Monthly Archives: September 2015

In praise of church music

taizeAfter the rant I made several days ago on the subject of popular Christian music, it might seem surprising that I return to the subject to make a positive appreciation of other kinds of music in church. I was then objecting to the popular music which Chris describes as giving him brain fever and also leaving behind in the brain a disturbing beat. In short I object to a certain style of church music because it leaves behind all the symptoms of being exposed to excessive noise. I suggested also that the bedrock of Christian spirituality was silence. Anything, including popular music, which prevents an immersion into such silence was going to be unhelpful, to say the least, for Christian prayer.

I do in fact believe that there is music within the Christian tradition which can still the mind and prepare it to enter more effectively into this sphere of silence. The problem is that for many people this music is completely unknown. The religious music of the past, whether Gregorian chant or the sacred music of the Elizabethan age is not exactly at the top of the Pops. It is, as we say, an acquired taste. There is however one genre of music that does seem to appeal to a wide number of people when they encounter it and also helps them to become still as a prelude to prayer. I refer to the music of Taizé. This music written by Jacques Berthier picks up the melodies of a variety of periods and helps those who sing and those who listen to become still. The music’s power comes partly from the way that the same musical phrase is repeated over and over again. Because there are different accompaniments to the melody line of the song, the repetition never becomes boring. These melodies are specially composed or taken from one of a number of musical traditions in Christian Europe. They do seems to have appeal for almost everyone who hears them.

The music of Taizé would perhaps be used far more if our services were a little less wordy and more focussed on silence. The problem for most congregations is that those who conduct worship do not want to allow any empty space to occur in the service. Thus we have a quick movement from a prayer to a reading and then to a hymn. There is little opportunity for silent reflection in most of our church services. For myself Gregorian chant is a suitable introduction to a time of silence and also it does not intrude on attempts to meditate and think quietly about the will of God for our lives. Others may well be moved and assisted in their contemplative worship by the soaring notes of Tudor polyphony. Whatever style is preferred, there are a variety of church music styles which do in fact assist an individual in coming to a place of peace and prayer.

It is not easy to talk about these ‘classical’ styles of Christian music without being thought a cultural snob. But, as I have said, the more accessible music obtains its popularity by, arguably, only appealing to shallow sentiment or the attraction of an incessant drum beat. It is hard, as I suggested before, not to be affected by a loud noise of Christian popular music. The sound is often overwhelming but it is hard to see how this kind of beat music will ever assist an individual in the task of silent prayer. One wants to move from singing or listening to a piece of music so that the individual is led towards silence. There can be no silence within when there is the echo of frenetic drumbeat inside one’s head. The brain fever which Chris speaks about is never going to be conducive to still contemplation.

I am one of those people fortunate enough to have been brought up with the contemplative style of Christian music around me from a very early age. I have thus had the opportunity to enjoy and to be immersed in styles of music which I believe help in the process of stilling the heart and mind towards a consideration of the spiritual dimension. Music is a little bit like religious art in the sense that it communicates spiritual things without the use of words and logical concepts. I have returned to this theme of the spiritual being beyond the verbal many times in the blog as it is a point that is close to my heart. As the mystics would say, God is beyond words and human concepts, even being itself. If we are to know anything about him at all, we have to approach God through the assistance of these non-verbal media. These point to spiritual reality but they never contain it. Art and music are tantalisingly indirect in the way that they point us to what can never be known fully on this side of the grave.

The people who do theology in the way that I have learnt, will always prefer never to define mystery or spiritual reality. We can only go so far with words and explanations. In our imaginations we come to a threshold of a building in which we believe that God dwells. To enter further, to know God as he truly is, we have to use other means of access. One will be the human capacity to love. This is a capacity given to every person on the planet. Alongside this means of approach towards the unknowable God, we have the tools of music and art. These always have to be used carefully and sensitively so that in the best way possible their power can be utilised in this search for the unknown. But, as this blog post has made clear, the journey towards God can often utilise the tools of music which draws the individual into silent prayer. This may one of any number of styles, perhaps Gregorian chant or the music of Taizé. Such music, as I have explained above, will never be used to fill the brain with sensation, but will always help to still and quieten the mind so that it can kneel before God in love and adoration.

Speaking a common language

Thank-you-in-many-languagesMany years ago in London there seemed to be large numbers of immigrants of European extraction who had found their way to our capital because of wars and revolutions. It was said of such people that they were the proud speakers of many languages but in some cases they could not speak any of them well. You can imagine a child learning one language at his mother’s knee and then moving to a new country where it was necessary to learn yet another language to complete an already damaged education. Then there might be further disruption, more languages before finally arriving in Britain. We might envy a knowledge of several languages but on reflection we can see that there are considerable advantages in knowing just one language but knowing it well.

I begin this post with this reflection as I was talking to someone yesterday about the problems of communication on the topic of healing. Many people have picked up some exotic ways of talking about the process of healing. They have an Internet knowledge of medical science alongside other ideas which we might describe as alternative or New Age. They may also have some understanding of Christian ideas, including the importance of prayer and the issue of dealing with guilt. Talking to such people one may find that they easily switch in and out of this variety of cultures with the result that communication becomes quite difficult. You could say that they are trying to speak several languages at once. The person I was speaking to agreed with me when I said that it was very important to use one single language when discussing something with another person. It may be possible to introduce ideas from other cultures but not before there has been established an implicit agreement as to which is the main language in play. It is not unreasonable for a Christian minister to insist that he or she will want to use Christian language as the dominant means of communication.

