Tag Archives: media

What’s wrong with church? Have your say in OU Christianity survey

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“Would you call yourself a Christian? You’re not alone. In the 2001 Census, 71.6% of people in the UK described themselves as Christians, but only about 15% of these said they belonged to, or were active members of, a church.

So, what does it mean to be a Christian without a church? What exactly do people mean nowadays when they describe themselves as Christian?” (www.open2.net)

The Open University is carrying out an anonymous online survey to gather views. They especially want to hear from you if you don’t go to church. Share your views, and learn about other people’s, here.

As a “nosey parker” bonus (!), once you’ve completed it you can view snapshot analyses of the responses so far…

The survey ties into a BBC series called the History of Christianity, kicking off at 9pm tonight.

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Transsexual Jesus?

JQH02web-sendOver 300 people demonstrated outside the Tron theatre in Glasgow last night over the depiction in Jo Clifford’s new play of Jesus as a transsexual woman.

My view… I’m not about to join the crowd who were penning hate-fuelled placards, that’s for sure.

First though, let’s be clear. Was Jesus transsexual? Highly unlikely. In the 4 accounts of his life (the gospels) Jesus is consistently and exclusively portrayed as a fully human male.

However, do I think God is male? No. Does God transcend sexuality? Yes. God is triune (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). John’s gospel starts by explaining (describing Jesus) that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning”. Jesus lived on earth as a man around 2000 years ago, but he existed before then, at the creation of the earth, and he continues to live today, one interdependent part of the trinity. For another modern characterisation of God you need go no further than a (fabulous) book like The Shack to have your preconceptions challenged.

Is the play intended to cause offense? I haven’t seen it, so take all of this with that caveat, but I don’t think so. According to an interview with Clifford in the Scotsman:

“Jesus, Queen of Heaven, which portrays Jesus as a transsexual woman and has been condemned by elements of the Christian community, is “about rescuing Jesus from the fundamentalists”. But it’s also about Clifford’s pride in being transgendered; she insisted on performing the role herself. Her honesty is striking and within minutes I get a one-woman show of her memoirs, starting from the beginning, Clifford peppering her lines with laughter and relishing the story of her own life.

It’s taken her a long time to get here. “There is an awful lot of hostility towards transgendered people,” she says softly. “I’d internalised a lot of that and was terribly ashamed. I was ashamed for most of my life.” These feelings formed the subject matter of a play Clifford wrote in 2002, when she still was identified as John, called God’s New Frock. The new play is the sequel. “God’s New Frock was partly an autobiographical piece about growing up transgendered and trying to suppress it,” she explains. “The story I told was of me and God in parallel.”

There’s a trailer for God’s new frock here. It looks to me more like an autobiographical attempt to understand how Jesus relates to a personal situation than anything else. Or am I wrong? I’m open to suggestions as to how else I should look at it.

No doubt there are those who will discard both plays out of hand as blasphemous. Maybe they’re right; I’m not sure. Even if I was, I don’t think shouting it down would be helpful. Building relationships and getting round the table to work through an issue isn’t usually facilitated by reciprocal insult-slinging.

What I do think is that it’s complicated. I think there’s something to be said for Clifford’s desire to “rescue Jesus from the fundamentalists”. We (and I mean everyone, but maybe especially people of faith, who seem to think we can claim “right” understanding of the Bible) need to consider what it is we know about God through the Bible very carefully. I do believe that objective truth is there to be had, but the Bible is a complex ancient collection of texts, and must be recognised as such.

I was privileged to hear and be challenged by a gay bishop, Gene Robinson talk on the subject of our biblical understanding of sexuality earlier this year at Greenbelt. It was interesting to hear just how persuasively he made the case for the alternative to the mainstream evangelical view.  It encouraged me to reflect on how easy it is for us to twist (in many different directions) the Bible’s teaching to fit our cultural norms. God’s Word needs and deserves to be handled with care, respect, and with a realisation of our potential to twist it. For those of faith – in which I include myself – that means being self-aware, studious, careful and most of all prayerful in considering what God wants me to understand from scripture.

