Archive for September, 2005

bob the articulate? must be some mistake, surely …

Did you watch His Bobness on BBC2 at 9pm last night? What a treat! Nearly 2 hours of Dylan's early years. It was great to watch classic footage of the early Dylan – highlights for me being Newport and the 1966 tour – but also to see his musical biography come to life. There was Pete Seeger, who's grown into the thoughtful, softly-spoken, articulate yet committed gentleman he always threatened to become. And Suzie Rotolo, talking with her hands – the girl from that album cover who hasn't lost her impish mischief or obvious affection for The Man over the years. The biggest treat, though, was to see Joan Baez, then and now, who is always conspicuously absent from these bobfests and yet was so seminal to the emergence of Dylan's own writing voice. The chemistry was obvious and a joy to see – not least because Dylan we got to see plenty of those rare events: Dylan actually enjoying himself!

The reprise of those early years drove home just how enormous a change Dylan not only lived through but effected. Michael Gray and others who insist that the music scene must be divided into two eras – Before Dylan and After Dylan – are right. The Greenwich Village scene that hosted the young waif in Cafe Wha transformed itself within a remarkably short space of time. Dylan was both the catalyst and the prophet who showed the way.

Most surprising, though, was Dylan himself, as interviewee and commentator. He was uncharacteristically giving and articulate. He gave straight answers to straight questions. The familiar irony and multiple masks behind which he hides when being asked to talk about his work were notably absent. Dylan talked about music – and about his music. He spoke about what grabbed him and didn't. He talked about what he was trying to do with his music.

Two things struck me forcibly. When Dylan spoke of his first album – a collection of covers which were planned in the studio as he was recording – he talked of the dynamic in him that instinctively held back what was most important to him and best in terms of what he had to offer. What distinguishes this album is the absence of original material (though not arrangements). This is surprising because Dylan was already writing prolifically, constantly and easily. It wasn't shyness that silenced the (lyrically) unique voice of Dylan (the man who is held up as the voice of his and subsequent generations), but an instinctive dis-ease with self-disclosure. Dylan writes and plays primarily for himself and for other musicians. He is hyper aware of the fickleness of the general public and their appetite for the banal (if any proof was needed, we had only to listen to some of the huge number of anodyne covers of "Blowin' in the Wind" that sold more than Dylan's own punchy, uncomfortable renditions). It struck me again how, if we want to "listen" to Dylan, we ought not to try and force him into the straitjacket of second-order commentary. The Man is not the explanation for the Songs – if for no other reason that he cannot and will not be!

The second related point was the refrain that ran through nearly every point at which Dylan spoke about musicians he admired and what musicians were about. He kept saying, "(S)he was really saying something – and I wanted to say it!" Dylan writes and performs to say something. Music is his chosen vehicle of expression. Music doesn't exist to be frozen in time and space like a photograph. It exists to say something. The beauty for Dylan is its polyvalence and acapacity for reinterpretation – to say something new to a new context. Hence Bob's refusal to bow to audience pressure and recreate the recordings in performance. Dylan, as has often been noted, constantly reinterprets his songs rather than re-performing them. He changes lyrics, beat, tune, accompaniment, tone, phrasing and emphasis to the bewilderment and fury of his fans. It was wonderfully ironic to watch that bewilderment surface when he went electric in 1966. Devotees of the man's music spoke on screen of their anger at Dylan for daring to own and rework his own songs. Dylan had broken the contract. That's not how music "worked"! Performers were supposed to create something that the public liked – and then it became public property! The job of the live performer was just that – to perform to order. Reproduce the recordings like some live hologram. And that was how it was Before Dylan. It was Bob who broke the mould.

