Neighbours

It all began on Facebook.

In Minnesota, USA, a young African-American woman was describing through live video feed how her boyfriend had been shot and killed by a white American police officer who had stopped them initially for a faulty break light on their car.

It escalated into the murder of five police officers in Dallas by a sniper during ensuing peaceful protests.

In less than a week it was captured in what some describe as an ‘iconic’ photograph by Jonathan Bachman going viral on social media, depicting the contrast between the lightly clothed Ieshia Evans and heavily armoured police in Baton Rouge.

At the heart of these related events a timeless question emerges:

Who is my neighbour?

Social media is nothing more than a mirror on human nature. For all our advancements in communications technology it seems we still have a deep and sometimes dangerous fear of those different from ourselves. We have an unparalleled freedom to communicate which also provides a platform to amplify our fears of all that is ‘other’.

handy apps

Who is my neighbour?

This question was once posed to Jesus who responded with what is called the ‘Parable of the Good Samaritan’. Jesus did not invent parables but he did use them to great effect. A parable is literally something “cast alongside” something else. Jesus’ parables were usually “cast alongside” a situation in order to illustrate a truth.

The phrase, ‘Good Samaritan’, is still used and generally understood to mean someone who goes out of their way to help someone. That being said, the parable of the Good Samaritan can be misunderstood. It may be reduced to a story of showing kindness or we may think of the volunteer organisation, ‘The Samaritans’. But in Jesus’ day Samaritans were hated and feared.

Who were the original Samaritans?

Samaritans were related to Jews but due to historic events were racially different to some degree and accepted only the first five books of the Bible – the Torah. They once built a temple on Mount Gerizim to rival that of Jerusalem. But about 200 years before Jesus was born, a Jewish reformer destroyed it. Then around 6 BCE Samaritan activists scattered human bones in the temple in Jerusalem, desecrating it. There was open hostility. Most Jews practised a kind of apartheid to avoid Samaria ‑ a convention Jesus broke (John 4:1-42)So let’s revisit this story to discern what Jesus really said about who is our neighbour.

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What does it mean to live a good life?

In essence that is the question that is asked of Jesus which we are told in Luke’s gospel (Luke 10:25-37) prompted him to reply with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Loving God and neighbour is the verbatim reply of the questioner based upon Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18 but it is clear it is an unthinking response. This is underlined by his next question, “And who is my neighbour?” At which point Jesus tells the parable.

In the parable a man travels on the Jerusalem to Jericho road. Jerusalem is 3,000 feet above sea level.  Jericho is 1,000 feet below sea level.  This is a steep road.  Its geography provides ideal hideouts for robbers. Part of the route is nicknamed ‘Ascent of Blood’ and was familiar to Jesus’ audience. Unsurprisingly the traveller falls among robbers.  But they didn’t just rob him.  They stripped him, beat him, and left him half dead.

What is going to happen next?

I once knew a person who coined a phrase, ‘PLU’, meaning ‘People Like Us’. In essence the first two people to find the victim are ‘People Like Us’: respectable, God-fearing people, who obey the law and practise common-sense. In the context of the story the religious law forbade Jesus’ contemporaries to touch a body that to them probably appeared to be dead. Worse, it may even have been a trap on this notorious road, similar today to people stopping to assist an individual in distress and then being mugged by the rest of a gang in hiding. Therefore both PLU’s in the story pass the victim by.

What would you do?

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Will anyone do what is needed?

The idea of a Samaritan being a good neighbour to a Jew would stun those listening to Jesus. This is the punch line. The one who stops and helps is a Samaritan – neighbours are not by default those who are PLU’s but those who dare risk compassion. The question, “Who is my neighbour?” is answered by Jesus that it just might be:

“The last person you would want living next door to you.”

The one to love is the one we are not loving. From Samaria to Baton Rouge: if Jesus were to tell us this story today, who would be the Samaritan for us?

Who is my neighbour?

