Virtual Dementia Tour

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“You can’t really understand a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes.”

This Cherokee proverb came true for me this week when I was invited to participate in something called the Virtual Dementia Tour by a local residential care home manager. Designed by P K Beville in 2001 the tour bus is designed to help you experience what it is like to be a sufferer of dementia. It is based upon years of research and the tour literally puts you in their shoes.

More effective than participating in a two hour lecture , this seven minute ‘virtual reality’ tour bombards the senses and leaves you with a unique and valuable experience that will make a lasting impression upon you. Your hearing, vision, sense of touch, and even the very soles in your shoes are all impaired. You cannot perform basic tasks. I used to picture dementia as an experience perhaps like being in a fog – I now know it is more like being in a whirlwind for many sufferers. I was moved.

Deliberately given instructions in a terse and impersonal manner by an unnamed ‘tour guide’ the tour also helps you to understand how sufferers can feel treated and in that sense helps you to empathise with the often frightening situation they are placed in through their condition.

Affecting more than three quarters of a million people in the UK alone and expected to rise to two million by 2050, dementia is the ‘D’ word that has replaced the formerly unspeakable ‘C’ word of cancer in many ways in our society. As used to be the case with cancer sufferers a BBC news programme only today has reported that over two thirds of dementia sufferers feel as though their life is over when they are diagnosed. Shame, embarrassment, and fear still surround this disease for sufferers and relatives alike. And that stigma will continue wherever there is resistance by the majority in walking in the shoes of the marginalised.

Research continues and there is even a mobile app called ‘Sea Hero Quest’ to assist in continuing studies in understanding dementia and how to counteract the disease. My own personal recommendation would be that the Virtual Dementia Tour Bus not only be made available to residential care workers and others in the caring professions, but in other community organisations and secondary schools. There is such a prevailing stigma about being a dementia sufferer, that I think all generations could benefit from walking in the shoes of the afflicted, even if only for seven minutes.

Finally, as a Christian I think I have learned a valuable spiritual insight that applies more generally to everyone who may come across my path: If I am not prepared to walk in the shoes of others how can I help them walk with God?

Digital Reformation 2.0

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What will the Church of the future look like? In the face of continuous change this question is becoming evermore prominent to those churches that do not wish to have their backs to the future. In an insightful article by Carey Nieuwhof in ‘ChristianWeek’, Carey writes of a ‘seismic shift’ taking place today that is parallel to the conversion of the pagan Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in the fourth century, or the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century.

The latter had a direct influence on the Reformation of the Christian Church in Europe which it is commonly agreed, began on 31st October 1517 when the German monk and theologian, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. The theses were a response to the then practice of selling ‘indulgences’ to absolve sins. Luther propounded two central beliefs in his theses: that the Bible is central to Christian religious authority and that human beings may reach salvation by their faith alone and not by their deeds. It is arguable that Luther would easily have disappeared into history and the Reformation never have begun without the invention of printing to quickly disseminate his ideas.

Although the original Reformation is now consigned to history the Christian Church could be on the cusp of a ‘digital’ Reformation 2.0. This is not due to any malpractices within the Church but simply because of the revolutionary development of information technology since the arrival of the internet.  Carey does not himself make this claim but some of what he says in his article ’10 predictions about the future Church and shifting attendance patterns’ does imply this.  For example Carey’s second prediction says this:

“…many individual congregations and some entire denominations won’t make it. The difference will be between those who cling to the mission and those who cling to the model. When the car was invented, it quickly took over from the horse and buggy. Horse and buggy manufacturers were relegated to boutique status and many went under, but human transportation actually exploded. Suddenly average people could travel at a level they never could before. The mission is travel. The model is a buggy, or car, or motorcycle, or jet. Look at the changes in the publishing, music and even photography industry in the last few years. See a trend? The mission is reading. It’s music. It’s photography. The model always shifts….moving from things like 8 tracks, cassettes and CDs to MP3s and now streaming audio and video. Companies that show innovation around the mission (Apple, Samsung) will always beat companies that remain devoted to the method (Kodak). Churches need to stay focused on the mission (leading people into a growing relationship with Jesus) and be exceptionally innovative in our model.”

