard. And there does seem to be an awful lot of shouting. The ticking time-bombs of climate-change, American mid-term elections, Brexit and the like all scream for attention. Not to mention the varied issues that are – or appear to be – related to these and other situations; the gap between rich and poor in various countries, volatile economies, diplomatic relations strained to near breaking point, racial tensions, the rise of political extremism. It seems that something must be done on each of these, now.

We bring this to church, too. Can you give me 5 ways to improve my prayer-life? What’s the best way to read the Bible? Can we have a course to improve marriage/parenting/surviving as a single person? The need screams importance and urgency; set up a solution, now.

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The problem is that God seems to work to altogether different timetables. The God who defends the poor and is concerned for justice and liberation seems to wait most of Moses’s long life-time before finally sending him to lead them to freedom … which in the end turned out to be 40 years of wondering apparently aimlessly in the wilderness. Jesus waited for 30 years of presumably normal education and manual labour before doing much that was worth recoding for future posterity. As the letter-writer says in 2 Peter 3: ” With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” That’s to say – God is not so much concerned with any one thing we do or don’t do as He is the state of our souls, our relationship to Him. He’s prepared to give us a lot of time.

All this is somewhat fraught with problems. It may seem quite easy for me to say that God is patient and is biding his time for my eternal sake; but unlike some who live in this city, my house didn’t just burn down leaving me homeless and shorn of resources. The mid-term elections have a date on them, as does Brexit. If I were to receive a terminal diagnosis tomorrow (there’s no likelihood that I will), then every day would suddenly take on new weight. We’ve become so accustomed to having much of what we want or need on demand that we expect the same of the spiritual life and the faith communities we are part of or lead. Added to that, one of the perpetual burdens of leadership is to be able to see with clarity the gap between where an organisation is and where it could or should be. This gap between our time-bound urgency and God’s slowness seems to be a recipe for human frustration and angst.

What to do, then? I’ve never understood prayer, and am rather suspicious of anyone who claims to do so. I am aware, however, that when I am able to pray, two things happen – often simultaneously – something changes in the situation or person I’m praying for, and something changes in me. So I should pray, then. That’s all well and good, but in this period of my life – children, not great health, full-time job and the like, I don’t have much time. I pray a version of the daily office some days; I fire off prayers at some points in the day if something prompts me so to do. But it’s hard to turn attention to God when there’s so much that is, dare I say it, both urgent and important. Like many parents, I’m tired. I go to bed tired, and I wake tired. Prayer is hard when you’re tired.

God is working in my life very slowly at the moment. I’ve only recently realised the truth of something that happened to me around 25 years ago. Why didn’t God help me do it earlier, and save us all a lot of time? I don’t know. Things in church happen slowly; of course, we’ve never really arrived, we’re always changing and adjusting and growing – but it strikes me that in one particular area of my church’s life we’re only now beginning to reach a place I first dreamed of about 8 years ago. For so many people – including myself and my own relationships – I can see where we or they could be, but we all seem to take an inordinately long time to get there.

I read this week that in Paul’s great hymn to love, 1 Corinthians 13, the first definition given of love is patience; or as older translations have it, long-suffering. God seems to love me, you, us so much that he’s willing to suffer long for us to get to where he needs us to get to. He won’t rush us because to rush us would go against his innate love for us. He loves us more than our deeds, more than our urgent actions or calls to action, more than any one thing we can make happen. He wants us to work for him – but he wants that to come not as duty or forced obedience, but as loving response to his long-suffering on our behalf.

There is much we come up against that might be fixed by urgent labour or donation of money or the like. Sometimes that will need to happen; but more often, perhaps, we will find ourselves called to what Eugene Peterson termed the ‘long obedience in the same direction’; the long-suffering with ourselves and others, as God does with us. There’s no 12 week course to fix injustice; there’s no quick fix for my prayer-life; there’s no easy route to better relationships. Love is patient, long-suffering – requiring us to exercise the kindness and the benefit of the doubt to ourselves and others that God is so willing to exercise to all of us. That doesn’t allow us to be lazy, or to make excuses for damaging or violating patterns of behaviour; but it does mean that we are to find within us that part of ourselves that bears the stamp of the long-suffering creator, to let His patience call out our own with ourselves and others.