Dylan has always "said something". He's always insisted, too, that "the songs are the message". You can't penetrate behind the songs to get at a "deeper truth". The truth is inextricable from the medium – the song, which is the lyrics, the music, Dylan's voice … and Dylan himself! Those of us who whine at his lack of self-giving have simply not got that point. If it's Bob we want, we must go to the songs. It is Dylan's presence and re-interpretation that make Dylan's music an encounter with The Man himself – even when he's having an off-day or an off-decade or two! Scorcese managed a rare feat. He got Dylan to talk easily about himself and his music. Yet did he "penetrate behind the mask"? Or was this articulate, comfortable-with-biography Dylan just another mask for the inexhaustively re-inventive Bob, created to deliver what was needed? I didn't learn anything "new" about Bob from Bob. It was a joy to listen to him, but it was commentary, not self-disclosure. He still peddled some of the old myths of origin that he'd created in the first place – or at least, made no corrections to them! He didn't contradict or shape what was said about his musical development – he merely commented. For me, I'm prepared to buy what he's always said. "The Songs are the Message!" That's when I "get" Dylan (as much as I ever do) and when I'm constantly delighted, surprised and shocked. That's when I feel the power of the untameable and recalcitrant genius of the man, and when I reckon I get closest to whoever Bob Dylan really is. I buy into it as an act of faith and appreciation. And hey … it works for me!


27 September, 2005 at 11:08 am 4 comments

new blog on the block

Just discovered that Keith Alexander, a URC minister in Manchester, has stared a blog – Thoughts of Keith – with a thoughtful (no pun intended!) piece on the privatisation of faith (or at least, that's what struck me about it). Drop in and visit.

23 September, 2005 at 1:01 pm 13 comments

a theology of contamination

We're privileged to have Richard Giles, author of Re-pitching the Tent, doing a course at the Centre as I write. For those of us in the URC, buildings are a real issue. They soak up huge amounts of time, energy and resources. Most importantly, membership in the URC has declined by 51% in the last 30 years, while the number of church buildings has declined by only 16%. In other words, we've got fewer than half the people supporting nearly the same work. Add the complications of increasing maintenance charges because of age, increased standing costs as utility costs rise, increased expectations and the requirements to conform with ever-burgeoning legislation and it is small wonder that buildings generate frantic activity just to stand still! They throw us into "survival mode" in ways that few other aspects of church life do.

Richard pointed out something very interesting this morning. He is an Anglican priest (presently Dean of Philadelphia Cathedral but keen to return to his native shores at every opportunity!) and he started out with a slide of the Jewish temple, with its courts at varying distances away from the Holy of Holies. He then put up a slide of a typical parish church, with the knave acting like the court of the Gentiles or the court of Israel, the choir acting as the priests (all robed etc) and then the altar – the Holy of Holies. His argument is that we reproduce the temple in our church buildings. And he's right!

What struck me even more forcibly is that the traditional seating plan in churches, where we fill up (from the back) and gaze forwards to the action spot (where God is) is based on a theology of holiness and contamination. God is holy. That means people must keep their distance. The holier we are, the greater proximity we are allowed to the "God spot"! For all the difficulties of worshipping in the round, it struck me as vitally important that we do so. It says something – that we are a community, gathered around God. We have equal access to God. It is a necessary corrective to a theology of contamination, expressed weekly in "performance", whereby we gather at a "safe" distance from God.

20 September, 2005 at 12:29 pm 6 comments

model of the church

This is how I scored on models of the church (thanks, stuart). A servant model. I'm intrigued by the mystical communion high score. Pleased and not surprised that church as institution is not exactly right up there at the top …

You scored as Servant Model. Your model of the church is Servant. The mission of the church is to serve others, to challenge unjust structures, and to live the preferential option for the poor. This model could be complemented by other models that focus more on the unique person of Jesus Christ.

Servant Model
Mystical Communion Model
Sacrament model
Herald Model
Institutional Model

What is your model of the church? [Dulles]
created with

15 September, 2005 at 8:13 pm Leave a comment

church life is also mission

I'm writing this in Cleveland, Ohio, where 4 of us from the URC are visiting the United Churches of Christ to consult on their God is Still Speaking, initiative. It's quite something! This relatively small church has done market research which shows that many people are extremely angry with the Church. They are alienated from the institutional church, rather than from God. They feel there isn't a place for them. This includes lesbians, gays and transgengered people, but also thinking people, divorcees and others whom the church feels unable to welcome. They've mounted a nation-wide sophisticated advertising campaign that extends a welcome to everyone, without suggesting they need to become "like us". The God is still speaking theme is to say that God hasn't pronounced the last word on subjects the church often appears to regard as closed. The inclusion of gay people is an obvious area. The point is that if a subject is closed, then so are the doors to the people it affects.