Over the decades I myself have read many books which introduced me to alternative ways of understanding health issues. Some of these books have deepened my understanding and cultural insight into many aspects of human illness and disease. When faced with the distress in another person, I sometimes will run through in my mind the different models of understanding what I am looking at. But whatever I think about a person and what may be the cause of their problem, I will try to find one model in which to communicate with them. If a word or an idea is introduced from another cultural context, I will attempt to translate it into the language or dominant cultural setting in which I am trying to work. This attempt to control the discourse is not some power game that I am playing with another. It is merely a recognition that in our post-modern age, many people are trying to master an understanding of something while at the same time they are juggling with a wide variety of concepts from different sources. They end up with no clarity: they are like people who speak five languages but all of them badly.

In the previous blog post I was challenged for appearing to criticise the ideas of Jeremy Corbyn. In my response, I hope I made it clear that I was criticising, not his actual ideas, but the language in which these ideas were expressed. When any ideas are developed within a particular and, arguably, a narrow framework of culture, they will end up being articulated using a closed system of discourse. Families likewise often evolve their own words and expressions to denote everyday things. This is a private language and has to be interpreted when other people beyond the family hear it. Every profession develops their system of pet acronyms which are incomprehensible to people outside that charmed world. Sometimes language is used deliberately to create an in group which effectively keeps out outsiders. Whenever language is used to create barriers, we can say that it is not being used in a healthy way.

In speaking to another person, it is not only helpful but also good manners to ensure that we are using language in a way that they can understand. It is also not unreasonable for us to establish at the start that they should try, as far as possible, not to keep switching into other cultural frameworks, unless it is really necessary. As an example, one might be talking to someone about mental distress. If they were suddenly to introduce the idea of kundalini, then the conversation might well stall at that point. Even if I thought I knew what the word meant, I would have to establish that the other person had the same understanding. I would need to know where and how they have picked up this particular Hindu/New Age concept. That would take time to establish.

I seem to have used up a lot of space in explaining how important I feel it is to use words and language in the same way as another person for understanding to take place. Most of the time when Christians speak, they can assume some common knowledge of Scripture on the part of their fellow Christians. But even here there is still tremendous scope for misunderstandings as the ways we have been taught to use the Bible can vary enormously. Quite often in comments posted on this blog, I realise that an individual is saying something important. The problem for me may be that the way the idea is expressed means that I do not have a quick answer. I simply cannot see a way to respond to the issue raised without using lots of words and explanations of what I mean. In short, two Christians are speaking quite different languages. Communication is made very hard in this situation. My previous blog post was an appeal for us to consider how the truth and the reality of the Christian gospel be translated into a form of language which is in everyday currency among the people of our nation and culture. That is a massive task but it is one that is worth struggling and fighting for. One thing that will not help the cause of Christianity is simply to go on repeating words that some earnest Christians believe are essential to the Christian gospel but which, in fact, are obscure and almost meaningless outside the charmed circle of a particular ‘tribe’ of Christian believers.

Forcing people to use jargon expressions which they do not really understand is never going to help the cause of the Christian gospel. What this blog would plead for is not some instant solution to the problem but recognising the importance for all Christians to develop a greater sensitivity to this issue of language and the meaning of words. We need to understand that words are used not only in accordance to the dictionary definitions but as a way of expressing emotional states and cultural attitudes which go beyond mere words. That subtlety of understanding will always be important. It will always be important for us to express our ideas and convictions but also to hear what others are really saying.

Corbyn: Lessons for evangelism?

corbynToday (Sunday) the papers are full of speculation about the future of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. But there was one sentence that has caught my eye amid all the other reporting. The particular reporter was exploring the implications of the fact that Jeremy Corbyn has had no experience in government. Thus he has not had to face up to the fact that the responsibilities of actual power involve compromise and adjustment to the opinions of other people. In talking about this the reporter said quite simply that Corbyn was more used to addressing compliant adoring crowds of people who greeted him with superstar status. No one in those audiences would be there unless they agreed with his particular strand of socialist rhetoric.

Perhaps my reader has already picked up the connection between this piece of reporting and our theme which explores the area of Christian evangelism and the way that it sometimes becomes involved in abuse. The picture of Corbyn speaking to an uncritical yet adoring audience is of course similar to a description of many evangelistic events up and down the country. The people in these events know the evangelical or charismatic jargon: they respond to all the trigger points in the sermon. It is a sermon which uses an in-house language in the same way as many politicians. In the case of the church you have had to be member for a long time to pick up on all the particular references and language allusions. The success of this language in rousing a self-selected crowd means that for many evangelical preachers, the expressions are never changed, let alone critiqued. In short the language works. Perhaps this is why many of us on the outside find this kind of preaching oppressive and frankly dull. It simply does not use words in a normal way. Religious jargon and political jargon share this in common. Both use language in a way that suits the needs of the group while firmly shutting out the outsider who has not been initiated.

The enthusiasm with which Jeremy Corbyn’s election was announced last week, resembled the excitement of a religious crusade. We can imagine that the people who took part in the various gatherings to celebrate the election were fired by a similar zeal as people in a religious rally. They would have been under the illusion that the few hundred people that were with them celebrating represented the entire nation. Of course it is possible to be convinced that you are on the cusp of a revolution when you bring together the enthusiasm of hard-core believers. It does not look like this on the outside. It looks merely like a huddling together of people who desperately want to believe that they alone have the truth.

The failure of Jeremy Corbyn to speak a language which people beyond hard-line socialists thinking can understand, will mean that his time as head of the Labour Party will probably not be very long. This is not a statement of any personal political persuasion, simply a reflection of the need for any political leader to articulate the beliefs of the people who vote for him. If there is any mismatch between what the leader is saying and the followers are feeling, then these followers will simply look elsewhere. As things stand at present, there is no way that the voting public will find their deepest convictions articulated through hard-core socialist ideas.

