http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.51533The Christmas stories in the Bible have a message – and it is neither the commodified story of contemporary culture, nor is is the cutesy baby in a stable nativity scene. It’s a story of political subversion and social reversal, set in a particular time and place.

Humans are excellent pattern recognisers. Generally speaking.

It helps though, when we have a cue letting us know what sort of pattern to expect. Many patterns are cultural, they use recognisable signs and signifiers which make sense to those immersed in the culture they are developed in. Looking at unfamiliar signs is difficult when we aren’t immersed in a culture.

When we are overfamiliar with dumbed down versions of stories we have a double problem: we feel as though we know the story, but our knowledge is entirely out of context.

One of the key and most obvious patterns in the gospels, is that of reversals. And this is firmly established in the Christmas narratives: the virgin is pregnant, the night sky invades the day time, the king is a pauper, God is a human baby, the outcasts are welcome. The writers of these stories made these reversals deliberately, pointedly, to overturn expectations and set off a narrative of an upside down way of seeing the world.

To understand the meaning (or one of the meanings) of this pattern, we have to consider the culture of the time in which they were written. What would it mean for things to be upside down?

These stories are set at a particular time, a really important time. It was in 6 CE that Judea, Samaria and Edom became the Roman province of Judea. Roman Judea was substantially larger than it’s predecessor state had been, with an eastern border which stretched as far as contemporary Jordan and even encompassed Damascus (hence Saul/Paul and his dual citizenship). It was an important part of the Roman Empire, and its good governance was key to Roman security.

One of the key groups in maintaining this order, were a cadre of Jewish leaders known as the Pharisees. When people talk of the Pharisees in churches, they will often make much of a particular type of ancient Jewish theology, and set Jesus up in opposition to that. This way of thinking misses the obvious: the Pharisees were effectively working for the Romans. They were crushing dissent and trouble because of a political need. The theology of the Pharisees is relevant, but its particular relevance is that it was far more in line with Roman theology than their rivals the Sadducees, not that they were stuck up or full of their own self importance.

Behind all of this was a corrupt priesthood – run by a figure called Annas, who was high priest in Jerusalem between 6 and 15 CE until he was deposed, but whose family continued in the role. Think: mafia. Think: contemporary despotic regime of your choice.

So this is the context – the time that was being written about, and the time in which it was being written. A puppet state, run by a corrupted priesthood, enforced by violence. And what are the writers talking about? Reversal. Reversal of everything. And if I were to ascribe a ‘meaning’ to Christmas, perhaps that would be it. It is a scene setter for the ‘ministry of reversal’ that the Jesus movement comes to embody. Tables are literally turned. The dead are brought back to life (we must talk about Lazarus some other time).

And in the midst of this – a whole host of reversed rituals, baptism, the reversal of the Roman military Sacramentum, and the core Christian rite, the shared meal: a subversion of the Roman banquet. Everything is overturned, everything is lampooned. Its incredibly subversive – social and political dynamite.

Perhaps the point is that the only way this all makes sense, is if you stand it on it’s head. Which is why I’m so keen, on an #alternativeadvent.

 

 

talents-page1.inddSome people think that reading the Bible is all about learning ‘spiritual’ lessons. When we use words like spiritual, it’s difficult, because we don’t always share clear definitions. So what you and I are meaning when we say a word like that, may be two rather different concepts.

In any case, some people do look at the Bible in that way, that it is a ‘spiritual’ text, and this often means that it has little or no ‘earthly’ application.

My view of the Bible is not one that directly contradicts this, because I think ‘spiritual’ is an important word, particularly when it comes to books like the Bible. But I also think that ‘political’ is a key idea in Bible reading too. And it rather depends on what you’re looking for, as to what you find. You won’t find raw gem stones in a field, if you’re using a metal detector to look for them.

So depending on how you look, you find different things. And I do have a habit of looking through a political lens: it’s one of my biases. When you look at certain passages in that way, you can make some extraordinary discoveries. And that’s the case with the parable of the talents. The conventional take (Sunday School) is that it’s about not burying your talents, making the most of what God gave you, etc etc. But that’s based on a bit of a weird view of God, actually. And if you are willing to flip the script, and look at the parable through a political lens, all of a sudden it becomes a story about economic oppression and injustice. Surely the poor will always be with you…

Read this comic book version my pal Steve and I wrote years ago for A Pinch Of Salt Magazine, to see what I mean.  Click the links to download or open the PDFs Talents Page One  Talents Page Two

(For a deeper analysis of this stuff, and generally more of this kind of thing, seek out William Herzog’s “Parables as Subversive Speech.”)

