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A challenging glimpse from Russia

Earlier this week I was having a conversation with @jamespoulter about the ‘moral culpability’ brought about by social media. Our connectivity means that ignorance of what is going on in the world is neither bliss nor excuse.

Consider, then,this image tweeted from an anti- Putin demonstration in Moscow one hour ago.If a picture is worth 1000 words – what might they be in this case, I wonder?

Image via @storify

Selecting a Pope, Egyptian style

Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Orthodox church, has died. After serving the church through many years of change since his accession in 1971, the church must now look for a successor. The next man to occupy the papal throne in Egypt will preside over turbulent times for Egypt’s Coptic Christians.

Bishops, former and current Coptic Cabinet members, other Coptic luminaries and newspaper owners and editors will vote on his successor. One from amongst the three candidates with the highest number of votes will then be selected by a blindfolded child. No, I am not kidding – that is how he will be chosen. Furthermore, this is not some arcane election procedure emerging from ancient times. This means of electing a new Coptic Pope was agreed in 1957!

It is an unusual way to interpret Isaiah 11 v.6, but given the mess which more democratic procedures produce – perhaps it is as good as any!


The death of Muammar Gaddafi

I have the luxury of writing this as a person unaffected by the brutality and unconscionable violence which marked Colonel Gaddafi’s regime. I did not lose sons or daughters in Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, members of my family did not disappear into Libya’s dark prisons, never to be seen again. All that means that I cannot possibly imagine the joy or relief of those for whom Gaddafi’s regime is over.

However, that does not prevent me recoiling from the wanton repetition of footage of a barely alive and bloodied man being tossed from one fighter to another like a rag doll. When definite news was scarce yesterday, news services chose to loop the shaky mobile phone  footage of Gaddafi (or was it his corpse?) over and over again. I felt like I was watching a kind of victory porn. Isn’t the nature of porn that it diminishes both watched and watcher, making them less than human? Doesn’t it turn victims into objects and watchers into voyeurs? There are reasons why we have conventions on these things, I believe.

Maybe this  photo , by Goran Tomasevic, says more than any number of images of Gaddafi’s bloodied corpse. Where is Libya heading now?

Outfitting the protesters

As anti-capitalist protests fan out across the globe there are, not surprisingly, winners and losers. Whoever the losers might be, the manufacturers of masks based on the 2006 film V for Vendetta are definitely amongst the winners.  The masks have given a common ‘anti-establishment’ identity to the protesters and have been spotted in capital cities around the world. The thing is, as the protests spread, supply is outstripping demand. The official masks are running out and so somebody is knocking out cheap imitations – thereby denying the exceptionally wealthy film industry of their cut.  The irony is hard to avoid.

Its not just Warner Brothers whose nose it out of joint though, it would seem. For some a counterfeit anti-establishment mask just isn’t good enough. One person wrote in to a website selling them:

‘the strap on these ones are thin and flimsy unlike the actual thick ones on the genuine masks; the V for Vendetta sticker on the back of the mask has a spelling mistake and finally, the masks are extremely poorly cut’

I suppose it is those who see the masks, rather than those who wear them, who are meant to be uncomfortable?

Image: BBC - click here for more on the story

Twitter and the rumour mill

Last December I forwarded a story via Twitter from a spoof news website. The story claimed that a particular infant school was putting on an atheist nativity play. Despite my note in the original tweet that this was a spoof story – the little blue bird flew away with it and scattered outrage wherever it went. Within an hour or two there were angry tweets coming in and the story was posting on Facebook. Social media makes it so easy not only to get hold of the wrong end of the stick – but the wrong stick entirely. Not only that – but once the little blue bird has it in his beak, he may fly off with it anywhere.

Yesterday I fell prey to exactly the same thing myself. Early yesterday morning I saw tweeted headlines that prayer was being banned on the streets of Paris. By the time I reached a lunchtime prayer meeting I was saying to others that I was so outraged I felt like gathering the Twitterati for a quick Eurostar prayer trip to Paris. One person pointed out, with a twinkle in his eye, that I only wanted to do it because I thought that it was outlawed! Maybe he had a point.

This morning, though, with a little more time and a little less haste, I have read the story properly. The nub of the story is this: Claude Gueant, of the French Interior Ministry, has said that : ‘praying in the street is not dignified for religious practice and violates the principles of secularism’.  The subtext to this is that Muslims participating in Friday prayers in the French capital will be required to pray indoors in a mosque or other enclosed space, rather than spilling out onto the street.

This is still a story about secularism squashing the expression of religious faith.  It is still a story about the infringement of individual civil liberties. It is very definitely a story which deserves airing. However, it is not the story I thought it was and I stand (sit) corrected.

The moral of the story is this: before you allow the little blue bird to ruffle your feathers too much – read the story first!


