Sunday, 31 July 2011

Signs of Chaos?

Perhaps it's a kind of contemporary morality tale. Several months ago I moved house. Two accounts I hold with one well known High Street bank helpfully provides a change of address slip on each monthly statement. Helpful customer that I am, I duly completed the slips and took them into my local branch the next time I was in town. The teller looked at me with a certain disdain, 'Oh, I don't need those, I 'll do it on screen.' Two minutes later I was assured all was changed and the slips were ripped up and consigned to the waste bin.
The next month the statements were delivered to the old address. I phoned to complain. After the usual 'Press this and press that, followed by hash. You are reminded that all calls are recorded for security purposes,' and having to detail the place of my mother's birth, I was assured that the corrections had been made.
You guessed it – the next month the statements were delivered to the old address. This time my wife went in person to the local branch to make sure all details on all accounts had been changed. 'Easily done, madam. Can't understand what's gone wrong. So sorry. It's all correct now.' This was interestingly followed up by a personal letter to me kind of apologizing. I say 'kind of' because the between the line message was that this was a security check to make sure I was still married to the woman who had appeared at the bank counter. Anyway at least the letter had come to the correct address.
The next month the statements were delivered to the old address. I phoned to complain. After pressing this and that and entering my security details – 'your security is our prime concern,' really? – I spoke to an advisor. 'This is awful,' she agreed, 'this shouldn't have happened.' 'Please hold so that I can speak to a supervisor.' The line went silent – that ominous silence that suggests your call has been dispatched to the outer reaches of digital space where nothing can be heard, ever. Then suddenly  good news: 'I have credited £50 to your account as compensation for our failures. I am so sorry, this really shouldn't have happened. I understand your security concerns. This really shouldn't have happened.  … …' This went on for several minutes until I began to feel uncomfortable for complaining. I beat a hasty telephonic retreat.
The next month one statement was delivered to the correct address, and one to the old address. Progress, or a computer glitch to fool me?
How am I to interpret this experience? I don't think anyone who dealt with my request had any ill-will towards me, but perhaps I'm fooling myself. Maybe my mistake was to ask a person to change the details. If I'd just posted the address slips perhaps the change would have happened seamlessly. Customer care might might really be shorthand for 'machines do all the caring here, don't try to speak to a person.' That's so often how it feels. Or is that the mass of detail in a computerized world is growing beyond what people can deal with? Behind the apparent detailed information there's actually something nearer chaos. World economics sometimes makes me suspect that. It's not very reassuring when the niggles of ordinary life appear to confirm that possibility.

Friday, 29 July 2011

A surefire way of generating ideas

Carrying the body of Saint Cuthbert
In the warm Southern Seas atolls suddenly appear above the water. An astonishing happening that has spurred so many romantic tales. Yet these new ‘isles’ aren’t magical creations; they are the product of the relentless work of countless unseen coral building organisms working below the ocean’s surface. Could it be that idea generation is similar—a myriad of unseen building processes below the surface of the mind? That was the thought that prompted a young publishing executive, James Webb Young, to write his 1939 book, A Technique for Producing Ideas. In just 48 pages he details what those unseen processes are and how any of us might use them.
I’ll try to sum those pages up in a paragraph:
The crucial principle is the fact that an idea is nothing more or less than a combination of old elements. What enables those old ideas to be combined in new ways is a person’s ability to see relationships between disparate things. In order, therefore, to generate new ideas a person needs to cultivate a habit of mind that’s always looking for relationships between things, facts, and experiences.  The method goes through five steps
1.    Gather raw material—as much information as you can that is related to your topic/product/focus. Be interested in everything because general knowledge is a key part of this material gathering.
2.    Digest the raw material you’ve gathered. Feel your way into each bit of information, turn it over in your mind, think on multiple meanings and significances, note things down, draw charts and pictures, and let it be a great jumble of ideas. This process should continue, advises Young, until you’re well and truly tired of it!
3.    Drop the whole thing. Go and do something you enjoy and forget about it. On many occasions this will be a period of literally sleeping.
4.    Take up the task again. Constantly think about it and the new idea will appear, often when you least expect it. It doesn’t need to be forced.
5.    Shape the idea into practical usefulness. This often comes much more easily than you could possibly have imagined during stage two because good ideas often have a self-expanding quality to them. Be patient in this shaping process and share it with other people.