What does this say to us about Christian evangelism? I believe that the failure, not only of Christian evangelists, but also of the church generally to get over their message, has something to do with the same mismatch of language and ideas that now exists acutely in the political world around Jeremy Corbyn. I want to state my belief that repeating hard-core slogans, whether in a political or religious context, is never going to be attractive to the bulk of the population. Whatever the enthusiasm of a particular crowd, there is always a massive task to communicate this passion for religious or political truth to a wider population. In responding to this constant challenge, I can here suggest a few ideas that come out of my own experience of preaching and teaching the Christian faith. I personally prefer the milieu, not of the passionate rally, but of a calm meeting of minds through reasoned discussion and listening. For the rest of this post, I want to suggest is that there are arenas of discussion which touch on the lives of everybody, Christians and non-Christians alike. These common areas make communication possible. If a discussion and sharing of ideas can take place, then there is a good chance that some distinctive Christian teaching can be shared and in some case it may convince. In these areas of common human experience, the Christian faith can be seen to touch the needs of everyone, whoever they are.

The first idea that I believe can be discussed by everyone, with or without faith, is that of the future. Everyone thinks about the future, their personal journey or the situation facing the world itself. Any discussion about what is going to happen will draw on a profound reflection of values, inner convictions and priorities, not forgetting our mortality. This can lead to a deep reflection on what life is for and the importance of living a good life. The Christian will bring to the discussion insights about sin, forgiveness and failure, but, as long as the discussion is about the future, the emphasis will be on newness and possibilities for the individual rather than a traditional wallowing in failure. I personally believe that we have a much healthier conversation between Christians and non-Christians when we speak about what God will do for the world and the individual rather than trotting out a series of dogmatic claims about what he has done in the past. Grappling with and understanding doctrines of the atonement are going to be some way down the list of essential ‘truths’. They are needed but not at the beginning of a process.

The second area which is ripe for exploration is to discover what another person thinks is meant by prayer. I am convinced that everybody will pray in some way in certain circumstances, even if much of this prayer is less than adequate from a Christian perspective. Whenever a person prays, in whatever way, they are opening themselves up to something beyond, even if only in a desperate cry for help. It is helpful for everyone to reflect on what this activity might mean in their lives. If it means anything at all, and I believe it does, then there is a process of reflection to be had in examining more carefully what they are doing and what it might be pointing to in terms of unexamined attitudes to a spiritual dimension.

The third area which is common to every human being is the meaning and experience of love. Any act of reflection about love will show that it goes far beyond human reproduction and sentimental attraction. It should not be difficult to help an individual to see that love is perhaps the key, not only to behaviour, but also to the purpose of life itself. For reasons of space I have to leave a lot of the in between stages of this exploration for the reader to fill in themselves.

If Christians are going to communicate to the wider world, they need to recognise the lesson that Jeremy Corbyn is facing at present, namely that they need to speak a language which people understand. The traditional language of evangelism like left-wing politics is cliquey, inbred and unable to reach the vast majority of people. We need to be far more ready to develop means of communication which touch people where they are. Greater minds than mine are working on this all the time, and so the ideas of this blog are only a very small attempt at a contribution. Meanwhile there seem to be far too many Christians around, like ultra-left politicians, who refuse to admit that there are any problems of helping people to understand the deeper meaning and reality of their convictions, in our case the Christian faith. I will say here as I have said before that simply repeating the old, old story is not often going to communicate the Christian message to people today. We need to engage them where they are.

Christian Unions at University: an account

uccfThis email was posted to me a couple of days ago and, with the author’s permission, I have included it on the blog together with my response. It is interesting that our blog is the only online resource to comment on this issue in a UK context.

Dear Stephen,
I came across your site whilst searching for anything I could find on ‘damage caused by university Christian union involvement’. Your blog was practically the only result I could find, especially within a UK context.
I wanted first to thank you for sharing your thoughts and research on this subject. Secondly, I am hoping you might be able to point me towards a mature (i.e. not hate-filled online rants!) sharing/online supportive group or such like that you know of, that might help me to understand better and hopefully find some peace from my experience. I am struggling to find anything myself and wonder why there is not more on the net about this as I am sure now having read your blog that I am not alone.
If I may explain in short, my experience is not one of outright abuse but more emotional damage. I’m sure you have received many responses to your blog like my own, but I wanted to share mine in the hope it may continue to help your research.
In the late 1990’s I went to university and became involved in the UCCF affiliated conservative evangelical Christian union, having been placed on a residential floor with majority Christians of an evangelical persuasion, I presume because I happened to mention on my application that I had a Christian faith. At the time I tried to ‘fit in’ and be the right kind of Christian I thought I was meant to be – in fact the message was stronger than that – there was only one Christian – the one espoused by the CU and by UCCF. To say you were a Christian but not live by their ‘basis of faith’ and teaching meant you weren’t actually a Christian and therefore not acceptable.
During my time at university I became more depressed and anxious but didn’t know why. As you say in your post ’42 Students and Christian Unions’, at the time I was looking for a sense of identity and wholeness. The Christian Union seemed to offer absolute certainty and belief, but along with that came high expectations and an absolute commitment to live and ‘be’ a certain kind of person. To question or express doubt or live in a way that was contrary to this meant that you didn’t have enough faith or trust in God, or were not a ‘real’ Christian, and this was unacceptable.
It has been 15 years since I finished university and although I have completely separated myself physically from the evangelical Christian church, the emotional and psychological residue has remained. I have had many ‘laughing it off’ evangelical-bashing conversations with my partner, who has only experienced this strand of Christianity via an Alpha course in a conservative evangelical church (the experience of which he described as intellectually vapid and emotionally manipulative). Most of these conversations have been a way to try to make sense of my mixed feelings of sadness, pain and guilt around my involvement within this strand of Christianity, without any success of pin-pointing the foundations of these feelings or the ability to find any peace about this. Having lost touch with all my CU ‘friends’ and feeling decidedly uneasy about my feelings connected to them, I took to searching the internet to see if I could find anyone else who had shared my experiences. I was surprised to find so little, and then chanced upon your blog. When I read your post on Christian Unions, things suddenly clicked into place. I have felt stupid with having been unable to shake off the pain of those years, but realising that my experience wasn’t an isolated one and I wasn’t just ‘making it up’ – even maybe being able to call it by its displayed characteristics of a cult-like group – has helped me to bring some balm to the emotional residue left by those years.
So, thank you for your writing and thank you for allowing me to share my story. My experience does not go anywhere near the trauma of those who have been subject to physical abuse within the church, but the subtlety of emotional damage is an insidious one that I think goes un-heard and unexpressed, perhaps because people would rather forget and, as I have done, laugh it off, but possibly too because of shame within and around the context of involvement in conservative evangelical organisations like the CU I experienced.
Please feel free to share my story if you think it would help. And if you do know of any groups or online support groups that I could link into to help me put this finally to rest, I would be grateful.
With thanks,

