Category Archives: culture

Cobblers Column: A new Start

I’ve been asked to write a column in the Northampton Town F.C. match day programmes for some of the home games. Here’s todays offering for the game against Mansfield.

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sixfieldsI’m sure no-one will disagree with me when I say that last season was difficult for Cobblers fans. A poor start, some injuries and a bit of bad luck led to us spending 7 months in relegation zone. We ended on a high after our great escape and a good run of form at the right time, and condemned poor Bristol Rovers to life in the Conference. They only spent 70 minutes in the relegation zone all season, but it is the place at end of the season that matters. 

But that was last season, and here we sit at the start of a new one with a new sense of optimism. We get to start again with a clean slate. Mathematically at least, everyone has the same chance of finishing in the promotion places. Last season is history.

It’s not often we get to start again with a clean slate in our own lives. Our history, good or bad, becomes part of us and it follows us around. Cleaning our slates is more difficult. Grudges get picked up and are hard to shed. Reputations are hard to restore. Actions cannot be undone. There may even be things we want to erase.

Difficult but not impossible. For a new start, we need to acknowledge our past in order to start again.  Words like ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I forgive you’ can help heal relationships. ‘I made a mistake’ can restore integrity. ‘I don’t hold it against you’ can help us drop grudges. These recognise the past without making light of it. The past does matter, but we do not have to be bound by it. We can make steps towards a fresh new beginning.

Like all of you, I will be cheering the lads on this season, starting today with the visit of Mansfield. Last season is history and I’m sure we’ve learnt a lot from it. This season we have a whole new opportunity.

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The Magus

greek island viewAs this 1966 novel was chosen as the latest offering in our book club, one of our members exclaimed, “I’ll talk about it but I’m not reading that again!”. This didn’t bode well for the The Magus, by John Fowles. But I was willing to give it a go and to get to the end. It isn’t often I don’t finish books and this one was no exception, but 656 pages later I was more than a little frustrated.

It follows the story of Nicholas Urfe, an Oxford educated public school teacher in his early twenties. After a year teaching at an English public school and a short but intense affair with a young Australian air hostess in London, he decides to travel to Greece to take up the post of English Master at an exclusive boarding school on the tiny island of Phraxos. Initially bored, due to the lack of company of his own age, he soon finds himself in the company of a wealthy elderly gentleman, Conchis, one of the few English speaking people on the island. He is invited to visit most weekends, during which he begins to hear the story of Conchis’ own personal history. Soon though, he realises that he is caught in an intricate psychological, mythological, and emotionally perverse game – the godgame. Over the course of the year, he is introduced to a bizarre cast of characters, including beautiful English twins, also in their early twenties. He begins to fall for one of them. Questioning everything he is told and experiences, caught inside an ever increasingly bizarre situation, he is overcome with curiosity, anger and the search for truth and cannot bring himself simply to walk away and has to see this macabre game out until the end.

Immediately after finishing the book I tweeted this:

Some spoilers follow from this point

That is the level of frustration that this book left me with. Whilst it is undoubtedly well-written, and the description of the Greek island is beautiful and idyllic, at no point do we get a reason or explanation for the weird sequence of events that Urfe endures. There is a meanness to the game that his played. Urfe’s letters are intercepted. Things are made up and evidence fabricated to make him believe that certain things are happening outside of the island in order to guarantee his participation in the game on it. Conchis and his friends even, somehow, persuade the Australian ex-girlfriend to be a part of it (although we are never told how they persuade her) and they convince him that she has committed suicide, just at the moment that he realises his true and deep feelings for her. He is distraught but the effect of this is simply to entice him further into the trap.

The final straw for me was the ending. Urfe returns to London to try and piece together parts of the story he has been told, and finds even more people who are in on it. When he eventually discovers that his Australian friend is alive, he realises he simply has to wait. He will not find her until they allow him to. The last section is written very well and, in the spirit of a detective novel, leaves you wanting to turn to pages to find out the resolution. you want Urfe and the air hostess to get back together. Sadly you never find out. The book ends with them meeting and arguing, both quite justified in the hurt and confusion that has preceded. Both want answers, as does the reader, but Fowles doesn’t give them. He simple ends the book before it is really finished.

