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What happened next?

Like many other preachers, I have been ‘working my way through’ the characters in the Christmas story this year. We have looked at Joseph, Elizabeth, the shepherds, the Magi, and even Herod.  As I have done so, the wonderful natwivity script has been a help, with its colourful characterisations and their blend of humour and pathos. However, I am still left with a nagging question: what happened next?

Was shepherding ever the same again – or did the shepherds find themselves always looking up as well as down – expecting another apparition in the sky? Did the Magi return to Persia, content with their successful research but happy to dismiss this as a purely Jewish matter? Could it have been possible to have a ringside seat at these earth-shaking events and come away unchanged?

Some years ago I read Andrew Smith’s book Moondust: the men who fell to earth. In it he interviews all those men who have walked upon the distant and impossible surface of the moon – and analyses how it affects their onward journey on the earth.  Some found the transition almost too much to bear – and became virtual recluses. Others have talked about it ad nauseam, and others have found alternative routes to ‘work out’ their feelings.  Alan Bean, for example, has painted canvas after canvas of lunar scenes, often including a small amount of moondust into the work itself. One of the most famous: we came in peace for all mankind, is pictured below.

Image: alanbeangallery.com

What might the Magi have painted, or written, I wonder?

Last word goes to Neil Armstrong, who paraphrased his own epic words by saying “it is more significant that Jesus Christ set foot on the earth than that man set foot on the moon.” Significant, yes – but how?

Tradition meets technology

Last night was our traditional carols by candlelight service in the church. As ever it was a spiritual moment to savour, with guests from near and far, candles lit, and little tots up later than usual with their faces bathed in the candles’ glow. Unusually, this year the sermon was not a standalone, but part of a series on Tales of the Unexpected. Last night it was the turn of the Magi – these mysterious misfits who arrive on the Christmas scene from so very far away.

The theme of being drawn in from far away suffused the entire service.  Each reading was illustrated with a fresco from an Ethiopian church. Our first reading was read (via a recorded phone call) by our missionaries in Addis Ababa.  We looked at the map of the world as lit up by intercontinental Facebook connections and thought about the desire to be part of things with distance no object. Finally, we remembered one of last year’s top Christmas adverts, with its theme of coming from around the world to be home for Christmas. The simple message arising from all of this complex technology? – God wants you home for Christmas.

On initial reactions, it would seem that  the message came home, and that people appreciated the diversity of its communication. However, this is a calculated risk. Using technology in a setting of deep tradition is not without its dangers. As ever, it can go wrong.  Alternatively – it can go well, but people remember the technology itself rather than the message. Neither of these is helpful! Technology must support a message which can function without it, but should never supplant a message which cannot.

A selection of the visual material is available below so that you can see what you think…


Photo: digitaltrends.com

picture:ethiopia.limbo.com

A hopeless case?

I could plead all kinds of things in my defence. I could plead Christmas busy-ness, Sunday fatigue or emotional burnout. When all’s said and done,though, there are very few excuses good enough to let me off the hook: yesterday afternoon I indulged my inner artistic Philistine and watched the schmaltzy  film below – Blizzard.  It is an entirely improbable tale of friendship, perseverance, ice skating…oh, and invisible reindeer too. (Note that I have chosen the German version of the film poster because it seems to exaggerate all this even more- note the reindeer’s curly eyelashes). Like most ‘family’ Christmas films it all works out in the end, with just enough nastiness and chill along the way to make you snuggle into the sofa that little bit harder.

 

The film is, without a doubt, utter nonsense.  It promotes the stock-in-trade of every Christmas addict’s film – namely that there is a kind of magic called “Christmas” which rights wrongs, rewards good, and turns selfishness to generosity. You can find it in every Christmas film from Its a wonderful life to Polar Express via the Grinch.

Given that we believe the real Christmas story has nothing to do with magic and everything to do with God, how do we cross the gap between here and there, so to speak? How do we confront the scmaltz with reality, without sounding like Ebenezer Scrooge’s grumpy Uncle or Aunt ? We can’t just jump up and down and insist that our story is better.