The world still longs for an answer in more than just words. Like the victim in the parable lying on the road, needing more than a prayer. There is only one answer and always has been – from our neighbourhoods to our ‘Global Village’:

Be the neighbour you long to meet.

Or as Jesus said at the end of his story, “Go and do likewise.”

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The Somme in Time

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I wonder if you have a favourite Doctor Who?

Mine is John Pertwee, with his yellow vintage car, ‘Bessie’. It is amazing to think that this famous Time Lord has been on our television sets for over 50 years.

We only have to double that number to 100 to bring us to the date being remembered today – 1st July 1916.   In the United Kingdom and beyond, this date is being remembered in services and silence as the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.

The British Army suffered huge losses – 19,240 on the first day alone. The tragedy of the Somme marked something of a ‘sea change’ in the British nation’s attitude to ‘The Great War’ or World War One. Arguably the war that continues to define our modern age. One reason being the enormous, industrial scale, of killing that took place.

I have already quoted some numbers and they can be hard to comprehend. But the soldiers who died in World War One on the British and Commonwealth side alone was brought home to me in the poppies seen around the Tower of London in 2014. A vast field of red ceramic flowers, 888,246 poppies, each representing a life. I saw it with my youngest son and together with the crowds of visitors we found it humbling, moving, breath-taking.

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Trying to take in the scale of this may feel like like trying to comprehend time itself. For some years I was a chaplain for a local branch of the Royal British Legion. What helped me comprehend some of the significance of Remembrance Sundays and other events were personal stories amid the vast statistics of destruction.

One of them was Rev. Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy – nicknamed ‘Woodbine Willie’ – a name fondly given to him by the soldiers. Armed only with a packet of cigarettes and his faith, he dwelt among them. I am not promoting smoking but the cigarettes helped relieve their battle stress, was a rare comfort along with his listening ear, and Woodbine Willie helped the soldiers cope with unimaginable horrors each day.

I believe it was for them something of a ‘communion’. A special word for Christians. But a word that simply means, ‘common unity’ or ‘deep fellowship’. Woodbine Willie shared that fellowship in the trenches, and made God known through what he shared. Eventually Woodbine Willie was awarded the Military Cross with this citation:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front line trenches, which he constantly visited.”

One story – amid a vast field of memories. One that reminds me we can make a difference in what may feel like a sea of chaos and sacrifice. There are so many stories that could be shared, but there is not enough time. Silence is probably best, even if it is only for 2 minutes. But 2 minutes can feel like a lot, just as 100 years can feel like very little. Time is relative.

We are not Time Lords. We cannot change history. But we can learn from it. That is the message I once shared at a Remembrance Sunday service where there were many young people and families present. Remembering these events is not about glorifying them but trying to avoid the terrible mistake of repeating them. That is why we should never forget the sacrifices made.

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We have no time machine to make things right, but we can share what Woodbine Willie shared in the trenches – faith.

  • Faith in a better world that can come through the chaos of war.
  • Faith in one another that our only hope is in working together.
  • Faith that good can finally overcome evil, even if that involves terrible sacrifice.
  • Faith in God – the Lord of Time.

We cannot change the past 100 years, but we can learn from it and faithfully shape the future. ‘Tomorrow’ is a precious gift that the words of the Kohima Epitaph remind us, has been entrusted to us by those who gave their ‘today’.

Thanks to them the future is ours. Time is in our hands. In that sense we can be ‘Time Lords’. So let me just say this: “Travel well.”

300

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Is it right to share your faith?

No, I don’t think it is.

Not if that faith involves bitterness, judgmentalism, fear, or any other dysfunctional behaviour. Why share that? But, if faith involves openness, humility, forgiveness, justice, love – isn’t it wrong not to share that? So the real questions are:

  • “What is my faith?”
  • “Is it a faith worth sharing?”