I imagine this is the type of book that lots of people start but never finish. One of those that looks intelligent but sits on lots of bookshelves unread. Six hundred pages, albeit of well-written prose, but culminating in no clear ending or message is severely disappointing. I can’t say I understood it, but it seems that Fowles doesn’t really want us to, and no other reviews I’ve seen can shed much more light than that.

I did come across this letter, reportedly from the author himself shortly after the novel was first published. It seems that he is being deliberately baffling, trying to deconstruct freedom which, he says, results in the rejection of everything except human reason.

fowles letter

Whilst I cannot disagree with the conclusion of the letter – acting humanely to all humans is simple a rephrasing of Jesus’ commandment to love others as we love ourselves – however, “reason alone” is an argument that the new atheists still try to peddle today, and it is flawed. I think that modernism has shown that reason alone cannot help us in everything, and leaves vast areas of life untouched. The Christian would argue that true freedom is only found in God – growing into the people that he has created us to be.

Credit to Fowles for his writing – The Magus certainly leaves plenty to ponder on, but I can’t say I recommend this. It is simple too random, unexplained, and frustrating. And it doesn’t have a proper ending.

 

Unapologetic

photo 2Francis Spufford has succeeded in describing Christian faith from a practical angle.  As the title, Unapologetic, suggests, it is not an apologia of the Christian faith, as prominent writers have done in the past (CS Lewis and NT Wright to name but two). There is a place for these, but Spufford has decided not to counter the new atheists arguments on the same terms, but to set out an emotional response. There is so much more to living than what we can prove or intellectually argue, and this is the angle he attempts to make with this book. (There are some more traditional apologetic responses to certain questions, but these are mostly dealt with through the footnotes).

The centrepiece of the book is a wonderful, engaging prose on the life of Jesus, taking the essence of the gospels and attempting to help us to hear Jesus afresh in them. For many of us, the gospel accounts have become so familiar that it takes a bit of work to hear them as they would have at the time. Spufford’s chapter on Yeshua (Jesus) gets beneath this, and made me marvel at Jesus all over again.

This is the centrepiece, but there are many other notable parts. His description of human brokenness (sin), which he calls HPtFtU – the Human Propensity to F*ck things Up – is so cutting that anyone can identify with it. It is a human experience after all. And he succeeds in getting away from the contemporary understanding of sin as ‘just a little bit excitingly naughty’. (I’ve already been influenced by some parts of it here, and there will be a couple more quotes to come).  The section on communion is so beautiful too.

If you can cope with his writing style, which is rather like stream of consciousness, then this is an excellent book. But then the style adds to the emotional angle he is writing from. It is one that is sure to annoy new atheists as it argues in a way that many are not used to engaging with. For those who are open to the idea of faith, or who are already believers, Unapologetic is sure to assure you that it is ok, it is ‘reasonable’ to believe the Christian story. And it works.

Beauty

BASTIEN-LEPAGE Joan of ArcI’ve been reading an article which attempts to answer the question ‘Why does beauty exists?’ by analysing what happens in our brains when we experience beauty. The author, Jonah Lehrer, argues that according to recent research, the area of our brains that lights up is that same area which piques when we are curious about something. Could it be that beauty is linked to curiosity? Finding something beautiful maintains our attention, we dwell on it maybe trying to work out the pattern or to find the deeper meaning in it.

I can identify with this to an extent. I like various forms of art, both painting and photographic, but to me the least interesting art is that which presents the object as it is. Some painting attempt to depict things in an almost photographic quality. Whilst I can see the skill in creating it, the image itself is not so interesting as I may as well look at the original object. My favourite paintings are those which point to the original object, but play with it in some way, or draw out a theme, an aspect, or a deeper character. For example, Vermeer’s work is beautiful because of what he does with light, whilst Monet and Seurat because their painting techniques give a feeling and ambience to the picture. One of my favourite paintings is the one above, Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage, depicting the vision she has of the Archangel Michael. This is a physically huge painting, on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and I can gaze at it for ages. In it, Joan is almost photographic but she is set in the more impressionist style background of a dreamy garden, giving the effect that she is physically protruding from the painting. Bastien-Lepage has painted this in such a way that we ask, “What could it have been to have transfixed her so entirely?”. And if we know the story, we hear it is a spiritual experience.

