Wednesday, 30 September 2009

the ouroboros & the media

The Ouroboros is a mythical serpent whose chief characteristic is that it eats its own tail in a never ending cycle of self absorption. I say it’s a mythical creature but I have discovered it is alive and well but living under another name, The Media.

ouroboros Last night in a carefully timed move, clearly intended for maximum political effect, The Sun announced that it was going to be supporting the Tory party at the next election. To be honest I’ve never thought The Sun was anything other than a conservative newspaper if the utterances of its political correspondents are anything to go by. Anyway, what has followed has been a master class in self absorption. The BBC news ran the story as its main headline both late last night and first thing this morning: not the content of the Prime Minister’s speech, not the breaking news of the earthquake and tsunami hitting Samoa, nor any of the other important issues of the day directly affecting people’s lives, but The Sun’s decision to support a different political party.

ouroboros press The press followed the same agenda, discussing and analysing the significance of the switch in a feeding frenzy which can only reflect their own sense of self importance. On radio and T.V. pundits and commentators have been wheeled out to chat to each other about how significant the story is; a classic example of reporting the news being the news. This is where we are with political reporting, analysis not of what is said and done, the content, but of process; the medium not the message is what counts.

Ouroboros 3 The media has been consumed in recent days with commentary on Andrew Marr’s question to Gordon Brown about whether he takes prescription drugs, asked on Marr’s Sunday morning BBC 1 politics show. Where did this question come from? It is becoming increasingly clear that the question derives from an unsubstantiated piece of speculation, put out on a blog, bounced back and forth across the internet and then spread through the Westminster village; innuendo masquerading as serious journalistic enquiry. It’s just one more example of the media feeding off itself and then regurgitating the content only to consume it again as it debates the appropriateness of the original question.

The broadcast media and newspapers constantly complain about the threat to their survival as viewers, listeners and readers turn to other sources for their news, information and comment. Well the media need not worry - at this rate they will eat themselves out of existence long before other forms of communication finish them off. Then the new Ouroboros will be no more than a mythical creature, just like the original.

entertaining angels

My son found this stone on Branscombe beach at the end of the summer holidays. I meant to post the picture yesterday to celebrate St Michael and All Angels, better late than never.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2

Monday, 28 September 2009

reading old age

Hope I die before I get old; the line from The Who’s My Generation often pops into my mind when I hear matters of old age being discussed. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend haven’t had their wish fulfilled, though their two chums from the band were not so lucky. Last week the High Court upheld the law that allows businesses to make employees retire at 65 without any redundancy pay. The case had been brought by Help The Aged and Age Concern and, although their bid was unsuccessful, the judge did say there was a case for raising the compulsory retirement age.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about retirement recently. When I was ordained, clergy could receive a full pension after 37 years service and this meant I would get a full pension at 65 (2025). Then a couple of years ago the rules were changed and I worked out I need to keep going until I’m about 67. Sitting on my desk is the latest consultation document on changes to the Clergy Pension Scheme in preparation for a likely General Synod debate in February 2010 and suggestions include moving the pension age to 68 with a full pension after 43 years service. Don’t get me started on the challenges many colleagues face in buying a retirement home once they finish work and have to move out of their parsonage house.

Perhaps I need to be thinking less of My Generation and more about U2’s song Dirty Day and the line borrowed from Bukowski ‘The days run away like (wild) horses over the hill’. I can see my retirement disappearing over the horizon faster than I can say Additional Voluntary Contributions. Of course, what we stipendiary clergy are facing are the realities that most other employees must come to terms with, unless they happened to have bankrupted a major financial institution and headed over the hills with a massive guaranteed pension. The truth is that many people are looking forward to their retirement and old age, not in the hope of enjoying the golden years, but with genuine concern and even fear.

In July I attended a conference on the Learning Church with other colleagues from across the country including; Theological College and Courses staff, Continuing Ministerial Development Officers and Diocesan Adult Education Advisers. You might be tempted to think of one of Dante’s Circles of Hell and at times it felt like it. However, there were some highlights and one contribution in particular resonated with my thinking about retirement and old age.

James Woodward was until this year Director of The Leveson Centre for the Study of Ageing, Spirituality and Social Policy. In a fascinating session entitled ‘Reading Old Age’ James presented some reflections on what emerges when we listen to the voices of old age and how that can shape and challenge our theology. This was done by introducing us to four narratives drawn from his extensive reading in the United States while on sabbatical. The four stories made for challenging listening and offered much food for thought; here are some of the observations that I jotted down:

may sarton The Journals of May Sarton at Seventy: May is a poet and author who writes about the inevitability of old age and reflects on the unsolved, painful mistakes and reasons for shame and woe. Yet, May also comments that she is ‘more myself than I have ever been’. Constant themes are downsizing and uncluttering and the need for ‘nurturing thankfulness’.

shields The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead; David Shields. This book is a biography of Shields’ own body and a narrative of his Father’s old age; much graphic physical detail and the challenge to listen to one’s own body and the wisdom that exists in it. There is a term used in the United States called ‘successful aging’, how do we judge what is fulfilling and what makes us happy? Man is a ‘pleasure seeking missile’ and we must resist giving in to the inevitability of how things should be. We need to live with the possibility of change as part of the narrative. ‘Everyone tries, no one wins, everyone dies’.

