I………… Therefore I Am

I heard a rumour the other day that Blankety Blank, the panel show from my childhood that sticks in my mind most of all, is coming back with Miranda as the proposed host (there’s a link to last night’s gig for you). The idea behind it for those who don’t remember or are too young to have watched it, is that contestants have to fill in a blank in a given sentence, trying to predict the answer given by others. To help them they could call upon a few members of the celebrity panel to offer their answers. Hosted by Terry Wogan with the strangest looking microphone and his Blankety Blank chequebook and pen, this was the show that won the quiz show ratings of its day.

Here’s a phrase for you to try out, what is the blank in ‘I *blank* therefore I am’?

I’m guessing many of you might have offered up ‘think’ as famously stated by Rene Decartes, the French philosopher who argued that being able to think about one’s existence proved it – bonus marks for those who showed off and did it in Latin, ‘dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum’ (‘I doubt therefore I think therefore I am’).

Of course other words could be inserted into this phrase, some humourous, others silly or perhaps serious such as ‘I eat therefore I am’ or ‘I laugh therefore I am’ or even ‘I run therefore I am’. All of these say something about the world we live in at the moment, how we relate to it, and our values. Perhaps something like ‘I like therefore I am’ could capture this well, expressing the self-centred values of our age and picking up on the all-encompassing nature of social media these days with it’s like buttons to show that we enjoyed something which often, dare I say it, has very little depth to it. Reading an article on the BBC website today I wondered if their writer would fill the blank with ‘consume’. This would certainly ring true I think, in so many ways we value things by what they have to offer me or give to me rather than of what good are they for society or for the planet or for what moral value they hold?

I wonder what the Bible and its characters might offer to us. Thomas would be nearer Decartes with ‘I doubt therefore I am’. Peter would offer ‘I do it and think later therefore I am’, Martha, ‘I wash up therefore I am’ and Mary, ‘I listen therefore I am’. But what about Jesus? What would he say? In the true spirit of Blankety Blank I leave it to you to suggest an answer!

Church newsletter, 2nd November 2014

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Banned Books

I was browsing on the web this week and discovered a list of the most famous banned books. You’ve never guess what was on there…

Lent is traditionally a time for reflection and a period during which Christians are encouraged to devote time to reading the Bible (something we’re always called to do, of course, but this is a season acts as a great regular reminder of its importance). As part of my reading this year I have picked up a copy of a book by Nick Page called, ‘God’s Dangerous Book’. The cover matches the impact of its title with a picture of a typical black leather-bound book with Holy Bible embossed on it in gold, out of which rises a lit fuse as if it were an explosive about to blow! Sounds exciting doesn’t it, so what’s inside? The book itself is a standard sized paperback, written in an informal but informative style, covering the history of the Bible, paying attention to how it came together in the first place, how it later spread around the world, and finishing by looking at its translation into English.

This background is something I’ve always wanted to know more about, particularly the way in which the various sections of the Bible were recognized and first brought together. So far it has proved a good read, quick and clear, and I look forward to finishing it over the next week. Possibly, however, that outline might not seem to fit with the book’s title and dramatic cover. This is not just a scholarly book (and despite it’s light and jokey tone, it certainly gets across a lot of serious information) but also a work in which the author is at pains to recognize that this is not just any old book, but a book inspired by God whose contents are indeed life, even world changing. He talks about how Exodus inspired the slaves in America to raise up against their ‘masters’ just as the Jews were liberated from Pharaoh. He looks back to the Levellers and the Suffragettes and how they were inspired by Scripture and talks about how even today the Bible is banned in many countries because its contents clash with the principles of the authorities.

One quote that particularly struck me from the introduction was this,

‘You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of literature.’

Challenging words….

Incidentally, those words came from a certain Indian lawyer called Gandhi who read the Bible and who’s non-violent protest was very much inspired by it.

This is why I am committed to reading and sharing the Bible (yes, that was the book in the list of banned works I mentioned earlier) and encouraging us as a community to explore it together for he’s right, it is so much more than just a book, and I can say that because it has changed my life!

