Thursday, 30 June 2011

Clint Eastwood and learning to notice

Films are a great distraction. And I mean than in the most positive of ways. Nothing draws my attention quite like a good film. The big screen, even if mediated through a large TV, totally engages my thoughts, my emotions and my senses. Films are a great way 'taking your mind off things.' A chance to escape into another world. An ideal way to relax when your mind has been full of complex or troublesome thoughts.

There are some film stars whose films I know I can rely on to achieve that welcome break. One such is Clint Eastwood. I know he will provide a strong narrative, powerful characterisation, and action - often plenty of action! Real entertainment, but I can't remember ever having quoted a Clint Eastwood film in a sermon. I have just taken them at face value - a fun way to pass a couple of hours.

Book cover copyright Eerdmans
Then through my letterbox today came the cover in the picture and a blurb from a publisher seeking a review. I'm told that in the book the theologian Sara Anson Vaux traces the development of Eastwood's unfolding moral vision. That's a new one on me. I've simply never thought of seriously examining the star's films in this way, but why not?

On reflection I realise that they deal with some hefty themes: justice, confession, obsession, war and peace, gender, achievement, individualism, nobility, and the search for perfectability - to cite but a few. My consideration of those things has been obscured by the dominant idea of entertaining escapism is my viewing of Eastwood's films. I should have taken them more seriously - though no less entertainly! Vaux's book will be published here in November; I look forward to learning much from what she has to say.

In the meantime I need to take to heart again the preacher's task of working with people so that they can notice things that otherwise go unnoticed. Too often preaching is a restatement of the all too obvious, instead of the surprising disclosure of God it's meant to be. Revealing hidden depths and and signalling otherwise overlooked grace are crucial parts of what it's about. Thinking about Clint in a new way calls me back to something I too easily forget.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Preaching in an amnesic society

eds D. Doyle & E Hill, New City Press

For Saint Augustine (354-430), wisdom and truthfulness always had to come before eloquence. Nevertheless he remodelled Cicero’s (106-43 BC) ideas of rhetoric so that they might be used in the service of the Gospel. According to Cicero the orator must teach, delight, and persuade. Augustine in his preaching added a conscious effort to get the listener’s attention and maintain the listener’s’ active interest. These rhetorical skills, however, were always subservient to Christ the ‘interior teacher’ who speaks to the heart of the believer. As Augustine put it ‘We preach, but God instructs’ (sermon 153.1).
In an effort to think through how rhetorical skills might serve contemporary preaching I've produced a kind of amalgamation of Maurice Halbwachs and some of the wisdom of Saint Augustine on the PreacherRhetorica website. Suggestions and comments welcome. 

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Personalisation or personal-isolation

BBC report
I first noticed it when searching for a particular theological book on a well-known shopping site. A prominent ad appeared on the bottom of the page encouraging me to attend a church not too far from where I live. Using the page again a few days the ad appeared again, along with others with a similar locality focus or for products and services somehow related to the product for which what I was actually searching. My web use has been 'personalised.' Without having done any deliberate thing to request these add-ons (!) my use of the web has been automatically analysed and content directed into my view that that matches my likes, interests, prejudices, and values. More and more personalisation is promised for my web experience. I will be directed towards things that will interest me. This is to my advantage in a world awash with information and choice, so I'm told. But I'm not so sure.
Sometimes personalisation produces simply daft connections. I was reading a story about a serious crime. When the word 'visit' came up in the report a pop-box appeared telling me the advantages of joining the National Trust! The clash with the content of what I was reading was so severe as to be completely off-putting.
The more serious worry about my Internet use being personalised in a web bubble is the way it limits what I'm doing. I may think I've got a world of choices and options to explore but actually that world is being limited by what the search anlyser considers to be me. What seemed wide open space is being contrained by boundaries I know little about. In place of the world-wide web there is a supposedly 'me-shaped' web bubble that I've have no direct way of influencing.
Yes, I know the adverts directed to me by personalisation help to keep the web free of charges. And yes, I know I can tweek the analysis of me a search engines makes. Nevertheless I don't want to be constrained in a bubble.
It reminds me of the way that faith is too often constrained by the things of prejudice and cultural outlook.  By the grace of God the believer, a person of a particular time, place and experience, is freed into a new community that is the people of God which knows no boundaries of time, place, and culture. The believer remains rooted in the particular, for that is what it is to be human, but also has a foretaste of eternity where those things no longer bind. Day by day we strive to let eternity touch the ordinary - and that's not living in a bubble.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Pegwell Bay, Kent - A Recollection of October 5th 1858