Last_Gift_of_Time The Last Gift of Time – Life Beyond Sixty; Carolyn G. Heilbrun. Carolyn determined that she would end her life by the age of 70 and reflects on some key questions:

  • Why is it good to be old?
  • Can we be ourselves?
  • What freedoms are there in old age?
  • Will old age be conventional or unconventional?

The writer observes that the circle of friends in old age is enriched by a range of ages; she is challenged by the issue of memory and asks why so few can live in the present? Carolyn observes that in the last decades memory prevents us looking at what is in front of us in the present and she sees memory as a ‘useless distraction’. The author did take her own life which raises the question of how her suicide affects a reading of her book and what she left unsaid.

billfath The Bill from My Father; Bernard Cooper. This is a memoir about the relationship between the author and his father. One day Cooper senior presented Cooper junior with a bill for all it had cost to bring him up and demanded repayment; the bill came to $1.7 million! Much of the book is a reflection on the horrors of the onset of dementia and the perpetual question of who shapes our story?

Four quite different stories connected by themes raised in contemplating old age and all of them remind us that we have a long way to go in our theology and praxis when it comes to this issue.

Saturday, 26 September 2009


I can still remember the unfolding tragedy of the hostage taking at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and the disastrous conclusion to the siege when the Israeli captives lost their lives. The events of the attack and the ensuing slaughter are powerfully told in the documentary One Day In September. A few years later I read a book recounting Israel’s response, sending out Mossad agents to hunt down and kill those involved in the atrocity. Munich is Steven Spielberg's film portraying the activities of the assassination squad as they worked their way around Europe picking off the terrorists. Although the characters and the events are fictional the film claims that they are ‘inspired by real events’.

Munich is a long film, clocking in at nearly two and a half hours but it maintains an intensity and pace that holds the attention throughout. The unofficial assassination squad are a complicated group reflected in the casting; Eric Bana and Daniel Craig look like what I expect of secret agents, but the others including Ciaran Hinds are disarmingly ordinary. The group are far from the accomplished hit men of Bond films or the Bourne adventures and their first kill is a nervous, halting execution; the celebrations betraying their relief and exhilaration at success.

The film presents state sanctioned murder as messy, incompetent, questioning, depressing and ultimately futile. For every assassination of a terrorist the enemy hits back with the devastating slaughter of hundreds of Israelis. It’s a cycle of violence which reflects the tit for tat retaliations that characterise so much of the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. The agents question the morality of their actions and become the targets of other assassins; several are killed before the operation is concluded. The central character is left haunted not only by the Munich massacre but by the murders he has participated in and the fear that his own government is seeking to silence him.

Spielberg does risk accusations of propaganda in his depiction of the hit squad and one example is the way the film suggests that only the guilty were targeted. In reality the agents were not so discerning and at least one of their victims was an entirely innocent Moroccan waiter shot in Norway. This murder was one of the most shocking incidents I remember from the book and I can’t understand why it is omitted unless Spielberg didn’t want to sully the reputations of the Mossad agents.

Munich’s closing shot is a pan of the Manhattan skyline finishing with the Twin Towers in the background. The scene poignantly sums up a question raised by the whole film: ‘Is anything gained by the war on terrorism?’

Friday, 25 September 2009

billboard wars

A few weeks ago Manchester City fans put up a billboard proclaiming the news that they had pinched Carlos Tevez from Manchester Utd. Following Utd's fantastic defeat of City at the weekend, Utd fans have responded with the billboard above. The picture shows Utd's new signing Michael Owen celebrating his magnificent last gasp goal in the Manchester derby, which Utd won 4-3. Michael Owen joined Utd on a free transfer, City paid approximatley £25 million for Tevez; I wonder who got the better bargain?

Here's a photo of the original Tevez poster showing a rather disdainful Ryan Giggs looking down with the words Pity The Fool.

h/t the excellent Off The Post
Owen pic. Benny Smyth
Tevez/Giggs pic. Stephen Broadhurst

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

assisted suicide - a relative issue?

As a curate I played rugby for an old boys club. Each Saturday a converted van would draw up beside the pitch and the back would be opened. Inside sat a young man in a wheelchair, paralysed from the shoulders down and dependent on his full time carers to assist with his needs. This young man had broken his neck in the scrum while playing for the old boys and could only watch from his chair the game he had loved to play. The club did all they could to help him, along with family and friends, but not surprisingly occasionally he had severe bouts of depression and spoke about a desire to end his life.

The young man mentioned above came to mind when I first I heard the news reports of the assisted suicide of Daniel James the 23 year old paralysed rugby player. Daniel was taken to a Swiss euthanasia clinic by his parents in order to fulfil his stated desire to die. I can’t imagine what Daniel went through in the time following his accident, nor the pain and turmoil experienced by his loving parents, which led to the decision to end his life. I pray for them as they seek to live with the choices they have made.

