I went to see The Long Road at the Soho Theatre on Tuesday night. It's a new play by Shelagh Stephenson based on her experience of working with Synergy Theatre and The Forgiveness Project in some of the UK's toughest gaols. It's been directed by Synergy founder (and brother of Jonny) Esther Baker, and follows the story of a family grieving the loss of their son, needlessly stabbed to death at a bus stop, and their move towards meeting the killer.
The people who know best say she's done a fantastic job:
"Esther Baker’s impeccably acted production confirms the play’s suggestion that restorative justice is far from a soft option."****’
Sarah Hemming, The Financial Times
"Rare and remarkable, this is drama that cries out for attention, and richly rewards it... The acting is tremendous."
Charles Spencer, The Telegraph
And she has. When a play leaves with questions about your own life and attitudes towards living it, and challenges you to re-think, you know it's proper theatre. What the hell would I do if it was my son who was stabbed to death? I'm afraid to even peer into that abyss, and hope I never have to, but for those in and around the criminal justice system, that's what they have to do. And what society demands they do in response to that does affect us all.
If you're in town, go and see it. With great talks around the issues before each Tuesday performance. On til 5th June.
I've been reading some Yeats recently. In his short play, Calvary, Jesus is confronted by Judas as he walks with his cross:
Judas: I betrayed you because you seemed all powerful.
Jesus: My Father,
Even if now I were to whisper it,
Would break the world in his miraculous fury
To set me free.
Judas: And there is not one man in the wide world who is not in your power?
Jesus: My Father put all men into my hands.
Judas: That was the very thought that drove me wild.
I could not bear to think that you had but to whistle
And I must do; but after that I thought,
'Whatever man betrays Him will be free';
And life grew bearable again. And now
Is there a secret left that I do not know,
Knowing that if a man betrays a God
He is the stronger of the two?
It's a strange play, from a strange poet, but this passage seems to encompass all the problems of free will and divine omnipotence so beautifully. I've yet to read Pete's new book - funny, my complimentary copy just doesn't seem to be forthcoming (the measly git) - but I wonder if we can see some of that fidelity in Judas' thoughts here: subverting God, precisely because God 'seemed all powerful'... and in that bizarre power-struggle of free will and knowledge, God allowing himself to be subverted. As I write in Signs of Emergence, I think Judas has been wrongly tarred by Christianity, and actually can serve as a very helpful, if troubled, mirror onto our own misconstructions of God and God's power.
Beautiful piece flagged here. The lines of a poem appear and disappear on the floor of a pavillion as the sun moves, shining through precisely arranged perforations. The artist, Jiyeon Song, is concerned that we are rushing too quickly through our finite life, and missing so much by doing so.
Another excellent programme from BBC's In Our Time, which this week looks at Soren Kierkegaard. It's a really good introduction to his thinking, and has some wonderful sections around the idea of subverting those who consider themselves to 'be' Christians, and how Kierkegaard considered this to be impossible...
There's also an honest confession from a secular materialist, admitting that, when it comes to love, 'Chrisitans have all the great tunes'.
Well worth a listen. And if you like what you hear, go buy Pete Rollin's stuff. He might be Irish, but he's right there when it comes to interpreting this for our time.
It's been a huge day of sport in the UK. Depressingly the team I support got dumped out of a cup competition, and England were also beaten in a big rugby international by Scotland. But later on, Jonny's team - who've had literally hundreds of millions of pounds spent on players since being bought by a Russian oligarch - were beaten by a tiny side from a league below them, and dumped out of the cup too.
Joy and sorrow. Adrenaline and depression. Highs and lows. Season after season. It never ends.
I have a good sporting rapport with lots of people within church circles, and Jonny and Jordon blog some sports too, but, as in cultural life, it is really ignored as a theological locus, unlike literature, music or art. I'm beginning to wonder why this is. Part of the trickster in me wonders if it's just because the effete bookish types who ended up theologians were always the last to get picked for playground teams in school (though Camus had been a promising player). Perhaps it's something deeper.
Mentions of sport in the Bible are few and far between. Paul talks a bit about running the race... but it's hardly the taking part he thinks that counts. He races to win, not wanting to 'run like a man running aimlessly... I beat my body and make it my slave.' (1 Cor 9) We don't see Jesus ever doing something so frivolous as take part in a game of anything. Was this because society had such little time for leisure? As a Roman, Paul would have been more used to the idea of a successful culture creating leisure time due to its riches, and thus giving time for sport, for playful shows of strength and skill.