I once owned a painting by Scottish artist William Dyce (1806-1864). It wasn't that I personally owned it but that the office I held brought with it the custodian trusteeship of the painting. Anyway, the connection has made me alert to any mention of Dyce. Consequently when I came across Dyce's Pegwell Bay as an example of Victorian 'wistful atheism' in David Fergusson's brilliant little book 'Faith and Its Critics' (OUP paperback 2011) I was bound to consider the painting again.
Pegwell Bay, Kent - A Recollection of October 5th 1858 by William Dyce
I'm not sure Fergusson has got it right. As I understand it the painting evokes for him the mood of a kind of reluctant atheism that admits the changing perspective brought by geological study and Darwin's new theories but somehow struggles to admit the consequences of the earth now known to be so much older than previously thought. Perhaps that was the mood of the age, but I don't think Dyce shared it - after all his paintings of biblical scenes are wondrously lively.

What then might the picture be saying?

It's usually analysed in terms of the various kinds of time portrayed: the ancient geological time in the detailed rock strata, fossils and chalk cliffs; the fleeting life-time of beloved people (Dyce's family members collecting shells in the foreground); earth-time as portrayed by the dying light and the receding tide; and astronomical time in Donati's comet just visible in the sky. These aspects coupled to the muted, fading light colours are, it is suggested, Dyce's way of stating human frailty in comparison to the immensely aged and vast universe.

I wonder whether that's actually it, or whether that is a reading back into the mid-nineteenth century something of our contemporary worries. The figure standing at the right, near the cliff, is Dyce himself with artist's equipment under his arm. He is staring at the comet. A brilliant view against the fading sunlight, no doubt. He and his family were on holiday. That the others in the party are so engaged in shell collecting could be a very positive sign of enjoyment. Certainly the colour of their clothing in comparison to the mute shades of the natural forms around them draws attention to them. The final clue may be the title Dyce himself gave the picture. Might not 'a recollection' mean exactly that? Could it be that far from being a statement about humanity and an uncaring universe, the painting is a recollection of family and belonging where the universe is the playground of enjoyment, appreciation and a sense of at-one-ment? Collective memory certainly works via such recollections.
I'd love to hear the opinions of anyone who knows more about Dyce.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Powering memory

'She spoke on a verse from the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi isn't it? Chapter 3 verse 10.' So said my colleague Sandra during the office lunch break yesterday. She was recalling a sermon she heard 46 years earlier! Not only was she able to name the verse of scripture, she also told us the sermon was about bringing your complete tithe into God's storehouse and the blessings that follow. A remarkable piece of remembering, or so most people would think. And that it was a sermon that was being recalled makes it all the more extraordinary; most people assume sermons are instantly forgettable!
Sandra may well have a very good memory but I don't think she'd mind me suggesting that her remembering of this particular sermon isn't actually so extraordinary. Several important aspects of the way collective memory works are illustrated by our lunchtime conversation:
Gladys Alyward
First, the lunch time gathering was chatting about TV and films. Somehow the movie star Ingrid Bergman came up in the conversation. From there it was an easy step to her starring role in the 1958 movie Inn of the Sixth Happiness as the inspirational Gladys Alyward (1902-1970), the Cockney domestic who became a missionary in China. It was Alyward who was the preacher of the sermon Sandra mentioned (Alyward did a speaking tour in the UK in the mid 1960s). The memory is therefore well provided with readily remembered associations in terms of popular cultural forms. This is one way it is located, and social location is vital to remembering.
Second, Sandra heard the sermon at an event she attended with her mother, and remembers exactly how old she was at the time. The memory is therefore located in another way as well - it carries with it associations of a particular and significant time of life and the sense of belonging to a special social environment that went with it.
Third, the memory carries with it a very strong recollection of feelings. The deep emotions raised were clear in the way Sandra told of the incident and how touched by it those who listened were. This provides yet another kind of location in the sense that the personal significance of the memory remains lively and pertinent.
Fourth, Alyward as the speaker that day spoke with a sincerity of intention that was tangible. Sandra says that afterwards there was so much she wanted to say to Alyward but she was so overcome by the tenor of the occasion and the impact of the speaker that she found herself tongue-tied. Sandra felt that Alyward sensed that and she responded to the youngster by giving her a warm hug. That physical contact adds weight to the memorability of the sermon.
As it happens a recording of Alyward's sermon has recently been found (access it here). The venue and exact date of the recording isn't clear, but its style and content is almost certainly something Alyward repeatedly used during her speaking tours. She speaks straightforwardly and biographically without many rhetorical flourishes, but returns repeatedly to Malachi 3.10. Her conviction is compellingly but undramatically communicated at every point. Interestingly Alyward does not herself described her address as a sermon.

