The death of Diana – a cultural watershed

640px-Diana's_funeralThe death of Diana marked a watershed in our culture, an event so visceral in nature that it shook our British life to the core. Some ‘earthquake’ events change a nation’s life because a key figure is gone: Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, Chairman Mao, or, most obviously, JFK. When they are the person whose power drives the nation’s life, their passing changes everything. Diana was different. She had no power, and yet she became a defining character of the 1980s and 90s, a fairly blank canvas onto which people projected their own hopes, dreams, and ideologies. Whether Diana herself believed half of what is claimed for her now is so hard to know. She died young and so she became the stuff of myth and legend, though not ‘the stuff of which fairy tales are made.’ While much will be made of Diana over the next few days, allow me to draw attention to that culture shifting week between her death and her funeral. It tells us little about Diana herself, but so much more about British life now, as it flowed from that watershed moment.

The watershed of paganism

The way the public responded to tragedy was extraordinary. Flowers and candles spread from Kensington Palace down to Kensington High Street, and they extended out from the railings of Buckingham Palace and up Constitution Hill. As Diana’s coffin was carried from Westminster Abbey out of London up the Edgware Road onto the M1, people stood on bridges to drop carnations onto the hearse, and the undertakers had to use the windscreen wipers to clear their view. This seems normal now, but at the time it was still quite a new phenomenon (perhaps only having been seen previously after the Hillsborough disaster).

What did those evenings of candlelight and weeping in Kensington Gardens really signify? Neo-paganism came of age that week.  You could read it in the inscriptions on the flowers, describing Diana as an Angel and a gift from ‘heaven’. The spiritual ignorance and folk religion on display was extraordinary. Paganism worships created things, and begins to attribute to the chosen god such powers as they never had. The actual facts don’t matter. In those days all the flaws and failures of Diana’s character were ignored and she was elevated to sainthood by public opinion. Chatting with a friend a few weeks later, she said ‘I want to draw attention to the fact that if she wasn’t gallivanting round Paris with a very dodgy boyfriend, she might still be alive, but I’m not allowed to say it.’ The Diana cult expressed itself in the funeral service in two ways: in Elton John singing Candle in the Wind (still the best selling UK No 1 single ever), and in Earl Spenser’s tribute, which stands as one of the great speeches of the twentieth century, both for what it said and for what it tells us about the way we live and feel now.  Continue reading “The death of Diana – a cultural watershed”

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Great Summer Reads 4 – The Eagle Unbowed by Halik Kochanski

Eagle Unbowed‘You started it. You invaded Poland!’ Tragically, that punchline from Fawlty Towers is all that most people know about Poland’s experience of the Second World War. Most young people know the story of Auschwitz, but I wonder how many of them know it is situated in Poland? Our ignorance of Poland’s tragedies in World War Two is widespread, at a time when in Britain we have a large and growing Polish community that we need to understand. Where better to look then that to the brilliant but unsung book The Eagle Unbowed- Poland and the Poles in the Second World War by Halik Kochanski.

Reading military history is a long-standing hobby for me, and I try and ration my reading because it easily becomes obsessive, especially when it comes to WW2. I find it good to read about an aspect of the war I know nothing about, rather than yet another book about D-Day. Halik Kochanski is a respected Historian at London University, the child of Polish refugees whose story she subtly weaves into her narrative. She assumes you know nothing about Poland, and educates while drawing you into the story. The book even comes with a helpful pronunciation guide, but like reading War and Peace, you have to get past the names issue.

She starts with the rebirth of Poland in 1920 and their victories over the Bolsheviks in the east (which stores up trouble on Poland’s eastern border for later on in the story).  Then Poland’s humbling at the hands of Hitler and Stalin in 1939 is described in detail – while we had our ‘phoney war’, there was nothing phoney in Poland. What people never realise is that Poland was the only country overrun by the Nazis in Eastern Europe that never surrendered. The government went underground, as did key parts of the army to form the ‘AK’, while others crossed the border into Hungary and Romania, and made their escape to fight with the allies in Western Europe. Polish pilots formed two RAF squadrons, 303 squadron being based at RAF Northolt and making a huge contribution to the battle of Britain. George Vi was heard to say ‘One cannot help feeling that if all our allies had been Poles, the coursed of the war, up to now, would have been very different.’ Continue reading “Great Summer Reads 4 – The Eagle Unbowed by Halik Kochanski”

