Monday, December 31, 2012

Let's have some sensible discussion on welfare and wages

So, Ian Duncan Smith supports the paying of poverty wages by Britain's public and private enterprises and does not really believe that employment is the solution to poverty - only that the public purse should not be supporting those in need. This is the implication of his imbecilic and opportunist attack on the tax credits system.

If employers paid the living wage - not mentioned in his Telegraph article - the tax credits bill would fall by £2bn (according to the Resolution Foundation). More importantly the vital social contract between the nation and business would be healed to some extent. Businesses have a responsibility not just to make profits for shareholders but to pay wages that make life above the poverty line possible for their workforces.

We all want the day when no one in work needs their wages supported by the state.

Duncan Smith's fraud argument is the usual scare-mongering sideshow as it accounts for 5% of tax credits on his own inflated figures. What he should be doing is putting pressure on business to pay the living wage and above to all their employees and campaign for business to play its proper part in overcoming poverty in our country.

All his article does is demonstrate how woefully ill-equipped he is to be in the job he's currently got.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Saving art for the nation

Well, this is a hoot. Bromley Council is claiming ownership of the Henry Moore sculpture that Tower Hamlets council wants to sell to off-set funding cuts. I was touched by our leader's new-found interest in and commitment to public art.

Stephen Carr said in a letter to Tower Hamlets "This sculpture must remain in public ownership which is line with the original principles of Henry Moore himself. The idea that selling this internationally recognised sculpture will somehow tackle the financial situation facing Tower Hamlets is flawed. Local authorities need to face financial reality and look at the longer-term challenges.The monies raised would not protect frontline services for very long and would stop future generations appreciating this national treasure."

I am heartened by Councillor Carr's new-found commitment to public ownership and I look forward to Bromley Council ring-fencing public assets - such as libraries - not to mention their support for an arts and cultural centre in the midst of the retail wasteland that is our town centre.

Sadly, I'm not sure the letter has anything to do with a love of art, public or otherwise. It's  rather a restatement of austerity thinking dressed up as concern for people's cultural lives. I wonder if Mr Carr will be adding his voice to those from the North East decrying the slashing of arts spending in that region or to those raising concerns that the lack of arts in the curriculum of Gove's English Baccalaureate will lead to an impoverishing of the nation's soul. I'm not hopeful.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The good news in the census numbers

The census numbers are in and they confirm what many of have long suspected. There has been a collapse in allegiance to the Christian faith. It's down from 72% to 59% in a decade. And the number claiming no religious faith is up from 14% to 25%.

What the numbers don't tell us about is church attendance. That continues to bump along the bottom of a 1500 year low. What it does confirm is the ebbing of the Christian story from the wider culture. Fewer people feel the need to claim any allegiance to it - hence the fall in those claiming affinity with the Christian religion and the rise in those eschewing religion altogether.

The numbers are probably good news. Of course, there'll be wild scare stories about an imminent Muslim take-over of the land (after all, they now account for just under 5% of the population). But the good news lies in the fact that we are, at last, seeing the stripping away of the carapace of Christendom, that smoke-screen that the church has hidden behind for too long.

Now we see for real that we are in a missional situation in the UK. The old rules do not apply; old forms of church and outreach look increasingly antique and so, whether they have any aesthetic appeal or museum value, they are no longer fit for the purpose of making Jesus known in twenty-first century Britain.

So, it's time to follow Jesus and invite others to join us and see what kind of communities form as we do so. Who'd have thought the census could make such exciting reading!

Monday, December 10, 2012

My favourite music of 2012

It’s the time of year when for no reason other than I want to know what I’ve shelled out for new music this year, I offer my pick of the albums that have brought me the most joy over the past twelve months.

It’s been a good year for unexpected comebacks and vintage acts producing their best work in years. With so much good stuff around it’s been a little tricky picking an outright winner but one album has consistently risen to the top of the pile, constantly and invariably putting a smile on my face and making me feel good to be alive every time I listen. More on that later.

