Wednesday, 9 July 2014

How to change the world without saying a word: Reflections on a conversation with Krista Tippett about the lost art of listening

It’s not easy interviewing someone who is clearly considerably better at interviewing people than you are! But we managed to bumble our way through it, and glean much wisdom from a woman who has built a very successful career out of doing what most Christian seem to find very hard, listening to people. 

My guess is that if you asked the average woman or man on the street what the Church’s strengths are they probably wouldn’t say ‘listening’. Instead I suspect that when most people think of the Church images would come to mind of preachers, protestors, awkward encounters with evangelists, and an institution out of touch with contemporary life (to name but four of my early encounters and perceptions of Christians). Yet listening is surely something that followers of Jesus should excel at.

If anyone was qualified to lead with their opinion it was Jesus. And yet more often than not rather than talking he encouraged the people he encountered to talk. How many of us, for example, when asked by the rich ruler how to gain eternal life, would have dived in with a summary of the gospel, an invitation to an Alpha course, or encouraged him to pray the sinner’s prayer? Jesus didn’t do any of these; instead he asked a question. Jesus wanted to listen, he wanted to get to the heart of who this man was.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we catch a glimpse of an early church service, and we see Paul encouraging mutual listening. He says that everyone should have the opportunity to share something with the community, and for everyone else to careful listen and weigh what was shared (1 Cor. 14:26-40).

And what is prayer if it isn’t essentially listening? How can we join God in bringing about his will on earth as in heaven unless we’re careful listening to what his will is in the situations we find ourselves in?

So one wonders how the perception of the Church would be changed, and how much more effective its ministry and mission would be if we rediscovered the lost art of listening.

Check out our interview with Krista Tippett here

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Bringing down the Empire with a Song: Reflections on a conversation with David Benjamin Blower

I’ve never had an easy relationship with Christian music. Forgive me for the generalisation, but when I think of Christian music I think of a highly polished slick, soft rock music, with clich├ęd, idealistic lyrics (at least that’s what I grew up with). I’m aware that this sort of music can touch some people profoundly (like my wife for instance), but it’s always left me cold. It’s just never felt ‘real’ enough for me. I like art to ground me more deeply in reality, to challenge and unsettle me. I don’t want to be lifted out of the reality of this world into an idealised one, which is what it seems to me a lot of Christian music is trying to do. I want to be challenged to anger and love for the messed up world I live in.

This all changed for me some years ago when I stumbled across the now defunct Zang Productions and the work of [David] Benjamin Blower.

I was immediately impressed by the gritty, authentic production (recorded entirely in his own home with local musicians, and often not bothering to edit out coughs, splutters and the occasional bum note). But as I began to listen more deeply I got drawn into a world of overblown prophetic visions lifting the lid on our complicity with the Empire of the world. This was a musician in the tradition of the Old Testament prophet. This was a musician not concerned with lifting us out of this world into some future idealised one, but challenging us to enter more deeply in the gritty reality of this messed up world, and challenging us to get our hands dirty. And this was a musician for whom art is a form of confessional action taken to the street where he points his finger at himself as he points it at the Empire around him.

So thanks David Benjamin Blower for restoring my faith in Christian music and its power to transform me and the world I live in.

Check out our interview with David Blower. You might also want to have a look at his book Kingdom vs. Empire, and you can access his music through the Minor Artists website and iTunes.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Make Love, Not Porn: A conversation with leading anti-porn activist, Gail Dines

Check out these stats about the prevalence and effect of porn, they’ll make you shudder:

The sex industry is the largest and most profitable industry in the world. Internet porn in the UK receives more traffic than social networks, shopping, news and media, email, finance, gaming and travel. Just one porn site, Pornhub, receives over 1.68 million visits per hour.

And what exactly is it people are looking for? Well, disturbingly, ‘teen’ is the most searched term and total searches for teen-related porn reached an estimated 500,000 daily in March 2013.