Church newsletter article, 16.03.14

3000 Puppets in a Warehouse

In an abandoned warehouse in Chicago hang decaying three thousand marionettes. Sound like a scene from a chilling horror movie? It might do, but this was the discovery of Joseph R. Lewis, a producer and director. Together they make the lost family of Ralph Kipniss America’s last great puppet maker and puppeteer, from the line of puppeteers reaching back to Czarist Russia. A terrible sequence of events led to his being unable to pay for the warehouse in which they were stored, illness, fire, depression and debt, and with no home to house them in he was forced to abandon them, and so there they sit to this day. Recently this treasure trove was rediscovered by Lewis when a neighbour suggested he might be interested in some dolls he knew of. Realising their value, not so much financial as cultural, has started a campaign to raise the funds required to pay off the debt and to form a museum in which to display them so that they are not lost and forgotten. You can find out more here.

In the Guardian on Wednesday Polly Toynbee wrote about changes in the way English was taught in schools in the UK. Her concern was that recent changes to the syllabus emphasis grammar at the expense of an appreciation of literature and reading. She foresees a time when an understanding of many classics of writing were lost and forgotten such as Austin, Orwell and The Bible, and an understanding of the rich heritage they have provided us, and is campaigning to prevent this.

These two news stories got me wondering about how the Bible is seen in our culture today. For many it is a historical treasure, lost and abandoned in the warehouse of the past like those three thousand marionettes. For others it is a cultural artefact that needs to be rescued and restored so that it can be displayed in some museum so people can appreciate its beauty and its part in our history. This maybe is a step in the right direction, but it misses the point. Puppets are not made to be displayed! They are made to be used, to put on plays, to tell stories, to live and dance. So it is with the Bible. It is not meant to be confined to the past and admired from a safe distance through a glass screen. No, it is meant to be read, to live, to dance, to tells stories and be used. It may be ancient, but it belongs in the here and now, as active and dynamic as ever.

Written By…

She’s not the first to do it, but this week JK Rowling was unmasked as being the author of the detective novel ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ about a war veteran turned investigator called Cormoran Strike. The cover of the book claimed one Robert Galbraith as its author, a debut novelist, a far cry from the multi-million authoress of the Harry Potter books. Before her unmasking, the book had sold a mere 1,500 copies. Upon the revelation of it’s real writer, it quickly shot up the charts, topping Amazon’s sales lists! No doubt it would have done well in book shops too, except for the fact that few had copies, unaware of the significance of the book, and so being woefully unprepared when there was a rush for copies. As some of you know I’ve been writing a novel over the last year, although it’s currently making very slow progress. If it turns out to be any good and gets published (unlikely, I know) then I think I might write it under a pseudonym myself and see if that helps sales at all. Or use my real name with a qualifier, something like ‘Ben Quant …allegedly, or is it some famous fantasy writer who wants to remain secret?!’

There is no doubt that having the name of someone of repute on the cover of a book can bring sales and publicity that an unknown cannot hope to achieve, straight away anyway. Thinking about the Bible, Paul makes it clear when he writes his letters that they came from him. As a significant figure in the early church, this gave them credence and got people’s attention. So why did JK Rowling write under a different name? I imagine to give her the freedom to write something different, not under the pressure of expectation and also so that the book spoke for itself and was judged on what it said rather than who the author was (incidentally, it did get good critical reviews, some saying that this seemed the work of a mature writer rather than a debutant in the field). Many books and letters in the Bible are unnamed, and maybe exactly for that reason, although they were clearly written by humans, and a number of them at that, each with their own personality showing through. Having no name attached to them, however, leave us free to judge them on their words, even if not knowing who wrote them infuriates scholars. The fact that they survived the selection process despite their anonymity, simply goes to show that over time their divine origin shone through. They were picked for inclusion in the Bible not because of who wrote them, but because God spoke and speaks through them, something that countless readers can and have attested to ever since.

Telling Tales

A few weeks ago we went as a family to the Globe to watch Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. It was a magical night, my first time there, and I am determined not my last. Before hand, though, I put a lot of work in to make sure I’d read the script and understood the story so that I could navigate my way through the beautiful but sometimes undecipherable language of ‘The Bard’.

