Jesus The Good Man and Christ The Scoundrel

23 04 2010

I’ve just finished reading Pullman’s latest book. Let me say from the outset – it is brilliant! Kester Brewin gave it a review here and I agree with much of what he said and won’t repeat on this blog.

It reads like the good news bible which makes it easy to get thru (I read it in two days which isn’t bad for a dyslexic!) and works brilliantly for this genre. The story is a retelling of the Gospels but with a slight twist – Mary had twins. One called Jesus the other called Christ. Like the Gospels, its brilliance lies in what is unsaid but leaves the reader license to play. So for instance, you are never quite sure if the Immaculate Conception is just that, or whether a cheeky young man has manipulated an innocent Mary into bed! The temptation and Gethsemane scenes are also brilliantly written and imagined.

Pullman is trying to show the reader how truth can be manipulated into myth and has a lot to contribute to the Historical Jesus debate. However, I doubt (sadly) that many scholars will take him seriously just because he’s not in the club!

One interesting point amongst many: the story is held together by a stranger whose name and origin are unknown. Again the reader is left to draw her own conclusions. The stranger takes the role of the redactive process; dictating (or rather manipulating) how the story is to be told and what ought to be missed out. For me, the stranger was both the strength and the weakness of the story. It showed, with almost terrifying clarity, how the story has and can be manipulated by those who have a vested interest in the narrative. (Ironically Pullman has done just the same for his own purposes!). But I would have liked to have seen what happens when more than one interpretive community gets hold of the story. I don’t doubt for one moment that the church has held the keys to scriptural interpretation. But I also suspect that the stories were told in small communities, possibly independently at first, like gossip circles. So whereas Pullman has the story recorded ‘as it happens’ in journalistic mode; I am just as convinced that the story was mythologised through oral tradition and communication. Each village, community, group used their own interpretative framework to hear and articulate the story. Choosing what to embellish, add, and miss out. It would have been good if Pullman had told the story of how the story was told and retold as well as how it was constructed. But I suspect that wasn’t in his brief. Or is it the sequel?

Whatever you think of the bible- its well worth a read and should leave the reader with questions reverberating long after the final page is turned.


Opportunities and assumptions!

22 04 2010

I went for a wander around Hanley this morning to see what I could see! It’s one of the perks of this job that I get paid to walk around shopping precincts, drink coffee and chat to people. I had a chat with the Big Issue man and had a coffee at Costa (building up a mass of points on my Coffee Club Card). I also bumped into two guys selling a comedy magazine called Gag Mag. These two lads looked the part. Hoddies, jeans, sunglasses etc. Both were good looking lads and both were enjoying chatting to folks and trying to sell the mags. I heard them chatting and they spoke in a way that was not unusual for lads in their 20-‘s – 30’s. Winding each other up about who could pull and who couldn’t, who had a better chance with the ladies and who was the least likely to find an attractive young female victim. The language was, as you would expect, wonderfully vibrant. I got speaking to them and they sold me one of the magazines. They asked me what I did for a job:

‘You wouldn’t believe me if I told you’

‘go on mate – what do you do?’

‘I’m a vicar’

‘No shit!’

‘No shit – straight up’

‘hey mate – guess what – he’s a f’ing vicar’

‘F*@k me – coolest vicar I’ve ever seen’

‘so do you do your vicaring round here?’

‘yeah – actually I’ve got a special job working in the centre trying to find a way to get guys like you two to be interested in some of my stuff’

‘you’re making assumptions there man!’


He then proceeded to pull out of his pocket a rosary and started to tell me how he and his mate go to church (the other guy didn’t go as often he said ‘about once or twice a month!’ well that told me! What an Ass to make such an assumption!! Note to self: work on your patter! (oh – and stop being so judgmental!)

On another note: on my wanderings I found an outlet in the shopping centre available for lease – a possible sacred space? Or just another wild assumption!!



Sacred Space

20 04 2010

This morning I had a very interesting meeting with the Hanley City Centre Manager (Jean Ball). We spoke about the lack of Sacred Space in the city centre. I was encouraged that she raised the issue, wanted to explore it, and actively sought to find a way of rectifying the omission. She had spoken to planners who are redeveloping a site in the city to see if they might want to include a sacred space in their new plans.

As it happens we do have The Lounge where we run Night Church from which is ideally located for Clubland on Friday, Saturday and Monday night. However, that area is like a ghost town during the day. The only reason to go down to Gitana Street is to go to the Methodist Bookshop (although I spend a lot of money there it is not the highest grossing retailer in the centre!)