Preacher as commentator

We all know that this has been a week of contrasts, but somehow the image below brings them all together. Here, on the front page of a weekly round-up newspaper, we see the world as it has been this week:


Its not that we necessarily need to comment on these stories specifically. Rather, this mixed-up place is the world we have inhabited during the past week, and whose lingering affects we bring with us to worship.

Prayers go out to every preacher who will try to make ‘God-sense’ of all this today. God speed to you!

Ticked off

Not sure whether I should be alarmed, puzzled, or pleased – but I find myself agreeing with the British Humanist Association, at least to a certain extent.  I found their previous advertising campaign on the side of buses mildly amusing and mildly offensive in equal measure. Their current campaign, though, set to launch in advance of the UK Census next month, makes a reasonable point.

The BHA are concerned that people may tick a box on the question below indicating a historical or inherited religious affiliation rather than an active participation.

Image: BBC

In the light of this, they are set to run another bus advertising campaign with the slogan “If you’re not religious then for God’s sake say so.”

Whilst I might query the exact wording, I have to applaud the sentiment. It seems to me that I spend much of my time both in and out of the pulpit arguing the case for active participation in faith rather than historical affiliation with religion. I would far rather that someone who never enters a church ticked “no religion”, than that they ticked “Christian” out of some sense of nostalgic loyalty to the traditions of their forebears. Out of such honesty a clean platform for preaching the Gospel is hewn.

Of course there are many complex issues here, and the shades of meaning in this question may be felt differently by Christians in different traditions. However, an honest appraisal of the religious landscape in the United Kingdom could be helpful to all those of us who seek to contribute to it.

My trouble with buses is that I’m rarely certain about exactly which route goes where – all the while assuming that the driver knows exactly where he or she is going.  Where is this advert going, do you think?

A time for theodicy?

A century or so ago, the minister was often the most educated person in the congregation. As often as not, the preacher was the only person with ability, money or inclination to read the newspapers. This meant that the preacher often had to both tell people what was going on in the world and make some kind of “God-sense” of it. The first half of that sentence no longer applies. Two weeks ago there were protesters tweeting live from Tahrir Square , there is mobile phone footage coming out of Benghazi and I am receiving updates even as I type from those with family and friends in Christchurch, New Zealand. Guerilla reporting is here to stay. However, the need for spiritual articulation of these geological and geopolitical earthquakes is as acute as ever, surely?

Speaking not long after 9/11, Craig Barnes, of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, wrote that:

What we do best, and better than anyone else in town;is to climb behind a pulpit and speak into the fear and chaos with a sacred word.

Stirring words – but do we, I wonder? Rushing to premature judgement helps no-one, and simply airing our own perplexity in the pulpit is an abnegation of our responsibility. As biblical workmen and women our responsibility is to drill down into the bedrock of scripture and find what it says about the nature of God and the path of history. Now is not a time for half-baked prophetic pronouncements, but for fully risen statements of the sovereignty and compassion of God.

As a hapless Brit the full impact of the statement “step up to the plate” is lost on me, since I have never watched nor participated in a baseball game. However, the sense of responsibility and the desire to strike home with conviction and accuracy translates across many cultures.

God bless you, fellow preachers, as you ‘step up to the plate’.


Photo: Peter Griffin

When small print is still small print

We are often told that everything is so much clearer and easier to understand now that we have integrated text and graphics online rather than boring old static print. Not only that, but the young are the ‘digital natives’, brought up in this graphics-rich and clickable environment. All of that is true, to an extent – although a 7 year old boy in England might query it this weekend.

Earlier this week he was left (some might say ill advisedly) by his father to amuse himself by browsing through e-bay.  On his travels he spotted what he thought to be a model harrier plane, and clicked the “buy it now” button.  Unfortunately the jump jet in question was the real thing – decommissioned but otherwise intact and full size, at a price of over £70,000!

His father then had to resort to the rather more old-fashioned means of pleading on the phone to the seller – who then graciously accepted the mistake and put the plane back on sale.

Digital media, with their integrated graphics, clickability and connectivity are wonderful – but just like days of yore – you still have to read the small print!

…as pictures speak

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Egypt has featured on numerous occasions on this blog so far this year. As preachers we are called upon to make some kind of ‘God sense’ of what we see, however falteringly. Every once in a while, though, we find ourselves all but lost for words. Yesterday @NavineZaki posted this photo from the streets of Cairo. In the midst of all the bloodshed, madness, hope and frustration, it shows a moment of true human beauty.  Maybe this is why thousands have already tweeted it and passed it around the world. As Muslims kneel in the street to pray, Christians link hands and form a protective cordon around them. Nuff said…

Photo: Nevine Zaki

As it says in Ecclesiastes 3 ,there is ‘a time to be silent and a time to speak’ (v.7) . This is the former


Richard Littledale

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