Dear Kirsty,
You may be surprised to learn that the issue which you have so eloquently described from your time at University is not more talked about or covered. The topic is one that has bothered me right back to my own student days in the 60s. I was never a member of a Christian Union but they could not be ignored as they loomed large in the university Christian scene in Oxford.

There are several aspects that I want to comment on. First of all I want to draw attention to the way that you were socially and physically trapped among other ‘Christians’ in the Halls of Residence. This was a bit like the social and physical isolation practised by cultic groups the world over. It would indeed hard for you to have done anything else but ‘fit in’ and it is difficult to know what to have advised you to do except get out of the situation. That might have been difficult or impossible on the practical level.

You are absolutely right to recognise that abuse is not always physical or about sex. The kinds of teaching that are peddled by earnest evangelical groups often focus on the parts of Christianity that will render the listeners submissive and receptive to authority. The Christian faith should be about teaching people to discover the meaning of life in all its fullness. What is actually taught in many places, including Christian Unions, is that we must wallow in an awareness of sin, guilt and shame. You speak very well about the emotional residue that remains after so many years. You are describing the personality that has been battered constantly by teachings which seek to undermine healthy self-esteem and self- love. I am glad that my comments on Christian unions have helped you to understand better the problem of what took place in the 90s.

I would love to be able to say that there are numerous places, people and institutions who understand the problems which you have so well outlined. I regret to say that this is not the case. Even though you have found this blog you are communicating with a tiny number of people through the arena of this discussion. I sometimes feel very isolated in this effort. The wider church does not discuss this issue and even among university chaplains, there is no attempt to recognise the toxic effects of the wrong kind of Christian teaching on vulnerable young people. What my blog can offer, and this is something I think you are already beginning to receive, is a fresh understanding of what you have had to experience and have suffered. What a blog cannot do is to deal with your painful memories. There are sadly, precious few psychotherapists who understand this area of issues. But just because there is so little understanding of these problems in the UK does not mean that you should suffer them in silence. If this blog can make you more articulate about this whole aspect of your past, then it should be possible to search out a professional with a clear understanding of what you emotional needs might be. Humour, sadly, will help but it will never heal the assaults on your personality that were made in the name of Christian truth.

After writing over 200 blog posts, I am hoping that there may be for you on this site some helpful resources for helping you to understand something more of what took place when you were a student. Meanwhile it is a letter like yours which gives me encouragement to believe that what I am doing is important and worthwhile. I dedicated the blog at the beginning to victims of Christian abuse. Very few of these have in fact found their way to my twice-weekly reflections on the subject. Next year I propose to give a paper to a conference in the USA on the psychological vulnerability of young people of student age to the blandishments of the cults and extreme religious Christian groups. Your letter is an encouragement to the work that I am putting into this paper.

Thank you for writing and I hope that you will continue to follow this blog and the small community who are concerned for these important and neglected issues.
Best wishes, Stephen.

‘The Lord laid it on my heart’

shearmanOver on the other abuse blog, victimsofmichaelreid.blogspot, there is an interesting and instructive discussion going on. Since I last wrote about Trinity Brentwood, the church have introduced two new ministers to look after things during the extended leave of Peter Linnecar. Unfortunately, for the church, the official website for the church has posted examples of their preaching. This has enabled followers of the blog to do some cheeky irreverent deconstructions of their sermons. No doubt the person who posted the sermons thought that they were in some way encouraging the members of the church. What they have done is to show up the incredible shallowness of the preaching at Trinity Church at present. The main blog poster who has commented on these sermons shows some theological background and is well informed. I have made my own comment as Anonymous 14.19 on the 15th September.

I myself tried to listen to the sermon of one of those parachuted into Trinity, David Shearman. I succeeded in listening to only two minutes before I could bear it no longer. I was therefore grateful to read the commentary and critique of the same sermon by the determined blog contributor who had persevered right through to the end. In my comment on what he said, I complimented him for his stamina in listening to some very painful and unedifying theology. What is the main objection that the anonymous blogger made about sermon preached by David Shearman? Simply stated, the blogger objects to a preacher who believes that to think something or to feel something is the same as receiving direct guidance from God. The sermon was filled with the words ‘I felt’ and this was the basis for the preacher to announce that the will of God for the congregation was contained in his words. Another blogger informed us that DS had preached the identical sermon somewhere else and it had been posted on YouTube. In other words it was the prophetic word of God for two different congregations! Cynics among us might believe that that recycling sermons is likely to be something he does quite often.

