Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Norway tragedy

(Radio script, with Adele ‘Set Fire to the Rain’ as music bed)

Something happened the other day - heard it on the radio. A guy had shot some people. Young people, just teenagers. In another country, across the sea.

Yet not so far away. Every Christmas they send us a beautiful tree, a token of friendship. Its lights blaze across a city square and warm people’s hearts.

I don’t know what to say, what to think. A nation weeps: for the loss of innocence; for the darkness that can engulf a man’s heart.

I wish I could help, wish I could bring someone back. I can’t. No running or hiding now. Grief’s shadow is upon you, engulfing, overwhelming.

Is there any hope? I dare to believe. Fragile, but there in the brokenness - the possibility of something unexpected, something new. A quality of love I hadn’t seen before. Could it be?

It’s my prayer.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Senna - a life lived on the edge

Saw this film last Friday, chronicling the career of the master Brazilian Formula 1 driver. Ayrton Senna. A name whose stylishness sounds specially crafted for a star. An absorbing tale. There are few things I’d be less likely to watch on TV than an F1 race, but I knew from the reviews that this was a film whose themes transcended its subject matter.
Like so many of the Brazilian football team, Senna’s faith in God was no secret. As his genius propelled him to push car and track to the limit, he expressed the sentiment that such driving brought him closer to God. Easy to scoff, but paralleled by the experience of transcendence reported in other domains of extreme sport and performance – not least, as I recall, by the high wire artist Emmanuel Petit in ‘Man on Wire’. And paralleled in life: pushing beyond normal human limits opens up the possibility of experiencing wisdom, strength and resources from beyond.

Senna had been criticised for supposedly allowing a belief in special divine protection to push him to take excessive risks, but in interview he denied this, saying he was as aware as any driver of the dangers – thus expressing a wise humility: faith doesn’t exempt you from life’s trials and misfortunes, as of course his tragic accident demonstrated. The portrayal of his very human emotions facing the pressures of a top flight sportsman – including the intense and sometimes bitter rivalry with McLaren team-mate Alain Prost – is also very engaging.

A life cut tragically short, aged 34, by a seemingly random freak accident. Had the car part which struck his head been just a few inches away, he’d have survived. As it is, he remains the last fatality in Formula 1. A man of faith… Does it make any sense, when you consider the weight given to prayers for protection among Christians? Such incidents can only be responded to by drawing on some of the faith’s deepest resources, such as the assurance in Romans that all things work together for good, to them that love God. The spirit of the man released from the broken body is ultimately safe with God, while seventeen years on the tragedy has produced a work of art that challenges and engages millions.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011


Irony – there’s a feeling in late June that we’re still only just entering summer… Wimbledon's begun, Glastonbury approaches – and yet the longest day of the year has already arrived. Happily the warming effect of lengthened days trails behind, casting its balm over the coming months (seas won’t properly warm up for a while yet).

At such boundary points and junctures of nature, it's good to stop and ponder these great rhythms - and the relationship between vast macro planetary mathematics and their effects on the natural world that sustain life and growth. The earth’s annual motion through its axis like a vast rocking chair or ferris wheel, imperceptibly edging towards its peak today, then falling, slowly accelerating, till it hurtles through the equinox… then slows to a crawl at winter’s sluggish nadir, before recommencing its long climb back… And accompanying this arc, the kaleidoscope of beauty with which nature’s miracle of design assaults our senses: from yellow burst of daffodil, to skylark in balmy meadow, through fall’s fiery extravaganza, to taut crisp shadow, and ice daggers.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Mammon, 'mother monster' & the marketing machine