The other thing that strikes me as I ponder Clifford’s interview and the trailer for God’s New Frock is (yet again) how sad it is that the best we seem to be able to do as a Christian community is to react to things in such a way that, as Jesus’ followers, we’re viewed as judgmental and exclusive rather than loving and accepting of people for who they are. I struggle to see how protesting outside the Tron fits with following Jesus’ example. Surely we can learn to love better than that.

God is back.

51mgL9sKssL._SL500_AA240_God thrives in the midst of healthy competition.  Arguments and stances against God can turn out to be some of the best adverts for him. In the UK, you only have to look at the media coverage generated by arguments by people like Dawkins and the London Buses campaign against God’s existence to see people who might never otherwise have stopped to think about it pause to consider what they really believe.  Meanwhile, in countries like as China, where Christianity is outlawed, despite persecution of Jesus’ followers there’s evidence of some of the most remarkable church growth seen anywhere.

In an article published in The Scotsman today John Micklethwait says that when the Economist, of which he’s the Editor, published God’s Obituary in its Millenium issue, its prediction of faith’s demise was misguided.  Now, he says, the message is that God is Back. He’s written a book explaining why.

Not only is God back, but he suggests that the more modern our society gets (and Economist-style, he harks back to arguments between David Hume and Adam Smith to substantiate his position), the more evident it becomes that as humans we are fundamentally theocentric. Rather than killing religion, democracy and markets, technology and reason are combining to make it stronger. The crux of the argument is this: modernity provides choice; choice gives rise not to increasing secularism but to pluralism; and where there’s pluralism we’re forced to make decisions. That goes for making decisions about our belief in God as much as anything else. There’s no such thing as not making a decision about it – arguably, a failure to decide for God implicity results in a decision against him. 

The good news for God, argues Micklethwait, is that we want to believe in him. Given a chance to believe, we’ll do so.  The election of President Obama, he suggests, will be a great sales appointment for God:

“Imagine you are a young accountant in Edinburgh or a young financier in Glasgow; the picture of Obama as a young, liberally minded metrosexual walking into a church in Chicago and finding some kind of meaning in his life is … powerful…

[Religion] is something that’s going to be around and is spreading and will affect politics and public life.”

I hope so.

Bono & God

bonoThe spirituality of U2 in general and Bono in particular has hit the news a few times. If you regularly fill a pew somewhere, it’s quite likely that you heard about it in church, but if you don’t do church it’s quite possible you haven’t heard that Bono has a “God thing” going on.

Why is that? Maybe people simply aren’t interested in whether celebrities believes in God. But I don’t think so. You only have to look as far as Jade Goody to find tabloid media interest in a celebrity’s faith journey. Instead, I think it’s just that we’re happy to read cliched, non-threatening accounts of belief, but we don’t want to be challenged. Many of us had childhood experiences that led to us thinking of religion as boring and untrue. Maybe you remember them too: old, cold churches half empty and devoid of the young; sermons delivering a tired message and  dirge-like music from another century.

As adults, we like to have recourse to some sort of comfort in hard times, so we’re vaguely encouraged by stories like Jade’s that God was there for her. Often we tolerate “traditional” church events and expressions of belief – christenings, weddings, funerals –  as part of the furniture of our lives. We’re used to them; they wash over us; and we take comfort in their familiarity whilst ignoring the irrelevancies.

Bono doesn’t fit that mould, though. We can’t write off his beliefs as a “crutch” in the way we might have been tempted to for Jade Goody, or as a matter of habit. It’s not obvious why Bono would need God. He seems already to have it made based on modern society’s criteria for success and happiness. And yet he has a faith. If you doubt it, have a look at this:

I first heard that about Bono when I was pretty anti-God. I started to read about it a little. I couldn’t understand how I’d missed the theme in U2’s lyrics. More than that, I couldn’t understand how this guy, whose language was as bad (ok, maybe not quite) as mine, and who had a hugely successful, mainstream, rock’n’roll career, could possibly conform to my image of “nice, good, christian”. I thought it was interesting that he didn’t have the hugely annoying smugness I so often identified in christians. There was an authenticity about him. It was a massive challenge.

More than that, it had motivated him to do things.

