On the weakening of theology amongst friend and foe

By , 2 April 2010 7:31 pm

As often the case what I’m stimulated to write on today comes from a couple of things coming together.

The first is some interesting research in the States from the Barna Group on public perceptions of Easter. Their conclusions include this. “The results indicated that most Americans consider Easter to be a religious holiday, but fewer identify the resurrection of Jesus as the underlying meaning.” Actually, I worry about the definition of Easter being about the resurrection; I always thought it was the cross and resurrection. But it fits with my own perception that in many churches the underlying framework of theology is slowly weakening. We worship and we celebrate and we rejoice but please don’t ask us why. I’m afraid I am irresistibly and troublingly reminded of 9/11 when for a long time the Twin Towers apparently resisted the effects of flame and blast before their heat-weakened steel framework suddenly and unexpectedly gave way.

The second was that I have bought the latest Philip Pullman book: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. This is his reworking (I think a stronger word than ‘reworking’ is needed) of the Gospel accounts in a somewhat bizarre fashion. Mary has two children Jesus and Christ. Jesus is good (in a rather weak and wishy-washy liberal late-20th century Anglican fashion) whereas Christ increasingly comes to represent the worst aspects of formal religion. Jesus becomes an atheist and dies on the cross whereupon Christ effectively forms the church. Needless to say the supernatural is absent.

The reason for getting it was that there had been some discussion with a publisher about whether to write a rebuttal. The moment I saw the book on the shelf I realised that we didn’t really need to write a response. Why? It was already reduced to half price. Anyway it is fundamentally a revisiting of the oft repeated, old old lie of the noble peasant preacher Jesus full of homilies and non-judgemental good sense who is made divine only by the early church, in particular Paul. It’s not actually a very good book in any sense and I really wouldn’t advise you to buy it because it’ll probably turn up in a second-hand bookshop very quickly and if whoever read it had grubby fingers I bet you won’t find the mark of their prints much beyond page thirty.

Now what is relevant here is that Pullman has incorporated elements of the Gospel accounts but he too is theologically light. Somehow the entire history of Judaism, the sacrificial system of the temple, the establishment of Passover, the priestly castes, the great division between Jew and Gentile and a hundred other things are all mysteriously missing.

So I suppose I am vaguely comforted that if the church is undergoing theological amnesia so are our enemies. Just as well really….

Anyway have a blessed and theological Easter.

Property boom and educational bust

By , 26 March 2010 7:03 pm

Anyone hoping to acquire news of scandals for the basis of some novel or play would, I fear, be sadly disappointed by the college that I work at. Unless I am extraordinarily blind and deaf, the worst I can come up with is a little bit of lax timekeeping and rumours of slight indiscretions after excessive alcohol indulgence at Christmas parties. The gossip is astonishingly, even mind-numbingly, bland. (And that is no bad thing.) Yet what does surface during coffee and lunch breaks on a recurrent basis are the loud grumbles and moans about the falling abilities and reluctance to learn of many of our students. Now this is a most difficult and debatable matter but it is undeniable, as I’m sure I have commented before, that reading – that most fundamental of skills – is in an astonishing and almost terrifying decline. Indeed, we may only be a few years away from the end of the book age.

It is interesting to try and tease out what has happened with our once literate culture. It is undeniable that there have been major cultural and technological changes so that among the young those oh so dull and boring books have been replaced by the far more enticing matters of texting, the web and DVDs. And the less you read, the less you want to read. Yet there is more than this and we have had some interesting discussions in our office about how you could reverse the trend. There has been general agreement that one very helpful thing would be for young children to be regularly read to at home. Yet here we come to a significant problem; children do not get read to because many households are either single parent or (more commonly) there is no spare time for the parent to actually read to the child. And why is there no spare time? The answer is that both mummy and daddy have to work in order to pay the mortgage. And here friends, as elsewhere in the mess that is modern Britain, we come to what is surely the most iniquitous thing to have happened for a long time; the ‘boom in housing’.