At a neighbouring church the congregation were once asked to provide their own answer to these questions in 300 words. 300 words is not very long. It is the time you might spend waiting for a bus, or ordering a coffee, or reading a blog! It is a window of opportunity to share with another.

  • Can you encapsulate your faith in 300 words?
  • Not quoting one of the historic Christian creeds, but your ‘creed’?
  • If you can’t say what you believe in 300 words, can you say anything?

This last question may seem facile but statistics indicate that our attention spans are shortening in the digital age, it has even been said that an average attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish.

So, if you are still reading this then please consider the following:

300 words is a small number amid the sea of words that surround us every day. But some may recall that 300 Spartans made a huge difference to the battle of Thermopylae, a story retold in literature and popular films ever since. Or think of it like this, 300 words can be like the mustard seeds Jesus once talked about (Mark 4:26-34), in what are often described as the ‘parables of growth’ for the Kingdom of God. Small seeds, and yet, who knows what growth may come?

  • Will 300 words change the world?
  • Do seeds?

“Yes” is the answer – in the sense that each can bring life.  So, take heart – for you only have to pay attention now to my 300 words that I will share. Admittedly they come from a Christian perspective because that is who I am, but instead of over-analysing what I say, as you read my words, perhaps think about what yours might be – whatever your faith or none. Why? Because it seems we do not have time to attend to much more. 300 words might not be much to look at, but then neither are mustard seeds, are they?

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My 300 Words

I am a Christian because I believe there is more to life than what we can own.

There is more to people than a chance group of cells.

We have a soul that seeks fulfilment.

We look for fulfilment in all sorts of ways. But ultimately it comes when we realise that it does not depend upon us becoming bigger, by acquiring more stuff, power, or fame. It depends upon us becoming smaller and seeing ourselves as part of a bigger picture, like a piece in a jigsaw, or a thread in a tapestry.

If God exists, as I believe, I think that is how God sees us. And when I listen to the words of Jesus in the Bible, or think about what he did, that confirms what I feel.

Becoming a bigger person can happen when we learn to give things up.

To let go.

It is in giving that strangely enough, we receive and grow. Sacrifice sometimes makes us stronger, not weaker. Strong enough to face all our fears, even the fear of death.

Death comes in many forms.

There is physical death. But I believe in emotional, relational, social, communal, psychological, even spiritual death. And I believe Jesus can save us from all these ‘deaths’.

Why do I believe this?

Because he already has, in some ways, for me.

And that is enough for me to believe he will do more.

Being a Christian is not about reading books, or being impossibly good, or listening to boring sermons.  It’s about being alive.  And recognising that this life in all its forms comes from God whose generosity is bigger than death in all its forms.

We are not here to be endless consuming machines.

We are here to be alive and to share life with others generously…

The Age of ‘Global-Gnosis’

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“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”   (Edmund Burke 1729-1797)

I have always loved history. I was fortunate enough to be inspired by a very good history teacher at school and perhaps that is where the spark of interest began. In many ways I am struck by how the history of early Christianity is being mirrored in our own technologically driven world today.

Take Gnosticism for example. Perhaps the best way to describe Gnosticism would be as a ‘religious philosophy’ that could integrate into various religious traditions and did so in Christianity in the first centuries of its existence. The essential tenets of Gnosticism could be summed up briefly as follows; the material world is under the control of evil. A ‘divine spark’ is trapped within human beings and that alone is capable of being rescued. This rescuing, or salvation, comes through a secret knowledge, ‘gnosis’, which is part information but also part experiential. ‘Gnosis’ is not only truth propositions but also self-knowledge.

In the ancient world Gnosticism was so pervasive that it led to the early Christian bishops drawing up our present canon of scripture in the Bible, excluding texts for example, from the more recently discovered Nag-Hammadi library, such as the Gospel of Thomas. They also formulated the Christian creeds, such as the Nicaean Creed, which are repeated every week in churches around the world to this day. It is hard to generalise but Christian Gnosticism led to certain moral abuses and had more in common with pagan mystery religions than the historical Jesus. For these and other reasons the response of the early Christians to Gnosticism was reasoned information, which it can be argued, still pervades traditional Christian liturgical worship and theology.

