Thursday, 29 November 2007

St Silas men's weekend: way to go

Taking a break from discussion with atheist friends, a little reflection on a recent event of note: the St Silas Church men's weekend away, 23-25 November. Seventeen of us descended on a hostel in the picturesque village of Comrie in Perthshire. Now I've been to all four of these weekends since the indomitable Will initiated them in 2004. With Will and family's departure 3 months ago to France for a posting in his career as a particle physicist (a job title I reckon's always worth mentioning), the jovial Greg DM coordinated the occasion. Numbers were a bit down on previous years, but this helped create an unthreatening, family kind of atmosphere. Quite a contrast with the more macho, competitive, image-conscious feel - perhaps tinged with slight mutual suspicion - that can sometimes pervade get-togethers of men who don't know each other well. It was recognised that the very concept of a 'men's weekend' is dubious in the eyes of a lot of guys, and raises questions in the minds of our womenfolk too (eg. 'What do you actually do?'). It's a given - and a generalisation - that blokes are often more comfortable in a situation where they're actually doing something together, be it watching football or building a hut. So what did we do? Well, we took our pick of playing pool, ping pong and cards (of which at least one game was rather chaotic and not a little fraught). On the Saturday afternoon a bunch of us tramped with Scott-like fortitude round a reservoir - ask Michael which one - in deteriorating conditions (driving wind and rain) and with unfortunately patchy levels of waterproofing; and counted ourselves pretty lucky to get back to Comrie with no suspected cases of pneumonia. Ian Hopkins, a minister from Edinburgh, led thought-provoking studies from 1 Thessalonians. We sparked some ideas about how men in the church can better fellowship and engage in useful ministry. And perhaps most importantly, we had the chance to spend enough time together - as one of the group memorably put it - 'to get past the grunting'. A good start.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Meditation on the beautiful game

In an effort to be a bit topical, I'm thinking today about that lightning rod of national and international fervour: football. From a Scottish point of view I am of course four days late - the Scotland Italy game has already slipped into the annals of Scottish history; sadly not in the file marked 'Bannockburn'. Now I didn't actually see the game as I was visiting a friend, and didn't even find out the score till next morning. It's true, I'm not the world's biggest football fan (another shocking statistic, never actually been to a stadium game), though have occasionally graced the sidelines of a St Silas team match and do think it's the best sport to watch on telly. Still, mingling briefly with the mayhem in Glasgow city centre on Saturday afternoon a couple of hours before kick-off, I was struck afresh by the talismanic power of the game on the Scottish psyche - a phenomenon replicated of course from Blackburn to Brazil. The supreme sense of 'event', the euphoric feeling of unity with one's countrymen, the gladiatorial spectacle of the game - who could , who would want to, bottle the power of this genie? It's a potent demonstration of the human attraction to a unifying cause - something to really get excited about. And then I think about the national indifference, if not to God, then at least to the Church with a capital C; what's easily labelled 'organised religion'. But also that in parts of the world where the church's centre of gravity has shifted - Asia, Africa, Latin America - the church and the Christ worshipped there are loci of comparable public devotion. And I ponder: what might it take for God to ignite such a flame of passion here in Scotland, in Britain? For God to become as popular as football?

Saturday, 17 November 2007

All channels engaged?