Listening in to a sermon away from the context of the church where it is being preached, means that one is removed from the internal dynamics of the congregation. One is also able to observe objectively something of these dynamics. By contrast it is impossible for a member of the congregation who has already surrendered their self-determination and independent thinking process to observe and analyse in this way. Also the position of the preacher within the architecture of the building reinforces the tendency of the vast majority of the congregation to accept his authoritative interpretations of Scripture as being binding on them. It is not difficult for a preacher like David Shearman to become more and more convinced of the truth of his own rhetoric over a period of years. The title of this piece, ‘the Lord laid it on my heart’, although not used in the sermon, is a summary of this kind of subjective, authoritarian but ultimately irrational theology.

David Shearman represents a subjective style of theology which is being shared in churches all over the country. The reason why preachers can continue in this vein for year after year, decade after decade, is simply because nobody who listens has any incentive or desire to challenge them even if they talk palpable nonsense. To say: ‘I feel something therefore I know what God is saying to me’, is unbelievable arrogance not to mention self-delusion. That this kind of preaching is entering once more the severely traumatised congregation of Trinity Brentwood, is bad news in the extreme. It reminds me of a film which explored, in a somewhat humorous vein, the history of an unnamed South American country. In this film a tyrant was overthrown and, almost immediately, the one who organised the coup began behaving in exactly the same way as the tyrant who had been defeated. For Trinity to bring in two people who subscribe to the same independent, unaccountable and arbitrary dispensing of superficial theology is to condemn that institution to continued danger and potential abuse of its members.

The expression, ‘the Lord laid it on my heart’ is a turn of phrase common in the Christian circles which do not hold themselves accountable to others. To be fair, it is a theological stance that is frequently challenged by others in more mainstream, less Pentecostal-type churches. You will find plenty of such ‘biblical’ critique if you search the web. The typical evangelical response and critique is to say that the preacher has to search the scriptures before declaring God’s will for the moment. But the real answer to this kind of theology is not, I believe, an abundance of text quoting, but the training of a mind to understand the wider Christian tradition and to recognise the difference between an idea which comes to us out of the blue and one which is thought through and maybe discussed with others. I refer to the ‘Christian tradition’ not least because I believe that many things that we regard as being new in the church have been explored in some way elsewhere in the world or in the past. In short Christian tradition is a template through which to look at new-fangled ideas. The problem is that most of us occupy too small a segment of this wider tradition and so find this kind of evaluation difficult to do. Tradition and the experience of other Christian cultures will often show how something that is considered the latest ‘word of God’ is not only not new but it may have been tried already and sometimes shown to be heresy or dangerous nonsense.

A second way of challenging subjective theology is to seek the guidance of other preachers and teachers or, in the case of a denomination, some kind of overseer. This is where the problem of independent fellowships is seen to be acute. There are simply no other structures in independent fellowships which might check the power and influence of a self-appointed preacher. People like Michael Reid are indeed dangerous in the same way as dictators. Such people control others without any recourse to law, custom or Parliamentary restraint. Christians must always avoid coming under the influence of any individual who claims to speak in the name of God quite independently and without the guidance of other people to provide some kind of balance or moderation. Such people are quite simply potentially extremely dangerous.

We await the report of John Langlois who, in all the chaos that is engulfing Trinity Brentwood at present, appears to be a figure of sanity and clarity. In a situation which resembles a kind of madhouse, it is good to have at least one person who seems to speak sense and is not caught up with the extraordinary dynamics of this congregation. Let us hope so. My readers can be sure that any progress in this direction will be fully reported and discussed by this blog.

Religious porn

no poperyIn the past few days a book arrived at my address with no indication of who sent it. The title of the work, Mark of the Beast, inclined me to throw it straight into the rubbish. Then it occurred to me that my intense dislike of the subject matter, a trawling through obscure sections of scripture, needed to be thought through and I have skimmed read it for the purposes of this blog.

What is the book about? It is written by an individual with an intense hatred of the Church of Rome and it is full of biblical quotations which appear to support this venom. It contains a great deal of historical facts, carefully selected to show the heinousness of the Roman church and also how the writers of the Bible knew about events 1000+ years before they happened. The particular crime which most upsets the author is that the Church of Rome changed of the day of rest from Saturday to Sunday. Thus the 10 Commandments have been corrupted by a church council dominated by Rome in the fourth century. Good Christian people can now no longer obey the natural and inerrant command of God. I must confess that it had never occurred to me that this was a problem for most Christians. But for the author of Mark of The Beast it is one more reason to hate the Church of Rome with a degree of considerable pathological dislike.

I refer to a book of this type as religious porn. No doubt there are many other ‘Christian’ books which encourage conspiracy theories and contemptuous loathing for people that they don’t like. Most of the time these books remain in the shadows and you would have to work hard to find one example of such literature unless you are in the right circles. I remember it being said about a Christian bookshop near Swindon that they used to keep copies of contentious books under the counter with brown paper covers. These were generally books describing the worst excesses of demonic behaviour. People wanted to read about cruelty, sexual deviance and other crimes while believing that they were reading Christian literature. To read a claim that the devil was interested in corrupting good Christian people by making them do unspeakable actions was believed to be somehow edifying.

In many ways even to handle a book such as Mark of the Beast is a depressing experience. It is depressing because one is once more encountering the way that a so-called literal reading of the Bible can inspire so much in the way of distasteful attitudes and opinions. The venom that is encouraged through the reading of this book feels a long way from anything resembling Christian attitudes. To build even a small area of Christian belief on Daniel 7 and Revelation 12 to 14 is going to produce a very strange end product. There are many Christians with whom I profoundly disagree but I do not detect inside myself any degree of hatred because of this disagreement. The only thing I feel is a profound sorrow for the victims of aberrant and hate-filled teaching such as found in this terrifying book. People who learn their Christianity within an environment of paranoia and fear do not seem to be in any way liberated by the message of Christ. Of course they will be impressed by an apparent deep knowledge of Scriptures and also a fluency in a knowledge of historical facts. But these are just used to impress. Serious scholars will never encounter this kind of literature and so the parade of ‘facts’ and historical claims in this particular book are never likely to be challenged.