So if we were to develop a sacred space for the day time economy we would need to be in the shopping precinct; either in the indoor shopping centre or in the surrounding area. It raises many interesting questions:

  1. Firstly, does Jean mean the same thing that I mean when we talk about Sacred Space? Why does the City Centre Manager feel that this is an important, but neglected aspect of the city centre? (I don’t think she is practicing any particular faith – but even if she was the question would still stand)
  2. What does sacred space look like in a multi-cultural, pluralistic, cosmopolitan city like Stoke? Do I need to find other sacred partners? And how do I go about doing that?
  3. In order to have a permanent scared space in the shopping precinct we would need to rent one of the outlets. Does Hanley need a sacred space more than it needs another retailer? We would not be contributing to the local economy and we would take up valuable commercial opportunity.
  4. Even if we did decide that the space was important – how do we pay for it? We would not be making an income and would be relying on other sacred partners investing heavily in the space for a number of years.


Despite the questions – I think it’s worth exploring. My Divine instinct is aroused when I hear these kinds of conversations in places I least expect them. If this was in a church meeting or another Christian talking to me over coffee, I might think ‘nice idea but maybe not the right idea’. I’ve experienced enough of the small voice to trust my intuitive self to go with it for a while and see where we end up (which might be nowhere).

On another note – I’ve nearly finished reading (the benefit of public transport) Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ. (thanks to Ric for pointing me in the right direction) Kester Brewin has written a good review of it here. I’ll probably blog about it later in the week.

The Hanley Eco Warrior

16 04 2010

I mentioned in a previous post that I have given up my car as a small contribution towards the environment debate.

It began in January when I was facilitating a professional formation group for CYM. We were talking about those values that we want to shape and define us but in practice do very little to the way we live our lives. (It has to be said that I have many of them!). I used the environment as an example from my own life. I think a lot about the environment and I have spoke passionately in the past about our response to the current crisis. However, I think I must have one of the largest carbon footprints of anyone I know!

So I decided to give my car up for Lent. Then on Easter Sunday I decided to try for a year!

At first it was a nightmare (as those who follow Facebook will know). The bus was late; I was standing around; if I decided to go home I would arrive 20 minutes later than I anticipated; I could never understand why we needed so many bus stops only 500m apart! But after a while I started to settle into it. I think the turning point was when I realised that this wasn’t something to endure – rather it was a different way of being.*

Here’s a few of the things I have discovered so far:

  1. My life was too busy and too rushed. Resulting in a stressed, anxious and sometimes irritable young man. Public transport slows your life down. You are limited to travel when others travel, and, in essence my capacity to do is determined by others (particularly bus drivers!)
  2. Related to point one. My life was crammed with ‘things’. The bus gives me time and space to be. On the bus I read, pray, think and socially network (the joys of iPhone)
  3. My life was always about people but rarely with people. Now I get to chat with folks on the bus and find out what the world looks like from other perspectives. The second day I started using the bus a drunk bloke sat next to me with one arm. A brilliant conversation ensued!
  4. Finally, my life was a bit dysfunctional (those who know me well know that is an understatement!). No car means no last minute decisions. I need to plan ahead and offer a shape and form to my life.
  5. Related to point 1 and 3. My life was self sufficient. I know this is a tough one. There are many people who long to be self sufficient but can’t be. However, I have always found it hard to ask for help or support and generally plod on to the detriment of my health and relationships. Now I regularly ask people ‘are you going my way? Can I have a lift?’ I’m not sure they really want to, but, if they say yes, then they too are participating in my hope to renew creation. What I’ve discovered, which is probably obvious to others, is that there is a great joy in receiving. Not by being patronised, but by folk genuinely responding to my need.

From my experience ‘being environmentally friendly’ isn’t simply about doing the right thing for the environment. It’s about living differently. I’ve got some way to go, but it’s a start.

Well my stop’s coming up.

Bye (I always say thanks and bye to the bus driver!)

* There are downsides too. I might blog them another day.

Chasing Francis [Part 6]: Meaning

15 04 2010

This is the last post on Cron (for now!). It’s taken a while but I’m getting there

Cron’s final theme is meaning. I have no better words than the ones he uses

My Uncle Kenny made me read an author named Wendell Berry. Here’s what he says:’The significance – and ultimately the quality – of the work we do is determined bu our understanding of the story in which we are taking part.’ For years I thought of the Bible not as a story but as a black-and-white photograph, something you could use in a court of law to prove that our doctrines and propositions were rational and true. … Now I see the Story more like a painting filled with glory, poetry and even blurry lines…. open to a wide variety of interpretation, depending on who’s looking… and the situation those viewers live in. Seeing the bible this way could lead to things getting messy from time to time – but the Word is living, not static. Our job is to invite people to inhabit our story, to be part of what God’s doing in history. And we don’t need to feel constant pressure to defend it against its critics.

