Ever got fed up with the usual schmaltz on your Christmas cards?
Ever thought about the fact that the Christmas story is also a refugee story?
Its tough to celebrate one refugee refugee story while ignoring thousands of others though, isn’t it.
As part of my Alternative Advent project for this year I’ve commissioned some ‘alternative’ Christmas card images, to remind us of the blood and guts in the original story and to raise some cash for refugee charities.
Artwork is courtesy of Dean Rankine (Simpsons comics), Steve Beckett (The Beano), Stu McLellan (book illustrator) and Siku (The Manga Bible), and profits will be handed over to Safe Passage, a charity which works with refugee children.
There are about 80 million “displaced people” around the world today, and the United Nations say that more than half of all the world’s refugees are children. That’s a huge number however you choose to look at it, it works out around one percent of the entire world population.
Christmas is a refugee story, and Jesus was a refugee. His family fled when they knew that soldiers were on their way to kill him, it’s an experience that too many (any is too many, but in this case we’re talking millions) children and their families continue to have.
It took some time for the Christian canon to be agreed, but eventually it was – sort of. Except that it wasn’t. Different branches of Christianity ended up with slightly diverging sets of texts, but there were some key similarities – in particular there were the gospels.
Four short books, each of them on the same subject, each with the same (or very similar) set of characters, and crucially with the same central story arc. There’s really only one problem with these four texts – they’re all different.
The gospels somehow reflect the wider Bible in microcosm, written for different audiences, from different perspectives at different times and in different places – of course they were going to diverge. Of course. Duh.
This is the pattern of Christianity, indeed its the pattern of the Abrahamic religions more generally, they are multiplicitous. They are multivocal. These are people of story – people caught up in something that draws them towards a greater goal. They don’t need to agree on the details, they are travellers on the same road.
When I started to think about the “Liturgy in a Dangerous Time” project, I knew that if we did it, it would have to represent that truth somehow. In a very small and very imperfect way, it would need to acknowledge that there are various points of view, even in one small corner of Christianity. So it was important straightaway to try and ensure that a range of voices were included, not to represent different ‘sections’ of the church as if one person could hope to speak for thousands of others, but to be honest about the fact that we don’t all agree on everything, and no more should we. As a former chief Rabbi once put it, “in heaven there is truth, on earth there are truths.”
This can make it difficult to curate, you have to avoid placing jarring perspectives too closely without thinking carefully about them, and it remains important to not try to qualify or edit people’s contributions, let them stand, so that people can hear them from their perspectives.
After all, the gospel writers didn’t agree on everything, there are clear differences (from my perspective at least) in the way that they understood Jesus, how they wrote about him, and what they expected to happen next. And we, the readers, some 2000+ years later don’t agree on how they saw things, after all, it would be extraordinary if we all agreed on much beyond the absolute basics. And lets be honest, we don’t even agree on them.
While the lockdown has been on, here in the UK, some groups have begun to argue with each other about their sacred beliefs, is a Eucharist performed at a kitchen table valid? Should priests be going into church to pray? Is the church in retreat, or is it entering a new era? Of course people have different views about this, people disagree about everything – everything! Important things and unimportant things. We even disagree on whether things are important or not.
The point is not to try and achieve a homogenous set of views, as if we will all arrive at a place of consensus on these issues given time (we can’t even agree on what should or shouldn’t be in the Bible, never mind what the words mean), rather we should accept that our views are plural, and in so doing, celebrate it. We are one people, but people is plural. We have many voices, we have many perspectives, this is to be welcomed. Many of the greatest evils in history have been accomplished because of a wish to remove plurality, to get rid of difference, and to enforce a single point of view.
By engaging positively with our plurality* we begin to recognise it’s beauty, we come to see that we can see much more if we look at things from a variety of perspectives. As long as it continues, Liturgy in a Dangerous Time will try to include various perspectives and approaches, from conservative to progressive, from protestant to catholic, from kitchen table to high altar. Because that’s who we are, and that’s what we’re like.