But we have a problem. The human experience of God requires more than reason. This is not to downplay reason, indeed within Anglican theology it is said to form part of a ‘three legged stool’ which consists of ‘Scripture – Tradition – Reason’, classically defined by the 16th century English theologian Richard Hooker.  Later the Age of Reason was an eighteenth-century movement which was a reaction to the mystical religion of the Middle Ages and affirmed the scientific disciplines of the Enlightenment. But those who study history will know that historical trends often go back and forth like a pendulum. The Age of Reason and the Enlightenment provided many great things and personal liberties but faith is more than a set of rational propositions about God.

In part I believe we can frame these historic movements as ‘successors’ of the early Christians to define Christianity into a set of propositions that could be contained within an institutional faith that could sit easily with the governance framework of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine and his successors. But reasoned argument about God cannot satisfy the human thirst and experience for the numinous of God. Putting it simply, creeds and the formal liturgies they are placed within cannot guarantee a spiritual encounter of the divine, they can only define what is believed, or more negatively, who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. But this is nothing more than ‘club membership’ and fails to meet the needs of the majority, something that cannot be ignored in this country as the inherited ‘Christendom’ model of Christianity continues to unravel and decline.

New statistics confirm the continuing spiral of decline of church attendance or even acknowledgement of membership to the traditional Christian denominations of the United Kingdom. People are voting with their feet and do not want to be considered as even nominally ‘in’. This is a sea change. Or perhaps it can be said that Gnosticism never really went away? It’s attraction remains within the Christian Church even though those who may profess something of it in their understanding of God may never have heard of the word. The debate will continue and not only within theological circles about the human desire for ‘experiential’ knowledge. For example, in a recent article ‘The Information Age is over; welcome to the Experience Age’, commenting on the changing use of social media, Mike Wadhera has written:

“Facebook is an Information Age native. Along with other social networks of its generation, Facebook was built on a principle of the desktop era —  accumulation. Accumulation manifests in a digital profile where my identity is the sum of all the information I’ve saved —  text, photos, videos, web pages….. In the Information Age we represented ourselves with this digital profile. But mobile has changed how we view digital identity. With a connected camera televising our life in-the-moment, accumulated information takes a back seat to continual self-expression. The “virtual self” is becoming less evident. I may be the result of everything I’ve done, but I’m not the accumulation of it. Snapchat is native to this new reality. Many people think Snapchat is all about secrecy, but the real innovation of Snapchat’s ephemeral messages isn’t that they self-destruct. It’s that they force us to break the accumulation habit we brought over from desktop computing. The result is that the profile is no longer the centre of the social universe. In the Experience Age you are not a profile. You are simply you.”

Wadhera argues that we are moving from an Age of Information to an Age of Experience, I would dare to take this further and say an Age of ‘Global-Gnosis’. This is a time of mass information as never before but the irony is that something more is craved, and that ‘something’ is experiential knowledge. I believe we can see this in many ways, from the changing trends in holidays to cater for ‘extreme or adventurous’ experiences to the growth in popularity of meditation practices such as mindfulness, which seek to place us directly in the present moment or the ‘now’.

In 21st century Britain the continuing rejection by the general population, not only via church attendance but membership of traditional Christianity, underlines that people do not want church liturgies to inform them about God but to provide them with an experience of God. And it is more complex than merely suggesting that Charismatic or Catholic liturgical practices fulfil this experiential need. Information, which may include modern translations in worship, are not enough. The human soul in the 21st century still hungers for the numinous that liturgies coming from the era of rationalism cannot seem to fulfil as people continue to vote with their feet and walk away.