Surely there are two things we must do? The first is that if we believe our story is better, we must tell it better. We must bring as much creativity and ingenuity to its telling as the filmmakers do. Secondly, we need to take a hard look at our beloved story and see that it is not so very far from the Christmas ‘magic’ as we might think. Does it not talk about righting age-old wrongs? Does it not turn the world upside down, making the poor rich and the broken healed? Mary certainly seemed to think it did in her song. (Luke 1 v. 52-53). It has been good to see some of these themes emerging in the earthy, witty, poignant script of the natwivity over the past two weeks. Here is a telling of the story brimful of emotion but lacking in sentimentality.

So, don’t come out with all guns blazing when confronted with the schmaltz. Listen to the sleigh bell sound of its themes and see where it links to our story.

In the meantime, perhaps I should  see if there is some more schmaltz on offer for my vital preaching research..

How differently similar…

Someone speculated to me the other day about how different the first Christmas might have been if social media had been invented.  I suppose in some ways it might.  Word would have got around sooner, that’s for sure.  People would have been able to track the star more easily, and the shepherds would doubtless have posted their experiences online as the “returned glorifying God”.  Other things would have been the same though.

Mary would still have felt frightened and Joseph would still have felt inadequate.  When the great day came a mixture of awe and anxiety would have descended on the proud parents as it does around any crib.  Those summoned to make their way to the birth of the young  king would still have wondered what to take and what they might find when they got there. Plus ca change…

Whilst comparing the differences…and similarities, enjoy this ‘digital nativity, from Portugal.

Small fragments, big picture

Over the past ten days a picture of the nativity has been emerging online unlike any I have ever seen.  As the natwivity story has unfolded a new picture of the key players has emerged.  Like the mosaic on the ceiling in the cathedral of St Sava, Belgrade, below – it is made up of lots of tiny fragments. As in the mosaic, they are all different colours too.  Some carry the deep colours of theological authenticity.  Others have the vibrant, zany colours of twenty-first century humour. Some are profound, whilst others are just witty. Between them, however, they are creating a picture of extraordinary brightness and vitality.  As a previous poll is revealing -reactions  to the story have been as varied as the participants themselves.

 

Image: hubpages.com

As I was reflecting on all this, I came across Jane Kenyon’s telling poem ‘Mosaic of the nativity’ written in Serbia in the Winter of 1993.  I reproduce it below.

On the domed ceiling God
is thinking:
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them.
But see what they do!
I know their hearts
and arguments:

“We’re descended from
Cain. Evil is nothing new,
so what does it matter now
if we shell the infirmary,
and the well where the fearful
and rash alike must
come for water?”

God thinks Mary into being.
Suspended at the apogee
of the golden dome,
she curls in a brown pod,
and inside her mind
of Christ, cloaked in blood,
lodges and begins to grow.

 

Up close and personal with the natwivity

There’s a little theatre up the road from here which an estate agent might call ‘intimate’, but the rest of us would just call small. Performances are given in the round, which means that the audience often feel performers are practically in their laps. Whilst I should find this enhances my enjoyment of the play – giving it an immediacy impossible in a larger venue, if I’m honest it just feels uncomfortable. Perhaps I just want to preserve those few metres of separation which reassure me that this is theatre and not real life.

I believe we have seen a similar kind of discomfort as the natwivity story has unfurled before us.  Whilst we relish the humour of the shepherds and the panto-esque evil of King Herod, the raw emotions of Mary & Joseph are another matter. We tell other people that they are real people with real emotions – but are we ready for them to be quite that real and that emotional? Natwivity is upsetting our two dimensional Christmas cast – and its not an altogether comfortable experience.

