Monday, 24 December 2007

The magic of 'Little Town'

Gems of inspiration can be found in the most unlikely places. Unless you're of a certain gender and generation, Cliff Richard's Christmas back catalogue mightn't be the first place you'd look to find musical material to turn the world upside down; to stir the imagination, send a tingle down the spine and even bring a tear to the eye (not for the right reasons at any rate). Especially not one based on a 19th century carol. But such, I submit, can be the effect if given the chance to work its magic, of the 1982 offering that heralded Cliff's Christmas single career: 'Little Town'. In my view, a shining example of a new tune (well it was at the time) that releases the power of familiar lyrics in a fresh and uplifting way.
Cliff aside, it's a gem of a carol; hard to think of a better encapsulation of the wonder of the Incarnation. 'O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie...', personifying the birthplace of the Christ-child as itself like a sleeping baby, utterly unaware of the miracle about to be visited upon it. 'Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by'..., no hint in nature either that its fabric is about to be ruptured. 'The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight', brilliantly capturing how the whole human drama, stretching across time and eternity, finds its focal point in what is about to unfold in this humble Roman-occupied backwater. 'How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given...'; utterly without show or ostentation, the God of the universe slips unnoticed into the world of flesh and blood, and the latent spiritual implications are unveiled: 'so God imparts to human hearts, the blessings of his heaven'. With the exultant invitation 'O come to us, abide with us' to 'the Lord Emmanuel', an exuberant brass fanfare erupts... then falls away suddenly for the moment of magic to break open: an ethereal high solo male voice, as if from heaven, intimating Christ's coming...
'No ear may hear his coming' poignantly expresses the ease with which His presence is overlooked in all ages, never more so than in our own; 'but in this world of sin'... what a weight of meaning contained in those brief words; and then, as the voices merge in close harmony, the promise of the very indwelling presence of God, 'where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in'.
You need a decent audio version and a good sound system to get the most out of the Cliff version, but if you can get past the sound quality, schmaltz and 80s bouffant hair-do - I had to do a double take to check it wasn't Sheena Easton, and it looks like he's sitting in a snow nest - you can see it on youtube. That may be the most risky youtube recommendation I'll ever make. But still: bit of a classic.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Faith: an inside view

A few reflections from recent discussions. It's struck me how crucial are humility and an effort to establish common ground for fruitful discussion. We all alike as human beings experience to a large degree the same physical, emotional and psychological realities in our path through life, and within this debate we share similar reasoning skills. We would all admit limitations to our knowledge and awareness: in short, none of us knows everything. Key question you might ask then: what keeps me resolutely pursuing a path of faith? So a spot of testimony. I'd approach the question from several angles. For starters, life gives me both a desire for and sense of meaning (M), not meaninglessness; and also a sense that personhood(P) and relationship(R) are foundational, critical dimensions of life. From the thinking and reading I've done, I've seen nothing that seriously philosophically undermines the idea that the M, P and R here are fundamental to reality (the Francis Schaeffer Trilogy of books is good on this, influential in the formation of my faith worldview). A heart-level sense of this, combined with intuition of eternity, moves me to seek personal relationship in ultimate reality, like a child's impetus to put hand into father's and trust. And I find a profound response: revelation in the bible that ultimate reality is personal and reaches to embrace humanity. So faith is kindled and the journey of faith embarked on. Not blind, not just a subjective notion like that fairies live at the bottom of the garden, because underpinned by testimony, history and a body of truth, handled in community, passed down the ages, with strong grounds to be considered divinely revelatory (in support of which plenty of good reading material can be highlighted and explored). And sustained by a sense that by stepping out on this journey, I'm allowing myself to be fully alive, not just in mind and body but in spirit. Like sap coursing through a tree nourishing life and growth, or being in a dance or romance. God is not a chemical or physical property that you can analyse with cold neutrality in a test tube. In that sense he is not testable. But when given the chance to be God, when the risk of faith is taken at the end of a path of honest truth-seeking at whatever intellectual level is required, then yes, in relationship I believe God and his goodness most certainly are 'testable' - can be found in experience to be real. Matt 7:8 ask, seek, knock, 'he who seeks finds', and Psalm 34:8 'Taste and see that the Lord is good', or Jesus' invitation to Thomas to touch his wounds as illustration of a personal response to doubt (but not a closed heart), John 20:24-29.
Finally, a word about what I see as barriers, real or potential, to having a condition of heart that could be open to God. I think intellectual debate, while it has its place, can be one: the mentality of excited 'win/lose' competition and camaderie it can generate is potentially inimical to the calmness, humility and receptivity of heart needed properly to consider God. And remember the fable of the man whose tightly wrapped coat the wind and sun competed to remove, and which of the two in the end succeeded. An insight which seems relevant here.
It's a viewpoint, anyway. Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

A physicist on values

I'm finally posting, with permission, some thoughts on values written by a member of St Silas Church who teaches in the Physics Dept of Glasgow University. Should be of interest. Values - an analysis of the possibilities