I think every preacher has things to learn from Sandra's remembering. Do we make memory location easy for our hearers? Are we sensitive enough to their current life experiences? Are we connecting to feelings and making what we say emotionally memorable? Are we deliberate enough when it comes to communicating conviction? I suspect if we paid more attention to these things Sandra's remembering wouldn't seem quite so remarkable.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

What is preaching?

Here's my attempt to define that speech event that happens in Christian congregations:

Preaching is an authoritative and authorized voice in a congregation giving expression to the Christian tradition in such a way as to encourage and enable it to be applicable in some measure in the lives of the hearers.

I realize there is also evangelistic preaching that takes place outside the congregation, but here I want to focus exclusively on preaching within the church for this is the preaching that directly serves the maintenance of the Christian collective memory. (You can find this kind of memory work in the New Testament, for example in 1 Corinthians 4.7; 2 Peter 1.12; Jude 5; Titus 3.10; and 2 Timothy 2.14).

My definition has ten distinct aspects to it:
  1. Preaching is something spoken.
  2. It generally uses one voice addressed to a number of people.
  3. That one voice has usually been given authrority to so speak (sometimes by an authorizing institution other than those immediately gathered, and sometimes from within the congregation)
  4. Preaching normatively takes place within a specialized gathering called a congregation, whose purpose is more than just hearing the sermon.
  5. Preaching's subject matter is more or less controlled by its relationship to an inherited tradition that principally consists of the Bible.
  6. The social purposes of preaching are determined by the needs of the congregation, at least theoretically, and the inherently missiological character of the New Testament.
  7. Preaching is expressive in the sense that it gives voice to the tradition in such a way that it impacts on the hearers' emotional, cognitive, intellectual and practical needs and understandings.
  8. It enables the hearers to link within their thoughts what is experienced with the congregation and what they experience in other aspects of their living.
  9. Preaching is to some degree authoritative in itself in that the hearers are willing to receive it with generally only indirect ways available to them to offer meliorating feedback (that said, the contractual-like nature of preaching means the preacher is aware that there are boundaries of style and content that may not be crossed).
  10. Preaching is performative in the sense that the preacher is expected to do more than simply read a text.
Is that fair enough? Or have I missed out something vital or otherwise misrepresented what we preachers do?

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Thomas and Bertie

copyright Royal Mail Group Ltd
Thomas and Bertie have made it onto British stamps (Royal Mail Shop here) and not before time too! Thomas is the only fictional character to appear in the Sunday Independent's Happy List (lists accessed here) - a list of a 100 people who make the United Kingdom a better balanced and happier country. He has certainly provided many happy hours of fun in our household. We're all delighted that the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas' creator, the Revd W. Awdry, is being marked in this way.

The Thomas and Bertie stamp is, I think, an adaption of the work of the original illustrator of the books, Reginald Payne. Other stamps in the Royal Mail series are based on images from the TV series Thomas and Friends, created by Britt Allcroft in 1984. The difference in style and my inability to distinguish between what I remember of Awdry's stories from my own childhood and what I remember from my children's childhood makes a strong point about collective memory.

My memory of these stories is vivid and I can recall many scenes in the narrative and many of the phrases used by the characters. There is no way, however, that I can distinguish which of these things are the oldest memories and which are the newest. In rehearsing the stories and encouraging my children's use of them in play I have constructed a complex pattern of recollections that fit together perfectly. It is now ten years or so since my youngster daughter last played with Thomas yet some of the things of her play, her older sisters' play, and my own childhood play have entered the fabric of our family communications: 'Never race at fast speeds, said the Fat Controller.' They are part of our family collective memory and its impossible to be certain of their ultimate origin. Our memory has been constructed by our repeated use of it. 
Collective memory mechanism:
memories are constructed from our recollections modelled in our retellings to suit our circumstances and our sense of belonging.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Return of the Sandwich Board

Wobble-boarder as seen in the Shropshire Star
Sandwich Board ads are a thing of the past. How wrong can you be! A few days ago(29 May blog) I mentioned the demise of living billboards and then along came national public furor about sandwich board ads by Domino's Pizzas.  Apparently the use of living advertisements has been provoking a lot of outrage.  Local newspapers across the country have been running the story because so many people consider the ads demeaning to the person carry the boards. Domino's have defended the campaign as humorous and say their 'wobble-boarders' are staff volunteers. Whatever the facts of the case, the debate made it to the national media last week.