So, here’s a thirteen of the best of the best in no particular order, followed by a top five:

Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball demonstrated that the boss is still at the top of his game. It’s an album driven by anger at what the bankers have done to the ordinary people of America. But it’s also a record that’s brimming with reflections on what it means to be a man of faith in troubled times. The closing track is an amazing affirmation of resurrection in the teeth of injustice.

Clock Opera is a British band who’ve been bubbling around for a while. Their keyboard-driven debut album, Ways to forget, is full of quirky, jerky rhythms, dead pan humour and great tunes.

Dead Can Dance came back from the dead – or at least a decade or so away – with an album named after the resurrection, Anastasis. The trade mark epic mix of dance rhythms and eastern flavours is present and correct giving rise to a truly satisfying 56 minutes.

Damon Albarn cemented his place as all-round renaissance artist with an opera based on the life of Elizabeth 1’s conjurer Dr Dee. We went to see it performed at the ENO. It is a truly magnificent piece of work, Blur meets John Donne in a gorgeous suite of songs about the nature of Englishness in both Elizabethan ages.

Patti Smith’s Banga is everything you expect from the queen of punk and a lot you wouldn’t. My copy came in a hardback book, giving me the opportunity to read the words, which stand on their own as musings on the absurdity of life and the reality of faith. Only a couple of tracks misfire but overall the journey is worth the taking.

Richard Hawley dropped the croon for something more psychedelic and gave us Standing at the Sky’s Edge rolling in on waves of distorted guitars and angry reflections on the state of the nation. Hawley has an eye for detail and the ability to conjure tunes from nowhere. Wonderful.

Tracey Thorn has done the near impossible which is to produce a Christmas album that you might listen to in May. Tinsel and Lights is a beautiful collection of mainly covers – including the most gorgeous rendition of Joni Mitchell’s River – with two self-penned originals; it is bold and beautiful. It is also one of the few Christmas albums that does not contain a cheesy take on a Christmas carol. It almost replaces Low’s magnificent Christmas in my affections…almost, you understand!

Smoke Fairies returned with a second collection Blood Speaks, full of their trade mark lush vocals over edgy guitar. It’s the work of a band hitting their stride and promising great things for the future as their writing matures.

Deacon Blue is the unlikeliest comeback of the year. The Hipsters could well be the best thing they’ve ever done, awash with great tunes and jaunty reflections on the passing years.

Soulsavers, after two albums with Mark Lanegan, produced a collection of songs with Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan. And a thing of wonder it is too. Called The Light the Dead See, it’s a brooding set about life, love, death and what it all adds up to. Presence of God is the stand-out track with its observation ‘I can feel the presence of god/In need of my attention/In this room and in your words/In too many ways to mention’

Talking of Mark Lanegan, he produced the best album he’s done under his own name. Blues Funeral, as the name suggests, is not a collection of jaunty ditties, but no one does gothic gloom like Lanegan… 

Then of course, there’s the irrepressible Bob Dylan. Sounding brighter than he has for a decade, he returned this year with Tempest, an album full of shuffle, groove and great stories. He can’t recapture the impact of the great albums of the 60s – they changed the art form forever – but this is a danceable collection from an old master.

And finally, the hugely accomplished debut from Alt-J, An Awesome Wave, deserved winner of the Mercury Prize came my way via a recommendation from my 16 year old niece (who says I'm not down with the kids?!!). Baffling but affecting lyrics, lovely tunes, great rhythms – what more could you ask for?

And so to the top five.

The year opened with Leonard Cohen, a man old enough to know better, giving us Old Ideas, an album bristling with new insights into life and faith, wrapped in some good tunes and great arrangements by a band at the top of its form.

Anais Mitchell released a storming folk opera a couple years ago based on the myth of Orpheus in the underworld. This year she topped that achievement with a collection of songs called Young Man in America. She combines a childlike reverie with a wise eye for the world we live in. The stripped down arrangements and startling vocals draw you in and great story telling – especially on the title track (a song worth the price of the download on its own) – does the rest. She’s a reminder – if one were needed – that keeping it simple always packs the most powerful punch.