Anger Is An Energy: Responding To Paul Greengrass’s 22 July

Anger is an energy sang PIL, and so the punk movement took flight. Behind the now cliché of a colourful mohican was a frantic energy to destroy the status-quo of the elites running culture and politics. This was a music that left everything out on stage – except, perhaps, the instruments themselves which were often thrashed past the point of breakage when the gig has reached its climax. A few bands still do this even now; it’s seen to be a signifier of having given so much to the performance that there’s nowhere left to go, a symbol of the destruction of the established order. It’s also quite good fun to watch. Like most musical genres, once punk muscled its way into deeper public consciousness it seemed to have less energy, and to be a bit tired. That’s not entirely fair, but the hardcore punk fans see neo-punk acts who remain commercially successful as bands who have sold out – many true punks look disdainfully on bands like Green Day and their fans as having somehow failed by virtue of their success. The baton of truth is held, it’s said, by bands most of us would never have heard of; in punk, and in other genres that once betokened rebellion but now command widespread attention – RnB, hip-hop, rap. And so on.

Anger isn’t wrong; it just seems to be something that can easily tip us over into wrong. One New Testament letter writer doesn’t say ‘Your anger is a sin’; it says, instead ‘In your anger, do not sin’. Anger is an energy, which left unchecked can lead us to dangerously lose control; which is why the same letter-writer also recommends that if  we find ourselves angry with someone we love, to sort it out before bedtime.

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The truth is that there seems to be an awful lot of anger around at the moment. American conservatives are angry that under Obama their America was lost. American liberals are angry at the Conservatives for spreading hate and intolerance. Progressive Christians are angry at conservative ones for supporting Trump; conservative ones are angry with progressive ones for not doing so and for accusing them of selling out the gospel. Women are angry at men for the patriarchy and the abuse and the harassment; some men are angry at women for finding a voice, other men are angry at the rest of the men for speaking up or not speaking up. Brexit supporters are angry with Remainers for demanding a new vote and with their government for selling out the referendum; Remainers are angry with Brexiteers for being Brexiteers and with their government for an indecisive process. Here in South Africa … well, it feels to me as if everyone is angry with one group or another. Apply to your own country or context several times over.

Social media is often blamed for this; and it’s true that never having to see the person you’re typing at makes it easier to get angry and nasty; or at least not having to see them in that moment … a bit like over-spending on the credit-card because it doesn’t feel like real money. If anger is an energy, it’s often a destructive one, whether it’s musical instruments, people or political unity.

Anger was destructive on 22 July, when right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 young people attending a Labour Party Youth Camp on Utøya Island outside of Oslo after detonating a car bomb in the city. Paul Greengrass’s new film, titled 22 July tells this story. With his background in television journalism, British director Greengrass is attracted to stories like this; most powerfully in United 93 which told the story of the plane hijacked on 9/11/01 that never made it to its intended target. That he managed to tell that story without nationalistic fervour, hatred or voyeurism is one of the great cinematic achievements this century. A similar eye is there in his more action centred films – the Bourne movies (3 of which are his) may be fictional thrillers, but they are ones that seem to live in a nearly-real, believable world. If a film had to be made about Utøya Island (and as someone who knows what it’s like to lose someone to terrorist atrocities, I think that’s an open question) Paul Greengrass is the man to do it. He does so with a cinema release, but primarily on Netflix, to get what he sees as an important story into the medium most likely to reach younger people.

It’s a film with clear segments. The first 30 minutes or so portray the massacre itself – the families of victims asked him to neither sanitise nor exploit it, and he achieves that. It’s a devastating half-hour, shot in the eerie half-light of Scandinavian summer; deaths and injuries are real, but not lingered on. Its cinematography is a mixture of his trademark shaken, handheld cameras which deliberately jar with some powerful longer shots; one, of a group of teenagers huddled fearfully halfway down a cliff face, is especially memorable and moving. From there the film follows two paths – the recovery of one teenager badly injured, and the arrest and eventual trial of Brevik. Throughout nothing is soft-soaped, but neither is it milked; the teenager’s recovery is hard to watch (beyond a couple of scenes which feel a little contrived or clichéd; though I’m aware we can’t know the details of his recovery process). Brevik (brilliantly portrayed) is neither mad nor cartoonishly evil; he’s coldly rational, angry and aware. The moment we all know is coming – when he walks in to court and gives a long Nazi salute – is no less upsetting for it being predictable. That’s all in the brilliance of the direction and the performance.