*I’m not unaware of the fact that the very pluralism of this approach is itself indicative of a particular stance, but at least it’s a generous and accepting stance, one that welcomes the wisdom and insight of others, and gently asks them to recognise that others have important things to say too.
A short break from the usual light hearted blog posts to let you know about my lent series on ‘deconstruction’ which starts on the 26th of Feb. I will be using my regular ‘weekday meditations’ email series to explore the idea of deconstruction, what it is, why people go through it, what to do if you find yourself in the middle of it, all that good stuff.
Touching on issues of social control, power, loss, love, failure and other good stuff. You can sign up here, (it’s free and I won’t misuse your data) I’m also aiming to produce some supporting material to go with it as we go along…
The meeting was called by the youngest member of the family, and stern faced we all gathered to face the matter at hand.
“I want to start off by saying,” the youngest remarked, staring at me, “that this is your fault.”
It was a bit early for recriminations to begin, there is usually a bit of to-ing and fro-ing before the mud starts to truly fly.
“I don’t think we need to apportion any blame,” said my wife, at which point I shot her an appreciative glance.
“Yet.” She continued. I looked at my hands.
“The situation is critical.” The eldest, until now silent decided to chip in. Usually she can be relied upon to fight the good fight. Not today.
“Stocks are really low.” She said.
“I’m sorry, stocks?” I said. Feeling slightly confused.
“Socks.” She shouted. “Socks are getting really low. There is hardly any clean underwear anywhere. There are about three socks in my drawer, and none of them match. One is a sports sock, one is a hiking sock, and one is a sock that doesn’t even belong to me.”
“You could wear the sports sock and the hiking sock together…” I began to suggest. I was fixed with a withering glare.
“What I want to know is, how has this happened.” The youngest, my original accuser was back at the crease, aiming to hit a six. Or failing that, a four, so long as it really made the fielder run.
“It’s the weather!” I said, in a desperate attempt to defend myself. “The wretched weather, it’s been hopeless. And then whenever I do manage to get clothes on the line, the birds use them as a latrine.”
“Oh and that’s why none of us have got any clean underwear? Get real.”
While her sister had been viciously attacking me, the eldest had quietly made her way to my top drawer.
“Look at this!” She yelled. “Loads of pants! He’s got loads of pants in here. There’s literally… loads.”
“This is why he shouldn’t be allowed to do the laundry.” Announced the youngest. Because he prioritises his own underwear, so that he’s always got boxer shorts, but we have nothing.”
“I don’t, it’s just…” I said, my voice beginning to trail away as I realised I couldn’t explain this anomaly. Perhaps, I thought, my best defense was to go on the attack. “The reason I have plenty of clean underwear” I announced, “is that I put it directly in the wash every day. I don’t leave it on my bedroom floor and then gather it up in a great big load and expect it to be washed immediately.”
“We all do that.” The youngest hissed. “We all do that, because we know that if we don’t, then we won’t have any underwear. And despite that, despite us playing by the rules, we’re still in the same position.”
“It’s not a question of rules…” I began, but even I knew it was feeble. My attack had been neutralised, my excuses have come to nothing. “I’ll get a wash done this morning. I will wash all the underwear that’s in the basket.”
The family meeting broke up, my wife went to work, and I retreated to the bathroom, where I looked into the mouth of the laundry basket. I pressed a corner of the lid, and it spat a sock at me.
As I stood there the door opened, a girl put some more clothes into the basket. “These need washing too.” She said. Outside a bird squawked. “Bring on the latrine!” And I heard the pitter patter of raindrops begin to hit the window.
In the dying days of 2019, as my ‘Alternative Advent’ series drew to a close, I asked subscribers to my weekday meditations emails for some feedback on the things I’d been writing through the year.
A goodly proportion of subscribers filled the survey in, it’s all anonymous so I don’t know who said what, but it was a super useful exercise.