Hard edges of the church have looked down on sport in the past, seeing it variously as too sensual, too close to passion. And yet many of the UK's leading football teams can trace their roots back to evangelical men's clubs and the 'muscular Christianity' they promoted to keep the working class out of trouble and pubs. Perhaps it's harsh on those who gave so much to that work, but the hangover I've sensed seems to be a rather patronising attitude to sport: it's good for you, it'll probably keep you out of trouble, but it's got nothing really to do with faith.
Which leaves me wondering why I'm passionate about it, or, more accurately, why I've allowed myself to become more passionate about it, in inverse proportion to my proximity to evangelicalism.
I wonder if the answer might be in Ecclesiasties 9, where the sage says:
I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.
Time and chance. These are the twin curses of the sports fan: all victories are temporal. Each season has to be fought again from scratch each year, and past glories mean little. And, no matter what we might say, so much is down to chance. That 'goal of the month', that incredible shot, that goal - we can claim some great skill, but really we know that 99 times out of 100 it would not have come off, would have scuffed off a boot into the stands.
And this is where I think sport gives us a great theological grounding: the race is not to the swift. God does not play for us, does not ram the ball home and his riches do not guarantee victory. The highs and lows, the passing seasons, are part of this marathon. We must enjoy them, and yet, as all sports fans know, not ride hubris-high and expect some final victory. Not yet. Not in this advent, in this now and not yet...
So I think it's about time sport was taken more seriously. I'm done with people patronising the passion, the partisanship, the emotional energy, longing for us to turn our minds to higher things. It's about codes, about being bound to a team. They had a word for this binding, this commitment to something in Latin. Religare. That's right. Sport is a religion. And, as such, informs faith. So, anyone want to bat some theology of sport around? Or it is just me convinced God is right into Man United? (Sorry, couldn't resist ;-)
"I'd rather be arrested for shoplifting than ever be an evangelical leader again. There was a certain basic and decent honesty about stealing pork chops that selling God had lacked."
It's only March, I know, but I'll put a punt on Crazy for God still being one of my top 5 books of 2008 in December.
The subtitle, "How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back", pretty much sums the book up nicely. Frank is, of course, the son of the massively influential Christian leader Francis Schaeffer, who was a profound influence on my parents and their generation's view of faith. Francis Schaeffer set up 'L'Abri' in Switzerland where everyone who was anyone hung out at some point in the 60's. The Rolling Stones, Led Zep, Os Guinness and every other star in the Christian constellation all passed by there to argue faith and culture with Francis and the L'Abri workers.
While Frank skiied, avoided school, hit on the scores of girls who passed through and scored with plenty of them, and his right hand too. This is what makes Crazy for God such a refreshing read: here's someone from the true Christian royalty actually telling it like it is, with all the sex drugs and rock and roll edited in. If you don't want the honest truth about a teenager helping a disabled friend jack off, praying for him to be healed by emptying a jar of oil over his head and ruining his clothes in the process, then this book isn't for you.
But if, like so many in the emerging movement, you've wrestled with your parents' faith, wildly oscillated between crazed commitment - and Frank does a very good job outlining how he did set up the Religious Right, and exactly what he thinks of it now - and total rejection, then you'll absolutely love it. Indeed, as the US heads into election fever again I'd say this should be required reading for all who are looking for their candidate to back up their faith perspective. Here's a book by someone who really knows, and has really been through it: extraordinary childhood, celebrity, acclaimed artist, teenage father, Hollywood director, jet-setting evangelical speaker... and he gave it all up, and had so much taken away, and did end up stealing pork chops.
It's a genuine laugh-out-loud read, moving, committed and written like the proper novelist he is (and if you haven't read Portofino, you must) and I'm really excited that he's agreed to come to Greenbelt this summer. That's reason enough to get your ticket now, before the March discount deadline ends.
So the Oscars have been wept along to, and we've had the BAFTAs and the BRITs and the Grammys... I think people are missing a trick here. Come on Emergent, give us an award ceremony! We demand a tacky hotel and venue, with numbered tables, free alcohol and cut away shots to Andrew Jones as he shuffles when the Lifetime Achievement category approaches!
Someone should design a gong... I reckon a brass cast of a tea light should do it.
And the award for Best Use of a Video Projector in a Badly Lit Space goes to...
Further categories and nominations welcome. The 'Mergees' start here...