In one sense, it seems an innocuous enough campaign. After all, don't we all tend to say "Everyone is welcome here"? Yet people experience a different reality. As a result of the campaign, the UCC has had hundreds of thousands of people contacting them to find their nearest UCC church. The attitude is "If church is really like that, I want to be part of it!" The response has been astonishing and overwhelming. They've had independent churches wanting to affiliate to the UCC because of the campaign. The streets here are lined with banners with the campaign strap lines and the UCC logo.

My concern was that this was yet another instance of a church engaged in self-promotion. It clearly isn't! They've found a way of being unapologetically evangelical not only about the gospel but also about church (without confusing the two inappropriately) because the message of welcome is heard as Good News.

One reason for the campaign's success is that the campaign is edgy, irreverent and playful. Its message is designed with the target audience in mind, rather than the church itself. And it genuinely communicates! Have a look at and play the bouncer ad on the title page. We've heard and seen testimonies about how the simple message of genuine love, acceptance and welcome has revolutionised people's lives. It's stopped suicides. It's given hope and purpose. And it's enabled people to relate to God in Jesus Christ in new and real ways.

We were talking about the way in which we as the URC and other UK churches still have to resolve the sexuality issue. Ron Buford, the mover behind the campaign, said something that I've not heard in the various church debates on the subject and that made a deep impression. He said, "We are a covenant church. Baptism is a covenant. It promises lifelong incorporation into the body of Christ and acceptance. When we exclude people whom we've baptised, we break covenant. We say, 'Sorry. We didn't mean that this was a lifelong covenant!' Then we break covenant with God and that is desperately serious!"

Another comment that really grabbed me as true of so much of church life: "If the 1950s ever return, let me tell you: we're ready for it!" Isn't it depressingly true that we're stuck in models of the past that are passe and will never do for us now what they did in their time? Let's bring that emerging church to birth … quickly!

15 September, 2005 at 7:35 pm 5 comments

when is evangelism (in)appropriate?

I received the daily email bulletin from ekklesia. One of the articles on Hurricane Katrina is entitled, "Don't use aid to proselytize, Christians urged". The head of the Christian Aid agency co-ordinating relief efforts criticises Christians using aid to win vulnerable people over to their religious convictions as "morally questionable". I think he's absolutely right! When people are suffering as they are, aid is a wonderfully Christian response. It is the equivalent of not walking by on the other side of the road when other human beings are suffering. It says, without words, "We are moved by compassion! What is happening to you is appalling! We want to help!"

That has its own evangelistic dimension. True compassion of that sort is sacramental. If we believe what we say about compassion mirroring the heart of God, then we must trust that people who encounter love and compassion in action encounter God. That is what is needed in this instant. It is Good News concretely in the face of the bad news that governs their lives.

Of course, Christians do not have the monopoly on compassion! Another article is headed, "Axis of evil offers to come to America's rescue" and details offers of help from the Cuban president, Fidel Castro. That must be pretty galling for the American religious Right! Yet we need reminding that all acts of compassion and love are ultimately Godly, whether coming from people of faith or not. The Kingdom, after all, is bigger than the Church (however much we'd like it to be otherwise) and its values and priorities are shared in many ways by extraordinarily different groups. We need to learn to see these other groups as co-workers for the Kingdom, even when they have nothing to do with it and theoretically oppose it. God's presence is found in strange places, as the hearers of the parable of the Good Samaritan found out!

But why the ban on using aid to proselytise? Because that is neither Christian nor evangelistic! The distinction between "proselytise" and "evangelise" is crucial. To proselytise is to seek to persuade someone to embrace my religious convictions – to think and believe and live in the same way as I do. To evangelise is to tell people the Good News of Jesus Christ and invite them to find the same Life as I have in being a follower. That is not the same thing! The former views the other person as a potential convert – a target, or statistic. More importantly, proselytisation is fundamentally about cloning, so that I see the other as a potential "someone like me". Evangelisation sees them as a fellow human being and assumes some sort of relationship between us that is not based on their potential "convertibility".