My #alternativeadvent project starts on the 2nd of December, and will run all the way through to Christmas.  I’ve been trailing this on social media for a little while now, and I recognise that some people are not entirely sure what the general idea is.

So I put together a short video this morning, just to give a little bit of explanation.

Sorry about my dodgy filming skills, but hopefully it gives you the general idea. It’s an email every day through advent, with four themes running through: the first set of emails will be on the subject of an ‘ahistorical advent’, then I will write about an ‘absurd advent’, then about an ‘anarchic advent’ and finally about an ‘atheist advent’. Essentially it’s a reflection on advent through a historical/literary lens, then through a more philosophical lens, then a political lens, and finally through a more theological lens.

I hope you’re able to join me for this, and that as we go you feel able to share your own thoughts, using the hashtag #alternativeadvent, because anything like this needs to be a conversation. And if you know me, you’ll realise I’m pretty much always up for a conversation, until about 10pm. After that, I might still be up for a conversation, or I might just be asleep. Sometimes its hard to tell.

TKcropIt’s always sad to hear of a death. The knowledge of a life passing means the loss of a connection, and our bodies react instinctively to that. Too many people seem to go too soon, but having reached the age of 95, that at least can’t be said of Fr Thomas Keating.

Fr Thomas, a Trappist Monk, died this week, and with his death comes the end of the life of a man who profoundly influenced me and many others in our approach to the Christian life.

I don’t remember exactly where or when I first heard of Centering prayer – although I know what era of my life it was, I was living in South Wales, and was at that time developing my interest in all things contemplation and meditation.  Reading Fr Thomas’ book ‘Open Mind Open Heart’ was a release and a revelation to me at that time. I’ve also greatly enjoyed and appreciated the youtube videos in which he appeared, which have been immensely helpful to me in the development of my own meditation practise.

When I started practising Centering prayer I found it life giving and freeing – and ever since then I have encouraged others to follow the same path.

Centering prayer is the nearest tradition to a Zazen practise that I have fully engaged with, and that was something else that Fr Thomas taught me. A respectful and humble approach to wisdom and spiritual traditions which are different to my own has now been part of my life for so many years its hard to imagine being any other way, but of course it wasn’t always like this.

For me it was crucial to find pioneers like Fr Thomas leading the way in to genuine interreligious dialogue, he acted as a kind of permission giver in my own journey in to deep friendships with those of other religions. I can honestly reflect on those relationships and recognise immense treasures that have come from them, they have challenged, stimulated and encouraged me in ways I could never have expected otherwise.

So while I feel a sense of sadness at the passing of this wonderful man, who I never had the chance to meet, I have a much greater sense of gratitude, both for his life, and for his many gifts.

Sociologists and theologians have much to say about the idea of gift, because gifts are transactions, we give in the expectation of receiving something in return. So we approach life in this way, we expect to have to earn good things, we struggle with the idea of accepting something entirely un-earned. Fr Thomas recognised this challenge in terms of our approach to spirituality: “The gift of God is absolutely gratuitous. It’s not something you earn. It’s something that’s there. It’s something you just have to accept. This is the gift that has been given. There’s no place to go to get it. There’s no place you can go to avoid it. It just is. It’s part of our very existence. And so the purpose of all the great religions is to bring us into this relationship with reality that is so intimate that no words can possibly describe it.”

I am running a meditation retreat in a fortnight, Centering prayer will be the key approach and technique for that time, and on that weekend of remembrance, we will find a way of remembering Fr Thomas.

Fr Thomas Keating O.C.S.O. 1923 – 2018

Rest in peace, rise in glory.

calfThere’s a story in the Hebrew scriptures, about the people of Israel after they had escaped from Egypt. In the story, which is absurdly rich in symbolism and image, the people are making their way through the desert when their leader Moses climbs a mountain to commune with God.

