Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Religion on the box

Last night I watched a fascinating programme on BBC2 about religion, psychology and mental health, 'Am I normal?' presented by psychologist Dr Tanya Byron. Atheist readers would have found a friend here; I hope no-one would mind me saying she's quite a looker as well. Early on she spoke to a street evangelist who'd received an ASBO; and a nun. She suggested, quite plausibly I thought, that the reason for the public's broadly contrasting responses to the two - suspicion and uncomfortableness towards the one, acceptance towards the other - had a lot to do with context; the street preacher was operating outside a recognised religious context, the nun within one (this bears on my own line of work, seeking to place spiritually oriented radio programming in the secular arena of commercial radio - but more on that another time).

Dr Byron seemed intrigued by the self-denying lifestyle of the nun of her own age she spoke to; a reminder to me of the power of testimony and experience, which has the potential to transcend intellectual barriers. 'Your willingness to put your life on the line like this communicates more eloquently than words or argument the possibility that 'there's something in this'' may have been a thought that at least flickered across her mind.

The faith healer Benny Hinn was also featured, and I have to say, the rally shown in India with vast enraptured audience, a wheelchair being carried off and one poor fellow's head being rocked up and down back and forth like a rag doll... created the decided impression of a showman, to put it cautiously. Right down to the white suit (and presumably, shoes). Less diplomatic terms, such as one beginning with 'char' and ending in 'tan' proffer themselves, but I'd be the la-st one to jump to conclusions. And I don't know the man and his ministry well enough to speak with any authority - so I'd be interested to hear from anyone with a different perspective.

But on the other hand... a thought to challenge atheists too. One of my biggest objections to viewpoints such as Dr Byron's is the insistence on reduction and seeing things through either just one or a very limited range of lenses. 'No scientific evidence for God or the power of prayer'. Prayer is not and was never meant to be a slot machine to convince atheists. If it's not considered - and in the last resort experienced - in a context of trust, relationship and personal transformation then it's always going to look odd from the sidelines.

Scripture and the message of Christ through a lens of faith can be compared, to posit two images in my mind of late, to a mountain range or a treasure chest - inviting exploration and enjoyment. I was struck the other day by the power of Christ's character to elicit fascination and faith; to cite just one example that's especially relevant in relation to atheist debate: his ability when questioned and attacked, simply to be silent. That self-control and composure frankly evinces a greatness of character more persuasive and compelling than any mere intellectual debate. But without a spark of trust releasing this kind of truth in its full flush of colour - acknowledging there's an elusiveness to 'faith' in atheist eyes that bears further reflection - I guess it's always going to look strange and nonsensical at best. And dare I say it, slightly monochrome?

But enough for today.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Pubs, banners and a sermon illustration

A few more ruminations from Sunday... The reader - a Yorkshire woman, her accent gave it away - spoke on the NT passage containing 'once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God' (once I've unpacked my concordance - along with all my other books - I might be able to give you a reference for that). Her most memorable illustration in a good sermon was this: just as celebrity memorabilia acquires great value simply through having belonged to someone famous, so also we as children of God have immense value simply through belonging to Him. As so easily happens to me even in a good sermon, the next paragraph or two was unfortunately obscured by a reverie triggered by this one thought: recalling a Radio 1 DJ explaining how being a fan of the late Kenneth Williams had inspired him to acquire almost all of the great man's possessions from his godson, as they were yet to be auctioned. He admitted that having KW's old clothes stashed away in his attic was a little creepy. I'll say. But you get my point (hopefully).

The closing worship brought another surprise. Out of the corner of my eye I'd noticed him unfurling a very large lilac banner; the next thing I knew, a man, probably in his early forties, came dancing down the aisle, rotating this banner helicopter fashion, round his head in a rippling silken figure of eight, then at the front of the church round his body in a whirling fluttering column... concluding the dance with other worshipful body gestures.

Now back at St Silas in Glasgow, I've seen several younger members of the congregation use banners, and I think its undoubted visual grace makes it a valuable contribution to worship. But what impressed me particularly here was, frankly, the bloke's age. I mean how many men in their forties can you imagine doing this? Kind of breaks a few basic markers of the traditional 'masculine image' if you ask me. I guess it could easily have been uncomfortable and 'cringey' to watch, but it wasn't; it was powerful and moving. It could only be so, of course, because the guy was actually pretty good at it - and, I learned, he only did it occasionally, when he felt led by the Spirit. In other words, don't necessarily 'try this at home':). Still, for my first church service in Bradford, quite an experience to be part of. Well done sir.