The autumn brought us Neil Young’s blistering return to form, the 86 minute Psychedelic Pill with its opening 27 minute track that rambles across his life bringing surprisingly moving insights into what it’s like to be inside his head. It’s the best thing he’s done with Crazy Horse since Sleeps with Angels almost twenty years ago and it demonstrates that he’s not run out energy yet; long may he run…

Bill Mallonee’s fiftieth album, Amber Waves, finally came out in November. It’s his best collection in ages, world weary, insightful, faith-affirming; great tunes and a guitar sound to die for.

Album of the year, however, is Bill Fay’s Life is People. This is also a come-back album from an artist who had a couple of albums out in the early 70s (not that he crossed my radar then). This is a collection of songs about life, faith and hope played by a great set of musicians. There isn’t a wasted note or syllable here; it’s a collection that makes you feel good to be alive and thanking God that you can hear such tender and lovely music. If you buy only one record this Christmas, you should buy this one.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Paul and women (some tentative first thoughts...)

Following interest on my Facebook page about a class I was teaching this morning on 1 Corinthians 11 and what Paul says about women, here are some notes  produced a while ago for my church on the passage in question.

They are not the last word.... They might not even be the first word! They are an attempt to place Paul's words in a recognisable first century context and then see how what he says might apply today.

Worship and social climbing
1 Corinthians 11:2-16
The church exists in culture and culture always affects the church: hence Karen Baptists take off their shoes when they go into church (they take off their shoes whenever they go into a building) but their churches have benches (a gift from our culture via missionaries as their homes don’t have chairs at all!). 

1 Corinthians 11 is baffling until we grasp two things: the gospel and first century Corinth

1) under new management...
i) Good news: King Jesus reigns and as we come under his rule, our lives change in every way: devotional, work, home, shopping, politics. We’re new people in Jesus, called to live in a new way to a new agenda: our king’s glory. It's what much of 1 Corinthians has been about up to this point.

ii) Gathering together: the message is earthed in small communities of believing people – maybe 20 to 30 gathering in workshops in the city's back streets  – meeting to build each other up: 14:3-5,12,26. In the church we learn how to live for Jesus in world and we model the lifestyle of the kingdom to those outside looking on. 1 Corinthians 11-14 is a single section of the letter dealing with the etiquette of the gathering - the why and how of assembling together.

2) the same old world
The trouble is, Paul's hearers have been Corinthians longer than they've been followers of Jesus and so they brought their old attitudes and aspirations into the church: the rich are superior to the poor; one is either a patron or a client, ethnic differences cause tensions, etc. How can we live according to King Jesus’ pattern in the world, if we’re hopelessly divided in church? This is Paul’s theme in 11-14: Division between rich & poor at Lord’s table (11:17ff); division between the elite and rest in the body (12-13); division over spiritual gifts (14)

There are three things to note about 11:2-16:
i) Husbands and wives or men and women – same Greek words are used for both and how we render the word has massive bearing on how we understand the text. Although Paul bases his teaching on Genesis 1-3 and so could be generally talking about ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’, the likelihood is he’s  being more specific. This is likely because…

ii) Home churches: the community met in homes – about 25 in each: for example, Chloe (1:11) and Stephanus (16:15). Within the household wives would have had more freedom than they had in public – but what happened when a public gathering happened in their private space: which rules apply? This matters because:

iii) Honour and shame in the Roman world. This was a society with very strict rules regarding honour and shame and a new movement risked great danger if it disregarded those rules. This section is awash with the language of honour and shame - some words that we think are religious actually come from this pool of meaning: praise (v2); glory (v7, 15), shame (v6), disgrace (v4-5) and dishonour (v14). That's quite a concentration. And it's important to remember that however we understand these words, they would have been heard by their original audience as having to do with matters of honour and shame, a key social issue for people in the ancient world.

