Monday, 22 December 2008

Carols X 2

Thought I’d sign off for Christmas with a whinge. It’s traditional.

Went to a carols by candlelight service last night at one of our local Anglican churches. On the surface it was very impressive. Up on the stage the professionals and their acolytes were quite a sight in their ecclesiastical Christmas finery. The choir was one of the best parish choirs I’ve ever heard. The organ was played with great skill and sensitivity. The readers were nigh-on word perfect. Even the token child reader spoke with a clarity of diction and a confidence that was remarkable. The setting was beautiful. The sense of Christmas hung heavy in the air. And everyone in the congregation was reduced to the status of near passive observers. I did a count, eight pieces where the choir did their thing and seven where we were allowed to join in. Even when given the chance to sing most did so very hesitantly. “We can’t compete with singing like that! What if we sing a bum note?”

C’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas l'eglise. If this was an act of worship, then I’m an altar boy.

Contrast our own morning service, “Nativity Activity”. Amateurism at its best. Unlike the evening carol concert, sorry service, no one would have paid a penny to see it. But to be there and to participate was wonderful, richly human and genuinely worshipful. Anyone arriving in time for the start at 10.00 (and many didn’t … no problem) would have found a building taken over by toddlers and their parents gluing, dressing up and spraying glitter in all directions. This was a D.I.Y nativity. Get stuck in. Get messy. No lines to learn. "Anyone want to be the donkey?" "Now I need three kings." It worked wonderfully. The combination of carols lite, and doctored nursery rhymes (Twinkle, Twinkle Christmas star) was exactly what was called for. Here was a church creatively connecting with its toddler group and baby club in a way that had “unchurched” parents joining in with enthusiasm, building a sense of belonging and worshiping all at the same time.

Church is what we do, not something done to us. No matter how professionally.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Billie Holiday - Strange Fruit

Billy Holiday giving it her all in one of the first and still most powerful anti-racism songs. For no other reason than I saw it again tonight on BBC 4's history of swing and it occurred to me that more people should be aware of it and that those who are aware should be reminded.

Here's the lyrics:

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol (1937)

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Stand By Me

Impressive, if none too good for the environment. (HT Tony Jones)

A note about the creator of this short music video: Filmmaker Mark Johnson traveled around the globe getting street musicians and others to record part of the track for Stand By Me. Using battery powered equipment and a pocket full of Frequent Flyer miles he got tracks from dozens of performers. Each one was able to wear headphones and hear what the other performers had done.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Dean Spanley

Friday was my annual pre-Christmas chin wag, food eat and wine drink with my friend Rob.
Always a good night, this one was a cracker. The added magical ingredient was a visit to Manchester's wonderful independent cinema, Cornerhouse, to see Dean Spanley.

An endearlingly loopy ensemble piece about reinarnation, grief, hungarian wine, fatherhood/sonship and dogs, Dean Spanley is the quintessential deeply moving and gently funny low budget film. The icing on the cake is Peter O'Toole's performance as the deliciously grumpy and emotionally repressed Fisk senior.

This is a near perfect Christmas film. Forget Australia, don't even think about Four Christmases, do yourself a favour, see this instead.

Two Books on Preaching

Read two books on preaching last week. One was a big disappointment the other a pleasant surprise.

Doug Pagitt's Preaching Re-imagined is well worth a read. Should only take four or five hours. Doug is one of the leading lights on the American emerging church scene. Here he joins those voices raising serious questions about monologue preaching or speeching as he calls it. He proposes instead an approach that he dubs progressional dialogue. I liked this. It resonated with a notion that I have been working on that conceives of preaching as the initiation of a discussion. What I could have done with though was a bit more of an idea of how this actually works out in practice. An appendix with a transcript in an appendix perhaps. Or alternatively a free return plane ticket to Minneapolis to see for my self.

Anabaptist Preaching was deeply disapointng. I had been hoping that it would live up to the subtitle, a conversation between pulpit, pew and bible. No such luck. Only one chapter in this symposium was on the money in this regard and that itself is non too substantial. As for the other chapters far too many were rather light weight and very few had anything remotely distinctive to offer. I had imagined that such a book would introduce me to a tradition less wedded to the traditional monologue but I reckon I'm going to have to look elsewhere.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Olive and John Drane

The Dranes are blogging. They are calling it 2churchmice's Blog Yeah, sounds a bit twee to me too. Still, should be worth checking out from time to time.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Theology Podcasts

A while ago I posted on the delights of podcasts. Just in case anyone else out there is as sad as
I am and uses their ipod to listen to philosophy and theology I thought I’d give a plug to a couple of podcasts that I’ve enjoyed recently.

First of all thanks to Dave Mackinder for putting me onto Phil Harland’s Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean which provides an entryway into social and religious life among Greeks, Romans, Jews, Christians, and others in the Roman empire.

Then there’s the popular Godpod from St. Paul’s Theological centre based at Holy Trinity, Brompton. Here Graham Tomlin, Mike Lloyd and Jane Williams get together to discuss questions sent in by listeners and form time to time to interview significant thinkers and church leaders such as Tom Wright, Alistair McGrath, Andrew Walker and Nicky Gumbel. One of the aspects of Godpod that really works for me is the format. I am increasingly convinced that overheard conversation between suitably informed and articulate people is a much neglected way of learning whether in church or more academic settings. Another definite plus is the commitment to speak theologically (and with a sense of humour and fun) to the wider church.

Scratching the Surface and Digging Deep

Bit of a heavy day teaching yesterday. The morning and afternoon were spent with undergraduates on our
weekend programme looking at various aspects of the churches’ response to the mission challenges and opportunities in today’s Britain. We spent time reimagining church, rethinking evangelism, responding to the new spirituality and reengaging with community. I always come away from such sessions frustrated by the sense that even after seven hours with the same group we have barely scratched the surface.

Then it was off to Rawtenstall to spend time with my friends at Kay Street Baptist Church and others from further up the Rossendale valley. Being the fifth Sunday of the month Kay Street were holding one of their Going Deeper sessions and it was my job to kick off discussion on the theme of how Christians should relate to God’s world. It’s very encouraging to come across more and more churches experimenting with conversation as way of grappling with God’s word and the challenges of discipleship. The hunger for substantial theological reflection and the embrace of dialogue has to be a sign of good health.