On the other extreme, some forms of contemporary art are not beautiful to me because they are so far removed from what they are trying to depict, that they make no sense. Or they are not depicting anything at all. In these, there is no underlying pattern or deeper truth that I find discernible.

In this sense, the writer asserts that beauty may be useful, as it draws us in a points us onwards.

The problem beauty solves is the problem of trying to figure out which sensations are worth making sense of and which ones can be easily ignored.

Speaking of music:

One way to answer these questions is to zoom out, to look at the music and not the neuron. While music can often seem (at least to the outsider) like an intricate pattern of pitches – it’s art at its most mathematical – it turns out that the most important part of every song or symphony is when the patterns break down, when the sound becomes unpredictable. If the music is too obvious, it is annoyingly boring, like an alarm clock. (Numerous studies, after all, have demonstrated that dopamine neurons quickly adapt to predictable rewards. If we know what’s going to happen next, then we don’t get excited.) This is why composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning of the song and then studiously avoid it until the end. They want to make us curious, to create a beautiful gap between what we hear and what we want to hear.

I’m sure we can all agree with this one. Nursery rhymes quickly get boring as there is little variation in pattern. Mozart was hailed as ahead of his time for the way he played with and adapted the melodies and underlying chord patterns. I also love Bruckner, who tantalisingly gives you half a melody and plays around with it.

To demonstrate this psychological principle, the musicologist Leonard Meyer, in his classic book Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956), analyzed the 5th movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. Meyer wanted to show how music is defined by its flirtation with – but not submission to – our expectations of order. To prove his point, Meyer dissected fifty measures of Beethoven’s masterpiece, showing how Beethoven begins with the clear statement of a rhythmic and harmonic pattern and then, in an intricate tonal dance, carefully avoids repeating it. What Beethoven does instead is suggest variations of the pattern. He is its evasive shadow. If E major is the tonic, Beethoven will play incomplete versions of the E major chord, always careful to avoid its straight expression. He wants to preserve an element of uncertainty in his music, making our brains exceedingly curious for the one chord he refuses to give us. Beethoven saves that chord for the end.

“For the human mind,” Meyer writes, “such states of doubt and confusion are abhorrent. When confronted with them, the mind attempts to resolve them into clarity and certainty.” And so we wait, expectantly, for the resolution of E major, for Beethoven’s established pattern to be completed. This nervous anticipation, says Meyer, “is the whole raison d’etre of the passage, for its purpose is precisely to delay the cadence in the tonic.” The uncertainty – that crack in the melody – makes the feeling.

I wonder, could that be the case for all beauty. Are we created in sure a way to see and appreciate beauty, but for that beauty to be, in some way, incomplete –  to point us beyond onto something else? If we’re all made in the image of God, and the universe is his creation, coming out of the mind of The Creator, perhaps is it not inconceivable that the curiosity that beauty stirs in us is actually a curiosity for God himself. Beauty entices us to know more, to appreciate more, to understand his mind.

His conclusion is that beauty is useful:

We know just enough to know that we want to know more; there is something here, we just don’t what. That’s why we call it beautiful.

And I don’t want to argue with that. Surely if it points us beyond and piques our curiosity, then it can be useful. Beauty points us to God and if we discover him through his creation or the beautiful works of humanity, that is great. Theologians would call this general revelation: a certain knowledge of God can be discovered through the natural world, philosophy, art, or general reasoning.

But is that all it is? The Westminster Catechism, written by protestants in the 17th century states that the purpose of mankind is to “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever”. If beauty is to point us to God, and God is to be enjoyed, then surely beautiful things are to be enjoyed too. Just as we can rest in the presence of God, we can rest in the presence of beauty, and enjoy that scenery, painting, sculpture, piece of music, or so on. In this sense, beauty doesn’t need a purpose. It just is to be enjoyed.