To cut a complicated narrative unreasonably short, the impatient Israelites get fed up waiting for Moses to return, and decide to melt their golden jewellery to create an idol – a golden calf, which they then proceed to worship.

Moses, who has spent 40 days on the mountain eventually returns to find all this going on, loses it a bit, and a load of the Israelites pop their clogs. When you read serious Jewish interpretations of the story, it grows more complex around the edges, considering the motivations of those who built the calf, and so on.

So here’s the thing: as with many Bible stories, there are two predictable dangers when we read the story: 1) The story is written off as complete nonsense: “It didn’t happen, and it has nothing to say to us.” 2) The story is taken totally literally, as though it is a modern historical account: “This is exactly what happened to a ‘real’ people, in a ‘real’ place, at a ‘real’ time.”

Neither of these two approaches manage to capture the complex subtleties of the story, which was almost certainly written down or collated from oral tradition as part of the process of nation building while the Israelites were in captivity a few centuries BCE. While this whole question – the historicity of the text – makes for fascinating reading and discussion, I’m not about to run through all that here.

I’m more interested in the question of the Golden Calf: what does it represent?

I think there’s a strong case to be made for the Golden Calf as representative of certainty.

Moses’ disappearance up the mountain was for ’40 days’ a term used to represent a long time. Faced with the disappearance of their spiritual leader, the people grew upset, and eventually chose what they felt to be a logical course of action.

“Give us a god to go before us,” they said, “for we don’t know what has come of this man Moses.” (Exodus 32:1)

What the people wanted was some sense of security, a kind of certainty that they could cling to. Moses, a man who had difficulty communicating at the best of times, had left them to wait for him while he communed with an invisible, unknown God. Would he ever return?

To put this in to a framework with which people who read this blog are familiar: Moses led the Israelites into a period of major league deconstruction. He took them out of the brutal certainties of Egypt, where they had suffered, but at least they knew what was what, and into the wilderness.

And then he had left them…

Extended uncertainty, lets be honest, really gets to you. It grates. maxresdefault

And after a while – a long time – they began to crave some sense of certainty. ‘It’s time to reconstruct, to rebuild: give us a god to go before us…’

When they eventually came to act upon this craving, they constructed something which would have been culturally very familiar – and they gave a lot to it – this was no petty endeavour. A lot of gold went into making that statue.

This is precisely what happens to many who try to find some solid ground on which to stand after deconstruction, they go for something familiar, they invest in it, they give it their all, and in the end they create another idol.

I feel huge sympathy for the Israelites, mainly because I think I may have felt just as they did. And yet from the benefit of some elevation, looking down from Mount Sinai, Moses who was a somewhat absolutist sort, could see the futility of this search for comfort. And lost his rag. Understandable yes, but harsh, Moses, harsh: dwelling in uncertainty is difficult.


Are you struggling with deconstruction? Taking apart beliefs and ideas with which you’ve lived for years?

Are you considering reconstruction, and wondering if that is right for you, now? I’m running a retreat for people like you in November, you can book here. Or alternatively, contact me to find out about other ways I can help. 

doorway1I hear from a lot of people who have been through, or are going through, a period of deconstruction. I’ve come to realise that, as with many things, there are stages, and one or more of those stages involves a strong desire to reconstruct.

It’s natural – anyone who has had to pull down an edifice around which they had built their life, is likely to reach a point where they think ‘ok, that’s all gone, now I can rebuild.’ For some this means seeking out a church or other religious space where they can feel at home. For others it becomes about latching on to a particular spiritual or religious leader or movement with which, or with whom, they identify.

In some circumstances, this is positive. For instance, the discovery of a safe, supportive and nurturing community can be a real boon. Particularly when one has been without such a support network for an extended period of time.

This is not universally the case, however, and it can indicate that the individual has not yet reached a point of maturity where they feel able to engage with the causes of their deconstruction in genuinely grown-up terms. Over the years I’ve observed, in myself and others, the desire to strongly attach one’s self to a figure head or cause, something which is, ultimately, indicative of a lack of spiritual maturity. It speaks of our desire to deify ideas and people, which is natural for a child, but in an adult quickly becomes unhealthy and unhelpful.