Great Summer Reads 3: Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson

Home_(Marilynne_Robinson_novel)_coverartMarilynne Robinson is the world’s greatest living novelist. I know that is a huge claim to make, considering she has only written four novels, but as one novel has won a Pulitzer and another the Orange prize, she deserves special attention. Why is that? I think it is because she has created a unique genre of novel, the pastoral novel. Not in the sense that Thomas Hardy wrote pastoral novels about the bucolic charms of his beloved Wessex. Marilynne Robinson writes novels about pastors. That is why I am so drawn to them, and why I urge you to step into her world this summer.

The huge industry that publishes novels has done to death several different genres. Romantic fiction from Jane Austin and the Brontes to the modern chick flick can surely have nothing much left to say. Crime novels are still a huge industry, as are legal and military thrillers, but like their TV adaptations, you do tire of them after a while. Couldn’t someone create a new genre of drama sometime? Just as I was thinking that, I stumbled onto Robinson’s novels via Twitter, and they are a door into a world I have inhabited for twenty five years in pastoral ministry, and they are written as great literature.

Gilead  is the name of a small town in Iowa on the American prairie, where John Ames is a pastor reaching the end of his life, and writing the book to his young son so he can understand his roots when his father is gone. The framework of the story only suggests itself gradually, and key facts slip effortlessly into the cake while the mixture is slowly stirred at the kitchen table. The main interplay is between the Ames family and the GileadcoverBoughtons, the local Presbyterian pastor and his family. Meanwhile, the beauty and thoughtfulness of small town America is worked out in domestic scenes so rich and warm that you feel yourself invited to sit at the table. There is plenty of theology that comes up in conversation, and the struggles that a pastor has in trying to care for his flock, and the frustrations he has with those who reject the gospel. All of this is brought to life in the most dazzling prose that will ease the stresses of life from you and evoke a world of swing-seats out on the stoop, rocking chairs by the fire and a hardwood kitchen table where meals are shared as expressions of the gospel. Robinson establishes a huge sense of place and lets you inhabit it and feel fully at home. But do not imagine that these sedate scenes are free from trouble. There is grit in the story. Dark tones come to the surface, just as rural life can often be darker than any urban dystopia, and Jack Boughton is the source of the trouble. This gives a brilliant opportunity to trace the interplay between the grace of God in the gospel and the prodigal who rejects it and runs away. How is he to be handled? Who will say the wrong thing? What are his real motives? What is he really thinking as the pastor talks to him? The characters are drawn so brilliantly that not one of them is a cliché.

Home is the second novel of the series, and the focus moves from the Ames household to the Boughtons. Young Jack Boughton has been away from Gilead for twenty years, but now he comes home seeking refuge from his past. The question is how his father and his sister Glory will handle this, and how Jack will respond to God’s grace when he encounters it. I found my heart aching for him as the conversations were played out across the kitchen table. The heart of a pastor aches to see gospel change in those who waste their lives, but it is a change that only God can give. Will it come to Jack as he tries to rebuild his life? There are layers to this exploration of regret and repentance that run so deep, and both father and sister find their own hearts and attitudes examined. I am confident that there is no work of fiction that explores this better.

I have yet to read the third in the sequence, Lila, which tells the story of Ames’ second wife and how she came to Gilead from a background of wandering and tragedy, and then married him. But I am thinking I need to re-read the nuances of Gilead again first to be ready to savour its riches. And sit by that fireplace and nod my agreement with the old man.

Great summer reads 1 – A Better Story

God sex and human flourishingMostly I have a few books on the go, and dip between them, lose the thread a few times, but eventually get the end of some of them. But then every so often a book comes along that has to be read at every available stage of the day: before bed, over breakfast, right through lunch break and more after dinner. A Better Story: God, sex and human flourishing by Glynn Harrison has gripped me in this way. That is why I am suggesting it here as my first ‘Great Summer Read’, among a selection of books about culture and mission that you really must read this summer if you can.