Dear Joey Barton…

joey bartonYesterday, you, Joey Barton, tweeted this comment (which was followed by a barrage of criticism).

I’m not going to criticise you here but I am going to answer your question. Why would people pray? Does God care about the outcomes of a match? As 140 characters does not seem enough to answer such a big questions I thought I’d write this. I’m going to leave aside the question of whether God actually exists or not, and for the purpose of this, assume that he does.

Many sportspeople pray before a match. In the football world, Brazilian legends such as Kaka and Lucio are well-known for it. At the final whistle of the 2002 World Cup final, the victorious Brazilian team all knelt and prayed on the pitch before celebrating. Daniel Sturridge, Kieran Richardson, and Bobby Hassell are all others who show their faith publicly, sometimes during a match. Some former professional footballers have even gone on to become pastors (Graham Daniels, Gavin Peacock).

Why would sports people pray before a game?

We cannot assume that they are praying to win, although this might be the case. However, it is not the case that God grants all the wants or whims of everyone who prays to him. In any case, there may be others on the opposing team who are also praying to win – whose supplications should God listen to? Which team should win?

The Christian God is a relational God. He is not a great ‘Santa’ in the sky who hears our pleas and decides whether to answer them depending on how good we have been recently. He is a God who created humanity out of love and who wants to know us. Therefore we pray to connect with him, just as you talk to a partner or friend in order to connect with them. Sometimes the prayers include asking for things, sometimes they don’t. But in either case, when we pray we relate to Him and are more likely to understand who he is and what he is like – again just as in talking to a friend you understand more about them. So some prayers before games might be praying for a result, a fair game, or a good performance. Other times it might simply be that I will use the talent and character God has given to the glory of God. For it is God who gives all of us gifts and abilities, and it is up to us how we use them.  But win or lose, the person of faith would want to glorify God in how they act and in what they say. Often we learn more about God, and about ourselves, when we lose.

Your second question: Does God care about the outcomes of a football match? Ok, Joey, so those weren’t your exact words but I think that the gist of the question. In one sense the answer is No, and in another it is Yes. No, because God doesn’t support any particular team (although if he did it would be Newcastle). And Yes, because God cares about the smallest details of his creation. There’s a verse in the Bible which tells us not to be anxious about our life because “God has numbered the hairs on your head”. He knows how many there are, therefore he surely knows our needs before we speak them. He is omniscient – all-knowing. So Yes, he knows, and he cares about the outcome of the football match, but the reason he cares is because he cares for the individuals playing. Perhaps by losing one of them would get closer to God, would learn more about themselves, or would drive them to change something about their life. Perhaps a loss would enable them to recognise that the only acceptance that is constant and unchanging is from Him and not from the shouts or jeers of a fickle crowd. Or perhaps by winning there would come the confidence (such as with Kaka or Kieran Richardson) to say a little something about their faith and therefore encourage others who may be struggling.

So there’s just a few answers for you. I hope they help. I speak of someone who has always been fairly rubbish at sport, but who enjoys it. I won trainee-clergy snooker tournament once whilst at college studying how to be a vicar. I should add that on my way to winning that, I fluked the blue and pink in the semi-final to knock out the favourite. It’s a good job my value doesn’t rely on my ability, because if that’s the case I’m stuffed.

A new orthodoxy

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We are in the age of post-modernism. The modernist era which begin around the time of the enlightenment was all about certainty, scientific and industrial progress, the putting away of old fashioned myths and stories, and the eroding of faith. This was the era of proof. And what couldn’t be proven would almost certainly be at some point in the future. Truth was out there, and it could be found, but most probably not in the church.

By the time we got to the final third of the 20th century, things weren’t all that certain. Yes, there had been huge strides in medicine, healthcare, poverty, democracy, civil rights, and welfare, but we were coming to the realisation that some problems would always be around, and some questions were not answerable by scientific method and social progress. This, combined with increased multiculturalism and globalisation opened us up to alternative perspectives from all around the world. Suddenly, your solution or opinion was deemed as good as mine and equally valid. There was now no absolute truth and no way of discerning one truth from another. Everything was subjective.

We are in the age of post-modernism. Or are we?

