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Reflections on CNMAC11 -number four

A little while ago,a  friend sent me this video. It maps one 24 hour period of global air traffic. There is a strange, hypnotic quality to it. As you are drawn in by the strange beauty of the patterns its easy to forget about the destructive emissions and focus instead on the thousands of stories caught up behind those little glowing dots. Where is each person  going, and what is their journey all about? Are these just stages on a much longer journey, links in some kind of chain?

On Saturday at CNMAC, an idea came to me. Like the idea I wrote about several weeks ago, it had been on a journey. Before it reached the threshold of my mind this idea had travelled from Israel, to Germany, to Brooklyn, to Amsterdam, and then onto London for the day.  In CNMAC’s final session I had my eyes opened to the role of the Maggid, or storyteller, by a professional Jewish storyteller from Brooklyn now living in Amsterdam. The Maggid, unlike the more academic teachers in the synagogue, was the weaver of stories and the illuminator of truth.  People who were looking for truth dressed in the everyday clothes of real life rather than the dusty robes of academic theology, would gather at the feet of a Maggid. As a person committed with my heart and soul to storytelling as a vehicle for truth, I must learn more about this. It matters because I want to tell better stories, and it matters because I want to understand Jesus better as storyteller.

Watch this space…

Ideas worth sharing?

Over the months there have been many different creatures in the pulpit on this blog – including a fish, a magpie, a heffalump and others. Today it is the turn of the TED. I’m referring not to a cuddly toy, but to Technology, Entertainment and Design, home of the TEDtalks. A TED talk is an 18-minute presentation by an expert who feels passionately about their subject, and believes that they have an ‘idea worth sharing’.

I have come late to the TED party, having been directed there earlier today by Phil Prior’s excellent blog post. In that post Phil asks the question as to why there are not more preachers and theologians  represented amongst TED’s ranks. There could be many reasons  for that, some of which I list below:

  • Our expertise is of interest to Christian ‘consumers’ but not to others
  • Accustomed as we are to communicating in a non-competitive environment, we have lost our creative communicative edge
  • We would struggle to fill 18 minutes in a compelling way
  • We would struggle to restrict ourselves to 18 minutes in a focused way
  • Assuming our audience’s good will, we presume too much on their tolerance
I believe that whilst some of those things may be partially true, none of them are wholly true.  Preachers should be amongst the most motivated, focused and dedicated communicators in the world. Not only that, but the church has now garnered over twenty centuries of experience in communicating across racial, generational and cultural divides. We do have something to say.
There are many description of our fundamental message as Christian communicators, but “an idea worth sharing” isn’t a bad place to start.


A visit to Chawton

Having first encountered Jane Austen as a reluctant teenager, I would never describe myself as her biggest fan. However, when I paid a visit to the cottage in Chawton where she wrote most of her opus today, I have to confess to feeling a certain awe. As I gazed down at the little, battered, wobbly octagonal table below, shunted up close to the window to get the most of the light, a distinct frisson went through me. At that table, no bigger than a MacBook,  Jane Austen had scritched and scratched her string of tightly observed novels which would go from there around the world and back. Statesmen, poets, singers and soldiers would be inspired by them. They would be translated into languages of which their author had never heard, and uploaded onto devices which would have appeared to her like the stuff of legend, or worse.


My frisson of excitement was matched only by the chill of disappointment I felt at the end of my visit. Whilst buying a postcard of a prayer by the famous author (some of the text is below), I overheard an enquiry by a young man who was contemplating a paid visit to the house. On learning that this was not in fact the place where recent films of Jane Austen’s books had been filmed, his disappointment was palpable and he turned away. ‘Missing the point’, is the phrase which comes to mind…


May we now, and on each return of night

Consider how the past day has been spent by us

What have been our prevailing thoughts, words and actions during it

And how we can acquit ourselves of evil.

Give us a thankful sense of  the blessings in which we live

Of the many comforts of our lot,

That we may not deserve to lose them by discontent or indifference.

– from a prayer by Jane Austen

A new memorial graces Washington DC

Today (hurricane Irene permitting) 48 years after he delivered his momentous ‘I have a dream’ speech, a memorial to Martin Luther King Jnr will be officially unveiled overlooking a peaceful stretch of water in Washington DC. The statue will stand in a direct line between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, overlooking the Tidal Basin. The location, of course, is deliberate.  It represents Martin Luther King’s key place in the development of America’s self-understanding.

The memorial stands higher than either of those flanking it, at a massive 30 feet high.  As if pushed forward from the rough stone either side, King himself emerges from the ‘mountain of despair’.  To ensure that visitors understand the connection his own words from his most famous speech are etched on the stone:with this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

Image: cmsimg.detnews

There is no doubt at all that the memorial is both deserved and impressive. However, as a wordsmith constantly in awe of Dr King’s ability to instruct, inspire and challenge through words alone I can’t help but feel that it is a somewhat  pale imitation. The lines etched by his words on many a heart will outlast those etched by any stonemason, surely?

… or sound addition?

