Friday, 30 January 2009

top three (2) - dvd box sets

What are your top 3 DVD box sets?

My three are:
  • The West Wing. The best is season 2 and the weakest season 5 following the departure of its creator Aaron Sorkin.
  • Arrested Development. Never got the credit it deserved due to some ludicrous scheduling.
  • The Wire: As addictive as the substances in season 1. I don't always agree with Giles Fraser but about The Wire he is spot on.

I post this as my kids put on the Mama Mia dvd again. To me this is musical pornography; the weakest possible plot linking Abba's greatest hits but they love singing along to the soundtrack so what can you do?

Thursday, 29 January 2009

john martyn

Very sad to hear the news of John Martyn's death today. To be honest I wasn't that surprised, given his lifestyle I am amazed he lasted this long. Martyn created a unique vocal and guitar sound with his blend of folk, rock and jazz influences. I remember his regular appearances on The Old Grey Whistle Test in the 1970s and have some on dvd. Had the privilege of seeing him play at Durham Uni in the early 1980s. He sat on his seat surrounded by a band of gifted young musicians and worked his way through a classic set and a couple of crates of Holstein Pils. Martyn was awarded the OBE in the New Year honours list.

Favourite tracks:
  • Solid Air
  • Bless the Weather
  • May You Never
  • Stormbringer
I'll be listening to John on the ipod tonight with a single malt and the lights down low.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

holocaust memorial day

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) which commemorates the tragic loss of life in the genocides of World War II, in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. HMD is held on 27 January, the anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I took these pictures at Yad Vashem Holcaust Memorial in Jerusalem in December. Information about the HMD Trust can be found here. My post about my visit to Yad Vashem can be found here.

Entrance to the Children's Memorial

Pillar of Heroism

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The Last March

Saturday, 24 January 2009

top three (1) - toilet books

What are your top three books to keep in the toilet?

My current three are:

Thursday, 22 January 2009

lent and eastertide schools 2009

Bookings are still open for the Diocese of Chelmsford Lent & Eastertide Schools 2009. Information about the courses on offer can be found at Lent Schools 2009 and Eastertide Schools 2009.

I and some of my blogging colleagues will be running courses including:

The Big Picture 2: Exploring the engagement between Christianity, Christian Artists and Popular Culture.
Led by Jonathan Evens, Paul Trathen and Philip Ritchie.

Let Us Be Human: How might we put our theology, our global questions and our choices of lifestyle into a constructive dialogue?
Led by Sam Norton and Paul Trathen.

Living With Other Faiths: Exploring why Christians should engage with other faith communities and how we can go about doing this.
Led by Jonathan Evens and David Driscoll.

Other courses on offer cover subjects including:
The ministry of the Evangelist; dance and worship; the faith we share; Churches together today; Children, community and church; the Reformation in Essex and East London; is the Old Testament Christian? mission shaped ministry; walk thru' the Bible; Christian poetry; Old Testament lucky dip; signposts into life (vocation); pastoral care; Christian art; Myers Briggs refresher; prayer workshop.

Friday, 16 January 2009

holy land reflections (5) - dark fog

An excellent piece in The Guardian this morning written by Paul Kaye: A dark fog has enveloped us. 'When a rocket killed his mother-in-law in Israel, actor Paul Kaye was appalled by the celebrations in Gaza. Six months on, he feels a different kind of despair'.

Kaye powerfully conveys something of the complexity of the situation in the Holy Land and the conflicting responses evoked by the Hamas' shelling of Israel and Israel's military response. He concludes the article with the following:

'At Shuli's funeral last May, her son Jonathon, my brother-in-law, gave a speech. "Where are the doves?" he asked. "What is this land worth without someone with a vision? Nothing. Without doves it wasn't worth the struggle." Jonny is 34. He's an army reservist who is studying to be a neurologist and has a two-year-old son called Boaz. He didn't scream for blood at his mother's graveside, he screamed for peace.