It is such a simple process to understand. Unfortunately it is often hard to practice. Nevertheless I’m certain Young got it right. New ideas come from old ideas and spotting relationships is essential to generating those new ideas. This is a tried and trusted way of composing sermons, though perhaps not often so obviously systematized.
What’s already known is the key to what may be known. That is the way our imaginations work and that’s why it is so important to have a memory well stocked with the stories, concepts and symbols of our inherited tradition. Without that raw material available to us, the recognition of connections that generate exciting and motivating new ideas is so much harder. The collective memory of the community of faith is the powerhouse of good news—ideas that are new.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Sorrow and prayers for Norway

Three brief thoughts from praying about Ut√łya and Oslo:

Tragedy is the only word that comes anywhere near the terrible events of Friday in Norway. The trauma of all must be devastating and deep. Even from a distance the brutal nature of the horror is hard to think about so I appreciate the truth in the words of the Norwegians who have described these things as of hell or a nightmare. Prayers and thoughts of sympathy and condolence are small gestures, but I hope that nevertheless the certainty that people of goodwill feel for those touched by this evil is some consolation, however small. I’m sure my prayers joined the prayers of millions of others this morning.

The news website News and Views from Norway particularly touched me. You can find it here Its combination of steadfast professionalism and common humanity seems to me just what we need in our commentators and journalists. Thank you Nina and colleagues, you’re an inspiration, and particularly so after so much recent jaundiced criticism of journalism here in the UK.

Domkirchen, Oslo on BBC on 24 July
Thirdly, the sight of so many Norwegians gathering at Oslo Cathedral and other churches tells me something about the collective memory that is this blog’s primary concern. In this time of such devastating hurt, churches seem the right place to be. In radio interviews this morning, people of no faith and of non-Christian faiths spoke of the cathedral as the place to show their immediate concern and solidarity. In this highly secularized nation, those of Christian heritage, if not regular practice, obviously shared the thought. Somehow a long memory of faith provides a way of gathering together that everyone feels to be important and safe. Although we may wish it otherwise, it seems to me that guarding that memory so it is available in such terrible times is a godly and gospel thing to do.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Encouraging frank sermon feedback (with apologies to Benjamin Zephaniah)

Be kind to yu preachers dis Sunday
Cos’ preachers just need to know—
What you’s hearing, how it’s grooving,
Touchin hearts, or changing minds?
Be kind to yu preachers dis Sunday.
Don’t smile, shake hands and pass on.
No ‘nice sermon Vicar’ that just leaves ’em wond’rin
Whether it was heard worthy of pond’rin at all.

So be kind to yu preachers dis Sunday –
Not polite, not reserved, not squeamish,
Not indiffer’nt, not respectful, not avoidin –
the one thing they long to really know.
Tell ’em straight, give ’em feedback, let ’em see
If you was shifted or touched by what they sermonized.
And if you wasn’t? Well, don’t hold fire,
Preachers need you to be honest. Tell em, ‘No prize.’

Preachers just wanna make connections
Preachers just wanna lift souls
Don’t you let ’em be vapid bellows—
The only hot air in de building when the stone walls give off their chill.
No sideshow, they’s a part of yus action.
Let them voices be tones to enthral you,
Let them words carve spaces in your mind
Tellin’ of goodness, and a grace that’s infinitely kind.

I once knew a preacher called ....... Preacher
Who, going each Sunday to tell it—
That gospel for sinner and saint,
Thought ’is words so stirring and compelling
And never once received comment or complaint.
’E ended ’is days disillusioned
On overhearing, behind a Tesco stack, ’is name
Pronounced clearly—as a boring and tedious hack.

So be kind to yu preachers dis Sunday
Own the work, make it yours, not theirs alone.
If the listenin’ stirs yu soul, then signal;
If the listenin’ comes hard, let ’em know.
We’s the Body of Jesus assembled, each wid a part
In dis message dat brings in new life.
Preachers and ’earers TOGETHER. Get it?
Speakin’ AND listenin’ – no boredom, no strife.