Today new guidelines on the issue of assisted suicide have been published by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC. The publication follows many months of lobbying by assisted suicide supporters. Lord Falconer, for example, made a bit of a Charlie of himself recently when he rather arrogantly suggested that he knew better that the Archbishop of Canterbury what constituted Christian compassion when it came to this matter.

One of the most chilling contributions to the debate has come from Baroness Warnock, a trenchant supported of the legalisation of assisted suicide. Writing in The Observer last October she wrote Legalise Assisted Suicide, For Pity’s Sake. The first part of the article was a consideration of the legal implications of the James’ case and was a fairly straightforward rehearsal of the issues. And then came this statement:
But the more crucial argument is this: we have a moral obligation to take other people's seriously reached decisions with regard to their own lives equally seriously, not putting our judgment of the value of their life above theirs. Mr and Mrs James have sadly and dramatically carried out this moral obligation.
Why is it a moral obligation? What is the ethical framework within which Warnock expresses this obligation? Warnock’s argument is the ultimate retreat to relativism – there is no objective moral framework simply the belief that each person should be free to decide what’s best for them. I say belief but it seems to me to be nothing more than an assertion. No explanation is given as to the basis of this opinion and this is pretty worrying coming from someone who for so long has been involved in framing the debate and law on a wide variety of moral issues in our country.

I first studied Warnock’s approach to ethics as a student when I wrote a paper on the Warnock Report (1984). I was looking particularly at what the report had to say about surrogate motherhood but it led to a wider exploration of the methods and assumptions underlying the report’s findings and recommendations. My conclusion was that the report was characterized by a secular, utilitarian and technological world view. The report came out against surrogate motherhood but only on the grounds that there was a danger of commercial exploitation.

I shouldn’t have been surprised at Warnock’s article in The Observer. This is what she said in an interview for Life and Work, the Church of Scotland Magazine.
If you're demented, you're wasting people's lives – your family's lives – and you're wasting the resources of the National Health Service.

I'm absolutely, fully in agreement with the argument that if pain is insufferable, then someone should be given help to die, but I feel there's a wider argument that if somebody absolutely, desperately wants to die because they're a burden to their family, or the state, then I think they too should be allowed to die.
So let’s be clear. The reason for supporting assisted suicide/dying is that the person is wasting other people’s lives and wasting the NHS’s resources by continuing to live. A person’s worth is measured by nothing more than this. It’s one small step from saying that people have an obligation to die when they become a burden and another short step to saying that the state has an obligation to get rid of those who have become a burden. Let’s go all the way and make Soylent Green our blue print for the future. Soylent Green is the Charlton Heston film in which people were encouraged to embrace suicide so that their bodies could be turned into food for the masses.

But there is another way of determining a person’s worth. A person’s worth is not defined by their abilities or faculties but by the truth that they are created and loved by God and precious to him and we will be held accountable by God for how we treat them.

An initial response to the DPP's Interim Policy for Prosecutors in Respect of Cases of Assisted Suicide by the Church of England can be found here.

The Church of England's position on Assisted Suicide is set out here.

This is a re-working of an earlier post first published

goodbye Chas & Dave

A cultural body blow delivered today with the news that Chas & Dave are finally splitting up after four decades together. I saw Chas & Dave open for Led Zeppelin at Knebworth in 1979 when they led the rather damp punters in a lunch time cockney sing a long featuring many of their hits. Can't say it was the highlight of the event but it certainly warmed up the crowd. Following the death of his wife, Sue Peacock, Dave has decided to lay down his bass and give it a rest. As Pete Broadbent, the Bishop of Willesden, tweeted this morning:
'With Chas and Dave splitting up, there's only one word with which to start the day - Gertcha!'

Friday, 18 September 2009

United 93

There has been a plethora of programmes and films on T.V. over the last few days to mark the anniversary of 9/11. By far the best I have seen so far is United 93, a powerful film about the flight of the United Airlines plane that crashed before reaching its designated target. The film was shown on ITV and to their credit they showed the film without the interruption of adverts.

United 93 is a docudrama by British film maker PaUnited 93aul Greengrass and based on recordings, interviews and testimonies from many of those involved in the unfolding horror of 9/11. Several of the participants in the events play themselves in the film, giving the unfolding narrative authenticity and avoiding the melodrama of offerings like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre. The story begins with the hijackers preparing to depart for the airport and passengers going through the mundane process of checking in for an everyday internal flight. Knowing what is to come, there is genuine tension from the start in watching as late passengers check in and people make routine phone calls before take off. The flight is backed up due to heavy air traffic and there is a real possibility that it won’t take off before news comes in of the other terrorist attacks. The short glimpses of passengers reactions when the plane finally takes to the air are truly poignant because the viewer knows what is to come.

The film depicts the reactions to the unfolding horror from several perspectives; the passengers and crew of the plane, air traffic controllers and the military . What emerges is the chaos and confusion as well as the inability to comprehend what is happening and how to respond. Some of the most effective scenes are the reaction shots as controllers watch the second plane crashing into the World Trade Centre; no one can quite believe what they are watching and all are struck dumb as the fireball envelopes the top of the tower.