It was the late Alistair Cooke, a radio journalist with a magisterial grasp of language, who claimed that a seven year old boy had once said to him that he preferred radio to television because the ‘pictures were better’. If he had been listening to Cooke’s evocative broadcasts that would hardly be surprising. We have all had the experience, though of rich and powerful images evoked in the mind by the written or spoken word. Often these images are more intense and long-lived than any image  created by brush or pixel. The makers of Booktrack(explained below) have now stepped in with an application which creates a soundtrack to the mental images created through reading. As a person who has devoted much of my creative energy in recent years to advocating the power of story, I should applaud this venture. However, I have some reservations…

Who decides what sound effects go where, I wonder? Presumably it cannot be the author. They cannot have copyright over the sound-scape created by the book, since they never had control over it. The addition of specific sounds by booktrack, though, limits the creative focus of the text. In the short film above, a women reads a Quidditch passage from Harry Potter with her children. In the background we hear the sounds of a whistle, a crowd cheering and broomsticks swishing by. Readers of the Potter saga will know, though, that often the sport itself is the least important thing when it comes to Quidditch matches. Instead, the author places our focus squarely on the rivalries underlying the sport, or the dark brooding unrest beyond the arena.  When a book moves to film we all have to accept that there is a degree of reverse interpretation which goes on.  In other words, next time we read the book our mental picture is coloured by the film. We are all used to this by now.  However, people reading a novel for the first time with booktrack will form a particular sound-enhanced picture at their first reading which it will be hard to erase, surely?

Whilst puzzling on that one, those of you engaged this year with Biblefresh initiatives to bring the Bible to life might like to ponder the following question? If you had to choose background music for the calming of the storm and the Sermon on the Mount respectively, what would you choose?

Time to trade in the pulpit?

Wasn’t intending to blog today after releasing a cat amongst the digital pigeons yesterday.  However, having come across an alarming statistic in the Guardian today, I felt compelled to do so.  Apparently there are 35 hours of video material uploaded onto YouTube every minute. By my reckoning that amounts to a staggering 3024000 minutes per day – which would take over 2000 days to watch? Even if that statistic is open to question and the maths could be reworked – it is an astonishing figure.  In this world of high tech swiftly delivered video material, should the preacher just quietly pack up her or his pulpit and shuffle unobtrusively off into the wings?

You will not be surprised that my answer to that is a resounding ‘no’! There are numerous reasons, some of which will wait for another post, but here are two of them:

  • Vast numbers of those millions of minutes are people orientated – people doing funny, or clever, or courageous things. As long as people are fascinated by people the Bible-based preacher will never run out of raw material.
  • Much as we may love our videos – we are still hard-wired to engage face to face on the things that really matter. Reflecting on his experience of preaching at a student carol service, Krish Kandiah commented on the importance of eye-balling the congregation; ‘I changed the talk between the afternoon and the evening because of visual feedback i got as people listened to the talk. (something video preaching won’t ever give you ;o) ).

I’m a great believer in integrating visual media – whether moving or still, into preaching. However, they are no substitute for captivating speech. We need to hear the most important messages face to face – and that is something which no amount of video-goggling (or was that googling) will ever replace.

No wonder we are confused!

After yesterday’s post on competing narratives, the wonderful KOREuk directed me to this video by German Artist Garvin Nolte

If  “a picture paints a thousand words”, how many does such a video paint, I wonder?

As a man quite prone to navigational error, I have always rather fancied a sat-nav, but now I’m not so sure!

Telling stories in a competitive market

I like stories, in fact I love them. I love the stories I was brought up on as a child. I feed on the stories of faith, courage and devotion which I read in the lives of those whom I am privileged to serve as Pastor. I love the solemn moment in Richard Curtis’ script for the Vicar of Dibley where Geraldine interrupts the ribald rehearsals for the nativity play by reminding them that this is in fact, the greatest story in the history of the world.  As a preacher who came late to the narrative party, I have become ever more convinced of the power of story in communication. It is the stealth weapon in the preacher’s armoury – sneaking under the cautious radar of scepticism before unleashing  its true power in the heart.

And then Richard Lischer has to ruin it all. There I was, reading an innocent looking article on preaching on the train today when I read this phrase: “the Christian lives waist-deep in competing narratives”. The trouble is – he’s right. If the Christian preacher or communicator is to be a storyteller – he or she will find that the marketplace is full of troubadours touting their tales already. All that stuff we were told by the gurus of post-modernity about the meta-narrative going out of fashion was exaggerated. Whether the meta-narrative is the war on terror, the big society, the threat of environmental vandalism or simply that ‘love makes the world go round’ -ours is not the only story being told.

So what are to do about it? Not stamp our feet and insist on a hush in the market place of ideas because our story is best, surely? Rather this is a call to know the story better, feel it deeper and tell it more colourfully than ever before.  Would it be terribly old-fashioned of me to call for a return to the roots of oratory and Plato’s call for the orator to “win the soul by discourse”?

Our story deserves to be heard – but we must be winsome and clever as well as passionate if it is to gain a hearing

Richard Littledale

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