Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Convent bites back

Victoria, one of the women in the current series, The Convent, takes me to task for suggesting she was not serious about her time with the Sisters and chosen only for 'entertainment value' (alas my words...).

So public apology time: here is her own site, and also her poetry page on her own Press which adds her side of the story, part of which deals with a past miscarriage. Victoria has published a book of 40 poems based on her time in the convent, Fragments.

She also has links to two other of the women's sites: Debi's and Angela's.

The series continues to be extremely good viewing. In the last episode, the programme focused on Debi hearing God speak to her through the story of Jesus healing a little girl, with the implicit and poignant parallel between the age of the girl in the story and Debi's own age when her mother left her. In both cases, a resurrection is evident...

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Art Finalists's exhibition

This was one of my favourites - on the theme of colour. Very simple, really: coloured water(?) in little glass vials hung in a rainbow sequence from the ceiling.

Whatever else the artist may have intended (and on the glasses in the background each vial had a curious personally critical, Alice-in-Wonderland, type message attached), I thought her work was just quite beautiful.

This outdoor installation - balloons attached to concrete blocks - also caught my eye. Platonic spirituality - spirit wanting to escape matter? - or dreams tied down by reality?

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Convent

A new series, The Convent, has just begun on BBC2. It runs for the next 3 Wednesdays at 9pm, following the stay of four women at a Roman Catholic convent for 40 days. I find it a fascinating watch - as I did a previous series focusing on five men who similarly stayed in The Monastery. It was filmed at Arundel, and has a great site here which even includes personal pages for each of the sisters.

What has been so brilliant about the two series is the way in which, surrounded by a Christian community, many of the deeper issues of human existence have come to the surface for the particpants. Each have sought to find God at work among the building blocks of self-worth, moral failure, ingrained personality traits, foundational memories and questions of life direction.

In this version one of the women is a recent evangelical convert and ex-alcoholic running on the spiritual equivalent of cocaine. Another is a deeply emotionally-scared woman abandoned as a child who thinks God is punishing her. A third is a successful single, driven business woman who feels her life is shallow and can initially only see time as a utilitarian resource for achieving surther success. And the fourth - obviously chosen for entertainment value by the producers - is an atheist hippy who lives in an open marriage.

It sounds like ecclesiastical big brother, but I think it avoids such crassness.
What I really love about these programmes is that they show that the heart of Christianity is about the remaking of whole people in Christ's image (as opposed to the car-salesman view of Christianity where the aim is simply to succumb to a "do you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour?" pitch or risk a roasting in hell).

I've not seen the full series yet, but going on the press reviews The Convent seems to be able to weave its healing magic to varying degrees for its inmates, just as The Monastery did for the men.*

It's well worth a sympathetic meditative viewing (in between the football, that is).

[*For those who missed the first series, in the case of The Monastery, filmed at Worth Abbey, one guy said his encounter with God caused him to leave the soft-porn industry; another revisited the idea of a vocation as a priest; an ex-paramilitary gave up his job to work in prisons; and even the toughest of the group decided his high-pressure high-income career was no longer his life's calling. Only an older poet seemed not to be changed much...]

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Angels and Nipple Cream

Ever since we became a clergy family people have taken to leaving things on our doorstep. They are usually unlabelled, so we never find out who our angels are. But judging by the items, I'd say they must be pretty weird.

Here's a short list from memory:

black PVC maternity trousers (for a woman of under 5' 6" - my wife is 5' 10")
6 fresh cream chocolate profiteroles
a half-full box of breast pads
half a chocolate Easter egg
some nipple cream
and, an oversized maternity bra

And just last week, prompting my musings, there appeared on our doormat:
a medium-sized bag of chopped red, yellow and orange peppars and a small pot containing more of the same, labelled 'traffic lights'.

Of course I could mention other bizarre consequences of being public property: the time we came home to find our next door neighbour had mowed our lawns for us, and the other time we found they had run their washing line from the middle of our garden over the fence into their garden...

Problems with photos

For all those having problems with uploading photos (as I have had) here's a lovely trick - delete all cookies before each and every photo upload. Seems to work fine.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

If God were a biscuit...

I was a guest at a 'grill a Christian leader' event a few nights ago at my church's youth group, Elements. Lots of very profound theological and philosophical questions: did God create us because he needed us - was God lonely? Does God love angels more than humans? Is God like me [the questioner]? Does God watch us like Big Brother? (And to kick it off: if God were a biscuit, what kind of biscuit would God be like?).

One of the questions that we thought longest about was on the subject of intercessory prayer (doesn't God know already? why does God seem to intervene only intermittently?)

One insight we ran with for quite a while was the realization that in Hebrew the word for 'prayer' (tephillah) is reflexive. It technically means 'to pray to oneself'.In this sense one might argue that part of the power of prayer is that it changes the person who prays.

There's an example of this when Christ prays at his most extreme moment of mental agony, in Gethsemane. There he seems (as the Gospel writers tell it at least) to reuse parts of the prayer he earlier taught his disciples. "Let this cup pass from me, but not my will but your will be done" (cf. "may your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven...").

In other words, Jesus does ask God to bring about a change in the world, ("take away this cup...") but at the same time he offers up a change within himself to God ("but not my will..."). He is both attempting to 'change' God, but in the process he brings about a change in himself.

To those who ask, are Christians being optimists when they pray? The answer should be no: an optimist would only pray the first part of Jesus' prayer and assume that it will be accomplished ("I expect God to change the world, if I but ask!"). But neither are Christians pessimists: that would be to pray only the second part of Jesus' prayer ("I expect God to change nothing except me!").