Glynn Harrison is a former professor of psychiatry at the University of Bristol, and therefore is able to draw on years of research in analysing the sexual revolution. He breaks his book down into three parts, first understanding the sexual revolution from the 1960s to today, then critiquing it from a biblical perspective, before calling us as Christians to shape the ‘better story’ of the title. Though he could have pitched this at a fully academic level, this is a book for everyone who is prepared to think, and is written in lucid, clear and engaging language for everyone. He handles Scripture well, and brings to it the findings of some fascinating studies from the world of modern psychiatry. Continue reading “Great summer reads 1 – A Better Story”

The Migrant crisis – an African perspective.

Gambia cowsIf you want to try starting to understand the migration crisis in the Mediterranean, look beyond the boats and the people traffickers to the world the migrants come from. A couple of Saturdays ago I sat with an African friend at our dinner table, and we picked through the newspapers. The Saturday Telegraph carried two lurid headlines: ‘Europe warned of ‘biblical’ migration if it fails to act now’ and ‘MP’s anger over paying £30M flood insurance for Africa.’ Africans continue to push up towards Europe in huge numbers, but we do little to invest in Africa. When we do, such as the African flood risk insurance scheme, the idea gets hammered. Discussing this sparked one of the best conversations I’ve had in a while, so I took notes in order to blog an African’s perspective on the whole situation.

My friend Steven is a Sierra Leonean who fled civil war in his homeland in the 1990s. He has lived in the Gambia for twenty years, and seen the Gambia go from freedom into fairly repressive government, and then enjoy a change of President last year that has brought new hope. It is still one of the poorest countries in the world, but perhaps a flow of inward investment and a new generation educated at home in the Gambia’s universities can shape the country’s future in a positive way.

Some Gambians who survived the journey into Europe on inflatable boats used the old regime as their reason for leaving. However, Steven says that the previous President only attacked politicians and journalists. The many who said ‘We are fleeing political persecution’ were using that to try to play the asylum system.  Their real reason for travelling the desert and getting into a boat was because of their extended family, and the willingness to take a huge risk for them in a culture where life is often short, death from disease is still common and the economic contrast with Europe is extreme.

In a rural Gambian village a family will look at their children as the key to their economic future. A young man who is fit, streetwise and could be relied on to get some kind of work is seen as a good risk by his parents and other relatives. They will pay for him to go with the people traffickers, who will take him to Europe. They may pay 40,000 Dalasi (about £650), or it may be double that. To the family it may be everything that they can rake together. But they do not consider the risks, mostly because they are not really known in a society with much less access to the news media than we are used to. To them, their son is their investment, and he will do well. ‘Allah will help us.’

Steven described how he is involved in a building project outside the capital. He went to visit the village, to find the builder he is paying to make his concrete blocks and raise the walls. Each time he visits the home, the family say ‘He is away.’ Finally, a month later they admit that he has headed to Europe. He was not ‘people trafficked’ against his will. He is simply a ‘hustler’, taking a chance to get them all a better life. They call him a ‘hustler’ because he doesn’t have a job to go to, or anywhere to live. He is just chancing it. The family treat it as like taking a ‘lucky dip’, rather than anything illegal. Some migrants go from the villages, others come from the main city, Serrecunda. Some go with their family paying, but some also go without anyone knowing. Generally they carry mobile phones to contact their family when they arrive.  If after several months nothing is heard, the family then conduct a funeral, assuming their loved one has died.

What route do they take? It is a highly organised people trafficking network. Some use canoes and fishing boats to take them out of the Gambia river to a ship off the coast, which then transfers them on along the network of connections to the North African coast. The majority go by land. They enter Senegal, where the traffickers load them into vehicles which take them across Mali or Mauritania, then through to Algeria or Libya. How much they pay the traffickers will depend on how many bribes are paid. Out in the Sahara it is comparatively easy to come and go, but the big obstacles are the security forces in Algeria and Libya. The traffickers may bribe the police to turn a blind eye and let them through, but traffickers are completely unscrupulous. If they have to run from the security forces, they will drive their cargo south into the desert and abandon them to the sand and sun.