Somehow, during the 60s (maybe earlier) domestic property in Britain no longer became a roof over your head but a commodity to be bought and traded. House prices rose and those who had bought houses were happy because they made money out of what is surely a human right. And as the prices rose, people bought houses for no other reason than it was a good investment. And with an increasing demand for houses, some of which were never fully occupied, house prices were inevitably pushed up. Of course, in order for anybody to afford houses meant that the wages had to rise so that British goods somehow became more expensive and other nations managed to steal our markets. It became financially almost ruinous for a wife to spend too long looking after the children so, as lamented above, both ended up working with a resultant stress on family and children. I suspect that the phenomenon of booze-fuelled British youth, now, one gathers, as widely feared across the continent, as our armies under Marlborough and Wellington once were, is largely attributable to this cause. Now we find that the average house price in Britain is well over £100,000 and we have a son and daughter-in-law in central London paying nearly one and a half thousand pounds a month just in rent. Our Chancellor has just announced the easing of the tax duty for first-time buyers on properties over £250,000!

The law of unintended consequences has once more worked to terrible effect. Interestingly, no one seems to have any idea of how to put the genie back in the bottle. Yet I cannot believe that they were not those, and no doubt a number of them were Christians, who quietly said when this whole process started that ‘this will lead to no good’. Were we silent because we felt we were naïve? Or were we silent because, at least in the short term, we saw profit for ourselves? And perhaps more worryingly, what other disastrous social trends are we quietly and dully allowing to happen that will give the next generation some more pieces to pick up?

On church music

By , 19 March 2010 7:00 pm

There are many indicators that you are getting old, or at least older. I suspect one of them is that you increasingly find yourself grumbling about church music. So at the risk of alienating some of my few friends let me make some comments. I should say though that they are not entirely directed at my own church but elsewhere.

This reflection was triggered curiously enough by an interview in a paper with a fireworks expert (there’s probably a special term for them) who do these wonderful firework displays that accompany music. His comment – I forget the precise words – was that he preferred working with classical musicians because they didn’t put themselves forward. The point was that with rock groups he found that he had personalities to deal with and they apparently wanted the limelight over his fireworks. Well the application to church music is pretty straightforward.

Mind you I don’t entirely blame our musicians, most of whom are under thirty. I suspect previous generations, by and large, held to classical music as the supreme model of musicianship. And there even the most extrovert of pianists or violinists is still bound by the score and, at least hopefully, the conductor. Of course there has been a trend as cult of personality with the conductor for which we have, I imagine, very little parallel in church music; though some of you may worship in churches where music groups are large enough to require a conductor. But in general classical musicianship centres on humility and reticence and the art of not getting in the way of letting the music speak. The problem now is I think that we have seen the replacement of this classical model by a newer model based around the musician as rock star. Here it is the performer, not the music, that comes to the front. This of course flies in the face of the idea that all the contributors to a worship service (and here I include the preacher) are servants. So I think there is a need to remind musicians that they serve the service and do not rule it.

The second problem I think is the rise of amplification. Now we need amplification; and some musicians need it badly. Here I am particularly thinking of the more light-voiced singers. The problem is that it is all too easy to end up with some sort of ceaseless arms race; the bass guitarist has to be heard over the drums so he or she is miked and amped, then the lead guitarist has to be given a few more watts of power so that he or she can be heard and this means that vocal amplification has to be increased. By this time, the overall balance generally has been thrown out and everybody cranks up the volume one more notch. The resulting problem is not just a volume level that is far too loud. It is that balancing the resulting rapidly changing melange of amplified sounds to create a clear and harmonious whole is beyond the ability of the average church PA kit and the average church PA person.

Let me add one final point which I have never heard anybody propound in church, which is rather a pity because it’s important. While it is commonly assumed that the older people get the deafer they become; it is probably truer to say that what actually happens is the range of frequencies over which they hear becomes narrower. The result is that the more senior members of the congregation can actually find noise levels more irritating than young people because it is swamping some of the few frequencies they have left.

There are other things that I can add. The key is surely that we are to serve each other and put others first. And that is, of course, the key not just to the success of church music.

Book news and on the tick-box syndrome

By , 12 March 2010 6:54 pm

I found out today (courtesy of the remarkable  Google Alerts option which tells you when you have been cited on the web) that there is a brief podcast on the poetry of Shadow and Night by no less than Mark Goodyear, Senior Editor for TheHighCalling.org and HighCallingBlogs.com.  (Gabcast! GoodWordEditing.com #11 – The Poetry of Shadow and Night — also available on iTunes)  That, and a couple of nice e-mails and blogs about people rereading my books for the third time, encourages me to persevere with the writing.