I have no knowledge of the publisher Harvest Time books or the author E.G.White*. This book will be solemnly placed in the refuse with the hope that my copy at least will never be able to corrupt the mind of an individual who wants to learn about Christianity. For me, the overall message is once more brought home as to how difficult it can be for a newcomer to Christianity to find reliable literature through which to continue their search. If this book is typical of what is being handed out to new Christians, then we are seeing the corruption of minds. This is a serious matter. The problem for many mainstream Christians is that they simply do not know about the content of much popular Christian literature in circulation. It is only by a strange event that this book has come into my possession. I do not even know if it is an act of malevolence towards me as an individual or not. Perhaps the sender thought that my opinions are so heretical that I needed to read some ‘good’ Christian literature. I have no idea. What has been aroused in me is once again a great sorrow for those who spend their time reading this kind of religious pornography. I cannot believe that to hate other Christians with such vehemence is ever going to further any expression of the faith.

I would be interested to hear from my readers if they have ever encountered a great concern over Sunday being a day of rest rather than the biblical Sabbath. It is certainly the first time that I have found this idea. But having found it presented to me, it has a certain biblical support and consequently it will act as a focus of obsession for those who want to be more biblical than their neighbours. One conclusion about biblical study has been reinforced for me. It is not a good idea to start trying to find spiritual truth by reading first the passages of Scripture chosen by Ms White. To learn about the will of God, one can do no worse than a study of the words of Jesus. It is also worth studying these same words having carefully absorbed the command ‘Do not be afraid.’ Fear will never have any part in the Christian message, in spite of the earnest efforts of writers like E.F.White and her ilk.

*Ellen G. White in fact is a 19th century writer and a prolific producer of religious tracts. The fact that someone has gone to the trouble of keeping her books in print means that there is still a Christian constituency desiring to keep her ideas alive. To know that these opinions emerge from the 19th century does help to give these ideas some sort of historical context.

Music, addiction and worship

concert-hands-in-air-2560x1600In a recent conversation with Chris, we were discussing the effect of Christian music on the would-be worshipper. I use the words ‘would be’ as a way of expressing my doubt as to whether some worship in church is indeed elevating the worshipper and giving glory to God. I have said in previous blog posts that much of passes for worship is pure entertainment and I am not sure whether we can even use the word spiritual to describe the activity of some of what goes on in a church service.

I make these somewhat harsh comments as I’ve come to see that a lot of people are not clear as to whether they are simply indulging themselves in worship or whether they are indeed getting in some way close to God. Before I present the arguments for suggesting that much that passes for worship in church is superficial , maybe even a travesty of something that would give honour to God, I want to begin with a reflection on the nature of addiction. I have thought about addiction in all its many manifestations, and it is clear that there are many ways to stimulate the human brain to have pleasurable feelings. The individual can obtain pleasurable feelings of a dopamine rush in the brain in many different ways. We have the addictions of tobacco, food, alcohol and sex as well as a wide range of pharmaceutical mixtures which are taken to give the individual a ‘high’. Why do people take the substances? The stimulation of the pleasure centres of the brain is something which overrides the experience of the present moment. The present moment might contain something extremely unpleasant like deprivation, stress or a sense of meaninglessness. The drug or stimulating substance will hide all this unpleasantness for a few minutes or hours so that the individual does not have to face any experience of pain.

We all know that taking any sort of stimulant or drug has eventually a severe let-down. The first hazard is that eventually every drug ceases to be as effective as it had been at the beginning. The pleasure centres do not respond in the same way to the ingesting of the drug. So the addict, as he or she has now become, has to take more and more to achieve the same effect. But there are additional complications. The addict cannot risk stopping because there is the problem of severe withdrawal symptoms. The whole body craves for the stimulant and the addict can think of nothing else but where and when to get his next fix. Needless to say the addict is someone who becomes totally obsessed with his need to satisfy the cravings of his body as well as his brain.

What has all this to do with Christian worship? In the first place I would suggest that much popular Christian music has an addictive quality. Obviously it does not work in the same way as tobacco, alcohol or drugs and is fairly low down on any list of dangerous category substances. Nevertheless an individual can develop some kind of dependency on the stimulus of a musical beat or style which makes him feel good inside. While music has a part to play in the conduct of worship, I wonder whether it does always enhance this activity. It may arouse emotions and some of these are fairly primal. One has to ask whether merely to feel is necessarily bringing the individual close to the divine.

Another effect of music is that it helps to mould people in a feeling and feeling of profound unity with other worshippers. Unity might appear to be a good thing for a Christian in church, but this is a sense of unity which is arguably not necessarily the real thing. What is felt is more like being part of a herd. In a herd, individuality is completely swallowed up; nothing remains of the individual consciousness. It has all been swallowed up into a great sea of noise.

The moment that an individual allows him or herself to enter into this place of absorption in noise and beat, there is a sensation which is remarkably similar to that of drug induced pleasure. If I can suggest that any addiction is allowing an individual to escape from normal consciousness, then it would appear that some forms of immersion into worship songs come very close to this kind of experience. Can we actually be addicted to the music that accompanies certain styles of worship? I would deem this a real possibility. It would seem that it is always important to look carefully at what is going on in a church where this style of worship and music is the only one on offer.