Rather, Christians are people of hope. They are people who both dream of, and cry out for, a changed world. But they also accept that if that change is not presently able to occur, all is in God's hands anyway and our loving trust is to be offered regardless of the wider outcome. The answer to our prayer may - at least in the short term - be about us changing, not the situation we directly prayed for.

It was not just Gethsemane where this insight is realized. It is also witnessed to in the old story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego in the book of Daniel. As they are cast into the fiery furnace for not worshipping Nebuchadnezzar, they reply to the king's threat with words of hope (not optimism):

'If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods...' (Daniel 3:17-18).

That kind of prayer (and that kind of faith) seems to me to be a long way from the triumphalism that often accompanies Christianity - and leads to disillusion.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

X-Men 3: The Last Stand

Aside from an excuse to escape for two hours into fantasy violence, my interest in a possibly deeper value in X-Men 3 was piqued by an interview I saw of Ian McKellen by Jonathan Ross. "It's all about how society deals with people it thinks are different," McKellen said. And then with a slight raise of the eyebrow and a look into the camera reinforced his comment with an ironic self-reference. Most people in the audience clearly knew of his homosexuality and showed they had got the message by laughing knowingly.

As I saw the film McKellen's interpretative key was in my mind. He was right, X-Men 3 really is about diversity and conformity. For those who don't know the basic series plotline it's this: some people are born with so-called 'mutant' genes which give them superhuman powers; society distrusts this hidden social element and wishes to control it; the 'mutant community' splits between moderates who aim for social inclusion and a violent fringe who want to dominate the non-mutant human population.

With the swiftest of glances one can see resonances between the fictional 'mutants' and various real-life 'outsiders' in the history of the West: Jews, women, Catholics/Protestants, blacks, Asians, gays, immigrants - most recently Muslims - and in every age the mentally ill. Moreover, one can trace this particular film's plot-line, the discovery of a 'cure' for the mutant 'X' gene, in various attempts to 'cure' both homosexuality and mental illness by psychotherapy or genetic manipulation; to 'treat' the 'problem' of the Jews through ghettoisation, sterilization or murder; or at the 'softer' end of the argument to tag, impound or deport illegal immigrants. There are plenty of possible allusions one could chase down.

Perhaps one shouldn't expect much more from a comic-based Hollywood fantasy than easy allusion, but the film does also surprisingly hint at part of a Christian response. Admittedly this is heavily overlaid with the usual myth of redemptive violence (in this case the apparent self-sacrifices and resurrections of Wolverine and Xavier which have nothing to do with the stories of Christ and the martyrs and their self-offerings [tip: watch right to the end of the credits for an extra scene]).

Halfway through the film though, at a key juncture, when the 'mutant community' has to decide how to respond to the invention of a 'cure', a meeting takes place in an abandoned church building. It's curious as to why this set is chosen, and why the building is shown in ruins. What's even more fascinating is the name of the church. A shot of a poster advertising the meeting reveals it is 'Holy Trinity'.

For much of Christian history, Christians have lost sight of the Trinity, assuming that Christianity was simply another (better) form of monotheism. Though heresies like Arianism were rejected (one virtue of the dreaded Da Vinci Code is that people have now at least heard of Nicea!), Christianity has long tended towards a monarchical view of God. The 'Father' is at the top and is pure God, 'Jesus' is a bit lower down the scale obedient to his Father but confusing everyone by being half-man/half God, and the Spirit sort of floats around and is just everywhere in some vague inoffensive way. With such a view of God, a version of society based on hierarchy, order, obedience and conformity is easy to legitimise.

Naturally I overdraw the matter, but any real sense of the Trinity as an inter-penetrative dance of equals has until recently been lost. (It was the Greek Fathers in the fifth century who first used the image of dancing to draw out the fragmentary treatment of the Trinity offered in the New Testament). Consequently any alternative model for a society incorporating diversity has had no real theological justification.

In the past century Christianity's ideology of a monarchical single authority which must be obeyed was taken over into the philosophy of Modernism. With the rise of Modernism's fascist, communist and capitalist children an all-powerful Father figure was supplanted by their own all-powerful father figures: Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Mao, or more nebulously by capital itself.

Ironically then, though some Christians habitually criticize the advent of Post-Modernism, it has precisely been the rise of skepticism toward unique authority figures that has allowed a rediscovery of the Trinity.

God, we are slowly beginning to discover again, is not perhaps a divine dictator who requires our obedience. God is more like a community of difference and equality into which we are invited. Indeed with the Incarnation of the Word as flesh and then the later bodily Ascension of Jesus, God succeeds in incorporating the Creation into the divine dance: humans are 'slaves' to God no longer, we are siblings, children or friends (indeed could we say we are one flesh with God?).

It its own tiny way, X-Men 3 nods towards the Trinity as one possible answer as to how people of difference can coexist. Obviously that needs some serious teasing out in its social practicalities, but it does at least begin to admit the acceptability of a model of diversity-in-unity.

Christians will want to unpack the ramifications of the Trinity through careful study of the way the Persons of the Trinity interrelate and how God's own mutual self-giving might be reflected in our own lives. And though we might feel we are stepping out into new places, St Paul's own treatment of racial, gender and social differences (Galatians 3:28) ought to remind us that we are really only continuing an earlier project: the attempt to realize Jesus' final prayer (John 17:22) that we 'might be One' as God the Trinity is, paradoxically, 'One'.

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