Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Climate change: funny/not so funny

I thought Ian McEwan's 'Solar' (2010) would be a serious book about a serious subject: global warming. Then I started reading it. It was really funny at first. Michael Beard is an ageing, fat, bald Nobel Laureate-winning physicist whose main preoccupation is the affair his fifth wife, Patrice, is having with their builder, Rodney Tarpin, a man who owns a 'mock-Tudor house, renovated and tudorised by his own hand, with a boat trailer under a Victorian-style lamp post on a concreted front driveway'. Beard is comic - he overeats and obsesses about his appearance. His 'manhood' is nearly fatally compromised in a hilarious description of what happens when a man attempts to answer the call of nature in sub zero Arctic temperatures.

The book settles into satirical mode as Beard witnesses the accidental death of a young climate change scientist (also having an affair with his wife) and is able to frame the builder, Tarpin, for his death, thus dispatching one of his wife's lovers temporarily to jail and then passing off the dead man's original climate research as his own work throughout the rest of the book (there's a great gag in that the young man dies after slipping on the polar bear skin rug on the Beards' highly polished floor, hitting his head on a glass table as he falls. The polar bear has the last laugh.)

What stands out is not the idealism often associated with climate change protesters, or the virtue some think is needed to combat it, but the entirely pragmatic approach taken by science, to try and find alternative, world-saving energy sources. Beard is a pragmatist but also a man of unchecked appetites - for food, drink, academic recognition, and to an extent - sex. Clearly not a stupid man intellectually, he is continually compromised by his failing personal life, juggling different women from different relationships, and even the expectations of a young daughter, at the end. He appears to escape all initial signs of a comeuppance but his continual overeating and ignoring of ominous health signs can mean only one thing and when the end comes, it comes suddenly and grotesquely.

Religious readers of McEwan will recognise a characteristically bleak vision of humanity - realistic but without hope. If Beard's doomed, plagiaristic attempt at creating clean fuel is a model for the 'solutions' science has in store for us, the book casts a long and hopeless shadow. 

But it also begs the question: is climate change a moral issue or a scientific one? In a long speech to a collection of academics Beard says of the human collective failure to address climate change: 'This matter has to move beyond virtue. Virtue is too passive, too narrow. Virtue can motivate individuals, but for groups, societies, a whole civilisation, it's a weak force (...) For humanity, en masse, greed trumps virtue.' 

How true; unless of course, we are looking at a Wilberforce or a Mother Theresa (who would, no doubt, claim to be ordinary human beings). But this speech, coming from one whose own greed is, literally, the death of him, does not really inspire. Beard is the original 'fool' of the Old Testament - one who says in his heart 'there is no God' - bankrupt spiritually and morally - 'his god is his belly', as St Paul would say.

Yet he knows we have mucked about with the planet. We all know. We lack the will to do anything about it, despite knowing what we could do about it. The bottom line is that efforts in the right direction (less consumption, more equitable living) affect our personal standard of living. Is climate change a moral issue or a purely scientific one? McEwan's protagonist would say it was purely scientific, and its solution will be scientific. Charities such as Christian Aid would say moral on both counts.

As long as we live in a world where resources are unevenly distributed for the rich and against the poor, the poor will be first to suffer when the oceans rise. Even the New Testament talks of a time when people will live in fear of the sea and the roaring of the waves*, a passage which always makes my spine tingle. In a bad way. 

Is religion/virtue always idealistic, science always pragmatic? Can they do without each other? Will one need the other if we are ever going to sort it all out for future (not to mention, present) generations? In casting Beard as a central failure of a figure, McEwan has given, not a comic, after all, but tragi-comic novel about humanity's greed, small mindedness and incompetence. And it's not a pretty picture.
*Luke 21:25-28

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Jesus gets stressed

Luke Chapter 12: 49-51 & : 56.

‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 

'You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?'

A collective sigh from the company of preachers this week: Sunday's reading is one of the hardest of Jesus' teachings to preach on, giving us images of fire, baptism, 'stress', pressure, division, of slamming hypocrites and interpreting signs.

This Sunday's short passage of Luke comes at the end of an eventful chapter which begins with the crowds in their thousands threatening to trample each other in their rush to get near Jesus. Jesus uses this public occasion as a chance to warn against the 'yeast' (hypocrisy) of the religious leaders, to encourage people instead to have a healthy 'fear' of the Almighty who alone holds all the important things about us.

There follows teaching about money, possessions and what one of the funeral prayers calls 'readiness to live in the light of eternity'. Then comes the principle of accountability and the idea that blessing brings responsibility. 

Finally Jesus seems to have 'one of those moments'. We've all had them. Everything is building up, the crowds are full of hopefuls who have no intention on paying the cost of really following him, people are asking inane questions like 'please will you intervene in an inheritance dispute?' and no one seems the slightest bit aware of what is coming on the horizon for Jesus, i.e. his own crucifixion as a self offering for the life of the world. 

The chapter ends in 3 striking images:

1. Fire.
  1. Jesus 
    cries out: 'I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled!' It's like he's saying 'come on people - wake up spiritually!!' He likens his death to a baptism - he must 'go under' as it were. I have a baptism with which to be baptized and what stress I am under until it is completed!'

