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

group of people holding message boards

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

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.

Grace’s inconvenient slap in the face

I am finding Jesus increasingly inconvenient. I’ve been trying to hang around with Him for quite a few years now, and I consistently find that He and His ways play merry havoc with my views on all sorts of things. Grace is the lens through which this is usually refracted; it messes up my views on all sorts of things like politics, myself, sexuality, church, other people, social media, money, parenting, marriage, sport, and plenty of other things in between.

Christians are meant to be good at grace (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), but the reality is we’re rubbish at it. We’re constantly giving ourselves, each other and other people either too much or too little (usually the former). I’ve been off sick this week, and I’ve been terrible at grace – even though my doctor and my wife told me I had to rest and I  do as little as possible. I’ve been sending myself on guilt trips, telling myself I should at least stay on top of my e-mail, wondering if people will think I’ve been faking it or am being too soft.

As you do when you’re sick and unable to do much, I let my mind wonder down a number of different paths to distract myself from the intense pain I was experiencing. Many of these were half-formed paths of previous sleepless nights, but with hours to fill and having reached the head-spinning season finale of  The Walking Dead, I had to find something on which to focus my customarily over-active internal monologue. I thought about how graceless I am – as husband, father, disciple, leader, citizen and social media user. I thought of my capacity to correct error, to point out hypocrisy, to accentuate the negative. I felt pretty rubbish about myself after that.

I thought of the curious lack of grace on display in the way some of us (myself included) use social media. We who trumpet grace (can you trumpet grace or is that a contradiction in terms?) are quick to expose flaws in others; we seem to expect of others and ourselves that our use of social media shouldn’t reflect the fact that we are sinners. I’ve judged people, badly, on social media; people have done the same to me. Offline, people judge how I act online; I do the same of others. It seems that we Christians have such a low understanding of grace that we expect ourselves to come across as perfect to the world. I fear we’ve missed the point.

Then I think about our political discourse. I think of the cries agains corruption in South Africa and tax avoidance in the UK, people – many of them Christians – demanding adherence to the law and transparency … all the while sending text messages whilst driving, parking illegally ‘just for a few minutes, so it’s ok’, downloading TV shows illegally and opting out of accountable relationships themselves. Surely grace should insist we apply at least the same  – if not gentler – standards to others as we apply to ourselves?

What is it we don’t get about grace? Why so slippery? We know it when we see it. It seems to perform a strange kind of trick on me, simultaneously boosting my self-esteem and giving me a slap in the face for being such a legalistic, hard-hearted bastard. Try to explain grace and you usually fall into theological error – for which, of course, there’s little grace in the church. As Philip Yancey expressed at the outset of the wonderful What’s so amazing about grace?, it’s something that’s better portrayed than explained. Explaining takes the wonder away; it’s not that there isn’t a place for explaining – it just needs to stay in that place. Jesus doesn’t try to parse grace into manageable points of a doctrinal statement; instead he tells some stories, gives some guidance on how to live then plunges me headlong into grace by willingly dying. It’s best to be immersed in grace rather than draw a diagram analysing it.

I think that I’ve very rarely experienced true grace. I think the closest I’ve got to it was when someone asked to listen to my story of being a victim of bullying (as an adult); having listened, he got angry at what I experienced; took on representative responsibility for what had happened to me because the bully was never going to take it himself; and point by point apologised to me, representatively. That’s a kind of grace, I think – not the whole picture, but quite a large chunk of it.

I think – no, I know – that I’ve very rarely expressed true grace. I may have flirted it with it (probably by accident)  a few times, but those are pitiful examples, a child’s hacked out Chopsticks on an out of tune piano next to a master’s concert hall rendition of the Goldberg Variations.

The truth is none of us can find grace’s script; we are the monkeys trapped in a room with a thousand keyboards, told to reproduce Shakespeare’s works and occasionally accidentally managing “2 b or not 2 b”. Shakespeare, but only if you look at it in a certain light.

So grace slakes my thirst, and leaves me thirsty for more – in myself, for me, from me, in the world around me. You see it and you long for more; it meets all hopes and dreams and simultaneously tells me I won’t see anything like it again until the end of history, when there’ll be so much I won’t know what to do with it except bathe in its depths and exalt in its previously unheard melodies. It pushes me closer to the only Source of grace, and makes me wish I was closer still, pulling with gravitational irresistibility. It makes a mockery of my self-defence and carefully constructed self-righteousness; it heals me wounds and slaps my face so hard I see things in new dimensions.

Back to the sick-bed, then.




In The Loop: In Whose Name?

It’s usually a bad idea to take a successful TV comedy act and transfer it to the cinema. For a start, and to state an obvious fact that is all to often overlooked, TV and cinema are different media. Why do so few people seem to realise that it takes a different set of gifts to arrange a 90 minute film as opposed to a 30 minute TV show? They are, of course, not necessarily mutually exclusive, but it should be obvious that they are different. Many fine careers have lost their luster too soon on the alter of a quick cinematic buck.