I also didn't mention having chatted with some friendly folk over coffee, including one Mavis, married to one Errol (they don't make names how they used to). I'll be exploring some other churches Sunday evenings (I went with my house-mate to St Peter's in Shipley this one just gone). But those bells of Holy Trinity pealing within a stone's throw have a come hither beckoning embrace that may be hard to resist on a Sunday morning (could be a different story if I wasn't a church-goer!).

I noticed the Lord Clyde pub is named after 'possibly the most famous British soldier of the mid-nineteenth century'. There you go. Since then I've also noticed The Wrose Bull, The Swing Gate and The Balloon and Basket. At the top of the road, corner of High Street/Town Lane junction, also sits the 'Towngate Fisheries', proudly displaying it's banner 'Winner Best Fish and Chip Shop Yorkshire area 2007'. This is quite a place.

In due course I'll share more of what I'm actually doing with Whistling Frog Productions. For the moment, putting finishing touches to my first newsletter. Also pondering a possible first programme idea, based around BBC1's 'The Apprentice'. 'You're hired'? (not my line, I admit).

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Idle ways

I notice how moving to a new place has given me a new interest in Facebook, basically because I hardly know anyone down here. I do have a lovely cousin, Joy, who lives with her husband in nearby Guiseley (pronounced, most definitely I am assured, like disguise (at first I got it wrong, doh)), an aunt, Ann, in Leeds, and my venerable godfather Arthur, who teaches at Bradford University and lives in the village of Addingham. And a friend of my house-mate Neil has been up since Wednesday night, doing some paintwork on the house, kipping in the living room and joining us for communal feeds in the evening; including, fittingly enough, on Friday night my 'legendary' lentil curry.

In short, I'm not utterly friendless and alone :)

But this morning, Sunday, I made my first serious foray into the local community, walking round the corner to Holy Trinity Parish Church, Idle, whose gothic flank is clearly visible through the trees from my bedroom window, and whose bell I hear softly tolling on the hour.

I'd heard the Thursday evening bell-ringing practice, and at ten o'clock this morning the fruit of this labour tumbled and cascaded in joyous melody across the village. Such an exuberant call to worship, such a resonant symbol of English religious heritage; but also, I couldn't help imagining, for the New Inn Saturday night revelers and other godless Idle hordes:), possibly a right nuisance.

The service itself was a pleasure. Within this ancient frame of buttresses and bells - not so long ago the church celebrated its 175th birthday - the life of the Spirit evidently bubbles. While my initial impression was of a bit of a congregational split, with an exuberant youthful band of arm-raisers at the front and more venerable members sitting in scattered reserve further back, a feeling of collective warmth grew. Warm purple carpet and chairs replaced pews (I learned) a few years back, and the reader's long rich blue scarf - someone tell me the proper word - echoed the ornate blues and reds of the arching stained glass window at the front, depicting the ascending Christ with worshipful disciples and angelic hosts...

What an intriguing little place Idle village is. On Wednesday afternoon, after a monthly prayer morning with the HCJB team, I took a short wander. I'd already noticed at the junction at the top of the high street, across the road from my bus stop, the 'Idle National Spiritualist Church'. Gold lettered 'Stage 84' marks out a blackened converted church hall in the middle of this crossroads, and moseying a little further, I discovered a plaque reading 'Stage 84 Yorkshire Performing Arts School', of which this building was evidently the original venue.

Just behind is the Idle and Thackley Conservative Club, with patron only parking. Further on is the 'Cambing Cricket' ground, a green field which, while smooth enough, has a gradient and general lumpiness affording the impression it is unlikely to have seen a game for some years. But summer could prove me wrong.

Idle also boasts a collection of olde English pubs, the general character of which has been sketched to me by colleague Nick who's local to the area: the 1840 one's called 'The Oddfellows Hall', then there's 'The Coniston', 'The New Inn' - fronted by garish boards advertising its disco, karaoke and sports nights, and 'The White Bear' and 'The White Swan'. Apparently Bear good, Swan bad (drugs). We'll see. Nearer central Bradford I've also spotted the 'Horse and Farrier', 'The Lord Clyde' (I thought I'd left Glasgow); and my favourite so far, 'The Corn Dolly'. Cute.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Hello Bradford

I'd intended to make my getaway on Saturday after lunch, but an underestimate of the packing project combined with the siren call of Doctor Who persuaded me late afternoon that it might be best to hold off till the next morning. So just before midday Sunday, I finally eased the hire transit van with my life in the back, out of the gates of The Laurels, Bridge of Weir, and headed south to the North. Annie Mac on Radio One kept me amused most of the way down the M74/M6, especially 'Sunday Squabbles', one of those bizarre confessional features where people call in under the odd impression that broadcasting their problems to the nation and awaiting solutions phoned in by the public beats sitting down for a private chat, any day.