The later half of the film focuses on the events inside United 93 during its last few minutes in the air. There is a certain amount of speculation as to exactly what happened but much of the story is pieced together fromunited 93 the phone calls to loved ones made by the passengers. It gradually dawns on the captive passengers that this is not a straightforward hijacking as they hear news of the Trade Centre attacks and the explosion at the Pentagon. The decision to try and retake the plane is no gung-ho act of bravado typical of Hollywood blockbusters, but the hesitant conclusion drawn by terrified men and women who see no alternative course of action. The last few moments are truly harrowing as the passengers almost succeed in over powering the hijackers before the all too familiar final event.

From start to finish United 93 maintains an almost unbearable tension, remarkable for a film in which the ending is so well known. The routine of the flight, the ordinariness of the passengers, the disbelief and confusion of those responding to the unthinkable, the breakdown of communication between the authorities and uncertainty about how to react, all effect a realism seldom achieved on the big or small screen. United 93 comes as close as any film can in creating a fitting tribute to those caught up directly in the tragedy of 9/11.

Monday, 14 September 2009

thick and ordinary

Interesting piece on The Telegraph blog today about John Lennon by Michael Deacon. Deacon highlights some of the overlooked comments made by Lennon in his ‘We’re more popular than Jesus now’ interview with Maureen Cleave for the London Evening Standard in 1966. It was the Jesus comment that caujohn_lennonght the headlines at the time, but Deacon draws attention to other remarks which might cause more of a stir today than they did over 40 years ago. In particular Deacon notes Lennon’s remarks about foreign people being ugly; not much evidence of the famous Lennon wit there.

On what Lennon had to say about Christianity, Deacon comments: ‘The Christian-baiting (”Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary”) would, I suspect, be largely overlooked or condoned..’

Here is Lennon’s comment about Christianity in full:

'Christianity will go,' he said. 'It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first-rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.'

Lennon’s observation that the disciples were ‘thick and ordinary’ is actually a very perceptive theological insight, not an insult. The truth is that the picture of the disciples given to us in the Gospels is that they were ‘thick and ordinary’. Jesus spent his time amongst the ordinary people of his day and he was sneered at and ridiculed because of the people he associated with. The disciples were not very good at observing the religious niceties; many of them came from the region around Galilee and were looked down on by the elite in Jerusalem; some of them had disreputable occupations; they continually misunderstood Jesus, argued with each other and made mistakes; they doubted and questioned what Jesus was up to and their motives were sometimes suspect. Jesus knew all this about his followers and yet he chose them to be his disciples. That is part of the Good News that Jesus came to share; the Kingdom of God is for the weak, the foolish, the despised and the ignored.

As for Lennon’s prophecy that Christianity will ‘vanish and shrink’ (sic), time will tell, but I suspect it will prove to be as accurate as his observation that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus.

Thanks to Pete Banks for reminding me of Philip Norman's book John Lennon: The Life which has been reviewed by Nick Baines.

Sunday, 13 September 2009


Following my post on The Gospel According To Nick Cave, Cosmo has drawn my attention to CAVEspers a service developed by Nick Coke based on Cave’s songs. Nick explains CAVEspers as follows:

Why CAVEspers? Well, there is definitely something of the night about Nick Cave, and it just seems appropriate that Vespers, the evening prayer service, belongs to him.

CAVEspers is partly a response to the development of U2charists which Nick critiques in the following comment on his blog:

I get the concept - somewhat in line with this blog - and I do like U2. However, in my mind it's cheating slightly! Using U2 is pretty much like using church music or at least Delirious? and the dozens of Christian bands that mimic the U2 sound. What I want is something a little bit more 'edgy'.

I understand Nick’s concern, though I think there are plenty of ‘edgy’ U2 songs around. There's an interesting discussion going on at Elizaphanian on the U2 top ten.

Nick’s website is called Songs For The Journey and contains some great suggestions of songs that ‘motivate, inspire and challenge faith’. Anyway, check out CAVEspers and see what you think. Here’s another of my favourite Nick Cave songs There She Goes My Beautiful World.

Friday, 11 September 2009

the gospel according to Nick Cave

Few musicians could write an opening verse like the following and get away with it:

I don't believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
Not to touch a hair on your head
To leave you as you are
And if He felt He had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms

Into My Arms is a beautifully haunting love song and I was intrigued to discover that Nick Cave wrote it after visiting a church in Surrey. What the song highlights is the influence of faith and scripture on Cave’s writing. Simon Mayo interviewed Cave for Radio 5 Live this week and I was pleasantly surprised when he askenick caved a question which I had submitted via Twitter: ‘Does the Bible continue to have a big influence on your writing and which parts in particular?’ The answer was interesting because Cave began by saying that he didn’t read the Bible much anymore, but then went on to talk about Mark’s Gospel at some length.

Nick Cave wrote the introduction to Marks’ Gospel for Canongate Books’ ‘Pocket Canon’ series published in 1998. This is an extract from the Introduction:

When I bought my first copy of the Bible, the King James version, it was to the Old Testament that I was drawn, with its maniacal, punitive God who dealt out to His long-suffering humanity punishments that had me drop-jawed in disbelief at the very depth of their vengefulness.