I know that Cron is concentrating mainly on the biblical story, but I love the sense of narrative; that each of us participates in a story that is bigger than our own. My own experience is that my sense of identity develops when I come to appreciate more fully a larger picture (Karl Marx (if I understand him right) recognised that the proletariat were exploited when they were seen as cogs in a machine rather than given an appreciation of a larger machine. It was this lack of narrative that dehumanised the working class)

I’ve set myself a target  – my job, for 12 months, is to discern and articulate the narrative of Hanley. I will know when my discernment is coming close to reality when it begins to resonate with those from Hanley to whom I articulate it. (this, for those who like such things, is a primary condition within ethnography).

Enough blogging about Cron – it’s time for me to get on living those things I found transformational within it. Anyone up for the journey?

Chasing Francis [Part 5]: Dignity

14 04 2010

Sorry for not blogging for a while. I’ve been away for a week and have only just got back.

Anyway – I continue with Cron’s book Chasing Francis.

When I was in South Africa I learnt two new words. The first was Ubuntu. It’s a difficult word to define in English. It means something like humaness. It’s the art of being able to live on the earth fully human in partnership with creation (as opposed to lording over it).

Another word closely related to Ubuntu is Istunzi. It literally means shadow. However, if you said that a man or woman ‘walked with their Istunzi’ it meant they had dignity. I love that idea. The idea that my shadow , my visible presence, my mark on creation, my Istunzi – is my dignity.

I also love the idea that my dignity is directly related to my humaness. It seems that ancient tribes of Africa understood only too well what it was to be human – an understanding I suspect we forget all too readily in our post modern world.

Dignity is the fourth theme that Cron identifies as a principle for the emerging church. He asks the question ‘how do we give dignity back to others?’ he suggests that the messy business of loving people for who they are rather than for what they might become is a good start. He also makes it clear that this isn’t simply hospitality. This is radical hospitality amongst people who are very different to us.

I was chatting to Anthony, a homeless guy in Hanley, recently. He said to me ‘the one thing I hate the most, the thing that really pisses me off … Is when people don’t even look at you!’ then, almost under his breath, he said, ‘especially when I can’t look at myself’.

My heart bled.

One last thing – Cron reminds us that we also have a responsibilty to give dignity back to creation.

This is one way that I have tried – I have got rid of my car! I gave it up for lent and have decided to try for the whole year (I’ll blog more about it later). I know it’s not much and I know it won’t change the world; but it’s an attempt to become the change I long for the world.

So what does dignity for individuals and creation look like in Hanley? Do people already walk with their shadow or is their a role for me to help them restore their Istunzi? What is Ubuntu in Hanley?

Chasing Francis [Part 4]: Beauty

2 04 2010

I love walking! I remember walking in Snowdonia when, walking round llyn gwynant, I saw a full rainbow span the lake. I looked round the Lake and couldn’t see anyone else (it was chucking it down so nobody else would be mad enough to be there) and suddenly realised that I may have been the only person in the world that saw that rainbow. It was as if it was mine, painted for me.

Cron’s third principle to guide an emerging church is beauty.

I wish I knew more about the arts … but I do know this: Beauty can break a heart and make it think about something more spiritual than the mindless routine we go through day after day to get by. (Cron pg 198)

I too wish I knew more about the arts. I am the least arty person I know. The closest I get to art is writing sermons and doing theology. However, I do know that lot’s of folk who are capable of the arts often struggle in the church. Church does not easily offer space to express yourself (unless you are the preacher) and yet faith, as I have said before, is of the heart and the mind. Somehow, we have to find ways of allowing others to express their faith, their sense of otherness, their alterity.

But more than that, I need to seek out beauty. I need to go to art galleries, museums, watch films and theatre, go and see shows I’d never normally watch, walk mountains, find quaint villages, and walk canals.

But more than that, I need to find ways to express myself.

But more than that, I need to seek beauty, not just in the galleries and the fields, but in the places that I’d least expect to find it.

What does Beauty look like in Hanley? And for the folk of Hanley? How do I help the folk of Hanley express themselves?

You can make art about the Light, or you can make art that shows what the Light reveals about the world. I think the latter is what we want to do. In a fallen world beauty is a form of protest, a way to push back the darkness. (Cron pg 198ff)

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