I'm not clear whether sandwich boards are demeaning or not, but I have looked up Domino's yearly sales and they were up a full 20% on the previous year. Domino's is bucking the economic trends. When it comes to home-delivered pizza people are still spending. I'm sure that success isn't all down to wobble-boards. Nevertheless the fact that their advertisements are so much talked about certainly hasn't done them any harm.

Collective memory mechanism:
Talking the memory keeps the memory fresh.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Get out of the play-pits.

Frank Field MP speaking at Chester Diocesan Synod
Get out the play-pits and engage with a society that's becoming more pagan by the day. That was the gist of Frank Field's hope for the Church of England offered as a concluding remark in his address to Chester Diocesan Synod today. The Birkehead MP was speaking on his report on Poverty and Life Chances (Report available here) to the synod gathered in Northwich Memorial Hall. At the Q&A session concluding his remarks he was asked for a parting comment on the Church of England. Forthright and concise as ever, he challenged the church to be less concerned with itself and more concerned with wider society. He suggested that the debate about ordination of women as bishops was to most people immaterial, and that like many other things that occupied a great deal of church thinking and effort diverted attention from crucial social issues. I think that thought has been expressed often enough but what struck me as especially challenging was that Field went on to link it to what he termed an increasingly pagan society. 

If I understood aright what he was saying I think he meant that behaviour and values are becoming increasingly separated from any inherited faith. What is being created by that separation isn't a secular society where values and the behaviour that stems from them are guided by non-religious but philanthropic ideals rooted in the common good, but an altogether more chaotic and brutish disregard for civility. The old pagan gods of tribalism, boorishness, and ignorance are re-establishing themselves. I took his words to be a call to mission.  Interesting that it should be put so starkly by a politician.

I'm sure many would want to argue with the expression 'a society becoming pagan,' but nevertheless the fact that a serious and much respected social thinker puts it in such stark terms should prod every Christian into some sharp self-criticism. Is it too much to suggest the demise of the Christian collective memory of faith may destroy our very way of life?

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Let's hear it for clichés: Speaking to eyes and ears.

'The brain best remembers things that are repeated, rythmic, rhyming, structured, and above all easily visualized.' So writes Joshua Foer in his marvellous book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. The book details Foer's year of training for the US Memory Championships and along the way examines a host of associated scientific, cultural and curious aspects of memory. It weaves journalism, science, autobiography and memoir together in an incredible and often humorous way. Highly recommended, and I'm sure something to which this blog will return. But for the moment that one sentence stays with me:

'The brain best remembers things that are repeated, rythmic, rhyming, structured, and above all easily visualized.'

Foer's is writing about what can be leant from ancient bards. In a world where memory was essential to remembering they used clichés in content and style so that what was said might be remembered. What we often think of as bad habits in speaking (or writing) they cultivated as ways of sharpening the recall of the stories they told. Such methods are apparent in the parables and teachings of Jesus, in the Psalms, and indeed throughout the scriptures. And the mnemonic principles established by modern psychological research confirms the wisdom of these ancient ways.

Why then do we preachers so often ignore them? Shouldn't every sermon speak to the eyes and ears of the listeners before anything else? Our spoken words need a strong visual component. Speak so that people see something vivid created by what's said. Our spoken words need to be addressed to ears. Speak so that it's easy to listen and to engage. These things need the structures and techniques of the ancient bards.

Sunday, 5 June 2011


The Romans are in town. Temporarily at least. This weekend in Chester's Grosvenor Park and the excavated ruins of the nearby amphitheatre are occupied by a Roman Legion and a hoard of camp-followers. Gladiatorial games have returned to the arena outside the walls of the Legion's ancient fort of Deva.
All great fun. A couple of thousand spectators looked-on yesterday afternoon as the gladiators did their stuff. They, and all the other enactors, had taken great care to appear absolutely authentic: handmade shoes, tools and weapons, no synthetic fibres in any of the clothes or the tents, and craftsmen plying their skills 'as in the times of the Roman empire.' But yesterday was a very hot day and I saw several legionaires and gladiators swigging water from decidedly twenty-first century plastic bottles! Historical authenticity only goes so far before another kind of authenticity takes over. What was going on in the arena was explained via a public address system, and modern health and safety requirements were applied as at any other event. The combat was recorded on upteen digital cameras and phones, and no gladiator was actually injured. 