In our house we have our own thinking to do. My eldest son, Jordy, has Israeli citizenship and in two years he will have to choose either to relinquish that citizenship or to fight in the Israeli army. It can be only his choice. But, unlike the Palestinians in Gaza, at least he has one.'

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

holy land reflections (4) - collective punishment

One of the issues at the heart of the present situation in Gaza is the question of collective punishment. The Israeli government justifies its attack on Gaza as a defensive reaction to the continual shelling of Israeli communities by Hamas. However, Israel’s action in Gaza has been criticised because it seems to be disproportionate and indiscriminate, with a high level of deaths and casualties amongst the general population including many children. Some have argued that Israel’s actions have amounted to war crimes for which she should be held accountable. There is a perpetual cycle of accusation and counter accusation, justification and counter justification from those supporting both sides in the conflict.

I was reading Genesis 18 yesterday, which describes the appearance of the Lord to Abraham at Mamre. There is a well known icon by Rublev (left) depicting the incident which always comes to mind as I read this passage. But yesterday the focus of my attention was not on this incident but on what follows in vs. 16-33. The three angels having visited with Abraham set out for Sodom and the Lord reveals to Abraham what he is about to do; destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because ‘their sin is very grave’. Abraham pleads with the Lord asking whether he will destroy the righteous with the wicked in the city and eventually the Lord promises that he will not destroy it for the sake of ten righteous. In the end the city is destroyed but not before Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and his family have escaped. As I read and reflected on this passage the image that kept coming into my thoughts was of Gaza under a cloud of smoke.

I also watched a brief interview of Richard Dreyfuss and Kevin Spacey conducted by Andrew Marr for the BBC. The interview was about a new play at The Old Vic called Complicit. At the end of the interview Marr asked Dreyfuss about his thoughts on the situation in Gaza:

ANDREW MARR: You have spoken in the past about being so proud of your Jewish-ness and you've taken a very nuanced view of what's happened in Israel in the past. And we're going through this great crisis at the moment, people on the streets of every major city including this one, on both sides, and I just wonder the good citizen - your answer is educate yourself.

RICHARD DREYFUSS: Yes. And also the good citizen has to have commonsense. It's a problem that is so complex that there is only one word that works, it's God's test, and that is "forgive". You must forgive them and you must forgive yourself because there is no original sin there. Neither of the parties involved committed an original sin. I forgive.

KEVIN SPACEY: I think you know forgiveness is a fantastic place to begin.

ANDREW MARR: And it's a good place to end.

KEVIN SPACEY: And thank you as well for making your debut on the Old Vic stage. We're very delighted to have you.

RICHARD DREYFUSS: Thank you very much. (laughter).

Friday, 9 January 2009

Jesus the Jew - again!

Channel 4 begins a new series on Sunday evening at 7pm called Christianity: A History. This is how it describes the series:
This provocative eight-part series explores the history and global impact of the world's biggest religion through the personal views of leading British figures.
Over the course of the series, eight high-profile personalities - including Michael Portillo, Rageh Omaar, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Cherie Blair - look at the origins and history of the Christian faith.
In each film the presenter addresses a subject that means something particular to them. In doing so, they bring their own perspectives to a challenging and comprehensive debate that explores Christianity's role in shaping the modern world.

The first episode is titled Jesus the Jew and is presented by the writer Howard Jacobson. If what Jacobson has written in The Guardian today is anything to go by then I don’t hold out much hope for the series. His article Behold! The Jew Jesus is largely focused on Christian anti-Semitism which he argues has disowned the fact that Jesus was a Jew. Let me say that Jacobson’s criticism of the history of anti-Semitism in Christianity is perfectly justified and he clearly identifies attitudes towards Jews and treatment of Jews for which we as Christians should be ashamed.

However, where Jacobson comes unstuck is in the second part of his article when he writes this:
Explain it how you will, Judaism is Christianity's guilty secret, and God help whoever happens to be the occasion of a people's guilt. "When will Jews be forgiven the Holocaust?" asks that dark philosopher John Gray. There is a prior question. When will Jews ever be forgiven giving Christianity its religion?