I’m not so sure.

The rise of twitter has made it abundantly clear that there are still many, many opinions out there. But a number of recent events have led me to question whether society in general really does still hold to the postmodern mantra of no absolute truth, with all opinions equally valid.

First we had the Luis Suarez racism debate. What was said, what what meant, and how was the translation? Was he a racist, or was something else meant by the remarks? I the midst of that we had Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole embroiled in a twitter row over the term ‘choc-ice’. For example, what constitutes racism? Simply inserting the word ‘black’ in front of an insult?

Second, the failure of the Church of England to pass the legislation to allow women to become bishops. The three chambers of the house. made up of bishops, clergy, and laity (non-clergy) were overwhelmingly in favour, with just the house of laity narrowly failing to get the two thirds majority required. The Twitterverse couldn’t believe it and there was very little attempt to understand the reasons why it might have failed.

Third, the debate and passing of the first reading of the equal (same-sex) marriage bill in parliament yesterday.

In all of these cases, the general feeling of society perceives that there is a ‘correct’ answer. In a true postmodernist society, both those speaking for and against the issues would have their voices heard, and their arguments engaged with. Sadly this no longer seems to be happening. There is a conformity to which we are expected to adhere. The debate on these subjects is shut down, often with the throwing around of insults, such as ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, and the catch-all, ‘bigot’. Tosh is last term in particular has been bandied around a lot this week during the same-sex marriage debate.

I heard someone today call this new way of thinking a ‘militant liberalism’, to go alongside the new or militant atheism that has risen up with the loss of religion, but is it not liberalism in the truest sense, neither is it tolerance. It is simple the expectation that everyone should conform in belief and practice, or else stay out of the debate and keep their opinions private. The views and morals to which we are to conform are vastly different to what they were a hundred years ago, but the expectation is that these views are the norm and there is an intolerance for anything else.

Some time ago, Ed West, in The Telegraph echoed this as he was commenting on the suggestions of some contemporary philosophers that atheists take the best, but non-spiritual, parts of religion.

The real problem is that religion is always replaced by something else. The rise of fads such as homoeopathy is well documented, but more commonly people’s religious desires for certainty, morality and community are transferred to their politics; that is why there is this sense that those outside the communion of correct beliefs today are morally unclean, and new sins such as “racist” and “sexist” replace “heretic” and “sinner”. That is the real “religion for atheists”.

Post-modernism was always difficult to define. What was agreed was that it was the time after modernism, but there was no consensus on what would take it’s place. I think it is emerging. We could call it ‘neo-orthodoxy’ or ‘neo-conformity’, but what seems to be clear is this: there is a new set of right beliefs not based on any faith position. What worries me is, without a theological foundation, where might these lead us?

My top posts of the year.

blogger registration plate numberAt the end of another year, it’s time for another review. According to the wordpress software, This blog had 18000 hits in 2012. Top hits continue to be older posts and simply reflect the most searched-for terms on search-engines: The Best Caramel Shortbread from 2008, footballers Lucio and Kaka show their faith from 2010, and You can’t help who you fall in love with – a reaction to a news story in 2009.

Of the posts I wrote this year, here are the six most popular:

1. Am I  Coward? My Reaction to Mark Driscoll’s comments.  Early in the year American mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll angered Brits by saying that there were no good young well-known Bible teachers in the UK who were preaching the truth of the gospel. This caused a furore and my thoughts were written up here.

2. The Power of ‘lol’ *wow* and ‘hun’. A five-minute pice on the use of shorthand to express emotion on social networks.

3. Praying for Fabrice Muamba. In March, Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch during a game with Spurs suffering with a cardiac arrest. His heart stopped beating and doctors claim he was technically dead for 78 minutes. He has since made a full recovery, but has had to retire from professional sport.

4. A good Quote from Mark Driscoll on Manhood found whilst I was researching a talk on the topic.

5. Whilst writing a sermon on the atonement I was reminded of a passage I read from the U2 frontman in the book, Bono on Bono: Bono on Grace and Karma.

6. Some thoughts about risk following a nurses revelation of the top five regrets of the dying: When is a risk worth taking.