I had a burgeoning interest in voilent literature, coupled with an unnamed sense of the divinity in things and, in my early twenties, the Old Testament spoke to that part of me that railed and hissed and spat at the world. I believed in God, but I also believed that God was malign and if the Old Testament was testament to anything, it was testament to that. Evil seemed to live close to the surface of existence within it, you could smell its mad breath, see the yellow smoke curl from its many pages, hear the blood-curdling moans of despair. It was a wonderful, terrible book, and it was sacred scripture.

But you grow up. You do. You mellow out. Buds of compassion push through the cracks in the black and bitter soil. Your rage ceases to need a name. You no longer find comfort watching a whacked-out God tormenting a wretched humanity as you learn to forgive yourself and the world.

Then, one day, I met an Anglican vicar and he suggested that I give the Old Testament a rest and read Mark instead. I hadn't read the New Testament at that stage because the New Testament was about Jesus Christ and the Christ I remembered from my choirboy days was that wet, all-loving, etiolated individual that the church proselytised. I spent my pre-teen years singing in the Wangaratta Cathedral Choir and even at that age I recall thinking what a wishy-washy affair the whole thing was. The Anglican Church: it was the decaf of worship and Jesus was their Lord.

"Why Mark?", I asked. "Because it's short", he replied. I was willing to give anything a go, so I took the vicar's advice and read it and the Gospel of Mark just swept me up.

Here, I am reminded of that picture of Christ, painted by Holman Hunt, where He appears, robed and handsome, a lantern in His hand, knocking on a door: the door to our hearts, presumably. The light is dim and buttery in the engulfing darkness. Christ came to me in this way, lumen Christi, with a dim light, a sad light, but light enough. Out of all the New Testament writings - from the Gospels, through the Acts and the complex, driven letters of Paul to the chilling, sickening Revelation - it is Mark's Gospel that has truly held me.

Later in the essay Cave goes on to write:

The Gospel According to Mark has continued to inform my life as the root source of my spirituality, my religiousness. The Christ that the Church offers us, the bloodless, placid 'Saviour' - the man smiling benignly at a group of children or serenely hanging from the cross - denies Christ His potent, creative sorrow or His boiling anger that confronts us so forcibly in Mark. Thus the Church denies Christ His humanity, offering up a figure that we can perhaps 'praise' but never relate to. The essential humanness of Mark's Christ provides us with a blueprint for our own lives so that we have something we can aspire to rather than revere, that can lift us free of the mundanity of our existences rather than affirming the notion that we are lowly and unworthy.

Merely to praise Christ in His Perfectness keeps us on our knees, with our heads pitifully bent. Clearly, this is not what Christ had in mind. Christ came as a liberator. Christ understood that we as humans were for ever held to the ground by the pull of gravity - our ordinariness, our mediocrity - and it was through His example that He gave our imaginations the freedom to fly. In short, to be Christ-like.

Although Cave was quite ambiguous about his faith in the interview with Mayo, his song writing continues to be infused with symbols and imagery drawn from scripture. Commenting on his band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ last album Dig Lazarus Dig!!! Cave says:

Ever since I can remember hearing the Lazarus story, when I was a kid, you know, back in church, I was disturbed and worried by it. Traumatised, actually. We are all, of course, in awe of the greatest of Christ's miracles—raising a man from the dead—but I couldn't help but wonder how Lazarus felt about it. As a child it gave me the creeps, to be honest. I've taken Lazarus and stuck him in New York City, in order to give the song, a hip, contemporary feel.

In 1999 Nick Cave gave a lecture on The Love Song in Vienna and the text is littered with references to God and the Bible. Reflecting on the impact of the Old Testament Cave observes:

Around the age of twenty, I stared reading the Bible and I found in the brutal prose of the Old Testament, in the feel of its words and its imagery, an endless source of inspiration. The Song of Solomon, perhaps the greatest love song ever written, had a massive impact upon me. Its openly erotic nature, the metaphoric journey taken around the lovers bodies – breasts compared to bunches of grapes and young deer, hair and teeth compared to flocks of goats and sheep, legs like pillars of marble, the navel- a round goblet, the belly- a heap of wheat – its staggering imagery rockets us into the world of pure imagination. Although the two lovers are physically separate – Solomon is excluded from the garden where his beloved sings – it is the wild, obsessive projections of one lover onto another that dissolve them into a single being, constructed from a series of rapturous love-metaphors.

The Song of Solomon is an extraordinary love song but it was the remarkable series of love song/poems known as the Psalms that truly held me. I found the Psalms, which deal directly with relationship between man and God, teeming with all the clamorous desperation, longing, exultation, erotic violence and brutality that I could hope for. The Psalms are soaked in suadade, drenched in duende and bathed in bloody-minded violence. In many ways these songs became the blue-print for much of my more sadistic love songs. Psalm 137, a particular favourite of mine and which was turned into a chart hit by the fab little band Boney M. is a perfect example of all I have been talking about.