Back in 1980, American homiletician Eugene Lowry felt that preaching was in crisis.  Many sermons were monotonous, dull and utterly predictable – like staring across a featureless landscape where you could see everything at a glance.  Not surprisingly, this was failing to engage the attention of many.  it was these insights which led to Lowry’s book The Homiletical Plot, with its ingenious ‘Lowry loop’ (pictured below). Lowry contended that, like a good movie, a sermon should have a plot.  Within the sermon’s plot he identified  five stages :

  • Upset the equilibrium – the moment at which we realise things in the Bible passage were not as we had always thought (“oops”)
  • Analyse the discrepancy – the moment where we recognise that if things were not as we had always thought, all sorts of consequences might ensue (“ugh”)
  • Clue to resolution – the moment where the preacher starts to resolve the difficulties and challenges revealed (“aha”)
  • Experience the Gospel – the moment where we begin to see that if the Bible is like this, then things could be like that (“whee”)
  • Anticipate the consequences – the moment where we go on to live differently beyond the sermon because we have seen things differently during it. (“yeah”)

If we were to anlayse Natwivity on the same model, how is it performing? It  seems to me that Natwivity is doing pretty well on “oops” and “aha”,already  but what about the other stages?  Maybe only time will tell.  Use the poll below to say which buttons you feel it is pressing:

On playing second fiddle

Continuing my series on ‘tales of the unexpected’ I am preaching on Joseph this Sunday morning. The more I think about it – the more enigmatic I find him. He has none of the panache and colour of his Old Testament namesake with his fancy clothes and his dangerous dreams. If anything, the Joseph of the nativity story seems a little pale and insipid.  My perplexity over Joseph has been further compounded by this week’s lively discussion of him on the natwivity– where he seems to have been cast as everything from a useless man to an unlikely hero.

It is worth taking a little time to review the artistic depictions  of Joseph over the centuries. Some show him just one step removed from the action but still sharing Mary’s heavenly glow. Others have him lingering in the wings,as if unsure of his role. In his beautiful nativity scene below (painted in 1310) Giotto has gone one step further and placed him to the left outside the stable, and looking glum to boot!

 

So what are we to make of him, and what can we learn from him?  Julie Wilkinson  has helped so much here by talking about Joseph from her perspective as an adoptive parent. In her sensitive and insightful post she brings out the qualities of restraint and loyalty which he shows early on and the courage which he later shows. Basically, he is an example of doing graciously what must be done when it must be done.

Last year I wrote a post on those times when playing ‘second fiddle‘ really is best. Maybe Joseph’s role in the great story of Jesus’ birth is one of those times.

Last word goes to U A  Fanthorpe here, in her haunting little poem ‘I am Joseph‘:

I am Joseph, who wanted

To teach my own boy how to live.

My lesson for my foster son:

Endure. Love. Give

When ‘retweet’ is ‘amen’

Yesterday I found myself amongst the thousands joining in with the @natwivity story on Twitter.  Throughout the day there were messages from a growing cavalcade of Wise Men, reflections on Old Testament prophecy, and evocative descriptions of Mary and Joseph in waiting. It was all great fun. However, the thing which struck me most was the enormous number of ‘retweets’  (where a Twitter user reposts a message to all their followers at a single stroke). I lost count of the number of times I got the same message on my feed retweeted from different sources.

Here’s the thing, though. The people retweeting weren’t being lazy because they couldn’t be bothered to write their own messages. They weren’t being dishonest either, and claiming the message content as their own – each was properly attributed. No, what they were doing was contributing to the enormous power of digital rumour. They were simply passing something on for others to enjoy or ponder.

Of course humankind has been doing this for centuries.  What the information revolution has done, with the digitisation of data and the connectedness of social media -is to speed up the process. We love to share the latest news, or the funniest story or the most shocking opinion – technology just means we can do it faster. If the shepherds ‘returned rejoicing’ today they would be updating their Facebook status or posting a Tweet from their phones – but it amounts to the same thing.

When I was first new to computing I found it hard to get my head around the ‘human’ use of language when people talked about their computer catching a virus in the same way as they might say that their child had caught the flu. Many years and a few computer episodes later I know just what they meant! It’s the same thing with talking about a story ‘going viral’ Its sounds so sordid and unpleasant – until you are the one whose story or advert spreads like wildfire. Last week I posted a wonderful advent video on this website. Every time it is viewed it displays on the bottom the name of the photography company who made it. I’m sure they are delighted with the 2 million plus views it has received on YouTube. As @natwivity gathers pace  can we foresee a moment when Baby Jesus ‘goes viral’ I wonder?