What are they finding on these sites? Violent sex. 88.2% of top rated porn scenes contain aggressive acts.  Only 9.9% of the top selling scenes analyzed contained behaviors such as kissing, laughing, caressing, or verbal compliments.

Who’s accessing this stuff? Apparently it’s not just adults. Surveys reveal that children as young as 11 years old are regularly accessing this hardcore pornography.

What effect is this having on us? Studies show that after viewing pornography men are more likely to:
            Report decreased empathy for rape victims
            Have increasingly aggressive behavioral tendencies
Report believing that women who dress provocatively deserves to be raped
Report anger at women who flirt but then refuse to have sex
Report decreased sexual interest in their girlfriends or wives
Report increased interest in coercing partners into unwanted sex acts

It’s no surprise that the leading anti-porn activist Gail Dines said in our interview with her, that porn has nothing to do with making love; it’s actually about making hate. And that’s the essence of sin, it’s about a lack of love, it’s about broken relationships, our relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God. Porn seems to tick those boxes. As Jesus said, lust can undermine your marriage and your relationship with God (Matt. 5:27-30). When we engage in lust we dehumanizes others, and in so doing we dehumanize ourselves.

Porn, then, is no small issue. As Gail Dines said, porn is one of the major public health issues of our time. And so we all need to be aware of the issues and take a stand.

For more information about how porn is shaping our culture and what we can do about it, read Gail’ss book, ‘Pornland: How Porn isHijacking our Sexuality’, and visit the Stop Porn Culture website.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Inequality, the root of all evil?

You’d be a brave person to suggest that society is anything but a hugely unequal place. Even though we’re all relatively better of than at any point in history, the rich are getting richer, while the rest of us stay the same, or over the last few years slowly become poorer. Why? Because the return on investment and capital will always do better than the return on labour.

What we’re just starting to realise though, is the effect this is having on us all, poor and rich alike. The leading voice in this field is the social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson. His thesis is in essence a simple one, lying behind society’s ills is this one major issue, inequality. Think of a mental or physical health problem that’s blighting society and Dr Wilkinson will show you how the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor is the cause.

If you want to know why this is, have a listen to our recent interview with Dr Wilkinson. His research shows, in nutshell, that the issue is a pyscho-social one, i.e. it hurts to live in a world that says our value is found in material success but then denies us that success. The 2011 riots were a good example of this. As Dr Wilkinson pointed out in the interview, the kids from the poor estates weren’t looting for bread and water; they were stealing status good, i.e. large screen TVs and trainers.

So what do we do about it? My disappointment with Dr Wilkinson solution was the way he underplayed individual responsibility. His answer was largely a political one (which of course is important). But I think though the NT writers might argue that the solution is a spiritual and relational one. Surveys have clearly shown that people of faith are happier and more content, and I suspect this is because we don’t place so much value on material success. We know that our core sense of identity and worth is found in God’s love. And this is not to say, of course, that we just accept the unequal nature of our society. No, when we see a need we sell our ‘lands and houses’ and give. And we don’t do this in a detached ‘charitable’ kind of way, we actually invite those in need into our community.

Richard Wilkinson is only really reminding us what Paul taught 2000 years ago, that ‘the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil’. Our job therefore as a Christian community is to demonstrate to the world what is of true value and worth, and to show the world the holistic wellbeing that comes from living out this conviction.


Friday, 9 May 2014

Democratising church space: Reflections on a chat with Nadia Bolz Weber

We really enjoyed our interview with Nadia, it was one of those rare occasions where we forgot we were interviewing someone and genuinely enjoyed just listening to her speak. I think it’s the way she combines honesty and passion.

We covered a lot of ground in the interview, and Dave and I reflected on some of it straight after the interview. But writing this the following day it’s her expression ‘democratising space’ that has stayed with me.