It’s easy to veer towards idealistic thinking about a person or topic from an early superficial viewpoint. Having read a bit more about her and seen a few of the videos, I now feel some comments I made relating Gaga to God need qualifying. No denying she’s fizzing with creativity, nor that human creativity reflects something of the Creator - but there’s a clearly a more complex mix going on here. As with Madonna, videos and lyrics are littered with religious imagery, and sexuality paraded and commented on in dark and disturbing ways. With some cleverness and irony too, of course.
I’m reading ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ by Gunther Bornkamm, pupil of Rudolf Bultmann, written 1960. Exciting to learn more of the historical and political background to Christ‘s ministry. Today read Mark 11: 15-19 about Jesus cleansing the temple. The broad insight it communicates: he was passionate about the holiness - set-apartness - of spiritual space, the presence of God; and was active in defending and protecting it from the encroachment of materialism - the worship of money. Engaged as I am in creative communication in writing and commercial radio, seeking to embed and embody aspects of the gospel message in a pop culture setting, I’m fascinated in finding and expressing connections - as well as more directly with my own life. So here for instance, the report of Christ’s confrontation with the worship of mammon - money - comments implicitly on the presumably often ruthless kind of marketing machine that picks up and exploits the talent of a star like Gaga (also known as 'mother monster'). Where is the sacred space in the whole enterprise, and in a ’star’s life - and how can it possibly be guarded? And in my own life - I need to explore ways that I too can fight for the protection and promotion of sacred space - recognition of the presence of God in our culture - not least in the material world of commercial radio.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

A little more on Gaga

A few more thoughts on little miss Gaga (she is after all only 5 foot 1 I readJ) I heard her main stage performance live at the Radio 1 big weekend 15 May. Last night I watched the first ten minutes or so of the video… I suggested in the last post that her creativity in some measure reflects the creativity of God. Don’t mean to overstate my case - it’s obviously quite easy to end up idolising someone so ‘stand out’. Even just a little reading up on the woman reminds that, of course, in a frail human being, behind such a headlong pursuit of fame and attention is likely to lie a complex web of needs and motivations. She was bullied in school, and says that in her music she is often opening and probing that wound. Is there not often, propelling a quest for fame, a deficit in the experience of love? A misdirected search for unconditional and indeed limitless love - that can be found in God alone? A similar problem conceivably lies behind the wider public’s excessive interest in celebrities - an aspirational dream of beauty and success, which again finds its right fulfilment in the esteem of the One who holds us all in his hand.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Faith, hope & Lady Gaga

On Saturday I picked up a copy of last week’s Telegraph review supplement with a picture of a ghostly young female face with pouting red lips, framed with straight peroxide hair. The caption, ‘Excess all areas’. The sub heading: ‘Lady Gaga is the world’s biggest, brashest pop star - but… does her music measure up?’ I read the article by Neil McCormick, text framing a medley of shots of the star in a panoply of her outlandish costumes. It’s one of those pieces of writing that stays with you for days after, because it touches on issues that matter to you personally - and, not to get ahead of ourselves, you feel could even in some small way impact on your future.
The 25 year old New York ‘global pop sensation‘, formerly ‘Stefani Germanotta’, garnered her huge following largely through her extraordinary flair for self-promotion via eye-popping visual panache (those costumes), a mastery for marketing and social media - 36 plus million face book fans, pushing 11 million on twitter… underpinned by raw musical talent. I first recall coming across her through using one of her less known early songs ‘Money’ in a Christmas feature about the Bradford-based debt charity CAP (Christians against poverty), made with Whistling Frog Productions end of 2009. Her twitter page image has the appearance of an unearthly statuesque creature from a sci-fi myth. As a role model for supreme ‘girl power’ and exhilarating excess, she is adored by the young and not so young the world over. She went to a Catholic girls’ school - you’ve got to hand it to this church, for all the mess it’s got itself into, it does have a knack, as with Madonna before her, for inspiring or inciting some kick ass boundary-pushing pop creativity. Some of her stunts no doubt generate their share of finger-wagging in some quarters, including some ’Christian’ ones I’m sure; I’d counter that on some level at least she’s actually a fizzing little microcosm of the endlessly varied pulsating creativity which animates the universe. A pop ambassador for God? I’m not saying you have to wave your hands and say EVERYTHING she does is awesome - a meat dress in a world of hunger might make you baulk - but overall it seems churlish and indeed beside the point to censor her excesses.

For me, the whole Gaga phenomenon this article explored, stirred up a host of questions and challenges - about faith, morality, and personal dreams and ambitions.

Self-promotion - or perhaps more fairly, promotion of your act, on this kind of scale highlights questions at the heart of the whole celebrity enterprise - about pride, ego, the place of humility. Is it just massively self-serving? I don’t think it has to be. It can’t be easy to restrain the whispers of vanity on such a vertiginous ascent. But if you keep higher values and goals in mind, such as recognition that your gifts notwithstanding hard work are just that, gifts - and that limelight presents an opportunity to speak for good - surely it’s possible to be a ‘star’ and keep your soul.