One of the most interesting things was to see that (of the people who responded) a very large proportion of them read the emails I send out every day, without going through the analytics on the mailing software – which I’m not sufficiently motivated to do – there’s no easy way for me to tell this. I’m encouraged that so many people make it part of their daily routine. I asked people to tell me why they remain a subscriber, here’s a few of the answers:
“I like the alternative, slightly heterodox views you present…” “I enjoy the mails. I like their brevity. But they are honest and grounded and give me something to think about.” ” To read your unusual and interesting take on issues.” “They’re a great, pithy and reflective way to start the day.”
Of the various series I have written through the year, the Alternative Advent series was most popular with the people filing in the survey, however, that may be because it was the series ongoing at the time of the survey. More telling was the proportion of people who chose the word ‘challenge’ as being important to them. The two smallest scores landed with ‘Religion’ and ‘Secular’ – which was also really telling, that ‘progressive’ score though… fascinating.
My feeling is that this underscores the kind of written feedback I got through the survey, and which I often get via email too: responses like this: “I read other reflections also. Yours give the more edgy, controversial option which I like…”
In my surveys I always ask people to give a quote that I can use to ‘promote’ my weekday meditations, given the fact that many of my daily emails offer some wry humour, I should have expected what I got in response to that request:
“It’s better than not thinking.” “Off his trolley, or on to something?” “Simon Cross: He’s not cross (but his name is Simon).” “Is he too clever for his own good, off his head or does he have a good point?”
I love my readers. They are the best bunch of people. And some of them wrote other things too, things like these:
“Takes me places other reflections don’t.” “Simon’s daily meditations are a progressive and well presented source of encouragement, inspiration, challenge and provocation and the best thing that lands in my email inbox each day!” “Want to find deeper meanings behind traditional narratives? It’s worth exploring the mind of Simon.” “Simon’s emails are pithy and to the point. They encourage us to question our views and preconceptions. They challenge us to see Jesus in the current, messy world in which we live.” “They make me think and feel which is s rare combination.” “Simon has a unique way of saying something very profound with depth in a concise and simple way.“
It’s Wednesday morning, and I’m up early. As usual. “I shall use this time productively.” I think to myself, reaching for the remote control.
An hour or so later, I hear the stairs creak. My wife opens the sitting room door.
“Do you want a cup of tea?” She says. “Yes.” I say, fixing her with a stare which communicates the great importance of what I am doing. “What are you watching?” “It’s based on a true story. Which means it’s a kind of research.” “Right.” “So it’s a productive thing to spend time on.” “Right.” “They had good hats in those days, didn’t they.”
The door shuts. And reopens a few minutes later, for the cup of tea to be passed to me. “I’m still researching.” “Right.” “So if you need me, you’ll know where I am.” “Yes I will.”
Later in the day I yawn. “I need a nap.” “You should have slept later.” “I had research to do. Anyway, naps are good for you.” “Who told you that?” “I can’t remember it, I seem to remember reading it somewhere.” “Or was it in a film…” “Films can be legitimate forms of research.” “Right.”
This is my monthly newsletter which gives an glimpse of some of the things I’m up to, as well as one or two of the things that have absorbed my attention over the last few weeks.
IN THIS EDITION…
The Wheels Fell Off ● Sympathy for the Devil? ● House Conferences ● Throwback: Mint Royale – On the Ropes ● Tax collectors and toll collectors
The Wheels Fell Off
It seems to me that most people go through a time when they find themselves trapped in a cage of certainties. Its often a cage of their own making, probably first put together as a kind of scaffolding, to support them through difficult times.
This is true of religious or spiritual people, just as its true of others who have constructed a supportive network of ideas of any other sort that help them through life. The trouble comes when these ideas become restrictive, unable to adapt to or move with the changing circumstances, or experiences of life.
This is what happened to Charles Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, and the writer of a hymn which in my house became known as ‘the bicycle song’. You can find his story here, you might find it’s your story too.
Sympathy for the Devil?
I started writing my weekday meditations as a Lent project last year. I enjoyed the project so much I continued it through the year, and at Christmas I did my first ‘special series’ which I called ‘Alternative Advent’.
That went pretty well, so I’m doing another special series for Lent 2019, which I’m calling ‘Sympathy for the Devil?’