And now for something completely different. There have been a number of high profile cases recently in the UK of failures in teaching, policing health and social services. You know the sort of thing: some much harassed pupil commits suicide, the police overlook the fact that a mass murderer has been reported to them, a multitude of doctors fail to notice that someone is a chronic diabetic and scores of social workers overlook the fact that some child is being bullied to death by their parents. Shortage of time prevents me from citing tragic and gory details but there are many of these cases. Now there is something not just tragic, but fascinating (in the most worrying sense) about these. You see in every case we know that the organisation concerned must have been going through some apparently fairly rigid annual scrutiny. Again, you know the sort of thing: multipage forms either filled in by you or a supervisor which detail what you are doing, where you are doing it, how you are doing it. We call it ‘filling in the tick boxes’. Significantly, every time there is some sort of scandal or public outrage new tick boxes are added.  Now much of this is good and necessary; I have just had my annual ‘self assessment’ as a teacher and appear to have passed with flying colours.

And yet. The whole thing troubles me. It troubles me for several reasons, some fairly clear to me and some that I cannot quite put a finger on (but maybe you can). For a start it seems to encourage the wrong attitude to what we do. Real or imagined, the tick box list is ever before you and you measure yourself either by the criteria listed on it.  Yet to do this is to have freedom and creativity stifled; I suppose it might be possible to have a marriage which operated on a basis of Am I doing this? or Am I not doing this? But I’m not convinced that the marriage would last very long.

My second concern is that precisely because it is so selective and specific it hides the fact that appalling errors may take place. For instance I could easily select 30 places in Wales that would convince you it was the most idyllic place on the face of the earth. I would be overlooking potentially as large number of places which would convince you there were some very serious problems indeed. Under the guise of quality control ‘Tickboxing’ breeds security and therefore complacency. I tell my students of the alleged case of the statistician who drowned in a river whose average depth was less than a metre. Management by tick box can equally conceal massive holes within it.

Now you say, what is the relationship to Christianity? Well first of all we need to be sure in our work and our society we look beyond this tick-box mentality. There is more to a job and life generally than having done certain specifics. Secondly, this surely applies to the spiritual world. We can basically look over our life defining key spiritual parameters and then fill in those little boxes. Yet even with every box filled there can be a void beneath. If this sounds vaguely familiar to I suggest you that the whole process of tick-boxing in the spiritual world was exactly what was the problem with the Pharisees.

Have a great week.

On “Up” and high art

By , 5 March 2010 7:11 pm

The other weekend we managed to watch two DVDs at home. On the Friday night we went grand opera – very grand in this case – Puccini’s last work Turandot, which has a lot more going for it than the great football-fest aria Nessun dorma. It was pretty much a star-studded cast with Placido Domingo on fine form and the lavish sets by Zefirelli depicting the brutal China of the emperors.

Saturday night was meant to be the ridiculous rather than the sublime; the Pixar/Disney film Up which we had somehow missed at the cinema. Yet it didn’t turn out to be quite as ridiculous as I had expected. If you haven’t seen the film it’s well worth seeing for the first 10 minutes which seem to inhabit a different world from the humorous, action-packed sequence that follows. Without giving too much of the plot away, this first section is a muted (there is almost no dialogue) yet astonishingly tightly drawn account of a married life where, let’s say, not everything works out.

Yet somehow, despite – or because of – the economy of words it is a remarkably moving portrayal of ordinary life as we all too often experience it. If it doesn’t bring you close to tears you may want to check your pulse. A glance at some of the reviews suggest that my reaction is not untypical: several reviewers suggest that this opening section may be the finest piece of ‘cartoon work’ (one feels the word cartoon does it injustice) ever created and there are several comments of vast snufflings and sobs in cinemas. The rest of the film is fine if you don’t mind talking dogs and the like but it really cannot live up to its awesome beginning.