The way we use space says so much about what is important to us. The early church prioritised a relational form of discipleship, and this was symbolised by gatherings happening in homes around the meal table. Then as the church became more institutionalised after the conversion of Emperor Constantine, a more experiential model of discipleship emerged (‘bells and smells’), and large elaborate sacred buildings emerged. Then as a result of the effects of the Age of Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution a more academic model of discipleship emerged, and pulpits were built to symbolize the preeminence of the Bible. Then with the invention of printing press, the mass production of Bibles and the myriad of translations and individualistic Bibles that followed, the emphasis shifted from the church building to personal devotional times in the home. And the incarnational model of discipleship then moved us from the home out into the streets.
Basically, if you want to know what a church community’s priorities are take a good look at their building.
So I was interested to hear Nadia reflect on how they organize their church space. She is working with people who are suspicious of institution and authority, so she responded by ‘democratizing the space’, i.e. sitting in a circle so no one person is given pre-eminence.
In the community I’m a part of all our gatherings occur around the meal table, which for us symbolizes family-like relationships, sharing, informality and participation.
How do you organize your space, and what does it symbolise?


Thursday, 24 April 2014

Straddling traditions: Some reflections on an interview with Bob Ekblad

There’s definitely a sense that denominational barriers are coming down. I was in a Methodist church service a while back and the minster asked people to put their hand up if they grew up in a Methodist church, and only the older members of the congregation responded. He then asked those who didn’t respond to explain why they attended the church. None of them said it was because the church was Methodist.

I like that.

But we do still see clear camps in the Christian world. The contemplative spirituality camp, the social justice/advocacy camp, the charismatic camp, the Bible camp, etc. We all have an emphasis that we feel comfortable with.

What I find exciting about people like Bob Ekblad, is that he has a foot in each of these camps. He’s happy to learn from and draw out the good (and challenge the bad) from a wide range of traditions as he explores what salvation in all its fullness looks like for the people God is calling him to work with.

Check out Bob’s book ‘A New Christian Manifesto’ if you want to learn more about his journey.

And nip over to our Facebook page and share a little about what you’ve learnt from other traditions and how that’s shaped your view of salvation.


Thursday, 10 April 2014

How to experience God and change the world - reflections on an interview with Elaine Heath

Jesus said ‘my sheep hear my voice and they follow me.’ It’s going to be difficult to follow Jesus if we don’t know what he’s telling us to do. But how many of us know what it means to hear Jesus’s voice in a particular situation?

I guess hearing Jesus’ voice means different thing to different people. I’ve got friends for whom hearing Jesus’s voice means accepting ‘thus sayeth the Lord’ type prophetic utterances, and other friends where it doesn’t seem to mean much more than using your common sense. I grew up in a church where hearing Jesus’ voice basically meant studying the Bible (or more precisely, believing the minister’s interpretation of the Bible), to determine what Jesus had said, but there was rarely any mention of what Jesus might be saying. Of course we were encouraged to pray to Jesus, but I don’t ever remember being encouraged to listen.

For me a big shift occurred when I was introduced to contemplative forms of prayer.

In our interview with Elaine Heath she described contemplative spirituality as 1. Showing up 2. Paying attention 3. Cooperating with God 4.Releasing the outcome.

My personality type means that I find it quite easy to ‘release the outcome’, i.e. put into action what I’ve heard. It’s the ‘paying attention’ bit I struggle with. But through contemplative forms of prayer I’ve begun to find that paying attention can also be really engaging.

For most of my faith journey praying meant talking into the silent blackness of my mind. But over the last few years I’ve begun to learn how to engage all the senses in prayer. So I’ve been trying to listen as I journal, or listening as I walk in the countryside, or visualising engaging in conversation with Jesus, or visualising being in a gospel story. Or rather than simply studying the Bible, slowing my reading down and looking for words and ideas that jump out at me, and allowing them to interact with my thoughts, feelings and memories.

So for me, contemplative prayer is essentially about finding creative ways to listen.

Of course this doesn’t mean I’ve had clear answers to all my prayers, but I’ve found that as I (and the community I'm a part of), have committed myself to creative contemplative prayer, I have experienced an increased sense of the guiding presence of Jesus.

What’s been your experience of hearing Jesus voice?