Interesting word: 'stress'. Did Jesus get stressed like us? Or was it a bit more serious? The Greek verb is συνέχω, which the NRSV translates as 'what stress I am under', other translations using the word 'distressed'. 'Stressed' sounds rather anachronistic in the New Testament. Did Jesus get stressed like us? This was something a little bit more pressing. 'Stressed' is a good way of conveying the pressure his death and its accomplishment brought to Jesus as the verb means to surround or hold. It is used of Peter's mother in law when she was 'gripped' by a fever, and of the Gerasenes who were 'seized' with fear at Jesus' exorcism of the man called 'Legion'. 

He still longs to kindle a fire in us.

2. Division.

I used to hate long division at school. it seemed a very complicated way  to make a large number small and it normally went wrong about two thirds of the way down the page. When you divide something you get down to the nub of it. The nub of following Jesus is that it's about our own death and resurrection, our own baptism. Death to self and being alive to Him. It is bound to be controversial after a while. 

It was CS Lewis who said that Christianity was either of no importance, or it was of ultimate importance. The only thing it couldn't possibly be was of moderate importance. And so we wince at Jesus's talk of division - division within families particularly - didn't he come to bring peace on earth? But every decision for something or someone is a decision against something or someone else. The word of God is a two edged sword dividing soul and spirit; bone and marrow. Sorrow, like a sword, would pierce the heart of Mary as she witnessed the death of her son. 

Talk of division is to get to the 'crux' of the matter. It's a call for radical discipleship.

3. Weather.

We all like to think we're experts at predicting the weather, though since I got an iPhone, the temptation is to spend the whole time on the Met office App and forget to look up into the sky to make the entirely straightforwards prediction: I am going to need a coat later on. The people of Jesus' day knew how to interpret the weather signs but they failed to interpret the spiritual signs - and he was the primary sign. His miracles were signs that he was the Messiah; his death and resurrection were there, albeit rather hidden, inside the Old Testament Scriptures (we know this because of the Emmaus Road discourse); yet they couldn't see what was about to happen, and when it did; they ignored it.

How do we interpret the signs of the times? There's something important about what Rowan Williams said when he referred to the 'next man that sits on the throne of St Augustine': 'he should read the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other'. Do we look critically at the news with an eye on the spiritual significance of things? Do we ask God 'what is happening in this turn of events, in this trend today?' The world needs spiritually and culturally literate believers.

So, fire; division and weather. And Jesus getting stressed. We pray for grace to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest these pictures. To ask for baptism in the Spirit's fire; to have the courage to take the right route at the division of the ways, and to interpret the signs of the times as clearly as we interpret the weather.


Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Humming in the Spirit

I have developed a ministry of humming.

Humming is not the same as singing. It's normally quieter for a start.

I found myself doing it quite a lot this summer, especially in settings where singing in tongues was taking place, though I'm not aware of any biblical references to humming...(this was generally not during Anglican morning worship by the way; more in big Christian camping venues or tiny Welsh revivalist chapels).

Singing in tongues is an interesting phenomenon. For a more scholarly article on it see:

St Paul mentions it in 1 Corinthians 12 ('I will sing praise with the spirit but I will sing praise with the mind also') - it was clearly a feature in the church of the years immediately after Christ.

In practice it appears to function well within the context of extended, contemporary musical worship, as Peter Ward describes in Selling Worship: 'In charismatic worship the songs function (...) as the means to encounter with God' (p. 199). In other words, it comes with its own theology of the mediation of God's grace, which is quite different from (or perhaps not?) sacramental theology...

If you have a competent and more importantly, sensitive band, they can lead seamlessly from a known song into a more improvised time where people are encouraged to sing extempore, sometimes singing in their mother tongue, words or phrases that the Spirit inspires, often short phrases from the bible, or else genuinely singing in an unknown tongue, or 'glossolalia'. The effect can be, quite simply, beautiful.

But musically it all needs a bit of glue.
It needs to hang together harmonically. Sometimes the band will play a 'sostenuto' chord over which singers find harmonies; sometimes they'll play a more complex series of chords. 

People need encouraging to sing out in improvisation; tongues is the jazz of church music. Humming is a useful place to start and harmonically flexible. A chord is made up of three notes; usually the first, third and fifth. If you can hear the first and fifth, you can hum a third to hold it (glue it) together. If you can only hear a third and a first, you can hum a fifth. Its all about listening. When the chord has been established you can let the words come.

In fact it hadn't occurred to me with such force before that in worship we're required to endlessly listen. Obviously to God, but also to each other. If you are fortunate enough to be somewhere where there's ample leisure to spend extended time in God's presence, humming can glue the combined sound together, leaving your mind free to receive whatever God wants to say to you. I had all sorts of ideas and pictures while humming in venues through the summer.

Humming is invisible. Undemonstrative glue. Broken things often needs glueing together. 

Humming in harmony, adding to the praises of God's people, being a perfect picture of the symphony of the body, each person giving his or her own best, without being pushy. Or simply listening and receiving. One of the 'new (spontaneous) songs' we heard at New Wine this summer was 'Just simply be in my love.'

It has always been noticeable how much more frequent are people's stories of physical or emotional healing during this kind of worship. It's not even 'singing in the Spirit' - more 'singing the Spirit'.

Humming is background; it doesn't put itself up can't quite pin down where it's coming from but without it things might start to fall apart a bit.

It's what a parish priest aspires to: presence as glue - effective but often unnoticed - a community often unable to quantify quite what that presence means but poorer without it.

I'm not sure what St Paul would have made of it, but here's to humming in the Spirit.

(This song (imagine no drums and just the chords) seems to lead well into improvisation: be patient, give it time; be open.;i-umeLhs)