Now the point is that I found this section of Up a far more moving and emotionally challenging piece of work than Turandot. If we take it that one of the definitions of art is ‘a created work that moves us’ then this scant 10 minutes of Up triumphs over one of the great masterpieces of Italian opera.

From this I draw a few tentative conclusions which may be worth considering.

  • Great art can be achieved in the most improbable of media. Wonders can be worked with the humble cartoon.
  • Great art can be achieved with a minimum of means. You don’t need a full orchestra, fine singers and 2½ hours duration to achieve a great effect.
  • The ordinary can sometimes be more moving than the extraordinary.

All in all I find it pretty encouraging; here as elsewhere, the little can sometimes beat the large.

Uttering heresy: Why David Attenborough may not be good for conservation

By , 26 February 2010 6:50 pm

There cannot be many people on the planet who have access to television who have not seen at least some part of one of David Attenborough’s wonderful programs on wildlife. Currently we are working our way (slowly) through Planet Earth on the new TV and very fine it is indeed. Here in the UK as the old man gets into what must surely be his last decade there are already murmurings as to how we should honour him at his passing. Westminster Abbey perhaps?

Now let me say at the start that I yield to no one in my admiration of Attenborough. He is an excellent biologist and presenter (unlike the present crop of natural history presenters who seem to be chosen on the basis of looks alone) and his affection for wildlife and natural world is undeniably inspirational. And yet I have been thinking the unthinkable, and wondering whether his programmes (and similar wildlife spectaculars) have actually been good for conservation. Some of you will find this a statement that borders on the offensive or even nonsensical. Surely these programmes have portrayed the wonder of creation in a way that we could never have imagined? True: but have they been good for conservation? Have they encouraged people to go out into the natural world around them and wonder?

You see the problem as I see it is that such programmes present a wildlife that is so utterly spectacular and stunningly awesome that real nature can only come as an anti-climax. The reality is generally inferior in both quantity and quality. In the UK we do not see happy flocks of penguins marching resolutely across ice floes, schools of bounding killer whales or swarms of innumerable iridescent butterflies. We do not even get close to wildlife: the best views I have had of most birds would have ended up on Attenborough’s cutting room floor. (I do have to say that we were very fortunate in Lebanon to get some marvellous views of raptor and stork migration that rank very highly in wildlife experiences. They, though, are the exception rather than the rule; you had to be there at the right time.) From the short programmes appended to Planet Earth it is apparent that in some cases it took weeks of waiting with equipment costing tens of thousands of pounds to get some of the imagery. The problem is that having watched such programmes, when you go out into the natural world you are frequently disillusioned; birds are tiny little dots in a shaking telescope, butterflies do not stay to be identified and your photos of seals amount to little more than a cluster of pixels. If you do persist with an interest in wildlife you may be tempted to become an eco-tourist and I am very ambivalent about ecotourism and uneasy as to whether it does more good than harm. The reality of conservation is that there is an awful lot of work and some of it is frankly dull and unexciting.

Now these blogs are not of course simply about conservation or anything else; they are if anything a rather hasty Christian perspective on such matters. But actually I wonder whether this problem of reality being only a pale imitation of art is far more insidious and far more widespread than just involving the natural world. Doesn’t Hollywood and the media constantly tell us that life is spectacular and awesome, a non-stop adventure of fun and excitement? Yet the reality is that much of life is drab weeks and drab weekends albeit at punctured with brief but passing moments of pleasure and joy. And the problem is that if you expect the pleasure and joy to be the permanent phenomenon then you will undoubtedly feel cheated at your miserable lot. Doesn’t the same also apply to marriage? Isn’t that supposed to be an endless sizzling rapture of romance? Well sometimes it is but a lot of times it’s, well, just ordinary. And none the worse for that.

I am happy to keep watching the David Attenborough films and long may he flourish. But I have learnt to have happiness with a brief glimpse of a solitary Goldfinch on my birdfeeder. This side of heaven it is surely damaging to expect too much and there is perhaps more merit in the ordinary than the world would have us believe.

Have a good week.

On the current British political scene

By , 19 February 2010 6:29 pm

In case you are not resident in the UK let me tell you that this has been a long cold winter and even here in normally mild Wales we have seen snow flurries almost every day this week. In many ways the weather seems to be echoing the gloomy political scene.