In my conversation with Chris, he reminded me of the fate of many unhappy people who find their way into a church building for an experience of so-called worship. They bring with them their isolation, their stress and their sense of dislocation in the world but they hope to find some new point of reality. In theological terms they wish to find God as their rock, a point from which to orientate themselves in their otherwise chaotic world. The dominating feature of the worship encounter is loud and strident music, mixed in with some sentimental tunes. The emotional impact of the music is to give them a sense of melting into and maybe merging with the other people present. The music, in other words, makes them feel that they belong. But the problem is that such a feeling is just that, a feeling. Even if other people smile at them, even embrace them during the time of worship, they all too commonly find that everyone there has come, not to build up their spiritual character, but simply to have a good time. The longed for promised belonging and inner transformation simply does not happen. The music has aroused high emotions but little more.

I wish that I could be convinced that Christian music of the popular kind which arouses feeling of unity and love actually achieves the end which it seems to promise. Although I stand to be contradicted, I think I agree with Chris that Christian popular music is a kind of sweet sticky substance which tastes nice but leaves the one who eats it with an incredible hunger and sense of dissatisfaction. The task of building Christian fellowship and belonging is far more difficult than simply having warm fuzzy feelings in the setting of a loud beat or sentimental music ballads in church. People will return again and again for these feelings of emotional warmth for the simple reason that they are enjoyable but they are also, arguably, an addictive experience. They return for this fix which like with all addictive substances becomes less and less powerful over the course of time.

This is a hard hitting blog post and I would love to meet someone who has genuinely been helped by what I consider to be the candy floss of Christian popular music which is churned out week by week in so many of our churches. People come to these services, somebody would protest and that must mean something. I would maintain that they come because they may have been hooked into its addictive quality. To end on more positive note, I would want to plead for the teaching of silence which is a fundamental ingredient of prayer and waiting on God. Of course there will eventually be music of many styles in church; of course there will be words but somehow until we have learnt first of all to deal with silence, we cannot easily learn about the deeper aspects of prayer and worship. Stillness and silence will always form the bedrock of Christian spirituality. They surely come first and are prior to the enjoyment and proper use of music and words in worship. Be still and know that I am God.

Comment on news stories

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis listens to a customer following her office's refusal to issue marriage licenses at the Rowan County Courthouse in Morehead, Ky., Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015. Although her appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied, Davis still refuses to issue marriage licenses. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley) Many of us have been following the sad story of Kim Davis, the registrar in Kentucky who has refused to issue marriage licenses for gay couples on the grounds that this would upset her Christian convictions against same-sex marriage. At the time of writing she is still in prison for contempt of court. The court had ordered her to allow her deputies to distribute is licenses on her behalf but she refused. The case once again raises the issue of what is the Christian position on same-sex marriage. It is clear that a large swathe of Christian opinion has decided that this issue is a make or break one. And yet as we all know from reading the story that Kim herself is not particularly well integrated into other Christian values. She has been divorced three times and this action would appear, from even a cursory reading of the Gospels to be far more obviously against the moral teaching of Jesus. We have to repeat the fact that Jesus seems to have had nothing to say on the gay issue.

The episode in Kentucky would be not worthy of comment on this blog but for the fact that it illustrates once again the apparent obsession of many Christians in relation to this issue of same sex marriage. Once again all Christians are perceived to belong to a homophobic tribe when non-Christians read these kinds of story. Readers of this blog will realise that this is a falsehood as there are many opinions on this issue among Christians. But every time any Christians make a stand and declare that a movement towards the gay community is a betrayal of deeply held convictions, the case for linking Christianity and institutional homophobia becomes more a reality. It is a bit like water dripping on a rock so that the rock is gradually worn down and changes shape. After a further 20 years one is afraid that any Christians who are friendly to the cause of the gay marriage will be driven out as heretics by their own community. It is of particularly concern that a chasm is appearing between young people in society who are almost universally tolerant on this issue and an institution, the Church, which in parts seems incapable of movement in this matter.

chethamThe other story that caught my eye this week was the sad case of sexual abuse at Chethams School in Manchester. Over the weekend I have been at a conference in Lincoln and I was discussing with a professional musician this latest story of abuse. She knew some of the networks of young musicians who had been affected by these events. She also mentioned that there is much more in the way of abuse stories from the music world which will come out in the future. It was while talking to her that I began to see cultic aspects in the story. One of the newspaper accounts referred to the convicted abusive teacher as being like a Svengali – figure. This fictional reference suggests the use of hypnosis as the prelude to an abusive relationship. As far as I am concerned I see clearer links with the seduction techniques of a cult guru. My preferred language is that of the narcissistically-inclined power abuser, the one who draws into their net a vulnerable and impressionable student. The music world, as we all know, thrives on a culture of large egos and dramatic personalities. There is nothing wrong with such behaviour in itself but large egos can so easily degenerate into a narcissistic behaviour which is often exploitative and abusive.

The point of my commentary on this sad story is that the narcissistic/cult pattern occurs not just in cults themselves, but is found across many institutions, including the church and the world of celebrity and music. For someone to become a celebrity in some sphere, is to introduce them to the temptation of taking on narcissistic behaviour. As my readers will know, this will involve self-inflation, grandiose ideas about themselves and a propensity to humiliate, abuse and belittle those who look up to them. In short, a celebrity culture of whatever kind is a dangerous place to be caught up in. Any institution like a church, a firm or a school for gifted children will often attract narcissistic individuals. All these places should be on the lookout to make sure that such people do not embed themselves in positions of power which can be used abusively against those who look up to them. In the case of Chethams School it is easy to see how some teachers placed themselves in a position which was guru like. Where this happened the pupils were in a place of extreme danger. It may even be that the young charges of these teachers accepted abuse as something normal in the process of learning a musical instrument to a very high level. If this surmise is correct, then there needs to be some root and branch reformation of such institutions with a demand that the culture should be changed radically that it does not ever accept the culture responsible for this kind of behaviour. This blog has been calling for a long time for a change in attitude that makes it impossible for religious institutions to tolerate this kind of attitude among its leaders.