To me, Jesus was a fairy story. He was a man with beard, long flowing hair, white robe, standing in the sun with a lamb clutched under his arm. Yet here was one of the worlds biggest rock stars, ill shaven, intermittently ill-behaved and with nothing to prove to anyone taking on the world’s superpowers to campaign for the eradication of third world debt. And he did it all with reference to  a God who was in amongst, and who loved the dirty and the broken. Who wanted justice and transformation for them. How could my preconceptions of God and my judgment of christians stand up to a God described like this:

God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house… God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives… God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war… God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them. “If you remove the yolk from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, and if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom with become like midday and the Lord will continually guide you and satisfy your desire in scorched places”. – Bono, Annual Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC, Feb 2006

Last Sunday, Bono wrote a piece in the New York Times. You can read it  here. The jury seems to be out on whether he’s any good as a columnist, but I liked it. I think it’s good that we have someone who can capture the public’s attention and who’s outside the traditional religious mould commenting on things. It’s a shame he was writing in the US rather than the UK. There’s so little coverage in the mainstream press of the radical, positive teaching the bible has for us. Bono, or any other modern, radically minded christian writer, would be a happy addition to the Sunday papers.

Susan Boyle Mania: Susan’s first kiss

2842_81701991834_677921834_2218846_2163950_sSusan Boyle. She really warmed my heart, but a week after my previous post about her, I’m less optimistic. I tend more to worry for her as she’s caught up in a media circus. Just for the record, I know this post adds to it, so I’ll blog briefly here and leave it at that.

I took this photo on my way home from work tonight. It made me sad.  I don’t understand why this needs to be news. Last week we saw a beautiful lady remind us we all have gifts and that we should be careful about how we judge others. She reminded us that beauty is not defined by our shallow social norms.

This headline somehow seems to imply that hitherto there’s been something wrong with this lady’s life, and that now she’s hit celebrity status everything’s going to be transformed for the better. I really dislike this. Why?  (1) It reinforces the ways we judge people based on appearance and conformity to our narrow-minded norms (and yes, I’m as guilty of it as anyone else); and (2) it bolsters the false belief that hope and happiness are to be found in glamour, fame, materialism, and in doing what everyone else does.

For once, I don’t really have anything positive thing to say… it just seems shallow in the extreme. Maybe I’m wrong. Am I?

Susan Boyle is Beautiful!

140x1056I’m not a big tv fan generally, and reality tv in particular tends to send me screaming from the room. I just don’t get the desire for fame and glamour, although I’ll concede I do like to see an underdog triumph.

When a friend suggested I watch Simon Cowell et al interviewing Susan Boyle for Britain’s Got Talent 2009, I was sceptical. But here I am, 8 hours later, still thinking about her. Why? Because in her there’s the start of a story hope. A middle aged lady, who by her own assessment “never had the chance” to make it doing what she loves, had the guts to stand up in front of Cowell, known for his ability to knock down the most confident of wannabes. No-one expected her to be anything more – if we’re honest – than a laughing stock. We watch her being set up in advance – you can just see the footage for the out-cuts… And then she takes a breath and sings.

She really sings. As she does so, she comes alive. We’re reminded of what real beauty is: not the skin-deep glamour of the stage, but the inner life thing that comes out when we do what we’re made to do. There’s something profound in it. I saw it; Simon Cowell saw it; hopefully you see it too. Certainly the rest of the world seems to be seeing it, judging from the attention she’s attracted.

It lifted my heart, reminded me that we’re all given beauty and it’s there to be celebrated. We shouldn’t be afraid to show it. “Wow! Go on!” I thought. What a gift, and how much more fabulous for being unexpected!

I felt a wee bit emotional, too, to see this lady start to live  a dream. I also worry for Ms Boyle, though, that making it through the interviews invites her into a lion’s den she’s likely to be unable to imagine from the confines of her West Lothian life. There’s an innocence in her, and that’s to be cherished. I wonder how it will change. Let’s hope the experience is a lifting one for her.

For now, for me, note to self: quit judging, expect to see beauty in people, and be ready to celebrate it.

Watch her here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lp0IWv8QZY