The Grace Ubiquity.

“Every breath we draw is a gift of God’s love; every moment of existence is a grace” Thomas Merton.

The longer I continue as an increasingly sceptical Christian I become more convinced of the importance of grace. In evangelical terms this virtue is often understood as, and I quote “free sovereign favour to the ill-favoured”. This is very much in line with the ‘in or out’ dichotomy favoured by that world view. This view thrives on the idea that there are those who remain outside God’s favour (because of a space time Fall) until they are invited in by some diligent evangelist. This view follows what Karen Armstrong calls in her recent book ‘The Bible – A Biography’; the “thread of hatred that runs through the New Testament”- once you see this you find it everywhere – these documents thrive on the idea of an elect who have the whole truth and the rest who don’t- insiders and outsiders caught in an opposition with eternal consequences!!

But I have often wondered whether this dichotomy comes less from the character of God and more from the anguished history of the church and the equally anguished individuals who influenced its formation. Furthermore what if grace was solely dependent on the God who “is love” and less on the increasingly desperate efforts of the church to evangelise? Perhaps I’m flirting with heresy and universalism here but it seems to me that grace is all and everywhere, and way beyond the control of any human institution.

A contemporary example; I recently watched an episode of the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory called ‘The Scavenger Vortex’ (it is season 7 episode 3). Here the character Raj arranges a scavenger hunt for his friends, cue much rushing around following clues and comedic business as the characters struggle towards victory. But at the end of the hunt and all their efforts Raj reveals that everyone has won – much to the annoyance of everyone concerned!

This episode strikes me as a parable about grace, illustrating the alternative narrative in which everyone wins and there are no losers. If only the church could be such a parable, illustrating the hope it symbolizes rather than being an organisation that increasingly lives at odds with its message. As it has been in the past the church has become concerned with its own survival at the expense of the kingdom (or ‘kindom’) that Jesus preached about. This gracious kindom reality welcomes everyone and the only condition of admittance is, as the poet R.S. Thomas reminds us in his poem ‘The Kingdom’; “Your need only and the simple offering/ Of your faith, green as a leaf”.

A tale of two movies and more….

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A tale of two movies and more….

A tale of two movies and more………

As a long time reader of science fiction I have longed for what Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick described as “the proverbial good science fiction movie”- in my opinion they achieved this with ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ but I recently saw two movies that revived my faith in sf in movies. The first was Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival, this story of humanity’s first contact with an alien race is full of wit and wonder and, more importantly that sense of being slightly off balance that comes with the very best sf. Villeneuve is also the director of the recent Blade Runner sequel (another fine sf film!) which confirms his talent and vision.

The second is an Australian movie directed by Michael and Peter Spierig in 2014. Predestination is a tricky time travel tale in which Ethan Hawke plays a temporal agent who is carrying out a mission to stop a terrorist attack and who finds that time travel produces completely unforeseen consequences. Again, there is wit and panache, and once again that sense that the viewer is off balance and unsure of what is happening. I commend both movies without reservation.

The ‘more’ is this post is this; Matthew Vaughan’s spy spoof ‘Kingsman- The Secret Service’- not half as clever as it thinks it is but boasting great performances from Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Taron Edgerton.  Then there is music by Little Feat (their masterful reading of Allen Toussaint’s ‘On your way Down’ and their own ‘Two Trains’ from their second album ‘Dixie Chicken’ in 1973, and ‘Red Streamliner’ from ‘Time Loves a Hero’ in 1977’. What a great band they were in those days. Also, the great blues/ jazz miniaturist Mose Allison (‘Eyesight to the Blind’), and finally, Elbow’s album Little Fictions and Madelaine Peyroux’s version of Charlie Chaplin’s song Smile- with Til Bronner’s gorgeous trumpet!

I have just finished Adam Roberts’ novel Jack Glass, a triptych of locked room mysteries given a sf twist. A very accomplished novel from a writer who like China Mieville loves the genre enough to renew it with vigour and sophistication. From there I found my way into William Gibson’s 2007 novel ‘Spook Country’, the second in his informal ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy. It is a spy novel cum techno thriller, but these terms fall short of describing Gibson’s style which mixes the old and the new in a refreshing and thoughtful way. For example he can write about a Ford Econoline (a van first produced in the 1960’s) alongside the latest consumer brand and tech. This gives weight to one of my favourite sayings of his; “The Future is here, it’s just not widely distributed”. For me, he comes across here as a sort of mix of Grahame Greene and Philip K. Dick, and also here, Raymond Chandler. There is a line in this book that could have come directly from Chandler’s pen; “The light on the beach was like a sinus headache”.

More adventures in reading, watching and listening to come……

On singing old hymns

It has been said that Methodists sing their faith; that it is in hymnody that we can find a good indication of what Methodists believe about the Christian faith. Indeed, no less a person than John Wesley wrote in his foreword of the 1780 hymnal that he considered the hymn book as “a little body of experimental and practical divinity”. These are words which for me have underscored the importance of reading hymns as well as singing them. Whilst preparing a service recently I puzzled over a hymn to finish the worship and, as the gospel reading was the story/ parable of the talents in Matthew 25 I decided on ‘Tell me the old, old story’, a hymn written by Katherine Hankey in January 1866 as she recovered from a serious illness. Like many hymns it was originally part of a longer poem (the second part of which originally ran for over 40 verses!). It found its way into hymn books between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The first verse gives a flavour;

“Tell me the old, old story

Of unseen things above,

Of Jesus and his glory,

Of Jesus and his love.

Tell me the story simply,

As to a little child;

For I am weak and weary,

And helpless and defiled:

Tell me the old, old story,

Of Jesus and his love”.

I could not find the hymn in the latest edition of the Methodist Hymn Book (‘Singing the Faith’) which was published in 2011 so I chose it from that book’s predecessor ‘Hymns and Psalms’ (1983). The thing that struck me was the reaction of the congregation after the service- many commented on how they had not sung the hymn for ages and how it took them back to their earliest experiences of faith and church attendance. This left me reflecting on the place of hymns in our worship tradition. I have thought for a long time that Methodist hymnody is being replaced by songs that, as they have come mainly from a tradition of solo worship singing are hard for congregations to navigate, and the ‘old’ hymns are easily neglected. One point that is easily made is that the language of many of the Wesley’s hymns (for example) is ‘old fashioned’ by today’s standards. But the same could be said for the novels of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens where their prose style has to be ‘read into’ before its riches are revealed- this assumed ‘inaccessibility’ has not harmed their perennial popularity.

In preferring ‘modern’ hymns over others I wonder whether we run the risk of ‘dumbing down’ the powerful sung theology found in the older material. It is possible to attend key worship services in the life of the Methodist church and find no hymns by, for example Charles Wesley, in the worship! As the Irish singer Christy Moore observed “some old songs are not worth singing” and there are hymns that fall into this category with theology that is out dated and wrongheaded. But as the congregation I referred to earlier seemed to think, many ‘old’ hymns should retain their place as a trigger for memory and reflection alongside more modern hymns- which, in their turn will find their place in the life of the church.