And there are two other things to note - one a word in the passage and the other, part of the background for Paul's teaching:

Messengers (v10) – not ‘angels’ but people coming to see if this regular meeting was observing the rules of good order and reporting back to their patrons or even those charged with ensuring women obeyed the dress code when in public. This was the usual meaning of the word ‘angelos’ in secular use. Homes in the ancient world tended to be more open to the public - people came in collecting goods, dropping off supplies, seeking work, were visiting from out of town, were clients or relatives or neighbours. People came and went for all kinds of reasons and Paul wanted to ensure the gatherings didn't put them off the new faith.

Mission – always in the background of what Paul says when it's not in the foreground. It was key to his teaching on attitudes on meat and dinners in chapters 8-10 and it's important here. Basically, the outsiders mustn’t be repelled by what they see – see the key verse 14:23. Paul’s concern is that people meet Jesus. In Nepal Christians take off their shoes and men and women separate to the right and left of the building, so that non-Christian Nepalis aren’t repelled by any ‘shame’ in the gathering – this the tension of 9:19-23 in action

3) A distinctive way of life
With that in mind, what Paul says is fairly clear!

i) women and men/husbands and wives are equal: v11: key verse ‘in the Lord’ means ‘from a Christian point of view’ or ‘in church’ as in 2 Cor 5:16; see Gal 3:28.

ii) women play a full part in ministry  prophesying and praying in public along with men – this is part of the ‘custom’ (v16 applies to whole shooting match). So Phoebe, Priscilla and all other women mentioned in Romans 16; Euodia and Syntyche in Phil 4:2f. And no doubt Chloe and other women in Corinth. Notice that Paul doesn't justify women taking part; he takes that as read. His concern is how both sexes participate in the gathering.

iii) good order: wives – in accordance with the accepted social norms of the day should have their heads covered when praying/prophesying because they are in public gathering. That gives her authority (or the right) to pray because with her head covered she reflects God’s glory not her husband’s (v7bf after Genesis 2). Husbands/men shouldn’t have their heads covered (Paul says as much about them as the wives/women) – why? Elite men covered their heads if they were praying at a pagan shrine in order to show to everyone else that they were somebody. Paul’s point here is that we are all equal in the church, social divisions do not belong in body of Christ – worship is not a forum for social climbing. As Tom Wright says: ‘Let us not settle for a gospel which allows the world’s power games to proceed without challenge’

iv) the glory of God. This is where we need to think about what the word does kephale (rendered head) means? It is clearly linked to ‘glory’ and hence ‘honour’ – because so much ‘dis-honour’ attends improper covering/uncovering of the head. So perhaps the best sense here would be ‘pride and joy’ – what brings honour to the other party and hence what the other party delights (glories) in:
women with their heads uncovered in first century Corinth were either prostitutes, promiscuous ‘new wives’ or pagans in some ecstatic ritual and men with their heads covered at prayer were social climber.Neither commended God’s glory (brought him honour) in the church and that was Paul’s overriding concern. Of course, both are cultural concerns – it is probably true that in today’s western culture outsiders would be put off the gospel more by the lack of participation by women in what we do than by them participating bare-headed! All we do should honour Christ, the head of the church and the focus of our worship and commend him to the watching world: 10:31-11:1

4) A word for the wise
Why does Paul address this here?  He’s relating a key theme of the letter – Corinthian divisions because of their immaturity – to gathering of churches: the key verses of 3:1-4 are seen here in men flaunting their status in church and women abusing their freedom. Rather they should be seeking to build one another up and commend the gospel to the outsider. 

The question for us is how much is our worship driven by similar attitudes: the desire to look good? wield influence? flaunt my knowledge? Is that all I’ve done: prove I’m better the next guy? Or is my overriding concern when I gather with other believers that God is glorified and my brothers and sisters are built up to better live for king Jesus this week?