We need to recognise how deep the unconscious drive is in us to make a success of the Church. Because we express our faith in this context as we do, Church and discipleship are pretty well interchangeable. The trouble is, we lose sight of the crucial difference – just as many of the Christian missionaries were unable to disentangle discipleship of Jesus Christ from white, western, imperial culture! Until we can disentangle the two for ourselves, we will tend to proselytise rather than evangelise.

This is not to say that we shouldn't be desperately keen for those in dire need to receive not only bread but the Bread of Life! Yet what we should be offering beyond aid alone is our prayers and offers of friendship. We are sacraments of God's grace and love in Jesus Christ, far more eloquently than our words. We need to offer ourselves – not our religious beliefs – because in so doing we are offering Christ. And we need to celebrate the Jesus whom we meet in communist Cubans, as well. Because Jesus is there too.

7 September, 2005 at 12:13 pm 3 comments

a Jesus & Peter dialogue on forgiveness

I've written this dialogue in the style of the "Eh, Jesus … Yes Peter?" Wild Goose meditations. In the interests of space, I'm only putting enough on here to give the general idea. It goes on to deal with forgiveness and "winning vs healing", loving enemies and praying for them. If you want the full text, I'll happily email it to you by return. You can email me on
Matthew 18: 21-35
Cast: Jesus & Peter (Peter clearly seething)
J: Peter …
P: WHAT??? O, sorry, Jesus! Didn’t realize it was you.
J: What’s the matter?
P: Nothing! Why SHOULD anything be the matter?
J: Oh, ok. I was looking for Andrew – do you know where he’s got to?
P: Don’t know, don’t care, don’t matter!
J: Aaah … the joys of family life getting to you, are they? What’s happened?
P: It’s not fair! I’ve told him over and over again … but does it make any difference? Does it thump!
J: What is unfair Peter?
P: Wednesday’s Andrew’s day to get up early, make sure the nets are untangled and ready in the boat, check for any splits in the sail … you know, get everything ready for the day’s fishing. It’s a real pain to get up early, but it has to be done. We take it in turns – or we’re SUPPOSED to. But Andrew keeps oversleeping. He says he “forgets”. So I end up making breakfast, thinking he’s sorting the boat out, when all the time he’s snoring his socks off and then I end up doing the boat as well! AND it happens ALL the time! I could have murdered him this morning!
J: What did he say?
P: He said he was sorry …
J: So it’s all sorted out, then?
P: Sorted out? How?
J: Well, you were angry, he said he’s sorry …
P: And …?
J: So if you’ve forgiven him – problem solved!
P: FORGIVEN him? You’re kidding! Why should I forgive him?
J: Why not?
P: Apart from anything else, because it happens again and again and again! And I KNOW it’ll probably be just the same way next week. It’s not a one-off. Surely you don’t expect me to go on and ON forgiving him, do you?
J: Why not?
P: Why do you rabbi types ALWAYS answer a question with a question?
J: What’s wrong with a question?
P: Very funny! Ok, answer me this: how many times do you expect me to forgive him?
J: 70 times 7
P: 70 TIMES 7??? That’s … that’s … well, that’s a LOT of times!
J: It’s 490 times, Peter.
P: 490 times? How do you expect me to keep count? I’ll lose track long before 490 and then have to start all over again! I may as well give up counting and just say I’ll forgive him every time!
J: Would that be so bad?
P: Of course it would! Why should I always be the one to give way, when he’s in the wrong? Apart from anything else, I’d look weak … a pushover!
J: You think forgiving someone is weak?
P: Of course it is! It lets him off the hook … oh, I get it! Jesus, you’re a genius!
J: I am? …

4 September, 2005 at 12:39 pm 3 comments

Time to move …

... to my own hosted site on See you there.

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