The two stories from the news I have commented on today are very different. In one I have drawn attention to the way that Christianity is becoming increasingly defined as having a negative attitude to gays, effectively making the church a homophobic institution. Such a definition is having the effect of undermining its reputation and status in society so that people will increasingly turn away from it. The second story has drawn attention to a form of behaviour which has had incredibly destructive consequences in the music world and in particular has caused massive damage to the reputation of Chethams School. This culture out of which this criminal behaviour emerges is one sadly that I have identified as being far too common in church circles. Although this blog post may seem to be focussing on a negative side of Church life, I would claim that an awareness of what is going on and the ability to interpret it accurately, is a help in anticipating and neutralising to some extent the damage to an institution. Understanding at depth what is going on may help in a small way to stop similar things happening in the future, whether in a specialist music college or in the church. Many of us still respect and love the church in spite of its failures and frequent blindness.

Longing and thirsting for God

thirst for GodOne of the emotions that seems to be missing from much modern religious observance, is the feeling of longing for God. The Old Testament and particularly the book of Psalms seem often to present the idea that God is to be approached with an attitude of longing expectation. The one approaching God is likened to an individual who is aware of a great thirst or longing to be in his presence. Various quotations from the Psalms come to mind especially Ps 143: ‘I stretch forth my hands unto thee; my soul thirsteth after thee, like a thirsty land.’ The same metaphor is seen in Psalm 63 where the Psalmist expresses his longing for God: ‘my soul thirsteth for thee, my soul longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land where no water is.’ This idea of longing for God, reaching out but not yet finding him, can be contrasted with much modern religious observance which rests on a desire to have an instant and intense experience. These latter experiences would seem to be much closer to entertainment rather than having anything to do with spiritual longing. We have had cause to talk about entertainment as being a key component in much that passes for modern Christian worship.

When we bring into consideration the idea of longing or thirst for God, we are introducing the idea, not of entertainment or any indulgence of feeling, but an exploration of discovering what it means not to have what one wants at that moment. God, in other words, is here experienced as not there and the individual is trying with all their effort and energy to bring him back into awareness. We are effectively talking about a spirituality of absence rather than presence. We are exploring the idea that it is important to accept that sometimes we can be in places where God makes himself unavailable or hidden from sight.

One tradition that seems to be largely forgotten in Christian practice is that of fasting. I am not pretending that I frequently fast, but there are times when I have gone short of food for different reasons. I have a memory of Lent in 1968 when I was brought me into touch with the severe Orthodox tradition of eating no meat and confining food to one meal a day. The physical sense of slight weakness that is the result of such fasting is combined with a certain mental alertness. It is not difficult to see how a longing for physical food could be linked in with and suggest a strong longing for spiritual food or God himself. Certainly that is one interpretation of Orthodox fasting. A deliberate choice to ignore physical comfort is thus not necessarily a bad thing. It creates a reminder in us of how we are dependent, first on God and then on other people for all the things that keep us alive. Other people provide us with access to food, water and shelter. It is when these things are taken away that we begin to appreciate them better. Perhaps we also need to appreciate the presence of God more keenly and this is done most easily when we sense how his presence is sometimes withdrawn from us. All of us have gone through dark periods in our lives, coping with grief or unexplained suffering of various kinds. We find ourselves calling out with the Psalmist ‘how long Lord wilt thou be absent from us, for ever?’ But it is in these moments of desolation that we begin to discover the meaning of a longing and thirst for God. Not in fact to have him conveniently under our control in every situation helps us to understand and appreciate better the times when we do feel he is around us.

Longing for God, but not having him, is not going to be a topic which is preached from the pulpit very often. We are more likely to hear about claiming the victory and being conquerors because of our faith in God. Crying out to God from a place of desolation and pain will never rate highly in the most popular sermon topics. But perhaps we should speak far more about the experience of pain and the way that this experience can deepen not our faith, but our understanding of God. I find myself shrinking from that cliché which tells the individual that his or her pain is somehow ‘testing faith’. This is extremely unhelpful to the one so suffering. What I would want to say to anyone who experiences God’s absence is that they may be able to learn this lesson of longing, hunger and thirst for him, just as the Psalmist did. The person who comes to the end of a time of fasting will appreciate food with a new relish. In the same way a Christian who has been through a dark night, searching for God, will have an acute appreciation of his presence when he is found once more.

I am not involved in spiritual direction in any shape or form but if I were, I would encourage the individual who was facing a sense of the absence of God to explore, not words but the power of the imagination to evoke vivid visual images of love and peace. These images would also involve light and colour. I would encourage anyone to simply create in their minds a safe place where they could be bathed in a light that would represent a powerful symbol of God’s presence in our lives. I spoke, in my piece about ministry to the dying, on the subject of beauty. Once again there the imagination comes into play. In guiding us to create an inward place of peace, love and presence which also involves beauty, imaginative visualisation is helpful in creating a sense of the divine. Who is to say where our imagination finishes and the reality of God himself begins? For myself wordless prayer, using imagery and imagination, plays a larger part in my spirituality today. For example, praying for the sick would involve seeing them receiving healing power rather than my uttering words. Words have their place but for myself I prefer to use the gift of visualising and imagination which reaches out to God in prayer.

I began this reflection with a memory of some notable passages from the Psalms which speak of the faithful reaching out to God in longing and thirst. I would like to finish this reflection by emphasising again the enormous importance of connecting with a deep longing and thirst for God that is inside each of us. None of us should be prepared to make do with entertainment as our experience of worship. Worship may indeed be joyful and fulfilling but it will also lead us at times to contemplate the absence of God as well as his presence. In summary I would repeat that all of us need to experience a thirst for God so that we can know him better when we do find him at the end of our search.