Stopping at Annandale Water services, Johnstonebridge for a spot of light refreshment, a quiet stroll round the pond was broken by the alarming sound of my name being barked from behind: 'Bruce! Bruce, stop it! Don't you dare...' I was relieved to discover on turning round that it wasn't some scary individual from my past who couldn't believe I'd had the audacity to leave without saying goodbye, or repaying some long forgotten loan - but the owner of a black lab that was finding the idea of a dip all too tempting.

Soon after turning off the M6 onto the A65 cross country, I began to feel like I was in Yorkshire. And nearing my destination, I was conscious of entering a distinctly northern town; the hills laced with Coronation Street style terraces, the factory chimneys, the local stone, the peaked caps... (ok, not that last one). Once in Bradford, the AA directions broke down and I had to stop and ask a couple of times to reach my destination of Garth Fold in the village of Idle. It's a name I'm going to have to fight against, but all the same, a lovely wee spot, if you'll excuse the Scottish twang (heavens, I'm actually moving closer to my roots coming here - Guisborough on the north edge of Yorkshire - so there's really no excuse)... quiet stone courtyard type layout, rural aspect, trees, nice view, small Anglican church nearby with a bell tolling on the hour (so far hasn't disturbed my sleep too much)... and across the road from the famous 'Idle Working Men's Club' - you couldn't make this up - circa 1928, and just up the road from a pub whose name I'll need to go and check, dating from 1840.

Sunday night I had my first carry-out curry from the Idle Balti - a smooth creamy chicken 'makhani', beautiful. I think I could get used to this place.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Fool's gold?

Sadly I haven't yet been able to catch up with all the comments on the last post yet, but with a new month dawning and at the risk of looking a fool (for Christ:)), I just want to articulate a little more - particularly for the benefit of atheist readers - how I see the life of faith. I want to widen the camera angle again for a moment.

Atheists have - quite rightly - a high degree of interest in reason and evidence, and how truth claims match up to these. And from what I've read, they often seem to have a pretty low opinion of how religion squares up on these fronts. Let me just clarify, in case there is any doubt, that as I understand it from my reading and investigation about faith and Christianity in particular: defences of the faith also put a very high premium on these criteria, of reasonableness and evidence. So there's plainly a sharp disagreement here.

There's a big discussion to be had about the nature and status of 'evidence'. But just to sketch one of the most obvious broad brush contrasts between the sceptical view, and the faith one. Sceptics are looking for 'evidence' that is tangible and unmistakable to any neutral observer, but within a framework of quite narrowly defined criteria, similar to criteria for observing physical phenomena in a scientific experiment. The common cry is 'Prove it', 'Give me evidence'. By contrast, my impression is that the lens employed in Christian apologetics to discuss the validity of faith from a perspective of reason and evidence, is generally wider. A broader exploration is attempted of how reason and faith operate in real life, in a variety of areas. And a broad criticism that would be levelled at the sceptical viewpoint from this perspective is that it doesn't consistently apply the same principles it uses to attack faith, in other broad areas of thought and life. It strains gnats but swallows camels, to quote, if you don't mind me doing so, er, Jesus.

But here is where the heart comes in. A good defence of Christianity will show the value but also the limitations of reason in attaining truth in its broadest senses. It will show how reason and the evidence that is there leads, invites, beckons, not by proof but with intellectual integrity intact, to the threshold of faith. The heart matters here; there has to be an open-ness. But if that threshold is crossed, like Lucy stepping into the wardrobe, then a whole new world is unveiled. Life and perspective can be changed, perhaps slowly, perhaps suddenly; like the life blood in a butterfly's wings transforming it from grey chrysalis to a vision of light and beauty, or the wind in a surfer's sail lifting the board and sending it coursing across the waves. A step is taken; power, energy, life and motion are released.

Last week my three year old niece and her parents were up to stay. At one point, when we were swinging her or something, her mum said, 'They're so trusting'. A child's instinct to trust becomes in an adult so easily stifled and withered, instead of growing and developing alongside the - no denying it, crucial - capacities to reason, question and critique. Trust opens up experience, and indeed knowledge and revelation that are unattainable without it. It's quite possible to think people with faith are deluded if you want to. But I'd say that sceptics need to consider carefully, with a wide angle lens, if the phenomenon of religious faith in the world, which embraces many sane, thinking people, really falls into the same kind of category as belief in unicorns, fairies and the like. The more dare I say it 'scientific' approach in dealing with a large phenomena of this kind is to explore and examine it first from as many angles, and in as much depth, as possible.

Who knows where that might lead?