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?

 

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Why We Can’t All Care The Same Way About The Same Things

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I like brie. Very much. Brie tends to be expensive, so it’s a treat when I have it. But I really do love it, in all its creamy, rich goodness. I don’t expect everyone to like brie. My wife doesn’t, for a start. My foster son calls it ‘white person’s cheese’. If everyone in the world liked brie there’d be a worldwide brie shortage, the price would skyrocket and I’d never be able to have it. That would clearly be A Disaster.

I support Arsenal Football Club (this isn’t a bid for sympathy, by the way), as my mother did and my grandfather before her. Much as I enjoy making friends with other Arsenal supporters, I don’t expect everyone to support Arsenal; in fact, that’s the point. Different people support different clubs, and we exchange jokes; going to a match as a fan of the away team can be a lot of fun (it can also be quite dangerous, which is when, of course, the point has been missed and a line has been crossed).

Scanning social media feeds, or listening to people who are passionate about one thing, can sometimes feel like the whole world is being urged to love brie or support the same team or Bad Things Will Happen. I know this, because I’ve done it myself. I’ve mistaken something I love or something I feel passionate about for something everyone should feel the same about. The reality is that this is not only undesirable, but impossible. We Christians – and especially those of us in leadership positions  – can be especially guilty of this. Guilty is an important word here, because it’s precisely that which we load on people if we’re not wise – and load on ourselves if we take it all too much to heart.

The latest iteration came for me this weekend, in the wake of the Irish referendum on relaxing the country’s strict abortion laws. This isn’t an argument about the rights and wrongs of that referendum per se; it’s more about what we say about it. Many times I saw arguments that went something like this: ‘If you’re not as passionate about refugee children as you are about abortion [or the converse] then you’re a hypocrite’. Now like all the best lies, there’s an element of truth here; American Christian activist Shane Claiborne writes and speaks eloquently about the importance of being ‘pro-life’ (as opposed to anti-abortion) in all our theology and politics, not just one area. There is a risk of hypocrisy, and we must be alive to it for hypocrisy is an often justified criticism of Christians. But the issue that concerns me is the level of passion or commitment that’s expected.

We’ve all been there. You’re deeply affected by a song or a movie, and you gush about it to whoever comes across your path and find yourself slightly offended and lost for words when someone says ‘Well, it’s OK I suppose’; or worse ‘I hate it’; or worse still ‘It’s wrong for a Christian to love that’. I get confused, for example, when I meet people who don’t love the movie Pan’s Labyrinth as much as I do; It profoundly moves me every time, I think it’s basically perfect and God even speaks to me through it. Amazingly, some people find it too violent, boring or too Spanish. It can be rather like that with causes. I, for instance, find myself passionate about homelessness. I want others to be too. At times my passion for the cause can tip over into a guilt trip, manipulation; the expectation that everyone else should not only agree with me but should feel the same.

The reality is that we can’t all feel the same way about everything. I have friends I admire deeply who are passionate about (for example) accessible education for all or care for the environment. They feel about those issues like I do about homelessness. If I felt about those two issues they way I feel about homelessness, whilst maintaining my passion for the latter, I’d quickly combust. Let alone all the other issues that are important – social justice-wise, doctrine-wise, practise-wise and the like.

There are a couple of solutions to this. One is (of course) Jesus. He cares about all this stuff, deeply, to the extent that it should be cared about and more. And he does so without combusting. He holds the fire for it, so to a certain extent we don’t have to. But there’s more; we are made in his image. We (partially) reflect Him; which means we sometimes find ourselves taking on the care for one or more of these issues from Him, because we’re His ‘hands and feet on earth’. It’s what Christians sometimes call a ‘ministry’ or a ‘burden’; but one that’s easy fitting. It’s given to us, with all our imperfections and gifts, because there’s something that fits well with us about it. We get to engage with the church and the world, promoting the issue and inviting others to respond to God’s call on it, inviting the church to act on it and so become more the church we’re meant to be.

Call, invitation is the key here. We’re not to treat people like a race horse, whipping them over the finish line; no, like Jesus we’re to call and invite until people respond as God places it within them to do so. Together we all make up a church, in the language of 1 Corinthians 12, a body. We can’t all be hands; we can’t all be kidneys. We can’t all give the same energy to homelessness or the environment or doctrine or abortion or refugees or …  But between us, we might just get there.

That’s why leading on an issue, or leading a church, can be so hard. You can see where we could be, maybe even what the church could look like; we want so desperately to get there that we’ll do anything to make it happen. But we mustn’t do ‘anything’; we are to act and invite in grace. Now there always moments and seasons, currents of the Spirit that are inexplicable; or emergencies in public life that require us to pitch in, even if we only know it to be right in our head but struggle to do so in our heart. It seems #metoo and #churchtoo, for example, may be an example of just that. We can’t, though, all feel   the same way; we’re finite, limited and fragile; social media, politics, the church all shout urgency about myriad things. It’s the ministry of leadership and corporate wisdom to discern when is a ‘moment’ and when is ‘just’ something important that a number, perhaps even a growing number, are called to. All of us may need to change our thinking or behaviour on something; we may need to confess, repent and change in some way. But the leadership on any given issue is left to a few. We can respond with prayer; with actions big, medium or small; with money; with support and encouragement in other forms.