A general election has to happen in the next few months and I have to say that in all my experience of British elections this is the most dispiriting one I have ever come across. Various people whose opinions I utterly respect have shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to vote.’ I quite sympathise: I will vote but I’m not sure for whom and it’s very much on the basis of the lesser of a number of evils. Let me summarise the contenders as I see them.

First of all, we have the incumbent Labour Party and perpetually glum and scowling Gordon Brown. Even Labour supporters can come up with no enthusiasm for the man who as long-time Chancellor of the Exchequer (and so responsible for the nation’s finances) must be held to blame for the appalling financial state that we find ourselves in. In fact it is difficult to avoid using of Gordon the phrase that I believe C. S. Lewis used of Lord Grey, the Foreign Secretary prior to the First World War, that ‘he has done as much harm to the country as one man possibly can do.’ As I write this, I’m trying (and failing) to think of anybody in Gordon’s dreary Cabinet for whom I have anything like respect. The new Labour dream that began so promisingly when Blair came to power has now gone very sour indeed. There is now no desire for reform, but merely the desperate urge to hold onto power. So far the Labour Party has not unveiled any political manifesto for the future but it is essentially ‘We are not the Conservatives’.

Secondly, we have the Conservatives under David Cameron. Unfortunately, no one really seems to know what he believes in and there is some question whether he even believes in himself. As a very English public schoolboy with a very substantial personal fortune he is not someone that the ordinary person identifies with and certainly not here in Wales. He is more a 19th century figure than a 21st. Cameron is widely portrayed by cartoonists as a façade over an empty nothingness and there is something in that. The Conservatives cannot even escape the accusations of financial incompetence that hang over the Labour Party; after all it was their idea under Mrs Thatcher to dismantle British industry in favour of banks and bankers. So far the Conservative party has not unveiled any political manifesto but it is essentially ‘We are not Labour’. So unappealing are Cameron’s Conservatives that they are only just slightly ahead of Labour in the polls which is a pretty remarkable feat.

Thirdly we have the Liberal Democrats under…  Ah, yes, what’s his name? Oh, Nick Clegg, a man whose hallmark seems to be blandness. On the positive side, Nick’s financial spokesman is Vince Cable, who by universal, if grudging agreement, is the only senior politician to have warned of the pending financial catastrophe and who very sensibly wants a way forward that does not involve returning to the bad old days. Yet the Lib Dems’ social agenda, apparently based on a boundless faith in human nature, is alarming. And anyway there is a widespread belief that the Liberal Democrats really don’t want power because they actually like being in that state of permanent opposition which gives them the privilege to make all sorts of promises in the sure and certain knowledge that they will never have to actually implement any.

Here in Swansea we also have the option of voting for Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalists, but given that Wales has no resources other than a boundless supply of rain, sheep and talkative politicians the idea of Welsh independence is far from enchanting.

The problem of choice is multiplied by the fact that there are real and profound issues to do with the future of Britain. You feel that one of the biggest distinctions between Britain and the USA is that Americans have always held to some sort of vision of what they are. In in our own little way we never really got round to the ‘vision thing’; we just kept muddling on in the hope that something would work out. That was never a very good policy and in the midst of a major economic crisis and unravelling multiculturalism it looks particularly bankrupt.

Those who pray, might want to pray!

By , 12 February 2010 6:30 pm

I have referred quite frequently to the issue of cultural values in various blogs but I want to return to it today. Two things have prompted it: first, the successful trial and prosecution of Police Commander Ali Dezai for ‘misconduct in a public office’ and ‘perverting the course of justice’. The second was an interesting article entitled No tax please, we are Greek on the BBC website, detailing the appalling levels of chronic fraud within the Greek political and cultural system.

Reading the post-trial coverage of the Iranian-born Dezai and how he rose to power I was struck by how he seemed to exemplify the very worst of Middle Eastern culture; those things I came to know and detest. There was a habitual and flagrant flaunting of the law, an overriding preoccupation with personal honour, and obsession with getting your own way to the point that bullying became a normal mode of operation. The article on the Greeks pointed out how endemic corruption was and how almost nobody paid tax.