Ultimately Lent has a lot to do with the Devil, but he remains a deeply confused figure: The Satan of the Old Testament is one of God’s court, the Satan of the New Testament, meanwhile is a different figure, and the Devil of 21st century Christianity owes at least as much to John Milton as he does to the Bible. So my weekday meditations throughout Lent will be taking a closer look at this idea, and asking, ultimately, if we might begin to have sympathy for the Devil.
“House conferences” are my small way of trying to reinvent the whole idea of what a conference should look like. Of course there’s a place for large scale conferences held in big rooms, but I tend to think that often the best learning takes place in small intimate environments, like someone’s lounge. That’s why I’m booking house conferences throughout the year, and across the UK.
The first house conference of 2019 takes place in March, it’s a special conference for a group of people who are keen to deepen their spirituality, and to think about their rhythm of life. I’m really looking forward to it.
House conferences are definitely the ‘way forward’ as far as I am concerned: informal, experiential, personal, they give the opportunity to develop relationship and to get to grips with some deep learning, while also having a comfortable chair. Get in touch if you want to think about booking one.
Throwback: Mint Royale – On the Ropes
A disc that’s been getting a few spins this past month has been this classic from Mint Royale. On the Ropes was Mint Royale’s debut in 1999, and it captures a lot of the big-beat bounce that was around at the time.
Perhaps Mint Royale’s most enduring contribution to the pop music canon was their later remix of ‘Singing in the Rain’, but On the Ropes has some classic tracks that are still worth revisiting.
Fans of Lauren Laverne, the current 6Music Breakfast Show host will know her as the lead singer in punk popsters Kenickie, but she actually scored her biggest hit with the Mint Royale track ‘Don’t falter’, which is probably the stand out track on the album, although it has less of the overt turn of the century optimism (despite it’s upbeat lyrics). Anyway, well worth checking out in whatever way you tend to listen to music these days.
Tax collectors and toll collectors
There are lots of ways to read the Bible, and the way one approaches it depends very much on what preconceptions one holds. An academic approach favours a rational, critical reading, which I find helpful and enlightening at times. From this perspective, there are many questions about the texts, including concerning the authorship. Who actually wrote the gospel books for instance? Those of us interested in the role of social class within Christianity may have particular questions about the ‘class’ of the writers. The New Testament contains some pretty sophisticated literature, Matthew’s gospel for instance has a complex series of literary references to Hebrew scriptures, and for various complicated reasons was clearly written by someone schooled in Greek literature, but from a Jewish background.
The author of Matthew must have been a well educated person capable of reading and writing in a complex manner. For those who assume that Jesus’ disciples were the authors of the gospels which bear their names, this clashes with the characterisation by some of Jesus’ disciples as lower class peasants, who were much less likely to be able to write sophisticated texts.
The first of my ‘Longform’ pieces of writing went online on Jan 26th. I’ve started writing these after gleaning some feedback from the stuff I wrote last year. Some people were interested in reading more about some of the deeper subjects I had touched on, so I’m going to publish a new article on the last Saturday of each month, for this year at least.
Swine Flew is a short essay about the Bible story known as the ‘Gerasene Demoniac’, exploring a political dimension to the story that (I think) is a little too overlooked. Take a look for yourself, and let me know what you think!
I’m embarrassed to admit that I was unaware of Niteworks before picking them up from a recommendation on Laurene Laverne’s 6music breakfast show. They make really richly textured music which draws heavily on their Gaelic roots, so you’ll hear singing in Gaelic, and you’ll hear traditional instrumentation for instance, but it’s also full of very credible contemporary EDM.
I tend to cast around for references when I find a new artist, and I suppose the most obvious one would be the wonderful Martyn Bennett, but there’s other stuff in there too, ethereal vocals of the sort that Clannad made popular back in the day, even stuff that sounds a bit like Sigur Ros. Anyway, you can buy their music from them at Bandcamp, and check them at all the usual streaming services. Well worth a listen.
One of the things I’m really looking forward to in 2019 is the Canoe Retreat I’ve been trailing since summer last year. The venue and dates have been decided now, we’ll be paddling around Loch Awe in Argyll, Scotland on the weekend of the 27th – 30th of September.