These comments about the darker aspects of the scriptures reflected in the Psalms point to other themes which are constants in Cave’s writing alongside the spiritual; sex and violence. This darker side is perhaps best expressed through projects like Grinderman, Cave’s film script for The Proposition and his latest book, which was the focus of Simon Mayo’s interview, The Death of Bunny Munro. There are plenty of other influences on Cave’s writing, reflecting a wide range of interests and a depth of cultural appreciation, making Cave one of the most interesting and challenging contemporary musicians and writers.

Here’s a taste of Nick Cave in action performing Into My Arms back in 1999.

The Simon Mayo interview can be found here and my question comes at about 1hr 27mins 40secs.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

miraculous healing

Adam Rutherford has been writing a series for The Guardian on his participation on The Alpha Course. Last week Adam wrote a critical piece entitled Alpha can't heal my scepticism which amounted to a complete rejection of the possibility of healing through prayer; in the near future I hope to blog a response to his articles about Alpha. In the meantime consider this miraculous healing event as captured on YouTube.

h/t offthepost via Twitter

Monday, 7 September 2009

Bible on the beat

I fell asleep last night with the radio on and woke to hear a news item on an Australian police force which has issued officers with their own Bible. This morning I did a quick web search and discovered the story is true. The New South Wales state police force is being issued with its own Police Bible. Christianity Today Australia has an account of the story and includes the following from the Police Commisssioner Andrew Scipione:
"I believe the Police Bible will impact on generations of Police officers to come ..... Every officer who graduates from the Academy in Goulburn is offered a Bible and I would like to think an officer who receives one of these special Police Bibles will one day sit in my seat. The Police Bibles are sure to outlive the current administration."
The Bibles were the idea of the police chaplain Rev Russell Avery who explains:
"Coming from the Air Force I saw how popular the Defence Force Bible is, and wanted our law-enforcement officers to have a similar option available to them."
The Bible includes a police prayer and articles about ethics, service and integrity as well as pictures of serving officers. Police force chaplains will issue the Bibles to officers and the initial print run is 3000.

I wonder what the most read passage of the Bible will be? What about this passage from John 7:44ff:
Some of them wanted to arrest Jesus, but no one laid hands on him. Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, 'Why did you not arrest him?' The police answered, 'Never has anyone spoken like this.'
Other suggestions?

The other good thing about waking in the middle of the night was I got to hear Andy Murray winning his latest match in the US Open.

Friday, 4 September 2009

what’s in your Bible?

Interesting article in Bible Study Magazine comparing different canons of the Bible. The comparison is presented in a helpful chart which can be seen by clicking the icon below.

What's in Your Bible? Find out at

My own upbringing in a family from Protestant Belfast meant that the Apocrypha was something I always viewed with suspicion and I guess that subconsciously I didn’t think that Bibles which included it were actually Bibles. Though I read the Apocrypha for academic theological study I don’t use it for devotional study and still balk if I see an Apocryphal passage as a set reading in a service. This raises the whole question of what we mean when we say ‘This is the word of the Lord’ in worship? My conviction is that the average worshipper doesn’t have a clue what they mean by this proclamation.

On our diocesan Course in Christian Studies we encourage everyone to use a modern translation of the Bible. The one we recommend is the NRSV with Apocrypha because one of the issues we explore is the formation of the canon and why some books are seen as part of scripture and others not.

The question of what we regard as scripture, which parts we would include and what we would rather wasn’t there is as old as the writings themselves. A few years ago I received a letter from a vicar, circulated to all the clergy in our Episcopal area, calling for the removal of large sections of the Bible and urging that other ‘sacred writings’ be included. Nothing new there, good old Marcion was up to something similar in the second century.

Recently the Ship of Fools ran a forum to find the ten worst passages in the Bible and announced the results at the Greenbelt Festival. The list can be found here. What is fascinating about this list is the questions it raises about those who suggested the verses. How do they read scripture and in what way are they interpreting these verses (hermeneutics)? There is a helpful critique of the list offered by Peter Ould.

So, what’s in your Bible? More importantly, what difference does reading it make to your life?

H/T @SteveFouch on Twitter.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

ducking and diving

Two Premiership teams have had run-ins with the football authorities this week. First in the dock was Arsenal and their young Croatian striker Eduardo. Last week, in a Champions League qualifying match against Celtic, Eduardo took a dive and won a penalty which he then converted. The goal all but secured the tie for Arsenal and the football world was almost united in condemnation for what was seen as blatant cheating. I was furious at the time while following the match on TV and, if my Twitter mates are anything to go byEduardo, many Arsenal fans were embarrassed by the incident. Diving has been the bane of football for some time and players have become more and more adept at what is often referred to as simulation. Though the referee thought Eduardo was brought down by the Celtic goalkeeper, EUFA charged the player with deceiving the referee and on the basis of video evidence he was found guilty this week and suspended for two matches.

Although many commentators are delighted that EUFA has decided to take a tougher stand against cheating there is an uneasiness in the game about the decision. Can the officials be sure that Eduardo deliberately dived to win a penalty unfairly? Will EUFA show some consistency and punish other players throughout the season, or have they made an example of a young player in the early stages of the competition?