Anyone who is familiar with the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible will know how much the model of the apostles’ faith had to change in order to engage with the missionary journey they were led to undertake through God’s Holy Spirit. If they never had changed the model, the journey would never have begun and Christianity would probably have disappeared as a sect of Judaism within the first few centuries, if not decades, of the death of Jesus.

Today, as the internet matures and becomes part of our ‘normal’ experience it is becoming increasingly evident that a seismic shift is happening within our human cultures, particularly in relation to communication.

  • What are the implications for the Christian ‘kerygma’, or proclamation of the Gospel?
  • What are the models that need to change, or be ‘reformed’, within the Christian Church in order for the kerygma to resonate with today’s generation?
  • Dare the Christian Church change or reform them for a generation that have been taught within our education systems to expect to interact with the information they are provided?
  • Dare we not?

What does it mean to be human.com? Bladerunner Replicated

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‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ was a huge summer blockbuster in 1982.  I remember seeing it at a packed cinema and yet the world portrayed in it seems to now be of the last century. More disturbing is another film released that year which I remember watching at a virtually empty cinema, that was deemed a box office failure at the time, but whose haunting themes and message only seem to resonate more closely with this new millennium. It is now described as prophetic and a cult classic.

‘Bladerunner’ presents a dystopian nightmare of a not too distant future whose complex themes question our human identity. Paul Sammon in ‘Future Noir: The Making of Bladerunner’ (1996), sums this up well when he says:

“Lurking under the film’s pop visuals and trendy special effects is a subtle, dizzying tangle of deeply felt moral, philosophical, and sociological concerns. Take the film’s title a “Blade Runner” could also be interpreted as someone who scampers along the thin edge of life. Or witness the multiple examples of narrative mirroring (or doubling) throughout. Deckard kills two replicants, two replicants save his life. Deckard finds a reason to live; Batty wants to live. Religious parallels are also rampant: Tyrell is literally the replicant’s God, and Batty, Tyrell’s prodigal son, symbolically pierces his hand with a nail, suggesting crucifixion. Even the film’s horizontal/vertical design scheme makes a statement; Blade Runner’s privileged few live in luxurious towers, literally high above the disenfranchised masses below. All the musings are swept aside, however, by the three, key, simple yet profound questions which constitute the core of the film: Who am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be human?”

These questions resonate even more clearly in our age of the global community.  We can invent the persona of whoever we want to be, dispose of that identity, and invent another one in a matter of minutes online. We are constantly bombarded with information and an endless horizon of possibilities and yet there are suggestions that we are ‘communicating’ less in relation to social interactions, the irony being that we may feel less connected to other human beings within this digital communications oasis. And a Kierkergaardian existential despair may develop leaving us residing at ‘What does it mean to be human.com?’

Human beings are social animals. However badly we may do it sometimes, we are designed to relate, it is within our DNA. The received Christian view is that we are not complete as human beings within ourselves. The wholeness we seek cannot be filled by technology, drugs, sex, or the ever increasing acquisition of material goods, “Stuffocation”, as James Wallman aptly puts it in his book of the same name. Instead we may have to begin by letting go of that which we seek to grasp. Or to quote the spiritual realisation that the replicant character, Roy Batty, comes to at the end of ‘Bladerunner’, “All these moments will be lost in time…like tears in rain.”

