Welcome to Chronicles March 2019

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.

The series begins on March 6th, but you can join in any time through the 40 days.

House Conferences

“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

On the Ropes (Mint Royale - cover album).jpg

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.

One argument that is sometimes made against this is Matthew’s designation as ‘tax collector’ which some see as a job which would have meant he was educated and relatively wealthy. This well written article addresses this question, taking a look at the words which designate the sort of tax collectors that Matthew and Zaccheus were, for instance. Written as a conference paper, it’s very readable, and worth a look.

Welcome to Chronicles Feb 2019

This is my new 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…


Swine Flew  ●  Niteworks Canoe Retreat Just One Of Those Swings Photos from Robert Landon Cycling Retreat 2019 House Conferences

Swine Flew

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!

The Longform articles are all free to download, but there is also an option to donate if readers want to support the work I’m doing. You can even ‘subscribe‘ for a small fee, which means I will send the Longform articles directly to you.

Niteworks

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.

Canoe Retreat

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.

Cycling Retreat

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.

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.

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.

 

BG1My weekday meditations series is currently focusing on some of the words of the Benedictine monk Fr Bede Griffiths, a mystical pioneer  who lived much of his life in an Indian Ashram (spiritual community).

Fr Bede, was born Alan Richard Griffiths in 1906. He became a Christian, initially exploring ordination as an Anglican priest,  but converted to Catholicism after reading work by John Henry Newman, the poet priest who had also converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism, some years before. Griffiths joined the Benedictine order, and upon taking his vows, he was given the name Bede, which means prayer. After a number of years as a Benedictine monk in the UK, he moved to India, and spent the remainder of his life there. He became a key figure in what was known as the Christian Ashram movement, and perhaps more than any one apart from his shorter lived contemporary, Thomas Merton, came to symbolise the quest to engage Christianity with the religious and wisdom traditions of the East. After arriving in India, he took the name Swami Dhayananda which means bliss of prayer. Years later he was took the name Swami Dayananda, which means bliss of compassion.

Dressed in the ochre robes of a Hindu Sanyassi (ascetic/holy man), which symbolise the renunciation of worldly attachments, Bede became a leading figure in Hindu – Christian dialogue, speaking widely, and writing books about Hindu and Christian spirituality.

Bede grew up relatively poor, but his natural intelligence saw him win a scholarship to Oxford University, where he read Philosophy and English Literature. In his third year at Oxford, CS Lewis became his tutor, and the two formed a strong bond of friendship which went beyond the ivory towers of academia, as they journeyed together towards an understanding of the divine. In ‘Surprised by joy’ Lewis wrote of this time in his life: “My chief companion on this stage of the road was Griffiths, with whom I kept up a copious correspondence. Both now believed in God, and were ready to hear more of Him from any source, Pagan or Christian.” As Griffiths turned towards Catholicism though, the friendship grew strained, and although they maintained a correspondence, this move proved difficult for the friendship to bear.

It was after university, but before his shift to Catholicism, that his interest in monasticism began to kick in, and he and two others tried an ‘experiment in common life’, an early new monastic attempt, living lives of self denying rural poverty, as with many such endeavours, this was not long lasting. After a while Bede made an attempt to become an Anglican Priest, but eventually, upon reading some of Newman’s writings, converted to Roman Catholicism, and proceeded to join the Benedictine order. A number of years as a Benedictine in the UK followed, during which time he was given the role of Prior. But during this time another change began to take place, as he grew more engaged with the religion and philosophy of India, following meetings with Indian Catholics, and Jungian psychology.

Bede eventually left for India in 1955, writing that he was going ‘to discover the other half of my soul’, and it was there that he eventually developed the ministry for which he is best known, integrating Christian and Hindu spirituality.

His writings are powerful, and the more so in that they reflect his ‘lived experience’. For all that Merton, his better known contemporary, gained renown for his forays into inter-spirituality, Griffiths lived it in a way that Merton never could.

It is probably no surprise that Griffiths was something of a progressive in his social attitudes, as well as his religious ones. In an article called ‘On Homosexual Love’ he wrote that homosexual love is ‘just as normal and natural as love between people of the opposite sex’. Quite the assertion for a man of his time, for he was no ‘free love’ hippy priest, nor yet an Osho type charismatic guru. Fundamentally Griffiths was just much more interested in love than anything else, advocating the development of interspiritual communities based upon the primacy of love, rather than any one particular creed.

Griffiths was controversial, both within Christianity and Hinduism: It’s true to say that when he first reached India, he exhibited something of a colonialist attitude, making some apparently disparaging remarks about Hindus and Hinduism. But while that was largely put behind him as he grew to understand India and Hinduism better, he continued to face criticism for his adoption of the Sannyasin robes, which are only supposed to be worn by followers of a guru. In Christianity he remains controversial among those who consider his relationship with Hinduism to have been problematically syncretistic.

There may well have been problems with his adoption or appropriation of these symbols, but its important to remember that symbols are just that: symbolic. We all too readily make them sacred. Griffiths was an equal opportunity barrier breaker – upsetting religious Christians as well as sections of Hinduism as he sought a way of being which transcended cultural and religious dividing lines.

In 1993 Griffiths died, as he had lived the majority of his life, in his small hut in Shantivanam ashram. To many of us who are interested in spirituality and the ongoing search for language of the divine, he was a mystical pioneer. For those who recognise the primary importance of love beyond any religious boundaries, he was a prophet. There is lots about his life on the internet, but for a really good read I can recommend Shirley Bourlay’s biography ‘Beyond the darkness’. Shantivanam, and the Bede Griffiths Sangha (community) continue his legacy today.

I’ve added some Bede Griffiths quotes to my ‘inspirational quotes page‘, and you can sign up to my free series of weekday meditations here.