I have a complaint about UEFA’s decision. Last season Manchester United played Arsenal in the semi-final of the Champions League. During the second tie with the match already secured Man Utd’s Darren Fletcher was deemed to have fouled an Arsenal player in the penalty box. A penalty was awarded and Fletcher was sent off. TV replays clearly showed the player had won the ball fairly and that a penalty should not have been given. Even though there was a clear case for rescinding the red card UEFA claimed they were powerless to overrule the referee's decision and could not take into account the video evidence.

So there we have it; UEFA using video evidence to retrospectively punish a player for cheating but refusing to use the same evidence to overturn an unjust decision which ruled a player out of one of the most important matches of his career. Why was video evidence allowed in one instance and not in the other? How are the interests of the game served by refusing to acknowledge when officials have made a mistake? UEFA needs to pursue a consistent line in its use of video technology, not just to punish cheating, but to overturn injustices.

The second case involves Chelsea who today were found guilty by FIFA, the world governing football body, of illegally inducing the young French player Kakuta to sign for the club in 2007. Kakuta had been playing for the French club Lens when Chelski came knocking at his door. Lens were furious at the poaching of a young talent they had nurtured for several years and took the case to FIFA whose Dispute Resolutions Panel has today delivered kakutaits judgement. As punishment Chelski have been banned from engaging in player transfers until 2011; they and the player have been fined E780,000 and ordered to pay compensation of E130,000 to Lens. There has been a growing unease within the game about the large wealthy clubs hoovering up all the young talent from around the world, at the expense of smaller clubs who have developed the players and this case seems to indicate FIFAs determination to stamp out illegal approaches. This case focuses on Chelski inducing a young player to break a contract.

This is not the first time Chelski have been accused of sharp practice over player transfers. In 2005 John Obi Mikel was sold to Man Utd by his then club Lyn Oslo but Chelsea intervened and encouraged the player to sign a contract with them. FIFA were called in to help resolve the dispute and rather than leave the matter in their hands an agreement was made whereby Chelsea paid Man Utd £12 million for the player and Lyn Oslo £4 million.

Now the issue in Chelski’s case is not a simple matter of a club trying to encourage a player to seek a transfer, which is known as ‘tapping up’ in the game. Such activity is banned although it is recognised that most clubs engage in the practice at one time or another. Chelski have been found guilty of encouraging a player to break his contract with a team in order to sign for them.

It is no surprise that both Chelski and Arsenal have indicated their intention to make the most vigorous appeals against the UEFA and FIFA’s rulings. However, the cases do highlight some serious issues that the game must address if it is not to be brought further into disrepute. It goes without saying that I take no pleasure in seeing two of Man Utd’s greatest rivals facing the wrath of the football authorities!

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

drop down dead drunk

Yesterday’s accounts of the OECD report Doing Better For Children make disturbing but perhaps not surprising reading for anyone concerned about children and young people’s welfare in the UK. Take for example this quote from the report:

"Underage drinking and teenage pregnancy rates [in the UK] are high. Drunkenness is the highest in the OECD. The UK also reports the fourth highest teenage pregnancy rate after Mexico, Turkey and the United States."

Drunkenness is the highest in the OECD. Two personal experiences from last week might help explain the context for these figures. Last Monday I was in Iceland buying some food and at theiceland checkout noticed a display for 75cl bottles of Vodka: Price £5.50p. A little while later I looked at the front page of the local newspaper to discover that Duke’s, a Chelmsford town centre night club, was offering punters ‘£15 all you can drink’ nights – pay up front and drink the night away.

What these examples highlight are two factors that must have an impact on consumption of alcohol in this country; availability and cost. Lou Manzi the boss of Duke’s justified his pricing and availability policy in the following terms:

“None of us would seriously offer half-priced, discounted or all-in offers if we did not have to. It’s a matter of commercial survival like any other retail business.”

But the drinks industry is not just like any other retail business; it trades in a substance that can bring enjoyment but can also cause great harm, that is why the industry is regulated and there are laws governing the sale and consumption of alcohol. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against alcohol and enjoy a pint or a bottle of wine. I also recognise that there have been times in my life when I have drunk too much and I have seen the damage that alcohol has caused in broken relationships, violence, chronic disease and loss of life. In every parish I have served as a minister I can think of people whose lives were severely damaged if not ruined by drink. I married into a family of doctors and am all too familiar with the impact of alcohol abuse on the resources of the NHS.

Back in the 1970s I had a Saturday job in a Tesco store (in the days before it was seen as part of the evil empire). The drinks section consisted of a small part of one aisle with a few shelves stocked with a small selection of bottles of wine and cans of beer and larger. Today the drinks section in the average superstore takes up both sides of a whole aisle plus various other displays throughout the store. Those same stores have perpetual offers to encourage high volumes of sales, the classic being the 5% discount for 6 or more bottles of wine purchased. A few weeks ago I was shopping in a store and needed to spend over £50 to get a significant discount on petrol. I was a bit under the amount so added another bottle of wine to the shopping only to see the price drop below £50 once the wine discount was added so I added another bottle!

wine Two other factors to mention. In a bar with a colleague over lunch I observed three businessmen buy a bottle of wine which was then emptied into three large wine glasses. Not only were the glasses large, 250ml each, but the alcoholic content of the wine was high at 14%. I say high but actually 14% is fairly standard these days for a New World red, whereas not long ago 12.5% would have been the average. The same is true of the strength of beer and larger.