Both cases point out the existence of very different cultural values. We don’t talk much about cultural values in the UK, partly because it leads into discussions that can become racist (but race and culture are very different things) and partly, I think, because it leads to that uncomfortable awareness that cultures are not mysterious belief sets that suddenly appear from nowhere but that they derive their values from the prevailing religion. For a nation that aspires to have no religion this is somewhat worrying.

British culture is, of course, shaped by the fact that for nigh on 500 years we have been a society whose ultimate source of authority has been the Bible. Oh you may have loathed the Church of England, you may even have been a practising atheist, but when it came to culture we were, in truth, all singing from more or less the same hymn sheet. The result was a number of distinctive values and I want to list some of them here because I fear in British post-Christian society they are quietly slipping away.

  1. Truth comes before personal honour. In many parts of the world the most important thing you can do is make sure that you do not lose face. Honour trumps telling the truth every day; rather than admit to a mistake or a failure, lie. It was not previously thus.
  2. Humility is good, pride is bad. It used to be held that the ultimate achievement in life was to do something wonderful but still be mistaken for a nobody. This has now been inverted so that if you are a nobody you should proclaim yourself to be someone wonderful.
  3. Serving others is good. In the Middle East you will almost never find anybody who wants to be a nurse. Bedpans? Mopping up vomit? Slaving over the sick? Leave that for the immigrant labour. Now, here we find that the service ethos is being eroded. Even in teaching, it now seems to be held that we should be over our students rather than serve them.
  4. Life is about duty and doing good rather than personal fulfilment. This is another enormous one. My understanding is that in the past you were supposed to aspire to do what was right and, God willing, you might find you actually enjoyed it. Now the rule is seek your own personal fulfilment and do what you want to do. This of course totally undermines the concept of being in the Armed Forces where dying for others is sadly not an improbable fantasy.
  5. Wealth is not to be flaunted. In the old days if you did have something like a Mercedes you were vaguely embarrassed if it was a new car. Now you are embarrassed if it does not proclaim from 300 yards that is the very latest, top-of-the-range model.
  6. All human beings have value. There are no second-class human beings. The poor the weak, the foreigner; all have ultimate significance. Increasingly I sense an us-and-them type attitude; we are something, they (said in a suitably contemptuous voice) are nothing.

I could go on and I’m sure each one of these could be expanded and developed. Please don’t get me wrong: I am not engaged in the sort of ‘Merrie England’ fantasy that some of our right-wing papers love to engage in; the idea that all was once sweetness and light in these isles. No, there were crooks, there were frauds, and there was a dreadful class consciousness. Nevertheless there were ideals that people were supposed to hold to which shaped the cultural values. And of course these values were not due to the surpassing excellency of British genes, climate or public school. They came from Scripture and it would be a fascinating exercise to try and put texts to each one of the six.

There are lots of questions that this raises and it would take a book to even try to answer them. But our culture derives from what we worship. We now have become hedonist consumers; is it any wonder that we are in trouble?

Book news

By , 5 February 2010 7:06 pm

I am somewhat concerned that people turn to this blog in the hope that they will read that my next three-volume trilogy is due at their bookstores next Thursday. In fact I rarely mention my writing. Anyway let’s see where I am at. There are three aspects.

1) Things are frankly very quiet on the Lamb Among the Stars front; so the film rights are still available and can probably be yours very cheaply. I gather the books are now out on Kindle although there seems to be some question about Book 2 (Dark Foundations). Kindle has not really caught on much in the UK and I think there must be real doubt with the pending arrival of the iPad that it will ever make much of an inroad here.

2) With regard to my fiction writing I have had goes at three separate projects. I considered a sort of lateral spin-off to the Lamb among the Stars but cannot find much enthusiasm for an epic work; they are very hard to market. I have got a notebook full of ideas for a clever, more theological work, dealing with the life of Christ from a different angle but have put it to one side in favour of a third idea which is more fantasy/thriller/romance. At the moment I’m very busy at college and will be for the next couple of months. Hopefully by the end of April I will be able to turn to seriously putting pen to paper as we used to say before computers became endemic. Or is that epidemic?