Thursday, 13 December 2007

The Golden Compass: taking a bearing

Despite mediocre reviews, the invitation of friends and prospect of a wintry CGI spectacle lured me to go see The Golden Compass last night. Certainly watchable, though my impetus to read the books has been slightly dampened by a family member's first impressions of 'Northern Lights': 'kidult' lit. The Lord of the Rings books and films won't I guess be easily matched. Clear parallels in Compass with both the Rings trilogy and CS Lewis' Narnia chronicles: quest, power, good v evil, talking animals,... which reminds me of atheist author Philip Pullman's castigation of Lewis's creation in a review two years ago as 'racist' - White Witch?, 'misogynistic', and if I recall, moralising. (heard my first whiff of news today that the Narnia franchise is alive and kicking; a family acquaintance is in Prague working on props for sequel 'Prince Caspian'). Though I'm no expert, Pullman's anti-religion, anti-Church stance seems only thinly disguised behind the clerical robes of the 'Magisterium' henchmen and nun-like aspect of the captured children's sinister guardians in the north (I'll do my homework later). Against this dark backdrop - suffocating grip of authoritarianism, being told what to think and do - is pitted the wild spirit of 'free thinking' embodied in Lyra and her uncle, Lord Asriel. What intrigues me here is the transfer - less charitably I might say hijacking - of universally recognised values, both good and evil. In Narnia it's Aslan - Christ figure - who's both wild and good ('not a tame lion'), and the White Witch, symbolic of Satan, who proffers Turkish Delight but specialises in turning things to stone; in Compass it's the Magisterium and its cohorts who get the boos and hisses - they've even got the slavering wolves. A fuller dissection of this Pullmanesque-Enlightenment view would need to wait. Meanwhile, Compass is still worth seeing, if nothing else for the giant wrestling polar bears and daemons expiring in clouds of gold dust .

Monday, 10 December 2007

In the shadow of the moon

A few weeks ago I wound up with a friend at the GFT (Glasgow Film Theatre) to see 'In the shadow of the moon', a British-made documentary about the Apollo space missions, featuring interviews with surviving members (notable exception, the apparently very reclusive Neil Armstrong). The film captured the awesomeness and sheer riskiness of the whole space travel experience. I was struck by the levels of technology, human ingenuity and teamwork required to orchestrate and mobilise such an enterprise. Like the brilliance and risk of plane flight ramped up several orders of magnitude. Even with all those ruthlessly pain-staking safety measures, there was no negating the sheer vulnerability of those men strapped into a capsule on top of what was basically an enormous firework, its' balance as fine as a pencil as it was hurled upwards from the launchpad (they could feel the shimmying as it righted itself). In short, you might say: madness. Mike Collins, the Apollo 11 command module operator, described the sequence of what had to happen and be done during the trip as like a 'daisy chain' of risk; if any one link in that chain had been broken, it could have spelt disaster. Alongside dream-like footage of astronauts' weightless gambolling in the lunar desert, were some profound reflections from the interviewees on the effect the experience had had on them. A sense of the earths' beauty and fragility granted by seeing it suspended in space; of the smallness of earths' problems and preoccupations when its' orb could be hidden behind your thumb; and of transcendence - the overwhelming feeling from this vantage point of an embracing, over-arching power and purpose. When one of them mentioned having joined a bible study post-mission and becoming a Christian, there was an audible tutting from at least one person in the audience; which I felt reflected a broader public view: vague sense of transcendence and higher power, ok; specific religious commitment - or at least talking about it, not ok. But to conclude: peach of a film.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Sermon in a symphony?

I want to address a common theme of atheistic thinking about God as shown in recent comments, that only measurable experimental evidence would persuade of His existence. It's my conviction that such a demand is a feature of a western scientific materialist mindset, and that as an approach to the question of God it is fundamentally flawed. Coming from an arts not science background, I find image, metaphor and analogy helpful ways to think, opening up fresh perspectives. Picking up on the tail end of comments from the 'All channels engaged?' post below, I'm pondering the metaphor of a symphony or other great work of art. Listening to great music, one is intuitively aware of intelligent, inspired creative activity underlying the experience, and the work itself. It's a big picture kind of response, a response of the whole person. But it's not the only way of contemplating music; changing the focus, you could study in detail the quantity, range and patterns of notes, and their effect at various levels: on the ear drum, on the brain, on the emotions. In other words, the musical experience can be broken down, reduced and explained in many ways. But most reasonable folk would accept that no amount of such analysis alters the experienced reality of a great work of art, stimulating the senses, stirring the emotions - and plainly the product of genius. And note, that power and mystique is not something 'extra' to the analysable musical notes and effects; it's right there in it. It's a case of different ways of appreciating the phenomena. I see a parallel with nature and God. The biblical perspective is clear, that nature manifests the presence and glory of God, Romans 1:19,20. In the western scientific community in particular, this perspective has in large part been lost. And it strikes me that looking for 'the difference God makes' as an additional factor in the processes, through measurable controlled experiment, is like a musical analyst searching for 'evidence of genius' by analysing the notes of a symphony. It doesn't work like that. You need to widen the camera angle and open up the avenues of appreciation. Problem is, prevailing scientific ideology can make that difficult to do. Which takes us to the heart of the problem: the problem of the heart. Jesus said spiritual 'new birth' is needed to enable us to see spiritual realities - like a chrysalis opening its wings to absorb and enjoy the light and warmth of the sun. A beautiful process - for which faith is a vital ingredient.