Maybe it’s something about the way we interact

When I was young, it was the Cold War. If we were going to be annihilated, it would be by the press of a button by an anonymous authority figure in Moscow, or London, or Washington or Beijing. It was a structured kind of terror. We watched the media, controlled by governments and big business, and were told, on a day-by-day basis, what our chances of survival were. We grew up with it. We were used to it. We knew our voice counted for nothing – it would be decided by powers way beyond our individual control.

Then the Berlin Wall came down, and for a lovely decade, it seemed like the world had become a safer place (unless you lived in the Balkans or Sierra Leone). The internet was born. People could suddently communicate around the world, without the need for governmental power and infrastructure. Universal peace became a near certainty.

Today, we know a different kind of world. Everyone can communicate with everyone. Online, people tear strips off others whom they have never, physically, met, using powerful, terrible threats and insults. Unlike the world of the 1980s, people can now engage in their own, transcontinental conflict.

This is the situation which can be exploited by anyone who wishes to use global (and anonymous) interconnectivity to escalate and promote conflict. We see it in the astonishingly successful internet campaigns of Muslim extremists. Young people do not know much about the long-term cost of conflict, and are therefore easily swayed to join in any fight for “justice” that appeals to their desire for integrity. For religious people, this can manifest itself in a zeal which can be exploited by cynical elders to recruit the energies of young into the cause of their own bids for power. The easy equation: integrity = commitment = absolutism is not just the preserve of Islam: it’s the case for any religion or cause which feeds on an appeal to some transcendent power, be it divine or nationalistic.

I am now in my 50s. I have been a Christian since birth and, since my teens, have been committed to the Christian faith. I know (and remember) the power of the youthful desire for integrity and purity of cause. I remember my desire for God which could eclipse lesser caution, instilled from my elders. The young are easy targets for any form of extremism: religious, nationalist or whatever. When we are young, we want some sense of purity, of integrity, or absolute direction.

I have known the appeal of the purity of the absolute; I have known the desire to be wholly committed, irrespective of the cost. But as you age, other things come into play. Bringing up children makes you realise a unifying identity as a human being. You start to empathise with other parents, irrespective of differences of culture, or creed, or philosophy. As your own children become adults, you watch other parents and children as they struggle to bring forth a new generation: you empathise, you recognise, you remember your own experiences, and … with time … you realise a unity within all human experience.

The internet has brought the possibility of the dissemination of hate, under the guise of purity. It allows those who wish to, to exploit youthful desire under the guise of religion, nationality or “justice”. Young people are looking for something to give their lives to, to commit to, to place their energies behind. It’s a romantic vision and it’s enormously powerful. But this youthful energy can be the undoing of the human race, when it is not united with a sense of our own frailty, fallibility and sheer value. When a Palestinian child is killed by the sophisticated weaponry of the Israeli army, it’s easy for a young Palestinian to convert this enormity into a reaction which delights in the taking of other, equal and young human Israeli life. But an older perspective realises that both actions are defeats, on the wider, human scale.

The immediacy of the internet allows quick reactions and judgements to be made, public stances to be paraded and easy alliances forged. It’s the best breeding ground for heating up any kind of conflict. The internet, rather than fostering an age of peace and growing tolerance, as we had hoped in the 1990s, is being exploited by its users as an incubator for the worst forms of human intolerance, revenge, posturing and recruitment towards violence that has been seen since the crusades. The internet demonstrates, in clear terms, the nature of the human condition. “All of life is there …”

As I grow older, I become all too aware of the weaknesses, as well as the strengths of committing oneself to a particular faith. But I remain in this faith. The reason I do this, is that it has taught me to recognise – to not to be in denial – about my own frailties. The longer I have been a Christian, the more I have had to reckon with my own weaknesses, my own propensity for failure and my tendency or potential to hurt others. I certainly do not feel (if I ever felt) a superiority of my own faith position over that of others (be they of another faith or of no faith). All I feel is a sense of human solidarity with all people who are around on this planet at the moment, and a strong sense of unworthiness that I should share in the privilege and wonder of living the gift that is life. So it is from this, somewhat humbled postion, that I believe, with all my heart, in the need for human beings to reckon, humbly, with their own limitations, and to reckon, kindly and sympathetically, with the limitations of their enemies. In short, this means loving both our friends and our enemies. This love, when we discover it, is nothing short of a revelation and transforms us as human beings. We become more compassionate. We cry easily. We love wildly. We run the risk of peace, even if it makes us look like fools.