One of the many quirks of Christianity is the way that Christians around the world, no matter what their mother tongue, will utter an obscure Aramaic word at the end of a prayer. When they say “amen” it means “truly”, and is a shorthand for saying “I agree with what the previous speaker has just prayed”. Many of the hundreds pressing their retweet button during #natwivity yesterday were simply doing the same thing – with a mouse and without the Aramaic.

So, will Baby Jesus go viral this Christmas? Amen to that!

Playing a part in the nativity

For most people their experience of participating in nativity plays may be tinged with a curious mixture of nostalgia and embarrassment. My own debut in the theatrical world was as a wise man in the school nativity play. Looking back I am not sure whether I am more embarrassed about wearing yellow tights…or about standing there helplessly clutching my frankincense when my cloak fell off. In my defence, I was very little at the time.  Others will doubtless have their own tales of nativity play woes – though whether any have actually featured as a second lobster, as Emma Thompson’s daughter does in Love Actually, is another matter.

Sadly we grow out of the story as readily as we grow out of the costumes. We pack those memories away along with every photo of ourselves as a gappy-toothed kid wearing the wrong fashion. And yet, this is a story for all of us. Not only that – but it is a profoundly adult story. Wrapped up in it there are powerful emotions of betrayal, terror, puzzlement and longing – all played out against a backdrop of poverty and military occupation.  Some years ago I wrote and directed a nativity play acted entirely by adults. The impact on actors and audience of adults kneeling at the manger with their gifts was profound, to say the least. On another occasion we held a do-it-yourself nativity, with everyone coming in the costume of their choice. We had dozens of innkeepers, a smattering of wise men, and one slightly confused child dressed as a pirate (Pontius?). The point is that this is everybody’s story. If you can’t find a part as second lobster, then you could always find a part as you.

This year the net for casting the nativity story has been thrown as wide as social media can possibly throw it. Over 2000 people are signed up to participate in the natwivity– a nativity play on Twitter and Facebook. Throughout December different nativity characters  will post their thoughts, feelings and experiences as the story unfolds. Watch out for bile from Herod, sardonic humour from the shepherds, and troubling questions from Mary and Joseph. Participants will be able to respond directly to the characters, or engage with a more theological discussion about what they are saying on @chatbible on Twitter.

So, you see, this year there really is room for everybody in the nativity play. Will you join in?

Worthwhile theology in 140 characters.

Starting on December 1st, Twitter bible discussion forum @chatbible will be teaming up with @natwivity to discuss the unfolding Christmas story. Each day, as different characters in the story tweet their points of view, @chatbible will pick up on their biblical references and encourage some theological discussion of them.

Is this really possible, or does theological comment in 140 characters invite the worst kind of reductionism? There were undoubtedly many who deeply resented  Jesus’ popularising of theology in the parables. In telling them was he not dumbing down the weighty theology which had been the preserve of the experts and feeding it to the vulgar masses?

In Nehemiah’s story there is an interesting moment when Ezra stands on a high platform in the city square reading from the book of the Law.  Meanwhile his assistants are passing amongst the crowd explaining it to people. Or are they? Translations of Nehemiah 8 v.8 vary between “translating”, “explaining” and “making it clear”. Literally, the Hebrew word means ‘chopping it up’. Maybe Ezra and his helpers came up with Twitter centuries before the rest of us?

Of course we cannot have the most profound discussion within a 140-character limit. However, as was said when @chatbible was first started, 140-characters’ worth of Bible discussion may be at least 140 more characters than we are employing on it just now! Let’s plunge into the fun of the natwivity, let’s engage with what the characters in the story are saying, and let’s see if surprising theological oak trees grow from these little acorns.

 

William Maltby was the President of the Methodist Conference in 1926, and a great man for quotable quotes.  As we embark on a necessarily pithy discussion of Christmas theology, I leave you with one of them:

Polysyllables are not the sign of profundity!

 

Richard Littledale

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