Four factors which provide the context for the OECD report: price, availability, volume and content. Yet, the saddest aspect about alcohol consumption in the UK is that so many people, including young people and children, seem to be drinking simply to get drunk and these factors serve that purpose. Why and what response can we make?

Right, I’m off to put the wine I bought on holiday in my cellar!

My post on teenage pregnancy and abortion can be found here.

Nicke Baines has posted a related blog to the OECD report here.

Church Mouse has commented on the OECD report here.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

wormwood – g.p. taylor

bk wormwood For several years now Harry Potter audio books have been a real godsend to the Ritchie household on our summer holidays. The long drives to various parts of France have been transformed into an enjoyable experience as we listen to the honeyed tones of Stephen Fry reading J.K.Rawling’s tomes. However, even these soundtracks of the summer have begun to wear a bit thin both literally and metaphorically. The kids know each book off by heart and have become expert critics of the films as they compare text to screen and spot the omissions, alterations and inconsistencies.

In a bid to break the Potter habit I headed off to the library in search of new material and came away with Wormwood, G.P. Taylor’s follow up to the excellent Shadowmancer. As we set off to Devon last week I inserted the first disc and waited to see how it would go down with the budding literary critics of the Ritchie clan. The first thing to say is that the book is brilliantly read by Cornelius Garrett who uses a wide range of voices to realise the various characters in the narrative. The plot lends itself to dramatic reading with a fast paced plot full of darkness and mystery. Taylor’s descriptions of London are graphically realised and you can almost smell and taste the disgusting underbelly of eighteenth century life in the capital.

The plot of Wormwood centres around two characters, Dr Sabian Blake and his servant girl Agetta. Blake is a scientist and astronomer with a fascination for the Kabbalah who comes into possession of a precious book called the Nemorensis. During his observations of the night sky Blake discovers a comet called Wormwood hurtling towards the Earth, threatening to bring destruction to London and he studies the Nemorensis in an attempt to understand the unfolding catastrophe. The book is sought by other sinister characters including the beautiful and mysterious Yerzinia and her accomplices. Agetta is a fourteen year old, reminiscent of Pullman’s Lyra, who longs to escape service to Blake and her life of toil and drudgery. Hearing about the Nemorensis and encouraged by Yerzinia, Agetta steals the book from her master and sets out to deliver it into the hands of a bookseller introduced to her by Yerzinia.

As the race to retrieve the Nemorensis develops two other extraordinary figures are introduced amongst the collection of grotesques emerging from the backstreets of the metropolis. Tegatus is a fallen angel, imprisoned by Agetta’s father and facing a future on public display as a freak. Agetta frees Tegatus and together they seek to prevent the Nemorensis falling into Yerzinia’s hands. At the same time Blake discovers that he has a guardian angel Abram (Raphael) following him and Abram explains his mission to retrieve the Nemorensis while also exposing the foolishness and danger of Blake’s fascination with the Kabbalah.

Taylor is a skilled descriptive writer, though at times he lingers too long on the blood and gore; there are only so many descriptions of sores, scabs, lice and disfigurements one can take. Some of the accounts of the panic and mayhem following the emergence of the comet are truly horrific, including packs of wild dogs tearing apart children and the infirm, in a style characteristic of the classic gothic novel, and this tone is sustained throughout the text. The chapter headings are chiefly in Latin, there are unfamiliar phrases and scriptural allusions likely to be ignored by many and there are occasions when it is difficult to follow the narrative which continually demands careful listening. With the book it would be easier to reread key passages and conversations.

The book is not without controversy. Taylor is regarded as a children’s writer and yet the material is challenging. I’ve already mentioned the graphic and gruesome descriptions and there are occult references and allusions. Others have been disturbed by the ambiguity regarding good and evil in the story; this is much more subtle than Harry Potter where the characters are more clearly on the side of right and wrong. Taylor is prepared to explore the spectrum and uncertainty, leaving it to his audience to reflect and draw their own conclusions. The subtlety provides much material for reflection and discussion about the nature of what is good and what corrupts. One of the issues explored skilfully by the author is the contrast between a rationalist scientific reductionism represented by Blake and a spiritual openness to questions including whether we have a soul.

I did wonder whether Wormwood was suitable listening for our young son but he has seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy and listened to the excellent BBC dramatisation, so blood, guts, evil and demons are nothing new. Perhaps the main difference is LOTR is more clearly fantastical whereas Wormwood is rooted in a world more realistic even if of a different time. There were times when both our kids found it difficult to follow the intricacies of the story and it will be worth waiting a couple of years before we give it another go.

Wormwood is more Pullman than Potter and harder work than both but was still an entertaining way to pass a few hours in the car.