This, in Christian terms, is called “the Kingdom of God”, which is an idea which lies at the heart of the Christian vision. It’s a place where people learn to forgive the failings of others, as they discover their own failings to have been forgiven. Where love is greater than anything else. Where God is not “owned” by any faith, but is allowed to be God as God truly is. Where people are set free from the tyranny of “being right” into being loved and being loving instead.

At a time when the news seems to be so negative, I want to affirm that I believe in this vision of the universe, and – in love – I want to celebrate it with others, irrespective of their faith, their belief or their politics.

I hope that this vision comes to pass. Because, although the old superpowers are now a history lesson, the power to destruction that they represented is still there, and much sought-after. I pray that this love, this forgiveness, this generosity would break out across our globally-connected humanity, if only for our own survival. For the alternative is as bad, if not more tragic, than the horror that faced us in the 1980s.

Steve Hollinghurst on Hallowe’en

There’s an excellent article by Steve tracing the roots of the contemporary festival. Go follow

Sacraments: God’s kiss

Baron Von Hügel talked about the effects of kissing his daughter, ‘I kiss my daughter in order to love her, as well as because I love her.’ This is also a remarkable commentary upon the sacraments. Love requires physical expression. But does a kiss create love? Not exactly, but it is expected that kisses will cause his love for his daughter to grow. The physical display of affection is the means and instrument by which love is given the expression it craves and is given growth and strengthening in itself.

Leonard J. Vander Zee, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Downers Grove IL: IVP Academic, 2004) p.67; referencing Carroll E. Simcox, Understanding the Sacraments (New York: Morehouse-Gorham, 1956), pp.14-15.

When religion would have maddened men…

In truth, this vividly illuminates the provincial stupidity of those who object to what they call “creeds and dogmas.” It was precisely the creed and dogma that saved the sanity of the world. These people generally propose an alternative religion of intuition and feeling. If, in the really Dark Ages, there had been a religion of feeling, it would have been a religion of black and suicidal feeling. It was the rigid creed that resisted the rush of suicidal feeling. The critics of asceticism are probably right in supposing that many a Western hermit did feel rather like an Eastern fakir. But he could not really think like an Eastern fakir; because he was an orthodox Catholic. And what kept his thought in touch with healthier and more humanistic thought was simply and solely the Dogma. He could not deny that a good God had created the normal and natural world; he could not say that the devil had made the world; because he was not a Manichee. A thousand enthusiasts for celibacy, in the day of the great rush to the desert or the cloister, might have called marriage a sin, if they had only considered their individual ideals, in the modern manner, and their own immediate feelings about marriage. Fortunately, they had to accept the Authority of the Church, which had definitely said that marriage was not a sin. A modern emotional religion might at any moment have turned Catholicism into Manichaeism. But when Religion would have maddened men, Theology kept them sane. (G.K.Chesterton, Aquinas, Chapter 4: Meditation on the Manichees.)

Rob Bell on self-care in public Christian ministry

In a few weeks time, final year ordinands at Trinity will be focussing on self-care in public ministry. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I’ve touched on the subject before. In the meantime, a short interview with a lot of good, ministerial common-sense from Rob Bell. (HT John Coldwell.)

What can easily happen, especially for people who are in … church work, is they’re offering people and telling people and inviting people into a life that they’re not living.

Update: You can get the full interview in two parts –

Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.

Christians blogging the Koran today

In a response to the threat of insulting and highly un-Christian actions by Pastor Terry Jones, a number of Christians are participating in “Blog a Koran Day“. It’s an initiative of Andrew Jones (tallskinnykiwi).  You can see his post here. Let us make September 11th a day of prayer for mutual learning and respect between Christians and Muslims and may the Name of God be glorified by peace, mutual respect and growing wisdom in both our faiths.