Now I don’t know what New Testament scholarship Jacobson has read and I don’t know which experts have been consulted for the programme he presents but Jesus being a Jew is no guilty secret. The primary focus of N.T. scholarship of the last thirty years has been on Jesus the Jew! In the early 1980s when I studied Theology at Durham and Oxford leading N.T. scholars including E. P. Sanders and J. D. G. Dunn spoke and wrote of little else. N.T. Wright argues that you can’t understand Jesus without understanding later Second Temple Judaism while Funk, Crossan and The Jesus Seminar argue that Jesus was nothing more than an itinerant Hellenistic Jewish sage. The one criticism of contemporary studies of Jesus that cannot be made is that it doesn’t take the fact he was a Jew seriously. This has been the main concern of what has been termed The Third Quest for the Historical Jesus.

There are other throwaway comments in the article which don’t stand even superficial examination, for example Jacobson writes:
In this matrix of fear, superstition and distaste can be discerned the hand not just of the early Church fathers who set out deliberately to malign the Jewish religion, but also the apostles - "Ye are of your father the devil," the Gospel of St John has Jesus say to those whom John is already calling "the Jews", to suggest Jesus is no part of them. In order for Jesus to be extricated from his Jewishness, Jews themselves had to be discredited, demeaned and ultimately diabolised.

Set aside the question of the authorship of the Gospels and look at Jacobson’s claim. Jacobson is guilty of the very thing he accuses Christians of doing, denying peoples Jewishness. The fact is that the Apostles were Jews, whether or not they wrote the Gospels. The N.T. does not hide the Jewish origins of the disciples or of Christianity, otherwise why would it be the centre of so much debate within the texts. Marcion was rejected as a heretic by the Church Fathers precisely because he attempted to excise any positive portrayal of Judaism from the scriptures.

The basic problem with Jacobson's piece, which at times becomes little more than a rant, is that he seems to be arguing that Christianity somehow arose out of somewhere unconnected with Judaism and reinterpreted the life of Jesus the Jew. He denies that any of the central claims of Christianity; Jesus as Son of God, Jesus as Saviour and the resurrection, for example, have any basis in Judaism. Well where do they come from then? Jacobson fingers Paul as the culprit:
It took Paul, however, to realise the transforming power not only of the supernatural but the universal. Christianity triumphed over Judaism when it abandoned the law and the people to whom it had been given. Christians may glory in that if they choose, but such had never been Jesus's intention.

But Jacobson’s done it again; Paul was a Jew. Jacobson can’t have his cake and eat it. He cannot argue for the Jewishness of Jesus and deny the Jewishness of Jesus’ followers who proclaimed the Christian faith.

Who is the Jesus that we are left with according to Jacobson.
Remove the slippery metaphor of personal salvation and the blasphemy of his being the Son of God - with neither of which concept Jesus himself had the slightest bit to do - and there is nothing that he is reported to have said or performed that would have raised the ire of his fellow Jews sufficiently for them to chant for his death. In so far as we can separate his actual words from later theological interpretations of them - the historical Jesus from the person Christians writing after the event needed him to be - the voice we hear is that of an unequivocally Jewish healer and teacher.

To me this looks much like the sort of stuff that was doing the rounds in the 1960s & 1970s perhaps best articulated in The Myth of God Incarnate edited by John Hick. This leaves me with the following question:
Is this Jesus a person worth believing in, worth dying for, someone that would change peoples lives. Yes, Jesus was a Jew but if Jesus was no more than a simple Jewish healer and teacher then what was all the fuss about?

There is one other issue which Channel 4's series raises for me. Here we have a group of 'high profile personalities', including a Jew (Jacobson who is clearly hostile) and a Moslem (Omaar), presenting their views on a history of Christianity. I look forward to a similar series on Islam, Mohammed and the Qur'an but I won't be holding my breath.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

the not quite atheist bus

The Atheist Bus Campaign finally got under way yesterday. For those who don't know, it is basically a series of adverts on City Buses saying 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.' The campaign is the 'brainchild' of comedian Ariane Sherine, who I'd never heard of until reading about the project in The Guardian, and about £140,000 has been raised for the adverts.