On a personal note… I won’t be alone in seeing qualities in someone like Gaga that I aspire to, or at least value. It’s often things you feel you lack isn’t it? The energy, colour, pizzazz, flowering of talent through uncommonly hard graft… there’s a danger it can cast a depressing shadow over those unfulfilled dreams and ambitions, those thwarted achievements of one‘s own past. Those things you allowed to hold you back. But you - I - don’t have to stay there. You can instead rise up and say, today is the day, now is the time, I’ve been shaken from slumber, his compassions are new every morning and there are opportunities ahead. It can breathe NEW life into your dreams. Timothy was told to ‘ stir up the gift’ in him, the church at Sardis to ‘strengthen what remains and is about to die.’

Pop culture, along with sport and a host of other modern preocupations, can seem so BIG, faith and the church so small. I’m embarked on a quest, working in radio and media, to ‘re-embody’ faith and spiritual issues, in a potentially big creative fusion with mainstream popular culture. That’s one way of expressing my dream. It feels like still relatively uncharted territory, which makes it exciting. I’m still searching, the dream is still incubating.

Finally, a verse I chanced to read today put the whole topic of greatness and achievement back into healthy perspective. The path to true greatness, Jesus said, was to serve. In that, Lady Gaga is on a level with the rest of us. She’ll be ‘great’ ultimately through using her talent to serve. And in whatever sphere of life and work we move in, we’re each called to do the same.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Love wins?

Jason Byrne, whirlwind Irish comedian on his radio 2 late night show last Saturday asked the audience if they were all atheists and there was a general ‘yes’ murmur - good sample of the liberal secular British populace there then! One said ‘I’m an agnostic’ and there was a collective intake of breath. Breaking rank!
Been reading Rob Bell’s latest book ‘Love Wins’. He’s arguing against the ‘believe the wrong things and you’ll end up in a fiery pit’ way of thinking, for a more expansive, generous view of God’s love, that persists whatever it takes, including beyond death, to draw humanity back to Godself (RB doesn‘t like the gender pronouns). The image of a parent who lets the child suffer enough of the consequences of his/her own rebellion to persuade a return to the source of happiness. He cites a Revelation reference that the gates of heaven are not shut but open, allowing people to come and go. This parallels our best human experience here and now - a readiness to forgive as soon as there‘s a sign of contrition in the guilty one. But I’d be interested to explore how such a view fits with the range of other biblical stories, images and teachings about what lies beyond death.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Life force

As I’ve got older, and reflected on the world as someone raised in the Christian faith, I’m aware of some ways my thinking and feeling about the world has expanded. And I just want to ponder a few things. I started with the fairly black and white view that you need to explicitly ‘accept and follow Jesus’ to ‘have eternal life’, to be ok, assured of heaven not hell. But one of the things that life (and the media) make you aware of is that there are vast forces of power, creativity, ‘life’ outside the Christian or indeed any ‘religious’ confines. And that indeed this great tide and variety of life for a large part seems to outshine what Christ’s explicit followers appear to achieve. If God is the source of all, then ‘he’ (will there one day be a non-gender specific personal pronoun in English?) evidently puts no obvious limit on the capacity of non-Christians’ talents to flower and flourish - be it a great sportsman, media personality, scientist or whoever. And I recall a family member’s relishing of nature’s detail - specifically different kinds of animal tracks - in a way that made me just a little ashamed at my own hitherto relative lack of effort at such deep engagement with nature’s wonders.
I can feel at times, weak, powerless and small in comparison with a lot of the evident surrounding power and prosperity in the world. And there’s something undeniably good about this ‘life force’ that animates people’s lives - I guess it’s from God whether acknowledged or not. At the same time, I hold onto the conviction that spending time communing with Christ empowers and enables - no matter what degree of natural talent possessed – an impact on the world which is in some way ‘distinctive - ‘salt and light’.

Saturday, 12 February 2011


Recent bbc2 series, Arctic with Bruce Parry. High esteem for those with a close connection to nature and who treat it with respect. The fascination of travelling with him into a remote Russian village deep in the heart of the Boreal forest. The man who found the forest to be a friend, which helped him overcome past trauma. Northern lights. How does THIS connect with Christianity? How in the light of this kind of beauty and exploration can the faith be understood and appreciated?