Prayer for Haiti

Foundation sends around prayers via email from time to time. This is one from the UK Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks:

Sovereign of the universe,

We join our prayers to the prayers of others throughout the world, for the victims of the earthquake in Haiti which this week has brought destruction and disaster to many lives.

Almighty God, we pray you, send healing to the injured, comfort to the bereaved, and news to those who sit and wait. May you be with those who even now are engaged in the work of rescue. May You send Your strength to those who are striving to heal the injured, give shelter to the homeless, and bring food and water to those in need. May You bless the work of their hands, and may they merit to save lives.

Almighty God, we recognise how small we are, and how powerless in the face of nature when its full power is unleashed. Therefore, open our hearts in prayer and our hands in generosity, so that our words may bring comfort and our gifts bring aid. Be with us now and with all humanity as we strive to mend what has been injured and rebuild what has been destroyed. Ken Yehi Ratzon, ve-nomar Amen.

Quit strumming that guitar and cut the cheesy lyrics

It was fairly early into our marriage that my nearest and dearest gave me an honest assessment of my long-term prospects as a worship leader. I’d fallen into it somehow, either because I was the only guy in the university Christian Union who wore a leather jacket or because everyone else was even worse at the guitar than I (except Keith J, who was *good*). But by the time I’d reached my mid-twenties, I’d been playing the guitar and leading worship for a number of years. The problem was that I’d been listening to jazz-funk instead of Christian albums since I was in my teens and it had infected my strumming style with dangerous backbeats, so it was kind of hard to understand my playing. (That’s my version of the story, anyway.) Like most Christians of my age, I never questioned the lyrics, despite the fact that anyone with a passing acquaintance with Freudian psychology cannot sing “Jesus, take me as I am…” without feeling terribly guilty about the sexual associations it evokes.

How refreshing, then, to read Andy Walker Cleaveland’s blog post on Christian cheesy lyrics, with some concrete examples. This is getting familiar territory: Nick Page has tackled the subject in his book And now let’s move into a time of nonsense but his book suffers because he was (understandably) unable to get permission of any of the song authors to actually cite the examples of silly or meaningless lyrics which his book is about. At last, someone’s pointed out that though Mat Redman’s tunes are good (as examples of the kind of genre in which he composes), his lyrics seldom convey much by way of theological substance – in contrast (I would contend) to the much-maligned Graham Kendrick.

But things aren’t as bad as they could have been. My wife’s early ministry of discouragement (“it’s either the guitar, or me”) has probably saved the Christian world from something much worse.

The Bible in an Hour

After two year’s break, the virtualtheology/bluffer’s guide enterprise is grinding its rusty wheels into life again with a series of talks. This time they will be by Simon Taylor alone (I’m still trying to move house this summer, less said the better at the moment).

You can get the details (and eventually, the podcasts) at http://virtualtheology.net – we hope to podcast them soon after the talk has been given.

Christine Sine is blogging about gardens

Back in the 1990s, in the early days of the Third Sunday Service, we did a service on the theme of gardens. Obviously there are gardens in the Bible, but what’s perhaps of more interest is the relationship between the gardener and the creation. Gardening is an activity of working with, and against, nature. Gardens are articial spaces, in that they seek to control the natural forces of chaos in nature which would otherwise have their sway. At one level, there is nothing wrong with nature space at all. However, gardening offers human beings the chance to selective work with-and-against nature to create various desired effects. In some ways, it parallels the relationship which God has with creation: in Genesis 1 we see the Spirit of God brooding over the waters of chaos, and from gardening we get the insight that creation isn’t (unlike other parallel near-Eastern myths) a crushing of chaos, but a shaping of it. Creation happens when God becomes enmeshed in chaos for his own, creative, purposes.  So it was good to see the Christine Sine has been theologising and spiritualising about gardens.  You can catch this on the Emergent Village website and her own website.

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