Inspiration drawn from Benjamin Zephaniah's poem Talking Turkeys in the book of the same name published by Puffin Books.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Relevance in preaching 1

Preaching isn’t about making Bible texts relevant. Of the things I say in attempting to convince my fellow preachers that our task is vital memory work in this amnesic age, that sentence about relevance is the one that troubles people most. 'Surely our job above all others,' they say, 'is to make the Bible relevant?' As strange as it obviously sounds, I’m convinced that it isn’t. Indeed I suspect that relevance as a first priority in sermon design and delivery actually undermines scripture. I’ll try to justify that conviction through this blog and a few that will follow it, as time allows.

Book cover WJK Press
Let’s begin with the work of that great scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Walter Brueggemann, since he exemplifies a determination to connect the text and the world. Brueggemann conceives the biblical text as always challenging and critiquing commonplace understandings of experience and reality, which means those commonplace understandings cannot be the interpreter’s beginning.

Interestingly, the word ‘relevance’ is a term he studiously avoids in his consideration of how preaching properly works.  Indeed, in a recent article he asserts ‘the text is not directly addressed to us, and we should not work too hard at making it immediately relevant’ (The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word, page 39).  As an alternative he uses the term ‘resonates’ as a way of indicating that the preacher’s task is to enable a word to be heard that comes ‘from outside our closed system of reality’ (ibid, page 4).  Preaching, he insists, must always be subversive (Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope, page 6) and he means that literally: it offers a version of faith lived in reality that gets under the dominant versions and opens new ways of existing.  He writes:

My theme is alternative, sub-version to version, the sermon a moment of alternative imagination, the preacher exposed as point man, point woman, to make up out of nothing more than our memory and our hope and our faith a radical option to the normalcy of deathliness. (ibid, page 9)

Preaching here is a creative activity in which each generation of faith reworks the tradition so as to maintain its liveliness:

We now know (or we think we know) that human transformation (the way people change) does not happen through didacticism or through excessive certitude but through the playful entertainment of another scripting of reality that may subvert the old given text and its interpretation and lead to the embrace of an alternative text and its redescription of reality. (The Word Militant ... page 26)

This is a radical understanding of faith’s collective memory in that it lays the emphasis on tradition’s continuity being found in the telling and retelling which is properly productive of changes and shifts in tradition’s content.  Here, the maintenance of a living tradition is clearly paramount; but processes of that maintenance are acknowledged as continually bringing to birth new ways of understanding how that tradition is experienced as living.  The ways collective memories change are an aspect of how tradition functions effectively rather than being seen as a threat to the preservation of tradition.  Brueggemann’s use of tradition works towards the creation of world-views in the anthropological sense; it is an insistence on an epistemology that shuns a too strident and dominating objectivism.   As he puts it:

Reality is not fixed and settled … it cannot be described objectively.  We do not simply respond to a world that is here, but we engage in constituting that world by our participation, or action, and our speech.  As participants in the constitutive act, we do not describe what is there, but we evoke what is not fully there until we act or speak. (Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology, page 12)

The preacher’s task is to call forth a sermonic language that can construe the world in new ways.  Thus Brueggemann’s definition of imagination is:

The God-given, emancipated capacity to picture (or image) reality — God, world, self — in alternative ways outside conventional, commonly accepted givens.  Imagination is attentiveness to what is ‘otherwise,’ other than our taken-for-granted world. (Testimony to Otherwise: The Witness of Elijah and Elisha, page 27)

This imaginative ability allows new insights and understandings to develop from within tradition.  Processes of displacement and forgetting may indeed be at work in this, as collective memory theory suggests; but that does not necessarily mean that previous memories are just abandoned.  Rather, imagination enables a reviewing incorporation of new perspectives that are beyond the easy conventions previously assumed. What is called forth goes beyond the strictures of relevance. What we take for granted shouldn’t be a determining factor in how sermons are designed and presented.