None of these people are the central character, though. That’s Norway itself; the country Brevik insists is on trial. Greengrass said in his brilliant and eloquent interview with the BBC’s Simon Mayo (Simon Mayo interviews Paul Greengrass) that he wanted to tell the story of how Norway wrestled with the issue of whether to let Brevik tell the court his reasons; should we listen to his anger, or should they deny him the oxygen of publicity? Is it ever right to listen to the people who do these things? Norway decided it was; and the result, Greengrass claims, is that anger is is dissipated. In that interview Greengrass cites the ongoing divisions over Brexit, the rise of the far-right in diverse countries and the political cauldron of the USA as contexts where a similar exercise in listening might be fruitful or even healing.

It sounds true and wise, and probably is. I’ve tried hard to listen over recent years, as best as I am able to practically, given my circumstances. But the thing is, I’m getting sick of it. I’m getting sick of being shouted at – metaphorically in text or in reality through someone’s voice. I’m sick of being told or thinking I might be intolerant on the one hand or racist on the other; of being theologically liberal or conservative or progressive; of being a toxic male or a weak one; of being a parent who’s too strict or too permissive. And so it goes on. If listening really does dissipate anger’s energy, or allow the wrongness of the ideas that drive it to be seen for all it is, then I’ve yet to really experience it. Maybe dealing with it once in Norway just caused it move and take root more deeply elsewhere, like some sick version of Whack-A-Mole.

What do we do with our anger, mine and yours? Unexpressed anger is a breeding ground for all sorts of darkness, of which others or the angry one themselves may both bear the brunt. There are plenty of places in the Bible, for example, where anger and lament is given a voice; but this is rare in our public worship. Saying or singing the psalms doesn’t seem to be something that works in many settings now – so maybe we need new expressions of these texts, or songs and hymns that give voice to very contemporary laments. Still, though, many Christians seems to feel that anger is inherently sinful, and that its very expression or acknowledgement will let the genie out of the bottle. What about the rest of us, though; the increasing majority who are ‘spiritual, but not religious’; atheist or agnostic? What are their options? How do we listen well, and express anger well without the cancer spreading or worsening? How do we find the strength to keep listening when we’re sick of it?

I don’t know.

When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend: Reflections On Life And Ministry With Depression

Testimonies can be powerful, which is why they are something of a Christian ‘thing’. Especially amongst we who call ourselves (charismatic) evangelicals. You know the sort of thing – in a worship service or conference, a person will tell his or her story about dramatic change in their their life, attributed to God in some way. These are true and genuine – be they physical healing, emotional healing, general life change as a result of an encounter with God, or the like. There’s good reason to find these helpful – they remind us that God is living and active and able to actually do stuff here and now; that prayers get answered and change is possible. There is a caveat; like a diet that entirely consists of steak (only for example, nothing against steak), it’s good for a few meals, but if that’s all we eat we’re going to get into trouble. I mean to say this: that if the only stories we tell are stories of total transformation, healing, overcoming and victory then we’re only telling part of the truth. I’m not suggesting for a minute that these testimonies are untrue; it’s just that they’re not the whole truth.

This applies in any area of ministry and life in general; healing ministry, social justice, finances. It could be anything. We need to tell other stories alongside the stories of victory and change. As is often the case, a self-confessed addict can be helpful here; he will speak of himself (if he’s wise) as ‘a recovering addict’, not ‘a recovered one’. Healing and freedom for the recovering addict is a daily, ongoing, repeated journey. We all need to tell stories like this – of the processes and journeys, the struggles and failures and repeat visits in our lives. I come to this as a minister and church leader; there is a pressure and expectation to be strong; to be healed and from my own healing to heal others. Don’t have needs, I’m subtly told – or if I do, don’t express them. It’s been fed back to me on previous occasions that I must never respond to a congregant who asks the ‘How are you?’ question with anything less positive than ‘Ok’ or ‘fine’ so that people won’t be put off from telling me their stuff.