So let’s be kind to ourselves and one another in our posts, in our sermons, in our words and actions. We are called to walk the way of Jesus; in doing so, each of us finds we walk like Him in a certain way that few seem to share. Following Jesus is always done in a group, never alone; a group where diversity of passions and interests and hopes and experiences is both welcomed and encouraged.

Bored With Church

Bored With Church

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I get bored quite easily. People close to me – be they parents, my wife, or whoever happens to be on the receiving end at the time – have grown well used to me saying so, or displaying the symptoms. Restlessness, not focussing, disturbing others from the no doubt important things they’re doing, sighing, puffing of the cheeks. You know the score. I have a 9 year-old who does the same. I understood a bit of why I do this when I was diagnosed with ADD last year, making sense of my inability to settle unaided by medication.

In truth, many of us know the feeling – a weariness with what we need to do or should be doing, a sense that there’s something better and more stimulating just out of reach. I’m in my mid-40s now, and it can be something of a stage of life thing for many of us; we’re no longer young, but the finishing strait is a long way off. That can be a wearying, deadening thought for many of us; hence, perhaps, the famed mid-life crisis that some crash into, a desperate attempt to make life interesting again, often bringing others down with us into the bargain.

There can be spiritual, church-based ennui too. Especially, I think, amongst those who (like me) would call ourselves charismatic Christians. Our flavour of faith can often seem attractive because we can be seen to offer drama: ecstatic experiences, prayer for revival, things to ‘push in to’ and the like. That reels us in, and gives us a lot of momentum. I’m not saying that these things can’t be genuine or important, but they can end up inoculating us against how things often turn out to be. When the life of the church isn’t one of constant breakthrough, success and answered prayer, boredom can set in. Worship services can seem repetitive; the life of faith just a little more run of the mill than we felt we were led to expect.

At this point people like me – people who lead churches, that is – often start to berate ‘consumer Christianity’ and get a little shouty. It’s not about what you can get out of church; it’s about what you can give. Church isn’t about getting, it’s about giving; it’s not about me, it’s about others, and the audience of One. There’s truth in this, and I’ve said it myself in the past; the trouble is, it can all start to sound a bit too much like a list of ‘should’ and ‘ought’; alarmingly lacking in the winsome grace that draws us to Jesus in the first place. Add to the mix the wearying litany of church leadership scandals, and it can seem to very difficult to make it all seem attractive. The result is that good people; good, gifted, wise people start to opt out of church with all the implications that has for various aspects of the church’s life.

One of the reasons this can be so difficult is that church leader is often bored too. It can be quite dull ‘running a church’; or it can be very hard and costly and you can just get wearied and worn down by the cost of trying to bring to birth what you think God is inviting into being. Either way, the result can be the same – tiredness, cynicism and boredom. You opt out – in spirit, if not in body.

So what’s the answer? Of course it’s too complicated for there to be one silver bullet to fix it all; but I think part of the answer may be in reminding ourselves that Jesus doesn’t drive people. Rather, he invites, calls, beckons. We want to push people, drag them into deeper commitment and involvement; Jesus, on the other hand, seems to make an invitation that’s so attractive and luminous that people are compelled to follow. We often talk of church leadership in these terms  – ‘The Call’; but what about the rest of us? Do we create a culture where each person gets to consider what the invitation, the call of Jesus is for them? Are people called to our churches, as we are as leaders; or do they simply fill a seat, a space on the rota, until they no longer can? This seems to me to be the art of spiritual direction, preached, prayed and discussed over coffee. Of course, there’s a responsibility on the individual there too – is she searching, listening, asking? Or is she allowing herself to atrophy? But that in turn asks questions of the leader; do we expect God to call people; do we structure church solely in terms of the event that will convert or create drama or crisis for people; or do we, through worship, word, prayer, sacrament, conversation take people with us in to the deeper life of God, where the self is redefined and the life reoriented? Do we expect that to happen – perhaps even multiple times – in the life of the disciples in our care?

These are big questions, not easily answered. But the boredom people – leaders and lay people alike – experience is real and needs to be addressed. No one ever promised the life of discipleship would be exciting; Jesus did promise a cross and a yoke, albeit an easy-fitting one – hardly images to engage the thrill-seeker. We have a difficult balance to strike between fostering holy expectancy of anything at any time, and the slow business of walking a hot and dusty road behind a man on the way to his crucifixion (and later, his resurrection). The question remains: are we, leader and lay person alike, listening for the invitation?