I and one or two other Christians have been engaged in blog discussion with a few atheists of late - see also Jonathan's 'Musings...' blog linked on the right - and it prompts me to reflect on the deeper dynamics and issues in considering human response to the universal question of God. One of our atheist friends has a pretty hefty arsenal of biological and bible data which he readily deploys in constructing his arguments. The amount of 'knowledge' on display can look impressive. How much of it is accurate, comprehensive and reasonably deployed is sometimes debatable, but that is not to dismiss it; I recognise it needs to be engaged with. What I'm mulling just now though is what limits the impact of this kind of 'information' in undermining faith - in a person of faith. And my basic response would be that there is a dimension, the spirit, through which a human being, if willing - a point I recognise as controversial for the atheist - is enabled to appreciate something of the reality and presence of God in a way that the intellectual information/misinformation doesn't threaten. I'm not at all dismissing the place and role of the intellectual stuff; but I'm trying partly here to convey to atheists a sense of its limitations to a person of faith. I believe this realm of spirit is fundamental to our make-up as human beings - part of the fullness of my humanity. At the root of the power of the bible's communication - like much literature, art and music - is its frequent appeal to this side of me, appealing to emotion and intuition (though not at the expense of mind) - often through potent imagery eg Psalm 23 'The Lord is my shepherd...' A criticism sometimes levelled at the religious is 'you're blinkered, trapped in dogma, open your mind!'; one of my questions to atheists is, are you truly open to the variety of 'channels of our humanity' through which truth, and perhaps even God, might communicate to you?

Monday, 12 November 2007

An inside job

As someone interested in the communication business, I often think about the problem of how, if at its heart Christianity contains timeless, universal truth, it can be communicated to a world that's lost interest - largely, in the west at least - in a way that re-engages the imagination, makes people sit up and take notice. I think one of the keys for a Christian communicator is to take the time and effort to immerse his/her spirit and imagination in the truths and stories of the faith. I find that the more I imaginatively get 'inside' and 'under the skin' of the resources of the faith eg perhaps simply a single verse or passage from the bible, the more creative and original my communication... Take the Christmas story for example. The basic narratives in the gospels are so (relatively) simple and familiar, that they can easily lose their power to enthrall. But get inside the story eg get inside Herod's head in his position as king of the Jews and puppet ruler of Rome, and imagine how the news from the magi of a 'new king' would have threatened him, and you can begin to create powerful drama. This is of course what creative artisits do, from Shakespeare transforming an obscure Italian novella into Romeo and Juliet, to Rice and Lloyd-Webber creating Joseph. Nice.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Why does the devil have all the good music?

Picking up from the end of that last post, and that paean to a Madonna song... want to explore my broader point about music - and indeed other creative endeavours - a little more. My broad observation is that creative material produced by Christians can often appear bland and lacking in emotional punch, innovation or experimentation, in comparison with secular material (take that 'Hives' youtube video on Gadgetvicar's blog as an example of innovation). And I'm interested in why that is. My disclaimer at the outset is that of course I'm generalising here, and recognise there is some great material on the Christian side and some lousy stuff on the secular side, and also that taste is to a degree subjective... That said, here's my current take on it: for starters, I guess a lot of religious/worship music is produced in a 'Christian music' type context , where the composers and musicians are influenced by what is current and what has gone before in what may be a relatively closed community. And in a lot of Christian music, this means, for example, extensive use of a particular keyboard setting - you know, the one that just sounds so 'Christian'! It strikes me the secular music industry, being generally I think more open and competitive, is an environment often more likely to foster pioneering creativity in the actual art of making music. There's another issue that I wonder about. Take a song like Madonna's 'Live to tell'; or 'Somewhere only we know' by Keane to pick just two on my mind; I guess a big reason for the emotional power of the music is that the song expresses a deep but accessible dimension of human experience - human relationships, love, betrayal - the kind that inspires artists' passion. I think with secular artists this passion to express deep feeling, ask deep questions - the whole quest aspect - is what drives such powerful music.
Worship music is of course doing a different thing, and comes in many varieties, eg meditative, proclamatory, exuberant... and then there's other kinds of Christian music... I guess one of my key questions is, in view of the fact that some of the big questions and emotions that secular artists tackle find peace-giving 'responses' in the Christian faith... how can artists (in broad sense) with faith go about accessing passion and allowing it to generate powerful and creative music/art? The Christian conviction is surely that the journey of faith opens up even deeper, greater passions. What then might be holding back Christian artists from producing even more powerful music, writing, art, than their secular counterparts?
Answers on a postcard please(!) Some overlapping issues here, and got a feeling I'm just scratching the surface...