The Bible makes it clear that immortality is not the goal of human existence, instead ‘eternal life’ is, which we can experience in this life. At the heart of eternal life is a relationship and most relationships require what is commonly termed ‘give and take’, perhaps even sacrifice. (John 17:3) The digital age presents us with endless promises of acquisition and yet the human soul seems to become enlarged when we face that which we are prepared to lose. (Matthew 16:25). This spiritual practice is not only common to Christianity but to Buddhism and there are numerous instances where a dialogue has developed on this subject. I think it is no coincidence that there has been a continuing rise of interest within medical, secular, as well as religious circles, in the practice of mindfulness in recent years. Although there may be different conclusions on why this has happened, its popular ascendancy within only a matter of a decade cannot be ignored.

Whatever our religious beliefs or philosophical viewpoints, it seems to be true that the human spirit often grows through a healthy form of materialistic detachment, challenge, even adversity, and not consumerist acquisition. The former gives birth to self-realisation and fulfilment while the latter may feed upon our status anxiety and fear. And what we can discern is that the predictions of ‘Bladerunner’ will always be replicated if we persist in ignoring a very ancient yet modern truth, whatever value system we may profess:

The future is only dark if we have no faith in the dawn…

 

The Meme is the Message

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Meme – a noun

  1. an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.
  2. an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users, often with slight variations.

In 1964 Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase,”The medium is the message”, meaning that the form of a communication medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. I believe digital media is shaping our consciousness in a way as revolutionary as the printing press half a millennia ago. That particular medium changed the world in a way that the mindset of handwritten manuscripts and oral wisdom could not foresee. Now as printed newspapers and books continue to decline in circulation are we experiencing another symbiotic revolution?

In its simplest terms we can say that books, radio, television, and film medium, are a collection of communication devices in which the reader, listener, or viewer, are normally assumed to be passive recipients. The internet however, often encourages the recipients to be active participants, interacting via the medium of the internet with the message.

The medium of print changed the world and inevitably changed the Christian Church. What are the implications of the current transition from print to digital medium for the Christian Church in the 21st century? In 1996 Mark Dery wrote a prophetic book called “Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the end of the Century.” At the beginning of the book Dery says this:

“Escape velocity is the speed at which a body – a spacecraft, for instance – overcomes the gravitational pull of another body, such as the Earth.” More and more, computer culture, or cyberculture, seems as if it is on the verge of attaining escape velocity. Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 pronouncement that electronic media have spun us into a blurred, breathless “world of allatonceness” where information “pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously,” sometimes overwhelming us, is truer than ever.”

Digital media is not merely replacing books but shaping our pedagogies, our world views, and possibly our consciousness. We live in the age of the ‘meme’, a phrase first coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 to describe small pieces of culture that spread from person to person by imitation but with the possibility heightened in the digital age for more rapid distribution and adaptation. The digital meme defines our post-modern condition filled with irony, interaction, and anxiety. Thanks to the explosion in social media the meme is now becoming the message communicating our current existential condition – but is it enough? I would say, “Virtually…”

What is required is nothing less than a new theology, even a ‘cybertheology’. Encouraging signs of such a Christian theological framework in the digital age can be seen in research centres such as CODEC at Durham University. Biblical literacy and discipleship are two key areas of exploration there. I would also argue that national ministerial training to provide a basic understanding on the subject of evolving social media and the world wide web should be as integral as preaching and pastoral care in the Church of the future. To neglect this would be to neglect the context of the ‘marketplace’ we are now in as Christians.

If we are tempted to berate such ideas then we would do well to remember the language that the Christian Gospels were originally composed in, Koine Greek, ‘ἡ κοινὴ διάλεκτος’, or “the common dialect.” They was the everyday language of the ordinary citizens of the Roman Empire.

  • If ‘the medium is the message’ then we have to ask ourselves what is the common dialect in the context of evolving social media in the 21st century?
  • How can it convey the Good News told by a 1st century itinerant preacher from Nazareth who first used the medium of parables, or stories, to proclaim the Kingdom of God?