Last year the Gambian government repatriated 270 Gambians by plane from Libya. They put them on Gambian TV to tell their story, testifying to how they had had to drink their own urine to survive being abandoned in the desert. Quite rightly the Government wanted to educate their own population of the perils of this racket.

Consider then those who do make it to the coast. They have to deal with another group of traffickers altogether, the boat operators. If you wonder why those coming off the boats in Lampedusa are in such a bad state, look at the way they have been mistreated on their journey to the coast. They may indeed be desperate to get to Europe by this stage, but the greatest reason for this is the hellish journey they have endured, and the sense that the traffic is only one way.

Steven knows three young men who have travelled the route or considered it. One was a student staff worker who had considered going, but abandoned the idea before he came to faith in Christ. ‘God saved me from sin and also from an early death.’

Over 250 years ago, John Newton and others were sailing thGambia mosquee river Gambia to trade in slaves. Today we have a new, and tragically voluntary trade, but it similarly leads to an early death and all manner of crimes. What can end this awful process? Steven says it needs to be an economic partnership to create local employment. In the last thirty years we always assumed this had to be Western governments extending their aid budgets. Where this funds good education and healthcare, and upgrades infrastructure, that is good, so long as it doesn’t create dependency and get syphoned off in a load of graft. However, African countries have been soaking up western aid without having to think about becoming self-financing. What they need most of all are the banks and private investors who will partner with national entrepreneurs to build the businesses that will fund proper public services. Good governance is also key, and a big anchor in making people want to stay in their home country. If they can be confident that government will respect the rule of law, respond positively to public opinion and govern according to principles of justice for all, they would far rather stay put. Steven says ‘The truth is most Africans won’t want to come to Europe if they have just the basic necessities that make life comfortable.’ But if the only thing we export to West Africa is the dream of western riches, shown through our films, TV shows and advertising, then the dream will always be in the Promised Land of Europe, but the journey there will be hellish chaos and many of those who make it will not prosper.

Oliver Stone’s Edinburgh speech and his worldview

StoneYesterday I encountered Oliver Stone in person. BAFTA and Oscar winner, producer/director of JFK, Nixon and most recently a documentary series of interviews with Vladimir Putin, he was picking up an honorary doctorate at our daughter’s graduation ceremony in Edinburgh. As a revealing cultural moment, I thought it deserved a post here dissecting his narrative of the world.

Oliver Stone is a great film director, who makes serious films that tackle the big narrative of geopolitical issues. He isn’t a Spielberg mass entertainer, nor does he paint the dream world of Richard Curtis. He does grit.  Like the best he is a big personality. I imagine he isn’t easy to please on set. But my first impression of him was of studied disinterest. As the honoured guest he sat front and centre in the McEwan Hall, the eyes of all upon him. His presentation and speech was in the middle of the programme, so half the graduands walked up to be ceremonially doffed with the famous cap immediately in front of him. Yet he spent the time very obviously writing his speech! Around him ranks of academics clapped each person as they passed. Oliver looked down and scribbled. How important do you have to think you are that you can’t enter into the occasion and congratulate their success? Even when his speech was finally ready, he couldn’t bring himself to clap. But this is the culture of pride and self-obsession, and Hollywood is its summit. What a tragedy that great men who shape the culture have forgotten how to walk humbly in public.

His speech was unforgettable. Like the preacher at a wedding who majors on the evil of divorce, he addressed a gathering of arts students on the certain imminent threat of nuclear apocalypse, all within a secular liberal framework.  Sobering stuff for graduation day. Yet strangely, I agreed with some of what he said. Allow me to unpick his narrative of the world, to find the truth, and expose the fundamental flaws. Continue reading “Oliver Stone’s Edinburgh speech and his worldview”

Grenfell Tower and the biblical longing for home

35353492476_e6860be791_hThe desperate tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire may prove to be a defining moment in our culture, a tragic combination of events that serves to reveal so much in British society, both bad and good. The tower stands as a charred obelisk as you drive down the Westway, like some terrible gash on the face of London that reveals tooth and bone such that you don’t want to stare but cannot look away. Last Friday I went to pick up my daughter from University, and with the car loaded with possessions (a poignant fact in the context), we drove past on our way out. At one point you can see daylight right through the building, where once there were homes with all their possessions and their shared human life. There are so many strands to this terrible tragedy, so much that could be written, but I want to focus on one theme. The Grenfell Tower tragedy has much to teach us about the biblical concept of home, and to highlight the problems of making a home in a vast global city.