At best, reconstruction is very helpful – it allows us to develop our questioning narrative in a safe place, and in community rather than in isolation. But it can easily dull the senses, and give us a sense of security which we don’t want to lose by doing too much questioning. Dogma is safe, solid, and secure – or at least it has that illusion, but when you feel safe, you’re much less likely to take a risk with a step in to the unknown.

I don’t discourage anyone who feels that for them the time is right to reconstruct, if they can make that work, I’m glad for them. However, I am deliberate in my refusal to prescribe it: the great story of Jesus in the desert tells how he was tempted in a number of important ways. The unwritten, but implied temptation was the temptation to run back to civilisation, to a place of safety. Had he done so, it would have spoiled the story, of course. So I encourage people who are in the desert, and have the capacity to remain there a while longer, to do so. Face the reality of who you are, what you have built up around you, your motivations, and your desires. That’s difficult – I recognise that, and if you can find someone to walk with you, it’s a good thing.

The story of Antony of Egypt, a renowned ‘Desert Father’ goes that he stayed in the desert for twenty years, before returning to found a monastery. And even then, the cells were scattered and the monks were solitary for much of the time. That is because, when/if the time comes to reconstruct, that which we rebuild may be quite different to that which went before.

When I teach stillness meditation I teach people to neither resist, resent nor retain any thoughts, for its amazing how many wonderful ideas flood into your head while you sit in meditation. Better to let those thoughts pass by, than to try to grab them. If they are as marvellous as they seem, they will return in time. Likewise, when you’re in a period of deconstruction, don’t rush to reconstruct. If in time a natural opportunity comes your way, then by all means walk with it a bit, but don’t cling to it too firmly, and don’t allow a new dogma to replace the old one.

Finally, there is a koan that goes: ‘If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him.’ The Buddha, the road, and the killing are all symbolic: it means that if you find precisely what you think you are looking for, be careful, for what you are looking for may not be what you really need.


Are you struggling with deconstruction? Taking apart beliefs and ideas with which you’ve lived for years?

Are you considering reconstruction, and wondering if that is right for you, now? I’m running a retreat for people like you in November, you can book here. Or alternatively, contact me to find out about other ways I can help. 

file000606541737.jpgThere comes a point in most people’s lives, when things have to be taken apart. Beliefs, world views, ways of understanding yourself, and what life is all about.

This is because the structures we build up become too restrictive. We reach the point where they no longer holds us properly, and that chafes.

The things you know, the experiences you’ve had, the stuff you’ve learned… you need a new framework to hold it all.

Its like in the old days when they used to keep wine in bags made from the skins of animals, called ‘wine skins’: you couldn’t keep new wine in old wine skins. Because they would split, they were only good for the old wine.

New wine had to go in new wine skins. New ways of seeing the world, require a new structure.

The same process is true of us when we are conscious of our religious or spiritual beliefs. The structures we built up, sometimes from childhood, will eventually need to come down in order to accommodate our new, wider, more mature understanding. That doesn’t mean our old structure was bad – although it can feel that way, because the restriction is uncomfortable. Really though, it just means that it doesn’t fit anymore. Like the yellow jumper I begged my parents for when I was about twelve. I loved that jumper. It doesn’t fit me now, and anyway I’m no longer convinced yellow is my colour.

The process of deconstructing a religious or spiritual world view is often difficult, sometimes very painful indeed. If you’re lucky, it’s easy. But we’re not all lucky, because these things have built in defences against deconstruction, often involving feelings of guilt, doubt, and existential dread.

For various reasons, conscious deconstruction is way better than unconscious deconstruction – (when you just go “this is all b*llocks”, and chuck the lot). The problem is that sometime later you will find yourself wishing you had a certain part, and then you have to go looking in the bins. And there’s always disgusting stuff in the bins. Much better to take it apart carefully, being aware of where the bits are, and what they do. Conscious deconstruction for the win.

I’m running a deconstruction retreat in November to help people do just that, find out more or book here. I’m planning on it being a small affair – intimate. Because this stuff is personal, and I prefer to work with small groups.

I’m also in the process of setting up a number of house conferences on the same kind of theme, a house conference is a conference… in a house. A bit like a house concert, but without a band, and fewer hairy roadies. If you’ve got a house (or other nice, friendly space), and you know some people who might like to come, then let’s talk about doing one at your place.