However Jesus of Nazareth is understood it is clear that he was an effective, popular teacher and preacher who communicated in the way he did at least in part because the ordinary people felt alienated from the religious institutions of their own day. Reflecting on this I am reminded of the words to a hymn, “There’s a Spirit in the air…”, and I believe it is time to leave the ‘house’ once more, as happened on the day that is sometimes described as the ‘birthday’ of the Christian Church – Pentecost. (Acts 2: 1-11)

Say “No” to going to Church

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“I do not go to church”.

That is what I am encouraging my church congregations to say. I think saying this can be a great act of witness in today’s world. And when people say it I would encourage them to say it with great conviction!

Now before you start sending in your messages of complaint let me say the following. I am encouraging church members to say, “I do not go to church.  I am the church.”

If that sounds strange to you it would not have sounded strange to St. Paul or any of the New Testament writers in the Bible.  When Paul wrote his letters to the church in Corinth or Ephesus, he was not addressing a building, he was addressing a group of Christians in that town or city.

In the New Testament the word for ‘church’ always mean’t a group of Christians gathered together, never a building to go to. One of the primary reasons for this was that Christians formed part of a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire until the adoption of the Christian religion by the state under the Emperor Constantine (272-337AD).

“So what?” You may be wondering. Personally I think it makes all the difference in the world for Christians today to see themselves as the church rather than as a building they occasionally visit, just as you would occasionally visit a shop or a club.  Being a Christian is a 24/7 existence but that understanding to some degree was eroded when the message of Christianity became absorbed into the mentality of ‘Christendom’ – the idea that everyone shared the same world view as citizens within a Christian state.

In our age of the global community that world view continues to be deeply challenged within the traditional institutional church denominations, all born of Christendom. The challenge is now so acute that the only reasonable starting point to talk of a Church of the future is to begin by acknowledging its existence within a post-Christendom environment. But what will the Church of the future look like?

When Jesus called his disciples to follow him he called them into a way of life. “Follow me”, Jesus says and the earliest Christians reinforced this message by describing what they did together as “The Way.” (Acts 9:2) This metaphor provides a potent reminder that Christianity is fundamentally about movement and always has been.

Christians should see themselves as disciples of Christ, ‘learners for Life’, rather than as consumers of a pre-packaged religion with various spiritual products available from a static church building near you.

So, please do not go to church, instead be the church wherever you are.

Alone or together, in a church building or not, every day of the year.

For that is the Church that will have a future…

Go with the Flow

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Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s investigations of “optimal experience” revealed that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called ‘flow’. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life. Flow is more than happiness, it is a deep connectivity, a oneness – dare I say a ‘communion’. People may experience flow through work or religion, but they may also seek it through the creative arts, sport, etc.

Flow cannot govern our institutions, such as the Christian Church, but without the element of flow what are we left with? And is that one of the reasons that people in this country continue to leave the traditional, institutional Christian churches in their droves? Traditional Christianity is failing to ‘go with the flow’ perhaps?

All our traditional Christian denominations were born of the age of Constantine and the Roman Empire, and the institutions which shaped that empire have shaped our collective consciousness which we can call in short, ‘Christendom’. This is a worldview that places every individual and system of governance within a Christian framework. But Christendom is no more. I believe a key challenge for Christian churches in this country is to define what they are in a post-Christendom age. Can we turn back the clock and bring back the unity of Christendom, if indeed it ever was united, or should we be seeking something else?

Thankfully we do have a vision of the Christian Church that existed before the age of Christendom, it’s in the Bible and charts the life of the Early Church centuries before Christendom began. We also have a way of life that was first given to us by Jesus himself, not Christendom, but the Kingdom of God. The Christianity I would like to see in the 21st century is one that seeks to live the Kingdom of God inclusively with a generation that yearns to go with the flow.

Where does that leave our institutional churches born of Christendom? I do not know, but I am willing to find out from the itinerant preacher from Nazareth who still says, “Follow me.”

Maybe that is how I go with the flow.

How about you?