God designed and created the idea of home. Continue reading “Grenfell Tower and the biblical longing for home”

London – a resilient city

St Pauls in BlitzLondon is a great city. Through fifty years it has been my capital city, and I have lived my life in and out of it, walked its streets, enjoyed its parks, discovered its neighbourhoods, and bathed in its history. I’ve visited every Museum, queued up to get into Parliament, walked its art galleries, ridden almost every tube line, arrived at every major rail terminal, ridden in a black cab and numerous buses, seen the crown jewels at the Tower of London, and cheered the Queen down the mall. I was ordained in SW London twenty five years ago this September, and in recent years have enjoyed preaching in so many of London’s churches. When my work takes me away to other continents, there is no joy like the joy of flying in over the suburbs, seeing the Millennium Dome and the Shard, and coasting up the Thames to Heathrow, as I did this week. It is a wonderful city that welcomes you home.

Therefore those like President Trump who suggest that we are alarmed by what happened last night on London Bridge just do not know the place. There is something in the British spirit that looks terrorism in the face and carries on. London is a resilient city. We have lived through much worse. 351 years ago the old city of London burnt down, and the Corporation set to work to rebuild, raising the second St Pauls Cathedral from the ashes of the first. In Dickensian London, life had become unbearable in the ‘great stink’ of 1858, but London showed the way in building the great Victorian sewerage system, and in building the first underground railways as well. After the killing fields of the First World War, it was Londoners who had the vision to build ‘Metroland’, the rolling suburbs that brought the country to the city and were so celebrated by Sir John Betjeman.

Then came the Blitz. Continue reading “London – a resilient city”

Seven things I’d love to see in this election

800px-Polling_station_6_may_2010Could this be a very different kind of general election? Has the ground shifted in British politics? I really don’t know. But as we embark on yet another election campaign, I long to see a different agenda take hold in British politics. Here are seven things I would love to see in this election:

1. A new debate about human rights. So much of the agenda of the past twenty years has been about human rights, tied to the equality agenda, which is really a political correctness conformist agenda. The Human Rights Act 1998 has enshrined the European Convention of Human Rights in UK law, but whether this has ever done anything to extend the concept of human rights is debatable. Many of the rights stated have existed in English law for hundreds of years. The Human Rights Act has done a lot for prisoners’ rights, and has made the job of the prison service much worse, even though we were not a brutal prison regime pre-1998. Also, foreign nationals so often don’t get deported at the end of their sentence because they have a right to a family life and their new girlfriend and baby conveniently lives in Britain. The Human Rights Acts has certainly advanced the LGBT community’s rights, because the focus has been on the more fashionable, politically correct rights of self-expression and identity, while it has failed to guard the most basic right of all, the right to life. In fact, the right to life is being steadily eroded. An unborn child can be destroyed simply because it has Downs Syndrome, and that can happen right up to birth. We would not do that to someone disabled at some point in their life, so why would we do that to someone who has a genetic abnormality that does not prevent them from enjoying a full, educated and integrated life in the community. Please can we have a debate in this election on the human right to life. If we did, it would be a massive change to the political agenda, but it is the most precious right of all.

Continue reading “Seven things I’d love to see in this election”

Real life in rural Kenya

DSCF8254Africa has a middle class. This is a surprise to many people in the West, but in a country such as Kenya the middle class is growing rapidly. They pay their taxes, drive their cars and live in decent housing, often doing white collar jobs and generating income for the wider economy. This is very obvious in Nairobi, but it is also true in Western Kenya. In Kisumu, Kenya’s third city, life is much quieter than the throng of Nairobi, but there are a few opulent hotels, a large new high-rise University building, and suburbs where the middle class and ex-pats live in walled compounds shaded by trees, protected with heavy security. During my visit there this February, we drove home with some curiosity one day to find men digging a trench down the street to install fibre optic cables. Even in Bondo, the home town of Presidential candidate Raila Odinga to the West of Kisumu with its ‘frontier town’ atmosphere, the town now plays host to a small university. Development is changing rural Kenya, and yet life still remains in so many ways the same.