My therapist, who’s not a Christian, helped me see the absurdity of this. Is the leader really expected to have no wounds or problems? People know I sin, right? The thing is, I never have a day where I’m OK or fine; I have Ankylosing Spondylitis, which means that every single day for over 20 years I have had pain of a minimum of 3 out of 10 on the pain scale, along with other symptoms. I also live with ADD, chronic depression, anxiety, PTSD, dysgraphia and dyspraxia. I am never OK; essentially in being asked to say I’m OK when I never am is asking a minster to lie about how they’re doing in order to make things easier for the person they’re speaking to. We all know lying is sinful; so this represents a request to your minister to knowingly sin to make it easier on you.

Nonsense. Understandable nonsense, but nonsense all the same. Not being OK doesn’t mean I can’t hear your stuff; in fact (unless it’s a really bad day, which means I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed to see you in anyway), for the Christian my wounds and pain make me more able to understand your wounds; we are, after all, healed by, not in spite of, Christ’s wounds (as well as His perfection; His perfection means that your minister as well as you don’t have to be perfect). It’s what priest and author Henri Nouwen and others have called the ministry of the wounded healer.

 

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All of this is a very long way round to talk about Mark Meynell’s book ‘When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend’. He’s a relatively conservative theologian and minister from England, who for a long time now has lived with depression and PTSD. This book is his story; it’s subtitled ‘Reflections on Life and Ministry with Depression’. The Christian, and especially the evangelical, conversation about mental health has improved a great deal recently, but there is still a way to go. This book will be an important part of that, as much because of what it doesn’t do as well as because of what it does do. It tells the author’s own story, offering Biblical reflections along the way; it offers hints and tips and suggestions – but never solutions. It doesn’t suggest his experience is universal; quite the opposite. The author is wise enough to let his specific story be his and his alone – and to allow us to through that understand our own stories; to see where they connect and diverge from his. It’s not the story of victory; it’s the story of a still-ongoing night long wrestle with a being who may be an angel or may not – but God is there; it’s just that it’s hard to see in the dark cave of mental health pain (to use the author’s own image of the cave). When you’re in the cave you can’t tell if it’s night or day outside; let alone if the one you’re wrestling happens to be God. The author attaches no guilt to that; he simply gives some idea of what has helped him. Some sense of direction of where to look, which way to turn to find the light.

Mark Meynell is also a good theologian, with a teacher’s gift for making complex ideas accessible without ever simplifying them. His use of the Bible is nourishing, well-thought through and personal. His use of one psalm in particular bought me up short, in all the best and most healing ways. I rather think I share with him some taste in music (and films?); I reckon he’d be fascinating company over a beer.

This book will be a friend to many church leaders like me; it will be a challenge to many church members. Over the 8 plus years I’ve been at my current church, my congregation have grown more accustomed to my weaknesses and inadequacies; sometimes that has infuriated some people (including me); sometimes some of us have found it healing. That doesn’t mean I can’t be better or wiser at this, or that I don’t have anything to learn; it’s just that weakness seems to be something God works through, rather than in spite of. (That’s actually in the Bible, it turns out). As the prophet Michael Smith sang: “Wear your scars like medals”.

Will we tell better stories, then? As leaders, will we tell the stories of our struggles and pains? Will be OK with not being OK – and saying that; and through that allowing healing to come? Or will we play to the image of alpha male strength, people-pleasing by never walking with a limp despite the excruciating pain? Of course, if we try to not limp when the pain is too much, eventually we won’t be able to walk any more; and then people really will get hurt. But that doesn’t stop us defaulting to the presentation of health; to presenting the image of being the sort of fine that people think they need in us.

We’re not made to be idols of shiny OK-ness for the sake of the ease of conscience of people in our communities. We’re made to be fellow disciples; perhaps with a sense of where we’re going, trained and gifted and set aside to help point out some things that others may miss. Those things include our own inadequacies; as much for our own good as for the good of those we lead, let’s let go of pretence about ourselves towards God and others. It’s OK for a leader not to be OK, and to say that. Mark Meynell’s book will be a significant companion on that journey for church leaders and members alike.