3) On a much more tangible note I came back today to find our small hall filled with some boxes of a very attractive hardback that is coming out this month: a book I have written with J John (who is probably the nearest thing we have to an evangelical celebrity). It’s called The Return: Grace and the Prodigal, published by Hodder. It is very a distinctive three-part book dealing with what is perhaps the greatest of all the parables, ‘the Prodigal Son’. In the first part John and I creatively re-imagine this parable in a short story set in a later (and perhaps more familiar) setting, filling in some of the details and fleshing out some of the personalities. In the second part, we look carefully at the meaning of the parable, and deal with such important aspects as why Jesus taught in parables and the meaning of this parable in particular. In the final part, we look at handling relationships in the light of the parable of the prodigal. We talk about how we can apply the truths that are highlighted in this parable in our own lives. Frankly I have no idea how well it will do. It’s a good book, not too long and probably more stimulating than most books on popular theology. That is not a high goal!

Anyway I thought you ought to know.

Have a great week.

And that way madness lies

By , 29 January 2010 9:14 pm

I don’t often talk about teaching for all sorts of reasons but mention came up of something this week that has wider implications. It is the fact that we teachers are to be encouraged to pay attention much more to the ‘learner voice’. In other words, the students are to take a more active part in evaluating our courses. Now, of course, much of this is splendid. They are, after all, the recipients of our teaching and in theory well placed to assess its validity. Furthermore, it is no bad thing for people of my age (50+) who grew up in a very different culture to be reminded of the problems and difficulties faced by those growing up in the present culture. Nevertheless, it is a tool that needs to be treated with a very large amount of discrimination. The real danger is that students will start to tell us how and what to teach. And, as I remarked to a colleague as we discussed it, ‘that way madness lies’.

In fact, teaching a subject like geology is very much telling a story; we know the end, but our audience does not. We alone know what plot elements are important; that knowledge is hidden from them. So in geology I labour away on such topics as the classification of igneous rocks in the early weeks. I need no surveys to tell me that the students find it dull. Yet when, as will be the case in the next few weeks, we turn to volcanic eruptions, they will suddenly realise that the hitherto dully academic difference between basalt, andesite and rhyolite is, in fact, of enormous value. A friend of mine who teaches modern languages is almost in despair at the idea of ‘learner voice’. Any sort of competence in language must be built on solid, tedious and frankly unattractive foundations of grammar.

A reminder of how potent this pupil power can be came this week with a well reported Facebook protest by allegedly thousands of biology students over an exam board’s paper. My biology colleagues tell me that the protests were largely unmerited but it has set a rather alarming precedent. Once upon a time, students were in fear of the exam board; now it seems that exam boards are beginning to feel afraid of students. Fail the exam? Don’t blame yourself, blame the board and try and get the decision overturned.

There is much here that if you are at all interested in culture, is fascinating. We have now had a couple of generations of being told that we are ‘consumers’ and ‘have rights’, and during which market forces have been given almost unrestrained freedom. Yet most thoughtful observers – even those from the political right – are now finding some of the resultant muscle-flexing to be troubling.

Churches are affected by this trend. No church of course exists in total isolation from culture and this critical, consumerist attitude is becoming endemic. The result is that there is a danger that in organising our services and preaching, we are driven not by what we feel is right or what we think God wants, but market forces. Not only that but once the congregation sees itself as consumers (‘We can worship elsewhere you know!’) they can all too easily feel they have a right to demand that things are done their way. A number of ministers of my acquaintance have found themselves troubled and perplexed by members of their congregations who have insisted on dedications, baptisms, weddings or funerals being structured and performed according to the desires of those concerned. There are many arguments for and against a fixed liturgy (as in the Anglican prayer book). I am beginning to wonder whether one of the best is quite simply the fact that it limits consumer choice. ‘Sorry’, it says, ‘this is the way it’s done. Like it or lump it.’

As I thought of this I was reminded of the old Latin tag Vox populi, vox dei ‘The voice of the people [is] the voice of God’, and checked it up on Wikipedia. It sounds as though the congregation wishing to have its own way has been something of a recurrent problem in Christianity because the phrase is first cited by the eighth-century Northumbrian theologian Alcuin in a letter to Charlemagne. The translation reads as follows: ‘And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.’ There is indeed nothing new under the sun…

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