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Western trend or Eastern delicacy?

I suspect that most readers of this blog read The National newspaper, published in the UAE, as often as I do. The chances of me reading an intelligent, incisive article on Theology by an Anglican cleric in Abu Dhabi are somewhat limited.  Once again, Twitter has burst my bubble, when a vicar in Baghdad drew it to my attention.

I have often said that theological debate can be a Western luxury.  When people in the UK looked at pictures of wrecked post-tsunami churches with people still worshipping alongside the empty seats of the missing and discussed theodicy I felt offended. If the people in the picture could swallow the debate and worship God regardless, couldn’t we? Theological debate felt like a luxury we could afford and they could not. It can feel rather the same when we discuss the implications of famine for a theology of God over coffee and biscuits whilst Sudanese Christians carry on regardless.  Whilst the question lingers, I suspect that my own reactions bear more than a little hidden anger in there somewhere!

Andy Thompson’s article in The National  is lacking in anger or rancour of any kind, but is suffused with a genuine delight in the possibilities of theological debate in a multi-faith setting. Setting aside the pre-conception that many have of a repressive and intolerant religious environment in parts of the Arab world, he paints a different picture entirely. He says that ‘mature and gracious theology can create tolerant societies’ and describes the UAE authorities’ investment in theological think-tanks such as the Tabah foundation. Perhaps more surprisingly he goes on to say that ‘it is easier to be a Christian in the UAE than it is to be a Christian at home in the UK.’ If that has whetted your appetite for more, then I suggest you click the photo below to read the article in full. Whilst you are doing so, ask yourself how likely it is that such an article might appear on the front page of any daily newspaper you usually read!


Truth through juxtaposition

I have written on this  blog before about the birth of pointilism. Drawing on the insights of Royal Tapestry Maker Michel Chevreul, pointilists recognised that more intense colours were rendered in the brain by juxtaposing dots of pure colour, instead of mixing colurs on a palette or in a vat of dye.  In the same way as pointilist paintings can create canvasses which sizzle with light and vitality, so the juxtaposition of apparently unrelated ideas can bring startling new insight. At this process, Twitter excels.

Earlier this morning Justin Flitter, a friend in New Zealand, pointed me to the work of Neal Stephenson, a writer in America. In his article, Innovation Starvation, Stephenson makes some troubling observations about how caution has stunted the growth of ideas, and how the death of ‘traditional’ science fiction has reduced the flow of innovation.  Technological setbacks such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 have also bred a culture of fear rather than courage when it comes to the creative implementation of technologies. The augers ill for the human race:

The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a grand scale no longer seems like the childish preocupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It is the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicament. Too bad we’ve forgotten how to do it.

Just as I was  digesting that particular thought, the following tweet popped up on my computer screen from the Director of the Theos think tank:

How right she is! The Bible is indeed a book of ideas. It has crazy ideas in it such as replacing vengeance with forgiveness. It has unpalatable ideas in it like loving our enemies. Look too carefully at the Book of Acts, and you will see deeply impractical ideas such as holding our property in common.  Have we, like the nerds with slide rules in Stephenson’s paper, lived with these ideas so long that we have negotiated a truce with them? We don’t trouble them and they don’t trouble us. If we have, then both church and world are undoubtedly poorer because of it.

Twitter has taken me on a journey from doughnut-shaped space stations to the King James Bible via America and New Zealand this morning – and I am grateful.


… preaching the anniversary

If preachers don’t articulate the Zeitgeist on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks – then they can be sure that everyone from newspaper columnists to placard-toting protesters will do it for them. It is part of our role as preachers to ‘step up to the plate’ at times like this. However, we must do so carefully. Thinking back to Bonhoeffer’s gentle wisdom yesterday, here are a few personal pointers and cautions:

  • “The man who despises others” – anything we say about the attacks ten years ago, or the unfolding conflicts since must not slip from comment to caricature about any group of people.
  • “A generation with so little ground under its feet” – 9/11 was a sign of the times, but it did not utterly define them. Just after the attack I visited North Eastern India, where it was barely a blip on their horizon. To treat the WTC attacks as defining the state of the world at large is too big a deal, and may promote the kind of Western preoccupation which belittles other parts of the world.
  • “Hardly anything can be more reprehensible than the sowing and encouragement of mistrust”- the pulpit is not a place to encourage the kind of fear and suspicion which makes us treat the ‘other’ as a lesser person.
  • “It is not the genius we need…but honest, straightforward men”  – a preacher is not a geo-political analyst, a military tactician, nor a sociologist – a preacher is a man or woman with God’s trumpet in their hand and God’s spirit in their heart.
  • “The only cure for folly is spiritual redemption” – whilst I may stand accused of perpetuating a ‘sacred-secular divide’, preachers must never forget that their primary script is redemption. Our greatest gift to our listener is always to extend God’s gracious invitation to them.
  • “Tomorrow may be the day of judgement. If it is, then we shall gladly give up working for a better future, but not before.”  Sermons this Sunday may catch the retrospective wave – but they must point forwards.
Below is a picture of the USS New York, a warship commissioned in November 2009. Its bow is fashioned from 7.5 metric tons of steel from the wrecked World Trade Centre.  In this way, something new has arisen from all that destruction. Mangled and twisted steel has been fashioned into something streamlined and purposeful.
As we trawl through the stories, recollections, and columns about 9/11 this week – may our sermons emerge as something streamlined and purposeful, with bows turned towards a new day.

image: wikimedia

… but any wiser?