Just a few brief comments about the project. It isn't really an Atheist Bus Campaign but more an agnostic bus campaign - the word probably being the issue and supporters of the campaign seem to disagree about whether it should have been included.

The campaign has had a massive amount of publicity, with numerous articles in the national media and a significant item on last nights BBC news, so I'm not sure why its supporters are so surprised at the amount of money they raised. The usual suspects have signed up including those dependable atheists A. C. Grayling, Polly Toynbee and Richard Dawkins. The report of the press launch which I saw yesterday showed a rather large heated tent with the three of them sitting in the front row and behind them quite a few empty seats. Dawkins did his piece to camera and The Guardian has posted a video of Toynbee interviewing Dawkins.

The problem for the campaigners is that their advert seems to have misfired. On the whole Christian organisations have welcomed the campaign because it gets people talking about God. As a representative from a Christian advertising network said on B.B.C. London News, the real concern for Christians is apathy.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

holy land pictures - advent 2008

I've finally managed to put online some roughly edited photographs from my trip to the Holy Land during Advent 2008; they can be viewed on my Picasa Web Album site here. Thank you to all those who commented on my postings from the Holy Land, it was very encouraging, and I hope to post some final reflections over the next couple of weeks as my sabbatical draws to an end.

Friday, 2 January 2009

holy land reflections (3) - conflict

New Jewish Settlement under construction outside Bethlehem

This Christmas period has been a miserable time for the land of Christ’s birth and like many others I have been watching the unfolding tragedy of recent events with a sense of helplessness and despair. So far I have been reluctant to blog about the political situation in the Holy Land (this seems to me to be the least emotive title to describe the area) because the situation is so complex and so much that I have read fails to do justice to the people on all sides who are caught up in the conflict. These are just a few observations drawing on my experience of the place and the people.

Firstly I want to say how fortunate I was to visit the Holy Land when I did. Had I been there a few days later it would have been impossible to travel around as we did both in Jerusalem and in places like the West Bank. St. George’s College, Jerusalem has a full programme of courses for 2009 but if the present crisis continues it is inevitable that their programmes will be greatly curtailed and the opportunities for course members to encounter the land and people will be heavily restricted. So my thoughts and prayers are with Stephen and Jill Need and the rest of the staff at the college and particularly I pray for Andrew Mayes, the new Course Director at the college, who is due to lead a Palestine of Jesus course in the next couple of days.

One of the reasons I find it difficult to tease out my reflections on the political situation is that I was struck by the number of perfectly reasonable people on all sides of the conflict who have a real desire for peace but also fear that the chance of securing that peace is diminishing as extremists set the agenda.

On the Jewish side there is a genuine fear that they must do whatever it takes to secure their safety and that includes the construction of the separation barrier/wall and military intervention. In recent years Jewish communities in Israel have had to endure a steady stream of missiles raining down on them from across the Lebanese border and from Gaza. Many of these devices may be crude and poorly directed but that does not diminish the fear that this constant bombardment has created and the demand that the authorities do something about it. One of the most pathetic comments I heard came from a Palestinian with his explanation that 90% of these missiles fall on open agricultural land and so the threat is greatly exaggerated by the western media. Well I’m sorry but the fact that people aren’t very skilled at targeting their missiles isn’t very comforting.

You only have to spend a few minutes in the holocaust museum to understand the Jewish determination that they will never let this happen again. That determination is reinforced by the pronouncements of some Palestinian and Arab leaders who continue to deny Israel’s right to exist (Hamas and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran for example). It is not good enough to argue that these pronouncements are simply for internal consumption and that they won’t actually act on these sentiments – Jewish people have been there before. By the way, I thought Channel 4’s decision to invite Ahmadinejab to give the alternative Queen’s speech on Christmas Day was an example of the worst sort of publicity seeking act of stupidity by a supposedly responsible media organisation. Peter Tatchell’s comment piece in The Guardian very effectively exposed that mendacious nonsense.