Rural Kenyan life is still organised around the land, and it is farmed in small ‘shambas’, where each family lives and eats what their land produces. Whereas British farms are organised in units of hundreds of acres, each Kenyan farms about an acre of land or less, which means that homes are spread out fairly evenly across the countryside, rather than gathered into village clusters. Most farmers grow maize and millet, along with cassava and green vegetables, and keep a few cattle and goats, with some stray chickens. Their plot may be fenced in with bushes and sticks, and pieces of board or corrugated iron fill the gaps and make for ramshackle boundaries. If this seems untidy to those who are used to large British farms with fences and thick hedgerows, as an allotment holder I felt rather at home! I chatted to several of the local pastors about what they grew on their plot, and how they made a living. Of course, everything still depends on the rain, and they rejoiced that it had rained for the first time the night I had arrived (not cause and effect, I assure you!). However, as I had come to visit a village church gathering that Saturday, half of those who would have come to the meeting were busy turning their soil as the first rains had softened it, something I could fully understand.

In the West we are told that everything in Africa is a disaster. Continue reading “Real life in rural Kenya”

God’s risen King and the nations

love-699480_1920This Easter, the world is in chaos. A new cold war has frozen relations between Washington and Moscow. President Trump is putting his military hardware to use across the world, and in the most enduring military standoff ever, tensions could hardly be higher along the DMZ in Korea. So many new beginnings have held such promise – the ‘New World Order’ of 1989, the ‘Arab Spring of 2011 – but in each case the promised new era of peace is swiftly ruined by hatred and violence. So why should the first Easter Day be any different? Because it is the fulcrum of history, and the victory established that day is still working itself out as history rolls on. How does Easter affect the nations of the world?

Christians are passionate about the nations of the world. We believe this is God’s world, and that he holds the nations in the palm of his hand. Our concern is to see people from all nations turning to Christ and being reconciled to God. So our hearts are troubled when nations are divided, and it seems like the world is breaking into pieces. How can we make sense of it? The answer is to turn to Scripture and to look at the world as God sees it. One obvious place to turn to for wisdom is Psalm 2. It takes us from a world in uproar to the throne room of heaven, to see God’s plan for the nations. Psalm 2 presents to us God’s King and shows us how he will rule the nations. It is a short psalm in four paragraphs, and with each paragraph the scene changes. If Psalm 2 was a film, the camera angles would keep changing, and the voices would keep changing. It is a powerful drama wrapped up in 12 short verses. Continue reading “God’s risen King and the nations”

In spite of all terror

palace-of-westminster-1810205_1920It is a double tragedy that a terrorist attacked the British Parliament today. Terrorism is an attack on our national life, an utter rejection of democracy, so when a terrorist targets Parliament itself, we feel a national sense of violation, laden with symbolism.This is not the first terror attack on the Palace of Westminster. In 1979, Abingdon MP Airey Neave was blown up in his car just a few yards from the scene of today’s attack, and earlier in the 1970s the IRA planted a bomb in a doorway of Westminster Hall near the statue of Oliver Cromwell.

As we come to the end of such a tragic day, what is the Christian response to a terrorist attack on our country? Here are some of my thoughts.

  1. Weep with those who weep. An officer ran towards danger for the sake of others, and will not be coming home tonight. Weep for his family, and for every Policeman’s family who wait to see what condition their loved one comes home in at the end of a shift. (The latest post on the Police Commander blog is more than poignant today.) Weep for the families of the other victims, including those who sit at the bedsides of the wounded in St Thomas’s and Guys hospitals. But do not weep in the pagan way, as though lighting candles and laying flowers will somehow placate unknown gods. Weep for these families before the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, and remember that our heavenly Father knows what it means to be bereft, as he was on Good Friday.

Continue reading “In spite of all terror”