Many years ago, before the ‘war on terror’ had entered our vocabulary, I was a student at St Andrews University, reading for a degree in Practical Theology.  One particular course I took was in “theology: theory and practice”, specialising in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Our aim was to study how his theology influenced the practice of his faith, and how the practice of his faith interrogated his theology.  In late 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote an essay entitled ‘After 10 years’. He gave three copies to his friends, and hid a fourth one in the loft of his house – where it was later discovered after his arrest and execution at the hands of the Gestapo. It represents a mature and reasoned reflection on the experience of living through evil times.

Since I cannot open a newspaper or visit a news website at the moment without seeing an allusion to the impending 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I have found myself returning to this gentle, profound, and challenging document. Below are some salient selections from After Ten Years, and tomorrow I shall reflect a little further on the task of preaching this Sunday.

  • Surely there has never been a generation in the course of human history with so little ground under its feet as our own.
  • The man of freedom…is ready to sacrifice a barren principle for a fruitful compromise or a barren mediocrity for a fruitful radicalism.
  • There is no defence against folly Neither protests nor force are of any avail against it, and it is never amenable to reason.
  • The only cure for folly is spiritual redemption, for that alone can enable a man to live as a responsible person in the sight of God.
  • The man who despises others can never hope to do anything with them.
  • We know that hardly anything can be more reprehensible than the sowing and encouragement of mistrust
  • If we want to be Christians we must show something of Christ’s breadth of sympathy by acting responsibly
  • It is not the genius that we shall need, not the cynic, not the misanthropist, not the adroit tactician, but honest, straightforward men.
  • Tomorrow may be the day of  judgement. If it is, then we shall gladly give up working for a better future, but not before.

Note the absence of bitterness, but also the deep sense of personal responsibility. The language seems a little stilted, and its male bias sounds very out of place in 2011. Are there not lessons for us here though , ten years on?

The attic where Bonhoeffer's essay was written -image from

The Great Global Treasure Hunt

Back in 1979, Kit Williams published a book entitled Masquerade. In it were cryptic clues to the whereabouts of a golden jewelled hare brooch worth £5000 at the time, buried somewhere in the United Kingdom. Three years, lots of false starts and angry landowners (whose fields had been dug up by treasure hunters) later, the brooch was found. The discovery was mired in controversy, and the experiment was not repeated.

Yesterday a clean, tidy 21st Century version was launched: The Great Global Treasure Hunt on Google Earth.  Clues provided in the book will lead to numbers, which can eventually be put together into latitude and longitude co-ordinates for the location of a 50, 000 Euro treasure trove on Google Earth. No digging of any kind will be required on the surface of the real Earth, but the successful treasure seeker will win a prize of 50,000 Euros.  In every way it seems like the clean, environmentally friendly, digital successor to its 1970s predecessor.

I was only 7 when Masquerade was published, and have dim recollections of the bearded Kit Williams being interviewed on the news and tales of people digging up fields where they shouldn’t in their quest for the treasure. At the time I was more interested in the kinds of tales in the magazine pictured below than I was in the quest for a golden brooch.


Maybe its my early years in the company of World of Wonder which made me sit up and take notice at the words below by the creator of The Great Global Tresure Hunt, Dedopulos.  He says that some clues in the book may be spurious in terms of finding the treasure, but:

May just take you to some beautiful or amazing part of the planet which I feel you should know about. I must confess, I will feel bereft if this quest does not engender, among the participants, a sense of wonder at this amazing world.

As a preacher and a Christian I am all for engendering a sense of wonder in this amazing world. That said, my view of that wonder has changed since the days when I had my head stuck in World of Wonder. These days I would see every flash of wonder as a clue on the trail to the greatest treasure of all.

Unconvinced by muscular Christianity

Some readers will know that I had a flood in my office last week. Over a period of several hours, water came in through the roof, cascading down the wall and splashing merrily over visual aids, furniture and carpet. The flood is dealt with now, and the mess is all cleared up. Amongst the items I threw away was a set of old woven Sunday School pictures by Thomas Nelson. On the right below is a close-up of Jesus blessing the children. Even had it not been damaged by the water, it was time it went. The image is saccharin, unhelpful and antiquated.

The image on the left, however, cropped up in my Twitter feed from the Guardian newspaper earlier this morning. In an article which claimed that “Christianity has undergone a macho make-over’ , the image was shown as an example. Painted by American artist Stephen Sawyer, it is apparently intended to attract men to a muscular brand of Christianity.

Am I alone in feeling that it might have the opposite effect? Not only that, but I am a little dismayed by the notion that men are poor simple creatures who only like noisy things, only have mates called Dave and might be drawn into the Kingdom of God by the smell of sweat and displays of testosterone!


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?

The hand of God

Yesterday Lorenzo Quinn’s 4-metre long aluminium sculpture ‘the hand of God’ went on display in the elegant surroundings of Park Lane in Mayfair. The thing is, it is also on display at the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Can the hand of God be in more than one place at once?


Of course the answer to the question above is an unequivocal ‘yes’. The hand of God can be with a chaplain in a prison, me telling stories at a children’s holiday club (as I was this morning) and a frightened Christian praying behind locked doors in Tripoli all at the same time.

The hand of God is in many places at once. Its just not always as obvious as Quinn’s 400kg of aluminium make it. Sometimes not only beauty, but revelation, is in the eye of the beholder.

Richard Littledale

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