The problem is that the measures taken by the Israeli authorities seem to be exacerbating the situation. The security wall has been effective in preventing the incursion of suicide bombers but it has also been effective in increasing the searing resentment in the West Bank as has the blockade of Gaza following the election there of Hamas. The wall doesn’t follow the boundaries of the Palestinian territories as internationally agreed and in many places has effectively annexed some of the best agricultural land and crucial water supplies. The wall has had a major impact on the economic, social, religious, mental and physical wellbeing of Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians.

Israeli settlements continue to be built in the West Bank despite Israel’s commitment to stop them and they often secure the best land and facilities at the expense of the Palestinians; I saw this at Bethlehem. Seeing the infrastructure being put in place I cannot see how these settlements will ever be abandoned and this makes the likelihood of a two state solution less realistic by the day. It will not be long before there is no area that could form a Palestinian State as it is reduced to little more than a series of rump communities cut off from each other. This was a fear I heard expressed by both Israeli and Palestinian representatives who came to speak to us.

The new road systems being built across the Holy Land made our movement around the country swift and comfortable. However, I was disturbed to learn that cars with Palestinian number plates are effectively banned from these roads and many of the roads they are allowed to use are falling into disrepair; in some cases they suddenly come to a stop as they have been blocked off by the security forces. I just don’t see how these policies are going to lead to anything other than greater resentment as they concretise a structure of apartheid.

The same could be argued about the present military action by Israel in Gaza. I have yet to read one politician or commentator who can explain how the policy being pursued by Israel is going to bring about her stated desire for peace and security. It is a short term response to the understandable demand that something be done about the shelling of Israeli communities from Gaza, against the backdrop of the general elections taking place in the next couple of months. However, the action seems doomed to the same failure as the War in Lebanon of 2006.

One of the writers who has best summarised the present situation in my view is David Aaronovitch writing in The Times. He comments:

The historian Tom Segev, writing in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, yesterday reminded readers that “all of Israel's wars have been based on yet another assumption that has been with us from the start: that we are only defending ourselves”, but that “no military operation has ever advanced dialogue with the Palestinians”. He wasn't saying that Israel hadn't the right to stop the rockets from being fired from Gaza, but that it would get the larger process precisely nowhere.

Adamant though I am about the need to combat Islamist violence, it is hard not to see Western and Israeli policy towards Gaza since Israel's unilateral withdrawal in 2005 as one huge strategic error. There was the refusal to deal with the Hamas Government elected in January 2006, the siding with Fatah in the subsequent internal dispute, the imposition of an effective blockade on Gaza that amounted to collective punishment.

My personal opinion is that the best way forward is a two state solution but that the longer implementation is delayed the less likely that solution will be possible given some of the factors I have mentioned above. President elect Obama and his new administration in the U.S.A. will have a crucial part to play and George W. Bush’s failure to invest any effort into the peace process until the last moment is one more indictment against his bankrupt (in every sense) presidency. The Israeli elections in February will also be critical and one can only hope that the extreme religious and political forces which have so often dictated policy can be marginalised. On the Palestinian side one can also hope that those who only see resolution to the issue through the missile, suicide bomb and eradication of the State of Israel are rejected by the people, though the present crisis makes that less likely. I am convinced that the vast majority of Palestinians and Jews want peace but it has to be based on a just and equitable settlement.

One is tempted to despair that any peaceful way forward is possible and then I remember the words of a member of the P.L.O. Negotiations Affairs Department who spoke to us while in Jerusalem. He urged us not to give up hope, to become better informed and above all to pray for the situation. Seems pretty good advice to me so that is what I plan to do.

Israeli soldier checking our passports at a Bethlehem border crossing.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

new year's day 2009

Upottery Church New Year's Eve

Beautiful frost over the last couple of days here in Devon so I thought I'd try some black and white photos.

Sheep grazing in the Otter Valley

Stunning hoar frost on Seven Mile Straight, New Year's Day.

Happy New Year!