In last Sunday’s sermon I alluded to a conversation I had with David L… about the language we use to talk about God. The underlying question was, how can we talk about God in language that is accessible and meaningful to today’s culture? The question was not simply how can we translate old versions of the Bible removing the ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s etc. so that the words themselves are modern equivalents of the original word, but how can we talk about God and faith using contemporary concepts and understanding. Often when we talk about God we use Biblical imagery or Biblical stories, and this certainly has its place, but dare I say it, this runs the risk of two related dangers. To begin with, you can take a 50’s love song from the charts of the day and get a modern chart topper to sing it, but the song is still the same song, using the same words and pictures from past era and may seem twee or outdated to modern teens. Similarly, you can dress a story from the Bible up in modern words, but the content it talks about is still the same content, and the danger is that you’re telling a story that doesn’t relate to contemporary hearers.

The other danger is that by doing this we run the risk of being unfaithful to Scripture and Jesus’ method of communicating. How did Jesus communicate his faith and understanding of God? One of the main ways was through stories. Stories are fantastic tools for not only capturing people’s attention, but also helping them grasp concepts that can’t be described in conceptual language – and let’s face it, it’s notoriously difficult to describe God, he’s beyond straight description. But what stories did he tell? He didn’t retell the old stories that often, the stories of the Bible of his time, the Old Testament as we might retell his stories today. I’m trying to think of an example of him telling the story of David or Moses or Elijah, and I can’t. No, he told stories that related to the people of his day, using the language of his time and the concepts that folk of his day thought in. He told stories of farmers and masters and plants. Underneath, it was the same truth he was telling, but in the language and framework of his time. Surely to be faithful to Scripture we should do the same?

There’s no doubt that some of his stories still work – the parables are still dramatic stories and this says a lot about what a master-storyteller he was – but often they require a lot of work for us to really get it, just as we have to work hard to understand Shakespeare. The question I wonder is – and I’d love you to help me answer it – how would he talk about faith and God today? What language and concepts would he use? What images, occupations and news-stories would he reach for – I can’t see him talking about agriculture so much can you?

Church Newsletter 16th June 2013

Erroneous Stories

Whilst I was at University I was introduced to Stephen Jay Gould, and paleontogist and biologist, who gained quite a name for himself writing popular science books in an attempt to inspire people to become more interested in biology. I recently stumbled across a quote from him, although I must confess to not knowing where he wrote it, or which particular stories he was referring to. It goes:

‘The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best — and therefore never scrutinize or question.’

As a scientist I know these are wise words. As a scientist, there is always the danger of assuming you know how things operate, and so read that understanding into your observations and interpretations of data, and so become blinded to the possibility that in fact in reality things work quite differently. It can take quite a leap of imagination to see the world differently to how it is widely believed to be. For centuries people believed that the Sun went around the Earth, it took the imagination and courage of Galileo to begin to persuade people that they’d got the story wrong. Similarly, since Newton, it was widely believed that these rules governed everything – until a wave of scientists in the 20th Century came along with the concept of Quantum Mechanics. Suddenly the story of the world became a whole lot stranger.

But Gould’s saying doesn’t just relate to science. It can also apply to how we relate to people. It is all too easy to believe we understand other cultures around us, that we know what they believe and what is important to them. Gould’s saying warns us against this and challenges us to make sure this isn’t simple prejudice or misunderstanding.

As a Christian, his words provoked me to think about how I approach the Bible too. The challenge for us is to keep the Bible fresh, to always approach it with an open mind, to never assume that we’ve understood it all. It is all too easy for us to believe we know how it’s story goes, and be blinded by our assumption with the consequence that we are prevented from actually hearing what it really says, or to hearing what God might be trying to say to us through it today because we remember what he said yesterday. The Pharisees thought they knew the story, and yet when the Story became flesh and walked amongst them, they didn’t recognise him as he wasn’t what they thought the Story said. Let us heed Gould’s words and the warning from the Pharisee’s example.