Loch Awe is the longest fresh water Loch in Scotland, I’ve paddled there before, and loved it, it’s a wonderful place, calm waters, islands to explore, that sort of place. I can’t wait to take a group there – days spent paddling, evenings sat talking around a fire, and time spent lost in contemplation. It’s going to be brilliant. I hope you can come, it will be much more fun if you do!
Just One Of Those Swings
In January I uploaded my Electro Swing Mixtape ‘Just One of those Swings‘ to Mixcloud, it must have been a quiet month for uploads or something, because it ended up peaking at no.3 in the platform’s global Electro Swing chart. Ok, perhaps that’s a bit of a niche chart. But still… number three! It also made no. 25 in the ‘Beats’ chart, which is perhaps a bit more mainstream.
I enjoy making those mixes, they’re all different, just depending upon what I’ve been listening to or has caught my attention at the time. You can listen to this one, and all my past uploads here.
Photos from Robert Landon
My old friend Robert is, it turns out, a great photographer. I’ve been really impressed by some of the pictures he’s been uploading to his instagram account recently, if you’re a lover of striking imagery, particularly of the natural world, then you should definitely check it out.
Before the summer really gets going I’m going to be assisting Dr Alastair Jones on his cycling retreat in the hills of the Peak District. The whole thing is happening on the 14th – 16th of June just outside of Huddersfield.
I’ve got to admit I’m a little worried about my cycling fitness, a few months out of things last year with a nasty back injury has left me fighting to catch up, but I’m back in the swing of things now, and although I’ll probably still be puffing along at the back, I’ll try to stay with the pack!
If you’re keen on life on two wheels, you should definitely come along. Alastair is a great cyclist and you can be assured of some picturesque routes, my focus is going to be on the reflective content… and the tea.
2019 House Conferences
One of the things I’m really keen to get going this year is a programme of House Conferences. I got the idea for this when I saw how many of my musician friends were doing house concerts, effectively small, intimate, private concerts held in someone’s house (or similar type of venue).
I could see the sense in it, much better connection with the people who are there, a wonderful experience for all concerned, no faffing around with expensive venue charges, it made all kinds of sense to me and made me think that this would be a much better way of doing the kind of conferences that I like to do. So we’re having a bit of a push on that this year, if you think that having me and a little group of people in your front room might be fun, then you should let me know and we’ll see what we can fix up.
As always, there are lots of ways to stay in touch with me, besides this newsletter, I send out a ‘weekday meditations’ email which you can sign up for, for free. A short ‘thought’ to start the day with. And you can find me on the usual social media channels, or you can come round for a cuppa. I’m often around on a Friday, and its always nice to chat to you…
At the end of 2018 I did a small survey of some people who regularly read the stuff that I write. One of the things I asked was – ‘what can I improve on?’ I got a number of answers, including: “get better at grammar”, but it also became clear that some people wanted to read more on some of the more complex topics that I write about.
I usually write short articles, blog pieces are never more than a few hundred words, and my daily emails are only three paragraphs. So yes, there is room for me to write some more lengthy articles.
I’ve had a good think about how best to do this, and I’ve come up with a new project: ‘longform‘. Basically I’m going to write a longish article each month, in the region of 2000 – 3000 words. And that will allow me to go into a little more depth on some interesting topics.
I’m a journalist by background, as you may already know, but I’m also working on a PhD, so these articles are likely to be a mixture of essays and articles, with maybe an interview or two thrown in.
As usual with my work, it will be free to access. But something else that was made clear to me last year is that some people want to contribute, now and then, towards the work that I do. Which is nice. So there is a button for you to donate, if you wish to, when you download an article. Or if you prefer, you can pay a small monthly subscription, and I’ll send you the article by email.
The longform project will kick off on January 26th, with an essay giving a political take on an interesting Bible story, it’s called “Swine Flew: the curious case of the Gerasene Demoniac“. I can’t promise perfect grammar, but I’ll try.
Some 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 OneTalents 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.”)