A new apologetics is required. One comfortable in the digital age of ‘Global-Gnosis’. Traditional orthodox engagement may not be enough to meet this new millennium of creativity and dialogue that is typified in the memes of social media. As the gulf widens between the Christian Church and the social-milieu within which church communities find themselves, there is a growing need for boldness in creativity and inculturation of the Christian Gospel as there once was in the early centuries of the Church and its missionary movements, such as Celtic Christianity within these isles.

Such an engagement may possess risks but may also provide an impetus to help discover a different dimension of the creative Spirit of God for the new millennium. Otherwise the alternative currently developing for the traditional Christian churches in the United Kingdom is to sadly acknowledge that they may inevitably become ‘history’.

Cyberbullying

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Bullying seems to have been around for a long time. It was Thomas Hughes who immortalised one of the most famous school bullies in the form of ‘Flashman’ in “Tom Brown’s School Days” published in 1857. Flashman ironically became the focus of a series of novels in the late 1960’s and following underlining that there may well be an ‘attract’ ‘repel’ syndrome to bullies also. Some of us may believe that bullying is almost a right of passage that we have to persevere with and get through, others may live in the shadow of bullying to this day. Wherever we are, we will all have a view and an experience of bullying.

However, in the age of the world wide web bullying has taken on a new form in the guise of ‘cyberbullying’. The playground now covers the globe and affects people of every generation as the website www.bullying.co.uk reveals. In the United Kingdom the children’s charity, the NSPCC have revealed statistics that in 2015 they provided almost  26,000 counselling sessions related to bullying or cyberbullying. It provides acute distress to victims and their families alike. Cyberbullying also adds the new dimension of ‘global display’ to a very old problem. The Christian Broadcasting Network has said this about cyberbullying:

“Still more Christian parents, quoting Jesus, tell their children to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) when bullied. What’s remarkable is that when Jesus was slapped on the face by the guard of the High Priest, He did not turn his face so the guard could slap him again. Instead Jesus responded, “If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” (John 18:19-23) Jesus not only defended himself with words, He confronted the bully and demanded an answer for his unjust treatment.

Since Jesus does not contradict himself, we are given a valuable lesson into what he really meant. He wants his followers to not return an insult for an insult. Jesus, explained C.S. Lewis, does not want his followers to be neither motivated nor consumed by revenge when something wrong like bullying is done to them. But, and this is a key insight into a faith-based response to adolescent bullying, self-defense is not the same as revenge. This fundamental truth is at the heart of Lewis’ essay, “Why I Am Not a Pacifist.” A child can defend himself while at the same time not abuse or demean another person.”

Jesus often stood in favour of the defenceless and the outcast and in our global playground of cyberbullies and cybervictims it is important to start with that fact. In the midst of the chaos of World War Two the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” There is more we can do as Christians than say to ourselves or our children to ‘turn the other cheek’. Love sometimes has to be expressed in assertive, but not aggressive, ways.

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The response to cyberbullying will require our own individual judgment. Fortunately for parents and other careers of children the internet does provide a partial solution to this online problem in the form of Childnet International, a charitable organisation specialising in resources for children and their carers to help tackle cyberbullying so that no individual has to deal with this phenomenon on their own.

Without wishing to condone any behaviour it also has to be remembered that to some degree cyberbullies are victims too and that their freedom from such behaviour is part of the solution to an ailment that has afflicted humanity for a long time. Can we overcome this digital ‘Goliath’ together? Like David in the original Bible story, we would do well to remember that belief in God provided David’s incentive for self-belief, (which is often the first casualty in any form of bullying), and therein perhaps lies part of the answer for people of faith in confronting the spectral giant of cyberbullying. (1 Samuel 17)

Cyberbullying will prevail for as long as we have the internet. Like so many other things that humans have invented the technology is not in itself the problem, instead it points toward something much deeper within the human soul and helps to provide a means to express it with potentially devastating effects. If you or someone you know are a victim of cyberbullying then below is a short film on taking some practical steps in not letting it define or defeat you:

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…