The boundaries between different authenticities were crossed again and again. And without explanation those of us watching understood the rules that applied and participated appropriately. Yes, the crowd bellowed for death or mercy, mimicking  what we imagined those who stood on the same spot so many centuries before had done.
Authenticity is something preachers need to keep constantly in mind. The words of a sermon are discredited if they strike the hearers as not-authentic. And yet preachers can and should speak from beyond their own experience. Preachers imaginatively construct possibilities beyond the mundane. They take the risk of stretching an account of the worldly so far that it encompasses eternity. Listeners need to be able to recognize the transition points between different authenticities, and it's the preacher responsibility to provide them. Preachers do this not to entertain, but to facilitate glimpses of God's reality made real and present in Christ. That means the language, tone, style and content needs to up to the task of conveying what's authentic. Part of a preacher's role is to trust the congregation to know what authenticity is operating at each part of the sermon event.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Where's the common in Common Worship?

You've gone to buy a simple thing that you need. You decide to shop around a little. You go to half a dozen stores and find that in each of them there are lots of different types of the thing you want. By the time you get to the last shop you'll got umpteen choices facing you; not only different types of the same thing but also permutations of cost, packaging and associated purchases. You return home empty-handed: you've been unable to choose. I have to admit that happens to me often.

What I describe is decision paralysis. Choice doesn't necessarily free us, it often stops us making a decision. Decision paralysis in effect often leaves us with the status quo because even the best of decisions are blocked. It freezes us where we are and with what we've got. Yes, it may be irrational but it's a very common reaction to extensive choice. Choice can be a tyranny rather than a liberation.

The Church of England used to have one book as the foundation of its worshipping life. I remember individual's bringing their own copies of The Book of Common Prayer week by week to worship. When the Alternative Service Book came along (1980) everthing necessary was still largely in one book, though rather fatter it has to be admitted. A much smaller proportion of worshippers brought their own book with them. Nowadays it's all but impossible: there's simply too many books to chose from and anyway the leaders of worship will have made their own choices that won't necessarily be obvious until you're there. This proliferation of choice is usually commended as a great advance, but I wonder. It's certainly often hard to identify what's common in Common Worship. That doesn't necessarily mean that the strands of a common heritage aren't there, it's just that they are hard to latch-on to. It's difficult for the common person to see and feel what's common or communal in the variety. And that difficulty erodes the sense of belonging beyond the confines of the familiar congregation. Emblazoning the Church of England logo on Powerpoint screens or booklet covers doesn't make up for the loss.
Collective memory mechanism:
Memory needs a sense of belonging that's easily linked to 'things' whether they be actual objects or identifiable ways of behaving. Memories need to be located.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Tom Long and small preaching

Tom Long speaking in London 31 May 2011
Preaching needs to get smaller! That's part of the advice from a masterclass given yesterday by the inspirational preacher, and professor of homiletics, Tom Long. He was in London to speak at a gathering organised by the College of Preachers. 
By 'smaller' he means sermons should be less of a separated special speech event and more of a kind of speaking recognisable as similar to others. Once the sermon was often marked out as the climax of a Christian gathering, perhaps with lights dimmed except for the spot on the preacher! Current circumstances need a very different approach in which the sermon isn't so much a specialist kind of communicating as a way of talking that empowers others to talk. In a world where theological categories and ways of thinking come hard, sermons should help us all regain our confidence in talking the faith. 
In that sense, preaching needs to be 'smaller.' A sermon needs to be counted as simply one speech act amongst a thousand, but one that encourages and aids all those others. Or as Long puts it, 'I preach like I want them to speak.' The congregation are co-workers in producing faith-talk. Preaching should be done so as to empower speech activity 'out there' beyond the confines of worship.
That means preaching has to be talk that spurs talk. I think that suggest a more conversational tone and style, easy to follow structure (even if the subject matter is hard), and listen-abilty.  Long's sermon that the day was a powerful exemplar of such talk. [If you're not familiar with his work you can see an example of his preaching at]

Collective memory mechanism:
Talking the memory keeps the memory alive. This is a capacity that needs to be practiced constantly. If it isn't, both the memory, and the vocabulary it needs to be talked about, simply dies.