All praise, then, to Armando Iannucci. He’s long been a treasure of the British comic/satirical scene on television and the radio. His career has been a long way short of perfect, but then he’s never failed for want of trying. When he gets it right, though, he gets it very right. Exhibit One: The Thick Of It – a political satire with the documentary approach of The Office, tucked away on the BBC’s least popular digital channel. It’s a merciless, brilliant but strangely compassionate deconstruction of politics in the era of spin. The key figure is the utterly foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker, a spin doctor and political manipulator who in no way resembles anyone you may have heard of. The swearing was, of course, never the point. It was too convoluted to ever be truly offensive, and over time built up a character of utter believability.

Brilliant as the programme is, to take it to the cinema was a big step – even bigger was to do what so many British programmes do in maniacal desire to make it big, and go to America. That’s what happens here, as we go behind the scenes of UN and trans-Atlantic diplomacy in the run-up to a war in the Middle East.

Over the running time of a film, there is perhaps inevitably the occasional slow patch. But that this is one of the best comedies in many years is down, as ever to performances and writing. The cast from the television do a fine job; the American guests are outstanding, especially James Galdofini in his best cinema role. His is a performance of outstanding depth and complexity, with so much suggested in a lowering of the eyes that it simply seems impossible.

The film’s other great strength is to treat the characters as real people. It’s an angry film, to be sure – as one would hope. But in showing us people in positions of power who find themselves unable or unwilling to follow through on their own integrity, you’re left with the overwhelming sense of ‘Would I really have done any differently?’. The dilemmas they face are real; that’s no excuse, it’s clear – but it allows us no easy rush to judgement, no simplistic ‘Not in my name’. The film’s brilliance is to make us laugh as much at our own moral weakness as at the weakness of those in power. It undercuts our anger and asks questions of ourselves, putting the viewer in the court of public opinion.

This is a daring thing to do, but surely it’s the right, sane thing to do. It makes me think about a man who spoke about logs, specks and eyes. The Bible tells us that God will hold leaders to a higher standard. That, though, is His job; not mine, as much as I would love it to be. I have the ballot box; but I also need to examine my own willingness to take a stand when it really matters, when it will really cost me, personally. Dare I be so quick to rush to judgement now?

Frost/Nixon – Could have been, should have been….

So I saw this film a few days ago, and have been meaning to blog on the subject for a while. Problem is, whenever I sit down to write something I can’t quite find a way to start, a line to take.

Everything is in place for something genuinely good. A gripping story, with surprising amount of suspense for a story that we all know the end of. Great performances, just the right side of impersonation (why hasn’t Michael Sheen received equal recognition with his co-star….they depend on one another). A story that has a significance and casts a long shadow over political history since.

But there’s the rub. That’s just the problem. It’s all taken for granted. It’s assumed in the direction and the script that we all know and understand exactly the scale and get the significance. Which if you are not my age (35) or younger, you do because you lived through it and you know it intuitively. But for someone like me, who knows it but doesn’t feel it, then you end up feeling impressed, maybe gripped but strangely empty.

The problem is the direction of Ron Howard, framing the story (adapted from a stage play) around a series of talking head interviews with the main players (the actors, not the actual people). The characters are too busy being, doing but not actually really developing. And what’s clearly supposed to be the moment of central significance (a late night phone call from Nixon to Frost before the last interview) is openly admitted to be fabricated.

It’s a good film; there is much to admire. I want to love it, for it to be special to me. It would do wonders for my cool liberal sensibilities. But I can’t.

The sad thing is, it just falls short.

Che Parts One & Two

A four hour subtitled political biography may not seem like the wisest way to spend New Year’s Day. The potential for stamina giving way early on is obvious in the aftermath of festive excess. That, though, is how we spent the first evening of 2009.

It’s a joy, then, to report that director Steven Soderbergh’s (apparently) box-office unfriendly attempt to tell the story of one the 20th century’s most iconic political figures is a towering success. It’s very different to The Motorcycle Diaries, the 2004 film that took us into the formative years of the Che’s life; there is little of that film’s relational warmth, little attempt to explain or understand. Instead the film is really dealing with a very contemporary concern – celebrity. Just how do people get famous and influential? Guevera’s real significance has been lost to many behind the t-shirts and posters; these films try to help us why he became such a figure in the first place. Hence, there’s little in the way of his relationships – little of him doing anything other than speaking to, training or fighting alongside, men. Such is the strength of Benicio Del Toro’s screen presence that this doesn’t make him feel unknowable – it becomes very clear that this is a man born to lead. It’s as simple as that. It’s a study in leadership – the ability to connect with, inspire and call people to a goal bigger than themselves, the cost of which may be the very highest possible.

The almost academic, documentary tone serves to make this all the more involving – rather than turning the viewer off, the subtle design and direction involves, grips and stimulates whatever you political viewpoint. Resisting the temptation towards hagiography makes subjects like this all the more accessible.

Of course, there are gaps as subjects are left uncovered or only briefly referred to – the break with Fidel Castro being the most glaring. But all that does is to reinforce the film’s study of leadership – with only the viewer’s own preconceptions and knowledge to add, the film seeks to place the viewer in the mind of one Guevera’s followers. He may be flawed, events may be ultimately beyond his control, and ultimately his will would be broken on the wheel of greater powers – but he’s followed because he’s willing to lead. Which can only make one sad as we survey the leaders around us.